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Champions of the Earth: Inspirational environmental leaders from Chile, China and United States

MD Staff

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Six inspirational environmental leaders today received the United Nations’ highest environmental honour, the Champions of the Earth award, during the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya.

President of Chile Michelle Bachelet, Paul A. Newman and his team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, American filmmaker Jeff Orlowski, bike-sharing startup Mobike, Chairman of Elion Resources Group Wang Wenbiao, and the Saihanba Afforestation Community were all lauded for actions that had a significant positive impact on the environment.

“As we face unprecedented threats to our environment, strong leadership at all levels is more important than ever,” said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment. “This year’s Champions embody the commitment, vision and energy we so desperately need.”

The awards were presented during the third UN Environment Assembly, which brings together over 4,000 heads of state, ministers, business leaders, UN officials and civil society representatives to tackle the global menace of pollution.

The 2017 winners received the awards for action in the following categories:

POLICY LEADERSHIP

Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile, for outstanding leadership in creating marine protected areas and boosting renewable energy.

In October 2015, President Bachelet established the marine park Nazca-Desventuradas in San Ambrosio and San Felix Islands, and a range of protected areas and marine parks in the Juan Fernandez Islands. She also extended protected areas in Easter Island. The total coverage is now over 1 million km2, the largest in the world. Aside from marine environmental protection, her policies have seen renewable energy production surge from 6 to 17 per cent of Chile’s energy mix in just 4 years.

“Chile has shown the world that you don’t need to be a rich country to preserve the environment,” said President Bachelet. “I feel honored to be included in this outstanding group of people and grateful for being acknowledged as one of this year’s Champions of the Earth, the UN’s highest environmental recognition.”

SCIENCE AND INNOVATION

Paul A. Newman & NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, for outstanding contributions to the Montreal Protocol – which has phased out 99 per cent of ozone-depleting substances and led to the healing of the ozone layer.

The first satellite instrument to measure ozone was put into space by the Goddard centre in 1970, and the first Antarctic ozone hole pictures were made using Goddard satellite data in 1985. Since the early 90s, the center has been instrumental in leading updates to the Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion, looking at how policies impact the atmosphere and setting a new high-water mark for international scientific cooperation. The ozone layer is now healing and will return to 1980 levels by mid-century. As a result, up to 2 million cases of skin cancer may be prevented each year by 2030. The Kigali Amendment to the protocol, signed in 2016, is now targeting hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are climate-warming gases with significant global-warming potential. Action in this area can help avoid up to 0.5° Celsius in global warming by the end of the century.

“Ozone is our unseen natural sunscreen,” said Mr. Newman. “It’s crucial to understand and carefully watch this vital Earth resource.

ENTREPRENEURIAL VISION

Mobike, for exploring market-driven solutions to air pollution and climate change.

Mobike is the world’s largest smart bike-sharing company. After two years of operation, the platform claims over 100 million registered users across more than 100 cities globally, servicing over 20 million rides a day.

Air pollution is a massive problem, particularly in countries like China and India, claiming an estimated 6.5 million lives each year. Bike sharing is a crucial alternative to motorized transport, and companies like Mobike are leading the way in cutting out journeys that contribute to air pollution and climate change.

According to figures collated by the company, Mobike users have cycled more than 18.2 billion kilometres, avoiding 4.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to taking 1.24 million cars off the road for a year.

Every Mobike bike has a GPS tracker, and the company collects bikes that don’t move or are unused – although they are designed to be maintenance-free for four years. The company also has an incentive/disincentive scheme, giving bonus points for proper parking to encourage users to leave their bikes in designated areas.

Mobike has also teamed up with US chemical firm, Dow, to conduct research on creating more eco-friendly bikes after reports of unsustainable manufacturing practices.

 “It is a tremendous honour to receive this award,” said Mobike’s Founder and President, Hu Weiwei. “Combating climate change, through [pursuing] the United Nations sustainable development goals, is one of the world’s most important priorities, and we commit to using our technology and innovation to help governments and businesses join us in creating a pedal-powered green economy.”

INSPIRATION AND ACTION

Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Jeff Orlowski, for his work on spreading powerful environmental messages to a global audience

Orlowski is the founder of Exposure Labs, which uses the power of storytelling to create impact. In 2012, he directed the climate-focused documentary, Chasing Ice, which has been screened in over 172 countries, 70 universities, over 75 film festivals, the White House and the UN.

His latest film, Chasing Coral, looks at the effects of ocean warming coral bleaching on these vulnerable ecosystems. The award-winning documentary is the result of 500+ hours underwater, the creative application of cutting-edge technology, submissions of footage from volunteers from 30 countries, and support from more than 500 people around the world. It won the Sundance US Documentary Audience award.

