Critically endangered Pangolin face increased threat from illegal global trade

In the first ever study to investigate how criminals are sourcing pangolins from African forests, experts found that local hunters in Gabon are selling increasing numbers of the animals to Asian workers stationed on the continent for major logging, oil exploration and agro-industry projects.

The solitary mammals are being transported across remote forest borders in a largely successful attempt to avoid increased law enforcement, according to groundbreaking research led by the University of Stirling.

In another significant finding, the team discovered that the price for giant pangolins has risen at more than 45 times the rate of inflation between 2002 and 2014.

Nocturnal animals

The study is published in the African Journal of Ecology today, World Pangolin Day, and experts believe it will help law enforcers tackle the increasing problem.

Dr Katharine Abernethy, of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, led the work, which also involved the University of Sussex, Gabonese researchers and other industry partners.

“This is the first study of how illegally traded pangolins may be being sourced from African forests and it shows that the high value paid internationally for large giant pangolin scales is probably affecting their price, even in very remote villages,” Dr Abernethy said.

“However, local subsistence hunters are probably not the primary suppliers – this is likely to be criminal hunting organisations, possibly those who are also trading in ivory in the region, as the demand markets are similar.”

Found in Asia and Africa, pangolins are scaled, primarily nocturnal animals, which feed predominantly on ants and termites. The eight species of pangolin range from vulnerable to critically endangered, with their meat and scales in high demand, especially in Asia.

Relative value

With the decline of the Asian species in recent years, there has been a significant increase in the number of African pangolins seized in Asia. Consequently, in 2016, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) – a multilateral treaty to protect endangered plants and animals – banned all international trade in the African species in a bid to restrict wildlife losses.

The new study focused on Gabon, in Central Africa, where, as in many other countries, domestic hunting and eating of certain species of pangolin is legal.

The team visited communities using pangolins and other wildlife for food, as well as markets in provincial towns and the capital, Libreville, to assess the numbers sold and prices.

They found that the relative value of pangolins has increased significantly since 2002 – more than the price for other species and higher than expected under inflation. In Libreville, giant pangolin prices increased 211 per cent over the period, while arboreal pangolin prices rose 73 per cent – despite inflation going up by just 4.6 per cent.

People with Asian connections were significantly more likely to ask for pangolins than any other species, the researchers found. However, illegally-traded pangolins were not detected by law enforcers controlling traditional meat trade chains, but found associated with ivory trading across forest borders.

Further investigation

The study concluded that the high international price of scales was driving up local costs, with hunters increasingly targeting pangolins to sell them on, rather than for home consumption.

Dr Abernethy said: “We conclude that whilst there is clear potential and likelihood that a wild pangolin export trade is emerging from Gabon, traditional bushmeat trade chains may not be the primary support route.

“We recommend adjusting conservation policies and actions to impede further development of illegal trade within and from Gabon. As in the ivory trade, law enforcement and international efforts to save pangolins need to target specialised criminal hunters, rather than putting pressure on the subsistence community.”

Daniel Ingram, who was involved in the research whilst at the University of Sussex, said:  “We are still learning about the scale of trafficking in pangolin meat and scales but every new finding adds very concerning new details about this trade.

“The link between Asian industrial workers working on major projects in Africa and requests for pangolins is worrying, and warrants further investigation.”

The Universities of Stirling and Sussex collaborated on the research with Gabon National Parks Agency, Agricultural University of Harbin in China, Gabon Institute for Tropical Ecology Research, the Wildlife Conservation Society Gabon programme and the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Species Survival Commission (SSC) Pangolin Specialist Group.

The study, The emergence of a commercial trade in pangolins from Gabon, was funded by the Gabonese Government student grants service, the Gabon National Parks Agency, and the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group.

This Author

Catherine Harte is contributing editor of The Ecologist. This story is based on a news release from The University of Stirling. 

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How climate change could intensify plague among black-tailed prairie dogs in the American West

The sun’s heat bears down on a desolate prairie dog colony in America’s Great Plains. Small mounds of dirt mark the entrances to an intricate network of tunnels below the surface.

The weeds that the prairie dogs grazed on have reclaimed the soil. A sign reads, “Caution: Prairie Dogs Have Plague. Keep People and Pets in Vehicles.”

This is the grim discovery for many biologists returning to study colonies that were thriving only weeks ago. These are the Dark Ages for prairie dogs in the American West.

A new vaccine

Considered a keystone species, black-tailed prairie dogs are an essential part of the American Grasslands. Their tunnels help fertilize the soil and provide shelter for nesting birds.

Many predators rely on prairie dogs as a food source. But the plague’s 100 percent mortality rate is shattering this delicate balance.

The plague evolved in Central Asia and made landfall in the United States in 1900 when trade ships from Hong Kong carrying infected rats docked in San Francisco.

The plague spread rapidly throughout the American West where native species like prairie dogs had no immunity to the exotic disease.

Disease researcher Dan Tripp is testing a new vaccine that protects prairie dogs against the plague. The vaccine is fed to the prairie dogs using pellets that are scattered across the colonies. The problem is getting to the prairie dogs before the plague does.

Fleas and rodents

“If you wait until after the plague hits to start vaccinating prairie dogs, then you’re too late,” Tripp said. “By the time you start noticing fewer animals, that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what’s going on below the surface.”

Climate change influences the frequency and severity of plague cycles. Rising temperatures throughout the American West have led to severe droughts and wildfires in some regions and devastating floods in others. This sporadic climate could impede vaccination efforts.

Tripp explained that as the climate wavers between extremes of above average rainfall and droughts, it becomes more difficult for scientists to predict and prevent plague outbreaks.

To understand how climate and plague outbreaks are linked, some scientists are finding their answers with the fleas — the culprits for spreading the plague from one host to another.

If there are more fleas, the chances that one of them is carrying the plague are greater. A popular theory argues that plague outbreaks follow wetter and cooler years, when it’s assumed that fleas and rodents are more abundant.

