How the island kingdom of Bahrain wants to revive its natural pearl industry

An island kingdom just off the Arabian Peninsula, known as the first emirate nation to discover oil in 1932, wants to re-establish itself as the global center for sustainable pearls.

Natural pearls are one of the most sustainable and ethical luxury gems, both conflict-free and climate-friendly. With pearl beds bigger than Manhattan, Bahrain is looking to revive its traditional pearl industry – once the backbone of the country’s economy, CNN reports.

For centuries, Bahrainis have free-dived to collect pearl oysters from the sea floor. “Most families, before the discovery of oil in Bahrain, were associated with the trade of pearling — from merchants to divers, drillers, dealers,” says Faten Ebrahim Mattar, a sixth-generation pearl merchant from the Mattar family, which has been in the business since the 1850s

“Working in the natural pearl business is one of the toughest trades, due to the rarity of your star element,” she says.

According to Mattar, Bahrain has a reputation as the “Mecca of Pearling.” In 2012 UNESCO declared the Bahraini pearl beds a World Heritage site, calling the region the “last remaining complete example of the cultural tradition of pearling and the wealth it generated at a time when the trade dominated the Gulf economy.”

“Our geographic location as an island in the middle of the trade route from Iraq to India attributed to Bahrain being an important marketplace for this business,” says Mattar. She adds that some marine biologists believe that convergence of saltwater with fresh natural springs in the middle of the Gulf creates a unique environment for pearls to grow with high luster.

Though the value of the natural pearl plummeted after the advent of cultured pearls in Japan in the early 1900s, the gems are experiencing a renaissance as consumers look for more responsibly sourced jewelry and one-of-a-kind pieces. 

Natural pearls as “ultra-luxury”

At the beginning of the 20th century, to own a perfectly shaped pearl was a sign of extravagant wealth. Though a pearl necklace may no longer be traded for a New York townhouse, today natural pearl jewelry can fetch upwards of $300,000 at auction with some historic pieces selling for up to $32 million.

Natural pearls occur when a foreign object – such as a grain of sand, or parasite – finds its way inside a pearl oyster. To protect itself, the oyster produces an iridescent mineral substance to engulf the object.

With natural pearls occurring in only 1 in 10,000 oysters and each one growing organically over several years into a unique shape, every natural pearl is both rare and inimitable.

Unlike cultivated pearls from farms, which often involves deliberately inserting a foreign object (usually a bead) into the oyster and can be damaging to the environment, Bahrain’s natural pearls develop without any human interference.

Collection is done in the least obtrusive way with licensed divers carefully gathering oysters by hand, says Noora Jamsheer, CEO of the Bahrain Institute for Pearls and Gemstones (DANAT), which was established in 2017 to support a national plan to revive the pearl sector.

In collaboration with the Supreme Council for the Environment and the Coast Guard, DANAT monitors and shields the health of the pearl beds, periodically suspending diving in certain areas to allow for growth. The institute tests and certifies the pearls and offers hands-on pearl grading education.

Despite being impacted by the pandemic, DANAT says the natural pearl market is seeing steady growth. According to the institute, all parts of the industry in Bahrain have grown in the last year, and 2021 saw significant growth in the number of pearl diving licenses issued – including, for the first time, licenses being given to female pearl divers.

“We saw a strong rebound in 2021 in the growth in the luxury market,” says Jamsheer. “We’re not talking about the Guccis and the Louis Vuittons; it’s happening in the sector of ultra-luxury, extremely exclusive, one of a kind – and this is where natural pearls fall.”

Back in style

The greatest challenge to the natural pearl market today is the cultured pearl, says Kenneth Scarratt, president of the International Confederation of Jewelry (CIBJO) Pearl Commission.

Scarratt, a world-renowned expert who has worked in the pearl sector for 50 years and helped run DANAT when the institute first launched, says that the crash in value of the natural pearl was caused by the advent of cultured pearls in Japan, followed by the Great Depression in the 1930s.

“Once the Great Depression was over, the cultured pearl business had grown exponentially,” says Scarratt. “The super-rich were no longer buying pearls, but cultured pearls were an affordable option for the ordinary person.”

To the untrained eye, cultured pearls are indistinguishable from natural ones. With natural pearls making millions at auction and their cultured counterpart available for as little as $50, it’s easy to see why consumers would opt for the perfect imitation.

But Scarratt says he has seen interest in natural pearls rematerialize over the past decade. “There’s a growing segment of the market that looks out for what is rare. That segment of the market is looking for natural pearls,” he explains.

Scarratt says most of the pearls found in Bahrain are “seed pearls,” small pearls used in intricate jewelry designs and high fashion garments. “They have a particularly nice appearance,” he adds.

These Bahraini seed pearls are back in demand as new jewelry houses emerge and established jewelers start to reimagine natural pearls in contemporary designs.

