Biodiversity and the City 4: What Edward Norton Should Know for the UN’s Biodiversity Summit

Diplomats from around the world are gathering this week in New York City for the United Nations General Assembly and Climate Week. While much discussion focuses on climate change, there is additional pressure during this International Year of Biodiversity to build consensus for the upcoming Biodiversity Summit (COP 10) in Nagoya, Japan. A “High level meeting on Biodiversity” takes place at the UN this Wednesday, September 22.

The actor Edward Norton, who was named Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity, recently penned an op-ed calling for greater action on biodiversity by world governments, especially the Obama administration in the United States.

In anticipation of the Biodiversity Summit, Marielle Anzelone wrote the excellent piece below for the Huffington Post over the summer. The global loss of biodiversity, which has been compared to rivets popping out of an airplane wing, needs greater public attention.

Anzelone, formerly the plant ecologist for NYC Parks’ Natural Resources Group, is leading tours of New York City’s tremendous biodiversity this week for the visiting diplomats.

I think this is a vital aspect of deliberations. Though undoubtedly informed by solid scientific input, the Biodiversity Summit will ultimately aim for high-level agreements and commitments about valuing and protecting habitat. I expect that virtually all of the diplomats from around the world live in cities and are more accustomed to engaging politicians than to understanding nature where they live.

Biodiversity, like climate change, is a broad concept that invokes somewhat amorphous global systems. But biodiversity is also about plants and animals that live in, or inhabit, places. This wildlife thrives or declines alongside — to varying degrees — human communities. Conservation, therefore, cannot succeed without buy-in and regular participation from local residents. Local biodiversity conservation also supports climate change mitigation and adaptation and human security.

Conservation efforts will have to expand in and around urbanizing areas (a challenging negotiation). There will be a concurrent session in Nagoya called the City Biodiversity Summit. Nonetheless, helping diplomats to recognize the ongoing interplay of wildlife amidst large human populations, like in New York City, is vitally important.

If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere….

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Actor Edward Norton is unhappy. He is miffed because although he had starred as The Hulk in an earlier movie, he was not cast as the great green hero in a follow-up film. Cheer up, Ed! You’ve landed an even greener role: United Nations’ Biodiversity Ambassador. As the former botanist for New York City, I know first-hand the importance of biodiversity. In fact, I’ll be hosting international diplomats on a tour of New York’s nature this fall for the UN’s Biodiversity Summit. Since we’re going to be colleagues, I’d like to help you prepare for your new role. Here are some things you should know.

Urban nature exists. Most people embrace Kurt Vonnegut’s description of the Big Apple as a “Skyscraper National Park”. While accurate at 51st Street and 7th Avenue, it obscures the fact that there is bona fide nature in the five boroughs, even in Manhattan. New York City has more open space than Los Angeles and Chicago combined. These 53,000 acres include towering forests, vibrant marshes and grassland meadows. The world looks increasingly like New York, with more people now living in urban settings than rural areas. The city’s 8 million residents are drafting a blueprint for biodiversity from which global lessons can be learned.

Clean air isn’t free. Local biodiversity provides us with fresh air to breathe and pure water to drink. Humans benefit from abated floodwaters and the pollination of food crops. Nature provides these ecosystem services for free, but there is clearly a price to be paid for their loss. Purifying contaminated water costs money. Recently a study commissioned by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection determined that natural ecosystems provided benefits worth $18 billion per year, equal to the state’s construction industry. Continue reading

Biodiversity and the City 3: The consuming city

The last post focused on the surprising lack of conservation research on cities and biodiversity, given the rapid urbanization of mankind. Beyond direct habitat fragmentation, the other significant way in which cities impact biodiversity is through consumption.

The global footprint of cities is growing.

This is partly a function of sheer numbers: most people on the planet now live in urban areas. Three out of four Americans (United States) reside in cities and suburbs; two thirds of Latin American residents live in urban areas. By 2030, China will have more than 220 cities with a million or more inhabitants.

According to a Nature Conservancy study in 2008, urban growth around the world threatens biodiversity.

“While the effects of urbanization are very localized, cumulatively it is a big threat to biodiversity,” says [Robert] McDonald, the lead-author of the study. “Our urban footprint covers much of the globe and is coming closer to stomping out many endangered species and posing new risks to protected areas and parks.”

But it’s not simply population that creates the footprint.

