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The degradation of soils from unsustainable agriculture and other development has released billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. But new research shows how effective land restoration could play a major role in sequestering CO2 and slowing climate change.
by judith d. schwartz
In the 19th century, as land-hungry pioneers steered their wagon trains westward across the United States, they encountered a vast landscape of towering grasses that nurtured deep, fertile soils.
Today, just three percent of North America’s tallgrass prairie remains. Its disappearance has had a dramatic impact on the landscape and ecology of
The world’s cultivated soils have lost 50 to 70 percent of their original carbon stock.
the U.S., but a key consequence of that transformation has largely been overlooked: a massive loss of soil carbon into the atmosphere. The importance of soil carbon — how it is leached from the earth and how that process can be reversed — is the subject of intensifying scientific investigation, with important implications for the effort to slow the rapid rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
According to Rattan Lal, director of Ohio State University’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, the world’s cultivated soils have lost between 50 and 70 percent of their original carbon stock, much of which has oxidized upon exposure to air to become CO2. Now, armed with rapidly expanding knowledge about carbon sequestration in soils, researchers are studying how land restoration programs in places like the
former North American prairie, the North China Plain, and even the parched interior of Australia might help put carbon back into the soil.
Absent carbon and critical microbes, soil becomes mere dirt, a process of deterioration that’s been rampant around the globe. Many scientists say that regenerative agricultural practices can turn back the carbon clock, reducing atmospheric CO2 while also boosting soil productivity and increasing resilience to floods and drought. Such regenerative techniques include planting fields year-round in crops or other cover, and agroforestry that combines crops, trees, and animal husbandry.
Recognition of the vital role played by soil carbon could mark an important if subtle shift in the discussion about global warming, which has been
A look at soil brings a sharper focus on potential carbon sinks.
heavily focused on curbing emissions of fossil fuels. But a look at soil brings a sharper focus on potential carbon sinks. Reducing emissions is crucial, but soil carbon sequestration needs to be part of the picture as well, says Lal. The top priorities, he says, are restoring degraded and eroded lands, as well as avoiding deforestation and the farming of peatlands, which are a major reservoir of carbon and are easily decomposed upon drainage and cultivation.
He adds that bringing carbon back into soils has to be done not only to offset fossil fuels, but also to feed our growing global population. “We cannot feed people if soil is degraded,” he says.
“Supply-side approaches, centered on CO2 sources, amount to reshuffling the Titanic deck chairs if we overlook demand-side solutions: where that carbon can and should go,” says Thomas J. Goreau, a biogeochemist and expert on carbon and nitrogen cycles who now serves as president of theGlobal Coral Reef Alliance. Goreau says we need to seek opportunities to increase soil carbon in all ecosystems — from tropical forests to pasture to wetlands — by replanting degraded areas, increased mulching of biomass instead of burning, large-scale use of biochar, improved pasture management, effective erosion control, and restoration of mangroves, salt marshes, and sea grasses.
“CO2 cannot be reduced to safe levels in time to avoid serious long-term impacts unless the other side of atmospheric CO2 balance is included,” Goreau says.
Scientists say that more carbon resides in soil than in the atmosphere and all plant life combined; there are 2,500 billion tons of carbon in soil, compared with 800 billion tons in the atmosphere and 560 billion tons in plant and animal life. And compared to many proposed geoengineering fixes, storing carbon in soil is simple: It’s a matter of returning carbon where it belongs.
Through photosynthesis, a plant draws carbon out of the air to form carbon compounds. What the plant doesn’t need for growth is exuded through the roots to feed soil organisms, whereby the carbon is humified, or rendered stable. Carbon is the main component of soil organic matter and helps give soil its water-retention capacity, its structure, and its fertility. According to Lal, some pools of carbon housed in soil aggregates are so stable that they can last thousands of years. This is in contrast to “active” soil carbon,
‘If we treat soil carbon as a renewable resource, we can change the dynamics,’ says an expert.
which resides in topsoil and is in continual flux between microbial hosts and the atmosphere.
“If we treat soil carbon as a renewable resource, we can change the dynamics,” says Goreau. “When we have erosion, we lose soil, which carries with it organic carbon, into waterways. When soil is exposed, it oxidizes, essentially burning the soil carbon. We can take an alternate trajectory.”
