The next ten years…

One would think the latest reports documenting the lack of action regarding climate change, the continued and accelerating changes to the oceans and cryosphere, the deteriorating condition of the Great Barrier Reef, and the astonishing decline in avian populations along with the ongoing extinction of numerous other plant and animal species, should serve to focus global attention on planetary change in the Anthropocene.  Unfortunately, it would appear that business as usual will be the most likely outcome of all these reports, despite much wringing of hands, gloomy predictions and opining of pundits, experts and the like. 

A hallmark of the Anthropocene is the observably (much!) higher rate of change in many Earth system processes as compared to “background” rates determined from historical records. This acceleration has been well documented, but very poorly communicated to the general public and largely ignored by decision makers.  Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide, increasing sea and land temperatures, accelerated melt rates of sea ice, permafrost and ice sheets, along with rising sea level, inform us that a critical fork in the road lies ahead.  Ignore these signposts and there will be no opportunity to even make a choice as to which road we take—the decision will have been already made.

With this analogy in mind, I turn to three papers, one written in 1976, one in 2013, and another released this September.  In 2013, James Hansen and 17 other scientists published “Assessing ‘Dangerous Climate Change’:  Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature.”( Dangerous climate change) Their paper documented the continued rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion, along with the various attendant impacts to Earth system processes, the environment and human health and well-being arising from this accumulation.  The authors suggested that the inertia of the climate system causes it to respond “slowly to this man-made forcing,” complicating policy responses, as well as obscuring the potentiality for irreversible climate change due to slow feedbacks.  Although the rapidity and scale of such changes; e.g., irreversible melting of Antarctic and/or Greenland ice sheets remains unclear, continued combustion of fossil fuels threatens to lock us into this future. 

They argued that the implications of future climate change already “in the pipeline” are thus intergenerational, presenting young people of today with a future they will have had no hand in shaping.  The authors suggested that “(a) scenario is conceivable in which growing evidence of climate change and recognition of implications for young people lead to massive public support for action” based on the expectation of “fairness and justice in a matter as essential as the condition of the planet they will inhabit.” This sounds remarkably like the argument underlying today’s campaign by young people for climate justice. The conclusions of the 2013 paper are stark:  the opportunity to avoid climate disruptions and maintain global temperatures below 2oC will require “extraordinarily rapid emission reductions” and choosing an alternative energy pathway, a “fork in the road” from a carbon-rich energy path to one that is carbon-free.   

The choice of a “hard energy path” as opposed to a “soft energy path” was outlined more than forty years ago, in Amory Lovin’s seminal October 1976 Foreign Affairs article “Energy Strategy:  The Road Not Taken?” (Soft Energy Paths) in which he outlined the numerous benefits of shifting from a “hard path” of fossil fuels and nuclear power to a “soft path” of efficiency and renewable energy, focused on matching the quality of energy to its end use.  Lovins’ deeply controversial and influential article showed a way forward to an energy future that today bears a remarkable similarity to his original description.  However, despite rapid efficiency improvements, technological breakthroughs and movement along a soft energy path envisioned by Lovins, a key aspect of the soft energy path, deployment of renewables, lags approximately 25 years behind the 1976 projections.  Deployment of renewables must therefore accelerate even more rapidly if we are to move towards an energy future that will avoid the irreversible climate change outlined by Hansen et al.

These choices are now before us, laid out in a September 2019 White Paper from the World Economic Forum, “The Speed of the Energy Transition—Gradual or Rapid Change?”  (The speed of the energy transition) The paper poses the question “Will the global energy transition from fossil fuels to sustainable energy be gradual or rapid?”  The authors suggest the choice of paths will be made this decade, that the two paths are mutually exclusive, and that the choice of business as usual “regrettably … means that the goals of the Paris Agreement will become increasingly unachievable.” 

There are three “signposts” along the path to a Rapid global energy transition by 2030 according to the White Paper: 

(1)  solar electricity at $20-$30 per megawatt hour

(2)  carbon taxes implemented on around half of emissions at $20 per tonne

(3)  three peaks to take place in the 2020’s

            a.  peak demand for new internal combustion engine cars

            b.  peak demand for fossil fuels in electricity

            c.  peak demand for all fossil fuels

If we pass these, the Rapid transition is on track; failure to pass these leads to a future whose socioeconomic  and Earth system dimensions will be dictated by processes humanity has set into irreversible motion.  The chart from Hansen, et al hints at the potential long lags in the climate system’s response to fossil fuel emission cuts: it could take centuries before atmospheric carbon dioxide levels return to “safe” levels of 350 ppm.  

Carbon dioxide has a long residence time in the atmosphere; the longer we delay in cutting emissions, the longer it will take for CO2 to return to “safe” levels after we reduce emissions. From Hansen, et al., 2013 (See link in the article)

The chart below from BerkelyEarth shows the path to 1.5oC is only a decade or so distant, if current trends continue.  The chart shows a ten-year moving average of the Earth’s surface temperature, plotted relative to the average temperature from 1850-1900.  At the current rate of increase, 1.5oC above the 1850-1900 average will be reached by 2035. 