Welcome to the Overshoot

Last Saturday was Overshoot Day (or Ecological Debt Day), which marks when the humanity’s consumption of the world’s resources surpasses the annual productive capacity of the planet. Or as RP Siegel writes:

In a way, it’s a bit like finding out on August 21st that you’re not going to get another paycheck until next New Year’s Day. How would you deal with that?

Mathis Wackernagel, the president of the Global Footprint Network, applies this concern to the state of the planet.

The situation is no less dire when it comes to our ecological budget. Climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, water and food shortages — these are all clear signs that we can no longer finance our consumption on credit. Nature is foreclosing.

Overshoot Day is a useful concept to explain the impact of human society. The fact that “it now takes the Earth one year and five months to regenerate what we use in a year” is pretty sobering. It’s also important to remember that the ecological debt is cumulative: the planet’s resources do not reset every year. Furthermore, the burdens created by the well-off tend to fall on more vulnerable communities elsewhere.

Finally, the rate of consumption is accelerating: this year the human footprint has reached “overshoot” a month faster than the previous year.

What drives the Overshoot?

So does population or overconsumption have the greater influence? It’s not necessarily a simple question. A couple recent items by David Biello (here) and Jonathan Foley (here) thoughtfully address the issues.

What is clear, however, is that cities have a key role in this relationship between humanity and the Earth’s resources.

Consumption driven by cities deepens the pressure on global systems. City dwellers tend to have higher incomes (and greater income disparities) and inhabit new social relationships. This combination fosters new markets and encourages consumerism — a kind of hyper-consumption stoked by advertising.

Supply chains radiate like tentacles from urban areas (themselves sprawling) to the farthest reaches of the planet. Food mile calculations start in distant landscapes and terminate in urban supermarkets and restaurants.

While large cities are notably energy efficient, the gains of urban density can be quickly outweighed by the increase in total embodied energy of goods consumed. According to the UN Environmental Program (UNEP),

One third of the average US household’s carbon footprint is due to emissions caused abroad producing goods imported into the US market.

Urban dwellers in the US, Canada, Australia, and other developed nations have a much larger footprint that city folk in other countries. Wackernagel and William Rees estimate that

a typical North American city with a population of 650,000 would require 30,000 square kilometres of land—an area roughly the size of Vancouver Island, Canada—to meet domestic needs alone without even including the environmental demands of industry. In comparison, a similar size city in India would require 2,800 square kilometres.

The UNEP study suggested that agriculture and energy are the primary forces of environmental change.

“How the world is fed and fueled will in large part define development in the 21st century as one that is increasingly sustainable or a dead end for billions of people.

“Current patterns of production and consumption of both fossil fuels and food are draining freshwater supplies; triggering losses of economically-important ecosystems such as forests; intensifying disease and death rates and raising levels of pollution to unsustainable levels.

And it is an urban penchant for consumption that continues to drive resource extraction, manufacturing, and their related impacts around the globe.

A recent study (also here) found that the primary forces driving deforestation are the rise of big cities and international trade. Increasing urban demand for agricultural products and biofuels greatly impact land use.

“The main drivers of tropical deforestation have shifted from small-scale landholders to domestic and international markets that are distant from the forests,” said lead author Ruth DeFries, a professor at the Earth Institute’s Center for Environmental Research and Conservation. “One line of thinking was that concentrating people in cities would leave a lot more room for nature. But those people in cities and the rest of the world need to be fed. That creates a demand for industrial-scale clearing.”

This vast shift is now happening primarily in the global South.

But the demand itself is not solely from developed nations. While cities in the developed world have a larger footprint, this pattern is being mirrored in the developing world, as more people funnel into urban areas. The food demands of cities in the emerging economies of the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), in particular, will push agricultural expansion.

Agricultural output in the Bric nations will grow three times as fast as in the major developed countries, the joint United Nations-OECD study said.

And rising incomes and urbanisation in developing states will drive growth.

“Developing countries will provide the main source of growth for world agricultural production, consumption and trade,” the report said.

“As incomes rise, diets are expected to slowly diversify away from staple foods towards increased meats and processed foods that will favour livestock and dairy products.

“For virtually all commodities, the projected growth in imports and exports of developing economies [over the next decade] exceeds that of the OECD area,” said the report.

The vast demand encourages agribusiness-driven exploitation. Where the main causes of deforestation were once the cumulative impacts of individual actions, now large-scale land grabs and conversion to agriculture have become a primary concern. Opportunistic agribusiness tends to exploit nations with weak governance structures. So this is not simply an issue of urban-driven demand, but also one of land tenure in the Global South, distribution, and a global food system.