As basic as soil carbon is, there’s much scientists are just learning about it, including how to make the most of its CO2 sequestration capacity. One promising strategy, says Goreau, is bolstering soil microbiology by adding beneficial microbes to stimulate the soil cycles where they have been interrupted by use of insecticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. As for agroforestry, programs with greater species diversity are better able to maximize the storage of carbon than monocultures. Many researchers are looking to biochar — produced when plant matter, manure, or other organic material is heated in a zero- or low-oxygen environment — for its ability to turn problem areas into productive sites while building soil carbon. Says Goreau, “Vast areas of deforested land that have been abandoned after soil degradation are excellent candidates for replanting and reforestation using biochar from the weeds now growing there.”
An important vehicle for moving carbon into soil is root, or mycorrhizal, fungi, which govern the give-and-take between plants and soil. According to Australian soil scientist Christine Jones, plants with mycorrhizal connections can transfer up to 15 percent more carbon to soil than their non-mycorrhizal counterparts. The most common mycorrhizal fungi are marked by threadlike filaments called hyphae that extend the reach of a plant, increasing access to nutrients and water. These hyphae are coated with a sticky substance called glomalin, discovered only in 1996, which is instrumental in soil structure and carbon storage. The U.S. Department of Agriculture advises land managers to protect glomalin by minimizing tillage and chemical inputs and using cover crops to keep living roots in the soil.
In research published in Nature in January, scientists from the University of Texas at Austin, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and Boston University assessed the carbon and nitrogen cycles under different mycorrhizal regimens and found that plants linked with fruiting, or mushroom-type, fungi stored 70 percent more carbon per unit of nitrogen in soil. Lead author Colin Averill, a fourth-year graduate student at the University of Texas, explains that the fungi take up organic nitrogen on behalf of the plant, out-competing soil microorganisms that decompose organic matter and release carbon. He says this points to soil biology as a
Our understanding of how soil life affects the carbon cycle is poised for tremendous growth.
driver of carbon storage, particularly “the mechanisms by which carbon can stay in the ground rather than going into the atmosphere.”
One implication of this research, says Goreau, is that “the effect of most landscape alterations is to convert them from systems that store carbon efficiently … toward ones that are inefficient in the use of nitrogen, and as a result are losing carbon storage.” By landscape alterations, he means from forest to cropland, or from small farms to industrial agriculture operations that use the chemicals that inhibit the mycorrhizal and microbial interactions that store carbon.
Our understanding of soil microbiology and how soil life affects the carbon cycle is poised for tremendous growth, says Goreau. This, he says, is thanks to the burgeoning field of metagenomics, the study of genetic material from specimens taken directly from the environment rather than cultured in a lab. “For the first time,” says Goreau, “we can identify all major soil biogeochemical pathways from the genetic information in the microbes.”
Even at our current level of knowledge, many see great potential for storing carbon in soil. Lal of Ohio State says that restoring soils of degraded and desertified ecosystems has the potential to store in world soils an additional 1 billion to 3 billion tons of carbon annually, equivalent to roughly 3.5 billion to 11 billion tons of CO2 emissions. (Annual CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning are roughly 32 billion tons.)
Many call Lal’s carbon soil storage figures low. This could reflect the fact that soil carbon is generally measured in the top 15 to 30 centimeters, whereas soil at depth may store carbon at much higher rates. For example, in land with deep-rooted grasses the soil can go down five meters or more.Research by Australian and British scientists published last year in the journal Plant and Soil examined soils in five southwestern Australia sites
MORE FROM YALE e360
Research shows that biochar made from plant fodder and even chicken manure can be used to scrub mercury from power plant emissions and clean up polluted soil. The big question is whether biochar can be produced on a sufficiently large scale to slow or reverse global warming.
at depths as great as nearly 40 meters. These findings add impetus to explore strategies such as working with deep-rooted perennial grasses to secure carbon at depth.
Those who champion soil carbon for climate mitigation frequently look to grasslands, which cover more than a quarter of the world’s land. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, grasslands also hold 20 percent of the world’s soil carbon stock. Much of this land is degraded, as evidenced in the U.S. Great Plains and places like northern Mexico, Africa’s Sahel, and Mongolia.
Seth Itzkan — founder of Massachusetts-based Planet-TECH Associates, a consulting firm specializing in restoration ecology — advocates Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG), a model developed by Zimbabwean wildlife biologist Allan Savory. In this practice, livestock are managed as a tool for large-scale land restoration, mimicking the herding and grazing patterns of wild ruminants that coevolved with grassland ecosystems. Animals are moved so that no plants are overgrazed, and grazing stimulates biological activity in the soil. Their waste adds fertility, and as they move in a herd their trampling aerates soil, presses in seeds, and pushes down dead plant matter so it can be acted upon by soil microorganisms. All of this generates soil carbon, plant carbon, and water retention. Savory says HPG doesn’t require more land — in fact it generally supports greater animal density — so it can be applied wherever livestock are raised.
