Climate change and biodiversity 2: finding solutions
Different scientists are concerned about different problems: ecologists worry about the diminishing biodiversity. Rightly so: the famous biologist Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University calculated in 2017 that today 50% less animals walk, swim, fly, creep on this planet than a few centuries ago. Scientist conclude that we live in the sixth great extinction in the planet’s history. The last one was 66 million years ago when the dinosaurs and many other forms of life went extinct, caused by a meteorite hitting the earth. Today the main causes are the disappearance and fragmentation of the ecosystems in which plants and animals live, especially caused by growing agriculture.
Meteorologists are concerned about the climate. Rightly so, today the world is already more than one degree warmer than in pre-industrial times, before we started burning coal, oil and gas, resulting in more and more greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Without changing our way of life and of producing energy greatly we will be warming up three degrees or more with fatal consequences for the livability of the planet: agriculture will be difficult in many regions, there will be extreme weather more frequently, and cities in the tropics will be too hot for living and working comfortably
So, we need two big transitions: the energy transition, bringing us from fossil fuels to CO2-free sources and the agriculture transition, making the food production sustainable so that animals and plant get again space to live.
The problem is that scientists, activists and politicians working on one transition hardly cooperate with the other side. Solutions for the climate can even be bad for the biodiversity and vice versa.
The main thing is the way the land is being used. Biodiversity needs mainly space, great connected natural areas. But they are rare nowadays. In the year 1400 mankind used only 3% of the surface of the earth for all their activities, nowadays it is more than 50%. When there will by 3 billion more of us in 2050 it will be very difficult not to reduce space for biodiversity even more. And for reducing climate change reforestation on a big scale would be necessary.
In the Netherlands farmers can be subsidized for converting fertile farmland into fields covered with solar panels because it means a more stable income for them. There are even plans to convert nature into solar farmland. This goes too far for organizations working for sustainability, who accept solar meadows on agricultural soil. This may be naïve, because compensation of agricultural land can mean more pressure on nature somewhere else.
The space taken by solar panels is immense. Scientists have calculated that the Netherlands would not have enough land if it would want to have all its energy solar. But of course most countries are not so densely populated..
Even so solar farms disturbing nature is a global problem: millions of trees are being cut to make space for solar farms – meeting much local resistance. For building a solar farm in California hundreds of rare tortoises had to be caught and moved.
Planners and politicians are misled by nice stories telling them that solar panels are easily combined with biodiversity. The even say that the panels are even stimulating diversity, because there were plants and mushrooms growing between the panels. This is a misunderstanding: wild plants and animals need real undisturbed nature to flourish, this has been shown in many studies. Between the human constructions only the general species appear. This extra space is not compensated by real nature with a rich diversity
Another solution for the climate problem that demands space is biomass as a source of energy: corn, grains, palm oil, trees, etc, all disappear in the oven to produce ‘climate neutral’ energy. The hunger for the fruit of the oil palm causes direct deforestation – thus loss of biodiversity – in Indonesia and Malaysia where oil palm plantations spread at a high speed, while much of the oil imported in the EU disappears in the tanks of cars and lorries. Also other crops grown for biomass lead to extension of the agricultural acreage; of all the corn grown in de USA one third is turned into bio-ethanol for cars and lorries. This is not causing immediate deforestation because it is existing agricultural land, but is means more pressure on fertile soils, that will be needed for food production in the future.
Also at sea there seems to be a conflict between energy and climate change. Scientists warned for the effects of large wind farms on the ecosystems in the water. Today the effects are still small, but when these ‘farms’ are being developed on a large scale they will have effects on wave height cloudiness and layering of the water, which will have an impact on the local ecosystems. There are plans to build enormous wind farms in areas of shallow water, spawning areas for species like herring and sole.
Are there solutions for both problems at the same time?
People are thinking of solutions for both problems, but they can have opposite effects instead. For instance more extensive agriculture, like organic farming, agroforestry, the pets of the environmental movement. Because more animals live on these farms, people think it is good for biodiversity, but this is not so sure. Extensive agriculture means lower yields per hectare so it demands more space. Today organic agriculture produces about 80% of the yields of conventional agriculture , so the agricultural area should grow with one fifth to produce the same amount of food.
In fact the biodiversity in an agricultural field does even not come near that in wild nature also when the farm is as nature friendly as possible. The best way to stimulate biodiversity is to keep the agriculture area as small as possible to give space for nature. This has been shown in countries like Kazakhstan, Poland and Bolivia. Especially rare species benefit.
