Cropped 28 February 2024: Chocolate crisis; Tree-planting scrutinised; EU restoration law


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We handpick and explain the most important stories at the intersection of climate, land, food and nature over the past fortnight.

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Tree-planting under scrutiny

TREE BLACKOUT: Almost a third of the climate benefits derived from planting trees in order to remove more CO2 from the atmosphere could be offset by changes to atmospheric chemistry and the amount of sunlight reflected back into space, according to a new Science study which was widely covered by the world’s media. Increasing tree cover can alter the reflectiveness, or “albedo”, of the land, making it darker and more absorbent of heat. This albedo effect, combined with changes to atmospheric composition, is responsible for tree-planting having a smaller climate benefit than previously suggested, according to the paper. Writing in the Conversation, the researchers said that “tackling climate change by planting trees has an intuitive appeal”, but, in reality, “could affect the climate in complex ways”.

AFRICAN RISK: Elsewhere in Science, researchers published a policy commentary article arguing that the push for tree-planting across Africa could endanger biodiverse and carbon-rich grassland ecosystems. The researchers examined the likely impact of pledges made under the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative, which seeks to restore 100m hectares of degraded land – an area the size of Egypt – by 2030. The initiative is backed by the German government, the World Bank and the non-profit World Resources Institute, according to the Financial Times. The newspaper said that the researchers estimated that half of the land earmarked for regeneration by the project is in grassy savannahs or other non-woodland areas. The Guardian added that, according to the findings, “an area the size of France is threatened by forest restoration initiatives that are taking place in inappropriate landscapes”.

‘ERAS FORESTS’: A debate about the environmental impact of Taylor Swift’s Eras tour – the highest-grossing music tour in history, which will see the singer travel by private jet to perform in 151 locations across five continents from March 2023 to December 2024 – further highlighted the limits of tree-planting to counter emissions. For Forbes, two environmental scientists suggested that Swift could help to offset her private-jet emissions and set a good example by investing heavily in an “Eras forests” carbon-offsetting scheme to replant trees in each location that she has performed in. However, writing on LinkedIn, Richard Reiss, a founder of a climate change educational game, argued that offsetting all of the emissions associated with the Eras tour would require “increasingly unrealistic, or literally impossible, amounts of carbon capture”.

EU passes ‘landmark’ law for nature restoration

‘LANDMARK’ LAW: On Tuesday, the European parliament passed a “landmark” nature restoration law, aiming to “reverse the decline of Europe’s natural habitats” with an EU-wide target of restoring 20% of degraded land and sea areas by 2030, Deutsche Welle reported. The passage of the law occurred despite opposition from farming unions and the European People’s Party – the largest party in parliament. However, the EU council still needs to give the legislation final approval before it can enter into force. Deutsche Welle wrote: “While such a green light would normally be a formality, it is not guaranteed and some recent EU policies have faced blockages and delays because of domestic pushback.” Carbon Brief has just published a piece explaining the new law and its scientific foundation. 

‘POLITICAL STORM’: Euronews noted that the margin of the bill’s passage – 329 votes in favour and 275 against, with 24 abstaining – was “a margin larger than initially expected”. Politico reported that the passage of the law “mark[ed] the end of a months-long campaign to kill the legislation” from right-wing groups. However, it added that the “final text was significantly weakened during negotiations”. The “weakened” legislation gives member states more flexibility on how they will implement its guidance, the outlet added. Euronews also reported that “the eruption in January of Europe-wide farmer protests reinvigorated the backlash against the Green Deal”, with the nature restoration law “once again thrust to the centre of the political storm”.

CHAOS IN THE CAPITAL: Meanwhile, farmer protests have continued across the bloc. Reuters reported that “about 900 tractors jammed parts” of Brussels and “riot police fired water cannon at protesters throwing bottles and eggs” while agricultural ministers were meeting in the Belgian capital this week. The Associated Press reported that protesters “spray[ed] Brussels police with liquid manure” in what the newswire described as a “fresh show of force”. It added: “The ministers were keen to show that they were listening, and a group of farmers’ representatives were allowed in for talks”. According to Politico, “the stench of manure, burning tires and teargas pervaded downtown Brussels on Monday” amidst “chaotic scenes”.

