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Faces of change: Fighting for a mercury-free future

MD Staff

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Charito Elcano turned 60 this year, a milestone in a life fraught with ups and downs, challenges and opportunities and – in her case – tragedy. A tragedy that took the life of her brother and son and made her a fierce advocate for non-mercury small-scale gold mining.

Charito yearns for the old days when they used a traditional method using local grass to extract gold and is keen to have a mercury-free gold processing facility in or near her community of Luklukan Sur, in the lush seaside province of Camarines Norte in the Philippines. While some miners remain sceptical of the dangers of mercury use, Charito says awareness is building.

“It is changing slowly”, she says, “thanks to the work of BAN Toxics in raising awareness among miners here.”

BAN Toxics is UN Environment’s partner in the Philippines for the Global Environment Facility-backed Global Opportunities for Long-Term Development of the Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining Sector programme – or GEF GOLD. The programme aims to reduce the use of mercury in artisanal gold mining and introduce and facilitate access to mercury-free extraction methods, while also working with governments to formalize the sector, promoting miners rights, safety and their access to markets.

The artisanal and small-scale gold mining sector accounts for 20 per cent of the world’s annual gold production – but it is also the single largest source of man-made mercury emissions globally. Around the world, some 12-15 million people work in the sector – including 4.5 million women and over 600,000 children. In the Philippines, artisanal mining takes place in more than half of the country’s provinces, supporting more than 2 million people and producing 80 per cent of the nation’s gold supply each year.

Mercury is often used in artisanal and small-scale gold mining to separate gold from sediments or ore using rudimentary processing methods. The use of mercury can lead to serious neurological and health issues for miners – especially for pregnant women and children. A 2006 UN study found mercury levels as high as 50 times the World Health Organization level for safe exposure among surveyed gold miners in the Philippines.

A native of Luklukan Sur, where mining has been a mainstay for generations, Charito left her village for a career in the textile industry when she was young. But after years of regularly uprooting her family to follow work, in 1989 she decided it was time to return home. And – as for so many of her neighbours – for Charito and her family, returning home meant mining.

The heavy price of riches

Charito was one of the lucky ones, and after funding a dig on her family’s land, in 1990 she struck gold – a full 8 kgs of it [$320,000 at current market rates]. Afraid that word would get out and they would be robbed or extorted out of their find, Charito and her team decided to process the gold at home. Her memory of that evening is vivid.

“The team leader told me to get 10 kilos of mercury and we worked from morning till dawn the next day. Around 5 pm my son started coughing and I told him to take a break while everyone stopped to eat. Later, I went up to the room where my son slept, and on my way up, I noticed that the room was covered with ash.”

“I looked down at my foot and saw traces of mercury droplets from my shoes on the stairs,” she recounts. “I went to my son who was coughing. On my way, I stepped on my brother’s foot, his body was taut and tense. On my way back, I nudged him, and his body was rigid.”

Charito rushed her then nine-year-old son and her brother to the hospital, where they were hospitalized for three days. Her brother died on the second day. Her son passed on 15 years later from complications related to his mercury poisoning.

Her family tragedy drove Charito away from mining, but with few other opportunities in the province, within a few years she financed a new dig – although this time, she knew the dangers the lure of quick riches brought with them.

Risks and rights

Today, Charito is a peer educator on mercury risks, as well as the President of the Women Miners Association in Luklukan Sur. With 28 members, the Association was registered in October 2017 and aims to help women and family members of ‘players’ – parties who have a share in a mine – to understand and manage the risks of their trade.

“Women in mining suffer. They have to budget what their husbands give them and find other sources of income. Our members mostly work as cooks at mine sites. They also gather waste in mining sites and look for gold from among the waste,” she says.

With the bulk of mineral exploration rights in Camarines Norte held by just a handful of companies, even miners who own their own land still struggle for the right to exploit the riches that lie underneath it. Without permits, they operate outside the law, risking heavy fines and even jail time as they struggle to feed their families by pursuing the only the business they know. Charito says that when the authorities do crack down on miners, the cost of release is often as high as 25,000 pesos (more than $1,300) per head – a hefty sum for most miners, who often subsist on as little as $3-$7 a day.

While Charito has applied for permits for her mining site, the complicated processes involved and a lack of national-level support for the rights of artisanal miners mean the outcome is far from certain.

“Our mayor is very supportive of small-scale miners like us and also some international agencies,” she says. “I had a hard time because there was so much to prepare. I will also have to have meetings with right holders, miners and financers.”