The climate also will benefit from a smaller Agricultural area. According to the climate panel IPCC so called land use change, meaning converting nature into agricultural land is the second most important cause of the rising CO2 in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution – just after burning coal, but more than burning oil and natural gas. Scientists all over the world have shown that the two best ways to fight climate change are protecting existing forests and reforestation. So it is necessary – with in the future 3 billion more mouths to feed – not to promote agricultural systems with lower yields, but work on more intensive systems.
The effect of limiting the agricultural area is enormous. British scientists have calculated that, if their country would limit its food production to the most fertile parts of the country and give back the rest to nature it would reach the Paris Goals without changing its energy portfolio.
Measures that help for both biodiversity and climate would be the diminishing of meat consumption and reduce waste (of food). Both will work because it means a smaller agricultural area needed for our food production
In the case of producing energy going nuclear will be the best solution for solving both crises. This is so because nuclear energy is the most ‘dense’ form of energy; you make the most energy per square meter.
Vaclav Smil (of University of Manitoba, Canada) calculates in his book Power Density for wind energy about 1 Watt per square meter, for solar bout 10 en for nuclear 1 000. Biomass is the lowest with only 0,5 watt/m2.
Nuclear energy does not have the tide on its side. Its part in the worldwide energy mix is getting smaller and in the New Green Deal, the new sustainability program of the European Commission nuclear energy is excluded. Even so 54 new reactors are being built today in the world, especially in countries like China and South Korea,
Does Europe have an alternative, when is excludes the use of nuclear energy?
One solution that is often forgotten is spatial planning. With its ‘poldering’, land consolidation and so-called Vinex quarters (modern planned housing district around bigger cities) the Dutch used to be good in doing this, but in recent decades this was largely neglected. The planning was decentralized and privatized. Now every municipality has its own business park and sunbathing fields. In this way we have squandered our landscape. Since 2010 we do not have a minister of spatial planning anymore and the country is getting more and more messy.
The potential of land development is enormous: studies from countries like India, Indonesia and England show that ‘zoning’ can improve the biodiversity and the climate, independent of choosing intensive or extensive forms of agriculture and energy production. Spatial planning makes possible to create large connected areas for nature, and protect the most ‘biodiverse’ places. Some people ask for restructuring the regions with much animal husbandry, and separate farmed land from nature to solve the problem of nitrogen harming the nature.
Already in 1994 scientists calculated that Europe could produce all needed foor in a quarter of the actual area, if they would choose for a planned structure of intensive agriculture on the most fertile soils and an ecological main structure for nature. The European population hardly grows anymore, so the food production does not need to grow much anymore. This gives us the possibility to start thinking about where to grow our food en where to locate the energy transition. The rest of the space can be reserved for rewilding, giving back big pieces of the planet to nature.
This text is based on an article by Hidde Boersma, January 2020, in: Vrij Nederland, abridged and adapted
Looking for solutions
- The human population needs more and more space to produce food, but according to this article we could do with much less space than we use today. The author wants more intensive agriculture, because it produces most per hectare. But in soil used for organic farming the biodiversity is already much richer than in intensively treated fields and meadows. Compare the good and bad sides of organic farming. See: http://sustainablefootprint.org/nl/costs-and-benefits-of-organic-farming/
- For most people a meadow is a piece of land covered with grass. Modern meadows are not more than that, usually only one species of grass and nothing more.. But of old meadows used to be rich ecosystems with much biodiversity. Look at this page: http://sustainablefootprint.org/nl/grasslands-the-lesson/ for comparing a ‘rich meadow’ with modern grazing land.
- One form of agriculture, in some parts of the world quite unknown, in other places traditional, is agroforestry in which two or more different crops, of which one trees, are combined. This often gives a better total yield than single crop agriculture. See: http://sustainablefootprint.org/nl/what-is-agroforestry/. Explain or find out why this is of old quite general in warm climates, but largely unknown in cooler climates. This could also count as a form of reforestation.
- A special form of agroforestry is so-called ‘food forest’, in which only trees and shrubs are planted that bear some edible fruit or nuts Find out if there is one nearby and visit is possible, or interview the owners.
- One form of agriculture that does not need much space is urban agriculture on roofs or small unused plots in cities. See http://sustainablefootprint.org/nl/teachers/theme-lessons/growing-food-in-the-city/ and http://sustainablefootprint.org/nl/teachers/theme-lessons/growing-food-in-the-city-2/ and http://sustainablefootprint.org/nl/bio-vegetables-from-the-slums/ . Will urban agriculture, if happening on a big scale, make a difference for the climate? And for the biodiversity? Why, or why not?
