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The value of vultures

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What’s a vulture worth? A lot more than you might think, says campaigner, writer and sustainability adviser Tony Juniper.

Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from What Has Nature Ever Done For Us? How Money Really Does Grow on Trees (2013) by Tony Juniper. In the book, the author explores the economic value of nature, pointing to examples of natural services that are (or were) provided for free by nature, and which are being removed at our cost. Juniper argues that in light of this realisation, we should stop treating natural systems in a destructive manner. This excerpt originally appeared on Ensia and appears here with permission from Synergetic Press, .

One bright clear morning in April 1993, I was aboard a British Airways 747 that was preparing to land at New Delhi Airport in India. As the aircraft started its final descent from about 1,000 metres, I noticed vultures. Their broad wings, with flight feathers spread out like a span of long fingers, had taken them to the height of the plane. From this vantage point their incredibly sharp vision would enable them to scan the land for the dead animals they feasted on.

Riding thermals just a few hundred metres from where I sat, the huge soaring birds flashed by the windows. It crossed my mind that one might get sucked into an engine, as from time to time they do. Aside from immediate safety worries, I was fascinated to see such a number of large birds of prey flying over a built-up sprawl of houses, roads and industry. I was impressed by their abundance — little did I know that these birds were in big trouble. About a year earlier, vulture numbers in India had begun to go down — and fast.

Three different kinds of vultures are native to India and all of them had recently declined at a truly unprecedented rate. There were about 40m vultures in India in 1993, but by 2007 the population of the long-billed vulture had dropped by nearly 97%. For the oriental white-backed vulture it was even worse, with a 99.9% drop in numbers during that same period. In other words, it had gone virtually extinct.

The decimation of the vultures was inadvertently brought about by a new anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac. Initially developed to treat people, it was also used to help livestock. The immediate, often dramatic beneficial effects it caused in sick animals made the drug very popular with country vets. But if animals are treated with diclofenac a few days before their death, traces of the drug remain in their bodies. Vultures live from the dead bodies of other animals. So when they fed on cattle, water buffalo and other carcasses, the drug went into the vultures’ bodies. It poisoned them, and then they died.

Matters were made worse by the fact that dozens or even hundreds of vultures feed on a single carcass, so when a dead animal has traces of diclofenac it can affect a lot of birds in one go. As a result, all three Indian vulture species are now listed as critically endangered. The oriental white-backed vulture has gone from being what was thought to be the most numerous large birds of prey in the world to one of the most imperiled. Its population at the time of writing is believed to be no more than about 10,000 birds.

While at first sight the loss of vultures might be of interest mainly to bird conservation groups, it was soon found that a whole lot of other people were affected. The question of whom and by how much was investigated by a research team led by Anil Markandya. His team used interviews, field surveys and various official information sources to find out how much the near disappearance of the vultures had cost the Indian economy.

One set of costs was borne by the very poor people who used dead cattle remains as a source of raw materials. When cows fell dead, they were skinned by people supplying the leather industry. With the skin removed it was easy work for the vultures to quickly dispose of the flesh, leaving the bare bones drying out in the hot sun. The bones were then collected and sold as feedstock for the fertiliser industry. Not nice work, but for very poor people at least a source of income.

Putrefying bodies of large animals left out in the sun are a public health hazard, and with no vultures to clean them up they were burned or buried. In this way the disappearance of the vultures deprived many poor people of at least part of their livelihood. It also created new costs for communities, who had to stump up for carcass disposal. Even if any carcasses were left out, the bones that remained were generally of poorer quality because other scavengers, such as feral dogs, don’t clean them as thoroughly as the vultures.

The loss of the vultures also created concerns for faith communities, notably the Parsi. The practitioners of this faith believe fire, water, air and earth are pure elements that should be protected from contamination. This is why for thousands of years they have laid out their dead in the open air at remote hill locations called ‘Towers of Silence’. Vultures frequented these places and quickly reduced corpses to bones. With their loss, the Parsis have had to resort to other means for disposing of their dead, including solar concentrators which produce high temperatures and reduce a body to bones in about three days. Such devices cost about $4,000 each.

The costs felt by poor working people through the loss of raw materials and by the Parsi in making alternative funeral arrangements are minor, however, compared to the consequences for public health. Rotting carcasses provide a rich breeding ground for bacteria, including those that cause disease in humans, such as anthrax. The decline of vultures has also created more space for other scavengers — such as rats and dogs.

