Dispatches

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Banking on climate change

Janet Pelley

Canada's second largest bank, Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD Bank), released a report on April 14 warning financiers and policy makers to begin planning for a global spike in severe weather. This move is part of a growing trend among the world's major banks to minimize the financial risks associated with climate change.

Floods in Toronto and southern Alberta last year cost several billion dollars, making them the costliest natural disasters in Canada. Storms that used to occur once every 40 years now arrive every 6 years in some regions of Canada, according to TD Bank. The report estimates that the financial impact of natural catastrophes will annually cost Canadians $5 billion by 2020 and $43 billion by 2050.

Figure 1.

The economic costs of natural catastrophes have grabbed the attention of banks.

“However, with over $6 trillion in assets, banks could finance our way out of climate change by substantially scaling-up investments in [environmentally] ‘clean’ technology”, says Veena Ramani, director of the corporate program at Ceres (Boston, MA), a non-profit sustainability advocate. Responding to pressure from funders, the financial services sector is beginning to take aim at GHG emissions, according to new research from Ceres. “Most large financial companies have cut emissions from their operations”, Ramani points out. TD Bank's offices and retail outlets, for instance, are now carbon neutral.

But Ramani says the most important step is to finance clean technologies and stop supporting fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency is calling for annual investments in clean technology to rise from US$281 billion to US$1 trillion by 2030 in order to keep global temperature rise below 2°C. Since 2007, Bank of America has funneled US$20 billion into green technology and last year announced a new 10-year, US$50 billion clean technology initiative. “[Such] commitments need to be put on steroids”, continues Ramani.

Meanwhile, some companies are breaking away from fossil fuels; TD Bank, for example, will no longer fund coal-mining operations that involve mountaintop removal. Nevertheless, the bank continues to support Canadian oil and gas companies. “More financial service companies are integrating climate-change risk into their processes, but overall there has been a slow change in investments”, Ramani concludes.

Deforester in million hectare turnaround?

Adrian Burton

In late April, Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) – one of the world's largest pulp, paper, and packaging manufacturers, and long-criticized by conservation groups as a major player in the deforestation of parts of Indonesia – announced a 1-million-ha restoration and conservation initiative, a development cautiously welcomed by WWF and other environmental organizations.

In February 2012, Frontiers reported assertions made by the Indonesian NGO Eyes on the Forest that APP was irresponsibly logging Sumatra's tropical forests while running a misleading media campaign to conceal its activities. APP's purported “green-washing” even included setting aside land for a tiger sanctuary only to allow its supply companies to clearcut the area. APP denied the allegations. Yet in February 2013, in response to growing pressure from clients concerned about responsible paper sourcing, APP released its “Forest Conservation Policy”, which included reforms such as support for GHG emissions targets, peatland protection, and sustainable sourcing. The company says this resulted in “an immediate and permanent cessation of natural forest clearance across its supply chain”.

The new initiative proposes to “restore and support the conservation of” 1 million ha of rainforest across Indonesia. The stated goals include – among many others – providing wildlife corridors and buffer areas for the Bukit Tigapuluh National Park, supporting the conservation of Sumatran tigers in the Senepis peat swamp forest, and protecting and restoring the natural forest of the Giam Siak Kecil Biosphere Reserve to provide habitat for elephants.

How APP will do this remains unclear. “In terms of what we will actually do, this will be set out in our integrated sustainable forest management plans, which will be developed from the results of our high conservation value and high carbon stock assessments as well as the input from our independent team of peat experts”, says Darragh Ooi (APP's Global Head of Communications, Jakarta, Indonesia). “Because these assessments are ongoing, it remains too early to say exactly what will be done in any given area but we will release more details on this as they become available.”

“APP's commitment is encouraging, but only time and on-the-ground results will prove whether [this translates] into lasting conservation impact”, says Linda Walker (Director, WWF Global Forest & Trade Network-North America, Washington, DC). “WWF will continue discussions with APP and other stakeholders to offer input on potential implementation approaches, priorities, and [a time-bound action plan, and continue to advise businesses before they make buying decisions].”

