Day by day, Isle de Jean Charles sinks into the water. Can anything stop the island’s demise before it’s too late?
Sustainability is a necessary buzzword for any mega-event, but reality often falls far short.
A man walks near the entrance to Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro. (Getty Images/Mario Tama)
Brazil is immersed in the World Cup, but its biggest test is yet to come. With the clock ticking down to August 2016, when Rio de Janeiro will host the Summer Olympics, the country has big promises to live up to.
As part of its winning Olympic bid in 2009, Rio pledged to host “Green Games for a Blue Planet.” Specifically, the city of 6.3 million said it would use clean energy, clear the city’s clogged streets, preserve its natural spaces, and upgrade its “favelas”—poor neighborhoods full of ad-hoc infrastructure—to more-urbanized spaces with functioning utilities, public transportation, and other amenities.
But five years later, Rio is far from on track to meeting those lofty standards, and it appears near certain they won’t be met in time for the opening ceremonies.
The bid for the 2016 games played up the potential for overhauling Rio’s notoriously traffic-choked roads by adding trains, buses, and public bike-share programs. The highlight was to be a transportation ring of light rail and buses downtown and subways to connect to farther-off areas where some of the Olympic events will be held. Getting people out of cars would not only free up the streets during the games but would slash pollution.
Cost overruns and construction problems have either delayed or scuttled most of those projects. Last week, a report from the national auditing office found that nearly all of the public-works projects are behind schedule and the costs have increased between 7 and 122 percent above their original forecast. Some sites haven’t even broken ground, and construction at Deodoro, the venue which will host events like BMX biking and rugby, won’t start until later this year.
A more literal example can be found in Guanabara Bay, the site of the Olympic sailing competition. Rio had promised to clean up the water—which is fouled with debris, sewage, and even fish corpses—but Mayor Eduardo Paes conceded last month that goal wouldn’t be met.The trend of broken promises is not new, and it appears likely to continue in upcoming Olympics and World Cups.
"I am sorry that we didn’t use the games to get Guanabara Bay completely clean, but that wasn’t for the Olympic Games—that was for us," he said.
During an April visit, International Olympic Committee Vice President John Coates said during an April visit that the preparations were “the worst" he had seen.
Rio is far from the only host of an international sporting event to overpromise and under-deliver. The possibility that any such so-called mega-event could be sustainable is a long shot at best, but that hasn’t stopped countless cities from making the promise.
The optimistic environmental promises are a product of a misaligned incentive system. Countries’ hosting bids are greatly bolstered when they include major green pledges. But once the event is awarded, there are few, if any, consequences for countries if they don’t follow through.
"The IOC and FIFA understand that one of the big objections to these mega-events is that they destroy the environment, so they put in these requirements. But then what do they do?" said Jay Coakley, professor emeritus at University of Colorado (Colorado Springs). "They can’t enforce them. There’s no accountability after the fact."
Plus, he added, the high cost of building and hosting the events leaves little money in the end for projects that were extraneous to the games themselves.
"If the money hasn’t been allocated up front, what can happen is a city or region goes so deeply into debt and there’s so little money and energy left to complete those projects," said Coakley, who has studied the impact of mega-events. "Sustainability goals usually get shoved to the side. It’s difficult to have an event with the footprint of the Olympics and make any improvements that have a net sustainability impact."
The problem of unmet sustainability promises also plagues Brazil’s hosting of the World Cup, where all 12 host cities talked up varying degrees of improvements. As the $10 billion-plus preparations for the Cup ran increasingly behind schedule and over budget, attention turned away from legacy projects and onto triage for the stadiums.
The northern city of Natal, for example, completed just one of seven planned transportation upgrades and ended up nixing three entirely. A high-speed rail line between Sao Paulo and Rio that was to be functional during the Cup never even put out bids. And solar panels meant to power several stadiums never went up.
"Several of the promises made at the candidacy dossier will not be met," said Alberto Murray-Neto, a former member of the Brazilian Olympic Committee.
The trend of broken promises is not new, and it appears likely to continue in upcoming Olympics and World Cups.
In hosting the 2012 Summer Games, London promised the greenest Olympics ever through the use of clean energy and recycled materials, while also creating a monitoring system that could be used for future projects. Ahead of the Sochi Winter Games this year, Russia established new building codes.
The London games did successfully reduce emissions during construction and built a well-regarded transportation hub to promote public transit, but a reportfrom World Wildlife Fund and BioRegional said that organizers failed to do enough to meet their energy promises.
In Sochi, environmentalists said that Russia’s construction practices damaged the region’s natural ecosystems, and the Associated Press found an illegal landfill during construction—evidence that the games weren’t zero-waste as promised.
In 2022, Qatar will host World Cup in what is likely to be blistering heat, but the country has promised carbon-neutral air conditioning thanks to an “absorption chilling” process that relies on solar power.