“The generations who came after the birth of cultivated pearls, who haven’t been exposed to natural pearls, don’t necessarily know the difference between a cultivated and a natural pearl,” says Mattar. “Our biggest goal is to educate the world on the alluring beauty of the natural pearl, especially Bahraini pearls, by introducing new concepts and creating world class jewelry that instil the love of this gem.”

Read more

The world’s biggest companies are failing with their own climate targets

Amazon, Google, Ikea and BMW are among some of the world’s biggest companies failing to meet their own proclaimed climate targets and align with international agreements to slash greenhouse gas emissions, a new report claims, CNN reports.

The Germany-based NewClimate Institute assessed the climate strategies of 25 major companies and found that while they all “pledge some form of zero emission, net zero or carbon-neutrality target,” just three of them are committed to reducing their “full value chain emissions” by more than 90% by their respective targets dates.

The “Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor” report, published on Monday by NewClimate Institute and Carbon Market Watch, looked into how companies tracked and reported their greenhouse gas emissions, whether they set actual emissions reduction targets (as opposed to just using terms like “net zero”), what measures they were already taking and whether any plans to offset emissions had been publicized.

To achieve net zero, a company would need to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible and offset any that remained, whether through activities like planting trees to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) or using technology to “capture” harmful gases before they enter the atmosphere. Such​ technology is not fully developed yet.

The companies assessed in the report produce about 5% of the world’s greenhouse gases based on their self-reported emissions footprint. 

But just 13 of the 25 provided concrete details about their plans to reduce emissions to achieve net zero, on average, committing to reduce their emissions from 2019 by only 40%. 

And as a whole, the 25 companies committed to reducing less than 20% of their entire emissions footprint – or 2.7 gigatonnes of equivalent carbon dioxide – by their respective target years.

Based on the “transparency and integrity” of their climate pledges, the analysis categorized companies into five bands – from “very low integrity” all the way up to “high integrity,” which no company achieved.

Household names including BMW, Nestlé and Unilever – which owns brands like Dove and Magnum ice cream – were among 11 companies classified in the lowest “very low integrity” band, while Ikea, Google, Amazon, Walmart and Volkswagen were among those with “low integrity.”

Apple, Sony and Vodafone all rated in the middle, “moderate integrity,” category. 

Some of the companies mentioned have hit back at the report’s findings, describing them as inaccurate or reliant on incomplete information. 

Several said they were compliant with other well-established standards to put them in line with the Paris agreement, which aims to slash greenhouse gases to contain temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably to 1.5 degrees.

A large number of companies around the world have announced net-zero pledges in recent years, with many ahead of the COP26 climate talks in November last year. The increase in pledges makes it increasingly difficult to “distinguish between real climate leadership and unsubstantiated greenwashing,” the report said.

“As pressure on companies to act on climate change rises, their ambitious-sounding headline claims all too often lack real substance. Even companies that are doing relatively well exaggerate their actions,” said the NewClimate Institute’s Thomas Day, lead author of the study, in a press release. 

“We set out to uncover as many replicable good practices as possible, but we were frankly surprised and disappointed at the overall integrity of the companies’ claims.”

The report found that two-thirds of the companies would rely on offsetting to achieve their pledges, and more were likely to do so. Offsetting emissions is increasingly being met with skepticism, as previous schemes have collapsed and recent forest fires, such as those in the western US last summer, exposed the dangers of relying too heavily on trees to store carbon dioxide.

The study’s authors suggest that companies should be looking at ways to stop emissions getting into the atmosphere in the first place, rather than focusing on offsetting.

Net-zero goals will only be reached if they are substantiated by specific short-term emission reduction targets, the report said.

“Setting vague targets will get us nowhere without real action and can be worse than doing nothing if it misleads the public,” said Gilles Dufrasne from Carbon Market Watch in a statement. “Companies must face the reality of a changing planet. What seemed acceptable a decade ago is no longer enough.”

Only one company’s net-zero pledge – Danish shipping giant Maersk – was evaluated as having “reasonable integrity.” 

Maersk is aiming to reach net zero by 2040, and is one of three companies committed to reducing emissions across its value chain by at least 90%, the report notes. It adds that Maersk has invested in developing and scaling up alternative fuels. 

The company said in August last year that it would spend $1.4 billion on eight large ships that will have the capacity to travel on green methanol as well as traditional fuel. 

The report also highlighted some positive initiatives among companies that scored poorly overall.

Google, for example, is developing tools that will enable it to procure high-quality renewable energy in real-time, a tool that the report says is being picked up by other companies, the report’s authors said in a statement.

“We hope that companies will react constructively to our findings, to replicate the good practices that have been identified, and address any open issues,” Silke Mooldijk, a policy analyst from the NewClimate Institute.