In Australia, which has been suffering extreme heat and wildfires, policy-makers are taking seriously programs that build and stabilize soil carbon. The action plan Regenerate Australia outlines a strategy to restore up to 300 million hectares (740 million acres). A core goal is attaining previous soil carbon levels by introducing more sustainable grazing, farming, and water-retention practices.
Says Rattan Lal: “Soils of the world must be part of any agenda to address climate change, as well as food and water security. I think there is now a general awareness of soil carbon, an awareness that soil isn’t just a medium for plant growth.”
A Catastrophic Cooling 5,200 Years Ago Was Preceeded by a Few Decades of Warming and Low Sunspot Activity: Sound Familiar? | The Daily Sheeple
The Daily Sheeple
February 6th, 2014
Reader Views: 2,863
The 2004 annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union saw evidence that proved beyond doubt that a devastating and abrupt change in climate happened 5,200 years ago. Now when I say abrupt I really do mean abrupt. A massive and profound global cooling event happened 5,200 years ago, and one of the leading scientists in the field of ice core analysis thinks it’s about to happen again.
Not much was said about this outside of scientific circles, certainly nothing was said by the government. Even the words and research of a world renowned expert count for nothing. As far as the warmist government is concerned, we are all to believe we will die of heatstroke in the next 50 years.
Thompson even mentions the Sun, and it’s role in climate forcing, and once again, just like 5,200 years ago, the Sun is showing the lowest activity for a century. Predictions for solar cycle 25 are that there may not be any sunspots at all.
Have you ever seen a soft non-woody plant after it has been exposed to frost and ice? They shrivel, sometimes blacken and die. Even plants that have lain under snow and ice all winter show signs of decay quite rapidly once the ice melts and they are exposed to air.
Lonnie Thompson is a professor of geological sciences at Ohio State, he is also a researcher at Byrd Polar Research Center. His specialty is ice core analysis.
Thompson has taken ice core samples from all over the world. He goes to the highest and coldest places he can find to collect them. Each year whatever is in the atmosphere is represented as a band in the core, Thompson explains:
They record things like anthropogenic changes. You can see when lead was put into gasoline. You can see when legislation was passed to remove it. Anything that’s in the air gets recorded. If you’re at the top of the Himalayas, you can see the development of industry in India through the nitrates and the sulfates that make up the chemistry in the cores. There’s a record with the ice cores. The thing that really makes them unique is that they record the history of the earth’s atmosphere. In the bubbles there is an archive of our atmosphere, and by extracting those gases, we can measure CO2 and methane, and nitrous oxide, CFCs, and you can see how the earth’s atmosphere has changed through time. We now have a record going back 650,000 years from the polar cores in Antarctica of these gases and that gives us a perspective of what’s natural and what’s not.
There is a history of things like micro-organisms; you know, if you want to look at life in extreme environments, then look at what’s living in the ice at 23,500 feet, a high radiation, low oxygen environment, and so we have been working on developing protocols of how you would extract that. these would be the same protocols you would use if you ever drilled the northern ice field of Mars. If I was looking for life on Mars, I’d be looking in the ice because it’s a very good recorder of what has happened in the past on any planet.
Some of the surprises, of course, are things like insects. You wouldn’t expect at 23,000 feet to find insects in the ice, but you do. In the tropics they get caught up in the thunderstorms; they get carried up to very high elevation. They come out in the snow and then they’re perfectly preserved. We find them 25,000-years-old. You can identify the insect, and you can then carbon date it, to C14 date it. In the polar regions, people have been trying for years to extract C14 to independently date the cores. It’s very difficult to do. In fact, it hasn’t been done yet. But in the tropics, we have time series based on Carbon-14 dating, using insects and organics, plant remains, and things like that that get trapped in the ice.