The fact that Rio won’t meet all of its goals, however, doesn’t mean the whole event will be an environmental wash for the city. Rio already relies heavily on hydroelectric power and plans to integrate more solar into the Olympics operations. The city has invested in improving its water and sewage systems, and stadiums were designed to naturally reduce their energy consumption by taking advantage of natural light and incorporating solar power. At least 70 percent of the Olympics infrastructure will be used after the 2016 games are over, such as the conversion of the Olympic Village to condos.
Contrast that with the “white elephants,” or the stadiums and structures that sit unused and take up land, like the barren Birds Nest in Beijing or the 2004 Olympic Grounds in Athens—which sit abandoned to weeds and stray dogs. (There is concern that several Brazilian World Cup stadiums could end up empty and unused in cities without soccer teams.)
Still, most analysts see the biggest gains from the so-called legacy projects, the long-lasting urban upgrades that could fulfill Paes’s promise that the games would overhaul the city. The construction delays mean that the city may fall short of the successful changes made after games in Barcelona or Tokyo, which used the 1964 games as a catalyst for a bullet-train system.
Those projects are a big selling point for both citizens and the world, and can be a way to justify the massive cost of hosting the games (remember, almost no city comes out ahead from the Olympics, even with the influx of tourists). But Brazil has seen massive unrest over the spending on the sporting events, which citizens say could be better used on health care or education.
But Murray-Neto, whose grandfather served in both the Brazilian Olympics Committee and the IOC, said using the money to cover routine costs squanders not just the potential but the promise of the Olympic games.
"I think that Olympism [is] the union of sports, culture, and environment," he said in an email. "Therefore, I see it as an obligation of the Olympic hosting city to, among other … things, improve its environmental conditions. Not only for the games, but as a legacy for the city."
New city to house up to 200,000 people, thousands of hectares of forest being cleared
Like eerie ghosts of the trees and animals driven away, thick clouds of smoke and dust rise over Wele-Nzas Province in Equatorial Guinea.
More than 8,000 hectares of rainforest are under threat as the nation builds a new $600 million capital city from scratch. Called Oyala, and also known as Djibloho, the city is expected to be completed by 2020 and house up to 200,000 people — about an eighth of the entire population of the entire country.
Forests are being cleared at a rapid clip to make room for gleaming new office towers, apartment buildings, houses and highways in Africa’s third largest energy producer, where oil and gas revenues have fed the frenzy of construction.
The motivation behind the construction of the new capital seems to come solely from the wish of the Equatorial Guinea’s current president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, to reside in a more secluded, secure area, far away from the coast and the risk of attack from those opposed to his administration.
A road is carved out of the forest in the soon-to-be new capital city of Oyala. Photo by Mehlauge.
Oyala will also include a new presidential palace, a parliament building, an opera house, a cathedral and a five-star hotel with 400 rooms. Photographs show long cuts in the dense rainforest, suggesting wide avenues, along with twin 150-meter (500-foot) suspension bridges crossing the Wele River. A new six-lane highway, dubbed the “Avenue of Justice,” and a golf course have already been carved out of the virgin forest.
The city will be situated in the remote eastern portion of the country, approximately 125 kilometers (75 miles) from the coast. Every nail, brick and tile is imported. The funds needed to build the city are coming from the sale of 1.7 billion barrels of oil reserves.
Since the administration of President Obiang announced plans to build Oyala as the new capital city, the construction has been at the center of a political tug-of-war between environmentalists, political opposition and some powerful business interests.
According to Dr. Placido Assomo, an environmental scientist wih Harvard Universiy who is based in the current capital city of Malabo, the construction of the lavish city is an ecological calamity.
“The rainforest, which seemed infinite only a few years ago, is now facing the prospect of extinction,” Assomo said. “Grim scientific prognoses have come to pass in the form of disasters like the unthinkable droughts and floods in some parts of the country.”
A drill (Mandrillus leucophaeus) at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. Drills inhabit Equatorial Guinea and are regarded by the IUCN as the highest priority African primate. Photo by Grendelkhan.
Assomo said the construction of Oyala is one of the most grandiose and expensive construction projects in all of Africa. He added that what is happening in Wele-Nzas is the biggest backslide the country could ever imagine in regard to environmental policy.
“For me, this is like something out of the science-fiction classic ‘Dune,’” Assomo said. “We were expecting to be given a comprehensive program that will at least stop further deterioration to the environment by the government, but nothing came. This is a test case, a litmus environmental test for the government.”
The fight over the construction of the city has stoked the age-old struggle over development versus conservation in Africa. Many African countries face increasing international pressure to protect their forests from deforestation as they provide vital habitat for innumerable species, and their sheer scale affects global climatic conditions.
However, while the forests of Wele-Nzas Province have high local and global value, many people in this region are impoverished and their livelihoods are based on agricultural and forest resources. The destruction of forest may have profound impacts on the Equatoguineans’ lives.
“In this country, forests cover roughly 98 percent of our total national land area, providing services and sustenance to hundreds of thousands of Equatoguineans,” Assomo said.
