William Wordsworth and the Romantics anticipated

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Monkeys, apes and lemurs are cute, familiar and lovable. But an estimated 60% of all primate species are listed as vulnerable, threatened or endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a network of environmental organisations.

You’ve probably heard about the main problems, like deforestation and the loss of habitat. But primates are a diverse group of animals with a wide geographical range, so there are many more subtle ways our actions as humans put these wonderful animals at risk.

Musical performances usually happen in concert halls or clubs, but famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma is exploring a new venue: U.S. national parks. In a project called Our Common Nature, Ma is performing in settings such as the Great Smoky Mountains and the Grand Canyon. By making music and bringing people together in scenic places, Ma aims to help humans understand where they fit in the natural world.

“What if there’s a way that we can end up thinking and feeling and knowing that we are coming from nature, that we’re a part of nature, instead of just thinking: What can we use it for?” Ma mused in a recent New York Times article.

There’s a buzzword for this outlook: nature-positive. And it’s cropping up at high-level meetings, including the 2021 G-7 summit in Cornwall, England and the COP15 biodiversity conference in Montreal that adopted an ambitious framework for protecting nature in December 2022.

As a group of environmental leaders wrote in 2021: “A nature positive approach enriches biodiversity, stores carbon, purifies water and reduces pandemic risk. In short, a nature positive approach enhances the resilience of our planet and our societies.”

This is a dramatic shift from the mentality that has driven industrialization and global economic growth over the past 250 years. But it’s not new. As a researcher in the humanities and author of “Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who Changed the World,” I see nature positivity as a welcome revival of an outlook that English poet William Wordsworth and other Romantics proposed in the late 1700s.

Biologging is the practice of attaching devices to animals so that scientific data can be collected. For decades, basic biologgers have been used to relay physiological data including an animal’s heart rate or body temperature. But now, new technologies are affording scientists a more advanced insight into the behaviour of animals as they move through their natural environment undisturbed.

The tracking of individual animals also provides access to remote locations that are difficult to study. In particular, science has only a limited knowledge of marine environments – the surface of the moon has been mapped and studied more extensively than our own ocean floor.

But researchers have recently fitted small video cameras to the dorsal fins of tiger sharks in the Bahamas. The footage led to the discovery of the world’s largest known seagrass ecosystem, and has extended the total known seagrass coverage by more than 40%. Seagrass ecosystems are important carbon stores, home to thousands of marine species, and can provide a buffer against coastal erosion. Conservationists are now better placed to protect these important ecosystems as a result of biologging.

Here are four more examples of humans working with animals – from dragonflies and ospreys to hedgehogs and jaguars – to improve our understanding of wildlife behaviour and numbers around the world, and how best to protect them.

Nature has, over millions of years, evolved solutions to adapt to an array of challenges. As the challenges facing humanity become more complex, we are seeing inspiration being increasingly drawn from nature.

Taking biological processes and applying them to technological and design problems is called bioinspiration. This is a fast-growing field, and our ability to copy nature is becoming more sophisticated. Here are five striking examples where nature has guided human innovation – and in some cases, could lead to even more exciting breakthroughs.

The climate and biodiversity crises we have been experiencing for the past few decades are inseparable. The scientific research presented at the back-to-back international summits on climate and biodiversity held in Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt and in Montréal, Canada, respectively, has made this abundantly clear.

Addressing these crises requires real transformative action and commitments — including plans that call for the conservation of 30 per cent of global land and sea areas within the decade — have been made to halt biodiversity loss by 2030. But where do we start implementing these targets?

At the 7th Summit for Subnational Governments and Cities, an official parallel event to the COP15 biodiversity conference, cities were brought to the forefront of conversations on how to protect life on Earth.

As a researcher of terrestrial ecosystems, I believe that we cannot think of nature as something set aside in wildernesses, far from human activity. We need to conserve some elements of nature everywhere, including in the cities we live in.

In the early hours of Dec. 19 — the last day of the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) conference in Montréal — the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) adopted their new post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

The goals and targets agreed within this framework, including the widely discussed Target 3, will guide conservation policy and investment for years to come. Target 3 — also known as the 30×30 target — calls for the conservation of 30 per cent of global land and sea areas by 2030.

The CBD has long promoted the creation of protected areas (parks) for the protection of both terrestrial and marine environments. The 30×30 target is a significant increase from the Aichi targets, set during the COP10 conference in Aichi Prefecture, Japan, which called for 17 per cent terrestrial and 10 per cent marine areas to be protected by 2020.

As researchers who study conservation governance, we have closely followed the four years of negotiations that led to this historic agreement. We believe that as protected and conserved areas increase under the framework, an equity-based approach, which respects Indigenous rights and title, is essential to help bring the transformative changes we need to halt and reverse biodiversity loss.

Countries from around the world have voted to limit the global trade in sharks under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites). Trade in shark products is a major driver of shark overfishing, leading to the deaths of millions of sharks every year. The new Cites listings aim to keep the international trade of 54 species of shark and ray within sustainable limits.