Brazil will release GM mosquitoes

Katherine Blackwood

Brazil's National Technical Commission for Biosecurity (CTNBio) determined in early April that the commercial release of a genetically modified (GM) mosquito intended to curb the spread of dengue fever would not threaten the nation's biosafety. OX513A, an engineered strain of male Aedes aegypti, is the first GM insect that CTNBio has approved for nationwide use. Developed by the British biotechnology firm Oxitec, OX513A has been factory-bred and field-tested in Brazil by the organization Moscamed and researchers from the University of São Paulo.

With about 1.5 million diagnoses in 2013, Brazil is the global hotspot for dengue fever. No vaccine exists for this potentially lethal virus, which is transmitted primarily by the bite of A aegypti. Therefore, efforts to control dengue have focused primarily on killing mosquitoes. “The data linking mosquito abundance with incidence of dengue are reasonable”, explains Ary Hoffmann, entomologist at the University of Melbourne (Melbourne, Australia). OX513A was designed to suppress wild A aegypti populations by mating with wild females and passing on a gene that kills offspring before they reach maturity. In field trials, the periodic release of OX513A has led to a nearly 80% reduction in A aegypti abundance within several months.

“We've cleared the safety hurdle”, says Glen Slade, Oxitec's head of business development (Oxford, UK). Next, “Oxitec can apply for a commercial license. We are in discussions with the Brazilian Government about what process we need to follow, which is not as clear-cut as if we were licensing another insecticide or pharmaceutical.” Slade adds that Oxitec is “delighted” with CTNBio's decision. “It's an extremely safe product.”

Traditionally, disease vectors are controlled with insecticides. However, chemical treatments can harm ecosystems and lose efficacy as insects evolve resistance (which many populations of A aegypti have done worldwide, according to Hoffmann). Oxitec's solution “is benign to the environment because it is species-specific”, claims Slade, who also suggests that because “A aegypti is an invasive species in Brazil, its suppression is, in a way, actually restoring the environment”.

Other innovations in dengue control are currently being tested elsewhere in the world. In Australia, for instance, wild A aegypti infected with the Wolbachia bacterium naturally found in fruit flies have demonstrated a lowered transmission rate of the dengue virus; while OX513A reduces the vector population alone, Wolbachia infection reduces the transmission of the virus. “It's possible that different strategies could be used in combination”, says Hoffmann. “Multimodal approaches could be worth exploring.”

Sardine shortage blamed for booby decline

Virginia Gewin

Populations of blue-footed boobies (Sula nebouxii excisa) – Pacific seabirds best known for their iconic mating dance – have declined over 50% throughout the Galápagos Islands in less than two decades, from an estimated 20 000 individuals in 1960 to roughly 6000 today (Avian Conserv Ecol 2014; www.ace-eco.org/vol9/iss1/art6/).

The study suggests the plummeting population is the result of years of unsuccessful breeding beginning around the time of the 1998 El Niño. Monitoring breeding at 4-month intervals between 2011 and 2013, a team led by seabird biologist Dave Anderson (Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC) recorded only 134 fledglings and found that fewer than 11% of adults had an active nest at any time during the study period.

“If there hasn't been any successful breeding since 1997, the adults in the population are going to be older than 20 years – essentially an elderly population, since they live into their mid-20s”, says Anderson. And that suggests the population could be facing an even more precipitous decline in the future.

Figure 2.

Galápagos blue-footed booby breeding success has plummeted.

Anderson believes the available evidence points to a lack of sardines, an important component of the birds' diet. Earlier research had noted that successful breeding occurs only when birds had a nearly 100% sardine diet, but Anderson's survey found sardines currently represented just 28–68% of the boobies' diet, depending on colony location. Noting the 2010 disappearance of 225 fledglings, Anderson thinks that sardine availability is so key to fledgling survival that adult birds may voluntarily abandon breeding if juveniles are likely to face poor feeding conditions.

Anderson explains that while sardines tend to cycle out of phase with anchovies on the continental margin – and are currently in low abundance – little is known about sardine dynamics in the Galápagos, making it unclear whether sardine populations could improve or if an existing artisanal fishery is having an impact.

“There can be no doubt whatsoever that there's been a major population decline and despite the lack of information on fish availability, a food shortage seems to be the most likely explanation”, agrees Michael Harris, emeritus fellow at the UK Center for Ecology & Hydrology (Edinburgh, UK).