Projected temperature increase if current trends continue
Source: BerkeleyEarth

According to Hansen et al., warming will reach 1.5oC and “stay above 1.0oC until 2400 if emissions continue to increase until 2030.”

Perhaps Greta Thunberg said it best in her September 23 address to the United Nations:

“For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight…The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5 degrees [Celsius], and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control…Fifty percent may be acceptable to you. But those numbers do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of equity and climate justice…You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you. 

We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.” (Thunberg Transcript)

Image: Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Whose Amazon?

“Our House Is On Fire”

“Our house is on fire,” declared French President Macron, describing the fires burning across Brazil’s vast interior.  Satellite imagery revealed clouds of smoke from the thousands of fires obscuring large portions of South America, including the skies of Sao Paulo on Monday, August 20.  News outlets described the Amazon forests as the “lungs of the planet,” and articles warned of the Amazon “tipping” from its present forested state to one in which only savannah ecosystems could survive.  Blame for the fires was laid at the feet of President Bolsonaro, whose anti-environmental, pro-development policies were encouraging rampant conversion of forests to agriculture, mining, timber, and cattle operations. 

Fires in Brazil, August 11 2019
Source: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/145464/fires-in-brazil

President Bolsonaro’s position on the use of Brazil’s natural resources has been clear: Brazil, not the international community will determine their best use.   Concern regarding the ongoing Amazon fires was highlighted at the just-concluded G7 meeting in Biarritz, where President Macron had declared them a “global emergency,” and the G7 agreed to provide funding to fight the fires and aid in reforestation.  (The Guardian, August 26, 2019) However, in a tweet, President Bolsonaro appeared to reject the G7 proposal, asserting that the G7 was treating Brazil as a colonial entity.  A further exchange of tweets between the French and Brazilian leaders ensued,  which did little to ease the situation. 

Is This Fire Season Different?

The fire season in the southern Amazon runs from June to December, with peak burning activity in September (Global Fire Data)  This website has a great deal of information regarding global fire activity, so let’s take a look at some of the data for the Amazon Region (“Legal Amazon”).  Since 2012, VIIRS satellite data has been available along with the older, somewhat less accurate MODIS data. (The VIIRS data has a resolution of about 375 meters, as compared to about 1 kilometer for MODIS.)

Source: http://www.globalfiredata.org

Here are a few highlights:

1.  As of August 31, the 2019 fire season has the highest count since 2012, when VIIRS data became available. 


Screenshot from Total Legal Amazon August Fire Count 2003-2019 showing Cumulative Monthly Fire Count for August. 2019 is in green.

2.  Fires in 2019 are more intense than in previous years, as measured in terms of radiative power.

3.  There has been a noticeable increase in large, intense, and persistent fires burning along major roads in the central Brazilian Amazon, which is more consistent with land clearing than regional drought.  (NASA Earth Observatory)  As an example, the screenshot below is an enlargement of an unprotected area in Para’ shows the clustering of fires adjacent to existing roads in the middle of the image.   Darker areas are unprotected forests, lighter areas above and below the dark green are National Parks.


Source:  (NASA Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS))

4.  However, if we look at 2019 MODIS Fire Alerts, through August 31 for all of Brazil, 2019 (red line) doesn’t look at all unusual as compared to many other fires seasons.    

Source: https://www.globalfiredata.org/forecast.html#totals

5.  Another representation of the historical data reinforces this impression that the 2019 fire season may be well below many other years. 


Source:  Global Forest Watch Fires Brazil

6.  Fire alerts in Intact Forest Landscape Areas appear to include only 6% of the impacted areas.

It’s Too Early To Draw Conclusions

There is no doubt that August 2019 has seen an historically high number of fires in the Amazon,  but we will not have the full picture until the end of the fire season, when satellite imagery can be compared to pre-2019 data to determine the precise location and true extent of the fires.  The degree to which previously intact tropical forest or other threatened biomes have been transformed by fire won’t be known until this type of analysis can be made.  Satellite imagery clearly shows many fires both within and adjacent to Brazilian National Parks.  For example, the screenshot below (NASA Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS)) shows an area of Para’ with numerous fires in the dark greenish black (unprotected) areas as well as in the protected (lighter green) areas. 

Dark green areas denote unprotected lands, lighter green are National Parks. Numerous fire counts are present in both areas

However, cumulative monthly fire counts (January-August 31) for 2019 in Para’ are well below many other years (next figure), a further indication that it is simply too soon to draw conclusions and issue condemnations about the overall extent of fire damage.  