“A first step would be to commit to ambitious deep reduction targets alongside their net-zero pledge. Second, we expect companies to adopt demonstrated emission reduction measures to target emissions across their value chain and invest in the development of innovative zero-carbon technologies where needed.”

What the companies say

A spokesperson for Amazon said that company was “committed to finding innovative solutions to reduce emissions” and pointed to its Climate Pledge, in which it aims to reach net-zero-emissions by 2040.

“We set these ambitious targets because we know that climate change is a serious problem, and action is needed now more than ever. As part of our goal to reach net-zero carbon by 2040, Amazon is on a path to powering our operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025 – five years ahead of our original target of 2030,” the spokesperson told.

Unilever, BMW, Nestlé, Volkswagen and Walmart all said that they were working to align with the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), a widely used standard established by the UN and other groups, including WWF and the World Resources Institute. 

In response to the report, BMW told that it planned to be carbon neutral by 2050, and said that the company had set out “clear goals” for the interim year 2030. It said the report was implying the SBTi standards were insufficient.

Nestlé’s Global Head of Climate Delivery, Benjamin Ware, said the company’s greenhouse gas emissions had already peaked and were now declining. The work that went into the company’s net-zero roadmap was “rigorous and extensive,” he said. 

“We have engaged with the NewClimate Institute to explain the data and methodology behind our strategy. We welcome scrutiny of our actions and commitments on climate change. However, the NewClimate Institute’s Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor report lacks understanding of our approach and contains significant inaccuracies,” Ware told.

An IKEA told the company plans to align with the SBTi’s net-zero standard this year “to secure that our climate goals across the value chain … are in line with the science of 1.5°C.”

Unilever said that transparency and integrity were “of the utmost importance” to the company.

“While we share different perspectives on some elements of this report, we welcome external analysis of our progress and have begun a productive dialogue with the NewClimate Institute to see how we can meaningfully evolve our approach,” a Unilever spokesperson told.

The Volkswagen Group said that the SBTi had confirmed the company’s climate targets were “in line with the conditions for limiting global warming to “well below 2 degrees Celsius.” It said that the report had erroneously claimed the company was not making certain emissions data publicly available.

Walmart also told that the report did not “accurately characterize Walmart’s climate goals and actions, and the authors did not provide an opportunity to provide corrections.

“Google, Apple and Vodafone did not immediately reply to CNN’s request for comment. Sony declined to comment.

Read more

Toxic volcanic lake reveals how life may have been possible on ancient Mars

Near the summit of Costa Rica’s Poás volcano is one of Earth’s most acidic lakes, bright blue and full of toxic metals, CNN reports.

The harsh conditions of Laguna Caliente, where temperatures can fluctuate between 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) and 194 degrees Fahrenheit (90 degrees Celsius), are where a few lucky scientists go to learn more about Mars.

Frequent phreatic eruptions occur when groundwater is heated by volcanic activity, releasing explosions of ash, rock and steam.

Yet microbes have found a way to live in this environment, one of the most hostile on our planet, according to multiple studies of the lake and new research published last week in Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Science

Although the diversity of the life in this lake isn’t high, it has managed to adapt and persist in a multitude of ways.

“Our finding shows that life persists in the most extreme environments on Earth,” said study author Justin Wang, graduate student and research assistant at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“It’s hard to imagine something more hostile to life than an ultra-acidic volcanic lake with frequent eruptions,” Wang said. “The low biodiversity coupled with numerous adaptations and metabolisms in our sample suggests the lake hosts highly specialized microbes for this kind of environment.”

This otherworldly environment could suggest how life might have existed on Mars billions of years ago and reveal new places to search for evidence of ancient life on the red planet, according to the researchers.

A tale of two lakes

The two crater lakes near the volcano’s summit, both formed after craters filled with rainwater, couldn’t be more different from each other. One inactive crater holds Botos lake, which is surrounded by tropical vegetation. The active crater is home to Laguna Caliente, which contains liquid sulfur and iron. Gases from the lake create acid rain and acid fog, harming nearby ecosystems and irritating the eyes and lungs of intrepid explorers.

Researchers conducted active field studies at the lake in 2013, 2017 and 2019. While the results from the 2019 excursion are still pending, it’s a trip Wang will never forget.

Poás volcano, located in the middle of the Costa Rican rainforest, erupted most recently in 2017 and 2019. The area immediately around the volcano is devoid of life due to the toxic gases it releases.

Wang and his collaborators hiked to the volcano in November, a month after the crater lake reformed. They were mindful of where they stepped in the loose soil caused by acidity breaking down the surface material. Parts of the lake boiled and volcanic openings called fumaroles belched out hot sulfurous gases.

“When I went to the Poás Volcano, it was after over a year of magmatic eruptions and only a month after the lake reformed and it was deemed safe enough to return to the crater lake’s surface,” Wang said. “The lake itself is roiling and dynamic. As you get even closer, you can smell the strong stench of sulfur, which has remained on the clothes I was wearing to this day. Even worse is the smell of hydrochloric acid, which tastes sour in the air and stings the eyes.” 

