Large Herbivores Can Help Prevent Massive Wildfires

In 2019 and 2020, a megafire scorched eastern Australia, destroying some 24 million hectares of land, and adding to the hole in the ozone layer. Another massive fire ate away parts of Northern California in 2018, and slowly animals are starting to return. Over the years fires have scorched parts of Africa, including a 15,000-hectare disaster in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

While the frequency, intensity and severity of large-scale wildfires might be a consequence of climate change, there is another cause receiving little attention: the decline of large herbivore populations. Large herbivores regulate nature’s fire systems by eating plant matter that fuels wildfires and turning over soil and vegetation litter as a result of their rummaging behavior. But, large herbivores are in trouble. About 60 percent of species of the world’s largest terrestrial herbivores are at risk of vanishing, for two key reasons: one, because of extensive overhunting, to feed rising populations across the developing world, and two, as part of encroachment by livestock, deforestation and expanding cultivation in the developed world.

Ecosystem engineering to reintroduce large herbivores into fire-prone regions in Australia has shown some promise, yet conservationists and media outlets often portray these animals as helpless victims. As a relatively inexpensive part of any fire prevention strategy, we must prioritize the reintroduction of either wild or domestic large herbivores into fire-prone areas to help prevent these disasters.

Wildfire is not always the enemy. Low-intensity fire destroys invasive species, for example, that have not adapted. But the consequences of megafires, continuous fires that cover more than 10,000 hectares, or the equivalent of approximately 14,000 soccer fields, are uniquely devastating. Large fires, and the smoke they create, have caused the deaths of more than 30,000 people annually in 43 countries. In 2022, wildfires in the U.S. caused an estimated $18.09 billion in property damage. In addition, the U.S. National Interagency Fire Center says federal fire suppression costs have skyrocketed from $240 million in 1985 to about $3.5 billion in 2022.

Megafires are part of the blowback from the loss of biodiversity. Large herbivores like the American bison and the white rhinoceros traditionally clipped grass and ate shrubs, reducing available wildfire fuel. Their feeding habits changed the composition of vegetation over vast areas, creating diverse habitats. These habitats differed in their vulnerability to wildfires, producing a vast mosaic of natural firebreaks, which experts say affected the regularity, speed and strength of wildfires. In addition, reduced leaf matter leads to decreased flame height and rate of fire spread.

Wild herbivores also help reduce the spread of wildfires in other ways. For instance, animal trails have been proven to limit the spread of low-intensity wildfires by creating firebreaks. Large herbivores such as Cape buffalo and red deer make temporary pools by creating wallows, which also interrupt wildfires. On the southern Russian steppes, livestock populations that have declined since the fall of the Soviet Union led to an increase in fuel for wildfires; there was a rapid increase in the area burned by wildfire.

This is not just a modern phenomenon. Archeological evidence indicates that the extinction of species like mammoths, giant kangaroos and other megafauna as a result of human expansion more than 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, led to an increase in wildfires.

In the present, places like California and southern Australia have felt the brunt of these infernos almost every summer. These are areas where mild, wet winters and warm, dry summers prevail, and, unsurprisingly, these areas have had major declines in large herbivores. Among the 29 Australian terrestrial mammals that have become extinct over the past two centuries were several ecosystem engineers whose burrowing activities increased the speed of leafy debris’ decomposition.

In 2022, California’s black-tail deer and mule deer populations was estimated to be around 475,000 according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, a sharp reduction from about two million back in 1960. This decline has contributed significantly to an accumulation of flammable vegetation since one deer can consume about seven pounds of vegetation per day, about 2,555 pounds annually.

Rewilding large wild and domestic herbivores for wildfire prevention has worked before. Researchers in Australia reintroduced “ecosystem engineers” including species of rat and wallaby, to areas from which they had disappeared. Leaf litter was significantly lower, and fire behavior modeling illustrated these animals had substantial impacts on flame height and speed. Livestock grazing has also reduced fire frequency in Southern Arizona. Another example is the reintroduction of giant tortoises to Española Island in the Galápagos, which has regulated shrubbery and created mosaics of vegetation, mitigating the spread of wildfires.