Not just mega-cities

It’s uncertain (at least to me) whether the hyperconsuming mega-cities or the small to medium-sized cities — where most of global population growth during the next few decades will occur — will have a greater collective footprint.

The carbon footprint — and impact on land use and deforestation — of the megacities may be larger given the consumption levels. The sheer number and distribution of smaller cities, however, may end up disrupting more habitat and contributing more to biodiversity loss.

The rapid expansion of cities will test the capacity of urban governance (i.e., haphazard systems, untrained managers, corruption).  Small to medium-sized cities may face the “double whammy” of rapid, unplanned expansion and a “brain drain” of more talented or educated individuals to larger cities. The urban response will determine the scale of social and environmental impacts.

In any case, the future of humanity will be found in cities. As Robert McDonald from the Nature Conservancy concludes:

“Only by addressing this growing conflict between cities and biodiversity can society achieve genuine conservation in an urbanizing world.”

Some thoughts on cities and nature while perusing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Green City, Flickr CC photo by alykat (Alyson Hurt)

This morning I found myself in a Barnes & Noble bookstore, not two blocks from home, looking at a stack of books by Annie Dillard, whose works I have not read.

I opened up Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (which won Dillard a Pulitzer Prize) and landed on this passage:

The general rule in nature is that live things are soft within and rigid without. We vertebrates are living dangerously, and we vertebrates are positively piteous, like so many peeled trees.

This oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed as by Pliny, who writes of nature, “To all the rest, given she hath sufficient to clad them everyone according to their kind: as namely shells, cods, hard hides, pricks, shags, bristles, hair, down feathers, quills, scales, and fleeces of wool. The very trunks and stems of trees and plants, she hath defended with bark and rind, yea and the same sometimes double, against the injuries both of heat and cold: man alone, poor wretch, she hath laid all naked upon the bare earth, even on his birthday, to cry and wraule presently from the very first hour that he is born into the world.”

I am sitting under a sycamore tree: I am soft-shell and peeled to the least puff of wind or smack of grit.

Humans are a dynamic, weedy, and increasingly urban species.

Soft-shelled, we armor ourselves with technology. We build humancities, our correlate to anthills and beehives. As a social species, like ants and bees, our well-being depends upon mutual aid, social networks, and cultural adaptations — of which technology is a manifestation.

Winston Churchill’s oft-quoted aphorism applies here: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

Earlier this week, the World Health Organization celebrated its annual World Health Day. This year’s theme was “Urbanization and health: urban health matters.” Continue reading

A tale of (two) cities

photo by Henkik Johansen (CC)  http://www.flickr.com/photos/zoned_dk/1014057757/

photo by Ivan Mlinaric (CC) http://www.flickr.com/photos/eye1/3912807143/

Top: Copenhagen (Henrik Johansen, CC); Bottom: Istanbul (Ivan Mlinaric, CC)

Week two of the climate summit in Copenhagen.

Put delegates from 190+ nations in a city together with NGOs, activists, and media…and shake.

I’m not sure what outcomes to expect. As the conference nears its conclusion, perhaps the participants will eke out a positive agreement. Let’s hope that nations make individual commitments to reduce CO2 emissions and forge greater cooperation towards sustainability.

Amidst the chaos that accompanies crisis and diversity are authentic concerns, ambition, and goodwill. There are positive signs: as I’m writing this, the media announced that the U.S. and five other nations will pledge US$3.5 billion to protect rainforests.

Still, do I expect boldness? Not really. People in power tend not to want to change the rules. Risk averse “leaders” dance around each other at summits. And when a crowd moves towards a precipice, it’s difficult to convince those pushing to change direction. (That’s the real challenge here.)

As others have noted, anything beyond agreeing to agree that global warming is a problem (which nations have been doing since Rio in 1992) and that negotiation will continue, would be progress. Twitter posts (“tweets”) today from Alex Steffens of Worldchanging and Hunter Lovins of Natural Capital Solutions:

Steffens: Having been at both, I agree. @hlovins COP same people as at Rio saying same thing, no advances

Lovins: Insanity at COP 15. Going to 350.org event with Bill McKibben. Word is talks completely broken down. Real action in cities anyway, not here

“Cities act”

As Lovins notes, cities are moving ahead to address climate change. This week, two conferences — one in Copenhagen alongside the global summit, one in Istanbul — focus on the role of cities.

Continue reading