Charito says she tries not to use mercury in her operations, but looks forward to mercury-free facilities and alternatives that she and her community can use. She is adamant that while they wait and even if she meets with resistance, she will continue to educate her peers on the dangers of mercury use and champion stopping its use. She knows the harm it can do. She has first hand experience of it.

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Green Planet

Smart wastewater management can help reduce air pollution

MD Staff

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“Walk along the Bagmati river in the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, and you are hit by a pervasive stench, underlining the fact that poor wastewater management worsens air pollution,” says Birguy Lamizana, a UN Environment specialist on wastewater and pollution.

“The other thing you notice is that it’s the poorest of the poor living along the banks of the river in makeshift shacks: the world over it’s usually the poorest people who are worst affected by pollution,”  she adds.

Kathmandu is not an isolated example of poor wastewater management. All big cities, especially those in developing countries with rapidly expanding populations, face similar problems.

Heavily polluted urban waterways emit toxic gases such as methane and nitrous oxide which are also greenhouse gases, and a recent global study found that concentrations of antibiotics in some of the world’s rivers exceed safe levels by up to 300 times.

No one wants pollution and there is growing awareness about the danger it poses. In September 2017, Member States of the United Nations adopted the report Towards a pollution-free planet.

“While the world has achieved significant economic growth over the past few decades, it has been accompanied by large amounts of pollution, with significant impacts on human health and ecosystems and the ways in which some of the major earth system processes, such as the climate, are functioning,” it says.

For example, 3.5 billion people depend on oceans as a source of food, yet oceans are used as waste and wastewater dumps.

On land, water laden with toxic chemicals from industry pollutes waterways but also the air we breathe. Likewise, fertilizers used in agriculture cause nutrient pollution in the form of run-off into rivers, lakes and wetlands. These ecosystems become polluted in the process, and cause air pollution. One of the consequences of nutrient pollution is algal blooms which suffocate fish and emit noxious gases. Furthermore, intensive livestock production produces high levels of methane. Chemicals used in mining also pollute water sources and the air. As land and ocean are interconnected, these pollutants, in one way or another, will reach groundwater, as well as the coast and the ocean.

“Unsustainable human activities, from farming and mining to industry and infrastructure, are undermining the productivity of vast areas of farmland, forests and other ecosystems across all continents. This degradation threatens food security, water supplies and the biodiversity upon which human development depends. It drives and is exacerbated by climate change. And it will put the Sustainable Development Goals out of reach unless it is urgently addressed,” says the UN Environment Programme policy brief A new deal for Nature – Restore the Degraded Planet.

The fourth United Nations Environment Assembly in March 2019 passed a resolution agreeing to “enhance the mainstreaming of the protection of coastal and marine ecosystems in policies, particularly those addressing environmental threats caused by increased nutrients, wastewater, marine litter and microplastics, in support of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development…”

High dependence on a limited resource

Humans are critically dependent on clean freshwater for drinking, cooking and for use in agriculture and industry. Only about 2.5 per cent of all the water on Earth is freshwater. And of this freshwater only about 1.2 per cent is readily available as surface freshwater—the rest is groundwater or locked up in glaciers and ice caps. So, when surface freshwater gets polluted we’re in trouble.

Even when groundwater gets polluted, we are also in trouble, as many countries use groundwater for irrigation. And yet, over 80 per cent of the world’s wastewater is released to the environment without treatment.

Wastewater treatment benefits the poor

“There are many measures that can be taken to address pollution,” says Lamizana. “The objective is to select the key measures that can bring most benefits across pollution dimensions (i.e. air, water, soil/land, marine and coastal) and across sectors (e.g. agriculture/food security, industry, transportation, residential, extractive), using a life-cycle approach.”

UN Environment and partners are helping countries identify a manageable number of cost-effective measures to reduce wastewater pollution and make a better case for their adoption and enforcement. But reliable, consistent and trustworthy data sources are needed.

“We need more and better-quality data to assess the status and impact of wastewater pollution, and capacity-building support needs to be provided to countries to improve their ability to develop national statistical systems and use pollution-related statistics to better manage and monitor their water, soil and air quality,” says Lamizana.

“Open source maps using geo-spatial data showing maps of pollution, dynamics of dispersion, combined with population density, protected areas or other bio-physical or socio-economic datasets are urgently needed,” she adds.

In this connection, the 2019 United Nations Environment Assembly passed a resolution encouraging Member States “to collect data on economic indicators and those linked to poverty and the environment to enable the tracking of progress towards the eradication of poverty and the management of natural resources and the environment.”