Lethal injection gives reef a shot at survival

Claire Miller

A new culling method is stemming the tide of crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS; Acanthaster planci) eating their way through popular tourist spots on Australia's Great Barrier Reef (GBR). More than 250 000 starfish have been destroyed in less than 2 years using single injections of ox bile – a substance that causes a severe allergic reaction, with starfish breaking up within 24 hours post-application – collected from abattoirs.

Figure 3.

One lethal injection and COTS are a pile of spines in 24 hours.

This means a diver can destroy up to 600 starfish in a 40-minute dive, compared with 40 previously when each starfish had to be pulled out, laid flat, and injected up to 28 times with sodium bisulfate; miss a vital body part and a new starfish would grow from it. Steve Moon, COTS Control Project Manager (Cairns, Australia) explains that the starfish are good for diversity because they feed on fast-growing branch corals, giving slower corals room to grow. “But water quality has declined with increased nutrient runoff, and food sources have grown, so the juvenile mortality rate has dropped”, Moon says. “Naturally we'd get outbreaks every 30 years or so, but then it became every 15 years, and then every 7 years, and now there are no cycles – they're present in big numbers all the time. Because there are so many, they're eating not just the faster growing corals, but the slow ones as well. They're annihilating the reef, so we need to control them.”

COTS are blamed for 42% of GBR coral loss, but with only two vessels and 25 divers covering 1200 km of the 2300-km reef system, Moon's team can only do so much. Jairo Rivera Posada, a postdoctoral research fellow at James Cook University (Townsville, Australia) who helped develop the single injection method, is now working on a contraceptive. “One starfish can produce up to 60 million eggs, so it would be really good if we can reduce the species' fertility”, he explains.

Rivera Posada is also keen on replacing daytime surveys from fast-moving boats with underwater remote-operated vehicles at night. “Starfish hide by day and feed at night, so surveying from a distance in the day means that by the time we realize there's an outbreak, it's too late.”

New environmental law released in China

Ganlin Huang

On April 24, the National People's Congress of China passed an updated and amended Environmental Protection Law (EPL). Containing seven chapters and 70 clauses, the new EPL replaces the original law, which was released 25 years ago and comprised only six chapters and 47 clauses.

China's environmental and socioeconomic situations have changed dramatically during the past quarter century, which led to calls for overhauling the law. The EPL was substantially revised four times before agreement was reached between members of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (who desired sweeping changes and achieved most of their objectives) and officials from other ministries (who preferred a more narrow focus on individual issues). “The release of the amended EPL itself denotes a victory”, says Yonglong Lu, professor at the Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences (Beijing). “This amendment responds to most of the issues being debated during the revision process, including those that my colleagues and I previously raised. It sends the signal that the Government no longer perceives the environment as one issue but regards it as a fundamental basis for real development.” Reception of the new EPL by the Chinese media has been generally positive, with some news outlets calling it “the most strict and powerful” environmental law in the country's history.

The new EPL is notable for several reasons. First, it sets up a legislative basis for promoting more sustainable development, which includes such features as establishing monitoring systems for resource management and environmental carrying capacities, identifying and protecting ecologically fragile areas and areas of important ecological functioning, and improving transfer payment programs for eco-compensation. Second, the law incorporates a new chapter on information disclosure and civic participation, emphasizing the need for greater transparency with regard to environmental issues and pollutants and encouraging institutions, organizations, and individuals to report pollution or environmental damage. Third, the updated EPL bestows local governments and environmental protection agencies with greater regulatory power and imposes exceptionally harsh penalties on violations, and at the same time holds municipal governments to higher accountability when failing to improve local environmental quality.

“While the new EPL release is exciting, it only means a good start”, says Lu. “The EPL is a basic law, which sets up the legislative framework. How much difference it will make depends largely on sectoral laws, regulations, and rules, which should be revised or created accordingly.”

Antibiotic resistance in dairy cow manure

Mike Faden

Manure from dairy cows harbors an unexpected diversity of previously unknown microbial genes promoting antibiotic resistance, which may spread through the environment and to bacteria that infect humans and other species through the prevalent use of cow manure as fertilizer.

