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Sunday environmental round up.

Principles of degrowth for a post-capitalist world. 

28% of all assessed species are threatened with extinction, including Emperor penguins. Asian cities produce the most greenhouse gases but cities in Western nations produce the most per person. Mapping ecosystems and their threats.

Ted Trainer recently described for P&I readers capitalism’s relentless, and by its own logic absolutely necessary, search for investment opportunities that will deliver ever-increasing accumulation of capital. Capital accumulated not by and for the benefit of all but by and for the benefit of a few rich countries and a few rich individuals. Within the capitalist system, the exploitation of workers, countries of the global south and the environment is not an unfortunate, correctable, historical side-effect but an essential enduring characteristic. Trainer finished with a question: “When will it be realised that the only way out of this is to shift to far simpler lifestyles and systems in a post-capitalist world?”

If you’d like an idea of what a post-capitalist world might look like, I can recommend Less is More. How Degrowth Will Save the World by Jason Hickel (Windmill Books, 2020). The first half of the book is a history, description and critique of how capitalism, principally its complete fixation on “growthism” (the pursuit of growth for its own sake), has led us to the multiple social and environmental crises associated with the Anthropocene. The enclosure movement, European colonisation (which continues to this day), the objectification of nature, and false technological solutions to environmental problems come in for particularly trenchant criticism. The second half focuses on the features and advantages for human and the environment of degrowth. I am not going to attempt a comprehensive review of Hickel’s arguments but there is one point that is particularly pertinent as Australia is threatened with an economic recession as a result of Covid. “A recession is what happens when a growth-dependent economy stops growing. It is chaotic and disastrous.” In contrast, degrowth is “a planned reduction of excess energy and resource use to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a safe, just and equitable way … while at the same time ending poverty, improving human well-being and ensuring flourishing lives for all.” Hickel emphasises that it’s not just our economics that needs to change. We also need to change our relationships with the physical and natural worlds and with each other – replace “taking” with reciprocation and balance.

According to Hickel, we know what works to reduce humanity’s ecological impact and promote human flourishing without growth: reduce inequality, invest in universal public goods, and distribute income and opportunity more fairly. He lists five practical steps to take us in those directions: end planned obsolescence, cut advertising, shift from ownership to usership, end food waste and scale down ecologically destructive industries. In addition, he emphasises the power of and the importance of making our more plutocratic than democratic governments and intergovernmental organisations more truly democratic.

First the bad news: 37,400 species on the planet (28% of all assessed species) are known to be at risk of extinction – that is, they are included on The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. The list includes 41% of amphibians, 34% of conifers, 33% of reef building corals, 26% of mammals and 14% of birds. The good news is that with the right legal and environmental protection efforts threatened species can be brought back from the brink of extinction. Test your knowledge of the health of the populations of seven animals with this quiz. Are populations declining, bouncing back or already reminiscent of Monty Python’s parrot? I scored a bare pass (4/7), although to be honest one of my correct answers was little more than a minimally-educated guess.

The emperor penguin, the largest of the penguins, isn’t included in the quiz but illustrates well the threat concept and what can be done. I’m sure you’ve seen film of emperors huddled together in slowly circulating flocks to keep warm in -40oC temperatures and gale-force winds. Emperors need stable sea ice to breed, feed and molt. Unfortunately, is melting Antarctic sea ice and in 2016 emperors experienced a massive breeding failure because extremely low levels of the seasonal sea ice broke up before the chicks developed their waterproof feathers. 10,000 chicks drowned. At current rates of 70% of emperor colonies will be on the brink of extinction by 2050. The US government is now considering a proposal to list emperors under the Threatened Species Act. This would provide legal protections such as ensuring US federal agencies’ activities do not jeopardise the  penguins or their habitat, provide a mechanism to ensure that US fisheries operating in the area do not damage the penguins’ food sources, and prohibit the importation of emperors for commercial purposes. It would also highlight the need for stronger reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and spur research and international cooperation.

Here’s another brain teaser for you. It’s generally agreed that polar bears naturally live in the northern hemisphere and penguins in the southern. But that’s not entirely true. Which penguins live where in the northern hemisphere? Hint: the answer to both questions is the same.

There are lots of ways of carving up greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions: for instance, by country of origin, by sector of the economy that produces them (electricity generation, transport, industry, agriculture, etc.) and by personal wealth of the ultimate of products. Cities, which cover 2% of the Earth’s surface produce about 70% of global GHGs – not surprising really when one considers how much industry is located in cities and that over 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities. Not all cities are equal, however. Recent research demonstrates that just 25 megacities produce 52% of all the GHGs generated by a sample of 167 cities in 53 countries at different stages of development. Asian megacities (e.g. Shanghai and Tokyo) tend to produce more GHGs in total but cities in Europe, Australia and the USA have higher emissions per capita – there was a 230-fold difference between the lowest and highest. This confirms the well-recognised association of higher per capita emission rates with greater wealth. Stationary energy (heating, cooling, cooking, etc.) and transportation were the two main sources of urban emissions. Of the 42 cities that had historical emissions data, about three-quarters had reduced their emissions over time and a quarter had increased their emissions. Although about two-thirds of the cities have some GHG reduction targets, the achievement of reductions is well short of being on track to meet the Paris targets. The researchers made three recommendations for cities: 1) identify their main sources of emissions and target them for action; 2) develop a globally consistent method of measuring and monitoring emissions; and 3) set ambitious, easily-traceable mitigation goals.

Nature Map Explorer contains 12 global maps displaying aspects of biodiversity and ecosystems, for instance Terrestrial Habitat Types, Human Impact on Forests, Threatened Species Richness and Areas of Global Significance for Conservation. The maps have been developed to support the design and planning of policies to limit biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions from land use. The developers are seeking feedback from users to refine the maps and their usefulness. To whet your appetite, the two examples below show the Species Richness across the world and Areas of Significance for Conservation in Australia and our northern neighbours.

Unfortunately, the species richness that is so noticeable in South America is almost certainly on the decline. Since 2001 85% of species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s threatened list have lost habitat in the Amazon basin because of fires and deforestation for agriculture, logging and mining – some of it illegal but some, especially in recent years in Brazil, due to relaxation of legislation and monitoring. There is a serious danger that the Amazon basin will tip into a wholly different type of ecosystem with serious consequences for weather systems globally.

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