Researchers looked at dog population estimates and found evidence that the decline in vultures had been accompanied by an increase in dog numbers. Chris Bowden helps to co-ordinate a coalition of groups called SAVE (Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction). He gave me an impression of how much cleaning work the vultures were doing: “The 40m or so vultures that lived in India during the early 1990s were between them eating about 12m tonnes of meat a year, mostly from dead cattle but also some water buffalo.”

It was estimated that this quantity of food, made available after the vultures had gone, would sustain around 4-7m more dogs. And that appears to be exactly what happened. Between 1992 and 2003 the dog population is estimated to have gone up by about 7m. And, while the estimated increase in dogs does not prove a causal link between declining vultures and rising dogs, the fact that official sources also indicated a relatively stable dog population between 1982 and 1987 (when there were still a lot of vultures) suggests that the two trends are indeed related.

And these dogs are feral. They receive no veterinary care and carry many diseases, notably brucellosis and distemper, which can be spread in livestock and to humans, and rabies. India has the highest rate of rabies infection anywhere in the world, and dog bites are the main way people contract it. Over 95% of fatal cases start that way.

The researchers found evidence for an increase in rabies in rural areas during the period when the vultures declined with infection rates heavily biased toward the poorest people. Rabies had been partially controlled in India with vaccines, but in the years after the vultures declined, when the dogs increased, there was a rise in people seeking post-exposure treatment — that is, people who had been bitten.

Markandya and his team of researchers attempted to put some numbers on this. They estimated that in the period 1992 to 2006, nearly 40m additional dog bites occurred due to the increase in dog numbers. These, they estimated, led to between 47,395 to 48,886 additional deaths from rabies, compared with if the vultures had still been there. This is a remarkable conclusion: nearly 50,000 people are estimated to have died because of the disappearance of the vultures. Remarkable too is the estimated impact on India’s economy. Between 1993 and 2006 the loss of the vultures was estimated to have cost the country about $34 billion.

These numbers have not gone unquestioned. The work of Markandya and his team relied heavily on public data, some of which was incomplete. Their findings also rested on a good deal of statistical analysis, and so the numbers I have cited here, and which came from research, are open to challenge, and the authors agree that more work is needed. On the other hand, the researchers built in assumptions that tended to make their estimates more conservative, so the true costs could actually be higher than those quoted. They certainly dwarf the economic gains from improvements to cattle farming that came with diclofenac.

Even if the true cost was an order of magnitude lower than their figure of $34 billion — let’s say $3 billion — it seems to me that it would still be economically sensible to do what the researchers suggested. That is, to ban the diclofenac that killed the vultures and to begin a large-scale captive breeding programme, so that the birds’ former numbers might be restored. New drugs which do not harm vultures are now available to treat farm animals, while the cost of a proper vulture captive breeding program over twenty years would cost less than $100m.

There has been some success in cutting diclofenac use. Chris Bowden says: “A ban was imposed and it was made an imprisonable offense in India to make and sell vet formulations of diclofenac. But companies are still making the human version of the drug, and selling it in vet-sized bottles. So its use is down, but it’s still being used at a level that will prevent the recovery of the vultures.”

It is perhaps appropriate that some of the garbage wagons that take away household waste are called vultures. They get a bit smelly in the summer, but, as has been the case with their namesake birds, if they don’t turn up people soon notice. One big difference, of course, is that when the birds arrived for work, they provided their services for free.

Photo: Sias van Schalkwyk via freeimages

Further reading:

Conservation victory as European bison returns to Romanian wild after 200 years

Lord Rooker: more woodland can help against floods

TED Talks: For more wonder, rewild the world – George Monbiot

‘FTSE index’ of threatened wildlife charts 60% decline since 1970

Loss of large carnivores puts ecosystem in danger

Economy

Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?

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self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/zapp2photo

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.

Deadheading

Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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Economy

New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035

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renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart / https://www.shutterstock.com/g/adrian825

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.

Sources: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-11-06/green-dream-risks-energy-security-as-kiwis-aim-for-zero-carbon

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-hydrocarbons/france-plans-to-end-oil-and-gas-production-by-2040-idUSKCN1BH1AQ

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