According to Assomo, keeping these forests intact and undeveloped not only prevents dangerous carbon dioxide emissions, but it also protects the homes and livelihoods of tens of thousands of indigenous people.
“The forest is our supermarket, where we find everything, wood for building our houses, thatch for our roofs, sticks to make arrows, fruit and animals for our food,” said a Bubi traditional leader who lives just a few kilometers north of Oyala. “And it’s all getting farther and farther away because the construction is killing the forest near our village.”
According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), approximately 1.6 million hectares of Equatorial Guinea is forested. The country currently has 203 million metric tons of carbon stocks in living forest biomass. The forestry sector contributed $87.3 million to the economy in 2006, representing approximately 0.9 percent of the GDP.
According to data from Global Forest Watch, Equatorial Guinea lost 1,200 hectares of forest in 2006. Since then, the rate of deforestation has been increasing, reaching a high of 7,400 hectares in 2011. While this may seem small compared to some other countries with annual forest cover losses in the millions of hectares, this reduction still had significant impacts. According to the FAO data, 20.6 percent of Equatorial Guinea’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2011 came from land-use change and forestry activities.
Oyala is located in the far eastern portion of the Equatorial Guinea. Since construction began, nearly 1,000 hectares of forest has been cleared for its construction. Many more thousands are expected to be felled — including as-yet intact forest — to make room for the city proper, as well as for construction of residences in the outlying areas. Map courtesy of Global Forest Watch. Click to enlarge.
Between 1990 and 2010, Equatorial Guinea lost an average of 11,700 hectares of forest, or 0.6 percent, per year. In total, between 1990 and 2010, the country lost 12.6 percent of its forest cover. This is set to increase after completion of the new city.
The country is located in a region of high biodiversity, and is home to 194 species of mammals, 418 birds, 91 reptiles, and 3,250 plants. Many of these are endemic, meaning they exist in no other country. Of the 194 mammal species, 12 are listed as Endangered by the IUCN, as are four species of birds, two species of reptiles, and one species of amphibian. Six species of plants are threatened with extinction.
These endangered species include Preuss’s monkey (Cercopithecus preussi) and the drill (Mandrillus leucophaeus), a species of monkey related to baboons and mandrills and which is listed by the IUCN as the highest conservation priority of all African primates. One of the primary causes of the dramatic declines in these species is habitat loss due to deforestation for development.
Yet, despite the biological importance of its forests, Equatorial Guinea has no official protected areas.
According to Assomo, vital forest habitat surrounding the new capital is expected to be degraded as more and more people move into the area. The country’s oil operations are also causing forest degradation from contamination, oil spills and wastewater discharge.
The area surrounding Oyala consists of unbroken, lush forest, some of it untouched by development. At least 8,000 hectares (likely much more) is expected to be cleared to make room for the new capital. Photo by Mehlauge.
The Minister of Fishing and Environment, Crescencio Tamarite Castaño, said his government must reconcile income generation with sustainability.
"The rainforest is an enormous resource for us, and we are making every effort to preserve it and solve the problems as best as we are able," Castaño said.
According to Castaño, environmental impact assessments were undertaken when construction of Oyala was being planned, and the government has taken into consideration ways to mitigate its impact.
“Forests are part of our economic development and also we are a member of the UN and we take environmental issues seriously,” he added.
Castaño said Oyala will be a purpose-built city, designed to respond to the needs of future inhabitants. But critics say its real function is to serve the needs of President Obiang, who is currently the longest serving non-royal head of state.
Defending the construction of the new capital, Obiang described in an interview with the BBC how rebels had plotted a seaborne assault on his palace in the current capital.
"We need a secure place for my government and for future governments,” he said. “ That’s why we have created Oyala, to guarantee the government of Equatorial Guinea.”
While completion is still officially slated for 2020, that date may be extended due to setbacks. One such setback occurred when Obiang visited a recently constructed university building in Oyala and did not approve of the view from its windows. The building has since been moved.
In the great halls of La Boqueria, Barcelona’s central market, tourists, foodies
and cooks gather every day to marvel at the fresh food, like pilgrims at the site of a miracle. The chief shrines are the fish counters, where thousands of sea creatures making up dozens of species gleam pink and gray on mounds of ice. But to many ocean scientists this is not a display of the ocean’s bounty but a museum—by the end of this century, many of these animals may be history due to man’s reckless abuse of the planet. As we keep dumping greenhouse gases into the air, the oceans keep sucking them up, making the waters deadly to their inhabitants.
On the Boqueria’s fish stands I count 10 types of bivalves—creatures like clams, oysters and mussels that use calcium carbonate to make their endlessly varied shells. In as little as 20 years they will be very different and, in some parts of the world, entirely gone. Then there are the ranks of huge Asian prawns and tiny shrimps, terra-cotta crabs from Scotland, and lobsters, magnificent admirals in blue fringed with gold. Lucky for them, these creatures make their shells differently (mostly out of a polymer called chitin), so the rapidly acidifying waters of our oceans won’t dissolve them as it will the exteriors of the bivalves. But the acidification—which some scientists believe is the fastest change in the ocean’s chemistry in 300 million years—appears to harm the working of the gills and change the behavior of the crustaceans when they are very young.
