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Animation: The Heartbeat of Nature’s Productivity

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Animation Nature

Animation: The Heartbeat of Nature’s Productivity

Even the most ferocious predator must rely on simple plants for vitality. That’s because without the conversion of carbon dioxide to organic compounds, entire food chains would cease to exist.

Photosynthesis is quite the catalyst for life, yet it’s easy to overlook this humble chemical process. But what if you could see its results scaled across the globe?

The Pulse of Nature

Today’s unique cartogram animation comes from geographer Benjamin Hennig at Worldmapper, and it depicts ongoing cycles in the productivity of ecological systems around the world. Created with Yadvinder Malhi from the University of Oxford, the researchers factored the daily net photosynthesis value over an 8-day interval of satellite observations, and extrapolated the trends for a year.

The outcome? A pattern of gross primary productivity (GPP) – the net amount of energy produced by land plants during photosynthesis – resembling the rhythmic impression of a “heartbeat”.

Here’s how a big-picture of average annual productivity ends up looking:

Nature

Location, Location, Location

Although the entire biosphere harnesses the sun’s energy, it’s clear this varies greatly based on both region and season. For example, desert areas such as the Sahara or Australian Outback occupy relatively low productivity areas on the map.

The taiga biome, a boreal forest made of coniferous trees such as pines, accounts for nearly a third of the world’s forest cover. Since the largest boreal areas are in Russia and Canada, it’s no wonder their productivity shrinks dramatically when it gets a bit cooler up north. When these areas slow down in sub-zero temperatures, their tropical neighbors to the south do the heavy lifting.

If forests are considered the world’s lungs, then the Amazon in South America and Congo forest in Central Africa help us all breathe a bit easier. The two largest forests act as crucial “carbon sinks”, trapping carbon that would otherwise be converted to carbon dioxide.

It’s also why rapid deforestation of these areas is cause for alarm. Many environmental scientists suggest that our human impact on forests could intensify global warming.

But there is good news – since the 1990s, the rate of net forest loss has declined by almost half. Progress fares differently across the regions:

Image Source: United Nations

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Agriculture

MegaMilk: Charting Consolidation in the U.S. Dairy Industry

This graphic charts the American dairy industry’s shift in milk production from small commercial farms to fewer, larger farms.

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MegaMilk: Charting the Consolidation of the Dairy Industry

Today’s dairy industry looks very different to how it did just 30 years ago.

Milk production in the U.S. has increased by a whopping 50% over that time frame—yet, the total number of dairy farms has dropped by three-quarters.

Fewer and larger farms now have the lion’s share of all U.S milk cow inventory. While they have the ability to produce more competitively priced dairy products and provide more value to consumers, it is causing financial devastation for small farmers.

The graphic above uses data from the USDA to chart the rapid consolidation of the American dairy industry between 1992 and 2017.

The End of the Small Dairy Farmer?

In the U.S., the dairy industry is one of the fastest consolidating industries in comparison to almost all other agricultural sectors.

Between 1992 and 2017, small commercial farms with 10-99 cows saw an average decline of 70%. These farms accounted for 48.5% share of all U.S. milk cows in 1992. In 2017, that number stood at just 12.2%.

Over time, small farm production has been replaced by that of bigger and more consolidated “megafarms”—a move that can be attributed to the many benefits that scale brings, such as lower costs of production and the potential to compete in the international market.

 Share of U.S. milk cow inventory (by year)
Herd size199219972002200720122017
1-9 milk cows0.9%0.7%0.6%0.4%0.4%0.4%
10-49 milk cows19.5%13.8%9.2%6.8%5.9%3.6%
50-99 milk cows29%24.5%19.1%13.8%11.1%8.6%
100-199 milk cows19%18%15.4%12.8%10.6%9.4%
200-499 milk cows13.7%15.3%14.7%13.8%12%12%
500-999 milk cows8%10.2%12.2%12.5%11.3%10.7%
>999 milk cows9.9%17.5%28.8%39.9%48.7%55.2%
Total 100%100%100%100%100%100%

The Need For a Survival Strategy

While small dairy farmers simply cannot keep up with larger farms encroaching on their turf, they also have fluctuations in dairy prices to contend with. Milk prices fell in 2018, narrowing the gap between milk prices and feed costs so much that another wave of farm closures ensued.

To make matters worse, many small dairy farmers are close to retirement age, and according to the USDA, exits are more likely if the farm operator is 60 or older.

Despite the hardship facing small dairy farmers, analysts suggest that consumer backlash against large-scale production could present opportunities for small dairy farmers to create premium artisanal products. However, such initiatives would be entirely dependent on the state of the economy and where consumer’s values lie.

The Wider Implications

With milk production shifting to larger farms, a range of both direct and indirect impacts are being felt across the country.

For example, milk production is now predominantly focused in fewer states such as California and Wisconsin, which together accounted for almost 33% of all U.S. milk production in 2018.

In larger farms, the herds are typically confined to tight spaces— rather than grazing in pastures—making animal welfare an issue for many of these farms. Concern over waste contamination and air pollution also brings the environmental sustainability of larger farms into question as they come under more pressure to reduce their impact on the planet.

Changing Tastes

Looking beyond the production of milk, changing consumer preferences could result in the most transformative effects on both large and small scale dairy farmers.

