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On The Science Show with Robyn Williams


Robyn Williams: The Science Show on RN with, as I mentioned, a look towards Earth Day coming up. And the report card is not good, as Reese Halter sums up from California.

Reese Halter: In 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, rumbling bulldozers and whining chainsaws destroyed an area of untouched primaeval rainforest almost two-thirds the size of Tasmania or 4.2 million hectares. That's a 12% increase over 2019's ruination of nature. The worst losses were incurred in Brazil, three times that of the second worst offender, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This year, 2021, may even be worse; 1 million hectares of exquisite Papua New Guinean old-growth rainforest are being swapped right now for more monoculture palm oil and rubber plantations, soybeans for livestock feed, and the burgeoning $50 billion per annum wood pellet biomass power industry to create more heat to roast whatever remains of Mother Earth.

2020 was also a record for ocean heat. Combusting fossil fuels and tearing down old-growth native rainforest to chop up into tiny pellets to be burned as filthy biomass power is adding the equivalent heat into the oceans of dropping ten Hiroshima atomic bombs every second of the year.

Trees are very sensitive barometers of heat. In the springtime, deciduous tree buds require a precise amount of heat energy in order to expand and grow flowers to make seeds and leaves to absorb carbon dioxide and store it as wood. For 1,209 years, the imperial court records of Kyoto Japan have been recording the exact date of cherry blossoms, a traditional sign of spring. This year was the earliest bloom since the inception of continuous recordkeeping in 812 AD. It's getting hotter much sooner. The trees don't lie.

Climate fires and climate droughts lambasted Australia in 2020. They devoured 17 million hectares, a ninefold increase in tree cover loss. Also, in 2020, record areas of climate fires scorched Siberia's old growth and gutted the heart of the largest remaining tropical rainforest, the Amazon. The man-made climate crisis is thrashing the oceans. Recurring and more intense marine heatwaves have turned the richest assembly of ocean life on coral reefs into ginormous, god-awful, bleached-white boneyards.

An Australian Academy of Science report forewarns that at 1.5 degrees of warming, the remaining Great Barrier Reef will shrivel by 70% to 90%. Let me remind you that in 2020, Australia's average temperature increased by 1.44 degrees. At 2 degrees, my colleagues predict that just 1% of the reef would survive.

So, what can we do? Protecting all the remaining old-growth forest is crucial to slow down these hideous, man-made heatwaves. Only 1% of the existing trees on the globe are spellbinding giants. They live in the world's last old-growth rainforest and hold an astounding 50% of all the stored terrestrial aboveground carbon. These beauties are sacrosanct. Ladies and gentlemen, nature doesn't lie. We cannot live on this planet without breathing, dripping, mesmerising old-growth rainforests and all life therein, as well as thriving coral reefs. It's a now or never moment. Bring on a zero-combustion economy, 2030.

For The Science Show, from the redwood rainforests of northern California, I'm Reese Halter.

Robyn Williams: And Reese did his PhD on forests at the University of Melbourne. So, what about national parks and how they could help? Future Tense on ABC RN has a special on that topic this week. Here's a taste.

Antony Funnell: Today of course there are national parks and wilderness areas right across the globe. But are there enough? And how well-designed are they to protect the biodiversity of the Earth? Brian O'Donnell from the Campaign for Nature is one of those who believes we need more. A whole lot more.

Brian O'Donnell: First off, I think it's important to know just the scale of the crisis we are facing. The Earth is in the midst of a major biodiversity crisis where we face the loss of potentially 1 million plant and animal species in just decades without acting. Just in my lifetime we've lost 60% of the wildlife populations, which is just a tremendous loss. More than 90% of the big fish in the oceans are gone, and scientists have told us that the number one reason for this loss, on land it's habitat destruction, it's land degradation. And in the seas, it's overfishing.

So, in order to confront that type of a crisis you need to have a solution that is commensurate with that scale of loss. And one of the main ways to do that is through the protection of habitat, through the expansion of protected and conserved areas. And scientists have looked at how much we need it, and the ranges go from a minimum of 30% to up to more than 50%. So we felt like an immediate investment in the expansion of protected areas of at least 30% by 2030, by a date certain, was a critical down-payment, an investment in conservation that could help stem the loss of biodiversity and halt that incredible growth of extinctions from human-caused habitat loss.

Antony Funnell: So, conserving a third of the Earth's surface within ten years, that's what the 30x30 campaign is all about, and Brian O'Donnell and his colleagues believe it's both necessary and feasible.

Brian O'Donnell: We think 30% is an interim step that is a critical step that the world can take in the near term, so these next ten years are so important because we have this massive influx in infrastructure projects that are taking place, we have a huge level of deforestation around the world, with the clearcutting of rainforests at a rate of about four football fields per minute.

So we have this urgency to start to protect those intact areas, and we thought that given that the Convention of Biological Diversity which sets these global targets does so in ten-year time frames, we thought a 30% figure by 2030 was the appropriate step. Let's get to that step, and then we can look at whether it's possible to go further to do some restoration of areas that have been degraded to get to that safer zone. Obviously, the more we protect, the better off we are for species.

Robyn Williams: From this week's Future Tense on RN, very much worth hearing in full via your app, in the lead-up to Earth Day on the 22nd.