Surrounding the lake are puddles of boiling water and acid, and Wang felt the volcano’s heat through the bottoms of his shoes near the lake shore. 

The researchers collected samples from the lake, just as they had in 2013 and 2017.

“It is a very intense and thrilling experience to sample from the lake,” Wang said. “I’m very lucky to be one of the handful of scientists in the world to have been able to visit this environment.”

Living on the edge

In 2013, the researchers determined that Acidiphilium bacteria lives in the lake. These microbes are often found in acid mine drainage as well as hydrothermal systems, like Laguna Caliente. Acidiphilium bacteria have multiple genes that allow them to adapt to survive across different environments.

More eruptions occurred at the site before the team returned in 2017. After gathering more samples, the researchers found that there was a little more biodiversity among the bacteria in the lake than expected. Additionally, their DNA sequencing revealed that the Acidiphilium bacteria has developed ways to convert elements like sulfur, iron and arsenic to create the energy needed to survive.

“Between 2013 and 2017, there were numerous phreatic eruptions that influx toxic metals, extreme acidity, and heat to the lake, but nevertheless we saw some of the same microorganisms in the same environment,” Wang said.

About a month after the team collected samples from the lake in March 2017, the Poás volcano erupted with magma. The force of the explosion hurtled rocks over a mile away from the site, spewed lava, drained the crater lake and released an ash plume about 12,000 feet above the crater multiple times, said study coauthor Geoffroy Avard, volcanologist at the Volcanological and Seismological Observatory of Costa Rica.

“We would like to characterize how life reclaims this environment,” he said. “A main hypothesis from our study is that life in the Poás Volcano is able to survive on the fringes during these extreme environments. So we’d love to sample not only the crater lake but the shore line, connected groundwater systems, and anywhere where life might be harbored nearby.”

The search for life

The genetic adaptations discovered by Wang and his colleagues during their study suggests that life could have survived in hydrothermal environments on Mars much like it does in some of the most extreme places on Earth. 

Hydrothermal systems provide heat, water and energy – all necessary for the formation and evolution of life. While previous Martian exploration has looked at ancient sources of water like craters and rivers, the researchers think that the sites of ancient hot springs are another key target in the search for extraterrestrial life.

“These places are not hard to find since early Mars had rampant volcanism and abundant near-surface water,” said study coauthor Brian Hynek, associate professor at University of Colorado Boulder’s department of geological sciences and a research associate at the university’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, via email.

“In fact, we have discovered many ‘dried up Yellowstones’ across Mars, based on sulfur-bearing mineral signatures detected from orbit,” he said.

The NASA Spirit rover even came across a volcanic vent when it explored Mars between 2004 and 2011, Hynek noted. 

“The crater rim of the Jezero Crater, where the Perseverance rover is now, is a place that likely exhibited hydrothermal activity due to the crater-forming impact that occurred, so I’d be curious to see what results Perseverance finds when it reaches there,” Wang said. 

Research to understand the tiny organisms that live in extreme environments is changing how scientists regard the limits of life, whether it be within an active volcanic crater lake or along hot hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor.

While that helps researchers change the way they think about how life might exist within the hostile conditions on other planets, Wang warns that scientists shouldn’t be too “Earth-centric” in their approach. Life on Earth is usually found in the presence of water, but the existence of water on Mars was much more limited and episodic in the past, he said.”I think we need to change the way of how we think of life on other worlds,” Wang said.

“We need to consider the unique geological histories of our extraterrestrial environments and put that in context with what we have here on Earth. If rivers were unstable on Mars while hot springs were common, then perhaps life in hydrothermal environments is the most likely place where life could have existed.”

Read more

Ice that was forming 2,000 years has melt during

The highest glacier on the world’s tallest mountain is losing decades worth of ice every year because of human-induced climate change, a new study shows, CNN reports.

The findings serve as a warning that rapid glacier melt at some of the Earth’s highest points could bring worsening climate impacts, including more frequent avalanches and a drying-up of water sources that around 1.6 billion people in mountain ranges depend on for drinking, irrigation and hydropower. 

Ice that took around 2,000 years to form on the South Col Glacier has melted in around 25 years, which means it has thinned out around 80 times faster than it formed.

While glacier melt is widely studied, little scientific attention has been paid to glaciers at the highest points of the planet, the researchers argue in the study, published in Nature Portfolio Journal Climate and Atmospheric Science.

A team of scientists and climbers, including six from the University of Maine, visited the glacier in 2019 and collected samples from a 10-meter-long (around 32 feet) ice core. They also installed the world’s two highest automatic weather stations to collect data and answer a question: Are the Earth’s most out-of-reach glaciers impacted by human-linked climate change?