Source:  Global Fire Data Para’ (accessed August 31, 2019)

Global Demand Drives Local Change

To return to President Bolsonaro’s assertion that the disposition of Brazil’s forest resources  are a Brazilian, not international issue, this is a much more complicated issue than the President’s statement would indicate.  Surging global demand for soy has been met by Brazil, Argentina and the United States. As of 2018, it is likely that Brazil will surpass the United States as both the largest producer and exporter of soy.(TRASE Yearbook 2018)  Brazil has produced soy first by converting vast undeveloped subtropical regions in its south, then into tropical areas, into the Cerrado (largest savanna region in South America, largely unprotected) in the mid-1990’s, and now into the agricultural frontier area of Matopiba.  The conversion of undisturbed forests and other biomes in Brazil to the production of soy as well as other agricultural products (e.g., sugarcane, beef, timber) has been well-documented and ongoing for many years. Soybean exports are now valued at over USD 20 billion, making them Brazil’s most valuable export commodity. (TRASE Yearbook 2018)

An estimated 1.8 million ha of soy in the Amazon in 2016 and 3.5 million ha of soy in the Cerrado in 2015 were undeveloped in the year 2000—amounting to about 40% and 20% of the total area of soy in each biome (TRASE Yearbook 2018 Chapter 3)

 A complex network of producers, export and import entities links local land use change across Brazil to global consumers. The screenshots from the website (TRASE) illustrates some of these linkages.  Soy is used as feed for pigs and chickens, and is exported in vast quantities to China, the world’s largest producer and consumer of pork. (Brazil is also the world’s largest exporter of chickens.) The pig population in China is estimated to be nearly 500,000,000 and China doesn’t have the land to supply soy for this plethora of pork.  Instead, it has reduced the amount of land planted to soy and become the world’s largest consumer of soy (around 60% of global exports), primarily from Brazil. 

Soy flows from Brazil’s biomes through a complex network of export/import entities to end users across the globe
Source: TRASE
Soy flows from states across Brazil to many countries, but China is by far the largest end-user
Source: TRASE

This dependence on Brazilian soy will likely increase due to the ongoing and escalating trade war between the United States and China.  Prior to the imposition of tariffs, Chinese soy demand had also been met by the United States, but the tariff war is likely to incentive the Brazilians to increase soy production, as China shifts from America to Brazil to meet its soy needs.  In a grim analysis of the possible deforestation consequences of such a shift, a report in Nature (Trade War Disaster for the Amazon) in March estimated that “soya-bean production in Brazil could increase by up to 39%, to 13 million hectares.”   Following the historical pattern of Brazilian soy production, the ready availability undeveloped land will lead to agricultural extensification, rather than intensification. 

U.S. Farmers Expand Production

Just as their Brazilian counterparts, American farmers respond to global and domestic demands agricultural commodities by expanding production. They have planted more soy for export, and they have planted more corn in response to biofuel mandates by the federal government.  This has come largely at the expense of previously intact grasslands.*  In the 8 year period between 2008 and 2016, 10 million acres (4,047,000 ha) of grassland, shrubland, wetland and forestland were converted to crop production in the United States, more than half of which was planted in corn and soy.    80% of new cropland came from grassland ecosystems, of which 2.2 million acres were intact grasslands, defined as “those which had not been previously planted or plowed and are most likely to contain native species and sod.”  The rate of land conversion has continued at nearly 1 million acres per year. 

The conversion of grassland between 2008-2012 released more than 14 million metric tons of carbon per year—equivalent to yearly emissions from 13 coal-fired power plants.

This extensification of agricultural production has occurred in the Dakotas, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as areas bordering Canada in the Northern Great Plains.  As in the case of Brazil, extensification has converted previously intact ecosystems, which provide valuable environmental services, including protection of water quality, critical habitat for bird species, pollination, prevention of soil and nutrient loss, and carbon sequestration.  In the case of grassland ecosystems as well as tropical forests, carbon sequestration is particularly important as a means of buffering continued accumulation of anthropogenically sourced carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 

*Source: Gibbs Lab

A Telecoupled World

Conversion of intact biomes to agroecosystems is not unique to Brazil or the United States; agriculture occupies about 38% of Earth’s terrestrial surface, making it the largest use of land on the planet (Solutions for A Cultivated Planet).  Flows of energy, resources, information, etc., couple human socioeconomic systems and environmental systems, forming a telecoupled system (Framing Sustainability in a Telecoupled World, one of the hallmarks of the Anthropocene. The relationship between China and Brazil exemplifies this system, driving both extensification and intensification of soy production in Brazil, as vast quantities of soy product flow back to China.  Smaller quantities flow to many other nations, including members of the G7. Through the work of TRASE researchers, the linkages between import/export entities and deforestation have been brought into the open, and it has become clear that a handful of enormous, largely privately held companies dominate these flows.  Land use decisions in Brazil are thus determined by both Brazilian governmental decisions, as well as those of these often vertically integrated transnational agricultural entities. 

