This blog will cover some news items related to Sustainability: Corporate Social Responsibility, Stewardship, Environmental management, etc.


That sinking feeling: Could forests worsen global warming? living plants, as well as dried leaves and grass, emit methane in the presence of air.

That sinking feeling: Could forests worsen global warming?

AFP, 11 January 2006 - Under the UN's Kyoto Protocol on global warming, the forest is a saint. Trees suck in carbon dioxide (CO2) as part of the natural process of respiration.

So, by such thinking, if Kyoto signatories plant lots and lots of forests, they create wonderful sponges which absorb the dangerous climate-altering gas.

But what about this: What if trees in addition to taking in CO2 also emit a greenhouse gas of their own?

That scenario is sketched in a new study by European scientists, which, if confirmed, would be one of the biggest upheavals in climate science for years. It would also inflict a serious blow to Kyoto, one of whose key pillars is the faith in "sinks," as forests are called in the treaty's jargon.

Until now, the mainstream belief is that atmospheric methane chiefly comes from bugs: from bacteria working in wet, oxygen-less conditions, such as swamps and rice paddies.

But in a study published on Thursday in Nature, a team led by Frank Keppler of the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg, Germany, found that living plants, as well as dried leaves and grass, emitted methane in the presence of air.

Nor is this gas just a piffling amount.

The researchers roughly estimate the world's living vegetation emits between 62 and 236 million tonnes of methane per year, and plant litter adds one to seven million tonnes.

This would be equivalent to between 10 and 30 percent of all annual global emissions of methane.

The evidence comes from a series of carefully controlled experiments in the lab and in the field, in which gas chromatography and sensors to monitor carbon-13 isotopes detected and measured methane flows from the vegetation. The ambient atmosphere was first stripped of background methane before being pumped into enclosed tanks surrounding the plants and leaves in order to get a better chance of spotting the vegetal gas emissions.

Levels of methane were "very temperature sensitive," with concentrations approximately doubling with every 10 C (18F) rise in temperature in a range between 30 and 70 C (86-158 F), a phenomenon that suggests that breakdown by
enzymes is not the cause.

In a review of the study, New Zealand atmospheric scientist David Lowe said the findings were a surprise but in fact could explain a nagging puzzle.

Between 1990 and 2000, satellite monitors had detected a slowing of methane flows to the atmosphere by around 20 million tonnes a year.

The cause for this may have been the dramatic rate of deforestation during the same period, Lowe suggested. From 1990-2000, more than 12 percent of the world's tropical forests were hacked down.

Added to this is the anecdotal data from satellite sensors, which have occasionally spotted inexplicably large plumes of methane over old tropical forests, said Lowe.

The study does not seek to explain exactly how the methane is emitted, nor suggest which plant species may emit more than others.

Nor does it challenge scientific opinion on global warming, which has become rock-hard over the past five years and is now questioned only by a small minority.

The consensus is that the global warming is a fact and may already be affecting Earth's climate, and the big culprit is the billions of tonnes of CO2 spewed out by burning oil, gas and coal.

The paper's earliest impact could be political, for it attacks one of Kyoto's conceptual cores. Under the protocol's notoriously complex rulebook, industrialised signatories that plant forests can offset the supposed benefit against their
national quotas of CO2.

The "sink" mechanism hobbled efforts to complete Kyoto in 2001 as Russia, Japan and Canada demanded concessions for their forest industries.

Ironically, "sinks" were initially demanded by the United States under the Clinton adminstration in order to save costs for the oil-dependent US economy.

President George W. Bush then abandoned Kyoto in March 2001, in one of his first acts in office.

Scientists have frequently shaken their heads at the perceived benefits of forests in the global warming equation.

Previous research has already suggested that CO2 storage goes into reverse when a forest matures and its older trees die and rot, surrendering their carbon to the air.

Now doubts over "sinks" have been strengthened, which could mean the extraordinarily bedevilling issue could be opened up again. Negotiations on Kyoto's commitments, after 2012, are due to start by May and are expected to last several years.

"We now have the spectre that new forests might increase greenhouse warming through methane emissions rather than decrease it by being sinks for CO2," Lowe said ruefully.

Protected marine areas might solve a crisis in deep-sea fisheries; Conserving caviar


Ups and downs

Jan 6th 2006
From The Economist print edition

Protected marine areas might solve a crisis in deep-sea fisheries

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THIS week sees more bad news from the Atlantic's overfished waters. It has been known for some time that deep-sea fish around the world are facing difficulties at least as severe as those experienced by their more abundant shallow-water brethren. But a paper published in this week's Nature shows that some species are in so much trouble that they may be on the brink of extinction.

Jennifer Devine and her colleagues at Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada, studied catch data on five deep-sea species. Two of them, the roundnose grenadier and the onion-eye grenadier, are commercially important. The other three, the blue hake, the spiny eel and the spinytail skate, are often trawled up at the same time. Using data from a series of research trawls conducted between 1978 and 1994, Dr Devine found that populations of all five had plummeted by between 87% and 98%, a decline that warrants classifying them as being critically endangered. The average size of individual fish also declined—in one case by as much as 57%. That is worrying independently of the question of numbers, because large fish tend to have more offspring than small ones.

