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Green Planet

Beating the big smoke

Erik Solheim

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Londoners are used to inhaling poison. In Victorian Britain, the sickly brown smog that blanketed the capital was known as a “pea-souper”, so thick that on bad days it was impossible to read a book. But it wasn’t until the Great Killer Fog of 1952, which lasted a week and killed as many as 12,000 people, that the government finally decided to tackle the miasma that had immiserated Londoners for centuries and earned the city its nickname, “The Big Smoke”. 

London has struggled to shake off this “badge of dishonour”. While air pollution may be less visible today, it is no less deadly. Each day, more than eight million Londoners breathe air that is considered unsafe by the World Health Organization. This means that thousands of the city’s residents die prematurely every year because of the nasty cocktail of toxins that have fouled the city’s air. 

This won’t make for pleasant reading, but the reality is that these noxious gases and tiny particles of poison penetrate deep inside our lungs, permanently damaging our bodies. From Ealing to the East End, babies across London are being born earlier than normal, children are growing up with weaker lungs and adults are more likely to die prematurely from heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer and other lung diseases as they age. Studies show that air pollution steals an average of two years from the lives of every child born in London in 2010. This terrible blight, which seeps insidiously into our schools and homes, must be stopped. 

Once again, London is in the throes of a major pollution emergency. This time there is a plan to tackle its root causes. We already know what needs to be done to clean up the capital’s dirty air. Vehicles cause roughly 50 per cent of the city’s air pollution. To improve the health of Londoners, the capital must transform its transport system, removing from its roads the vehicles that are spewing out the most damaging fumes. 

This is exactly what London has started to do with its new toxicity charge on the most polluting vehicles comes. As the previous congestion charge has already proved, this should dramatically cut the number of big polluting vehicles and their harmful fumes. 

However, this is just the beginning. The mayor has doubled the amount of money the city will spend on tackling smog. He also plans to retrofit 5,000 of London’s older buses and introduce new hybrid and electric buses to further cut emissions. The mayor aims to phase out diesel taxis and invest in electric charging ports across the city as part of plans to introduce an ultra-low-emission zone in central London. 

These are bold steps that will help London hit its most ambitious target: achieving the WHO’s Air Quality Guideline Goals by 2030 – the “gold standard” for air quality. London is the first capital city in the world to commit to this target as part of its pledge to the BreatheLife Campaign, launched by WHO, UN Environment and the Climate and Clean Air coalition. This places it at the vanguard of a growing coalition of cities seeking to combat the devastating impact that air pollution has on our health, our economies and our environment. 

Over the last year, more than 100 cities, including Manchester, Washington DC, Medellin and Tshwane, have joined the BreatheLife campaign with public commitments to reduce air pollution, which kills about 6.5 million people around the world every year. The campaign gives cities the tools that are needed to clean the dirty air that plagues their citizens. But we urgently need more cities to join the coalition. This is a global epidemic – and many of the same pollutants that harm our health are also driving climate change. 

Never has it been more important for cities to unite to fight the smog. By investing in cleaner forms of transport, improving the way cities are built and switching to greener forms of power, we not only boost the health of our people. We also slow down global warming by reducing “short-lived climate emissions” of black carbon from vehicle emissions and methane from sources like waste dumps. By tackling the key sources of urban air pollution we also reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which persist for centuries and threaten the long-term health of our planet. If the world is to keep warming below the levels set out in the Paris Climate Agreement, then it is vital that cities follow London’s lead and immediately move to tackle the pollution in their air. 

London’s history teaches us that in crisis there is huge opportunity for change –provided we act together. In 1854, British physician John Snow improved the health of millions around the world when he discovered that a single well pump had triggered a cholera outbreak in the city. Now renowned as the father of epidemiology, Snow’s findings dramatically improved water quality in London and, as cities began to follow suit, the world. Today, we already know where to find the sources of air pollution and we already know how to tackle them. It is again time for cities to follow London’s example to defeat this menace. The need to do so is as clear as the air that all of us deserve to breathe. 

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Green Planet

Putting the brakes on fast fashion

MD Staff

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photo: wintervacht.nl

Fashion revolves around the latest trends but is the industry behind the curve on the only trend that ultimately matters – the need to radically alter our patterns of consumption to ensure the survival of the planet.

The fashion industry produces 20 per cent of global wastewater and 10 per cent of global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping. Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water globally and it takes around 2,000 gallons of water to make a typical pair of jeans.

Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned. If nothing changes, by 2050 the fashion industry will use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget. Washing clothes also releases half a million tonnes of microfibres into the ocean every year.

Then there is the human cost: textile workers are often paid derisory wages and forced to work long hours in appalling conditions. But with consumers increasingly demanding change, the fashion world is finally responding with A-listers, like Duchess Meghan Markle, leading the way with their clothing choices and designers looking to break the take-make-waste model.

“Most fashion retailers now are doing something about sustainability and have some initiatives focused on reducing fashion’s negative impact on the environment,” says Patsy Perry, senior lecturer in fashion marketing at the University of Manchester. For example, last year, Britain’s Stella McCartney teamed up with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to launch a report on redesigning fashion’s future.