Wetter times

But new research shows that fleas increase during droughts, meaning that a warmer, drier climate could increase the severity of plague outbreaks in the American West.

Wildlife ecologists David Eads and Dean Biggins counted the amounts of fleas on prairie dogs during wet and dry years to understand how climate affects flea abundance.

The common assumption is that plague outbreaks are more likely during wet years when there are more fleas. To their surprise, they discovered that during a drought in New Mexico the amount of fleas on prairie dogs increased by nearly 200 percent.

“When you have a drought period, flea numbers might escalate on prairie dogs,” Biggins told The Ecologist. “And as fleas get more abundant, this could increase the circulation of plague.

“If we have more drought cycles intermixed with wetter times, which could happen with climate change, you could have more plague circulation.”

Abuzz with speculations

In their study, Eads and Biggins conclude that a lack of food and water during droughts might weaken prairie dogs’ defenses against parasites that spread the plague.

They observed that the fatter, healthier prairie dogs had fewer fleas compared to others that were starving. The study explained that female fleas that feed on starving rodents tend to produce more eggs and larvae.

In light of climate models that forecast frequent droughts, prairie dog colonies in the American West could be at greater risk of plague outbreaks.

When the plague arrived in the American West in 1900, newspapers were abuzz with speculations about where the plague would hit next.

People knew that fleas spread the plague, but those living in the frigid highlands of the Rocky Mountains believed that the fleas could never survive at such high altitudes. Mountain towns in the American West seemed safely out of reach.

Plague transmission

As the climate continues to warm, northern and high altitude regions that were too cold will become tolerable for fleas and other parasites.

A similar trend is seen with the northward spread of ticks in America, leading to more outbreaks of Lyme disease in the central United States and Canada.

On the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i, climate change is accelerating the spread of mosquito-borne diseases like malaria into ecosystems in higher elevations, where cooler temperatures are no longer a defense against infectious diseases.

Megan Friggens, an ecologist for the United States Forest Service, said that plague could spread into northern regions of the American West where warming temperatures allow fleas to survive and breed longer.

This increases the amount of fleas and the chances for plague transmission. But Friggens explained that as northern climates become more tolerable for the plague, southern states might become too hot for the plague to survive.

 “This heat limitation may actually cause this plague epicenter to shift to the north,” she said. “It may get too hot for fleas in the south, so that would shorten the window for plague transmission in southern regions. You may actually see more plague in northern states because fleas will have a longer [breeding] season.”

This Author

Justice Burnaugh is a freelance journalist living in the Colorado Rockies. He’s been interested in the plague since an outbreak struck a prairie dog colony near his home.

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Leaked UK government numbers cast doubt on fracking industry predictions for the future

A leaked government report predicting the size of the UK’s shale gas industry has cast further doubt on the fracking industry’s own predictions for the future.

The confidential document, seen by the Greenpeace Unearthed investigations team, shows that the government expected 155 shale gas wells by 2025, compared to forecasts of up to 4,000 wells by 2032 made earlier this decade.

This 4,000-well forecast appeared in a 2013 report from the Institute of Directors (IoD), which outlined the UK’s future shale gas potential. With such a discrepancy between this and the government’s own figures, it raises the question as to why the prediction was so wrong, but also why numbers from it continue to be used.

Recycled numbers

The IoD report received widespread media coverage and drove much of the narrative around development scale. But at the time, the numbers were flagged as unlikely, and report authors were unable to clarify the metrics behind them. The fact the report was sponsored by fracking company Cuadrilla Resources raised further questions about its credibility.

Report author Corin Taylor subsequently worked in communications for gas company Centrica, and is now a director at the UK Onshore Operators Group (UKOOG) which represents oil and gas companies. UKOOG’s chief executive Ken Cronin joined in 2013, and was previously at communications firm Kreab Gavin Anderson where he was responsible for energy companies including shale gas firm IGas Energy.

Despite questions raised about the IoD forecast, the 4,000-well figure reappeared in a 2014 report written by accountancy firm EY, commissioned by UKOOG. The report also estimated there could be over 64,000 jobs by 2032, based on the original IoD well estimate. The EY report featured a foreword by then minister of state for business and education Michael Fallon, who went on to use the 64,000-jobs figure in a speech given at a conference where he set out why the UK needs to develop shale.

Despite little progress in the shale sector, in 2016 communities secretary Sajid Javid also used the 64,000-jobs figure in justifying why he overturned a Lancashire council decision to stop fracking. And as recently as the first week of February, it was reused by UKOOG.

With little movement in shale development, it begs the question why the numbers continued to be used. There is also the more fundamental issue of why the numbers have not been reached. IoD energy policy advisor and contributory author of the 2013 report Dan Lewis, suggested two major factors: further research into the UK’s geology was held back by planning, and the fall in wholesale gas prices made exploration harder to justify.

Gas price slump

So, firstly, what of the fall in gas prices? UK wholesale prices in 2013 were particularly high, according to data from leading price reporting agency Argus Media. In December 2013, the front-month contract reached its highest level since autumn 2008, at 70 pence per therm. Thereafter, the price dropped over 60% between December 2013 and April 2016, when it reached 28 pence therm. Prices have since recovered to 51 pence per therm last month.

This price fall is unlikely to have changed developers plans on exploratory drilling. Natural gas markets are cyclical, like most extractive industries. Companies routinely make discoveries that are not developed until the economics are more favourable to do so – and it is difficult to know what the economics of a discovery will be before its been made.

Throughout, companies continued to invest in North Sea gas fields which are typically more expensive than onshore ones. This includes Shell and BP, as well as chemicals company Ineos – itself seeking to develop shale – which acquired licences for new fields in 2017. Norway – the UK’s largest overseas gas supplier – also continued to invest in new offshore gas production capacity, despite the price fall.

