Environmental News Archive

An almost weekly update of environmental news, particularly marine updates, with occasional splatters of transportation, indigenous, ideas of sustainability and sustainable development from around the world.


Earth's Dirty Little Secret: Slowly but Surely We Are Skinning Our Planet

Mon 16-Apr-2007
Source: University of Washington

Newswise — Throughout history civilizations expanded as they sought new soil to feed their populations, then ultimately fell as they wore out or lost the dirt they depended upon. When that happened, people moved on to fertile new ground and formed new civilizations.

That process is being repeating today, but in a new book a University of Washington geomorphologist argues the results could be far more disastrous for humans because there are very few places left with fertile soil to feed large populations, and farming practices still trigger large losses of rich dirt.

"We're doing the same things today that past societies have done, and at the same rate," said David Montgomery, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences who studies the evolution and structure of the various aspects of the Earth's surface. In essence, he said, we are slowly removing our planet's life-giving skin.

"It only takes one good rainstorm when the soil is bare to lose a century's worth of dirt."

Montgomery is the author of "Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations," in which he examines how soil is slowly created over time, the vital role it has played in the rise and fall of civilizations from Mesopotamia to Rome, and how it shaped where and how we live today. The 295-page book, published by the University of California Press, is a popular review of scientific literature on soil and farming practices.

In the past, as soil was depleted in a particular region – the American South during the height of tobacco plantations, for example, or the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s – people moved to new areas that could support their crops. But Montgomery argues that their primary farming method – plowing under any crop residue and leaving the surface exposed to wind and water erosion for long periods – was a major cause of the conditions that drove them from the land.

Flat lands and areas with thicker, richer soil tend to have less natural erosion, while steeper areas have greater erosion from both wind and water. Removing vegetative cover just worsens the problem, Montgomery said.

"If you take sloping land and strip the plants away, it leaves the soil bare and exposed. There will be a huge impact the next time it rains or when the wind blows," he said. "Plow-based agriculture can change the erosion rate of even a flat place like Kansas into the erosion rate of a place like the Himalayas. Basically that type of farming is remaking the surface of the planet."

When the Earth's population was smaller people could move from one place to another and give soil a chance to regenerate. But now, with more than 6 billion people on the planet, that option no longer exists, Montgomery said.

"We're farming about as much land as we can on a sustainable basis, but the world's population is still growing," he said. "We have to learn to farm without losing the soil."

He advocates a wholesale change in farming practices, moving to no-till agriculture, which he says would reduce erosion closer to its natural rate. That method would eliminate plowing and instead crop stubble would remain in the field, to be mixed with the very top layer of the soil using a method called disking. Farmers might need more herbicides to control weeds, but it would take fewer passes of farm machinery – and thus less fuel – to tend crops.

Currently about 5 percent of the world's farmers engage in no-till agriculture, the vast majority of them in the United States and Latin America, Montgomery said.

"We don't have to farm the way we do. It's as much a matter of culture and habit as it is of economics, and our habitual ways of farming have gotten people into a lot of trouble through the years," Montgomery said.

"It's more of a conceptual shift than anything else, but it's a conceptual shift that conserves the soil."

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Overwhelming response for Singapore Day in New York

By May Wong, Channel NewsAsia | Posted: 12 April 2007

SINGAPORE: Singapore Day will be held in New York on 21 April and the response has been so good that organisers have been forced to move the event to a larger venue – Central Park.

The inaugural festival on Singapore's entertainment scene as well as local cuisine was, initially, supposed to be held at the smaller Bryant Park.

Funnyman Hossan Leong and singer Kit Chan are some of the artistes who will bring the local flavour to Singaporeans living in the US.

Organisers had targeted a turnout of about 1,000 Singapore citizens in the US. But now, the figure has ballooned to some 5,000 and most of them are Singaporeans.

Roy Quek, Director, Overseas Singaporean Unit, said: "Someone told us that some friends in New York were planning to go very early to the venue for Singapore Day, which is now in Wollman Rink in Central Park, because they want to be first in line to get to the food, to see the exhibitions and basically, to make sure they get in.

"It's especially heartening when you hear things like that – there's so much enthusiasm, so much buzz going around among the Singaporean community about Singapore Day."

Ten larger-than-life panels will be erected at the venue, with videos screened to showcase the developments in Singapore.

Mr Quek said: "When you go into the park, the first thing you'll see is the exhibition about life, work and play in Singapore. You'll see slices of Singapore – past, present and future.

"When you move out of that part, you'll see hawker stalls, performances by Singaporeans, of Singapore songs, telling Singaporean jokes and basically having a Singaporean Day out in New York, in Central Park."

Singapore Day will occupy the size of about two football fields.

And if this event proves to be a success, the organisers might take it to other places like Shanghai or London.

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Tourism plans for Southern Islands put on hold

Krist Boo
12 April 2007
Straits Times

FIVE months after announcing with much fanfare that the Southern Islands would be turned into the next big tourist attraction, the plans have been put on hold.

Although the Singapore Tourism Board wouldn't reveal why, industry sources say the Government is considering housing a casino on the six-island cluster.

If this is true, the islands could remain as they are for the next 10 years.

The deals that Las Vegas Sands and Genting International - operators of the Marina Bay and Sentosa integrated resorts (IRs) - have with the Government give them a 10-year head start before a third casino licence is issued.

Since both agreements were signed last year, the earliest possible date for a third casino is 2016.

If the two IRs prove to be successful, the Southern Islands will command a premium, the tourism industry sources said.

The STB would not comment on the speculation, saying only: 'A premium destination, an eco-tourism resort, or an attraction leveraging on the islands' existing cultural elements - all remain possibilities.'