The beauty of the ice is that it records so many different things about climate and environment, but it also records the forcings of climate, such as volcanic history, the sulfate in the tefra that come from the eruptions. We can look at the cosmogenic nuclides, like Beryllium-10, Chlorine-36 that are produced in the stratosphere due to modulation of the output of Sun, and therefore we can get a history of solar variations, which is very important in the natural forcings of the climate on the planet. (source)
Thompson had visited the Quelccaya ice cap in Peruvian Andes many times. He took samples and monitored the speed of the glacier and other geological processes going on there. It was on one of these trips that he found plants, perfectly preserved, non-woody plants, still wet where the ice had melted from them that day. They were undamaged and perfectly preserved, not black, wilted or shrivelled. The only way that could happen is if they had been covered in snow and found by Thompson within a short time of the snow melting before the frost damage started to show. He was in the right place at the right time, but one thing confused him. They were sitting at the bottom of a wall of sheer ice, the leading end of a receding glacier, a glacier that the ice cores told him had been there for thousands of years.
Carbon dating of the plants revealed them to be 5,200 years old. What’s more, they were wetland plants, plants that you would not expect to find in the Andes, but there they were. He has since collected more plants from other glaciers and valleys in the Andes, they too are 5,200 years old.
In 1991 hikers found what they thought was a dead body, and indeed it was. But this victim of foul play lived a long time ago, 5,200 years ago to be precise. Otzi-the iceman was found in South Tyrol, Italy.
To be so well preserved and untouched by animals he must have been covered with snow almost immediately after his death. Food he was carrying indicated that he had been lower down the valley in the previous 12 hours. His wounds prove there was someone else in the area that carried out the attack that cost him his life. He had eaten a full meal of deer and ibex shortly before his death. We know Otzi hadn’t been exposed since his death as there was no decay on the body.
Isotropic events show changes in the isotopes that are present in the atmosphere. There may be more carbon in mud, or a different isotope of oxygen in ice cores.
Tree ring analysis in the UK shows the narrowest rings, indicating colder and drier conditions occurred 5,194 years ago.
Artifacts discovered in Florida shows that water came over the land 5,200 years ago.
Mark Meier, a glaciologist, collected samples from trees re-exposed as a glacier retreated in the South Cascades, the roots were just over 5, 000 years old.
It’s obvious that a monumental event took place some 5,200 years ago. It got colder. Snow came down and never went away, until now. This cold period was preceded by a period of warming that lasted several decades and by reduced solar activity. Lonnie Thompson is concerned that history may be about to repeat itself.
The event was abrupt enough to bury plants, a body and trees for some 5,000 years. That’s one hell of a storm. Enough snow year on year that glaciers were formed on Kilimanjaro and in the Peruvian Andes, glaciers that are just giving up their secrets over 5,000 years later.
When large areas are covered in snow their albedo rate changes. The white snow reflects heat back into space that would otherwise warm the planet. Cooling becomes a vicious circle, heat is reflected, the ice doesn’t melt, it gets colder still. This continues until an exceptional warm cycle succeeds in starting the melt, as is happening with glaciers right now. Sadly, this often presages a quick flip back to much colder conditions. Here’s a simple explanation of albedo:
Professor Thompson sums up his concerns:
“This would suggest a very large-scale, abrupt event occurring at this time in the past, due to natural events that had huge scale impacts. We need to understand what caused that, because 5,200 years ago, there may have been 250,000,000 people living on the planet. We’ve now got 6.5 billion, most of then living in the latitudes where this abrupt event is recorded.
I think the natural system has had abrupt changes in the past, which just tells us that this system is capable of changing over a very short period of time, and we have been very fortunate that our civilization has developed over a time when we haven’t had large-scale changes in climate.” (source)
As I have said many times, global cooling will kill hundreds of millions of people across the globe. Millions of Americans will die, yet the government denies that it’s happening.
The conclusion has to be that they want these events to unfold while the people are unprepared. They want the massive die off that will allow them to fully implement the New World Order they crave.
Delivered by The Daily Sheeple
Contributed by Chris Carrington of The Daily Sheeple.
Chris Carrington is a writer, researcher and lecturer with a background in science, technology and environmental studies. Chris is an editor for The Daily Sheeple. Wake the flock up!
While looking for evidence of whether Kevin Anderson realises we have problems with resources constraints, I found the below article (written three years ago mind you) which goes some way towards explaining why Climate Scientists are ignoring Peak Oil and Coal……
Climate scientists often make assumptions about large-scale growth in resource extraction without thoroughly referring to relevant studies in other disciplines. This is partially understandable given that they are not economists or political scientists. Yet I believe it is cause for concern.
While criticising the pervasive obsession with infinite growth of our political and economic institutions, it appears that many (albeit not all) climate scientists hold the belief that human ingenuity will somehow substitute declining oil with different forms of natural-gas, liquefied-coal, shale gas, and other carbon fuels at prices that can sustain growth.