Planning holding back exploration?

What of the claim that further research into the UK’s geology was held back? In the absence of exploratory drilling, companies cannot make estimates of how much gas there is, and if it can be economically produced. Drilling data is crucial for any development. A lack of geological data was highlighted earlier this decade as a potential issue for the development of shale.

But the issue here is not a lack of drilling data; it is that operators underestimated the opposition they would face when trying to carry out the drilling. Surprisingly, the 2013 IoD report regarded social acceptance and public confidence (the ‘social licence’) as only moderate barriers to shale development. This hints at the two most significant problems facing shale: firstly, public support for fracking is weak. And secondly, the sector is in a state of denial about it.

This month’s public attitudes tracker from the UK’s department for business, energy and industrial strategy showed support for fracking was at just 16% – an increase from the all-time-low of 13% in November, but far below the 79% figure for renewables. In response, Ken Cronin of UKOOG said he was pleased to see support for fracking was up, while  communications officer Katherine Gray –  formerly of the pro-fracking Taxpayers Alliance – claimed the increase showed “people are increasingly for shale jobs, local investment and our security of supply.” 

Long-term forecasting in extractive sectors is inherently difficult, because of the cyclical nature of markets, externalities of supply and demand, and a range of (often unforeseen) barriers. But this is well understood, and it sits opposed to the optimistic forecasts some in the shale industry made. That said, it remains to be seen if the government’s leaked shale gas prediction will be any more accurate.

Yet, the time, effort, and expense that has been invested in court cases, legal challenges, and preparatory works at drilling sites, strongly suggests that they were – and remain – far from giving up. But in the absence of a sudden swing in public support behind fracking, it is unlikely that even the government’s much-reduced estimate for the sector will be met.

This Author

Joseph Dutton is a policy adviser at global climate change think tank E3G. He tweets @JDuttonUK

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Chris Packham hits out at RSPB ties with optics manufacturers linked to hunting

Members of the RSPB should write to the charity and demand that it ends ties with manufacturers of binoculars and camera lenses that have been revealed to promote their products to hunters, Chris Packham said yesterday.

Packham was speaking at a debate at the Lush Summit on research by Ethical Consumer magazine which found that 83% of optics companies had some link to the hunting world. It looked at marketing text and images, sponsorship links and other company material that promoted hunting of 30 companies including Nikon, Zeiss and Swarovski. 

Companies were found to advertise to hunters; sponsor hunting organisations, events and TV programmes; employed pro-hunting staff; and run training courses on how to use their optics in hunting. Images of trophy hunting were found in many of their brochures and websites, and seven were found to specifically target trophy hunters in marketing text. 

Damage conservation

The report highlighted the role of wildlife magazines, conservation charities and events such as Birdfair in promoting the companies through sponsorship and partnership ties. The RSPB had advertising in its magazine from Swarovski, which makes riflescopes and has designed apps for hunters including a ballistic program and a digital riflescope. Its marketing text refers to mountain hunting, safari hunts and big game hunts. 

The RSPB also has a 20-year partnership with Viking Optical, which was found to market some of its products to hunters, according to the report. 

During the debate, Anna Clayton from Ethical Consumer revealed that it had approached the RSPB with the findings of its report, but that it “wouldn’t touch it”. 

Packham expressed his shock, saying: “I want to draw attention to this – the RSPB, with more than one million members, one of the pre-eminent conservation organisations not only in the UK and Europe, but in the world, don’t want to touch your report?”

Clayton responded: “The argument that hunting props up a lot of conservation work seems to be such a widely-held ingrained belief that people do not want to discuss this issue in case they damage conservation work. But in having this fear, they’re missing big questions, how else might conservation be funded, and what is the role of hunting going forward?”

Neutral on the ethics

Packham urged members of the RSPB to “have a voice” and write to the charity asking it to rethink its position. “The ball is in our court, it’s no good just pointing the finger. The RSPB does an enormous amount of good work, they’re not a bad company, but it’s up to us to keep all companies on their toes. I shall be talking to them about this.”

Packham said that he had sold his binoculars and camera equipment following the publication of the first report on the issue by Ethical Consumer in 2016. He added that wildlife enthusiasts did not have to compromise quality in not buying products sold by manufacturers with unethical practices.

Brands that did not have any links to hunting were Canon, Kenko, Olympus and Visionary. Opticron had removed all reference to hunting from its marketing materials since the first edition of Ethical Consumer’s report.

On his website, Packham says it had been “a great honour” to be invited to be the RSPB’s vice president, calling it “a formidable force in conservation in the UK, indeed globally” which he had been “a keen and long-term supporter”. However, this is not the first time that Packham has criticised the RSPB and other wildlife charities – in 2015, he accused the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts of “shameful silence” on fox hunting, the badger cull and hen harriers. 

A spokesperson for the RSPB said: “As a conservation organisation, we are neutral on the ethics of sports shooting, unless there is an impact on the conservation status of a species. There are many optics companies that make high quality products that they feel would be of interest to wildlife lovers, conservationists and others who appreciate seeing our natural world. As long as the company and their message do not conflict with our values and objectives we will allow them to purchase advertising space in our publications,” he added.

These Authors

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist, founder of Request Initiative and co-author of Impact of Market Forces on Addictive Substances and Behaviours: The web of influence of addictive industries (Oxford University Press)He tweets at @EcoMontague.

Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and the former deputy editor of the environmentalist. She can be found tweeting at @Cat_Early76.

 

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Vegetarian Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn sets out radical animal welfare agenda

Jeremy Corbyn – who could become Britain’s first vegetarian prime minister – will launch a “radical” animal welfare policy programme on Valentine’s Day as the Labour party does everything it can to court the environmental voter.

The announcement comes days after the Labour leader promised to take the energy industry into democratic public control in order to reduce carbon emissions to fight climate change, and reduce bills for businesses and families.