On the crushed ice sit a dozen kinds of finned creatures that the Spanish love—monkfish, hake, sardines, tuna. The Spaniards eat more fish than anyone else in Europe. The effect of changing ocean chemistry on fish health, longevity and reproduction is not yet certain. But even now, many species on the Boqueria stalls are also on one or more European “at-risk” lists: under threat because of overfishing or changes in the chain of foods that supply them, or from the bigger threat of the changing ocean biogeochemistry.
The last is the least understood of these phenomena. Along the coasts and out in the deep, huge “dead zones” have been multiplying. They are the emptiest places on the planet, where there’s little oxygen and sometimes no life at all, almost entirely restricted to some unicellular organisms like bacteria. Vast blooms of algae—organisms that thrive in more acid (and less alkaline) seawater and are fed by pollution—have already rendered parts of the Baltic Sea pretty much dead. A third of the marine life in that sea, which once fed all of Northern Europe, is gone and may already be beyond hope of recovery.
“There’s a profound game-changing event going on in the life of the sea,” says Callum Roberts, a professor of marine conservation at the University of York, England. “The fact is that changes in alkalinity are going to cause massive reorganization of marine life, impacts on marine food webs, productivity, all sorts of things. We’re heading for a car crash here.”
Many of these risks are caused by one of the world’s most pressing problems: climate change. Rising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are causing global temperatures to rise, which is leading to the melting of the polar ice caps, which in turn has resulted in rising sea levels and a host of ecological issues.It’s also causing the chemical makeup of the world’s oceans to change so rapidly. Carbon dioxide, one of the key perpetrators in the lineup of man-made greenhouse gases, is absorbed by seawater, causing a chemical reaction near the ocean surface that results in lowered pH levels. And about one-third of all the man-made carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere ends up absorbed by the oceans. Carles Pelejero, a scientist working less than a mile from La Boqueria at the Institut de Cienciès del Mar (ICM), on Barcelona’s seafront, calls it “climate change’s evil twin.”
He illustrates the basic mechanism to schoolchildren by getting them to take a straw and blow into a glass of water. A simple litmus test shows the children how the pH level drops as the carbon dioxide from their breath dissolves in the water. It’s a sign that naturally alkaline water is becoming less so—and it’s what is happening on a global scale as the oceans absorb a significant amount of the carbon dioxide we pump out through the burning of carbon fuels. “In preindustrial times the ocean’s pH was 8.2. It has already gone down to 8.1,” says Pelejero. “Depending on what we do, it will reach an average of 7.8 or 7.7 by 2100. It hasn’t been that low for 55 million years.” For reference, the pH scale runs from 0 to 14; the lower the number the more acidic, and the higher the more alkaline.
Pelejero leads part of the ICM’s marine biogeochemistry research, but his field is even more specific: marine paleo-reconstruction. You might call it seabed archaeology; it uses drills to take samples from deep in the sediment at the bottom of the ocean. Scientists can use those samples to work out how the geochemistry of sea creatures has changed over the millennia. Pelejero started in this business in the mid-1990s using the remains of plankton in the sediments on the ocean floor to determine historic sea surface temperatures.
Then, in 1998, while studying a graph at a conference, Joanie Kleypas, an American biologist working on coral reefs, had a eureka moment. When she suddenly realized that the lowered alkalinity at the end of the 21st century would in effect corrode the calcium carbonate foundation of the reefs to destruction, she was so horrified she left the room to be sick. Her paper on the threat, published in the journal Science in 1999, was an alarm call. Other scientists quickly dubbed the effect “ocean acidification”—although the seas would not actually turn to acid, the phrase, they reckoned, would emphasize the urgency and get action. Coral reefs are necessary to an estimated 25 percent of all marine life, including 4,000 species of fish. They are the rain forests of the sea.
Around the same time, Pelejero’s colleagues turned their core-sampling techniques to work out how the ocean and its animals behaved long ago, when the water pH was lower. What they found was horrifying. During a 100,000-year-long event known as the Palaeo-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), which occurred between the Palaeo and Eocene epochs, 55 million years ago, “you see that the sediment is quite white from the fossil shells—then suddenly it turns red,” Pelejero says. “Because there are no shells at all. Then it turns white again—but the change back took more than 100,000 years.” The first change from white to red represents a sudden die-off of shell-based life; the turn back to white shows the gradual return of shellfish over time. If projections hold, the pH change that killed off or radically altered many of the deep ocean shell animals will arrive again at the end of this century.