For example, at the Cancun climate summit there was a paper by Professor Kevin Anderson
View original post 1,448 more words
As the Energy East Pipeline dominates ever more headlines, editorials, ads and press conferences in my home province of New Brunswick and elsewhere, I’m reminded of an interview given by Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi on the CBC Radio’s The House in February 2013.
Mayor Nenshi said:
We’ve got a resource that is valuable to us and to our kids and to our grandkids, and we know that someday it’s not going to be that valuable; someday we’ll have a low carbon world. And I think it would be deeply irresponsible for us to leave that resource in the ground so that it will be worthless for future generations.
Ponder that statement and you get to the heart of the current lust for pipelines out of Alberta, whether south, west, north or east. You get to the heart of why the Energy East Pipeline, a project barely contemplated just a year ago, has quickly received nearly universal adulations and blessings, and seems on an ultrafast track to reality.
But before we place our chips on the pipeline, perhaps the costs and benefits are worth closer scrutiny.
Almost every assessment of the pipeline stresses the economic gains it will provide to New Brunswick. A recent report by Deloitte and Touche (commissioned, interestingly, by TransCanada, the company building the pipeline) suggests our province will earn about $700 million in tax revenues over 40 years. That sounds like a lot, but, in context, it’s roughly $20 million per year in a province with an annual budget of about $8,000 million, or about 0.25 per cent of our budget. Not exactly a windfall.
The same report suggests NB would see about 1550 direct jobs as a result of the pipeline. That sounds tempting too. But over 90 per cent would be temporary, lasting three years at most. In context, NB’s construction industry presently provides 27,000 jobs, or nearly 20 times as many.
Finally, because Alberta oil is landlocked and therefore traditionally sold below world prices, it’s been suggested that bringing it east will lower energy prices for us. As rosy as it might be to imagine that world oil prices will suddenly drop because Alberta crude has arrived in Atlantic Canada, it’s probably more realistic to expect that Alberta crude will get more expensive as soon as a pipeline links it to us, and the world market.
So — economic glitter perhaps, but not necessarily economic gold.
It’s interesting, and perhaps telling, that the Deloitte and Touche study specifically excluded any assessment of the environmental aspects of the pipeline project. So has much of the official conversation. That’s like ignoring elephants in the room.
First, there’s the issue of pipeline integrity and the potential for spills. Pipelines have a long and mostly successful history, so it’s probably fair to assume that if they are well engineered, constructed, maintained and operated, the risk of ruptures is small. A spill is possible, but it’s probably the baby elephant in the room.
The jumbo elephant, quietly ignored in most of the conversation so far, is climate change. No matter what any of us may wish to believe, burning oil produces greenhouse gases, and greenhouse gases are warming our planet and disrupting our weather. The Energy East Pipeline, the Keystone XL Pipeline, the Northern Gateway Pipeline and the hinted Beaufort Sea option – all are big, new drinking straws stuck into that bituminous milkshake called the oil sands, serving it up to an addicted world that needs to break its addiction.
The International Energy Agency, a leading global authority, has stated that if we are to put the brakes on climate change, most of our known global fossil fuel reserves must remain untouched in the ground. Kudos to Mayor Nenshi for implicitly acknowledging that; but shame on those who interpret it as a signal to get as much oil to market as quickly as possible while it’s still worth something. Hence the pipeline bonanza in which we are being asked to partake.
Jobs come and go but climate change is permanent. Years from now, our grandkids will look back on the decision we are facing today. I can’t imagine them being very sympathetic or understanding if we choose to trade away their long term climate stability for our short term prosperity. But that’s the very trade we’re contemplating as we consider the Energy East pipeline.
The oil industry wants us to believe that North America is sitting on an endless supply of natural gas and oil – and they want access to all of it. But the truth is that there is barely enough fossil fuel in the ground to sustain the US. Ring of Fire’s Mike Papantonio speaks with author Michael Klare about how Peak Oil is still a very real threat.
By Alex Kirby
A British businessman will tell world leaders meeting in Switzerland today that it is dangerous to argue that fracking for shale oil and gas can help to avert a global energy crisis.
Jeremy Leggett, a former Greenpeace staff member who founded a successful solar energy company, has been invited to the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos from 22 to 25 January. The theme of the meeting is The Reshaping of the World: Consequences for Society, Politics and Business.
Leggett told the Climate News Network: “The WEF likes to deal in big ideas, and last year one of its ideas was to argue that the world can frack its way to prosperity. There are large numbers of would-be frackers in Davos.