In a telecoupled world, it is increasingly difficult to disentangle local land use decisions from global economic forces.  Thus, President Bolsinaro’s claim that Brazilian resources are to be disposed of only by Brazil, is not really that simple. Brazilian resource decisions can be influenced by end-users, mediated by a very complex interplay of actors. Ultimately making a transition to sustainability in the Amazon and elsewhere will be very challenging.  For example, despite the much larger volume of soy exports from Brazil to China, the sourcing of soy from Brazil to Europe actually exposes European nations to higher deforestation risk than China (TRASE 2018 Annual Report)

We Are All Complicit

In a telecoupled world of nearly 8 billion, conversion of vast ecosystems matters in ways that weren’t apparent in earlier eras.  In the plow up of the Great Plains grassland of the United States in the 19th and early 20th century, the near extinction of the buffalo, decimation and relocation of indigenous peoples wasn’t an issue of global concern.  Now, when Brazil is treating its vast frontier regions in much the same fashion as did the United States, it does matter. 

We in the developed world still have our hands dirty; be it grassland conversion in the United States, deforestation of boreal forests in Canada, destruction of the ancient Hambach Forest in Germany for production of lignite—one of the dirtiest of coals.  Why should the Brazilians listen to us? 

Moreover, why should the Brazilians change their behavior?  Perhaps the Chinese should reduce their pork consumption, the Europeans reduce their intake of beef, Americans change their toilet paper purchases from Canadian-sourced pulp to recycled?  In other words, we have outsourced our resource demands from domestic to foreign sources, but want these resources to be extracted on our terms—something we aren’t even doing ourselves.  Can we really have it both ways in a telecoupled world?

President Macron condemns the Brazilians for burning their (“our”) forests.  Who, exactly is lighting the match?

Image of Match: yaoqi-lai-7iatBuqFvY0-unsplash.jpg

Extinction

Rate and Scope of Extinction Source: (“Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services” published in draft form 29 May 2019.) Summary for Policymakers-Advance Draft

The global rate of species extinction is already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years and is accelerating (established but incomplete) {2.2.5.2.4} 

  • Human actions have already driven at least 680 vertebrate species to extinction since 1500
  • The threat of extinction is also accelerating: in the best-studied taxonomic groups, most of the total extinction risk to species is estimated to arisen in the past 40 years (established but incomplete) {2.2.5.2.4}.
  • The proportion of species currently threatened with extinction according to the IUCN Red List criteria averages around 25 per cent across the many terrestrial, freshwater and marine vertebrate, invertebrate and plant groups that have been studied in sufficient detail to support a robust overall estimate (established but incomplete) {2.2.5.2.4, 3.2}
  • More than 40 per cent of amphibian species, almost a third of reef-forming corals, sharks and shark relatives and over a third of marine mammals are currently threatened {2.2.5.2.4, 3}.
  • The proportion of insect species threatened with extinction is a key uncertainty,but available evidence supports a tentative estimate of 10 per cent (established but incomplete) {2.2.5.2.4}.

            Those proportions suggest that, of an estimated 8 million animal and plant species (75% of which are insects), around 1 million are threatened with extinction   (established but incomplete) {2.2.5.2.4}.

What is the reasoning behind the well-publicized (and controversial) estimate of “1 million threatened species?” (See explanations by Dr. Andy Purvis here:  https://www.ipbes.net/search-index?search_api_views_fulltext=extinction+estimate)

  • The Living Planet Index, which synthesises trends in vertebrate populations, has declined rapidly since 1970, falling by 40% for terrestrial species, 84% for freshwater species and 35% for marine species (established but incomplete) {2.2.5.2.4}.
  • On land, wild species that are endemic (narrowly distributed) have typically seen larger-than-average changes to their habitats and shown faster-than-average declines (established but incomplete) {2.2.5.2.3, 2.2.5.2.4}.

A substantial proportion of assessed species are threatened with extinction and overall trends are deteriorating, with extinction rates increasing sharply in the past century. (A) Percentage of species threatened with extinction in taxonomic groups that have been assessed comprehensively, or through a ‘sampled’ approach, or for which selected subsets have been assessed, by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Groups are ordered according to the best estimate for the percentage of extant species considered threatened (shown by the vertical blue lines), assuming that data deficient species are as threatened as non-data deficient species. (B) Extinctions since 1500 for vertebrate groups. Rates for reptiles and fishes have not been assessed for all species. (C) Red List Index of species survival for taxonomic groups that have been assessed for the IUCN Red List at least twice. A value of 1 is equivalent to all species being categorized as Least Concern; a value of zero is equivalent to all species being classified as Extinct. Data for all panels derive from http://www.iucnredlist.org (see Chapter 3 Figure 3.4 and Chapter 2 Figure 2.7).