READ: Vote Red, go green? Jeremy Corbyn calls for nationalisation of energy industry to stop climate change

Now he has promised to “look at” introducing a ban on the live export of animals for slaughter, which has been a campaign aim for animal welfare advocates for a generation.

Animal welfare

The Labour party has also committed itself to a wide range of animal welfare measures in a 50-point draft policy document called Animal Welfare For The Many, Not The Few

The failure of Theresa May and the Conservative party to win a convincing victory at the last general election was in part blamed on the prime minister’s promise to revisit the hunting ban, which was hugely unpopular with younger voters. Since then, Michael Gove as environment secretary has attempted to revive the Vote Blue, Go Green agenda. 

Sue Hayman MP, Labour’s shadow environment secretary, said: “Labour is the party of animal welfare. From bringing in the ban on fox hunting to tightening the rules on the transport of live animals, Labour has always been consistent in our leadership on matters of animal welfare.

“Today we’re making proposals for real, long-term progress. Our vision is one where no animal is made to suffer unnecessary pain and we continue to drive up standards and practice in line with the most recent advances and understanding.

“With new trade deals on the horizon and the UK no longer subject to EU-wide rules on animal welfare, we want to ensure there is a comprehensive legislative agenda in place so that the UK becomes a world leader on animal rights.”

Flouting the law

Labour has promised to “consult landlords on giving tenants the right to keep a pet, strengthen the Hunting Act, enshrine the principal of animal sentience in law, end the badger cull, implement a review of animal testing and expand affordable vet care for people on low incomes”.

Corbyn’s front bench will also consult the public on the appointment of a animal welfare commissioner “to ensure government policy across Whitehall is continually informed by the latest scientific evidence on animal sentience”.

Eduardo Gonçalves, chief executive at the League Against Cruel Sports, said: “We warmly welcome Labour’s commitment to strengthening the Hunting Act 2004, and look forward to contributing to the consultation process.

“It’s clear that hunts are routinely flouting the law and continuing to kill wildlife across Britain, whether that be through so-called ‘trail hunting’ or by exploiting legal loopholes. This must stop.”

Emma Slawinski, director of campaigns at Compassion in World Farming, said: “We are thrilled by this announcement from the Labour party, which would revolutionise conditions for British farm animals.

Greater transparency

“We particularly welcome Labour’s commitments to end the cage age, stop live exports, empower consumers with mandatory meat labelling, stop routine preventative use of antibiotics and use post-Brexit subsidies to move away from intensive factory farming and bad environmental practices. This could be the beginning of the end of cruel factory farming.”

Ben Stafford, head of campaigns at WWF, said: “If we want our children and grandchildren to live in a world where elephants still roam and the oceans have more fish than plastic, we need a political race to the top on the environment.

“So it’s great to see Labour committing today to tackling the illegal wildlife trade and to strong protection for our seas. The UK must lead from the front on the environment, and that means all parties having ambitious plans for a more sustainable future.”

Michelle Thew, the chief executive of Cruelty Free International, said: “We wholeheartedly welcome the proposals in the animal welfare strategy announced today by Labour.

“In particular we are delighted to see a commitment to ending avoidable tests and experiments that cause severe suffering to animals, as well as the push for greater transparency. These are developments for which we have campaigned tirelessly for years.

Animal testing

“It shows tremendous progress that one of the major political parties is now committed to a positive plan for ending the suffering of animals in laboratories.

He added: “The public will be overjoyed that their call for an end to cruel and unnecessary animal testing is being taken seriously. We believe this is the very start of a journey that will finally put a stop to needless animal experiments in the UK.”

The proposals, as set out in the Labour party press release, include:

1

Enshrining the principle of animal sentience in law, ensuring it covers all policy areas to prevent practices that expose animals to cruel and degrading treatment

2

Strengthening the Hunting Act to close loopholes that allow illegal hunting

3

Consult landlords on giving tenants the default right to keep pets unless there is evidence the animal is causing a nuisance

4

Mandatory labelling of domestic and imported meat, including country of origin, method of production and slaughter (stun or non-stun)

5

Establishing an independent zoo inspectorate to draw up revised standards of animal welfare

6

Total ban on imports of Foie Gras

7

Ending the badger cull

8

Requiring motorists to report accidents where an animal has been injured

9

Banning live exports of animals for slaughter or fattening and introducing mandatory CCTV in all slaughterhouses

10

Designing post-Brexit farm subsidies to move away from intensive factory farming and bad environmental practices

11

Prohibiting the third party sale of puppies and tackling puppy smuggling by reintroducing rabies testing before entry into the UK

12

Working with organisations like the PDSA to expand accessibility to affordable vet care for pet owners on low incomes

13

A comprehensive review of animal testing with a view to improving practice, limiting animal suffering and increasing transparency

14

Introducing a ‘blue belt’ to protect and enhance the marine environment around the UK and our overseas territories

This Author

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist, founder of Request Initiative and co-author of Impact of Market Forces on Addictive Substances and Behaviours: The web of influence of addictive industries (Oxford University Press). He tweets at @EcoMontague. 

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Why is Kosovo going ahead with an lignite coal power plant that is extremely expensive and dangerous to health?

“Don’t poison us, let’s save Pristina,” was the cry of hundreds wearing white masks as they took to the streets of Kosovo’s capital at the end of January to protest pollution that has reached “hazardous” levels in recent weeks, according to air quality data published by the US embassy.

Read Michael Brune of Sierra Club warning in 2014 about the World Bank’s support of Kosovo’s love affair with ‘brown coal’.

The same week, in a widely praised move, the municipal government banned cars from the city centre. The ban has already increased quality of life for pedestrians in Pristina. But it is unlikely to make a real dent in pollution readings.

Ninety-seven percent of Kosovo’s electricity is generated by two lignite coal power stations on the outskirts of Pristina, according to a 2012 World Bank report. Lignite is one of the most environmentally unfriendly energy sources currently commercially in use.

