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

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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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2021 will be defined by the more long-term crisis facing humanity: Climate change

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Rather than low-tech and often unworkable solutions (reduced or no travel, mass vegan diets) governments are increasingly embracing technology to help us understand and influence the climate – rather than merely respond to it. This should become the norm for public authorities across the world.

China’s weather modification programme, for example, could be a lifeline for workable solutions to climate change globally. The technique, known as cloud-seeding, uses silver iodide and liquid nitrogen to thicken water droplets in the cloud, leading to increased rain or snowfall. 

The technology has been used to prevent droughts and regulate weather before major events, like in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics

The Chinese cabinet has announced that its weather modification programme will cover half the country by 2025, with the aim to revitalize rural regions, restore ecosystems, minimize losses from natural disasters and redistribute water throughout the country.  

And China’s ambitious ‘Sky River’ programme could eventually divert 5 billion cubic meters of water annually across regions, which could protect millions of people from the effects of drought and water scarcity. 

Although critics have, without evidence, described these projects as ‘weaponization of the weather’, the humanitarian and development potential is huge. 

Necessity is the mother of invention, and this is truer than ever with regards to the climate. The world faces a climate-change induced water crisis, with 1.5 billion people affected globally. 

The UN predicts that at the current water usage levels, water scarcity could displace 700 million people by 2030. 

Carbon emissions are unlikely to be eliminated in high growth economies in regions like Asia, meaning that the world must develop a way to manage emissions’ effects on the climate. 

Whilst it is true that the basic solutions of eating less meat, cycling to work and cutting back on international flights can help to curb our carbon output in the long-run, it does nothing to help those who suffer from flooding or water scarcity today. 

Ultimately, technology is an essential part of the solution.

Big Tech is leading the charge in tackling climate change through the use of Big Data and machine learning. In November 2019, a group of data scientists published a paper entitled ‘Tackling Climate Change with Machine Learning’. The paper laid out 13 different applications of using machine learning to tackle the impacts of climate change. One such application was using machine-learning to predict extreme weather events. 

Such an application is already being put into action. For example, Bangladesh is one of the most flood-prone countries in the world; approximately 5 million people were negatively affected by flooding last year alone. In order to help combat this, Google teamed up with the Bangladesh Water Development Board and the Access to Information (a2i) Programme to develop a flood notification app that is approximately 90% accurate

The app, which is enabled by AI flooding simulation, provides the population with timely, updated, and critical information that can help users make informed decisions on the safety of their families and friends. 

The same technology has been used in both India and South Africa, and has the potential to save thousands of lives and livelihoods. It is these sorts of innovations that we must rely on to help those who are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change. 

It is not only cloud-seeding and weather prediction technologies that will provide humanity with a route out of its biggest existential threat. Breakthrough battery technology, green hydrogen, 5G-based smart grids and carbon-negative factories are set to become commonplace in our fight against rising CO2 levels. 

As a global society, we must set our political divisions and some critics’ technophobia aside, and step forward in a spirit of international collaboration.

Similarly to how the pandemic showed the need for united global action, climate change will do the same. And just as technology and science was a key part in how the pandemic was brought under control, climate change can only be addressed through tech-based solutions.

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The solution to marine plastic pollution is plural, and plastic offsetting is one of them

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Due to growing concerns around environmental protection, businesses, individuals and governments have been looking for solutions that can be largely implemented to close the tap on plastic pollution.

In the last five years, businesses have strengthened their Sustainability Approach to acknowledge the need to take responsibility for their plastic production and consumption.

If targets have been defined and strong policies followed them to ensure high recycling rates of plastic products, a problem remains. What is the solution for low-value non-recyclable plastics?

This is where plastic offsetting enters the scene. As a derivative of the Carbon Offsetting concept, where trees are planted or protected to capture CO2 emissions, Plastic offsetting also known as Plastic Neutralization, enables companies to take responsibility for their plastic footprint.

Put simply, neutralizing means funding the collection and treatment of plastic, equivalent to the plastic impact of the business. Therefore, giving it the opportunity to compensate for every ton of plastic it has produced by ensuring there is one ton less in the environment.

From linear to Circular Economy Itis also a breakthrough in our traditional model of production, the linear economy. By extending the producer responsibility (EPR), this concept allow to build the bridge that lead to the ideal model, the circular economy, where no waste remains.

This innovative solution brings with it diverse positive impact. To the environment, by protecting ecosystems from plastic pollution, reducing landfilling and CO2 emissions. A strong social impact, by local communities by empowering local communities with work and better incomes. But also businesses, by becoming more sustainable with the reduction of the plastic footprint and a strengthen corporate social responsibility.

TONTOTON, a Vietnamese company, based in Ho Chi Minh City has succeed to connect all stakeholders to create a new market for low-value non-recyclable post-consumer plastic, on the scheme of circular economy.

TONTOTON Plastic Neutralization Program

Following the idea that the informal sector achieve to collect and recycle large amount of plastic in poor waste management areas, Barak Ekshtein, director of TONTOTON decided to look closer to the problem. In fact, a study shows that ‘97% of plastic bottles were collected by informal waste pickers.