The STB had, in November last year, said it would in the first quarter of this year come up with tender guidelines to transform the island into a tourist attraction, possibly for the well-heeled.

The board did meet potential investors in January to gauge their interest and listen to ideas, but the results apparently were not very encouraging.

In response to queries from The Straits Times, STB's assistant chief executive for leisure, Dr Chan Tat Hong, said: 'No decision has been made yet on a development concept, including whether an RFC (request for concepts) exercise will be launched.'

This is the second time in three years that the authorities are rethinking plans for the six islands - Kusu, St John's, the Sisters' Islands, Kias, Lazarus and Seringat.

With a total land area of 140ha - three times the size of the Sentosa IR site - the islands were in 2004 cited as a possible location for one of the two casino resorts.

But the projects landed at Marina Bay and Sentosa instead.

The shelving of development plans drew praise from Mr Francis Phun, chairman of the Association of Singapore Attractions, which represents 40 attractions in Singapore.

He said that, with the two IRs opening in about two years, and the Singapore Flyer being launched next year, Singapore is already creating a buzz as a tourist destination.

'The Southern Islands are a totally different product. They create another wave of new excitement.'

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Schwarzenegger: Make climate hip

By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News, Washington
11 April 2007

The environmental movement must become "hip and sexy" if it is to succeed, California's Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has said.

Speaking at a conference in Washington, he urged campaigners to focus on the positives of cutting carbon emissions rather than making people feel guilty.

The movement must change its image just as he helped transform the "sketchy" reputation of bodybuilding, he said.

California is seen as leading the way in tackling climate change in the US.

The state - the sixth largest economy in the world - signed a law last year which set a target of cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2020.

And while Mr Schwarzenegger cannot stand for president in 2008 because he is not US-born, he has made it clear he wants his views on climate change to play into the race.


Addressing a largely student audience at Georgetown University, Mr Schwarzenegger said he was optimistic attitudes to the environment were changing.

But, he said, campaigners on climate change needed to shake off the image of being "tree-huggers" and "fanatics".

"Environmentalists were no fun, they were like prohibitionists at a fraternity party," he said to laughter.

The Republican governor - the former body-builder turned film-star turned politician - invoked images of pumping iron to make his point.

Weight-lifting was once considered a pursuit for weirdos, he said, carried out in dungeon-like gyms by people embarrassed to admit to doing it.

But with positive marketing "it became mainstream, it became sexy, attractive, and this is exactly what has to happen with the environmental movement", he said.

The same thing happened when the John Travolta film Saturday Night Fever made disco-dancing hip and sexy, he added, reaching even his little village in Austria.

'Muscle cars'

Mr Schwarzenegger, who has been criticised in the past over his fleet of Hummers, pointed out that his vehicles now run on bio-fuel and hydrogen.

"We don't really want to go and take away the 'muscle' cars, the Hummers and the SUVs, because that's a formula for failure," he said.

"What we have to do is make those cars more environmentally muscular."

He rebuffed criticism from US carmakers, saying the fact they had to meet Californian standards on vehicle emissions would ensure they kept up with foreign competitors.

And he urged campaigners to move away from using guilt to pressure people over greenhouse gas emissions.

"Successful movements aren't built on guilt, they are built on passion," he said.

He believes the environmental movement is approaching a "tipping point" where it will enter the mainstream, galvanising business and individuals.

And California is leading the way, Mr Schwarzenegger said, especially as Republicans and Democrats are working together to pass pioneering legislation on the environment.

"California is big, it's powerful and what we do in California has unbelievable impact and it has consequences," he said.

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NEA launches campaign to encourage shoppers to use reusable bags

By Wong Mun Wai, Channel NewsAsia
11 April 2007 2242 hrs

SINGAPORE : You can do your bit to help cut down global warming - all you have to do is buy a reusable shopping bag, and use it in place of plastic bags which are harmful to the environment.

This is part of a new campaign by Singapore's National Environment Agency (NEA) which starts next week.

It is aimed at reducing the amount of waste created.

This latest campaign by the NEA is about changing mindsets of shoppers.

That is why it's working with seven food retailers to sell reusable bags.

From next week, shoppers who still want a plastic bag will be asked to make a 10 cent donation.

And starting in May, the first Wednesday of each month will be dedicated for shoppers to bring their own bag.

The NEA hopes to increase the low 2% of shoppers using reusable bags.

But bringing your own bag clearly needs some getting used to.

"Well I guess you would have to remember to bring it all the time. That's one. And I wonder how big it is as it may be a bit inconvenient if you bring it along with you all the time, especially if you're on a bus or on a MRT," says one member of the public.

"It is good but habits are hard to change. Moreover, they are still giving us free plastic bags," says another.

Singapore consumes 2.5 billion plastic bags each year.

"We noticed that over the years, more and more plastic bags are being used. So we felt it is important that we start educating our people on how they should use the plastic bags," says Lee Yuen Hee, CEO of NEA.

Singapore incinerates its waste plastic bags and burning a tonne of them produces almost 2,900 kilograms of carbon dioxide - the gas that causes global warming.

Global warming is the reason why glaciers melt, causing sea levels to rise. And that is a serious issue for islands like Singapore.

And some plastic bags end up as rubbish, polluting beaches and clogging up waterways & drains.

"Each year, we do waste studies in incineration plants, and found a large amount of plastic bags unused and thrown away by people as trash items. This indicates that there is huge room for us to cut down the wastage," says Yang Hong, Senior Environment Health Executive, Resource Conservation Department, NEA.

And that's why, instead of promoting retailers to switch to biodegradable bags, NEA's strategy is to focus on public education, as everyone has a part to play. - CNA /ls

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