Every ecosystem will need a specific plan. For example, to address the fire risk on abandoned farmland, a specific kind of livestock would have to perform extensive or targeted intensive grazing, which is the use of domesticated large herbivores for a predetermined duration and intensity.

According to experts, the most effective strategy generally is to combine both grazing and browsing herbivores in sufficient numbers with browsers feeding primarily on leaves, soft shoots or fruits of woody plants like shrubs, while grazers eat grass and other herbaceous plants. Additionally, herbivore food preferences need to match the local vegetation. For example, certain types of goats have been found to have more of an impact in reducing fuel biomass than cows because the former feeds on more diverse vegetation types than the latter.

Cows would be more useful in predominantly grassy environments as their diet is fairly restricted to grasses, while some larger breeds of goats have a wider variety of vegetation in their diets including branches, young trees or tree bark that other herbivore species find inedible. Herbivore reintroduction may also need to be combined with other strategies like mechanical clearing to reduce wildfire damage.

Ignoring the benefits of reintroducing large herbivores into fire-prone regions will risk the lives of people who live in these areas, could ruin national economies, and will threaten biodiversity and vital habitats. Megafires also release large amounts of stored carbon, worsening climate change. This summer has witnessed megafires in Hawaii, Canada, Algeria and Greece. But equally worrying is that large wildfires are occurring where they previously did not.

Successful land-management strategies must be all-inclusive and involve a variety of groups and individuals who have a vested interest in reducing fire risk. This includes ranchers, NGOs, fisher-folk, hunters, Indigenous peoples, landowners and recreationists. Funding for rewilding projects can help turn the tide against the global decline and disappearance of these large and environmentally influential plant consumers. Such efforts can also boost economic activities like biodiversity conservation and ecotourism.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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30 years on, is the Lyon-Turin rail project still looking so green?

The high-speed Lyon-Turin rail link involves excavating what will be the world’s longest rail tunnel, but will its carbon footprint be too damaging?

The first of seven giant tunnel-boring machines was assembled at a German factory two weeks ago and, once they are all put into action in a year’s time, they will greatly speed up excavation through the base of Mont Cenis in Savoie, France.

Meanwhile, work is also continuing with the use of more traditional machinery to cut through 500 metres or so of the rock each day.

Construction workers for the state-owned Tunnel Euralpin Lyon Turin company (TELT) need to excavate enough rock to create two 57.5 km long tunnels – longer than the Channel tunnel by six kilometres.

By the time it is finally finished in 2032, it will mean fewer trucks and more trains on both sides of the border – if it is finished on time. The project has suffered many delays, mostly involving financing setbacks over the years.

But will it still be viewed as beneficial to the environment, as it was in the 1990s when it is finally finished in 2032?

Stéphane Guggino, the General Delegate of La Transalpine Lyon-Turin, supports the project:

“The urgency is, there are three million trucks passing between France and Italy every year. If you don’t dig tunnels, you keep the trucks on the roads.”

But drilling a tunnel on the French-Italian border is threatening water resources, which are under strain more than ever before, according to environmentalists.

Alberto Poggio from the Mountain Union of Val de Suse’s Technical Commission told Euronews the data speaks for itself:

“We have calculated that the construction of the entire Turin-Lyon line will result in a net contribution of 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Estimates indicate that 600 to 1,000 litres of water per second of water will be discharged from the tunnels during the work.

“It’s a bit like a large part of Turin or a large part of Lyon running out of water.”

Will the TGV Lyon-Turin have a positive impact on CO2 emissions?

According to the TELT project website, “The Mont Cenis base tunnel is a priority intervention in the context of the Green Deal’s decarbonisation objectives.”

Reducing emissions is said to be at the heart of the project which has two main aims:

– To encourage rail travel by halving journey times between Lyon and Turin.