“The answer is a resounding yes, and very significantly since the late 1990s,” said Paul Mayewski, the expedition leader and the director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine.

The researchers said that the findings not only confirmed that human-sourced climate change reached the highest points on Earth, but that is it was also disrupting the critical balance that snow-covered surfaces provide.

“It’s a complete change from what has been experienced in that area, throughout probably all of the period of occupation by humans in the mountains,” Mayewski told CNN. “And it’s happened very fast.”

The research showed that once the glacier’s ice became exposed, it lost around 55 meters (180 feet) of ice in a quarter-century. The researchers note that the glacier has transformed from consisting of snowpack into predominantly ice, and that change could have started as early as the 1950s. But the ice loss has been most intense since the late 1990s. 

This transformation to ice means the glacier can no longer reflect radiation from the sun, making its melt more rapid.

Model simulations show that because of the extreme exposure to solar radiation, melting or vaporization in this region can speed up by a factor of more than 20, once snow cover transforms to ice. A drop in relative humidity levels and stronger winds are also factors.

In addition to all the impacts on those who depend on water from glaciers, the current rate of melt would also make expeditions on Mount Everest more challenging, as snow and ice cover thin further over coming decades.

“Polar bears have been the iconic symbol for warming of the Arctic and the loss of sea ice,” Mayewski said. “We’re hoping that what’s happened high up on Everest will be another iconic call and demonstration.

“The 2019 expedition set three Guinness World Records: The highest altitude ice core taken at 8,020 meters, the highest altitude microplastic found on land, which were likely from clothing or tents, found at 8,440 meters; and the highest altitude weather station on land, installed at “Balcony,” a ridge sitting 8,430 meters above sea level.

The station is the first installed in what is known as the “death zone” for its dangerous hiking conditions – it’s the zone above 8,000 meters where there’s not enough enough oxygen to sustain life beyond short periods of time.

Read more

Gas stoves and ovens have a large climate impact

The gas emitted from household stoves and ovens is not only dangerous to public health but also has a much more significant impact on the climate crisis than previously thought, new research shows.

The study, from scientists at Stanford University, found the emissions from gas stoves in US homes have the same climate-warming impact as that of half a million gasoline-powered cars – far more than scientists have previously estimated.

“This new study confirms what environmental advocates have been saying for over a decade now, that there is no [such thing as] clean gas – not for our homes, not for our communities and not for the climate,” Lee Ziesche, community engagement coordinator for Sane Energy, a non-profit climate justice group that was not involved in the research, told CNN. “From the drilling well to the stoves in our kitchens, fracked gas is harming our health and warming the planet.”

Methane, the main component of natural gas, is a potent planet-warmer. It is around 80 times more powerful in the short term than carbon dioxide, scientists say.

The study also found that in homes without range hoods, or with poor ventilation, the concentration of harmful nitrogen oxides – a byproduct of burning natural gas – can reach or surpass a healthy limit within minutes, especially in homes with small kitchens. 

Gas stoves and ovens leak significant amounts of planet-warming methane whether they are on or off. The study estimates stoves release 0.8% to 1.3% of their natural gas into the atmosphere as unburned methane. 

That may not sound like much, but lead study author Eric Lebel told CNN it’s a “really big number” when added to the amount of methane that is released during the production and transmission of the gas itself.

“If someone says they don’t use their stove, and so they’re not actually emitting any methane, well, that’s actually not true because most of the stoves that we measured had at least a slow bleed of methane while they were off,” said Lebel, who conducted the research as a graduate student at Stanford University and is now a senior scientist at PSE Healthy Energy.

For nitrogen oxides, or NOx, which pose an especially harmful risk to children and the elderly, Lebel said they found the emissions are directly proportional to how much gas is burned. 

“So if you turn another burner on, use a bigger burner, or turn it higher, all these things will create more NOx,” Lebel said. The concentration of those gases is “dependent on how big your kitchen is, what your ventilation is in your kitchen, all those things matter.”

The study comes as a growing number of US cities, including certain places in California, New York and Massachusetts, are shifting away from including natural gas hookups in new homes. Green energy advocates argue that switching from gas to electric appliances will ease the transition to renewable energy. Electric appliances, according to this study, avoid the harmful byproducts of burning natural gas.

According to the latest data from the US Energy Information Administration, there were more than 40 million gas stoves in US households in 2015, though the proportion of gas stoves in some regions is higher than others. 

The study also suggests that the federal government is underestimating the amount of methane emissions leaking from homes, which the researchers found was 15% higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimate for all residential emissions in 2019.

“This new study is a really great example of how widespread the sources of greenhouse gas pollution are,” Charles Koven, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who is not involved with the study, told CNN. 