Out of step

A 2013 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Medical Sciences in Bosnia and Herzegovina found that “[t]he largest air polluting source is the coal-burned power plant in Obiliq 5 km [from] Pristina.” The same study found a correlation between pollutants in the air and hospitalisations in the city.

Unfortunately for Kosovar asthmatics, their own government claims they are sitting on the fifth-largest deposit of lignite anywhere in the world. With more than a quarter of the workforce currently unemployed and the poverty rate sitting at around 80 percent, it is unlikely that policy makers in Pristina will turn their back on lignite any time soon.

In fact, late last year the government signed a deal with US engineering firm ContourGlobal for the construction of a $1.54 billion coal plant near the existing plants, which constitute two of the top-three most polluting coal plants in Europe, according to the Health and Environment Alliance

Despite issuing a moratorium on the financing of coal projects in all but “rare circumstances”, the World Bank has been an enthusiastic cheerleader for the project over the last decade and has even offered to stump up a partial risk guarantee for its costs. 

However, while it may not have turned its back on the project, Pippa Gallop, a regional researcher with NGO BankWatch, told The Ecologist the World Bank is aware how out of step with the times the project is.

Alternatives exist

“The World Bank has been pushing for this heavily from the start, and now they’re stuck with it,” Gallop said. “There is a clear level of embarrassment in the World Bank for being involved in this.”

And not without good cause. Kosovar political scientist Krenar Gashi was one of the first to sound the alarm on the project nearly 10 years ago while director of the Kosovo Institute for Policy Research and Development.

“I asked a World Bank representative whether there would be an environmental impact assessment and she said: ‘Yes, it’s going to be done by the American University of Kosovo [AUK]’,” he recalled. “AUK at the time didn’t even have a masters program. Things just started to smell very fishy.”

Things only got fishier the more Gashi and his colleagues investigated. So they enrolled Nobel Prize-winning energy scientist Daniel Kammen, who then led a team of researchers in a feasibility study.

“We find that a range of alternatives exists to meet present supply constraints all at a lower cost than constructing a proposed 600 MW coal plant. The options include energy efficiency measures, combinations of solar PV, wind, hydropower, and biomass, and the introduction of natural gas,” the study concluded.

Civil society

“The results indicate that financing a 600 MW coal plant is the most expensive pathway to meet future electricity demand.”

In 2016 the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) released a study of the project, finding that low-to-middle-income households will end up spending 18 percent of their annual incomes on electricity as bills increase to cover the cost of construction.

“IEEFA concludes that the World Bank, which has announced its support for a substantial financial subsidy for construction of the coal-fired plant, should invest instead in the development of renewable energy and energy efficiency in Kosovo,” the IEEFA concluded.

“[T]he US government, which has endorsed the project, should cease its support for the misguided introduction of a costly and outdated form of electricity generation.” 

But the US did not. Instead, on the day the contract between Kosovo’s government and ContourGlobal was signed, amid civil society objections, the US embassy issued a ringing endorsement of the project.

Four-lane highway

“We welcome yesterday’s agreement between the Government of Kosovo and Contour Global, which represents a huge step towards energy security in Kosovo,” the statement read.

It went on to claim that not only will the plant comply with European efficiency and emissions standards, but – seemingly paradoxically – “allow for more renewable energy sources to be integrated into the energy sector”.

But the last line of the press release is perhaps most telling: “Upon completion, Kosova e Re [the coal plant] will be the largest private foreign investment in Kosovo’s history.”

The US embassy in Pristina has a history of endorsing large infrastructure projects of questionable benefit to Kosovo but carrying significant financial reward for American contractors.

In 2010, Kosovo signed another billion-dollar contract with a US engineering firm. This time it was the Bechtel Corporation and the project was a four-lane highway to Kosovo’s southerly neighbour, Albania.

International diplomacy

At the time, Kosovo – which had just two years earlier declared independence – was being supervised by an institution known as the International Civilian Office (ICO).

The ICO’s most senior official, Pieter Feith, was dead set against the highway. The bill was equal to slightly over one-sixth of Kosovo’s GDP. He argued that it risked crippling the country’s finances while it was just beginning to get on its feet.

But Feith was overruled. Christopher Dell, then-US ambassador, lobbied hard in favour of the highway, going so far as to deny the ICO – which had executive authority in Kosovo – access to the terms of the deal.

Finally, in April 2010, Kosovo’s government decided to sign, against the counsel of its own lawyers. Less than a year after the project was completed, Dell controversially took a position with Bechtel.

Telling observation

Last December, half a decade after Dell left international diplomacy for the world of engineering, Kosovo signed yet another big-ticket contract with an American engineering firm in the face of numerous respected voices cautioning against it. 

Krenar Gashi, the political scientist, declined to speculate on what could have motivated his government to enter into such a seemingly unwise arrangement. He did, however, offer a telling observation.

“Whether there was a tit-for-tat or whether no one in the room had a better idea than to burn some coal, I don’t think it really matters,” he said. “The entire energy policy for the last 10 years has been built around it. The plant was not the means to the policy’s end, the policy was the means to the plant.”

These Authors

Jack Davies and Giovanni Vale are freelance journalists based in the Balkans. 

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Vote Red, go green? Jeremy Corbyn calls for nationalisation of energy industry to stop climate change

Jeremy Corbyn today called for the nationalisation of the energy industry in order to work towards preventing climate change and other environmental crises facing humanity.

The Labour leader this afternoon told a one day party conference on “alternative models of ownership” in Central London that “the challenge of climate change and the threat of climate catastrophe requires us to be at least as radical” as the Labour party that came to power after the Second World War in 1945 to establish the National Health Service.

