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Oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050

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The current system by which we produce, use and dispose of plastics has important drawbacks: plastic packaging material with a value of $80 billion-$120 billion is lost each year. Aside from the financial cost, by 2050, on the current track, oceans are expected to contain more plastics than fish (by weight), according to a new report released today by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, with McKinsey & Company as a knowledge partner, as part of Project MainStream.

The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics provides for the first time a vision of a global economy in which plastics never become waste and outlines concrete steps towards achieving the systemic shift needed.

The report is underpinned by the principles of the circular economy – an economy that aims to keep materials at their highest value at all times. Assessing global plastic packaging flows comprehensively for the first time, the report finds that most plastic packaging is used only once; 95% of the value of plastic packaging material, worth $80 billion-$120 billion annually, is lost to the economy after a short first use. The New Plastics Economy, outlined in this report, envisages a fundamental rethink for plastic packaging and plastics in general – a new model based on creating effective after-use pathways for plastics; drastically reducing leakage of plastics into natural systems, in particular oceans; and finding alternatives to crude oil and natural gas as the raw material of plastic production.

“This report demonstrates the importance of triggering a revolution in the plastics industrial ecosystem and is a first step to showing how to transform the way plastics move through our economy. To move from insight to large-scale action, it is clear that no one actor can work on this alone. The public, private sector and civil society all need to mobilize to capture the opportunity of the new circular plastics economy,” said Dominic Waughray, Head or Public-Private Partnership, World Economic Forum

The report, produced as part of Project MainStream, a collaboration between the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum, with analytical support from McKinsey & Company, finds that the use of plastics has increased twentyfold in the past half-century and is expected to double again in the next 20 years. While plastics and plastic packaging are an integral part of the global economy and deliver many benefits, the report shows that their value chains currently entail significant drawbacks.

“Linear models of production and consumption are increasingly challenged by the context within which they operate – and this is particularly true for high-volume, low-value materials such as plastic packaging. By demonstrating how circular economy principles can be applied to global plastic flows, this report provides a model for achieving the systemic shift our economy needs to make in order to work in the long term,” said Dame Ellen MacArthur, Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Achieving the systemic change needed to shift the global plastic value chain will require major collaboration efforts between all stakeholders across the global plastics value chain – consumer goods companies, plastic packaging producers and plastics manufacturers, businesses involved in collection, sorting and reprocessing, cities, policy-makers and NGOs. The report proposes the creation of an independent coordinating vehicle to set direction, establish common standards and systems, overcome fragmentation, and foster innovation opportunities at scale. In line with the report’s recommendations, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation will establish an initiative to act as a cross-value-chain global dialogue mechanism and drive the shift towards a New Plastics Economy.

“Plastics are the workhorse material of the modern economy – with unbeaten properties. However, they are also the ultimate single-use material. Growing volumes of end-of-use plastics are generating costs and destroying value to the industry. After-use plastics could – with circular economy thinking – be turned into valuable feedstock. Our research confirms that applying those circular principles could spark a major wave of innovation with benefits for the entire supply chain,” said Martin R. Stuchtey, McKinsey Center for Business and Environment.

The report’s findings are timely: knowledge and understanding of the circular economy among business leaders and policy-makers is growing, as demonstrated by the European Commission’s recent circular economy package and associated funding announcements; new technologies are unlocking opportunities in material design, reprocessing and renewable sourcing; developing countries are investing in after-use infrastructure; and governments are increasingly considering – and implementing – policies around plastic packaging.

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Green Planet

Thwarting Trump on Climate Change Denial

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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We now have the remarkable convenience of the internal combustion engine, and also its noise and chaos and emissions to energize climate change.  Burning fossil fuels has put us on planet Titanic …

The doomsday clock remains at a critical two minutes to midnight, the ‘new abnormal,’ spelling future disaster, and we will continue to be like the “Titanic, ignoring the iceberg ahead, enjoying the fine food and music,” to quote former California governor Jerry Brown.  He is now the executive chairman of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the organization behind the clock.  This year climate change is cited as a major cause; it was the principal reason in 2012 and 2014.

The U.S. ‘National Climate Assessment’ last November did not mince words when it noted, “The evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming … the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country.”  The report mandated by Congress and affirmed by science agencies of the government was repudiated by President Trump:  “I do not believe it,” was his blunt response.  Mr. Trump religiously opposes climate change, believing it to be a natural phenomenon that will reverse itself also naturally.  About the current administration, one prominent scientist, the president of the Woods Hole Research Center, was quoted in Science as saying, “They’re in la-la-land.” Science has labeled the inaction, the policy breakdown of the year.

Sadly this la-la-land is not harmless as tell-tale signs of the exacerbation of weather events are already here:  Hurricanes intensify quickly, then move slowly shedding unprecedented amounts of rain.  It happened with Harvey over Houston in 2017, and with Florence over North Carolina in 2018.  That overall temperature in the oceans is breaking new records is one good reason.

