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The Story of P(ee)

Melinda Burns, Miller-McCune
In which phosphorus, a substance present in every living cell, is being used up and flushed away.

“P” is for phosphorus, the stuff of life, and “p” is for “peak phosphorus” by 2030, ecologists say, unless — presto! — pee can be turned into gold through modern-day alchemy.

Unremarked and unregulated by the United Nations and other high-level assemblies, the world’s supply of phosphate rock, the dominant source of phosphorus for fertilizer, is being rapidly — and wastefully — drawn down. By most estimates, the best deposits will be gone in 50 to 100 years.

Worse, phosphorus production could peak in just two decades, according to new research from Australia and Sweden. That’s when demand could outstrip supply, playing out a familiar scenario of scarcity, price shocks, riots, starvation and war.

In short, peak phosphorus could be the unwelcome sequel to peak oil.

… “We’re calling this the biggest problem no one’s heard of,” said James Elser, an Arizona State University ecologist who recently co-founded the Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative, a new research group on campus. (Arizona State will send representatives to the conference in Sweden this month, and next year, the university plans to host the second international summit on phosphorus.)

“The scope and urgency of the time scale need to be narrowed down,” Elser said. “I don’t think we have a really good consensus about the peak. Is this really an acute problem in 30 years? If this is true, then the human consequences are much more acute than anything we’ve seen with climate change, in terms of hunger. Food is food. We can’t live without it.”

By some estimates, peak phosphorus is already past. In a 2007 paper in Energy Bulletin, Canadian physicist Patrick Déry and co-author Bart Anderson hypothesized that global reserves of phosphate rock peaked in 1989.

“Phosphorus may be the real bottleneck of agriculture,” they said, echoing a phrase from Isaac Asimov, a biochemist as well as science fiction writer, who called it “life’s bottleneck.”
(10 February 2010)
Patrick Déry was one of the first (the first?) to talk about peak phosphorus, and we were glad to publish him. -BA…

Forest Carbon Scheme Gains Support, Faces Hurdles
Ben Block, Worldwatch Institute
Among the few policy agreements to emerge from December’s United Nations climate summit was recognition of the “immediate” need to sequester more greenhouse gases in forests through a mechanism known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or REDD.
The Copenhagen Accord, a non-binding document drafted by Brazil, China, India, South Africa, and the United States at the summit in the Danish capital, is the first international agreement to recommend that financial resources support REDD. During the summit, Australia, France, Japan, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States offered a $3.5 billion funding package for REDD preparation.

The program is considered a relatively affordable emission-reduction strategy that could also protect threatened tropical ecosystems and support rural communities. “This is wonderful news,” said former Costa Rican politician Carlos Rodriguez, who now directs Conservation International’s programs in Mexico and Central America. “When I was environment minister I pushed for this and no one cared…. Now there is a general understanding on the need to have REDD as an outcome.”

While support for the policy has grown, considerable progress is still necessary before multinational organizations, national governments, and local authorities are ready to administer REDD programs, analysts said. Without proper reforms, the program threatens to increase human rights violations, land conflicts, and forest-sector corruption, and REDD’s ability to reduce emissions would be in doubt.

“If significant payments were to flow today, REDD programs would be challenged to meet the tests of effectiveness in reducing emissions, efficiency in channeling funds, and equity in distribution,” said Frances Seymour, director general of the Indonesia-based Centre for International Forestry Research.
(8 Feb 2010)

As stated in the article, this program could quite easily end up having the opposite effect of what is intended, depending on many different contextual factors. Should these initiatives arise from the communities involved with funding programmes attached to each specific situation, rather than come from large multinational bodies providing one size fits all solutions that basically seem to give government agencies carte blanche? But then they also need to have enough “clout” to protect them from outside economic interests that aren’t embedded in the local community. It’s a tough one. But see below in the Yale 360 article what can and has happened in Africa and also here, where attempts are being made to get these delicate partnerships right between outside agencies offering specific expertise and the local people on the ground. -KS

Warming Water Spurs U.S. to Consider ESA Protection for 82 Coral Species

Allison Winter, New York Times
The Obama administration will consider federal protection for 82 coral species threatened by warming water temperatures.

The National Marine Fisheries Service said yesterday that it has found “substantial scientific or commercial information” that Caribbean and Indo-Pacific corals may be threatened or endangered. Environmentalists have predicted the corals — found near Florida, Hawaii and U.S. territories — could be wiped out by midcentury if the government does not take steps to protect them from warming waters, rising ocean acidity and pollution.

The announcement in yesterday’s Federal Register (pdf) launches a formal status review by federal biologists. The fisheries service will also accept public comment before deciding next year on whether to list the corals under the Endangered Species Act.