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Carbon market negotiations under the Paris Agreement

Luca Lo Re

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Climate negotiators gathered in Bonn, Germany, in recent weeks for talks aimed at making progress ahead of the COP25 meeting in Santiago, Chile, in December. (Photograph: UNFCCC)

The world’s climate negotiators recently concluded two weeks of discussions about the next steps for the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement, with carbon market rules high on the agenda.

The annual mid-year climate negotiations are generally held ahead of the annual Conference of the Parties (COP), the top decision-making body for climate negotiations.

The recent COP24, in Katowice, Poland, was heralded by many as a success in multilateralism and diplomacy. It adopted an almost complete set of rules and guidelines supporting implementation of the Paris Agreement. However, the parties did not ultimately reach a consensus on one specific area: the rules for using carbon markets.

These rules are known in the climate jargon as the “Article 6 rules”, after the Paris Agreement article that mandates them. After the inconclusive talks at COP24, negotiators were tasked to come up with a new proposal for the Article 6 rules that could be adopted at the next COP25, in Santiago, Chile, later this year.

At the recent meeting in Bonn, which concluded last week, countries made good progress on technical discussions and came up with a new negotiating text. But disagreements remain about the status of the text and how to take it forwards. This means that there is everything to play for as we move towards COP25.

Here are some key points for understanding why carbon markets matter so much under the Paris Agreement and what the bottlenecks are in the negotiations.

What is Article 6 of the Paris Agreement?

Carbon markets are aimed at lowering the cost of reducing greenhouse gases emissions. Expanding and linking those markets internationally can help further drive down the cost of achieving emission reduction targets, helping to stimulate the needed investments for clean energy transitions.

By agreeing to Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, countries opened the way for a new form of international interaction on carbon markets. Article 6 builds on a long history of market approaches under the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement’s predecessor.

Article 6 is intended to support countries in enhancing the ambitions of their stated climate actions, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which collectively contribute to the overarching goal of the Paris Agreement: keeping the rise in global average temperatures to well below 2 degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, the nature of carbon markets means that robust rules are important to ensure that environmental and sustainable development gains are realised. Article 6 introduces two voluntary market-based paths for international co-operation.

Article 6.2 sets out the principles for voluntary co-operative approaches. One country can transfer so-called “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes” (ITMOs) to another country, which can then use them towards its NDC target. These transfers must apply robust and transparent accounting rules to avoid double counting of ITMOs and to ensure environmental integrity. The transfers can take place using various approaches and mechanisms, such as bilateral cooperation programmes between countries, or national or regional emission trading schemes (ETS).

Article 6.4 establishes a mechanism to contribute to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and support sustainable development, under the oversight of a central UN governance body. Public and private entities can participate in this mechanism if authorised by a country. While the main intention is that emissions reductions from the mechanism will count towards achievement of countries’ NDCs, the mechanism could also be used in other ways. For example, airlines could use credits from the mechanism to comply with the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Other companies could use them to count towards carbon neutrality. However, double counting of these emission reductions must be avoided.

Despite the lack of a formal outcome on Article 6 at the recent negotiations in Bonn, countries made substantial progress and had constructive discussions. Differences remain on several issues ahead of COP25, though. For instance, countries have not yet agreed on an accounting system to avoid double counting and other elements needed to prevent potential environmental integrity risks.

How is the IEA contributing?

The IEA is contributing to the discussions on Article 6 – as well as to the negotiations more broadly – through technical analysis by the joint OECD-IEA Climate Change Expert Group (CCXG). For more than 25 years, the CCXG has been developing and publishing technical papers in consultation with a wide range of countries to inform ongoing climate negotiations.

Through the CCXG, the IEA recently co-published a technical paper that analyses two specific unresolved issues in the negotiations of rules for Article 6 of the Paris Agreement: the accounting system of Article 6.2, and the implications of a potential transition of Kyoto Protocol mechanisms to the Article 6.4 mechanism. The outcomes of the paper were presented at a side event during the Bonn conference and directly informed the negotiations.

The CCXG also convenes two major events per year to promote dialogue among government delegates and experts from developed and developing economies, outside of the formal negotiations. Discussions stretch well beyond carbon markets, also covering the transparency framework of the Paris Agreement and climate finance issues, among others. The next edition of these invitation-only Global Forums on the Environment and Climate Change will be held at the IEA headquarters in Paris on 1-2 October. In addition, the IEA is ramping up its efforts to support countries in implementing and enhancing their NDCs.