– To encourage the transfer of 25 million tonnes of freight from road to rail every year.

 This is a major challenge, given that freight accounts for 80% of traffic on the line.

At present, it takes around seven hours to reach Milan from Paris by train. With the future high-speed line, it would take two hours less.

At this point, it’s starting to become attractive for travellers to take the train rather than the plane,” said Stéphane Guggino. At present, the Paris-Milan air route, a journey of 1h 30 minutes, is used by over 50,000 passengers a month.

The project’s promoters also believe that fast, reliable and efficient infrastructure will be an incentive for freight carriers. The aim is to transfer almost half of all traffic from road to rail.

Construction of the Lyon-Turin track will emit around 10 million tonnes of CO2, which TELT insists will be offset after the line has been in use for 15 years. After that TELS maintains, that thanks to the transfer of goods from road to rail, the infrastructure should produce results in terms of CO2 reduction.

Over 120 years of its use, the new line is expected to save one million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year.

These figures were revised upwards in 2020 by a report from the European Court of Auditors, which estimates that it would take a minimum of 25 years – and perhaps even 50 years if the line is under-used – to offset the emissions linked to construction.

This estimate has been called into question by Transalpine, which criticised the report’s author, Yves Crozet, economist and president of the Union Routière de France think tank, for his lack of neutrality towards the Lyon-Turin project.

For the environmentalists opposed to the project, the environmental cost of the line outweighs its usefulness in the context of the climate crisis.

“We think we’re going to solve problems by replacing old technologies with new ones. But our planetary limits no longer allow all that,” says Green MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield. “It’s also a question of reducing, being sober and no longer building useless things because their very construction causes environmental damage”.

2. Why not use the existing rail line?

The question of how to use the existing rail line is central to the debate on the Lyon-Turin TGV.

A line linking Lyon and Turin already exists. It passes through a historic 14-kilometre-long tunnel on Mont Cenis. Dug in 1871, the tunnel was renovated in 2012 to facilitate the transport of goods. It’s completely modernised. It only needs a few improvements, and it would cost much less to make them than to dig new tunnels,” said Philippe Delhomme, Co-President of the Vivre et Agir en Maurienne Association.

According to the project’s opponents, this “historic line” is under-used. NGO Les Amis de la Terre, the Vivre et Agir en Maurienne Association and the La France party have argued that the existing line would be “capable of ensuring a massive modal shift of 16 million tonnes per year, equivalent to the weight transported by one million heavy goods vehicles” – the target set by TELT.

However, it argues 162 freight trains will be able to pass through the new tunnel every day, compared with the 50 or so that currently travel daily on the existing line.

3. What impact will the project have on water resources?

The drying up of water resources is the most divisive aspect of this project.

One of the main challenges is the limited availability of this vital resource in the regions crossed by the project. In fact, the areas affected by the construction project are already experiencing a reduction in the flow of water as a result of climate change.

On the one hand, a project of this scale is extremely water-intensive. The construction of tunnels and railroads requires large quantities of water for earthworks, concreting and washing materials. This demand has a significant impact on existing reserves, further jeopardising the water supply of local communities and the surrounding ecosystem.

“But the water needed to build the tunnel is derisory compared to the amount of water wasted due to the interception of natural resources during excavation operations”, explained Alberto Poggio, an engineer and member of the Technical Commission of the Montana Union of Val di Susa.

The greatest danger is excavation. By drilling in the mountains, we risk drawing on natural water reservoirs. In a 2021 report, TELT confirmed that some of these resources were under threat. The water extracted would not be used in the work but would be taken out through the galleries to avoid flooding.

4. How will the landscape be affected?

The Alpine landscape that crosses the French-Italian border is already visibly affected. “In the Val di Susa, quality of life has become problematic from several points of view,” explains Alberto Poggio. “The presence of construction sites is starting to become a nuisance, from the point of view of materials and for the environmental impact noted by controls which are rather small but, are starting to indicate criticalities”, continued the expert.