  • The number of local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals and their wild relatives has been reduced sharply as a result of land use change, knowledge loss, market preferences and large-scale trade (well established) {2.2.5.2.6, 2.2.5.3.1}.
  • Human-driven changes in species diversity within local ecological communities vary widely, depending on the net balance between species loss and the influx of alien species, disturbance-tolerant species, other human-adapted species or climate migrant species (well established) {2.2.5.2.3}.
  • Many organisms show ongoing biological evolution so rapid that it is detectable within only a few years on even more quickly – in response to anthropogenic drivers (well established) {2.2.5.2.5, 2.2.5.2.6}. Management decisions that take those evolutionary changes into account will be noticeably more effective (established but incomplete)

Drivers of observed changes to nature and ecosystem services

 Direct and indirect drivers of change have accelerated during the past 50 years

The rate of global change in nature during the past 50 years is unprecedented in human history. The direct drivers of change in nature with the largest global impact have been (starting with those with most impact): changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution; and invasion of alien species. Those five direct drivers result from an array of underlying causes – the indirect drivers of change – which are in turn underpinned by societal values and behaviours that include production and consumption patterns, human population dynamics and trends, trade, technological innovations and local through global governance. The rate of change in the direct and indirect drivers differs among regions and countries.

Global Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

(IPBES) 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services www.ipbes.net

I have selected highlights from the policymaker summary and have largely followed the sequence in that summary.  I have reorganized some sections and (for the most part), follow the order and arrangement of the bold-faced sections in “Background” of the Summary, which begins on page nine of the IPBES policy summary.  The authors of the IPBES reports qualified their conclusions/findings with expressions such as “well established,” “established but incomplete,”and “inconclusive,” depending on the strength of studies and other criteria underlying each area of concern. (See Global Trends table below).  I include these comments, as well as the sections in the various reports which further elaborate these findings.  These sections are enclosed by { }.  There is a vast amount of material in the various reports, which are hyperlinked below. 

For those unfamiliar with the goals and scope of the IPBES effort, we include the link to the IPBES Global Assessment Preview, which summarizes the assessment. https://www.ipbes.net/news/ipbes-global-assessment-preview

Assessment Reports Links

1.  Assessment Report on Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production

https://www.ipbes.net/assessment-reports/pollinators

2.  Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

https://www.ipbes.net/global-assessment-report-biodiversity-ecosystem-services

3.  Assessment Report on Land Degradation and Restoration

https://www.ipbes.net/assessment-reports/ldr

4.  Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services for Europe and Central Asia

https://www.ipbes.net/assessment-reports/eca

5. Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services for Asia and the Pacific  

https://www.ipbes.net/assessment-reports/asia-pacific

6.  Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services for Africa

https://www.ipbes.net/assessment-reports/africa

7.  Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services for the Americas

https://www.ipbes.net/assessment-reports/americas

8.  Assessment Report on Scenarios and Models of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

https://www.ipbes.net/assessment-reports/scenarios

Status of Nature and Ecosystem Services—Highlights from the Summary for Policymakers

(“Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services” published in draft form 29 May 2019.) Summary for Policymakers-Advance Draft

Nature and its vital contributions to people, which together embody biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services, are deteriorating worldwide

Nature’s goods and services:  Global trends

Global trends in the capacity of nature to sustain contributions to good quality of life from 1970 to the present, which show a decline for 14 of the 18 categories of nature’s contributions to people analyzed. Data supporting global trends and regional variations come from a systematic review of over 2,000 studies {2.3.5.1}. Indicators were selected on the basis of availability of global data, prior use in assessments and alignment with 18 categories. For many categories of nature’s contributions, two indicators are included that show different aspects of nature’s capacity to contribute to human well-being within that category. Indicators are defined so that an increase in the indicator is associated with an improvement in nature’s contributions.

Humanity is a dominant global influence on life on earth, and has caused natural terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems to decline (well established)

Other drivers of global change

Source: (“Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services” published in draft form 29 May 2019.) Summary for Policymakers-Advance Draft {} refer to chapters in the summary

  1. Climate change is already having an impact on nature, from genes to ecosystems. It poses a growing risk owing to the accelerated pace of change and interactions with other direct drivers (well established) {2.1.12, 2.1.18,2.2.6.2}.
  2. Unsustainable use of the Earth’s resources is underpinned by a set of demographic and economic indirect drivers that have increased, and that furthermore interact in complex ways, including through trade (well established) {2.1.6}.
  • Due to expansions of infrastructure, extensive areas of the planet are being opened up to new threats (well established) {2.1.11}
  • Long-distance transportation of goods and people, including for tourism, have grown dramatically in the past 20 years, with negative consequences for nature overall (established but incomplete).
  • Distant areas of the world are increasingly connected, as consumption, production, and governance decisions increasingly influence materials, waste, energy, and information flows in other countries, generating aggregate economic gains while shifting economic and environmental costs, which can link to conflicts (established but incomplete)
  • Governance has at many levels moved slowly to further and better incorporate into policies and incentives the values of nature’s contributions to people. However, around the globe, subsidies with harmful effects on nature have persisted (well established) {2.1, 3, 5, 6.4}.
  • Governance has at many levels moved slowly to further and better incorporate into policies and incentives the values of nature’s contributions to people. However, around the globe, subsidies with harmful effects on nature have persisted (well established) {2.1, 3, 5, 6.4}.