“Getting to net-zero isn’t a matter of replacing just the cars or just the power plants that burn fossil fuels with alternatives that don’t,” he added. “We need to look at everything that uses fossil fuels, even the sources as seemingly small as leaky gas pipes that power the stoves in our kitchens, and realize that all of these tiny sources can add up to big climate impacts.”

Methane emissions were a focus in a major UN climate report in August, in which Koven was a lead author. Scientists found the concentration of methane in the atmosphere is higher now than any time in at least 800,000 years – and that reducing methane is the easiest knob to turn to change the path of global temperature in the next 10 years. 

Natural gas has been hailed as a “bridge fuel” that would transition the US to renewable energy because it is more efficient than coal and emits less carbon dioxide when burned. But that plan, some experts say, underestimates the impact of it leaking, unburned, into the atmosphere and causing significant warming.

Lebel said that he hopes policymakers can use their research in their effort to decarbonize homes and make appliances healthier. 

“It’s neither just a climate issue, not a health issue, but it’s both together,” he said. “When people are deciding whether or not to put out a gas ban, they should consider the climate and health impacts and what the benefits of electrification would be. And it seems pretty clear what the science is showing.”

Read more

Australia pledges 1 billion Australian dollars to protect the Great Barrier Reef

The Australian government on Friday pledged 1 billion Australian dollars ($700 million) to protect the Great Barrier Reef, months after it narrowly avoided being placed on the UN’s cultural agency’s “danger” list due to the threat of climate change, CNN reports.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison unveiled the nearly decade-long conservation package days ahead of a February 1 deadline set by UNESCO to submit a report on the reef’s state of conservation.

“We are backing the health of the reef and the economic future of tourism operators, hospitality providers and Queensland communities that are at the heart of the reef economy,” Morrison said in a statement.

The funding will support new climate adaptation technology, investment in water quality programs, and protect key species in the biodiverse reef, he added. 

In July, UNESCO debated whether the Great Barrier Reef was “in danger” – a designation that means a site is under threat. If the action wasn’t taken to address concerns, it was at risk of losing its World Heritage status, the UN agency warned.

In a letter published last July, 13 public figures – actors, former politicians and journalists – urged leaders to act fast and “save” the reef. 

“We urge the world’s major emitters to undertake the most ambitious climate action under the Paris Agreement,” the letter read. “There is still time to save the Great Barrier Reef, but Australia and the world must act now.” Morrison’s announcement Friday comes ahead of a general election expected in May.

The Australian Climate Council, which is independent of the government, dismissed Morrison’s pledge, calling it “a band-aid on a broken leg” in a statement Friday.

“Unless you are cutting emissions deeply this decade the situation on the Reef will only get worse,” climate scientist and Professor of Biology at Macquarie University, Professor Lesley Hughes said in the statement. 

In an interview with radio station 4A Cairns Friday, Morrison said emissions were falling under policies the government has put in place, which is beneficial for the reef.

“We’re achieving those outcomes, and we’re going to keep doing it because we’re passionate about it,” he said.

Impact of the climate crisis

The Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef, covers nearly 133,000 square miles (344,000 square kilometers) and is home to more than 1,500 types of fish, over 400 kinds of hard corals and dozens of other species.

But the effects of the climate crisis, coupled with a series of natural disasters, have had a devastating impact on the reef. An Australian government five-year survey in 2019 found the condition of the natural wonder had deteriorated from “poor” to “very poor.”

The reef has lost 50% of its coral populations in the last three decades, according to a study published in October 2020 by researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. 

In a report published in June last year, a UNESCO monitoring mission said that despite the Australian government’s work to improve the reef’s situation, “there is no possible doubt that the property is facing ascertained danger.”

But the Australian government has strongly objected to that conclusion. Environment Minister Sussan Ley flew to Europe last July as part of a last-ditch attempt to convince the other members of the World Heritage to vote against the measure. Australia is currently part of the 21-country rotating committee.

Morrison on Friday called the reef the “best managed” in the world. “Today we take our commitment to a new level,” he said.

Read more

How honey is helping to save the spectacled bear?

A bear cub with distinctive yellow circling about the eyes is caught on camera, deep in the dry forests of the Andes mountain range in Bolivia. Beside it, a glimpse of the shaggy black fur of its mother, CNN reports.

For six months, researchers had laid camera traps across a 600-square-kilometer area, trying to catch sight of the rare spectacled bear. But besides the occasional photo of an indistinguishable hairy figure with its head out of shot, the elusive species had avoided the lens. 

The photo was a breakthrough for Bolivian conservationist Ximena Velez-Liendo and her team. “We were over the moon, because it wasn’t just a bear, it was a breeding population,” she says. “That was one of the happiest moments in my life.”

This candid photo of a bear cub, taken by camera trap on 9 February 2017, marked significant progress for Velez-Liendo and her team.

Five years later, Velez-Liendo has gathered essential details on the enigmatic creatures and devised a strategy for protecting them. 