“However, there is still a fundamental problem with the fast fashion business model where revenues are based on selling more products, and therefore retailers must constantly offer new collections. It would be unrealistic to expect consumers to stop shopping on a large scale, so going forward, I would expect to see more development and wider adoption of more sustainable production methods such as waterless dyeing, using waste as a raw material, and development of innovative solutions to the textile waste problem,” she says.

Pioneering solutions to address environmental challenges will be at the heart of the fourth UN Environment Assembly next March. The meeting’s motto is to think beyond prevailing patterns and live within sustainable limits—a message that will resonate with fashion designers and retailers seeking to reform their industry.

At the March meeting, UN Environment will formally launch the UN Alliance on Sustainable Fashion to encourage the private sector, governments and non-governmental organizations to create an industry-wide push for action to reduce fashion’s negative social, economic and environmental impact and turn it into a driver for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Across the United Nations, agencies are working to make fashion more sustainable, from the Food and Agricultural Organization protecting arable land, to the Ethical Fashion Initiative set up by the International Trade Centre to the work of UN Environment in fostering sustainable manufacturing practices.

And some entrepreneurs are already designing the fashion of the future:

Spain’s Ecoalf creates shoes from algae and recycled plastic as part of its Upcycling the Oceans collection. Founded by Javier Goyeneche in 2012, Ecoalf collects ocean plastics from 33 ports and turns the trash into shoes, clothing and bags.

In Amsterdam, GumDrop collects gum and turns it into a new kind of rubber, Gum-tec, which is then used to make shoes in collaboration with marketing group I Amsterdam and fashion company Explicit. GumDrop says around 3.3 million pounds of gum end up on Amsterdam’s paths every year, costing millions of dollars to clean. It takes around 2.2 pounds of gum to make four pairs of sneakers.

Outdoor gear retailer Patagonia, based in California, has been producing fleece jackets using polyester from recycled bottles since 1993, working with Polartec, a Massachusetts-based textile designer. Patagonia also encourages shoppers to buy only what they need, and mends and recycles older items.

Gothenburg-based Nudie Jeans uses organic cotton for its jeans and offers free repairs for life. Customers also get a discount if they hand in their old jeans.

Cambodia-based Tonlé uses surplus fabric from mass clothing manufacturers to create zero-waste fashion collections. It uses more than 97 per cent of the material it receives and turns the rest into paper.

In the Netherlands, Wintervacht turns blankets and curtains into coats and jackets. Designers Yoni van Oorsouw and Manon van Hoeckel find their raw materials in secondhand shops and sorting facilities where donations are processed. San Francisco- and Bali-based Indosole turns discarded tyres in Indonesia into shoes, sandals and flip-flops, while Swiss firm Freitag upcycles tarpaulins, seat belts and bicycle inner tubes to make their bags and backpacks.

In New York, Queen of Raw connects designers, architects and textile firms with dead stock of sustainable fabrics from factories, brands and retailers. Queen of Raw says more than US$120 billion worth of unused fabric sits in warehouses, waiting to be burned or buried.

Novel Supply, based in Canada, makes clothes from natural and organic fabrics and is developing a take-back programme to find alternative ways to use garments at the end of their life. For founder Kaya Dorey, winner of UN Environment’s Young Champion of the Earth award in 2017, the aim is to create a zero-waste, closed-loop fashion model.

Retailer H&M has a successful garment collection scheme and in October, lifestyle brand and jeans manufacturer Guess said it was teaming up with i:Collect, which collects, sorts and recycles clothes and footwear worldwide, to launch a wardrobe recycling programme in the US. Customers who bring in five or more items of clothing or shoes, will receive discounts. Wearable items will be recycled as secondhand goods, while unwearable items will be turned into new products like cleaning cloths or made into fibres for products like insulation.

Some argue that recycling is itself energy intensive and does not address our throwaway culture—the number of times a garment is worn has declined by 36 per cent in 15 years. An alternative might be found in a viable rental market for clothes. Pioneers in this field include Dutch firm Mud Jeans, which leases organic jeans that can be kept, swapped or returned, Rent the Runway, Girl Meets Dress and YCloset in China.

“The rental model is clearly a winner for the higher end of the market where consumers may have no intention of wearing an occasion dress more than once… but at the lower end, it’s all too easy to go online and be able to buy outright any trend or item,” says Perry. “For rental to be a success at this market level, companies need to offer sufficient choice of brands and styles that would engage consumers and tempt them away from outright purchase, and the rental service needs to be smooth and faultless.”

Her best fashion advice? Less is always more.

“Keep your clothing in use for longer to reduce its environmental footprint, as well as reducing the amount of new stuff you need to buy and the consequent use of resources. This also reduces the impact of the disposal of perfectly good but unwanted clothes.”

UN Environment

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Green Planet

New e-portal for the protection of the Caspian marine environment

MD Staff

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A new, upgraded, online platform was launched on 8 November 2018 to support joint action under the Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea, also known as the Tehran Convention. The objective of the completely revamped Caspian Environment Information Center is to provide the Parties to the Tehran Convention with an online collaborative information-sharing tool, making it easier for different stakeholders from the Caspian littoral states to collaborate on environmental issues. The platform has been developed by GRID-Arendal with the support of British Petroleum Exploration (Caspian Sea) Limited in Baku, Republic of Azerbaijan.