Other problems are likely to emerge because of the pH change. One of the suggestions is that the stable, solid form of methane—called clathrates—that lurks in the ocean sediment may be upset by changes in water chemistry and temperature, and release the gas into the atmosphere. Methane is a greenhouse gas many times more damaging than carbon dioxide, which has, in the past, turbocharged global warming. This is called the “clathrate gun hypothesis,” and the core samples suggest that this is just what might have happened during the PETM, when large numbers of ocean species (particularly from the deeps of the seas) disappeared and the ocean surface was 9 to 16 degrees Fahrenheit warmer. That doesn’t sound like much. But it’s enough to radically alter life underwater—and to wreak havoc on land dwellers, too. Many of the world’s major cities would disappear beneath the rising waves as the ice melts and the water expands. During the PETM, sea levels were as much as 350 feet higher than they are today—enough to obliterate most of present-day Europe, the northeast coast of the U.S. and Argentina, for example.What worries Pelejero most is the rapidity of today’s changes. The same shifts that happened over the course of a few thousand years during the PETM are now due to happen over just a few centuries, counting from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the widespread use of fossil fuels. “The record tells us that, though pH has been lower in the past, this time the changes are happening about 10 times faster. And that means there is no time for species to evolve and adapt, or the ocean to buffer itself,” Pelejero says. “It’s clear that the ocean is acidifying, much clearer than that the world is warming. And we know that most of the effect is caused by man’s actions. The only argument among scientists is over how much damage is being done.”
Already some effects are being seen. Across the world, shells of some animals are thinner than they were 300 years ago. An acidification spike around the coast of British Columbia in February 2014 wiped out 10 million scallops. Foraminifera, the tiniest shelled plankton in the ocean, are having trouble growing (as they did during the PETM)—and plankton is the food base of every animal in the sea. Coccolithophores, the shelled plankton that process sunlight like a plant, and whose remains built the White Cliffs of Dover, seem to suffer from current changes in ocean chemistry.
Pteropods, tiny swimming snails, are the main diet of cold-water fish most commonly consumed in both Europe and North America—salmon, haddock, cod and pollack. In the lab, pteropods dissolve in lowered alkali waters, like a tooth in Coca-Cola. In the Arctic, where acidification is progressing fastest, pteropods may already be on the way out. It is as though the Earth were losing its grass, and the cows had nothing to eat.
Rising Tides Kill All
A day after visiting the fish markets, I lounged on the deck of a tiny former fishing boat off the northern Catalan coast, as oceanologists threw up into the lurching waves around us. We were off to take ICM’s monthly water samples.
The boat is skippered by a remarkable man, 63-year-old Josep Pascual, a legend around the fishing ports of the Costa Brava. As a boy, he went out in this boat with his father and grandfather to net fish for the market. “I used to listen to them, talking as fishermen do about the weather and the sea temperature, and I got interested.”
He decided to add some hard data to the family debate. So since the mid-1960s he has been building his own instruments, and taking a daily record of sea temperatures at different depths in the Mediterranean current off the fishing port of Estartit, Spain. In that little harbor there’s a box containing an ingenious gadget attached to the seawall that measures the height of the sea. “I built it from parts that were thrown out of the old meteorological station,” Pascual says. “I’d read in a book that there were no tides in the Mediterranean—I wanted to prove that was wrong.” He succeeded, and he has also shown that the average sea level in the Mediterranean has risen about 3.5 inches over the past 24 years. That is in line with the global calculations of melting ice cover made by climate change scientists. The rising sea levels, of course, are caused by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—which are also what’s causing acidification.
Pascual’s work came to the attention of the ICM in the early 1970s. Ever since then, ICM and Pascual have worked together. The fishing nets and lines on the Fiera del Mar are now replaced by global positioning systems, depth-measuring tools and complex thermometer instruments. They have done this long enough to prove significant warming of the Costa Brava sea.
Seven years ago, sponsored chiefly by the Catalan and Spanish governments, Pascual, Pelejero and their assistants started making monthly trips to measure the ocean’s acidity. These have yet to produce conclusive results—there hasn’t yet been enough time to confirm the clear drop in pH that has been observed out in the open oceans.
Pascual is a smiling, sea-worn man, his nut-brown face in sharp contrast to the biochemists’ laboratory pallor. I ask what he really thinks is going on. “What I’m shocked by most is the rising sea level—and I am convinced this is caused by climate change, and that it is mankind that has done it,” he says. “It’s worrying, because the oceans are so important in capturing the carbon. They thermo-regulate the planet. These changes in their systems are very big, and they should make us worry.”
Into the Dead Zone
Off the desert coast of Oman last winter, I saw the strangest thing I’d ever seen in a lifetime of sea voyaging. Heading in a rigid inflatable boat toward a snorkeling site, my family and I all gasped suddenly as the creamy-white of the wake turned a virulent, toxic-looking green. It had an ammoniac stink, and it stayed that way for the next mile.
“No farming nearby? River estuaries?” asked Esther Garcés, a marine biologist at ICM, when I told her this story. None. The Omani coast I saw was mountain and desert. “Probably a normal, seasonal phytoplankton bloom.”