Dr Devine's study shows the speed with which decline can happen. Deep-sea fish take a long time to reproduce, live for many years and have low fecundity, yet as coastal fisheries have become depleted, fishermen have frequently turned to deep-water species to bolster their income. The result is that many of those species are hunted with the sort of alacrity traditionally reserved for sardines and herring. It is rather like rounding up elephants as if they reproduced at the same rate as rabbits.

Conservation measures are clearly needed if these fisheries are to survive. Dr Devine suggests that one such might be the establishment of deep-sea reserves where all fishing is prohibited. By coincidence, the effectiveness of this approach—which is becoming increasingly popular with marine conservationists—was shown this week in a different context, in a study published in Nature's rival Science.

Peter Mumby of the University of Exeter, in England, and his colleagues looked at how the ecology of a coral reef in the Bahamas changed following the banning of fishing in 1986. There had been concern that the re-establishment of a predator called the Nassau grouper would lead to a dramatic reduction in the population of parrotfish—a group of herbivorous species that feast on seaweed that would otherwise overwhelm the coral. Conservationists were worried because, since the early 1980s, disease has removed another seaweed-muncher (a species of sea urchin) from most Caribbean reefs. This has left parrotfish as the only things preventing beautiful, tourist-friendly coral reefs from becoming slimy seaweed forests.

Banning fishing had two consequences. One was that, contrary to those fears, both parrotfish and grouper numbers rose sharply. More subtly, the rise of the grouper population favoured those species of parrotfish that grow too large for groupers to eat. These large parrotfish are also the species that eat most seaweed. All in all, the increase in the parrotfish population led to a doubling of grazing on the reef, as well as to an increase in the number of groupers. That is good for tourism, and also provides piscine overspill into areas outside the reserve that are not off-limits to fishermen.

Nevertheless, while the case for marine reserves may be growing, it would be naive to assume that, back in the Atlantic, scientific evidence will translate into action on deep-sea fisheries. Coral reefs have the virtue that they are under national sovereignty, so words can be translated into laws, and laws into action. In the international free-for-all that is the Atlantic ocean, getting an agreement, sticking to it and policing it will be quite a lot harder.

Conserving caviar
Jan 6th 2006
From The Economist print edition

A ban on the trade in sturgeon eggs

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MARINE reserves (see article) are not the only way to protect fish stocks. Another is to ban international trade in a species when it becomes rare. News of just such a ban made headlines this week, when trade in caviar and other products from sturgeon were halted by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which exists to regulate such trade.

The secretariat of CITES announced on January 3rd that it was unable to publish the 2006 caviar export quotas until exporting countries provided more information about the sustainability of their sturgeon catches. This brings an abrupt halt to the legal trade in caviar.

The suspension covers ten countries, including Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, China, Iran, Russia and Ukraine. Its impact will also be felt by rich importing nations—principally America, Britain, France, Germany and Switzerland—where sales will stop when current stocks run out.

Trade in caviar from beluga sturgeon (the most threatened species) has already been halted unilaterally by America. In 2005 that country's government declared the species in danger of extinction, and banned imports. In the past two decades, the beluga's population has dropped by 90% as a result of overfishing, much of it illegal.

The tough stance taken by CITES has pleased such groups as Caviar Emptor, based in Washington, DC, which has been campaigning for several years for greater protection for sturgeon in the Caspian Sea—a body of water that is the source of about 90% of the trade in caviar. It is also important for CITES itself. In the past, this organisation has had difficulty asserting its authority over the trade in commercially important species taken from forests and fisheries.

Caviar export bans have been ordered twice before by CITES, in 2001 and 2002. They were lifted when exporters agreed to implement tighter conservation measures. However, a reversal of the current suspension will not be possible until exporting countries can demonstrate that their new arrangements will result in sustainable populations of sturgeon. To do so, those exporters will also have to make full allowance for the amount of fish caught illegally. It may be a long wait.


Do you want to join a Weekly Corporate Responsibility consulting conference call?

Hi all,

for some time now, some members of our team have been having weekly calls to discuss how we can make a Corporate Responsibility Consulting practice become reality. the purpose of the meeting is partly to share our current ideas, partly to support each others' efforts, and once in a while, we have discussions with other IBM stakeholders or external CSR firms that we might be able to partner with. We also discuss any potential CSR consulting clients and opportunities.

If any of you are interested in joining this call, let me know and I will add you to the invitation list. The call is at 10:30am Eastern Time, Wednesday mornings, which will suit the North Americans and Europeans among us, but less so the Aussies and members of the AP contingent. Sorry about that :-( If there is enough demand, perhaps we can start a second call or capture the calls for replay.


Jean-François Barsoum                                                                                    
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