He said: “The challenge of climate change requires us to radically shift the way we organise our economy. In 1945, elected to govern a country ravaged by six years of war, the great Attlee Labour government knew that the only way to rebuild our economy was through a decisive turn to collective action. Necessary action to help avert climate catastrophe requires us to be at least as radical.”

Take control

Corbyn told the conference that “to go green, we must take control of energy”. The comments echoed David Cameron’s 2010 general election campaign slogan, “Vote Blue, go green” which had been devised by his advisor Steve Hilton as the Conservatives fought the threat from the Green party.

However, Cameron was fiercely opposed by a faction in his own party which hated the prospect of environmental policies limiting industry – and later was instrumental in the Brexit vote that led to his resignation as prime minister. Corbyn dismissed Theresa May’s Tory government saying it was leaving a “trail of environmental destruction”.

The Labour leader argued that his plans for a “modern mixed economy” would be part of a “great wave of change across the world in favour of public, democratic ownership and control of our services and utilities.” This would be in response to what he characterised as the failure of privatisation and the demands of a modern economy.

The Labour leader also wanted to present nationalisation as modern, rather than a return to the past. He said: “A green energy system will look radically different to the one we have today. The past is a centralised system with a few large plants. The future is decentralised, flexible and diverse, with new sources of energy large and small, from tidal to solar.

“The greenest energy is usually the most local. But people have been queuing up for years to connect renewable energy to the national grid. With the national grid in public hands, we can put tackling climate change at the heart of our energy system. To go green, we must take control of our energy.”

Energy transition

He said the radical changes in the UK were part of an international transformation to a low carbon world.  “We can put Britain at the forefront of the wave of change across the world in favour of public, democratic ownership and control of our services and utilities. From India to Canada, countries across the world are waking up to the fact that privatisation has failed, and taking back control of their public services.

In order to shore up his base in the Labour party, Corbyn went on to argue that “it cannot be the workers who pay the price” for the transition to a low carbon economy. He promised a comprehensive programme of retraining and employment for any employees displaced by energy transition. 

He said: “The devastation wreaked when our coal mines were closed is a brutal reminder of what can happen when communities are silenced and disregarded in the process of change. Never again.

“Our energy system needs to change, but it cannot be workers who pay the price.” He looked to the historical precedent of the GI Bill in the United States which “gave education, housing and income support to every unemployed veteran returning from the Second World War.” 

He added: “[T]he next Labour government will guarantee that if anyone is displaced by energy transition they will be: offered retraining, a new job on equivalent terms and conditions, covered by collective agreements, and fully supported in their housing and income needs through transition.”

Ban fracking

Corbyn concluded his speech by rounding on the Conservative party. He said: “Nobody is fooled by Michael Gove’s reinvention of himself as an eco-warrior. Behind the rhetoric lies a trail of environmental destruction.

“This is a Government that has licensed fracking, declared a moratorium on renewable levies, while massively subsidising fossil fuels, dithered over tidal, held back onshore wind, u-turned on making all new homes zero carbon and is failing to take the necessary measures to meet our legal commitments to reduce CO2 emissions.”

A Labour party spokesperson added after the speech: “We will work with farmers and foresters to plant a million trees of native species to promote biodiversity and better flood management. Unlike the Conservatives who attempted to privatise our forests, Labour will keep them in public hands.

“We will safeguard habitats and species in the ‘blue belts’ of the seas and oceans surrounding our island. We will set guiding targets for plastic bottle deposit schemes, working with food manufacturers and retailers to reduce waste.”

The Labour party promised at the last election to ban fracking, insulate four million homes, invest in rail and bus networks to reduce traffic on our roads, invest in tidal and wind and deliver 60 percent of our energy from renewable sources by 2030.

The Labour manifesto, the spokesperson added, promised to “regain control of energy supply networks through the alteration of the National and Regional Network Operator license conditions, support the creation of publicly owned, locally accountable energy companies and co-operatives to rival existing private energy suppliers.”

This Author

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist and author of Impact of Market Forces on Addictive Substances and Behaviours: The web of influence of addictive industries. He tweets at @EcoMontague. 

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Blockchain, regenerative farming and mobility as a service: global trends hold key to sustainability

Businesses, government and civil society should harness the opportunities from trends impacting global societies to improve sustainability, think tank Forum for the Future said.

Changes in consumerism and mobility, regenerative agriculture, action against plastic pollution, and blockchain technology can all bring benefits for the environment and society, the organisation believes.

In a report, it highlights the implications and opportunities to reshape current behaviour and practice which could result in a more sustainable world.

Decentralised ledger

For example, conventional agricultural models are putting increasing pressure on natural systems with significant implications for feeding growing populations and climate change.

In contrast, alternative approaches to agriculture, which give more to the environment than is taken out, could be scaled to create an entirely new farming system, it suggests.

Such regenerative agriculture uses techniques such as intercropping, where two or more crops are grown together, keeping living plant cover on soils, and using insect predators instead of chemical pesticides. It can be complemented by the use of data and even robots.

In Brazil, Leontino Balbo, the world’s largest sugar cane farmer, has boosted yield through new harvesting techniques that reduce soil compression and soil loss, while increasing wildlife and water retention. His company Agros Fortis is now developing a weed control robot.

The report considers the reality behind blockchain, technology that acts as a decentralised ledger that records transactions.

Infrastructure investment

While the initial application was for cryptocurrencies, new uses are being found. For example, food retailers and manufacturers Walmart, Unilever and Nestle have teamed up with tech giant IBM to explore how to use blockchain technology to maintain secure records of their supply chains for important products such as chicken, chocolate and bananas.

Similarly. Provenance, a blockchain start-up, is creating digital histories for products enabling businesses and consumers to trace and verify origins and ownership across a product’s lifespan.

In transport, Forum for the Future believes that a change as radical as that from horse to motor is underway. A wave of commitments to electric vehicles from manufacturers, nations and cities in 2017 coinciding with new business models and journey tracking apps means that the divide between public and private transportation looks set to collapse.