Chasing Coral’s impact campaign is driven by a central mission to inspire a new wave of climate champions in unexpected places, calling on people to arrange screenings of the film and take action to protect coral reefs that are dying across the world.

“The collapse of our reefs is an early, yet urgent warning of the threat posed to all ecosystems,” said Orlowski. “I hope this award can help reveal this elusive story hidden in our ocean to the world.”

Saihanba Afforestation Community, for transforming degraded land into a lush paradise.

Saihanba, which covers 92,000 hectares and borders the southern edge of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, had by the 1950s become barren due to excessive logging, allowing sand to blow into Beijing from the northern deserts. In 1962, hundreds of foresters began planting trees in the area. Three generations of these foresters have increased forest cover from 11.4 to 80 per cent. The forest now supplies 137 million cubic meters of clean water to the Beijing and Tianjin areas each year, while discharging c. 550,000 metric tons of oxygen. It has spurred economic growth with green sectors, generating USD15.1 million in 2016 alone.

“In the 55 years the farm has existed, people have been growing trees and protecting the forest like their own children,” said Liu Haiying, director of Saihanba Afforestation Community. “I believe that, as long as we continue to promote ecological civilization, generation after generation, China can create more green miracles like Saihanba and achieve harmony between humans and nature.”

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

Wang Wenbiao, Chairman of Elion Resources Group, for a lifetime of leadership in green industry.

Better known in China as the “Son of the Desert”, Wang, 61, is the chairman of China’s largest private green industries enterprise, Elion Resources Group, with total assets of over USD 1.6 billion.

Wang bought the Hangjinqi Saltworks in the middle of the Kubuqi desert in 1988. He quickly realized that the saltworks’ financial woes, and the problems with livelihoods in the region, were down to the desert: sand interfering with production and making it difficult to transport products out.

He partnered with local communities and the Beijing government to combat desertification in the desert, which covers around 18,600 sq km in Inner Mongolia. Centuries of grazing had stripped the land, leaving around 70,000 people struggling to survive. Now around two-thirds of the desert has been greened and local communities have jobs and a more pleasant environment. UN Environment research estimated the project has a net value in ecosystem services of $1.8 billion dollars over 50 years.

The project shows how private industry can both turn a healthy profit and make a massive positive contribution to climate change, sustainable development and many other environmental issues.

“My only life goal is to combat desertification for a greener world, with more lush mountains with clear water, which I always value as silver and gold mountains,” Wang said.

In November 2007, Wang was elected as the Vice Chairman of the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, and in 2008 won the China Charity Award. In January 2012, he won the title of ‘Chinese Model Worker in Green Work’ for the second time.

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Green Planet

The Invisible Water Crisis

MD Staff

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The world faces an invisible crisis of water quality. Its impacts are wider, deeper, and more uncertain than previously thought and require urgent attention.

While much attention has focused on water quantity – too much water, in the case of floods; too little water, in the case of droughts – water quality has attracted significantly less consideration. Quality Unknown shows that urgent attention must be given to the hidden dangers that lie beneath the water’s surface:

Water quality challenges are not unique to developing countries but universal across rich and poor countries alike. High-income status does not confer immunity – challenges with pollutants grow alongside GDP. And as countries develop, the cocktail of chemicals and vectors they contend with change – from fecal bacteria to nitrogen to pharmaceuticals and plastics, for example.

What we think of as safe may be far from it. Water quality is complex and its impacts on health and other sectors are still largely uncertain. Worse, regulations guiding safety standards are often fragmented across countries and agencies, thus adding to this uncertainty. This report shows that some pollutants in water have impacts that were previously unknown and occur at levels below established safe norms. 

The forces driving these challenges are accelerating. Intensification of agriculture, land use changes, more variable rainfall patterns due to climate change and growing industrialization due to countries’ development all continue to grow. This means increasing number of algal blooms in water which are deadly for humans and ecosystems alike.

Poor water quality threatens growth, harms public health and imperils food security

Using new data, this report demonstrates the importance of water quality across a range of sectors and how its impacts cut across nearly all of the SDGs. Poor water quality stalls economic progress, stymies human potential and reduces food production:

Water pollution endangers economic growth.  The release of pollution upstream acts as a headwind that lowers economic growth downstream.

When Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) – a measure of how much organic pollution is in water and a proxy measure of overall water quality – passes a certain threshold, GDP growth in downstream regions is lowered by a third.