“I’m a squeaky wheel within the system. I’m in Davos to put the counter-arguments to Big Energy, and I’ll tell them: ‘You’re in grave danger of repeating the mistakes of the financial services industry in pushing a hyped narrative.”
This refers to the way in which banking leaders had “their particular comforting narrative catastrophically wrong, until the proof came along in the shape of the financial crash”.
Leggett founded Solarcentury, the UK’s fastest-growing solar electric company since 2000. He also established the charity SolarAid which aims to eradicate the kerosene lamp from Africa by 2020, and chairs the Carbon Tracker Initiative.
His book Half Gone: Oil, Gas, Hot Air and the Global Energy Crisis was published in 2005, and his latest, The Energy of Nations: Risk blindness and the road to renaissance, in 2013.
Leggett says the conventional oil industry is facing an imminent crisis, because existing crude oil reserves are declining fast, it is having to find the money for soaring capital expenditure, and the amount of oil available for export is falling.
“Big Oil is still extremely powerful and well-capitalised”, he says, “but it is fast approaching sunset. The profitability of the big international groups – like Exxon, Shell and BP – is a real worry for investors, and they’ve been largely locked out of the easy oil controlled by national companies – just look at BP and Russia.
“Gas? Unless the price goes up, the whole US shale gas industry is in danger of becoming a bubble, even a Ponzi scheme. All but one of the biggest production regions have peaked already, and losses are piling up. This is an industry that’s in grave danger of committing financial suicide.”
A linked message that Leggett will deliver is that there is a growing danger of a carbon bubble building up in the capital markets. He says investors who think governments may agree stringent and strictly-enforced limits on greenhouse gas emissions might decide their investments in oil and gas are at risk of becoming worthless.
Crunch next year?
There is little sign yet that such limits are likely any time soon. But Leggett says that is to miss the point: “You don’t have to wait until agreement is close, or even probable. You have to believe only that there’s a realistic chance of policymaking which means assets might be stranded.”
He will also tell his audience “to take out insurance on the risk of an oil crisis, by accelerating the very things we need to deal with climate change”. Chief among these, he says, is the need to channel funds withdrawn from oil, gas, and coal into clean energy instead – though he acknowledges that, as a renewable energy entrepreneur himself, he may be accused of self-interest.
Leggett fears a world oil crisis could occur as early as 2015. And when it comes, it will certainly mean “ruinously high prices”, for a start. But it will mean something more, he says.
Last December he worked with a US national security expert, Lt-Colonel Daniel Davis, to organise the Transatlantic Energy Security Dialogue. Leggett has a regard for the views of people like Davis. “The military are better than your average politician or consultant to Big Energy at spotting systemic risk”, he says.
Leggett says military think-tanks have tended to side with those who distrust “the cornucopian narrative” of the oil industry.
One 2008 study, by the German army, says: “Psychological barriers cause indisputable facts to be blanked out and lead to almost instinctively refusing to look into this difficult subject in detail. Peak oil, however, is unavoidable.”
Scrolling through the website of the World Economic Forum – convening this week in Davos, Switzerland – one might confuse the premier platform for global capital with a savvy and hip think tank, or perhaps a philanthropic aid and development charity. The content is carefully curated to sedate and comfort. The right buzzwords are there: “impact investing”, “embracing democracy”, “our oceans”, and “sustainability.” In the Issues section, one finds Environmental Sustainability, Health for All, and Social Development. An article by Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz (a critic of globalization) is featured front and center, as if to proclaim, ‘challenging the stodgy status quo through edgy, unorthodox economic thinking – that’s what we do here.’
There’s nothing to indicate that this is, in fact, a platform for multinational corporations, among them human rights abusers, political racketeers, property thieves and international environmental criminals. But then, that wouldn’t exactly make for a very inviting homepage.
Here, for example, is the WEF mission statement:
The World Economic Forum encourages businesses, governments and civil society to commit together to improving the state of the world. Our Strategic and Industry Partners are instrumental in helping stakeholders meet key challenges such as building sustained economic growth, mitigating global risks, promoting health for all, improving social welfare and fostering environmental sustainability.
Rather than getting bogged down in a detailed evaluation of WEF’s high-minded claims and eco-populist rhetoric, it may be more efficient to consider the behavior of those corporations and banks that comprise the Forum’s list of Industry Partners – described as “select Member companies of the World Economic Forum that are actively involved in the Forum’s mission.”