While rising populations are increasing the demand for dairy, per capita milk consumption declined by 24% between 2000 and 2017 in the United States. Consequently, the largest dairy producer in the country, Dean Foods, filed for bankruptcy in 2019, followed by another major milk producer, Borden Dairy, just two months later.

Experts claim that changing consumer preferences, along with competition from other beverage categories, are responsible for 90% of the total dairy decline.

No Country for Old Farms

The confluence of changing economics and an aging population of farmers has brought the U.S. dairy farming industry to a tipping point, and the near future is likely to bring a fresh wave of dairy farm closures.

I don’t see anything that would give them hope at this point. The best advice I can give to these folks, dairy farmers, is to sell out as fast as you can.

– Joe Schroeder, Farm Aid

As smaller farms continue to disappear from America’s rural landscape, the impacts of consolidation will not only affect dairy farmers, but entire rural communities too.

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Green

New Waves: The ESG Megatrend Meets Green Bonds

With ESG investing outperforming benchmarks, could green bonds be next in line? We unpack the megatrend taking hold of the financial world.

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outperformance of esg investing

New Waves: The ESG Megatrend Meets Green Bonds

It’s clear that sustainable investing has been thrown into the limelight.

Increasingly, investors are seeing both the financial and social imperative for sustainable investing. In particular, the rapid growth of green bonds—a fixed income investment that is designed to raise funds for the climate or environment—is booming.

The above infographic from Raconteur navigates the growing green bond market against the backdrop of the broader ESG (environmental, social, and governance) investing shift.

Gathering Steam

By the end of 2020, $45 trillion in assets will adhere to sustainable practices, including ESG principles.

Despite the loss of confidence from COVID-19, investors flocked to sustainable-focused funds.In fact, global fund flows hit record levels for Q2 of 2020—surpassing $71 billion.

The fund flows are not without financial warrant. Between April 2015 and April 2019, average returns of socially responsible investments (SRI) outperformed their non-SRI peers. At the same time, 94% of sustainable indices realized stronger returns than their benchmarks between January and March 2020.

The accelerating demand for sustainable investments may seem like old news, but green bonds offer a new avenue.

What Are Green Bonds?

Green bonds raise money for climate and environmental projects, and are issued by governments, corporations, and financial institutions.

Multilateral development banks, which include the European Investment Bank and the World Bank, initially brought them to market in 2007, though they had a slow start. However, in 2019, new issues of green bonds topped $258 billion worldwide—jumping 51% in one year.

Across the green bond market there is a broad spectrum of different debt instruments. These include private placements, covered bonds, and green loans.

Green private placements occur when the sale of bonds are made to private investors, rather than through public offerings. Green covered bonds, on the other hand, are bonds that are backed by a group of assets that are sustainably-focused. Green loans are forms of loans that are meant to finance green projects.

Overall, green bonds can be diversified across a number of different sectors.

The Top Purposes for Green Bonds

What are the top sectors for green bond issuance?

Category20152019
Alternative energy$30.4B$143.8B
Green building$10.7B$63.5B
Sustainable transport$3.7B$58.7B
Energy efficiency$9.5B$47.6B
Sustainable water$3.1B$23.8B
Pollution prevention$1.4B$18.1B
Climate adaptation$1.8B$15.0B
Sustainable forestry/agriculture$1.1B$11.3B

Source: MSCI

Alternative energy, accounting for over $143 billion in green bonds, outpaces all other sectors by a wide margin. Within four years, renewable energy bond issuance has more than quadrupled.

Meanwhile, green building bonds are garnering attention. These instruments finance the construction of energy efficient buildings. Within the industry, a notable green building certification system is the LEED standard, also internationally recognized. Often, real estate investment trusts (REITs) are involved in issuing green building bonds.

Interestingly, Big Tech is also becoming more active within the green bond landscape. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has issued a record $5.8 billion in corporate sustainability bonds to fund everything from energy efficiency projects to affordable housing.

The Top 10 Countries for Green Bonds

On a country-by-country level, green bonds are most common in the U.S., China, and France.

RankCountryGreen Bond Issuance2018-2019 Change (Amount)
1🇺🇸U.S.$50.6B44%
2🇨🇳China$30.1B1%
3🇫🇷France$29.5B113%
4🇩🇪Germany$18.7B144%
5🇳🇱Netherlands$15.1B105%
6🇸🇪Sweden$10.3B66%
7🇯🇵Japan$7.2B73%
8🇨🇦Canada$7B63%
9🇮🇹Italy$6.8B128%
10🇪🇸Spain$6.5B3%
Top 10 Total$181.8B49%

Source: Climate Bonds Initiative

Germany issued its first multi-billion dollar government green bonds in just 2019. One catalyst behind this was the European Central Bank’s announcement that the environment would become a “mission critical” priority going forward.

This may contribute to the fact that both Germany and France saw the biggest change between 2018 and 2019.

Opening the Floodgates

As sustainable investing becomes front and center on the global agenda, questions about its impact on returns have arisen.

During times of both extreme exuberance and market crisis, companies with higher sustainability ratings have outperformed their respective benchmark. However, there is still a long way to go. Even with the record issuance of green bonds in 2019, they make up just 3% of all global bonds issued.

As demand for sustainable investments quickly grows, could it spell a watershed decade ahead for green bonds?

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