She showed me spectacular pictures, taken from a European Space Agency satellite, of a green-blue swirl occupying most of the Bay of Biscay, between western France and northern Spain. Garcés’s specialty is harmful blooms of algae and plankton: She makes weekly risk assessments for the whole of the Catalan coast. The chief issue is their potential harm to shellfish farms—when the bivalves eat the algae, the former can become toxic to humans who consume them later. (Less pressing is the fact that they make the tourist beaches look as if they are covered in green slime.)
All such blooms are on the increase, mostly due to pollution from humans on land. Sewage, extra carbon in the atmosphere and the runoff of artificial fertilizers all feed different plankton forms, making the blooms fantastically big. Human tampering with the shape of the coast can create vast areas away from the waves where the algae can peacefully breed.
The 21st century’s algae can have adverse effects far beyond weird-colored water and a smell. The key problems come when plankton die. “The toxins released kill fish and other marine life,” says Garcés, “and then there’s the problem of hypoxia and dead zones.” As the algae blooms die out, the matter that drops from the blooms to the bottom of the ocean eats oxygen as it decomposes (with the help of the bacteria that feed on the dead plankton), and hypoxic (low oxygen) and anoxic (total depletion of oxygen) zones kill everything that needs oxygen to live.
Dead zones move and fluctuate, so they are hard to measure. Oceanographers believe they have increased exponentially since the 1960s, and now count over 400 across the globe. One of the world’s largest is off the Mississippi Delta, caused by algae blooms fed mainly by excess chemical fertilizers spread over the land through which the Mississippi flows. Though it changes from year to year, the Mississippi Delta dead zone has been recorded as large as 8,000 square miles, roughly the size of New Jersey.
Scientists diving in it are quoted by Roberts, in his book Ocean of Life: “As you go deeper, it gets kind of scary. Because there’s nothing there. There’s no fish, no organisms alive, so it’s just us.”
The Mississippi Delta zone is the world’s second biggest coastal hypoxic area, after the Black Sea. But out in the open oceans, hundreds of feet below the surface, there are dead zones so huge they may be bigger than the Sahara Desert—the largest lifeless spaces this side of the moon.
There are three different forces that create zones where there’s so little oxygen that most life forms disappear. “Upwellings” in parts of the ocean are natural, caused by ocean currents or undersea seismic activity. Periodically they bring nutrients and phytoplankton (a group of plankton that use sunlight for energy) to the surface. In sunlight this mass feeds on algae blooms, until it dies and the bacteria thrive in their turn, eating the dead plankton and absorbing more oxygen. The Black Sea is stagnant and dead from about 500 feet below its warm surface because of its natural geological structure, and the fact that there are few currents to mix up the oxygen-rich surface with the dark, highly acidic waters below. But a crucial sea for human food, the Baltic, has died because of the mess humans make.
Algae blooms have been a feature of the Baltic since the 19th century, initially because nutrient-filled soil ran off as the native forest was cut down to fuel the industries and build the cities of Northern Europe. Then more plankton food was added by the runoff of pollution from the busy Baltic coastline (which includes major cities like St. Petersburg, Russia; Copenhagen, Denmark; Stockholm; Riga, Latvia; and Helsinki) as well as slurry from the industrialized pig farms that are a major business in parts of Germany and Denmark. Now much of the seabed is covered in life-choking seaweed (a multicellular type of algae), and fish eggs from species like cod cannot survive in the low-oxygen environment.
“The Nordic people have made a huge effort to control the runoff of nutrients into the Baltic,” says Garcés. “But it is too late. The nutrients don’t go away. Every time the organisms grow they die and go back to the bottom again, eating more oxygen. Biodiversity is like a dictionary, and this process in the ecosystem is like losing words. We cannot get them back.”
No Fish for You
The one thing that the Boqueria fishmongers doesn’t sell is jellyfish (there’s not much demand for them in Spain, or anywhere else in Europe), though you can find them, dried to a plastic scab, in some Chinese supermarkets. There are those who say that jellyfish and plankton are all that your average wild seafood eater will have for supper by the end of the century—the very rich will likely still be able to pay up for ultra-rare food items. That’s because as the food chain’s intricate links collapse, the complex species will go first, leaving only the most simple. “The oceans [will] revert to the earliest days of multicellular life,” Roberts drily puts it. There’s a terrifying argument that jellyfish—who rather enjoy acidification—are already taking over the seas, if not the world.
The answers are not easy. Some of the clever “geoengineering” suggestions offered to tackle global warming—like artificially cutting off sunlight—won’t work for the oceans, because we can’t just incrementally slow down the acidification — we have to remove the excess carbon dioxide that’s already out there in the atmosphere. Doing that takes economically painful initiatives—replanting vast areas of forest to recapture carbon, for example, and, above all, simply stopping the burning of fossil fuels.