But there are concerns that Cites listings could unintentionally drive up the price of shark fins and lead to the development of informal shark fin markets. Catches of many species already listed on Cites remain valuable for small-scale fishers. And in 2018, Cites-listed sharks remained among the leading species traded in contemporary fin markets.

Yet targeted fishing is just part of the issue. Sharks are frequently caught as unintentional bycatch by fishers using unselective nets and lines. And since Cites only pertains to international trade, many sharks that are traded and consumed in local or domestic markets are not covered by the regulations. Strict rules protecting sharks in these markets could negatively impact the livelihoods of the small-scale fisheries that depend on them for food and income.

Interventions to reduce catches of threatened shark species must support the rights and welfare of small-scale fishers and be perceived as legitimate. My colleagues and I conducted research on small-scale fisheries in Indonesia – the world’s largest shark fishing nation.

South Africa’s population is urbanising at a rapid pace. The sheer rate of change poses challenges to planning for sustainable and liveable cities.

Part of what make cities work is having green spaces, such as parks, sports fields, nature trails and street trees. These provide many social, ecological and economic benefits. Research from multiple countries such as Australia, China, Finland, India, the US and South Africa has shown this.

Aside from looking good and providing recreation, urban green spaces improve air quality, physical and mental health, and regulate storm water flows. They counteract urban heat islands, store carbon and create jobs.

Some communities nevertheless oppose urban greening efforts because they fear that green spaces and street trees provide places for criminals to hide. Such fears are not unique to South Africa and have been reported from cities in both developed and developing countries.

A great deal of research has been done on urban greening and its association with crime levels. But most of these studies have been conducted in Europe and North America, which are very different socially and economically to developing countries and have markedly lower rates of crime.

We conducted research to complement the evidence from the global north. Our study is the first ever national level analysis of the relationship between various measures of urban greenness and three different classes of crime: property, violent and sexual crimes.

Our findings, based on research in South Africa, lend further credence to calls for urban greening to be adopted as a major strategy in cities – for both environmental sustainability, as well as social sustainability.

The environmental impact of carbon dioxide emissions will be the same irrespective of where the emissions take place. Carbon emitted in one part of the world can be cancelled out if the same amount is removed elsewhere.

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Carbon offsetting is one way of achieving this. Companies can meet their emissions reduction targets by purchasing carbon credits awarded to projects that either emit fewer emissions at source, such as cleaner energy production, or remove them from the atmosphere, such as forestry schemes. Each credit corresponds to one metric tonne of reduced or removed carbon emissions.

The first day of the UN climate summit, COP27, in Egypt saw intense discussions over the trade of carbon offsets. The US sees offsets as a promising way of directing investment towards clean energy projects in developing countries.

But many scientists and environmentalists are sceptical of companies offsetting their emissions instead of actually reducing them. This has prompted some firms, including EasyJet, to focus their efforts on reducing their emissions directly.

I am a member of the Climate Change Committee, the UK’s independent climate change advisory body. We have produced a report that assesses whether carbon offsetting has supported the UK’s transition towards net zero. The report confirms that the scepticism around carbon offsetting is not unfounded. But we also found ways to improve offsetting.

The simple mention of the word “radiation” often evokes fear in people. For others, it’s fun to think a little exposure to radiation could turn you into the next superhero, just like the Hulk.

But is it true basically everything around us is radioactive, even the food we eat? You may have heard bananas are mildly radioactive, but what does that actually mean? And despite us not being superheroes, are human bodies also radioactive?

What is radiation?
Radiation is energy that travels from one point to another, either as waves or particles. We are exposed to radiation from various natural and artificial sources every day.

Cosmic radiation from the Sun and outer space, radiation from rocks and soil, as well as radioactivity in the air we breathe and in our food and water, are all sources of natural radiation.

Bananas are a common example of a natural radiation source. They contain high levels of potassium, and a small amount of this is radioactive. But there’s no need to give up your banana smoothie – the amount of radiation is extremely small, and far less than the natural “background radiation” we are exposed to every day.

Artificial sources of radiation include medical treatments and X-rays, mobile phones and power lines. There is a common misconception that artificial sources of radiation are more dangerous than naturally occurring radiation. However, this just isn’t true.

There are no physical properties that make artificial radiation different or more damaging than natural radiation. The harmful effects are related to dose, and not where the exposure comes from.

What is the difference between radiation and radioactivity?
The words “radiation” and “radioactivity” are often used interchangeably. Although the two are related, they are not quite the same thing.

Radioactivity refers to an unstable atom undergoing radioactive decay. Energy is released in the form of radiation as the atom tries to reach stability, or become non-radioactive.

The radioactivity of a material describes the rate at which it decays, and the process(es) by which it decays. So radioactivity can be thought of as the process by which elements and materials try to become stable, and radiation as the energy released as a result of this process.