Mobility as a Service will take over, with a shift from private vehicle ownership towards subscription-based models. This could impact the design of vehicles, parking, roads and buildings, the think tank predicts.

However, a significant policy change and infrastructure investment is needed to avoid societal disruption due to job loss in the transport sector, congestion in poorly managed transitions, and urban sprawl if technology encourages longer commutes.

Better decisions

Good management on the other hand could be rewarded with breathable, liveable cities, significant reductions in carbon emissions and congestion, and major efficiency gains.

Another trend highlighted in the report is action to prevent plastic pollution, which has become mainstream following high-profile research by organisations such as the Ellen McArthur Foundation, and documentaries including Blue Planet II and A Plastic Ocean.

Efforts are now underway to find alternative materials to single-use plastic. For example, British company Polymateria is working with Imperial College London to develop a cost-effective method for producing plastic products which are 100% biodegradable, and do not release toxins in decomposition.

James Goodman, director of futures and projects at Forum for the Future, said: “We live in a world of great political, economic and environmental uncertainty, in which sudden and major changes have become the new normal.

“We need a better understanding of the trends emerging today that will impact the future, how they are linked, and also how we are part of ongoing processes of change. Only then can leaders make better decisions that ensure that we survive and thrive in the future.”

This Author

Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and the former deputy editor of the environmentalist. She can be found tweeting at @Cat_Early76.

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How the £1.3 billion EIB loan uses public money to muddy democracy, the environment and climate change targets.   

If you listen carefully on a quiet day, you can hear the gasps of future generations. They are looking back into a distant past where the decisions are being made that will erode any fair or equitable future.

Read Our News TAP Coverage 

This gasp – shared even today by many of us – reverberated across Europe at 17:50 (CET) on Tuesday when the EIB approved a loan of £1.3 billion (€1.5 billion) of Europeans’ money to fund the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP).

The TAP will be one part of the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC); a series of inter-connected gas pipelines that seeks to pump 120 billion cubic meters of Caspian gas from Azerbaijan, across six countries to Europe. The TAP itself is a planned 870km long pipeline running from Greece to Italy, through Albania and the Adriatic Sea, making it just as ambitious as it is controversial. 

Fossil fuel dependency

The EIB has succeeded in simultaneously undermining science, the Paris Accord, and democracy, by granting a loan irrespective of last week’s report that the SGC could be as emissions-intensive as coal power. The decision was taken in spite of widespread public resistance and and the contribution to catastrophic climate change. 

The TAP has faced a significant public backlash over the years, stalling the loan at many stages. Last year, 4,000 emails from concerned citizens were send during EIB discussions, and this year a viral campaign began to circulate with global citizens campaigning with the slogan, ‘not with my money’.

But beyond the keyboard, there has been resistance on the ground. In Italy, 94 mayors have spoken out against the pipeline. There is widespread concern about the impact of  TAP on water supplies. In Albania and Greece, the pipe will be built directly through farmland. 

However, rather than diplomatic discussion, this resistance has been met with militarisation and strong repression, with one Italian community being put on military lock-down. Within civil society, there is a deep feeling that TAP will undermine meaningful democracy. 

The decision is at odds with the EU 2030 and 2050 energy and climate objectives. As Colin Roche, extractive industries campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe argues: “The European Investment Bank is now shamelessly locking Europe into decades of fossil fuel dependency even as the window for fossil fuel use is slamming shut.

Corruption and torture

“The banks’s biggest ever investment in dangerous fossil fuels undermines the EU’s commitment to climate action when we urgently need to be transitioning to a fossil free future.” 

This loan comes after a wave of scientific warning against gas, for example a report released late last year which concluded categorically that if the EU is to deliver a mitigation programme of 2ºC then there can be no new gas infrastructure built. In short, gas is not a bridge to a clean energy future. It is a dead-end.

So why did the EIB grant such a contentious loan? The current line of the EU is that it will support ‘diversification of gas supply to meet future energy demands’. But perhaps we need to consider deeper political motives. 

Russia currently provides 30 percent of EU’s natural gas, which has been a source of unease since the country historically halted its gas supply to Ukraine in 2014.

Hence, the EU seeks to ensure its own energy security by diversifying its supply chain away from alleged authoritarian regimes. However, TAP will import gas from Azerbaijan, a country that has never had a free election and is marred by allegations of corruption and torture.

Planning for failure

On top of this, the Azerbaijani Laundromat scandal last year exposed a $2.9 billion fund that was used by Azerbaijan to curry influence, and pay lobbyists, apologists and European politicians. So if the EU wants to diversify its gas supply away from what they decree to be less stable regimes, then perhaps this TAP logic doesn’t quite add up? 

Perhaps switching from Russian gas is in fact a geopolitical move to undermine Russian influence? Or perhaps it is profit that is the puppet master of diplomacy? Or perhaps – as is so often the case – the lines between the two become further blurred.

The building of the pipe indicates the high levels of gas supply that Europe predicts for the future. With increased supply, price signals change and gas becomes cheaper. This in turn crowds out investment in gas’s future competitor – renewables.

Gas is not a companion to a renewable energy future, it is competition. The European Union now has €1.5 billion less to invest in renewable energy, pushing forward a decision that will lock us into a high-carbon future.

The the crux of TAP? Enormous sums of public money are being used to fund a programme that will be detrimental to both people and planet, meaning that the EU is actively planning for failure.

This Author     

Katie Hodgetts coordinates the UK Youth Climate Coalition’s 2018 campaign against gas, and works for Friends of the Earth Europe. More can be found at @ukycc or Katie tweets personally at @katiehodgettssx 

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‘They stole the beach’ – the major mafia that almost nobody wants to talk about

Name a well-known environmental organisation. The World Wildlife Fund? Sure, everyone knows the panda, it has royal support and we’ve all seen pictures of dead elephants with gaping wounds.