There are some causes for hope. Some world leaders are beginning to take these threats more seriously. In June, for example, the Obama administration announced a series of measures aimed to conserve the ocean as a key food supply for more than 3 billion of us. These included more ocean sanctuaries to curtail overfishing, and new funds to research ocean biochemistry, including acidification.
Roberts, for his part, says that he has been happy to see that coral reefs have proved more adaptable—faster and faster at recovering from the effects of acid and ozone layer depletion—than scientists previously thought. Recent research suggests than in the more acidic waters predicted for the late 21st century, the reefs may survive a little better than Kleypas and her colleagues originally expected.
“That’s got to be cause for hope,” says Roberts. “But these are isolated instances—they say life is possible in these altered environments, they don’t say that means species will thrive in 2100. Evidence from around the world is that they will not. We have the loss of one of the world’s major habitats on the cards. It’s already happening.”
Dana Frasz was first introduced to widespread endemic poverty while volunteering in Southeast Asia more than a decade ago. The malnourishment she encountered, especially among children, left a deeper impression on her than the beautiful landscape.
Returning home to Maine, and while attending college at both the Rochester Institute of Technology and Sarah Lawrence College, Frasz found herself acutely aware of the tremendous variety and quantity of food everywhere she went – and yet, much of it was being thrown away.
“Witnessing tray after tray of perfectly good food being dumped down the garbage disposal in my college dining hall is what brought me to want to learn and act on the issue on a larger level,” she says.
There was no lack of work to be done. The average American household tosses a quarter of the food it brings home. Retailers throw out bruised or misshapen produce and day-old baked goods. Catering companies are left with trays of untouched gourmet cuisine.
Those discards add up. The United Nations estimates that one-third of all food worldwide is wasted. In the U.S. alone, over 33 million tons of it was sent to landfills in 2010 — enough to fill the Rose Bowl stadium every day for a year.
The environmental impacts of this wasted food are vast. Only 3 percent of food scraps in the U.S. are converted to compost. The rest go to the dump, where they rot and release methane, a greenhouse gas that second only to carbon dioxide as a contributor to climate disruption.
If global food waste were a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas polluter in the world, behind only China and the United States – and that’s not counting the greenhouse gases that were created during the production of all that uneaten food.
But Frasz, along with a growing number of individuals, nonprofits, and religious organizations have set out to stop this waste. They are gleaners, repurposing the unwanted food to feed hungry people, and fighting climate change at the same time.
“Gleaning is simply the act of collecting excess fresh foods from farms, gardens, farmers markets, grocers, restaurants, state/county fairs, or any other sources in order to provide it to those in need,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture states in its “Let’s Glean!” toolkit , developed to assist groups with food recovery.
Driven by the paradox of desperate need and abundance existing side-by-side, Frasz, when still a Sophomore at Sarah Lawrence, established a food recovery program called Empty Bellies . The group collected over 500 pounds of leftover food every week from local businesses, college events, and the campus dining hall. By Frasz’s senior year, Empty Bellies had 45 volunteers who helped collect leftover food and deliver it to an agency serving low-income people in the Bronx called Part of the Solution.
While the initiative made great strides in reducing food waste and feeding the hungry, Frasz learned that using volunteers to solve such a large problem wasn’t enough. “It was completely volunteer-run, which was awesome,” she says. “But volunteers were inconsistent, which put us in a really tricky position with our business partners. If we didn’t show up one day, there was a lot of frustration and threats of canceling their donations.”
Empty Bellies thrived, but only for five years, disbanding shortly after Frasz graduated and moved away. Now living in the Bay Area, Frasz is working on a few innovative strategies to more effectively and sustainably reduce both food waste and hunger — and reduce the impact on the climate, too.
Frasz believes that the creation of a professional food recovery service sector is a necessary extension of our current waste management system, as well as a way to create jobs in the green economy. To that end, she has created a nonprofit called Food Shift, that works to demonstrate the social, financial, and environmental benefits of food recovery to businesses, municipalities, and public health departments, and encouraging these entities to invest in food recovery rather than food disposal.
“We’re paying people to remove our trash and we’re paying people to remove our recycling,” she says. “Why aren’t we paying people to recover this incredibly valuable resource of food?”
The U.S. spends $750 million each year to dispose of surplus food. What if we were to shift just a fraction of that toward the recovery and redistribution of food instead? Eradicating wasted food would reduce total U.S. methane emissions by 25 percent, significantly decreasing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
There are hundreds of volunteer groups like Empty Bellies across the country. Some have been around for decades and are lauded for their hard work and results in rescuing unwanted edibles. Yet, as the Natural Resources Defense Council reported in 2012, the U.S. still wastes 40 percent of the food we produce, while 50 million Americans are food-insecure.
Frasz believes that the realities of a strictly volunteer-run and charity-funded approach to food recovery prevent it from growing into a more sustainable and effective solution. “We’re tackling this burning issue of food waste and hunger as if we’re putting out a fire one bucket at a time, and its not working,” she says. “We need to invest in vehicles, refrigeration, storage, and paid employees in order to build a professional, efficient, sustainable system that can manage surplus food safely and effectively.”