The 1.5C report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has given us, on the safe side, a 12-year window in which to start reducing emissions, to try to achieve neutral balance by mid-century, or eventually a self-reinforcing feedback loop will lead to uncontrollable warming and a “Hothouse Earth.”  If   we cannot expect any policy initiatives from this administration, can changes in individual behaviors help?  Apparently yes, and it is within our power to address two major CO2 sources:

Carbon capture from the atmosphere is difficult and expensive.  A better alternative might be to remove it at the source.  That means at power stations and factories, and there are new processes offering hope.  However, most carbon emission comes from transportation, and it points to a future of electric cars using electricity from CO2 scrubbed power stations.  The choice of car is clearly up to us.

Another avenue of individual involvement is dietary change for a sustainable future — in itself clearly at odds with the zealous consumption of meat in rich countries.  Ruminants release methane through belching as food passes through their several stomachs.  Over their agricultural cycle, cattle alone emit 270,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas per tonne of protein, many times more than poultry.  As Bill Gates has observed if cows were a country, they would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions.

There is another way to look at it.  One can translate a kilo of different food sources into the number of car miles driven.  Lamb is definitely the worst at 91 miles followed by beef at 63.  Bad news for vegetarians, cheese comes in at 31 miles.  It is followed by pork (28), turkey (25), chicken (16), nuts (5) and lentils (2).  Imagine if dietary habits changed from beef to lentils, even once a week would make an enormous difference.  Also chicken, turkey and pork are reasonable substitutes as cutting out beef and lamb is clearly critical.  By the way, Indian food has delicious lentil recipes.

Scientists may soon have other intriguing possibilities, including lab-grown meat, that is if the current Beyond Burger type bean substitutes do not quite make the taste test.  Then there are crickets!  They happen to be an excellent source of protein offering more per pound than beef, and their production leaves a tiny ecological footprint in comparison.  Ground up into powder, this protein can be added to flour or other foods, and it is available.  Kernza is a perennial grain and a substitute for wheat and corn but without their annual tilling which robs the soil of nutrients and also causes erosion.  There is also a new oil made from algae.  Sourced originally from the sap of a German chestnut tree, it has been developed further to yield more oil, and is being sold under the name Thrive.  With a neutral taste and high smoke point, it makes an excellent substitute for the environmentally destructive palm oil, where plantations have ravaged forests in Indonesia and imperiled orangutans.

Personal choices can make a huge difference, including walking whenever possible for short distances instead of driving — mostly it’s just habit.  Bicycles, tricycles and push scooters are all out there, including some with electrical power assist.

Yes, there are options available to cut back our contributions to climate change; they require changes in habits and tastes, perhaps difficult, but we will have to eventually if we are not to leave behind a raging planet for future generations.  Meanwhile, the young in Europe have been marching in their tens of thousands to draw attention to the issue, and it cannot hurt to do likewise.

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Eye in the sky: Using satellites to better manage natural resources

MD Staff

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Looking up towards the stars at night, the sky can give the impression of being empty and infinite. In reality, space is getting more and more crowded every day.

According to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, there are currently 4,857 satellites orbiting the planet. Among them are two Sentinel-2 satellites, part of a space-borne mission provided by the Copernicus European Earth Observation programme. The two satellites visit the same spot on Earth every two to five days, depending on the location.

Their sensors acquire multispectral images with spatial resolution varying between 10, 20, or 60 metres, depending on the spectral band. The data produced by Sentinel satellites is freely available to the public and the volumes of data are staggering. Between Sentinel 1, 2 and 3, over 10 petabyte of new data are made available for download every year. With a single petabyte equalling 500 billion pages of standard typed text, this is Big Data worthy of its name.

The satellites are providing ever more detailed information about the state of our planet, and businesses have long ago figured out how to use this data. The European Commission estimates that the cumulative benefits of the Copernicus programme by 2020 range between US$11.4 to US$15 billion (10 to 13 billion euros). So how can we translate this wealth of information into tangible benefits for the environment at the local level?

“In Colombia, small-scale, mechanized illegal gold mining is creating environmental challenges on an unprecedented scale,” says Inga Petersen, Senior Extractives Adviser within UN Environment’s Crisis Management Branch. “Excavators and dredgers used to dig up river beds for alluvial gold mining are contributing to wide-ranging deforestation and the loss of natural wetlands. Highly toxic mercury used in processing contaminates air and water and has accumulated in the food chain, posing significant threats to human health and ecosystems,” she adds.

However, mining areas are often hard to reach and keeping track of new or abandoned operations can be a challenge to local government agencies.

To support the mapping of new and abandoned sites and identify opportunities for restoration, UN Environment is collaborating with the University of Liège, in Belgium, to leverage Sentinel-2 data for local-level decision-making and early warning.