“The status review is an important step forward in protecting coral reefs, which scientists have warned may be the first worldwide ecosystem to collapse due to global warming,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. “Endangered Species Act protection can provide a safety net for corals on the brink of extinction.”

The center asked the fisheries service last year to protect corals and threatened to sue the agency last month if it failed to act.

All of the species under consideration have seen population declines of at least 30 percent over 30 years, according to the center.

Click here (pdf) to read the Federal Register announcement.

(11 Feb 2010)
Related: Oceans’ acidity rate is soaring, claims study and An Ominous Warning on the
Effects of Ocean Acidification

‘Rewilding’ the World: A Bright Spot for Biodiversity

Caroline Fraser, environment yale 360
Five years ago, when I began researching a book about efforts to stem biodiversity loss, environmental politics was dominated — as it still is — by climate change, a parallel crisis that greatly exacerbates damage to ecosystems and loss of species. Essential as the emphasis on climate is, however, it has engendered a kind of despair among biodiversity specialists, casting a shadow over this other fundamental issue. Talk to people in the conservation trenches, and they will agree with Rodrigo Fuentes, director of a biodiversity center in the Philippines: “Biodiversity loss is a forgotten crisis. It rarely makes the headlines.”

Clearly, we understand the gravity of the biodiversity problem better than we understand the solutions. Despite numerous campaigns by the United Nations and other organizations to stem the loss of habitat and species, the world’s biodiversity — and the ecosystem services supported by it, including carbon sequestration and flood control — is approaching what Hilary Benn, the U.K.’s environment secretary, has called “a point of no return.”

Happily, however, there is more to the story. A group of solutions is emerging under the rubric of “rewilding,” and this new movement has These efforts have expanded the reach of conservation, which cannot rely on parks alone. made considerable progress over the past decade. A Marshall Plan for the environment, rewilding promotes the expansion of core wilderness areas on a vast scale, the restoration of corridors between them (to fight the “island” effect of isolated parks and protected areas), and the reintroduction or protection of top predators.

Known by a shorthand formula — “cores, corridors, and carnivores” — rewilding was first proposed in 1998 by the founder of conservation biology, Michael Soulé, and his fellow conservation biologist, Reed Noss. It was quickly adopted by grassroots initiatives, such as the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), a plan to protect and restore connectivity of ecosystems throughout the Rocky Mountains.

Since then, its central tenets have found their way into the programs of international conservation organizations, which have embraced “continental-scale” conservation and growing bolder in the size of their preservationist programs. As both a conservation method and a grassroots movement, rewilding has taken hold in every inhabited continent, with projects stretching from densely-populated western Europe (the European Green Belt, on the path of the former Iron Curtain) to the remote reaches of southern Africa. What’s more: It has proven an adaptable model, bringing conservation to people and places outside the traditional system of parks and protected areas that lack the resources to succeed on their own.

…Conservation on private lands, wildlife conservancies, community-forests: These efforts have significantly expanded the reach of conservation, which cannot rely on parks alone. Another innovation has been in new approaches to financing. Breaking away from the standard fund-raising Rewilding opens up areas to conservation management and puts people to work. model — a never-ending cycle, since most money is spent immediately on short-term grants and projects — several rewilding groups have embraced the endowment as a way of supporting conservation’s long-term needs. University of Pennsylvania biologist Daniel Janzen has been instrumental in the phenomenal success of the Area de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG) in northwestern Costa Rica, which accomplished what was once thought impossible by restoring former cattle ranches to dry tropical forest and rainforest. ACG thrives on the interest from its $30 million endowment. Janzen is now seeking a half-billion dollars to endow the entire Costa Rican park system in perpetuity.

But rewilding’s greatest potential may lie in the creation of green jobs. ACG pioneered “parataxonomy,” providing local people with a six-month “bioliteracy” training course in collecting and processing insect specimens that could then be passed on to taxonomists for identification. The parataxonomists are valued contributors to Costa Rica’s National Biodiversity Institute and instrumental in the country’s massive effort to compile an inventory of its extraordinary biodiversity. They have served as foot soldiers in “bioprospecting,” the collection of specimens that may prove useful in medicines or cosmetics: Extracts from the quassia tree, for example, have yielded both a treatment for stomachaches and a promising natural pesticide. The parataxonomy program has been copied in other biodiverse areas in Central Africa and Papua New Guinea.

In several projects, job creation is paired with carbon sequestration. The Baviaanskloof Mega-reserve Project in South Africa has created hundreds of jobs in ecotourism and restoration, training workers to remove invasives and plant native bush in a delicate Cape habitat overgrazed by goats. In Australia, ecological restoration of salt-damaged wheat farms conducted by the Gondwana Link project has provided carbon sequestration while regrowing native bush…
(11 Feb 2010)