But as horrible as wildlife crime is, there’s one criminal activity ten times bigger than all other illegal wildlife crime combined. Try naming it, or any organisation that combats it. 

Sand mining has no bleeding elephants – but it is the elephant in the room of environmental issues. Illegal sand mining has ten times more value than all wildlife crime.

Had enough

Indeed, it’s bigger than all other environmental crimes combined, according to a study by Luis Fernando Ramadon, a police investigator and mining crimes professor at the National Police Academy in Brazil.

Professor Ramadan told The Ecologist: “It’s an easy form of enrichment with less risk and costs than trafficking of drugs, humans or organs.” He adds that aside from being so profitable, “it is maybe also the most harmful to the environment”. 

Asking Sumaira Abdulali how sand mining is harmful is like asking for a drizzle but receiving the full-blown Indian monsoon. “Soil erosion, landslides, water table loss, infertility of farmland, disturbances of ecosystems and marine life, beach disappearances, collapsing bridges…”.

One night in 2004, she had had enough of it. In what had become a nighttime routine, trucks came and went to the seafront near her house South from Mumbai. They stole the beach.

Abdulali called the police and drove to the beach. “Instead of rushing to the scene, the police tipped the illegal sand miners”, Abdulali told me.

Edgy grains

As she waited in her car for the police to arrive, the men came from the beach, pulled her out of her car and assaulted her. “During the beating, one guy asked: ‘Do you know who I am?’ He was the son of a local politician, but also owner of a large construction company.” His father later became the state’s environment Minister.

Abdulali sued the sand mafia and won. But fighting the sand mafia is a risky affair. Sandhya Ravishankar, a Chennai based journalist, was threatened for her reports on Tamil Nadu’s sand mafia.

Despite a ban in 2013, beach sand mining for minerals remained a lucrative business in Tamil Nadu. At one point police raided 15 locations simultaneously, finding 455,245 ton of illegally mined beach minerals. The evidence suggests that almost a million tons has been exported since the ban has come into force. 

Abdulali and Ravishankar are sand mafia challengers who survived. According to author and expert Vince Beiser, hundreds of people were killed over sand extraction, in India alone.

Contrary to our intuition, useful sand is scarce. Forget deserts. Desert winds make sand roll and therefore round. Edgy grains are needed for concrete, the main use of sand. Building booms have caused these sand mining booms – but there’s another reason why 75 to 90 percent of all beaches are disappearing.

Nuclear waste

Minerals such as rutile and ilmenite, found in beach sand, are in everything from titanium parts of consumer goods to paint to paper to plastics. India has 35 percent of all ilmenite. Going to Goa with sunscreen in your luggage? There is a good chance that the ilmenite in it came from a beach.

In Indonesia, Australia’s Indo Mines Limited is after the iron on one beach, which doubles as a barrier against salt intrusion from the ocean into coastal farms.

When they proposed a massive expanding to cover a 1.8km by 22km area – also the home of 20,000 people – the resistance went ballistic. Many community members were jailed and police brutalities left 41 people injured. 

In The Gambia, an 11-year old boy fell to his death in one of the massive holes left behind by a sand mining firm, a hole they should have filled. The beach is now flooded, attracting crocodiles that attacked women who tend nearby gardens.

In this conflict, 45 people were arrested and sued. Zircon, the mineral mined here, was exporting to China. Aside from being sold as gemstone, sand is used to store nuclear waste.

Enlightened CEOs

Camila Rolando, a Barcelona based researcher, maps environmental conflicts in Western Africa for the EnvJustice project. “The conflict in The Gambia left an impression across the Senegalese border.

“The villages around the Niafrang dune try to prevent that a new beach mine opens there. They depend on rice growing, market gardening, fishing, oyster farming and tourism – all of which would be negatively affected.”

An armed rebel group in Senegal, the MFDC, is also against the proposed project. In reaction, the Senegalese government deployed extra military forces in the area. This is how sand wars can start.

Will you ever walk into a shop and ask for a pot of Tamil-Nadu-free-paint? No. And there’s no tropical beach logo for this. Waiting for enlightened CEOs is equally naive.

Whether it is India, Indonesia, South Africa or Senegal: the battles for our beaches are “environmentalism of the poor”, a term coined by the award winning economist Joan Martinez-Alier

Rich places

Only 15 percent of the world’s population lives in North America or Europe but they consume about 50 percent of all titanium dioxide – whose production lines creates conflicts everywhere but in North America or Europe.

The Atlas of Environmental justice has the details of nine local sand conflicts relating to ilmenite and rutile alone – all in the Global South. So what can we do?

Martinez-Alier argues that humanity needs to dig, produce and trade a factor less. In his jargon, digging in The Gambia for production in China and selling in the US is all part of the social metabolism of the global economy, like blood that flows through a body. Based on planetary boundaries data, he argues the global economy suffers from too high blood pressure.

Martinez-Alier said: “Those calling for green growth fail to understand that the inputs of energy and materials into the economy grow to unsustainable levels.

“Whether it is sand, fossil fuel or timber: most materials flow from impoverished to rich places, whether across the oceans or inside large countries like China or India. Local environmental conflicts are born from the opposition to this.”

Unscrupulous companies

However, Martinez-Alier adds: “When a success is achieved against some dirty local extraction, the knowledge of how to win is quickly reinforcing a global movement for environmental justice.” It seems that the multinationals are becoming ever more powerful, but so are the multinational anti-extraction coalitions.

Sand conflicts rage on all continents, but the conflict level is so granular that we fail to see them. Especially in poorer countries, communities increasingly find themselves battling on frontlines opened by unscrupulous companies and complicit local politicians.

These communities need all the support we can give them. And it is they who deserve the credit for trying to throw some sand in the already overheated machine that we know as the global, industrialised economy.

This Author

Nick Meynen is the project officer for global policies and sustainability at the European Environmental Bureau.

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