According to the engineer, the landscape is also compromised by the presence of landfill sites where the materials used on the sites are stored: “When I do an excavation, what comes out, the crushed rock, has to be permanently disposed of. Part of this elimination has been achieved by dumping the material in identified areas of the same valley. This has already happened in the Maurienne and also at the Maddalena di Chiomonte site, where an auxiliary tunnel was dug and the waste used was dumped alongside it on a permanent basis”.

It’s the same scenario in France: “Meadows have been gutted, forests have already been razed to store future waste”, explains Philippe Delhomme. “Small villages are seeing more trucks transporting waste or goods, and are obviously upset by the dust, the noise… As the crow flies, I’m 1.4 kilometres from a waste disposal site. Well, I can hear the trucks, I can hear the noise of the machines. It’s no longer possible to accept this today.”

And farmland is at risk too. “We’re in a Beaufort zone which stipulates that 70% of the fodder needed to make this cheese for livestock is indispensable, and it can only be indispensable if the meadows are irrigated. But with less water, irrigation won’t be possible”, commented Philippe Delhomme.

But for TELT and its supporters, these are issues that need to be put into perspective.

“When you build infrastructure, there is always an ecological impact, that’s obvious. It is a reality, Stéphane Guggino said. “But these ecological impacts must be measured against the ecological benefits, over the very long term and from this point of view, it is always positive.”

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EU’s green transition is ‘a marathon’, says Environment Commissioner

In this latest episode of the Global Conversation, we speak to Virginijus Sinkevičius about Europe’s waning enthusiasm for greener policies.

Green Week is the European Union’s annual opportunity to take stock of its climate policy.

This year, the week of meetings and debates is taking place in an atmosphere where environmental objectives are being called into question.

To discuss these challenges, Euronews met with the European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius.

Grégoire Lory, Euronews: The environmental priority seems to have taken a backseat when we hear the French president or the Belgian prime minister talking about a regulatory pause.

Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the Environment: “I think the French president, if you listen for the whole speech, that was a very good, good speech, and that was not really meant to, you know, go against any of the current proposals that are already put forward.

“It’s more of keeping a balanced approach and ensuring that we have the competitiveness of our businesses as the priority. And I can only reconfirm that was the Commission’s position from the very beginning, that the Green Deal is not possible without having everyone on board. But we should not forget that there is not going to be a peace treaty as regards [to] climate change or biodiversity loss. And these crises and their consequences are already putting a huge toll on our life as regards [to] food insecurity, as regards [to] floods or droughts, which not only costs a living for European citizens but also human lives. And of course, we need to prevent such disasters of scaling up across Europe.”

Grégoire Lory, Euronews: Isn’t this pause what people want to hear because they don’t see in their daily lives the effects of these green policies and they have other concerns?

Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the Environment: “It’s always easier to spot the immediate crisis. Such as a war which now [is] ongoing in Ukraine for more than a year. You have a clear image. With, for example, the degradation of our soil, it’s much more difficult to see it. Most likely the first ones to see, to understand are our farmers that have to deal with soil every day and who depend on soil fertility directly. But still, we as politicians, if we are responsible, we have to take future-oriented decisions. We cannot be jumping only on those topics that society is at this moment voicing up.

“If you return to 2019, across all political parties, everyone was in the race for the Green Deal. Who is even more ambitious? Today, this voice is diminishing. But the climate crisis or biodiversity loss or pollution pressures, they didn’t go anywhere. Such policies and a change that we are now doing as regards our economy, as regards our energy transition, transport and so on, this is a marathon, despite the pressures from outside.”

Grégoire Lory, Euronews: Are the Member states still involved? And what about the Parliament? Because the centre-right is asking for a moratorium (on several important texts of the Green Deal). Is there still a majority in favour of environmental policy?

Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the Environment: “So of course, first of all, member states, of course, are fully involved. Same I see with the parliament. Yes, you always have voices, that’s the beauty of democracy and the Parliament. But overall, you have to look if the work is going forward, then I can see that the work is going forward. I always wanted to go faster ahead. So we need to ensure that we are ready, that we are fit for tomorrow that looks gloomy.

“And first of all, it looks gloomy to those economic actors that are directly dependent on ecosystems: our farmers, our fishers, our foresters. 50% of the world’s GDP is actually connected to ecosystems. I know it’s something that we take for granted, but at some point, if we lose it, there is not going to be a technology that can successfully replace it.”

Grégoire Lory, Euronews: Is the ongoing war in Ukraine putting pressure on the ambition and investment in favour of green policies?

Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the Environment: “I would say you have to probably split it into two parts. On the one hand, it had a very positive effect on our energy policies. So all our goals on renewable energy, our work as regards the package of REpowerEU, of developing renewable projects as being adopted with astonishing speed. And it really showed that this uncertainty and increased energy prices, they pushed us to look for alternatives that would allow us not [to] be dependent on uncertain, undemocratic regimes.

“Now, when it comes to biodiversity policies, I can only reassure you that we don’t want foresters out of the forest or we don’t want fishers off the sea or farmers not working the land. On the contrary, we want them to do it for many, many years to come in a way that it’s rewarding for them, that it’s profitable in a way that is not damaging to the ecosystem. So that we ensure long-term sustainability.”

Grégoire Lory, Euronews: Will all the text be concluded before the end of the mandate?

Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the Environment: “If you look at the files that I’m in charge of: [the] circular economy, environmental files, I am optimistic that we are moving ahead swiftly and I hope that we can successfully conclude. As I said, we need it. We need [it] to maintain our leadership position globally. We need it because we were the leading force behind the global agreements and we need it to secure a deliverable future for the generations to come.

Grégoire Lory, Euronews: In this difficult context, what are the achievements that are set in stone and that will affect the citizens?

Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the Environment: “I think, first of all, you know, we’ve done a tremendous work as regards [to] the climate package and “Fit for 55” package, which is almost done. And that’s a great achievement. We have put forward already all the policies that are key policies as regards the circular economy and really moving from the linear model to a more circular model. And I’m very happy that co-legislators are very supportive.

“And if you look at the product policy after this mandate, it will be unrecognisable, on all the changes that we have put forward. And I’m very proud of it. I’m happy that we managed early on to conclude our file on the batteries. We see that battery production by 2030 will increase 14-fold. So there are a number of great achievements. But as [I] said, when we talk about the Green Deal, it’s a complex horizontal change. It’s not one single initiative that can be called a Green Deal. And we still have a lot of work ahead of us.”

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EU Environment Commissioner urges more action to save biodiversity

It is an almost invisible crisis that threatens our food security, our health and the quality of the atmosphere in which we live. The collapse of biodiversity threatens to wipe out one million living species.

Euronews spoke to the European Commissioner for the Environment, Virginijus Sinkevičius to discuss the deal recently agreed by the EU institutions which bans products linked to deforestation, and ask how it will impact people’s daily lives and what it will mean for biodiversity.

“Now Europeans will know that when buying chocolate, coffee in the stores, they will know that these products don’t come from deforested land”, said Virginijus Sinkevičius. “I think this is our pride and this is our credibility to ensure that…our consumption patterns here in Europe do not drive forest losses around the globe. But we also have a credible legislation which ensures that our trading — or to say our consumption — does not drive the processes.”

Biodiversity should be at the centre stage of international concern because of the UN’s COP15 summit in Montreal, that the Commissioner will be attending. But it doesn’t appear to be attracting as much attention as the COP27 climate conference that just took place last month.

“I think it’s not a lack of interest, but maybe more of a lack of awareness and understanding. With climate, we are probably ten years ahead of where we are with biodiversity policies”, Sinkevičius explained.