Researchers at Yale University (New Haven, CT) discovered the genes by combining two techniques – functional metagenomic screening and gene sequencing – to identify antibiotic resistance genes extracted from bacteria in the cows' gut, which they then compared with known genes listed in the GenBank national database of genetic material (mBio 2014; doi:10.1128/mBio.01017-13). The research team identified about 80 active genes originating from a variety of different bacteria that provided resistance to commonly used classes of antibiotics, including betalactams and tetracyclines. Most of those genes appeared to be previously unknown and included a new group that confer resistance to chloramphenicol antibiotics, which are commonly used to treat respiratory infections in livestock.

The study indicates that dairy cow manure is an important reservoir of antibiotic resistance genes and suggests that the use of cow manure for fertilization could contribute to the spread of these genes throughout the environment and potentially to humans; crops consumed by humans may contain bacteria that carry such genes, for instance. Prior research has shown that antibiotic-resistant bacteria can spread in this way to soil, food, and groundwater. Alternatively, the genes could be absorbed into disease-causing bacteria via horizontal gene transfer, potentially leading such bacteria to becoming antibiotic-resistant.

Further research on other animals would help to improve our understanding of environmental reservoirs of antibiotic resistance and the relationships between them, explains the study's lead author Fabienne Wichmann, who carried out the work while a postdoctoral researcher at Yale. “We could get a better idea of the kinds of antibiotic resistance that are out there, whether they are exchanged between habitats, and how they end up in the clinic.”

Although this research suggests that antibiotic-resistant genes occur less frequently in cow manure than was shown in an earlier study on chicken manure – not unexpectedly, because dairy cows tend to be less heavily treated with antibiotics than chickens – similar levels of antibiotic resistance in manure samples from antibiotic-treated and untreated cows were found at the same farm. According to the current authors, larger-scale studies of livestock exposed to more intense antibiotic use, such as pigs, could provide a more detailed picture of the abundance, diversity, and exchange of antibiotic-resistant genes.

Ocean acidification dissolving snail shells

Jane Bradbury

Researchers have documented clearly for the first time that ocean acidification is causing inhospitable conditions for pteropods – tiny free-swimming marine mollusks that are an important component of the marine food chain – along the Pacific coast of the coterminous US (Proc Roy Soc B 2014; doi:10.1098/rspb.2014.0123). “We found that more than half of the pteropods in onshore waters and about a quarter in offshore waters have severe [shell] dissolution damage”, explains lead author Nina Bednaršek (NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory [PMEL], Seattle, WA). “This is a wake-up call for marine scientists”, insists Richard Feely, a co-author of the study and a senior scientist at PMEL. “Our results highlight the need to understand the relationships between anthropogenic CO2 release, ocean acidification, and the marine ecosystem, and the need for humankind to begin to seriously do something about CO2 emissions.”

Figure 4.

Pteropod Limacina helicina helicina showing severe shell dissolution.

In 2007, Feely and his colleagues surveyed the waters along the US West Coast and found that pH was much lower in nearshore waters than in the open ocean. This reduction, explains Feely, “is caused by the absorption of anthropogenic CO2 combined with natural upwelling of cold CO2-rich waters and results in undersaturation of the water with respect to aragonite [a polymorph of calcium carbonate]”. Feely began to worry that ocean acidification might already be affecting calcifying organisms and so in 2011 he and several colleagues collected pteropods in the affected areas to examine for signs of shell dissolution using scanning electron microscopy. “We estimated that, in this coastal region, the incidence of severe shell dissolution in pteropods has doubled since pre-industrial conditions, and will increase to 70% [of pteropods] by 2050”, says Bednaršek, who is now investigating the physiological effects of shell dissolution on pteropods along the West Coast.

“These findings have two major implications”, comments eco-physiologist Gretchen Hofmann (University of California, Santa Barbara, CA), who is also studying the effects of ocean acidification on marine organisms. “First, they highlight the complexity of what is going on in regions of the world where upwelling occurs. Second, they highlight how useful pteropods might be as early indicators of the saturation state and condition of oceanic waters.”