Funded by the European Commission (DG Grow) and EIT RawMaterials, the RawMatCop CopX project (Geospatial mining transparency through Copernicus and MapX) is analysing changes on land and water bodies, focusing specifically on mining ponds created on riverbeds. These ponds offer clues regarding the status of the mining activities.

Detecting and analysing these clues with the use of Earth Observation requires machine learning and image processing techniques in challenging, highly clouded areas. These techniques are key to understanding the dynamics in the mining area and to potentially automate the search to cover larger areas and track changes over time.

Testing this innovative underlying methodology started in 2018 in the Bajo Cauca region in the Antioquia department. The project is being implemented in close cooperation with the Government of Colombia, including the Ministry of Mines and Energy, the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development as well as other UN agencies and strategic partners. Once established, CopX aims for the analysis to be applied at a larger scale and even offer the potential to establish an early warning system which can be adopted by the government to tackle illegal gold mining and monitor the implementation of restoration strategies.

However, translating big data into actionable insights is only a part of the solution. Making this data available to the relevant policymakers at the local and national level in a format which is accessible to non-experts is a critical step to enable evidence-based decision-making.

With this in mind, the project will use MapX, an online, open-source geospatial platform backed by the neutrality of the United Nations, to make the results available in easy-to-understand maps. The platform uses summary story maps, such as this one, to outline the interlinkages between the environment, conflict and natural resources.

“Whilst MapX can host sensitive datasets in private projects, MapX’s mission is to increase global environmental transparency by making the best available data widely accessible. Access to information is especially important in places like Colombia, where the environment features prominently in the 2016 peace agreement,” says Petersen.

In addition to featuring the outcomes of the project, MapX provides a comprehensive data catalogue, including data on the environment, the socio-economic context and conflict interlinkages. Combined with a suite of analytical and visualization tools, platform users can easily analyse, contextualize and visualize interactions between different data layers to increase awareness and inform decisions. Data, maps, narrative and multimedia files can then be summarized in interactive story maps to help tell the story hidden in the data.

UN Environment

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Air pollution is choking Bangkok, but a solution is in reach

MD Staff

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photo: UN Environment

A recent spell of especially soupy air has Bangkok scrambling to disperse dangerous pollutants and protect residents against dire health impacts.

The government has reacted quickly, clamping down on heavily polluting vehicles, deploying police and military to inspect factories and incinerators, shutting schools to protect children, and even deploying cloud-seeding planes to force rain and clear the air.

According to Kakuko Nagatani-Yoshida, UN Environment’s Regional Coordinator for Chemicals, Waste, and Air Quality, it’s a good start.

“The government has to take decisive action to enforce pollution regulations, and they are on the right track so far, deploying efforts such as strict enforcement of emission controls. We know they are also looking at more urgent measures and UN Environment is working closely with the government on longer-term solutions,” she said.

“While solutions like cloud seeding may provide temporary relief for larger particulates, it does not, however, help reduce PM2.5,” she warns. “After these interim measures, the next logical step is to shut down the most polluting factory. That may mean accepting some economic damage in the short term, but protecting public health must be the utmost priority. Beyond factories, the government can move urgently to replace soot-spewing public buses and boats running on diesel fuel with versions that are less polluting.”

Air pollution in Bangkok arises from a mix of factors. Traffic, construction and factory emissions are the main reasons, but at this time of the year, burning of waste and crop residues is also a major source. There isn’t just one culprit for the recent bout of air pollution, but it has been exacerbated by weather conditions that have not allowed the pollutants to disperse.

Bangkok and other areas in Thailand already experience regular air pollution. The prolonged period of unhealthy air in Bangkok is not unique to the city nor the country: 92 per cent of Asia and the Pacific’s population—some 4 billion people—are exposed to levels of air pollution that pose a significant risk to their health.

The current countermeasures are a short-term solution to this problem because, as Nagatani-Yoshida points out, “Factories can’t be closed forever. People need to get around. Ultimately, if people want to breathe clean air, numerous measures must be taken to tackle pollution.”

UN Environment recently published guidance on reducing air pollution. Some 25 measures could reduce premature mortality in the region by one third and see one billion people living in Asia breathing clean air.

“We hope country, provincial and city governments across the region, including Bangkok, look at these recommendations and implement them urgently,” said Nagatani-Yoshida.

UN Environment and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition are already working with the Thailand Pollution Control Department, the Department of Alternative Energy Development and Efficiency, and other agencies to implement some of these clean air measures and substantially reduce PM2.5 levels.

In particular, UN Environment is collaborating with the Pollution Control Department to leapfrog from Euro IV vehicle emission standards to Euro VI, which are currently the strictest standards in place.

Collaboration will also focus on helping shift 2–3 wheelers in Bangkok from gasoline to electric and retrofitting the numerous boats and ferries used for public transportation in the canal-connected city.

There is no time to waste. The faster the government moves to clamp down on emitters and back clean alternatives, the sooner Bangkok and the rest of the country can start to breathe again.

UN Environment

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