In middle-income countries – where BOD is a growing problem because of increased industrial activity – GDP growth downstream of highly polluted areas drops by half

There are a number of reasons for this, including:

Nitrogen in water shortens people and shortens their lives. Much of the nitrogen applied as fertilizer eventually enters rivers, lakes and oceans where it transforms into nitrates. Nitrates in water are responsible for fatally inflicting Blue Baby Syndrome, which starves infants’ bodies of oxygen. This report finds that those who survive the consequences of early exposure to nitrates can be condemned to long-term damages throughout their lives – they grow up shorter and earn less than they would have otherwise. Stunting is a red flag indicator for the risk of physical and cognitive deficits.

Nitrate exposure in infancy: wipes out much of the gain in height seen over the past half-century in some regions and harms children even in areas where nitrate levels are deemed safe.

While an additional kilogram of nitrogen fertilizer per hectare increases agricultural yields by as much as 5%, the accompanying run-off and releases into water can increase childhood stunting by as much as 19% and decrease adult earnings by as much as 2%. This suggests a stark trade-off between using nitrogen to boost agricultural output and reducing its use to protect children’s health.

Salinity diminishes agricultural productivity. Saline waters and soils are spreading throughout much of the world because of increasing rates of water extraction, droughts and rainfall shocks, sea-level rise, and poorly managed irrigation systems. This report shows that agricultural yields fall almost exactly in line with increased salt concentrations in water. That is to say – more salt in the water means less food for the world.  

This report also reveals that enough food is lost due to saline waters each year to feed 170 million people every day – that’s equivalent to a country the size of Bangladesh. Such a sizable loss of food production to saline waters means food security will continue to be jeopardized unless action is taken.

Even as these impacts are being felt, emerging pollutants are entering the world’s waters – their impacts are still unknown but present a hazard that may further exacerbate existing problems.

The outlook is stark – but change is possible. Increased awareness, strengthened prevention and smart investments using new technology are needed to turn back the tide of water pollution.

The challenge is daunting, but it is not insurmountable. Solutions exist for countries at all stages of development. The way forward requires a mix of approaches that focus on information, prevention and investment:

Information is both a resource and a rallying cry. The first step to tackling the water quality challenge is recognizing the scale of it. The world needs reliable, accurate and comprehensive information so that new insights can be discovered, decision-making can be evidence-based and citizens can call for action. Encouraging and enabling this information and its sharing is critical to getting water pollution under control.

Prevention is better than cure. While sunlight may be the best disinfectant, legislation, implementation and enforcement are also crucial to scrub the world’s waterways of pollution. Information and transparency must be coupled with well-designed, effectively implemented and scrupulously enforced regulations for firms and individuals to adhere to water quality guidelines.

Invest in what works. Pollution that cannot be prevented must be treated. Wastewater treatment has a vital role to play – it is crucial for a country’s health, food security and economy by helping remove pollution and debris. Investments in wastewater treatment are a down payment on a cleaner future.

This report was funded in part by the Global Water Security & Sanitation Partnership, a multi-donor trust fund based at the World Bank’s Water Global Practice. 

World Bank

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The Threat to Life from Ocean Microplastics

Meena Miriam Yust

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Authors: Meena Miriam Yust and Arshad Khan

When Chelsea Rochman at the University of Toronto and colleagues began their study on medakas (small Japanese rice paddy fish), they did not expect to find what they did.

They first soaked ground-up polyethylene in San Diego Bay for three months and then fed it to these fish along with a laboratory diet.  They also fed the same diet to a comparison group of medakas but along with virgin polyethylene also ground-up.  The medakas eating the plastic immersed in the Bay suffered greater liver damage.  How much of a danger then is our seafood?  

Defined as less than 5mm in size,  microplastics have been found in 114 types of aquatic life, over half of which are consumed by humans.   Oysters exposed to food-container plastic (polystyrene) have fewer eggs and impaired less-motile sperm.  Does eating them do the same to us?  Nobody knows.  A comprehensive study of plastics in seafood and its implications for human health points to the gaps in our knowledge.  It calls for more research into the toxicity of various plastics and in identifying lower risk seafood.  

There is some evidence for the quantity of microplastic pieces per cubic meter of water — from the surface to a depth of 1000 meters in one study.  The numbers range from four pieces at the surface increasing to about a dozen at 200 meters down then declining to three or so at a 1000 meters down.  It is certainly not super dense.  At the same time, little fish ingesting it and bigger fish eating smaller ones, and one can see a problem developing, particularly for us the final consumer.  