As South America’s only bear species, the spectacled or Andean bear is renowned worldwide thanks largely to Paddington Bear, the fictional character who hails from “deepest, darkest Peru.” But in reality, populations across the continent are dwindling. 

Fewer than 10,000 spectacled bears remain, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which lists the species as vulnerable. In Bolivia, the southernmost country in the world where spectacled bears are found and where Velez-Liendo’s work is focused, there are believed to be around 3,000 individuals.

Severe drought, as a result of climate change, has led local farmers to replace agricultural production with cattle ranches, says Velez-Liendo. The bears, struggling to find food in their own shrinking habitat, encroach on this land and sometimes kill livestock, which leads to farmers killing the bears in retaliation. Deforestation and exploiting the land for oil and mining contributes to habitat loss, while drought unbalances the ecosystem, pushing the species closer to extinction. 

Velez-Liendo wants to conserve the “majestic” and “charismatic” creatures to which she has devoted the last 20 years of her life. But her recipe for conservation involves an unusual ingredient: honey.

A spectacled bear is caught on camera bathing in a watering hole in northern Peru.

Bears and beekeepers

Based in the inter-Andean dry forest of southern Bolivia and funded by Chester Zoo and Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), the project not only monitors the region’s bear population, but trains local people as beekeepers. The idea is that by generating a healthy income from honey, it offers an economic alternative to cattle ranching.

“The main threat (to bears) is definitely people,” says Velez-Liendo, and “cattle are the main reason for people killing bears.” But cattle ranching is not well suited to high elevations and produces small returns at a significant environmental cost, requiring 20 times more land, water and resources than it does in the lowlands, she adds.

So the team set up community apiaries, where local people could learn and practice beekeeping. After the first honey harvest, people started building their own private hives. The honey – branded “Valle de Osos,” meaning “Valley of the Bears” – went on sale, and money started to trickle in.

The honey’s label references the bears, as they are at the root of the project, says Velez-Liendo.

There have been three harvests since the beekeeping project began in 2018, producing 2,750 kilograms of honey and almost $20,000 in revenue, says Velez-Liendo – more than double that generated by cattle. 

Circle of life

At the same time, the process is teaching locals about the ecosystem and the bear’s crucial role in maintaining it: by spreading seeds, the bears help to restore forests, which in turn helps to secure water supplies. “People need to see the benefit of protecting the bears,” says Velez-Liendo, and through beekeeping, “we show them that by protecting the bear, they are protecting the forest, and by protecting the forest, they are protecting the bees.”

Velez-Liendo (left) works closely with local communities on the project.

The project has been widely recognized as crucial in preserving the species, winning the 2017 Whitley Award for grassroots wildlife conservationists. Last month, the Whitley Fund for Nature announced it would fund Velez-Liendo for the next two years, as she works to create a “productive protected landscape” – a management framework that respects traditional land-use while combining restoration and nature-positive economic activity.

She hopes that by presenting a viable framework, other countries with spectacled bear populations will follow suit. Conservation efforts are already underway across South America, including in Ecuador, where a bear corridor has been created north of the capital, Quito, and in Peru, where the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society (SBC) works with indigenous communities to create private protected areas, as well as offering alternative livelihood programs.

Community engagement is essential in long-lasting population change, agrees Canadian biologist Robyn Appleton, who founded the SBC in 2009. “If you don’t have communities onside, you will not be doing any conservation,” she says. “You could have the last bear in Peru, and it wouldn’t matter.”

By building relationships with local communities, Appleton says they have successfully reduced the use of slash and burn – the clearance of land by burning all the trees and plants on it.

The important message to get across is that protecting the bear protects people, too. “We love the bears and we care about wildlife, but we also care about humans,” says Appleton. “For us, it’s about protecting a place – protecting the humans, protecting the wildlife, protecting the ecosystem. They all work together.”

A group of spectacled bears are spotted clambering through the forest in search of food.

Gardeners of the Andes 

Spectacled bears play a vital role in the survival of the whole ecosystem, of which there is not much left. The dry forests of Bolivia, which flank the eastern Andes with shrubs and dense thicket, are critically endangered. According to research from the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation, only 6% remains intact.

Primarily vegetarian, spectacled bears feed on fruit, berries and cacti, and move up to five miles a day, dispersing seeds within the area as they defecate and generating new growth and biodiversity. 

“Bears are the gardeners of the Andes,” says Velez-Liendo. “In areas where bears have been exterminated, the quality of the forest is extremely poor.”

Thanks to Velez-Liendo’s bear program, scientists are now more aware than ever of what other life exists within the ecosystem. Eight species of wild cats have been spotted on the site, including jaguars and pumas, and there have also been sightings of the critically endangered chinchilla rat. 