All three scientists point out that the effect of acidification stress on pteropods will probably have cascading effects throughout marine ecosystems. “This is certainly our concern”, says Feely, “but we need to verify that this is happening by undertaking more field research”.

Feral camels cause problems in Australia

Lindsay Deel

New research (Anthrozoos 2014; doi:10.2752/175303714X13903827487449) has focused on the environmental and social history of the million-plus feral dromedary camels (Camelus dromedarius) that inhabit the Australian Outback. According to study author Sarah Crowley (Environment and Sustainability Institute, University of Exeter, Cornwall, UK), “Camels were [introduced and] used by Australian ‘pioneers’ as draft and transport animals, to explore and develop the infrastructure of the country; but the growth in motorized vehicles in the early 20th century significantly impacted their economic viability, and in the 1920s, large numbers were shot or released”.

Dromedary camels are uniquely adapted to arid environments and their population has increased considerably in some of the driest areas of Australia, such as the Simpson Desert. “Dromedaries are generalist browsers and can eat up to 80% of native Australian vegetation, obtaining water through plant consumption”, explains Crowley. They also have no major predators in the Outback other than dingoes, which occasionally prey on calves. During extreme droughts, however, camels tend to congregate around water holes and settlements, often breaking through cattle fences and creating problems for local farmers, and having negative impacts on native biodiversity, wetlands, infrastructure, and sites of cultural value to Aboriginal people.

Figure 5.

Dromedary camels are now as ubiquitous in the Australian Outback as wombats and kangaroos.

To control their growing numbers, the Australian Feral Camel Management Project (AFCMP) was established and operated from 2009 until 2013, during which time populations were culled at a rate of about 75 000 individuals annually. Following the AFCMP's efforts, the new population estimate for wild camels is 300 000, approximately one-third of the original estimate. Says Crowley, “The AFCMP has made several recommendations for continued management, particularly in areas of high conservation or cultural value. Camels are also now being mustered on a comparatively small scale and internationally exported [for racing and tourism purposes, as well as for meat].”

Although the feral camel population has been substantially reduced, uncertainty remains. “Future impacts will be highly dependent on the way in which camel research and management develops over the coming years and how this is incorporated within wider environmental management programs, such as sustainable agriculture and conservation or restoration initiatives”, Crowley concludes.

Returning salmon to a once-dead river

Nancy Bazilchuk

Over the past four decades, acid rain has hit Norway hard, destroying 25 distinct Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) populations and greatly reducing 20 others. Among the rivers most affected was the Modal River north of Bergen, which lost its Atlantic salmon population in the 1970s.

In early April, resource managers set out 120 000 fertilized salmon eggs from one of Norway's living gene banks into the Modal as an initial step in returning the river to full health, and intend to lime the stream in 2017, when the smolts –a life stage vulnerable to low water pH – are expected to emerge. “Atlantic salmon are not on the [IUCN] Red List but it is very important to protect the genetic diversity in these stocks”, says Øvyind Walsø, head of the Norwegian Environment Agency's (NEA's) watercourse initiatives section (Trondheim).

Norway's salmon rivers – once host to 465 distinct strains of Atlantic salmon – are in trouble. Currently, according to the NEA, wild salmon populations in 49 rivers either have crashed or are in critical condition due to various factors, including acid rain. Since 1983, however, Norway has invested just under 1 billion krone (US$169 million) to artificially lime and regularly monitor acidified rivers. The Modal River is the 22nd watershed to be treated.

Peter Hutchinson, secretary of the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (Edinburgh, UK), an intergovernmental group that oversees and enforces measures to protect wild salmon, believes that Norway's liming efforts are vital to improving overall salmon survival. Forty percent of the North Atlantic salmon-fishing harvest comes from Norway's coastal waters and rivers. “Norway has undertaken important initiatives to restore water quality not only in acidified rivers through liming programs but also in treating rivers that have been infected with the parasite Gyrodactylus salaris [a key mortality source for young salmon]”, Hutchinson explains.

According to Walsø, the complete restoration of the Modal River will require at least 20 years, but Ellen Hambro, director general of the NEA, calls the liming program “essential” for restoring Norway's salmon legacy, pointing out that the catch from treated rivers once devoid of fish has reached 58 metric tons of wild salmon annually.

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