Soil Erosion

Source:   FAO. 2019. Soil erosion: the greatest challenge to sustainable soil management. Rome. 100 pp. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.

Significance(S)oil erosion by water, wind and tillage continues to be the greatest threat to soil health and soil ecosystem services in many regions of the world.  It is considered to be the number one threat to soil functions in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Near East and North Africa, and North America; in the first four of these regions, the trend for erosion was deteriorating.  Only in Europe, North America and the Southwest Pacific was the trend in erosion improving.

Rates of Soil Erosion:

There are major discrepancies among the global estimates of erosion rates and of tolerable loss and these differences are, in large part, attributable to the methods used to make the estimates. While the differences are understandable from a scientific perspective, they do complicate the ability of the scientific community to gain the attention of soil users, policy makers and politicians, who are essential for devising and implementing soil control measures. Ideally local estimates of soil erosion rates need to be coupled with locally appropriate estimates of tolerable soil loss so that decision makers can reliably assess the urgency of erosion control implementation.

Estimates of soil loss rates differ substantially depending on the method used to derive them.  Estimates of loss from field plots are typically much higher than those estimated from models (e.g., >10x).

Global values of estimated erosion range from 0.2-0.6 mm/year to 3.9 mm/year.  A median value of 1.5 mm/year has been estimated by several researchers.

Soil production rates:  0.173 mm/year (A mean value from a survey of 188 papers)

Mean rate of soil lowering:  3.9 mm/year


A comparison of predicted hotspots with field data and anecdotal evidence has shown the “urgent need” to field update models with remote sensing and field checking

Global Land Use Change

A human-dominated Earth System

(Source unless otherwise noted for “Summary of findings” #1-10:   Song, X.-P., Hansen, M. C., Stehman, S. V., Potapov, P. V., Tyukavina, A., Vermote, E. F., & Townshend, J. R. (2018). Global land change from 1982 to 2016. Nature. doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0411-9) 

Globally, land-use change is the direct driver with the largest relative impact on terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems. {2.2.6.2}.  (IPBES)

Land-use change is driven primarily by agriculture, forestry and urbanization, all of which are associated with air, water and soil pollution. {2.1.11} (IPBES)

Summary of Findings

Direct human action on landscapes is found over large areas on every continent, from intensification and extensification of agriculture to increases in forestry and urban land uses, with implications for the maintenance of ecosystem services.

1.  Global tree cover has increased 7.1% relative to 1982

2.  Net gain is the result of greater tree cover gain in the subtropical, temperate and boreal climate zones relative to net loss in the tropics

3.  Global bare ground cover has decreased by 3.1%, primarily in agricultural regions in Asia

4.  60% of all land changes are associated with direct human activities; 40% with indirect drivers such as climate change

            a.  Direct human activities–36% for bare ground

            b.  Direct human activities–70% for tree canopy loss

            c.  Direct human activities—86% of changes in Europe, 66% South America, 62% Asia, 50% Africa

5.  Across all climate domains:  montane systems have gained tree cover, many arid and semi-arid ecosystems have lost vegetation cover

6.  On a global scale, the growth of urban areas accounts for a small fraction of all land changes.

7Changes were unevenly distributed across biomes

            a.  Tree canopy loss (relative to 1982):  tropical dry forest biome

            (-8%), moist deciduous forest (-2%)

            b.  Tree canopy gains:  temperate continental forest (+33%), boreal coniferous forest    (+12%), subtropical humid forest (+18%) 

            c.  Short vegetation loss:  temperate continental forest (-14%), boreal coniferous forest (-10%), subtropical humid forest (-9%)

            d.  Short vegetation gain:  tropical shrubland (+10%), tropical dry forest (+5%)

            e.  Bare ground loss:  tropical shrubland (-10%),

            f.  Bare ground gain:  subtropical desert (+4%), subtropical steppe (+5%)

Expansion of the agricultural frontier

Nearly 40% of the terrestrial environment is devoted to agriculture. 