Among them are Shell, Nike, Syngenta, Nestlé, and SNC Lavalin – companies you’ll also find on Global Exchange’s list of the Top 10 Corporate Criminals of 2013, based on offenses like unlivable working conditions, corporate seizures of indigenous lands, contaminating the environment, and similar transgressions. At least seven other companies “actively involved in the Forum’s mission” are recentalumni of the Corporate Criminal list.
Or consider Corporate Accountability International’s Corporate Hall of Shame, comprised of “corporations that corrupt the political process and abuse human rights, the environment and our public health.” Seven of the ten – Walmart, ExxonMobil, Bank of America, Coca-Cola, DuPont, Monsanto, and Nestlé (which has the dubious distinction of making both lists) are WEF Industry Partners.
How about climate change? This is now an issue that regularly features ominously in the WEF’s “Global Risks” annual report. Curious, then, that in addition to Shell and ExxonMobil, the Forum’s Industry Partners include most of the largest oil and gas companies in the world, from BP and Chevron to Gazprom and Saudi Aramco.“Carbon Majors” a peer-reviewed study in the scientific journal Climatic Change, lists the 90 entities most responsible for extracting the fossil fuels burned over the past 150 years. The top six are WEF Industry Partners.
Despite the carefully crafted words of concern for the poor and hungry, the WEF’s many food corporations – from Unilever and Pepsico to Cargill and General Mills – have actually parleyed the misery of the food crisis into further control over the food system, as well as spectacular profits. During the 2008 food crisis, the organization GRAIN released a report revealing that “nearly every corporate player in the global food chain is making a killing from the food crisis …. Such record profits … are a reflection of the extreme power that these middlemen have accrued through the globalisation of the food system. Intimately involved with the shaping of the trade rules that govern today’s food system and tightly in control of markets and the ever more complex financial systems through which global trade operates, these companies are in perfect position to turn food scarcity into immense profits.” (1)
Global banks also played a pivotal role in precipitating – and making a killing off – this food crisis. According to an investigative report by Frederick Kaufman, Goldman Sachs instigated a “global speculative frenzy” on food which “sparked riots in more than thirty countries and drove the number of the world’s “food insecure” to more than a billion …. The ranks of the hungry had increased by 250 million in a single year, the most abysmal increase in all of human history.” (2) Needless to say, scroll down to “G” in the Industry Partners list, and Goldman Sachs is there.
The fact is, digging into any of the crises we face will reveal the complicity of the very corporations that the World Economic Forum represents. A study conducted for the UN, for example, estimated the combined environmental externalities of the world’s 3,000 biggest companies to be $2.2 trillion in 2008, “a figure bigger than the national economies of all but seven countries in the world that year.” (3)
These are just a few of innumerable possible examples. The corporations represented by the World Economic Forum are the agents principally responsible for destroying the planet, ravaging livelihoods, and literally starving people, all while aggrandizing unprecedented profits into the hands of an ever-tinier super elite. Seen in this light, all the burnished social and environmental concern-speak of the WEF is so much vacuous corporate swagger, the crudest sort of greenwash. Even though these companies actually spend huge amounts of capital and energy fighting environmental regulation and the citizen’s groups who are suffering their abuses, they simultaneously pursue a strategic embrace of environmental discourse and narratives; they accept the existence of the problems while promoting privatized, technocratic strategies for addressing them. These strategies pivot between those that assign responsibility for causing and fixing the problems to individual consumers, and those that position the corporations themselves as crucial players in the common cause of “improving”/”cleaning” the environment – the same one, incidentally, that they destroyed.
The absurdity of this schizophrenia reaches extreme limits: the WEF is solemnly concerned about global warming because – get ready for it – it represents one of the biggest threats ever to global trade and corporate capitalism! The primary perpetrator of global warming is now portraying itself as a victim. In WEF-land, global warming is like a mysterious, autonomous, alien force invading from afar, without cause or explanation. It “affects us all”, so we must all roll up our sleeves and unite – fossil fuel corporations included – in the battle against a common external foe.
There is, however, one part of the WEF’s mission that is being genuinely fulfilled: “building sustained economic growth”, code for increasing the power and wealth of its corporate partners. That this is the first of the “challenges” described in the WEF mission statement is no accident. Economic growth might seem an odd mismatch to the other issues, like social welfare and environmental sustainability, but the WEF has clearly embraced the notion that endless growth is not only compatible with environmental sustainability, it is actually necessary for it. That this myth has been thoroughly debunked seems to have conveniently escaped the WEF’s notice. (4)
This farce would be laughable but for the immense power and enormous control commanded by the corporations and banks the World Economic Forum represents. When the WEF promises to address agriculture, food security, environmental sustainability, and the like, we should be very worried for exactly those things. Peel away the eco-charity veneer and the WEF’s actual mission stands naked: advance the power, growth, and wealth of the corporate rulers of the world.