The problem therefore does not lie in the logistics but in the price. By giving a market price to non-recyclable plastic, it allows waste collectors to collect and treat waste and thus avoid plastic pollution.

TONTOTON currently works in Southern Vietnamese Islands, Hon Son and Phu Quoc, and has already few tons of low-value plastic waste. To do so, it collaborates with local waste-pickers and thus provide them better incomes. The program focuses on preventing ocean plastic by following the Ocean Bound Plastic Certification. Their activities are audited by a 3rd party control body, the internationally recognized company, Control Union.

To treat the waste, TONTOTON partners with a certified cement plant, through co-processing, to valorize waste as an alternative energy and raw material. “Our system can solve two issues. Plastic is made of fossil fuels and contains more energy than coal. Thus we can replace industrial coal consumption with non-recyclable plastic waste. The plastic will not end up in landfill or oceans, therefore reduce levels of coal consumption and thus also CO2 emissions.”, says Barak Ekshtein.

Businesses engaged in their program can claim plastic neutrality on the amount of plastic neutralized to share their sustainability efforts. Moreover, indicate it on their neutralized product by bearing the “Plastic Neutral Product” label.

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Climate Change in Vanuatu: Problems Ensue

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Authors: Harsh Mahaseth and Shubham Sharma*

Vanuatu announced its intention to seek legal action against corporations and governments who have benefited from products which had caused climate change. Minister Regebvanu, in the 2018 Climate Vulnerable Summit sought to explore legal actions against companies, financial institutions and governments liable for the damages caused to Vanuatu due to climate change, either by direct to indirect actions of the said parties. Vanuatu, like other small island nations, is seeking damage claims against carbon emitters who have contributed to climate change and benefited from it. Vanuatu seeks to claim reparations for damage caused by events related to climate change such as the 2015 cyclone which wiped out an estimated 64 per cent of Vanuatu’s GDP.

A case of action against global polluters isn’t novel. Climate Change litigation has its precedence, with over 1300 cases having been filed across 28 countries, where various public and private entities have petitioned the Courts for environmental action or relief. The source of the litigation comes for various multilateral treaties, such as the Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment, Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and others treaties combating pollution.

For Vanuatu, one of the major obstacle, other than the likely opposition from powerful States, includes finding a suitable forum; identifying relevant substantive obligations and various challenges relating to attribution, causation and evidence before they are able to make successful climate litigation before an international body such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ), scholars have argued that a path for successful litigation exists through Article 36, paragraph 2 of the ICJ Statute, where by accepting compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJa case for prevention obligations under the lex special is of the UNFCCC, human rights law or customary international law.

Strategic Public Climate Litigation, an injunctive relief solution where the aim is to influence public policy or policy decisions primarily through the attainment of injunctive relief by asserting governmental failure to account for GHG emissions associated with public projects and cases of judicial review of public regulatory action (or inaction) on climate change, has already achieved some degree of success. An example would be the Australian Conservation Foundation et al. v. Minister for Planning where there were concerns with regards to GHG emissions of a new coal mine which lead a tribunal to determine the lasting significant environmental effects of the coal mine in the future would be against the objective of the act which is to “maintenance of ecological processes” and the “future interest of all Victorians.” Another example is that of the State of the Netherlands v. Urgenda Foundation, where an injunction was sought to compel the Dutch government to reduce GHG emissions, the supreme court of appeals, upheld this view and ordered the Dutch government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent by the end of 2020, compared with 1990 level.

The second option for Vanuatu is to cast a wide net of a variety of legal theories, such as domestic tort law against carbon majors similar to the petition brought before the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines, which investigate the responsibility of 47 investor-owned carbon majors for human rights violations due to climate change. For this approach, the initial challenge Vanuatu faces is the lack of a national human rights institution who can bring rights violations caused by climate change. However, the lack of a human rights institution can be mitigated by Vanuatu’s independent judicial system, as it is competent to address claims for damage caused by climate change by the polluters. The major hurdle Vanuatu faces is establishing the causation between the defendants’ conduct and its result, which is to say whether the action of the defendant lead to or contributed to the disaster, and secondly, the ability to certain specific damage sorted by Vanuatu on the other, especially in cases of non-economic loss and damage.

The recent surge in climate change litigation bodes well for Vanuatu, as the establishing precedence only strengthens their claim for damages. However, Vanuatu still faces major obstacles. Firstly, a lack of an international body to address the issue. Even if a case is brought before the ICJ, it can only be against a Member State. Thus, action against private entities cannot be brought before the ICJ. Secondly, identifying the rights violated and then assessing and assigning the damage liability to individuals, entities and governments. Thirdly, if Vanuatu pursues action in domestic courts, there are issues relating to the appearance of the party to the summons and the ability of Vanuatu to enforce the judgment. As the primary means of compliance for offenders in the international area are sanctions, Vanuatu without support from larger nations wouldn’t be able to handout sanctions to force compliance. There are many problems that Vanuatu faces but they cannot sit still now, and it is time to act and make the polluters liable.

* Shubham Sharma is a graduate from NALSAR University of Law. He has worked on several research projects relating to human rights, juvenile justice, and climate change.

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