“Climate is much easier to negotiate and understand. First of all, you have this overarching goal of 1.5 degrees, which everyone on the street can relate to and understand very well. Secondly, I think the Paris [Climate Agreement] helped increase awarness of the climate a lot because it was a historic agreement. So there is always additional attention from the media, from policymakers, and from civil society who want to know if we are delivering on those huge promises that we have made, which gave them hope”, he added.

“So I think all of that combined is there. For biodiversity we are not yet there. We still need an overarching goal, something similar to 1.5 degrees. Societies still don’t understand what biodiversity is. Everyone might have a completely different opinion, and I think too often people think it’s just about environment. To be honest, it’s about humans, first of all, and the health of our planet”, the European Commissioner for the Environment told Euronews.

In the face of so many current crises, Euronews asked Commissioner Sinkevičius for his thoughts and concerns about the potential for climate fatigue.

“You can [be fatigued], and you can be tired of [the climate]. Sometimes it looks like it’s not getting immediate attention, but the problem hasn’t disappeared”, he replied.

“COVID-19 had a tragic impact on our society with the number of deaths, but we were lucky to have a vaccine. Now we have a situation of war, which, of course, draws our immediate attention. But you also have a pressure on our economy with energy bills rising up with inflation increasing. But one day there will be a peace treaty, hopefully sooner rather than later.”

But, he explained, “for the biodiversity crisis, for the climate crisis, there won’t be a vaccine or a peace treaty. So we have to advance those policies. Sometimes they might not receive immediate attention. Sometimes they might be very complicated. But I think we have already proven many times that the 2019 decision to introduce the European Green Deal has been the correct one. And even now in the background of war and the energy crisis, we see that the solution is the Green Deal, and the development of renewables, and ensuring that the projects are actually put out as fast as possible.”

When asked what are the EU’s goals for this COP15, Commissioner Sinkevičius said, “we need a global agreement, we need a deal. But it has to be ambitious. So it has to have a 30 by 30 goal, which I think can be equal to 1.5 degrees or the Paris momentum, where we had agreed to protect 30% of land territories and 30% of marine territories.”

“That’s not going to be enough. Secondly, of course, we need to ensure at least 20% of nature restoration efforts will be deployed by the year 2030 and by the year 2040. Overall, by 2050, we need to stop human induced biodiversity loss and that has to be our overarching goal. Last but not least, funding. Funding will be, as always, a tricky question, which will require lots of emphasis from all parties. But I think what’s most important is to ensure that we don’t have a gap with regards to the funding and implementation of the goals agreed, because we are already two years behind. We’re talking about the framework up to 2030, which had to be agreed post-2020.”

During the COP27, the financial rift between the global North and global South was one of the conference’s major talking points. Euronews asked Virginijus Sinkevičius for this thoughts on this.

“Inevitably, that split is going to be there. And as always, one side will be saying that if you want us to do more, you need to put more on the table. On the other side, we have a situation where the economic situation is very different than what we had two years ago. So it’s very difficult to put additional money on the table. I’m proud that the EU again will have a credible position. We pledged that we will double our spending for biodiversity and we have done that. I’m also very thankful to France and Germany, who did so as well. We need other developed countries, of course, to step it up. But what’s very clear, and we have to be realistic, is that there will never be enough money raised. But what we have to do is to use it effectively”, he replied.

When asked how much money is needed and where this money would come from, Commissioner Sinkevičius admitted that, “it’s difficult to say how much money is needed, and there are different estimations. And as I always say, it still probably wouldn’t be enough.”

“There are countries who are calling for €100 billion per year. I think, at this moment, that is absolutely unrealistic. Because if you look where the money comes from — the countries’ pledges and countries’ funds, or EU funding, they come mainly from the development budgets.”

“We have to ensure that using the current funding mechanism, we also tap into a possibilities from other sources: philanthropists, investment banks, especially international ones. I think they, and the private sector have to play a crucial role in adding additional funding. So there is a potential of additional funding. I think the current funding mechanism can be open for that, and that will be also one of the topics we discuss during the negotiations”, he concluded.

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