In no way should The World Economic Forum be allowed to insert itself as a legitimate voice on the resolution of the very issues that its agenda – the perpetual growth of its partners – precipitates. On the contrary, it should be fiercely resisted – precisely what the alternative World Social Forum, Occupy WEF, and other anti-globalization groups were created to do. (5)
Alex Jensen is Project Coordinator at the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC). Alex has worked in the US and India, where he coordinated ISEC’s Ladakh Project from 2004 to 2009. He has collaborated on the content of ISEC’s Roots of Change curriculum and the Economics of Happiness discussion guide. He holds an MA in Globalization and International Development from University of East Anglia. He has worked with cultural affirmation and agro-biodiversity projects in campesino communities in a number of countries and is active in environmental health/anti-toxics work.
(1) GRAIN (2008) ‘Making a Killing from Hunger’, 28 April,http://www.grain.org/article/entries/178-making-a-killing-from-hunger, and
(2) Kaufman, F. (2010) ‘The Food Bubble: How Wall Street Starved Millions and Got Away With It’, Harper’s Magazine, July,http://frederickkaufman.typepad.com/files/the-food-bubble-pdf.pdf
(3) Jowit, J. (2010) “World”s top firms cause $2.2tn of environmental damage, report estimates”, The Guardian, 18 February, 2010.
(4) see, e.g.: Jorgenson, A. and Clark, B. (2012) ‘Are the Economy and the Environment Decoupling?: A Comparative International Study, 1960–2005,’ American Journal of Sociology 118(1),1–44; Jorgenson, A. and Clark, B. (2011) ‘Societies Consuming Nature: A Panel Study of the Ecological Footprints of Nations, 1960-2003’, Social Science Research 40:226-244; Stern, D. (2004) ‘The Rise and Fall of the Environmental Kuznets Curve’, World Development, 32(8):1419–1439; Hornborg, A. (2003) ‘Cornucopia or Zero-Sum Game? The Epistemology of Sustainability’, Journal of World-Systems Research IX(2): 205-216.
The European Union proposed cutting the region’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 40 percent in 2030 to accelerate efforts to reduce global warming.
The European Commission outlined its strategy to reduce pollution and curb rising energy costs and called for an overhaul of the bloc’s policies in the next decade, the EU’s executive arm said in a statement today. The current goal is to cut emissions by 20 percent in 2020 from 1990 levels.
The proposed design of future policies pits nations including Germany and the U.K., who are seeking stronger efforts to protect the atmosphere, against Poland and its allies, which rely mainly on fossil fuels to keep their economy humming. It also highlights the divide between energy intensive companies, whose gas and power costs are more than double their U.S. and Asian competitors, and green lobbies such as Greenpeace seeking deeper emission cuts.
“Political agreement on a 2030 EU energy and climate framework is absolutely vital for businesses,” Katja Hall, chief policy director at Confederation of British Industry, the U.K.’s main business lobby group, said by e-mail before the commission’s announcement. “We need long-term certainty to drive investment in a secure, low-carbon and affordable energy future for Europe.”
In the package unveiled today the commission asked member states to consider a 2030 framework that focuses on the carbon-reduction target to avoid conflicts with policies subsidizing renewable energy. The strategy is the start of a debate among member states, which may lead to a draft law in early 2015.
Under the new proposal, the EU wouldn’t extend legally-binding renewables targets for individual member states beyond 2020, instead setting an EU-wide goal to boost the share of renewable energy to 27 percent by 2030.
Scrapping renewable energy targets is “good news” for the economy and environment, according to Robert Stavins, director of Harvard University’s Environmental Economics Program. The renewables goal conflicts with the EU emissions trading system and removing it would lower the cost to achieve the pollution cap, he said.
The package will also include an indicative goal to boost energy efficiency by 25 percent, which will be discussed later this year.
As a part of the proposal, the commission will also seek to strengthen its carbon market cap-and-trade program by making the supply of permits more flexible. A carbon market stability reserve to start in 2021 would withdraw permits once allowances in circulation reached at least 833 million, the commission said in a statement.
The cost of emitting a metric ton of carbon dioxide in the EU’s $53 billion carbon market slumped to a record low of 2.46 euros ($3.32) in April and traded at 5.20 euros today at the ICE Futures Europe exchange in London.
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