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6 eco-woes and 6 green balms for 2012

By Martin Leggett - 13 Feb 2012 16:12:39 GMT
6 eco-woes and 6 green balms for 2012

Environmental worries in 2012 - and possible solutions; Credit: Shutterstock

When worries on the environment flutter down faster than the bundles of notes piled at the doors of banks, it makes sense to step back from the 'bad-news blizzard' - and to look instead at what can be done to get out of the storm. While some environmental woes need action over decades to be cured, there are many where the balms to ease them are already to hand.

So here's a pick-list of six of the most worrisome issues threatening our planet - and us - and what we can do about them in the next 12 months.

Woe: The New Wave of Animal Plunder from the East: Last year was a truly awful one for a number of the most iconic, and most threatened, of wildlife. Rhinos, elephants, tigers and sharks - all came under a renewed assault from gruesome 'harvesting' and poaching practices. And the common thread weaving together this needless slaughter? A swelling demand for animal products from the new economic giants of the East - Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and especially China.

Their, rising personal wealth, tied to culture that values the medicinal properties of rhino horns, tiger bones, and elephant trunks, is helping to push many species to the brink. And the rarer they become, the more valuable they are dead. 'Market forces' are now forming a particularly vicious cycle towards extinction, as the East rises to economic preeminence.

Balm: Putting a value on the majesty of wildlife: Already the more savvy of conservation groups are switching from a ring-fence mentality - of just protecting the animals-at-risk - to a more holistic approach. Local people are as much part of the conservation landscape as the endangered animals that live among them.

Increasingly they are being helped to see the benefits of conservation - and being paid to help. But that concern needs to be sown wider, to include the people driving the market in poaching. Grassroots groups need to be nurtured in China and Vietnam, so that wildlife conservation, not skyscrapers, becomes the new touchstone of modernism in Asia.

Woe: Shale gas bubble swamping the world with methane: The shale gas boom may have crept up unannounced throughout the last decade, but now the word 'fracking' is on everyone's lips. Vast resources of shale gas are being eyed greedily by gas companies across the world, with the governments being promised cheap energy for decades.

There may be worries about polluting local water supplies, and shaking the ground around fracking sites. But the elephant in the room is the extra methane leaking into the air with each well that is fracked. It seems that shale gas could be more damaging than coal for promoting global warming.

Balm: Melding local concerns to global worries: Shale gas drilling is both an intensely local issue,as well as a global worry. With fracking tearing up local roads, blighting landscapes, and threatening earthquakes, it's not just the usual activists trying to prick the shale gas bubble.

Already anti-fracking groups have sprung up in response to drilling plans in New York State, France and the UK - with some success. So this may be an issue where local concerns can help to stop a global worry, before it gets out of hand.

Woe: Is the EV 'tailpipe' now the coal plant smokestack?: Electric Vehicles (EVs) may not quite have gone from 0-to-60 over the last 12 months. But in 2012, the signs are there for a spurt of acceleration towards a more electric vehicular future. The problem is that while the cars themselves are no longer pumping out greenhouse gases, the electricity fueling their rise is still wedded to fossil fuels. That means the emissions savings for switching to EVs are still not being realized.

Balm: Cheaper renewables herald a clean-up of EV 'juice': The costs of both solar and wind power are now falling towards the range where they can compete with fossil fuels - even without accounting for the extra costs that burning coal, oil and gas brings (think global warming). 2012 could be the year where the vision of clean, green and cheap electricity could be grasped. In many countries, electricity customers now have some choices over accelerating that revolution. Going with green electricity suppliers, or generating green electricity from your home is now a real option. The hidden EV smokestack could soon be demolished.

Woe: Forests disappearing into the sawmill: 2011 was the International Year of the Forests. But trees in many of the world's most-threatened forests may not have picked up on that message. Last year saw the rates of deforestation pick up markedly in parts of the Amazon, as Brazil moved towards a law which would pardon landowners, for cutting down swathes of forest. And west Africa forest's are rapidly heading towards ground-zero - no trees - with Nigeria and Togo posting the highest deforestation rates in the world.

Balm: Going green on REDD+: After a decade of tortuous plodding towards making forest-protection pay - through the UN-sponsored REDD+ scheme - 2012 may see results. The framework for channeling money, to save forests, may finally be put in place. And Costa Rica has already shown the way forward, when the ecological benefits of forests for the wider community are properly valued. Local people are paid for the environmental services that Costa Rica's forests provide. As a result, Cost Rica's forests have now doubled in size. Giving the green light to accelerating REDD+ in 2012 could eventually see the same happen across the globe.

Woe: Carbon dioxide emissions leaping ahead: Finding solutions to global warming can look beyond reach. After decades of hand-wringing, and tinkering with green energy, CO2 emissions in 2011 are still soaring. It is estimated that, globally, well over 10 billion tonnes of carbon were emitted in 2011, and CO2 levels topped 391ppm. With 2011 ranked as the 11th warmest on record, despite the cooling effects of La Nina, global warming shows no signs of stopping.

Balm: Harvesting the low-hanging fruit: Whilst the world struggles to tame its addiction to carbon-emitting fossil fuels, there may be quick, and reasonably simple, ways to slow the rising global thermometer. Black carbon, better known as soot, and methane are both big contributors to increasing temperatures. But while CO2 will hang around for millennium, even if we stopped all CO2 emissions tomorrow, that's not the case with soot and methane. They would fall back quickly if we found ways to slash emissions. And the good news is that reducing emissions of both is much simpler than cutting back on CO2.

Woe: Economic stagnation shows no sign of ending: While the planet's environmental problems mount, the resources to deal with them, from hard-pressed governments have shrunk. The culprit is the credit crunch - which spawned first a recession, and which now appears to be sucking the world back into a mire of economic stagnation. Can any of the green woes described above be addressed, while the world is fixated on restarting the growth engine?

Balm: Dropping the Growth Mantra: Perhaps this is the biggest potential healer of so-many of the world's environmental woes - letting go of the idea that economic growth is over-arching drive of all our lives. After all, the press of ecological problems are really an indicator that limits have been reached - to what humankind can extract from, and spew back into, the global ecosystem. If the fervent questioning of the 99% movement were to crystallize on the notion that growth itself is the problem, then perhaps we could manage a gradual descent, back to material comfort that would keep both man, and the planet, happy.

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