Chocolate ‘meltdown’

SHRINKING SWEETS: The price of chocolate surged to an all-time high of just over $6,500 per tonne on the New York and London stock exchanges this week, the trade publication Confectionery Production reported. Bloomberg columnist Javier Blas boldly claimed that “the meltdown in chocolate is coming”, with bars and boxes expected to shrink as prices reach unprecedented levels. According to Blas, four countries – Ivory Coast, Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria – produce nearly 75% of the world’s cocoa. It is unusual for a major global commodity in that it is mostly grown by poor smallholder farmers, he said.

DWINDLING SUPPLIES: Prices have risen as fierce demand for cocoa has outstripped production by west African small producers, Blas said. Earlier on in February, BBC News reported that farmers have been experiencing poor harvests as a result of the El Niño weather phenomenon, which has been causing drier weather in Ghana and Ivory Coast. In December, Bloomberg reported that, before the dry weather, farmers in Ghana and Ivory Coast also faced a deluge of rainfall at a “crucial time for harvests”. It added: “Puddle-filled drives are bogging down transportation, and the soggy conditions allow diseases like black pod to run rampant, causing beans to rot on trees.” 

CLIMATE INFLUENCE: West Africa has seen an increase in agricultural droughts because of climate change, according to the most recent assessment of the continent by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report also found that human-caused climate change has already contributed to an increase in heavy rainfall and flooding across nearly all parts of Africa. Back in October, Dr Izidine Pinto, a climate scientist from Mozambique currently working at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, told Carbon Brief that the impacts of climate change had combined with El Niño to cause “very unusual” weather across the continent.

BRAZIL BEEF: Three of the world’s largest meatpacking companies sourced beef from ranches responsible for clearing an area of forest the size of Chicago (60,000 hectares) in the Cerrado savannah, a biodiversity hotspot in Brazil, alleged a new investigation by Global Witness covered by BBC News. The investigation said that deforestation linked to Brazil’s three biggest meatpackers – JBS, Marfrig and Minerva – was nearly five times greater in the Cerrado area of Mato Grosso than in the neighbouring Amazon rainforest, where the companies have legal agreements for monitoring their supplies. All three companies dispute Global Witness’s findings and said they are compliant with Brazilian law on deforestation and have their own individual supply chain agreements with Brazilian authorities.

ELEPHANT FATALITIES: Seven people in Malawi have been killed by elephants after the animals were moved as part of a conservation project overseen by two wildlife organisations, including one that was headed by Prince Harry, the Guardian reported. More than 250 elephants were moved from Liwonde national park in southern Malawi to the country’s second-largest protected area, Kasungu, in 2022, the outlet said. After the move, local communities warned that sections of electric fence designed to keep elephants and humans separate were incomplete, the newspaper added. The fatalities reportedly occurred when elephants came into contact with people outside of their protected area, it explained. In a statement seen by the Guardian, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, one of the groups involved in the project, apologised and pledged to finish installing the fence in 2024.

CALI CONFERENCE: Santiago de Cali, or Cali, will host the COP16 biodiversity summit in October, Colombian president Gustavo Petro announced last week. Cali is the country’s third-most-populous city and is the capital of the Colombian Pacific – the “most biodiverse region of Colombia”, Petro said in his remarks. According to a press release from the Colombian environment ministry, the Pacific region contains more than 200 protected areas and nearly 1,300 species of fauna. Colombia One, citing sources within the government, wrote: “The ethnic and cultural diversity of the region has played an important role in this decision.”

DRAX INVESTIGATION: The Panorama investigations team at BBC News has found evidence that the Drax biomass power station in North Yorkshire is still “burning wood from some of the world’s most precious forests”. It said: “Papers obtained by Panorama show Drax took timber from rare forests in Canada it had claimed were ‘no go areas’.” Drax told Panorama that its wood pellets are “sustainable and legally harvested”. Elsewhere, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak caused a stir by attending a farmers’ protest against the Welsh Labour government alongside a group that “has posted conspiracy theories about climate change and which campaigns against net-zero”, the Observer reported.