A major step forward was made in 2003, when the Tehran Convention was signed as the first legally binding agreement among the Caspian littoral states. The expanding work under the UN Environment-hosted Convention identified the need for a reliable and easy way to exchange information. An initial portal was set up in 2012 to facilitate collaboration across the region. Six years later, the Caspian countries have been provided with an enhanced version with a broader data base and an expanded array of tools.

“The Caspian Environmental Information Center is a portal that is a kind of library where you can find information related to the Caspian environment, biodiversity, monitoring, the economic potential of the region, etc. The portal also contains information on activities carried out in the Caspian littoral countries”, said Nurgul Tastenbekova, a 23-year-old user from Kazakhstan. “The portal is very convenient to use and well thought-out”, she added.

Portal features

The online portal contains a series of functions that enable easy access to Caspian Sea environmental data. Stakeholders such as governments, administrators, academia, private companies and non-governmental organizations can become users and join different groups, contributing to public and private information sharing. It has been pivotal in the ongoing process of preparing the Second State of the Environment Report for the Caspian Sea. Even for the casual viewer, the site provides access to a wide range of information included in the collections of documents, news, events, forum discussions and maps.

Supporting implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals

The portal aims at contributing to the achievement of several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly number 17 “Partnerships for the goals” and 16 “Peace, justice and strong institutions”. This online tool provides the Caspian countries with a technological means for regional cooperation and information sharing, promoting policy and institutional coherence. Furthermore, by encouraging private, public and civil society engagement on the platform, it contributes to increased openness and public awareness on environmental issues in the Caspian region. The portal is set up for inclusive and participatory knowledge creation, aimed at informing decision makers, scientists and civil society stakeholders. Ultimately, this will contribute to achieving goal 14 “Life below water” by supporting the sustainable use and conservation of the sea and its marine resources.

The Tehran Convention Interim Secretariat (TCIS) is located within UN Environment’s Europe Office, in Geneva, Switzerland. The Secretariat supports the Conference of the Parties and the implementation of the Tehran Convention in organizational, administrative and technical matters.

GRID-Arendal is a center collaborating with UN Environment, which provides support to monitoring, assessment, reporting, information exchange, back-up networking and research, and environmental management and administration-related work. 

UN Environment

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Green Planet

Preventing the exploitation of the environment in war and armed conflict

MD Staff

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This is a message from UN Environment’s Executive Director Erik Solheim to mark the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict.

Nearly 1.5 billion people, over 20 per cent of the world’s population, live in conflict-affected areas and fragile states.

War and armed conflict present a risk for humanity and other forms of life on our planet. Too many lives, and species, are at stake.

Decades of ugly wars in countries such as Afghanistan, Colombia or Iraq have led to the immense loss of natural resources. In Afghanistan alone, we have witnessed astounding deforestation rates which have reached 95 per cent in some areas.

In 2017, the Islamic State triggered vast toxic clouds by setting ablaze oil wells and a sulfur factory near the Iraqi city of Mosul, poisoning the landscape and people.

Critical biodiversity hotspots in Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan have offered cover and refuge for rebel groups.

This has been disastrous for wildlife and forest conservation as these habitats have opened the doors to illegal logging, unregulated mining, massive poaching and breeding grounds for invasive species.

Elephant populations have been decimated in DR Congo and Central African Republic, while in Ukraine the Siverskyi Donets River has been further damaged by pollution from the conflict.

In Gaza, Yemen, and elsewhere, water infrastructure, from groundwater wells to wastewater treatment plants and pumping stations to desalination plants have been damaged, posing environmental and public health risks.

It would be a dangerous mistake to ignore these environmental consequences of conflict, and the international community needs to act with greater urgency.

This International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict I urge you all to speak up boldly and renew your commitment to protecting our imperiled planet, even in the face of hostile armed aggression.

Through resolutions passed at the Second and Third UN Environment Assemblies in 2016 and 2017, Member States demonstrated their recognition of the need to improve protection of the environment in times of armed conflict.

As part of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development we also need to integrate natural resource and environmental issues into conflict assessments and planning.

We must place transparency and better mechanisms for monitoring, collecting, sharing and assessing information on potential environmental impacts at the centre of our oversight and protection of natural resources in armed conflict. And we must build capacity to deploy these mechanisms, including through Massive Open Online Courses that help democratize assess to key knowledge. Last year, over 10,000 people from 170 countries enrolled in the UN-backed MOOC on Environmental Security and Sustaining Peace. We should aim to double this number in 2019.

I urge you all to renew your commitment to jealously protect our planet from the debilitating effects of war and especially at a time our warming planet is already threatened by the impacts of runaway climate change.

With the 2030 Agenda, and the concurrent efforts of the United Nations Environment Assembly and the International Law Commission, we have a range of important tools at our disposal to promote environmental peacebuilding.

The United Nations remains committed to working with governments, businesses and citizens to protect the environment before, during and after armed conflict.

UN Environment

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