“Because of all our efforts to protect just one species, we’re protecting 31 species of mammals, about 50 species of birds, and 20 species of other amphibians,” says Velez-Liendo. “By protecting bears we’re protecting an entire ecosystem.”

Read more

Snow covers Saudi Arabian desert

For most people, thinking about the Saudi Arabian desert probably conjures up images of sand dunes backed by relentless sunshine. More recently, however, those sands have been covered in snow, CNN reports.

Several recent snow and hailstorms in the region have transformed landscapes in and around Saudi Arabia, stirring excitement among locals and causing a sensation on social media. 

Earlier this month, Saudi photographer Osama Al-Habri captured aerial images of Badr Governorate, southwest of the Islamic pilgrimage city of Medina, dressed in white as locals gathered to enjoy the unusual sight. 

Al-Harbi told CNN that winter weather of such intensity in the Badr desert area was a rare phenomenon that had not occurred for years. He described it as a “historic hailstorm.”

The Saudi photographer, who documented the scenes on January 11, said the site was teeming with visitors, many of who had traveled miles for a glimpse of the frozen landscape.

At the time of Al-Harbi’s visit, Saudi Arabia’s National Center of Meteorology had forecast moderate to heavy rain in the Medina region, along with winds, low visibility and hail, according to the Saudi Press Agency.

Wintry conditions were experienced again this week, when snow fell in northwestern Saudi Arabia, covering the city of Tabuk, near the border with Jordan, and nearby mountains on February 16, according to Reuters.

Read more

The world should reduce its appetite for electricity to stop a climate disaster

The world needs more electricity. That will mean severe climate damage unless something changes soon, CNN reports.

A report published Friday by the International Energy Agency found that global demand for electricity surged 6% in 2021, fueled by a colder winter and the dramatic economic rebound from the pandemic. That drove both prices and carbon emissions to new records.

The growth in demand was particularly intense in China, where it jumped by about 10%.

IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said the report contained a stark warning for the future. 

Electricity has a crucial role to play in the fight against climate change as countries ditch fossil fuels and more battery-powered cars hit the road. But so far, renewable sources of electricity — as opposed to power stations that burn coal or natural gas — haven’t kept up.

Electricity generated by renewables grew by 6% globally last year, while coal-fired generation leaped 9% due to high demand and skyrocketing natural gas prices, which made it look like a more attractive option.

Carbon dioxide emissions from power generation rose 7% as a result, reaching an all-time high after declining the previous two years.

“Not only does this highlight how far off track we currently are from a pathway to net zero emissions by 2050, but it also underscores the massive changes needed for the electricity sector to fulfill its critical role in decarbonizing the broader energy system,” Birol said in a statement.

In the United States, coal-fired electricity generation spiked by 19% in 2021. The increase is likely to be temporary, though, with output from coal expected to decline by about 6% a year between 2022 and 2024, according to the IEA.

There’s some good news: Rapid expansion of renewable energy capacity should be enough to cover the vast majority of the growth in global electricity demand through 2024. 

Still, emissions will remain high. The IEA found that emissions from the power sector will “remain around the same level from 2021 to 2024,” even though they need to decline “sharply” for the world to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Read more

Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani donated $80 billion into green energy

Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani is going big on green energy. His conglomerate, Reliance Industries, announced Thursday that it would allocate a whopping 6 trillion rupees (approximately $80.6 billion) to renewable power projects in the western Indian state of Gujarat, where it hopes to help generate a million new jobs, CNN reports.

The bulk of that money — about $67.7 billion — will go toward a new power plant and hydrogen system, the company said in a stock exchange filing. Reliance plans to make the massive investment over a 10-to-15-year period and has already begun scouting for land for the 100-gigawatt capacity site. 

The company also plans to create a new manufacturing hub that will be dedicated to the production of solar panels, fuel cell technology and other renewable energy sources. 

Reliance said the new initiatives stem “from the vision” of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The company’s 1 million jobs projection includes both direct and indirect new opportunities in Modi’s home state.

Renewable energy is starting to take off in India. Last year, new installations of such projects were projected to double across the country, compared with those from 2015 to 2020.

The trend comes at a critical time. As of late last year, coal still accounted for almost 70% of the country’s electricity generation. 

That placed the world’s second most populous country in a vulnerable spot recently as it faced risks of a coal crunch last October, with stocks of the commodity at most Indian power plants dropping to critically low levels.

Reliance is one of India’s most valuable and recognizable companies. The powerhouse conglomerate — which spans petrochemicals, telecommunications and retail — has long been trying to reduce its reliance on oil.

It has also been undergoing a shift in focus recently as Ambani, its chairman, seeks to transform it into a global tech giant.In its statement Thursday, Reliance said it would use the remaining funds to invest “. In existing projects and new ventures over next three to five years.” 

Over that period, the company wants to direct $1 billion to upgrade its mobile network to 5G, and spend about $406 million on its retail arm.

Read more