‘SATURATION POINT’: A 3,378-hectare Australian farm that had been “held up by the red meat sector as a vision of the future” has not been able to offset its own emissions since around 2017, according to a new report covered by the Guardian. The farm had initially planted hundreds of thousands of trees to sequester carbon. However, the outlet added: “[T]hose trees have now matured and passed peak sequestration…and the soil is so carbon rich it can’t sequester any additional CO2 from the atmosphere.” One of the farm’s owners, Mark Wootton, told the Guardian that their “regenerative approach to farming” is still beneficial, even if the farm is no longer carbon-neutral.

‘MEATY’ RICE: Scientists in South Korea have invented “meaty” rice, a hybrid food which they argue could provide an affordable and climate-friendly source of protein, BBC News reported. It explained: “The porous grains are packed with beef muscle and fat cells, grown in the lab. The rice was first coated in fish gelatine to help the beef cells latch on, and the grains were left in a petri dish to culture for up to 11 days.” The scientists, whose research was published in the journal Matter, told BBC News that the food may serve as “relief for famine, military ration or even space food” in the future.

GRAN CHACO: Diálogo Chino reported on how livestock farmers in Argentina’s Gran Chaco are searching for more sustainable farming methods.

FAIR FOR FARMERS: A grassroots farmers’ advocacy non-profit in Florida was behind the “strongest set of workplace heat protections in the US”, the Washington Post wrote.

INDIGENOUS SPOTLIGHT: For the New York Times, law professor Robert Williams argued that “kicking native people off their land is a horrible way to save the planet”.

RAIN ON YOUR PARADE: Rain in the Arctic – increasingly common in a warmer world – is bringing a “cascade of troubling changes”, Yale Environment 360 wrote.

Biodiversity footprints of 151 popular dishes from around the world
Plos One

A new study estimated the biodiversity footprints of 151 popular local dishes from around the world when globally and locally produced. It found that the dishes with the highest biodiversity impacts tend to be those made up of ingredients grown in biodiversity hotspots where agriculture pressures are high, such as fraldinha, a beef dish originating from Brazil, and chana masala, a chickpea curry popular in India. To come up with the results, the researchers considered popular dishes and a range of biodiversity indicators associated with the ingredients of each. The researchers added: “Regardless of assuming locally or globally produced, feedlot or pasture livestock production, vegan and vegetarian dishes presented lower biodiversity footprints than dishes containing meat.”

Rapid sea level rise causes loss of seagrass meadows
Communications Earth & Environment

“Unprecedented” and “rapid” sea level rise drove two common seagrass species out of nearly one-quarter of the sites monitored in the western Gulf of Mexico, according to new research. Scientists used data from long-term ecological monitoring sites, gulf-wide measurements of sea level rise and models of future sea level rise to determine how rising waters might affect seagrass meadows in the future. At one station, they found that two “ubiquitous” species “vanished altogether in just five years”. In modelling future risk, they found 14,000 square kilometres of seagrass habitat could be at risk of disappearing completely by 2050. 

Arctic sea ice retreat fuels boreal forest advance

New research found that changes in the Arctic sea ice extent influence the northward spread of the boreal forest, as well as the size of trees there. By combining data from field sites in northern Alaska with satellite data and previously published data from around the Arctic, researchers found a causal link between the advance of the forest and the retreat of the sea ice. They discovered that around the Arctic, “proportionally more tree lines have advanced” in regions of ongoing ice loss. The scientists concluded that “warming and reduced habitat for tundra organisms due to boreal forest advance will critically affect resource availability for Arctic-dwelling people”.

Cropped is researched and written by Dr Giuliana Viglione, Aruna Chandrasekhar, Daisy Dunne, Orla Dwyer and Yanine Quiroz. Please send tips and feedback to [email protected]

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