- The author of this article mentions ‘solar farms’ in which big (often agricultural) fields are being covered with solar panels But there are many more possibilities to catch solar energy, like on roofs, noise barriers along motorways, in deserts, and even on water. What are the pros and cons of solar farms compared with panels on roofs etc.?
- Between and under solar panels on fields it often is green. Why is it in spite of that not good for nature or for grazing sheep?
- There are plans to build great surfaces of the Sahara full with solar panels – and connecting this with the power networks of Europe. Why do you think this is not yet happening?
- Biomass – all kinds of natural non-fossil fuels, like wood, palm oil, is seen as ‘climate neutral’ because it grows again. But it is mainly palm oil from (far away) tropical countries or wood from (far away) countries like Canada or Estonia. Why is this not really sustainable?
- But sustainable biomass does exist. See for instance: http://sustainablefootprint.org/nl/turning-chicken-poop-and-weeds-into-biofuel/ en http://sustainablefootprint.org/nl/teachers/theme-lessons/on-farm-anaerobic-digesting/ and http://sustainablefootprint.org/nl/nederlands-zeewierfarm-kan-net-zoveel-duurzame-energie-leveren-als-windmolens/ and, http://sustainablefootprint.org/nl/algae-farm-power/ .Explain why these possibilities are sustainable Find out if one of these possibilities exists in your region
- Palm oil is being used for energy, but also in food products like margarine, and other products like soap. There are other possibilities for making vegetable oil like http://sustainablefootprint.org/nl/nederlands-jatropha-olieplant-voor-kool-en-geit/ . Why is the Jatropha a better source of biomass for energy than the oil palm?
- Wind mills are being built at sea in great n umbers. Why is that preferable compared with wind mill parks on land?
- The author mentions the negative sides of mills at sea. Especially the construction period can give serious disturbance of the ecosystems. But wind mill parks at sea are not only bad for the nature there. Read http://sustainablefootprint.org/nl/wind-energy-and-nature/ . Exactly because fishing is forbidden in the parks sea life can blossom there. Explain why wind mill parks at sea in the end can be even good for the fishing industry.
- The sea can give us a second source of energy: seaweeds. Read: http://sustainablefootprint.org/nl/nederlands-zeewierfarm-kan-net-zoveel-duurzame-energie-leveren-als-windmolens/ in the future very much energy can possoibly be produces with sea weeds. Why can this possibly in the end be more sustainable than wind mills?
- The author says that organic agriculture cannot ‘save the world’, because it demands more space for the same amount of food. Why does organic agriculture demand more space?
- Read http://sustainablefootprint.org/nl/costs-and-benefits-of-organic-farming/ where traditional modern and organic agriculture are compared. Maybe a good idea to organize a discussion about this question in your class, or invite an expert (better 2 experts – from both sides). On this site you can find more articles about aspects of organic farming.
- The author of this article argues that modern forms of agriculture must be promoted, but only in certain areas and not near nature. Which objections exist against intnsive agriculture from an ecological viewpoint, and especially in connection with biodiversity?.
- Thje big difference between organic and ‘normal’ agriculture is in two aspects: in organic agriculture they do not use chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides. What objections do organic farmers have against chemical fertilizers?
- And which objections against chemical fertilizers?
- For a sustainable future the advice is to eat less – or no – meat. Why can this not be done in combination with only organic farming?
- The use of many of the pesticides could be avoided by making the plants resistent against diseases and pests by genetic modification. Read http://sustainablefootprint.org/nl/nederlands-genetisch-gemodificeerde-gewassen-de-oplossing-voor-het-wereldvoedselprobleem/ . Why are many people still afraid of genetic modification? And is it still forbidden in many countries?
- In the medical world genetic modified organisms like bacteria and yeasts are used, for instance for making medical tests. People rarely object against this. For solving the world food problem genetic modification is still forbidden in the European Union. Read about this problem ” http://sustainablefootprint.org/nl/nederlands-denk-goed-na-voor-je-biologische-landbouw-ophemelt/ (sorry, this article is still only in Dutch, the English translation comes soon)
- Nuclear energy is supposed to be better for the climate. Is that true, and why or why not? And for biodiversity? Why or why not?
- Nuclear energy is being used in many countries, even more plants are being built, but countries like Germany and Sweden are on the way to get rid of them. What is the serious problem with nuclear energy?