In the Lab

Mass Extinction Event Is Nigh, According to Surveys, Butterflies
If British scientists are right, the Earth may be experiencing its sixth major extinction event. According to recent biodiversity studies in Britain, some species of plants, birds and butterflies are going the way of the dinosaurs, except this time humans are the "asteroids."

"Fossil records show five major extinctions" in the planet's history, said John Lawton, chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), which largely funded the studies. "Current extinction rates are approaching these magnitudes. The difference is that this extinction is caused by one species -- us."

The scientists based their findings on analysis and a recent repeat of three surveys that began 40 years ago covering nearly all the United Kingdom's native bird, plant and butterfly populations, according to an NERC report. Thousands of volunteers collected the data by scrutinizing 10-kilometer squares of countryside throughout England, Scotland and Wales. An analysis of the findings was published in the March 19 issue of Science.

"In the last ten years there has been an enormous interest in global extinction rates, but it has always been difficult to quantify," said Dr. Jeremy Thomas, lead author of one of the studies and a senior research scientist and director at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) Dorset. "These are the most detailed surveys in the world, and, for the first time, we have good data on one group of insects -- butterflies. The reason this is important is because insects make up 54 percent of all known species on this planet."

Past assumptions about extinction, Thomas added, have been based primarily on birds, which make up only 0.6 percent of all species on Earth. The recent research, coupled with comparative analysis of findings from the previous studies, showed a sharp decline in populations of the species surveyed, with some species from all Britain's main ecosystems gone altogether, supporting theories that a mass extinction is either nearing or underway.

"The results are appalling," Thomas said. "In Britain, 71 percent of all butterfly species have declined in the last 20 years. For the first time we can say that, in the U.K., one group of insects has suffered as badly as birds or plants -- this adds enormous strength to the hypothesis that the world is approaching its sixth major extinction event."

Another British team, led by Carly Stevens of both the Open University and CEH Monks Wood, studied the effects of pollution on the number of plant species at 68 grassland sites throughout Britain. In particular, the team, along with colleagues at Villanova University in the United States, looked at nitrogen pollution from industry, traffic and agricultural emissions such as fertilizers and animal waste.

They discovered that as nitrogen levels increased, the number of plant species decreased.

"The average levels of nitrogen pollution in the U.K. and Europe may be resulting in over 20 percent loss of species richness," said Stevens, an NERC-funded Ph.D. student whose report appears in a separate article of the same Science issue. "This is a very strong argument for the need to reduce pollution."

European Union legislation has set a maximum level for nitrogen emissions of 25 kilograms per hectare per year. Below this, legislators say, nitrogen levels do not cause noticeable damage to the grasslands. Stevens' research suggests this limit is too high and that any level of pollution reduces the number of plant species, thus affecting biodiversity.

Co-author Nancy Dise said, "The data suggests that it has taken around 40 years of high nitrogen deposition to get to this state, so it may take some time for species to return. And some of the changes may be irreversible."

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Renewable Energy Fuels Jobs, Researchers Say
It is time the U.S. economy and society evolved from an energy "hunter-gatherer" stage to one of "energy farming" and innovating, according to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. Not only will such an evolution benefit the environment, it will also boost the country's economic security and employment rate, researchers said in a report issued April 13, 2004, at a Seattle forum on the New Apollo Energy Project.

Investing in renewable energy available from solar, wind, biomass/waste and other technologies for fuel would produce more American jobs than a comparable investment in the fossil fuel energy sources in place today, according to the report.

"Across a broad range of scenarios, the renewable energy sector generates more jobs per average megawatt of power installed, and per unit of energy produced, than the fossil fuel-based energy sector," the report concludes. "All states of the Union stand to gain in terms of net employment from the implementation of a portfolio of clean energy policies at the federal level."

Daniel Kammen, a professor at UC Berkeley's Energy & Resources Group and Goldman School of Public Policy, directed the team that reviewed 13 previous reports focusing on the economic and employment impacts of the clean energy industry in the United States and Europe. Though the independent studies used a range of different methods that made comparison difficult, their uniform conclusions held up under scrutiny, he said.

"Renewable energy is not only good for our economic security and the environment, it creates new jobs," said Kammen, who is also head of UC Berkeley's Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory. "At a time when rising gas prices have raised our annual gas bill to $240 billion, investing in new clean energy technologies would both reduce our trade deficit and reestablish the U.S. as a leader in energy technology, the largest global industry today."

In their study, Kammen and colleagues considered all types of job creation, both direct (e.g., installing wind turbines) and indirect (e.g., jobs created to manufacture the steel used to build the wind turbines). They then calculated the jobs created by investing in renewable energy sources so that by 2020 they would constitute 20 percent of all energy sources. The non-renewable alternative, in which fossil fuels comprise the 20 percent that could have been renewable sources by 2020, were assumed to be either half coal-powered and half natural gas or 100 percent natural gas.

They found that a comprehensive, coordinated energy policy works best, emphasizing not only renewable energy sources but also energy efficiency and sustainable transportation. These, their report stated, "yield far greater employment benefits than supporting one or two of these sectors separately."

The research team also found that for all feasible scenarios, the renewables industry consistently generated more jobs than if the country sticks to fossil fuel industries. As many as 165,000 more jobs could be generated by 2020, calculated per average megawatt generated in construction, manufacturing and installation; in operations and maintenance; and in fuel processing. Investment in renewables also generates more jobs per dollar invested than does the fossil fuel energy sector, they found.

Part of the job-creating advantage of renewables over fossil fuels lies in the fact that the employment rate in fossil fuel-related industries has been declining steadily, Kammen said, for reasons that have little to do with environmental regulations. Though a shift from fossil fuels to renewables in the energy sector will create some job losses, these losses can be adequately compensated for through a number of policy actions, according to the group's report.

"For too long, innovations in solar, wind, and biomass/waste technologies, green buildings, highly efficient vehicles, and construction practices that minimize waste have languished in the market despite impressive technical advances, cost reductions and great potential that make these renewable energy technologies competitive with imported oil and gas supplies," Kammen said. "Investment in new renewable energy sources leads to roughly 10 times more jobs than a comparable investment in the fossil-fuel sector. This difference underscores the economic benefits of moving our economy and society from one of energy 'hunter gatherers' to one of 'energy farmers' and innovators."

Most states would benefit from the move to renewables, the study found. The Midwest, for example, has the best wind power resources in the United States. According to Greenpeace-USA, North Dakota alone has enough to produce 1.2 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity each year, which amounts to 32 percent of the total U.S. electricity consumption in 2002.

The New Apollo Energy Project is an initiative to replace the energy bill now in Congress with a new bill emphasizing energy independence and weaning the country from a reliance on imported fossil fuels by 2010. The project is spearheaded by U.S. Representative Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), who sponsored the Seattle forum.

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This news item originally appeared in the June 2004 issue Environmental Protection, Vol. 15, No. 6.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2004 issue of Environmental Protection.

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