Source:  World Bank Data Agriculture

Source:  World Bank Data Agriculture

8.  Expansion of the agricultural frontier is the primary driver of deforestation in the tropics

            a.  South America—The three countries with the largest area of net tree cover loss during 1982–2016 are all located in South America: Brazil (−385,000 km2, −8%), Argentina (−113,000 km2, −25%) and Paraguay (−79,000 km2, −34%)

                  (i.)  Brazil: Clearing for industrial agriculture in the Cerrado and Gran Chaco; largest gain in short vegetation (+12%)  mainly due to expansion of agricultural frontiers into natural ecosystems

Tree cover loss 2001-2008 Brazil
Global Forest Watch. 2014. World Resources Institute. Accessed on (July 24, 2019). www.globalforestwatch.org.
Location of the Cerrado; deforestation 2002-2008
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Desmatamento_no_Brazil,_por_bioma,_de_2002_a_2008..jpg
Português: Mapa do Desmatamento no Brasil, de 2002 a 2008. Fontes: Prodes (INPE) e Monitoramento por Biomas (IBAMA). Obs: O monitoramento não cobre as áreas de vegetação de Cerrado e Campinarama localizadas no Bioma Amazônico. Autor: Vitor Vieira Vasconcelos (2012)Location of the Cerrado; deforestation 2002-2008

Deforestation in Gran Chaco dry forest.  Landsat 8 image August 14, 2016.  About 20% (55,000 square miles) of the Gran Chaco has been deforested since 1985.  17,000 square miles of forests have been lost in Paraguay between 1987-2012.  NASA Earth Observatory image by Michael Taylor, using Landsat data from the USGS.
Inset showing location of Gran Chaco
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Desmatamento_no_Brazil,_por_bioma,_de_2002_a_2008..jpg

(ii) Argentina and Paraguay

Tree cover loss in Argentina and Paraguay 2001-2018

Global Forest Watch. 2014. World Resources Institute. Accessed on (July 24, 2019). www.globalforestwatch.org.

8b. Queensland, Australia.

In 2010, Queensland had 9.06Mha of natural forest, extending     over 5.3% of its land area. In 2018, it lost 21.5kha of natural forest. Global Forest Watch. 2014. World Resources Institute. Accessed on (July 24, 2019). www.globalforestwatch.org

Global Forest Watch. 2014. World Resources Institute. Accessed on (July 24, 2019). www.globalforestwatch.org.
Tree Loss Australia, inset showing Queensland

8c. Southeast Asia Source: Global Forest Watch. 2014. World Resources Institute. Accessed on (July 24, 2019). www.globalforestwatch.org

Southeast Asia
(i) Myanmar
Myanmar Tree Cover Loss 2001-2018
(ii) Vietnam
(iii) Indonesia
  • In 2010, Indonesia had 137Mha of natural forest, extending over 73% of its land area.
  • In 2018, it lost 1.22Mha of tree cover, equivalent to 480Mt of CO₂ of emissions. 340kha of this loss occurred within primary forests and 907kha within natural forest.
  • Indonesia lost 6 Mha of old-growth and selectively logged natural forests between 2000 and 2012, and surpassed Brazil in the rate of its forest clearance in 20121
  • Indonesia is the world’s largest palm oil producer; 80% of its palm oil is exported, of which 66% is shipped to India, China, Pakistan, Malaysia, Italy, Egypt and the United2 Kingdom.
Tree Cover Loss in Indonesia 2001-2018
Tree Cover Loss in Indonesia 2001-2018

1 Gaveau, et al., Rapid conversions and avoided deforestation:  examining four decades of industrial plantation expansion in Borneo, Scientific Reports 6(32017), 2016.

2 Rulli, et al., Interdependencies and telecoupling of oil palm expansion at the expense of Indonesian rainforest, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews,Volume105,May2019,499-512. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2018.12.050

(iv) Borneo (https://www.cifor.org/map/atlas/)

Borneo, Earth’s third largest island with 73.7 million ha (Mha) feeds the world with palm oil, a multi-billion-dollar business encompassing cosmetics, processed food and biofuels. With 8.3 Mha of industrial oil palm plantations, about half of the estimated global planted area of 18 Mha, Borneo is perhaps the world‘s largest center of palm-oil production. Pulpwood plantations (1.3 Mha) – mainly fast growing Acacia and Eucalyptus – make a major contribution to the global production of wood pulp.

Borneo Forested Area 1973

Borneo is shared by Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. It has the largest deforestation rates in the world, with an average 350,000 ha cleared every year between 2001 and 2016.


Borneo Forested Area 2016

76%, or 55.8 million hectares, of Borneo was old-growth rainforest (green) in 1973. Old-growth forest ecosystems are intact and include many old (>500 years) closed-canopy evergreen trees.

About 18.7 Mha of old-growth forest area was destroyed between 1973 and 2015 by fire, agricultural expansion, mining and hydropower dams. By 2015, 50% of the island shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei remained forested, with 28% old-growth rainforest, 22% logged-over (still in good condition), and 12% covered in industrial plantations (9.2 Mha).

Borneo, Indonesian Borneo in particular, suffered large-scale forest loss prior to the expansion of Industrial plantations. This cleared land permitted the development of some large-scale industrial plantations without necessarily causing additional forest loss. Nonetheless, in the last decade plantations have become the primary cause of direct deforestation.