It’s no easy task. Food safety rules require that precautions be taken when handling food meant for consumption. Perishables must be kept at the correct temperatures, and hands must be washed before and after handling certain items like poultry and other meats. Many restaurant and store owners fear that they’ll be held liable if surplus food donations make people sick.
Some remain unaware that federal and state law protects donors, and has for nearly 20 years. President Clinton signed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act in 1996. It protects donors from liability except in cases of gross negligence or intentional misconduct, as long as the food is given to a nonprofit that then distributes it to needy individuals.
With this assurance, many businesses can be coaxed to donate leftover food, but convincing businesses to pay Food Shift for the service is even more challenging, Frasz says, when many groups offer to do it for free.
But her group’s message finally seems to be getting through. Andronico’s Community Markets, a Bay Area grocery chain, is within weeks of finalizing a contract with Food Shift that would make it the nonprofit’s first regularly paying client.
“As a natural consequence of being a retailer and trying to keep the freshest product on the shelves, we’re forced to deal with product that we can’t sell to our customers,” says Chad Solari, director of produce and floral at Andronico’s. In the past, many unsellable items ended up in the landfill or a compost pile.
To avoid waste, Andronico’s donates excess products to food banks, religious organizations, and local charities. But while Solari feels that the programs serve the community fairly well, he says the system is inefficient. The volunteer pickup doesn’t come enough, or with the proper equipment, to prevent the majority of the surplus edibles from going to waste. It’s also tough for the staff to find time to prepare the food for donation.
“As our CEO says, ‘We need to find a way to have the biggest impact on our community while having the smallest impact on our associates, because they are very busy,’” Solari says.
The beauty of Food Shift, Solari says, is that the nonprofit will take care of everything, from the smallest logistical problem to tracking the donations and providing reports to document them. “They’re fully insured, they know all the protocols, and they’re very passionate about it,” Solari says. “That’s why it’s worth paying them a small fee. They’ll do it right.”
Frasz sees the contract with Andronico’s as a turning point. “This represents a big milestone for Food Shift and for food recovery more broadly,” she says. “We’re really starting to make the case that food recovery is a valuable and essential part of a just and sustainable food system, and one that businesses need to step up to the plate and take some responsibility for financially.”
As businesses begin to contract with professional groups like Food Shift, food recovery will more effectively chip away at the huge amount of wasted food and hunger in America, and reduce its many environmental impacts as well.
“This is such a solvable issue,” Frasz says. “Tackling it effectively will have ripple effects on these areas that are so important to the climate, to our communities, and to the world.”
In May, Ecuador’s government announced that the Yasuni basin — an untouched corner of the Amazon and one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth – was officially open for exploitation. The decision was made all the more tragic for what it said about us all: In a much-publicized gambit, the country pleaded for international help in protecting the region’s wildlife and indigenous populations. If the countries of the world could scrape together $3.6 billion, or half the value of the estimated 800 million barrels of crude oil beneath the preserve’s surface, the government would leave it in the ground.
“The world has failed us,” said Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa when the hoped-for funds failed to appear.
But the whole story takes a turn for the sinister with documents uncovered by the Guardian that show a secret plan from 2010 to build a power plant smack in the middle of the preserve. The government, it appears, was planning to drill all along.
…The new documents consist of a 17-page summary of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Environmental Management Plan (EMP) for a proposed power plant and subtransmission lines, together with a letter from the environment ministry and state oil firm PetroEcuador to council members in the Aguarico district inviting them to a meeting on 26 March 2010 to discuss a draft version of the EIA.
…The EIA summary, which makes no mention of the Yasuni-ITT Initiative or the indigenous people in “voluntary isolation” or a supposedly “intangible zone” established to protect them, was written by a Quito-based consultancy called VVP, whose legal representative is named as Vinicio Valarezo Peña. Valarezo Peña, who previously worked for the environment ministry, told the Guardian that the EIA had been approved by the ministry and was “conducted in full compliance with all the applicable laws”.
The letter to the Aguarico councilors was signed by PetroEcuador representative Carmen Peralvo Guzman and environment ministry representative Carlos Villon Zambrano. Peralvo Guzman said she didn’t attend the 26 March meeting but she confirmed that there had been a plan to build power plants.
…“In my opinion, these documents show that the government was actually preparing the extraction of the oil at the same time that it was officially promoting the opposite,” says Carlos Larrea, from the University Andina Simón Bolivar, who worked as an adviser between 2007 and 2011 to the government’s team promoting the Yasuni-ITT Initiative.
This isn’t the first time a potential “Plan B” has been uncovered, and Correa and other officials insist they were just making sure they were ready in case they weren’t able to raise the necessary funds to prevent drilling. But according to Carlos Andrew Vera, a journalist who’s been following the story, the new documents are “more evidence that plan B [to exploit the oil] was actually the only plan and they were keeping this information under the rug.”