IEA

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Does economic growth worth degrading the environment?

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Although environmental consequences of economic growth bring about numerous reactions of economists and environmentalists, there is still doubt that environment protection rules and regulations hinder economic growth, or future development has dire consequences on the environment which does not worth it.

Here the question arises that whether eliminating natural resources must continue to make up for the slow economic growth or come up with more practicable solutions to safeguard non-renewable resources.

Many cases in Iran and other countries demonstrate the direct relation between socio-economic development and environmental degradation, showing that human are using natural resources at a pace much faster than it can replenish.

For instance, deforestation is the permanent destruction of forests in order to make the land available for other uses. An estimated 18 million acres (7.3 million hectares) of forest, which is roughly the size of the country of Panama, are lost each year, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Reza Bayani, an official with Forests, Range and Watershed Management Organization said in April that approximately 12,000 hectares of forests across Iran is wiped out annually.

Bayani referring to illegal logging as the leading cause of forest degradation, noted that timber smuggling steadily proceeding in the forests poses a serious threat to the country’s ecology for a minor population benefits.

Yousefali Ebrahimpour, commander of the protection unit of natural resources and watershed management department of West Azarbaijan province said in February that over 450 tons of smuggled log has been seized in the forests in the province, which were being smuggled to the northern provinces of the country.

While the following year flash floods in 31 provinces of the country started on March 19, caused great losses and damages which was due to deforestation and vegetation depletion in addition to building encroaching river beds.

Seyed Mohammad Mojabi, head of environment committee of the Expediency Council, said in May that following recurrent droughts and low precipitation, related organizations believed that severe rainfalls seem far-fetched in a country with arid and semi-arid climate and decided to allow construction projects through river banks, which increased flood devastation.

Road construction also is another way of development which is at loggerheads with nature, mainly resulting in many irreparable damages including road surface erosion and sediment yield, slope failures and mass movement, direct loss of habitat (by the conversion of the original land cover into an artificial surface) and indirect loss of habitat (by the fragmentation of an ecosystem into smaller and more isolated patches).

The chief of Mazandaran provincial department of environment Ebrahim Fallahi said in September 2018 that long stretches of roads are under construction in Savadkuh forest.

Moreover, excessive groundwater withdrawal, dam construction, water transfer projects, land use changes and wildfires are also the fallouts of unplanned industrial expansion which bring environmental damages, and if thinking deeply it can be realized that they can also cause immeasurable financial losses in the long run.

Mohammad Reza Goldansaz, a researcher in the field of water resources stated in June that an annual amount of 50 billion cubic meters of groundwater resources are withdrawn to supply agricultural, industrial as well as drinking water in Iran.

How growth even affects air we breathe?

When it comes to air pollution the situation even gets more complex, as car manufacturing companies produce more cars without scrapping emitting clunker ones for generating profit and responsible devices not improving fuel quality, in addition to not preparing proper plan to curb the emissions.

Deputy interior minister for urban and rural development, Mehdi Jamalinejad, has said that some 22,000 busses are operating in the country’s public transport fleet, 16,000 of which are clunkers, accounting for 70 percent of the volume of bus transport system.

Ali Mohammadi, an official with traffic police, said in January that the scrappage of clunker vehicles has decreased by 65 percent in the past Iranian calendar year 1397 (ended in March 2019) compared to a year earlier.

While last year some 140,000 vehicles were scrapped, this year only 50,000 old vehicles were discarded, he added.

Environment should not be destroyed for sake of growth

MP Homayoun Yousefi has said that economic growth is not worth of environmental degradation.

He lamented that environmental protection has decreased in Western Asia, which is mostly due to decision making is based on personal tastes not environmental assessment.

“Iran’s climate being arid is fragile, so development should be done in light of the fragility and low capacity of the country’s environment,” he highlighted, regretting, nature seems to be less considered in some development plans.

“An important factor for showing power of countries is sustainable environment, and we also need to focus more on the environment in this regard,” he added.

Toward economic growth while safeguarding environment

Green production is likely to become the center of attention globally in the near future due to the proven importance of environment, however, economic and industrial expansion resulting in urbanization are a reality that is inevitable specially in developing countries, so, we must never lose sight of the need to safeguard the environment.

Every country regarding the resources each have, has an important opportunity to make policies or take steps in line with regulations which can guide it to developmental goals. By considering environmental issues and planning for appropriate confrontation measures wherever necessary, we can even set a role model for other countries to follow.

From our partner Tehran Times

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