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Road-building decisions reveal profound failures of leadership

Road-building is having widespread, devastating effects on the planet’s forests, which in turn are critical to Earth’s ability to support life, recent research has revealed. Another study has confirmed clear, positive effects on forest conservation of bringing road construction to a halt.

The unequivocal conclusions from these findings stand in direct contradiction with the direction assumed by the world’s leaders. Current trends suggest governments could approve up to 15 million more miles of roads by 2050 which, if they go ahead, will bring nothing short of catastrophic consequences for life on the planet. This situation thus flags up a striking failure of global leadership.

The recent study of the world’s forest cover has shown that a massive 70% of all remaining forest is within just 1km of the forest’s edge. This reveals that the world’s forests are now largely fragmented and suffering associated degradation of their health and diversity.

Published in Science Advances, the study, which was undertaken by 20 research teams from various universities in Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, the USA, UK, Canada and France, entailed “a synthesis of fragmentation experiments spanning multiple biomes and scales, five continents, and 35 years,” and demonstrated that “habitat fragmentation reduces biodiversity by 13 to 75% and impairs key ecosystem functions by decreasing biomass and altering nutrient cycles”.

These findings, say the scientists, indicate an urgent need for conservation and restoration measures to improve landscape connectivity, in order to reduce extinction rates and help maintain ecosystem services.

David Edwards, an ecologist at the University of Sheffield UK, responded to the study saying: “The insidious effects of fragmentation mean that the top conservation priority must be preventing further incursions into dwindling wildernesses.”

His suggestion is backed up by research from the National University of Singapore, which finds that in Indonesia specifically, protected forest areas are inadequate for preserving biodiversity unless they are accompanied by the monitoring and prevention of road construction. Southeast Asia lost approximately 32 million hectares of forests between 1990 and 2010, of which 61% occurred in Indonesia.

The context of these findings is critically important, as are the implications of the global leadership failure in refusing to consider it.

One of the markers by which the ability of the planet to support complex life is measured is “biosphere integrity”. Scientists have established nine of these markers, or “planetary boundaries” and recently agreed (the paper can be found here) that we have crossed dangerous thresholds in five of them, including biosphere integrity.

Along with climate, biosphere integrity is one of the two core boundaries, prioritised because of their fundamental importance for the overall Earth system. Their functions, which could scarcely be more important, are summarised as follows: “The climate system is a manifestation of the amount, distribution, and net balance of energy at Earth’s surface; the biosphere regulates material and energy flows in the Earth system and increases its resilience to abrupt and gradual change.”

A key element of the biosphere is uninterrupted forest, which, if healthy, sequesters carbon, produces oxygen, stabilises weather and maintains ecosystem fertility.

Yet in apparent ignorance of this, the International Energy Agency claims in its 2013 transport infrastructure report that “the world will need to add nearly 25 million paved road lane kilometres … by 2050.” The report adds that the costs of this infrastructure addition will be “substantial” but quantifies these costs entirely in dollars, at no point referring to the costs to that aspect of the Earth system that regulates the material and energy flows on which we are far more fundamentally dependent: the biosphere.

While many claim that the growth-based global economy and its requirements for ecocidal “development” — including road-based transport infrastructure — is inevitable or impossible to rethink, research pointing to the need to do so, if life on Earth is to prevail, is now irrefutable and pressing.

This suggests that leadership that supports life will from now on be characterised by, among other things, decisions to halt and reverse road-building — and to invest instead in alternative transportation systems and projects to de-pave existing roads, and restore and reconnect key existing ecosystem fragments.

Image credit: “Taman-Negara” by Vladimir Yu Arkhipov. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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