3 Gaveau, et al., Rapid conversions and avoided deforestation:  examining four decades of industrial plantation expansion in Borneo, Scientific Reports 6(32017), 2016

8d. Sub-Saharan Africa: smallholder agriculture and commodity cultivation
(i) Congolian rainforest
  • (second largest tropical rainforest in the world after Amazonia*)
  • Unpaved logging roads used by timber firms, as well as paved and unpaved public roads, have expanded greatly. Comparing old (before 2003) and new (2003–2018) road datasets derived from Landsat imagery, … the total length of road net-works inside logging concessions in Central Africa has doubled since 2003, whereas the total length of roads outside concessions has increased by 40%.*
  • Annual deforestation rates between 2000 and 2017 near (within 1 km) roads increased markedly and were highest for old roads, lowest for abandoned roads and generally higher outside logging concessions.*

The impact of logging on deforestation is partially ameliorated by the nearly fourfold higher rate of road abandonment inside con- cessions, but the overall expansion of

logging roads in the Congo Basin is of broad concern for forest ecosystems, carbon storage and wildlife vulnerable to hunting.*

*Source:  Kleinschroth, et al., Road expansion and persistence in forests of the Congo Basin, Nature Sustainability, Volume 2, July 2019, 628-634

Impacts from climate change

9a.  Western United States:  forest impacts due to insects, wildfires, heat, drought

9b.  Arctic:  warming is facilitating woody vegetation growth in northeastern Siberia,                      western Alaska and northern Quebec

9c.  Central and West Africa:  forest expansion and woody encroachment probably due                   to increased CO2 and precipitation

9d.  Sahel:  greening due extreme high-rainfall anomalies

9e.  Altitudinal biome shifts:  global treeline positions have been advancing since AD 1900

9f.   Montane biomes:  overall bare ground loss, short vegetation loss and bare canopy gain

Political, social, economic factors

10a.  Europe and European Russia:  tree canopy increase of 35% after the fall of the Soviet Union

10b.  China:  +34%  tree canopy gain due to reforestation/afforestation; second largest loss of bare ground due to resource extraction and urban sprawl

10c.  United States:  +15% tree canopy gain mostly in the eastern US

10d.  India:  largest bare ground loss of all countries (-34%); second in short vegetation gain (+9%) primarily due to intensification of existing agricultural lands—continuation of the “Green Revolution.”

Arid and semi-arid drylands:  long-term land degradation

11a.  Large areas of decrease in short vegetation and large areas of increase in bare ground    

11b.  Hotspots of vegetation loss include the southwestern United States, southern Argentina, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, China, Afghanistan and large areas of Australia.

(i.)  Australia:  decrease in short vegetation:  long-term decline in local growing season

(ii.)  Mongolian steppe:  Rising surface temperatures, a reduction in rainfall, and overgrazing caused extensive grassland deterioration

(iii.)  United States (southwest):  degradation of soils and vegetation combined with an increased dominance of invasive species

Intact Forest Landscapes (IFLs)

Source:  P. Potapov, M. C. Hansen, L. Laestadius, S. Turubanova, A. Yaroshenko, C. Thies, W. Smith, I. Zhuravleva, A. Komarova, S. Minnemeyer, E. Esipova, The last frontiers of wilderness: Tracking loss of intact forest landscapes from 2000 to 2013. Sci. Adv. 3, e1600821 (2017).

Definition:  “(I)ntact forest landscape (IFL) (are) a seamless mosaic of forests and associated natural treeless ecosystems that exhibit no remotely detected signs of human activity or habitat fragmentation and are large enough to maintain all native biological diversity, including viable populations of wide-ranging species.”

Signficance:  These areas have the highest conservation value in terms of the range of ecosystem services they provide, including harboring biological diversity, stabilizing terrestrial carbon storage*, regulating hydrological regimes.  The size of these areas and degree of intactness, lack of degradation and fragmentation are critical to their function and conservation value. 

*Although the remaining IFLs comprise only 20% of tropical forest area, they account for 40% of the total aboveground tropical forest carbon.

Status (2000-2013) (See Figure 1 and Table 1)

  • Between 2000-2013 global IFL area decreased by 7.2%
  • Global IFL loss is driven by large losses in tropical South America and Africa, accounting for 60% of global loss
  • Drivers of IFL loss are driven (in order of importance) by industrial timber extraction, agricultural expansion (South America), forest fires, energy production (oil and gas extraction and hydropower)
  • Fragmentation of IFLs by logging and establishment of roads and other infrastructure initiates a cascade of changes that lead to landscape transformation and loss of conservation values.
  • Fragmentation of IFLs by logging and establishment of roads and other infrastructure initiates a cascade of changes that lead to landscape transformation and loss of conservation values.