Climate change is intangible, daunting and for certain people, even deniable. But pollution is indisputable. And it affects everyone. We all experience it in our lives daily, regardless of where we live. Yet, solutions that can beat pollution while creating profit exist. If only they were implemented, we could drastically reduce polluting emissions globally, benefiting people, the planet and the industry.
When I was a child, with my family we used to go on vacation in a chalet in the Swiss Alps. At the time, people would drive five kilometres to go and drop their garbage in the forest – be it food, glass, metals, plastic or bulky items such as consumer electronics. This resulted in a huge rock pile of waste – smoking, fermenting and smelling awful. When regulations on sorting and recycling were finally adopted, more than protecting health or the environment, it resulted in a new industrial market: creating jobs and generating profit.
Today, waste management is becoming even more restorative and regenerative. By rethinking and redesigning products and the packaging they come in, we can develop safe and compostable materials that create profit, not just once, but again and again. This is the defining characteristic of a circular economy, where the waste of today becomes the resources of tomorrow. This is especially true for developing countries, where – like in my mountain chalet 50 years ago – waste is often left in open dumps.
Investing in new clean solutions is becoming increasingly profitable for investors and consumers in both rich and emerging markets. It makes financial sense. And for that reason, decision makers should stop compromising for minimal targets, but rather should base their negotiations and objectives on the reality of modern technologies and processes can offer. Not only for future generations, but for our current well-being. We need these regulations to incentivize change.
So you see that it is not enough to speak only about problems; we have to offer solutions. It is a fact that air pollution alone is the single biggest environmental health risk, causing 7 million deaths each year. It also costs $3 trillion annually, that is 6 per cent of the global GDP.
And it doesn’t stop there. Around the world, some 2 billion tons of human waste are disposed of in freshwater courses every day, containing chemicals that can have severe impacts on human health. Nearly 30 per cent of the food produced worldwide every year is lost or wasted, leading to methane emissions that cause climate change. And an estimated 8 million tons of plastic enter the world’s oceans yearly, affecting numerous marine species. Where do we go from here?
I remember when I was flying over the Atlantic Ocean with Solar Impulse and saw an oil tanker that was gas-freeing – leaving in its tracks black toxic traces stretching away in the waters. The contrast with my situation was striking – alone in my solar powered airplane, looking at the sun that was giving energy to its four electric motors and their huge propellers. There was no noise, no pollution, no fuel… And I could fly forever. I was thinking “This is science fiction, I’m in the future.” And then I realized, “No, it’s wrong, I’m in the present; this is what the technologies of today already allow me to do. It’s the rest of the world that is in the past.”
That is why last month during the climate conference (COP23) in Bonn, I launched World Alliance for Efficient Solutions: to federate the actors in the field of clean technologies and shed light on existing solutions that are both clean and profitable. We have already pledged to select #1000solutions by next year’s climate conference (COP24), and bring them to governments, companies and institutions to encourage them to adopt more ambitious environmental and energy policies.
At present, we count 474 members that together combine more than 500 potential solutions, many of which directly tackle pollution. Kermap processes satellite images to analyse and map the air pollution in cities or regions, advising urban planning companies. TIPA produces biodegradable packaging, relying on an innovative material from biomimicry. Ecosoftt develops waste-water treatment plants, which aim to directly re-insert water into the house cycle. C-Gon produces hydrogen-based devices that can be added on cars to increase fuel efficiency. And SeAB develops an anaerobic digestion technology that transforms organic waste into power.
Today, we urgently need to understand the absurdity of still using old and polluting devices. Fortunately, a more efficient and solution-oriented narrative is already making its way in global forums. The UN Environment Assembly, the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment, met earlier this month under the overarching theme “towards a pollution-free planet.” Environmental leaders attending the meeting adopted a political declaration on pollution as well as 13 resolutions that will drive new action to clean up the world around us.
We have the technologies and solutions to grow while transitioning to a pollution-free planet. And they are much more than “ecological”; they are “logical” because they represent the biggest new industrial market ever, and at the same time, the only way forward to improve our quality of life on Earth. That is why we have to be ambitious in setting targets.
Putting the brakes on fast fashion
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.”
New e-portal for the protection of the Caspian marine environment
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.
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.
Preventing the exploitation of the environment in war and armed conflict
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.
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