The copious plastic debris flowing into the ocean estimated at 8 million tons annually continues to add to the 100 million tons already there.  Engineering experts at Stanford University have discussed “the potential for meaningful change” in the status quo.  They have some interesting observations:  Microplastics are now in “about a quarter of the sea foods in our markets and even in table salt.”  They are also in “94 percent of tap water samples in the US and in nearly every brand of bottled water.”  At this we checked tap water and some bottled water and did not notice any.  Insidious, if these are microscopic.   

Research in other parts of the world exemplify the global extent of the microplastics menace.  In a study of commercial fish caught off the Portuguese coast, microplastics were found in 19.8 percent of the 26 species of fish tested.  Plastic polymers, polyethylene and polypropylene as well as fibers like polyester, rayon and nylon had been ingested.  As might be expected, the fish taken off Lisbon and its environs were worst affected.  

In another study, fish and bivalves taken from markets in California and Makassar, Indonesia were  examined for anthropogenic debris.  Plastic was again confirmed in seafood sold for human consumption.  Debris was found in about a quarter of individual fish and a third of shellfish raising concerns about human health.

North Sea fish have been studied for plastic ingestion also.  Foekema and his fellow researchers found particles up to 4.8 mm in five of seven common North Sea fish species.  Usually only one particle was found and in only 2.6 percent of the 1204 individual specimens tested.  Cod showed the highest frequency with one third involved.  In another study of 400 individual fish from four species, only two particles were found, both in one individual, a sprat, confirming the relative low incidence of plastics in North Sea fish.  The particles in the sprat were microbeads.

Then there is the ubiquitous cigarette butt.  Is there something prophetic about dropping and stubbing it as the final act of a habit statistically known to shorten the lives of smokers?  Discarding butts may be socially acceptable but when 6.5 trillion cigarettes are smoked each year around the world, and an estimated two-thirds of the ends flicked away carelessly, butts become the most littered plastic item.  Made of cellulose acetate they degrade slowly, and then into tiny microplastic pieces finding their way often into waterways and oceans.

The thrown-away butt, a lethal parcel of absorbed nicotine, heavy metals and chemicals, appears to marine life as food floating on the surface.  It has been found to be deadly to fish, and to inhibit plant growth.  A new addition, e-cigarettes are growing in popularity, their discarded pods posing a similar problem  — not to mention the e-cigarette itself, a package of plastic, electric circuitry and battery.

Another disturbing trend is for manufacturers to add plastic microbeads as cheap fillers in household products like toothpaste, shampoo and cosmetics.  Washed down the drain, and small enough to bypass the water filters at reclamation plants, these eventually find their way into the ocean.  Of course some can be swallowed accidentally by product users.  A Mother Jones (May 28 , 2015) article pictures an array of products containing them.  

Fish are fooled by microbeads which are a similar size and shape to fish eggs.  Add all the other plastics and the chemicals adhering to them and they become a meal with long-term consequences for other predators as well.  The Guardian newspaper reports on five species affected by ocean plastics.  Fish-eating birds, whales with plastic-clogged stomachs, turtles snagged by plastic six-pack holders, crabs ingesting microplastics that also enter through their gills, even vital oxygen producing ocean bacteria are being harmed.   

Birds eating plastic had stunted growth and kidney problems noted a University of Tasmania study with particular reference to the near-threatened flesh-footed shearwaters (long-winged oceanic birds).  They have estimated a million seabirds dying annually from plastic ingestion, and other researchers have tagged balloons as the “no.1 marine debris risk of mortality for seabirds.”  A high-risk item, ingesting a balloon fragment is 32 times more likely to cause death than a hard plastic item.

A map of the US showing the interest levels in plastic pollution for the different states as measured by the numbers of tweets about the subject might be appropriate in our new world of politics by tweet led by the president.  None of it helps the individual dying of kidney, liver or pancreatic cancer.  Infertility clinics abound as sperm counts decline in the west and specially in the US … joining the oysters mentioned earlier.

If we reflect on the issues, a logical answer emerges; that is, to reduce plastics, ban single-use items, increase recycling, and dispose of the rest safely.  Above all, educating us remains key.  Who knew cigarette butts are not just an unsightly nuisance but deadly?  

Author’s note: This piece first appeared in CounterPunch.org.

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A small island with big plans: The Kingdom of Bahrain commits to environmental sustainability

MD Staff

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In June 2019, the Kingdom of Bahrain revealed its plans to ban plastic bags. The move took many by surprise. Ahmed Rajab, a photographer in Bahrain for the Gulf Daily News, is one supporter of the decision. He recalls a sad episode he captured on his camera: “With their bright pink colour, flamingos are so majestic and beautiful during flight, but then I saw a dead flamingo on the coast surrounded with plastic waste, and it was the exact opposite of beauty. It was gut-wrenching to capture that picture on my camera—a beautiful bird surrounded by plastic bottles and waste… It almost seemed like our waste murdered it and that is the sad truth.”

The ban is a great start, he says, and it will put the country on the road to sustainability. But he also believes in the importance of changing people’s attitudes and perceptions, especially those of children, to ensure that they grow up environmentally conscious. “Anything harming the environment will eventually harm us, so we need to take steps to regulate and ban harmful substances, and work together towards a healthier planet for all creatures.”

Bahrain means two seas in Arabic, a tribute to its sweet water springs and salty seawater. The small island, home to nearly 1.5 million people, is particularly vulnerable to plastic waste. Historically, its waters have been known for their richness, hosting more than 200 varieties of fish. Fishing, more specifically pearl fishing, was for centuries the main means of livelihood for the people of Bahrain.

In 2013, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized Bahrain’s Pearl Road as a World Heritage Site, recalling the nation’s longstanding reputation for an industry that has shaped its culture.

However, with the booming oil industry and pollution, marine life in the waters of the Gulf of Bahrain have declined drastically. Coral reefs, sea turtles, dugongs and numerous fish species are suffering the effects of marine pollution. With population growth and the increased production and consumption of plastic products and packaging, marine litter exacerbated the problem and contributed to the diminishing fish stocks.

To address these critical environmental challenges, the Kingdom of Bahrain seized the opportunity in 2018 to join the UN Environment Programme’s global Clean Seas campaign. Since then, youth networks, civil society, the government and others have spared no effort to turn the tide on plastic.

In June 2019, a ministerial order to regulate and phase out the use of plastic bags was announced across the Kingdom and the region. The order also aims to ban the import of bags that are non-biodegradable, and future phases will include a permanent ban on the use of plastic bags at certain malls and supermarkets.

Furthermore, the government plans to expand recycling by increasing the total number of recycling bins, thereby reducing plastic waste that ends up in landfills.

Bahrain is moving steadily towards a full-fledged ban. The Supreme Council for the Environment together with the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Tourism are working on policies and guidelines for manufacturers and suppliers to ensure a smooth transition to a suitable alternative. A seminar on plastic products regulations was held following the announcement of the ban to help manufacturers and importers meet the technical requirements. It also introduced measures that will be taken to monitor ports customs and local markets.

UN Environment’s West Asia Office Director and Regional Representative Sami Dimassi commended the bold decision that made the Kingdom the second country in West Asia to take a stand against non-biodegradable plastic bags after the Sultanate of Oman. “Plastic in the ocean has a disproportionately large impact on marine life. Small pieces of plastic are eaten by fish, sea turtles and sea birds, often resulting in their death. This is in addition to the fact that often, these animals become entangled in plastic debris which leads to fatal injuries and consequently puts an end to their short-lived lives.” He also added that non-biodegradable plastics break down into small pieces which are eaten by smaller marine animals and enter the food chain, eventually impacting human health. 

Prior to the ministerial decision, many stores in Bahrain had already substituted plastic bags with paper ones. For them, the transition was not that difficult—they are mostly European franchises that had already switched to more sustainable alternatives years back at their mother companies.

However, during the years 2018 and 2019, a huge interest was sparked by local supermarkets and hypermarkets in building a culture of sustainability in Bahrain. At least 15 branches of the two main hypermarkets in Bahrain introduced reusable bags as part of their green policies. For instance, Lulu and Carrefour management have both sought the advice of UN Environment’s West Asia Office during the transition. For a small island like Bahrain, this is a great achievement.   

The smaller corner shops and the food service industry are the main culprits when it comes to the use of plastics in the Kingdom. While biodegradable alternatives are available, it is less costly and more convenient to use the good old plastic bag. Nevertheless, activists, the government and youth are relentlessly raising awareness on the negative impacts of plastic pollution on the environment, while the Supreme Council for the Environment is guaranteeing that consumers will not bear the cost of the ban.

The people of Bahrain have always been pioneers in many aspects. Their openness to other cultures and interest in modern education have been the drive for many green-thinking advocates. The nation’s younger generation is empowered and entrepreneurial. There are several youth-led green initiatives in the country, including a focus on organic and green cosmetics production and upcycled fashion.

Bahrain’s active civil society has been on the back of polluters. Even schools have started exposing children to environmentally friendly practices and information, while the country’s private sector fosters environmental responsibility for the community.

And now, the people of Bahrain have a government that is adamant about making significant progress towards sustainable development.

UN Environment

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