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.
Can Asia and the Pacific get on track to net zero?
The recent climate talks in Egypt have left us with a sobering reality: The window for maintaining global warming to 1.5 degrees is closing fast and what is on the table currently is insufficient to avert some of the worst potential effects of climate change. The Nationally Determined Contribution targets of Asian and Pacific countries will result in a 16 per cent increase in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 from the 2010 levels.
The Sharm-el Sheikh Implementation Plan and the package of decisions taken at COP27 are a reaffirmation of actions that could deliver the net-zero resilient world our countries aspire to. The historic decision to establish a Loss and Damage Fund is an important step towards climate justice and building trust among countries.
But they are not enough to help us arrive at a better future without, what the UN Secretary General calls, a “giant leap on climate ambition”. Carbon neutrality needs to at the heart of national development strategies and reflected in public and private investment decisions. And it needs to cascade down to the sustainable pathways in each sector of the economy.
Accelerate energy transition
At the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), we are working with regional and national stakeholders on these transformational pathways. Moving away from the brown economy is imperative, not only because emissions are rising but also because dependence on fossil fuels has left economies struggling with price volatility and energy insecurity.
A clear road map is the needed springboard for an inclusive and just energy transition. We have been working with countries to develop scenarios for such a shift through National Roadmaps, demonstrating that a different energy future is possible and viable with the political will and sincere commitment to action of the public and private sectors.
The changeover to renewables also requires concurrent improvements in grid infrastructure, especially cross-border grids. The Regional Road Map on Power System Connectivity provides us the platform to work with member States toward an interconnected grid, including through the development of the necessary regulatory frameworks for to integrate power systems and mobilize investments in grid infrastructure. The future of energy security will be determined by the ability to develop green grids and trade renewable-generated electricity across our borders.
Green the rides
The move to net-zero carbon will not be complete without greening the transport sector. In Asia and the Pacific transport is primarily powered by fossil fuels and as a result accounted for 24 per cent of total carbon emissions by 2018.
Energy efficiency improvements and using more electric vehicles are the most effective measures to reduce carbon emissions by as much as 60 per cent in 2050 compared to 2005 levels. The Regional Action Programme for Sustainable Transport Development allows us to work with countries to implement and cooperate on priorities for low-carbon transport, including electric mobility. Our work with the Framework Agreement on Facilitation of Cross-border Paperless Trade also is helping to make commerce more efficient and climate-smart, a critical element for the transition in the energy and transport sectors.
Adapting to a riskier future
Even with mitigation measures in place, our economy and people will not be safe without a holistic risk management system. And it needs to be one that prevents communities from being blindsided by cascading climate disasters.
We are working with partners to deepen the understanding of such cascading risks and to help develop preparedness strategies for this new reality, such as the implementation of the ASEAN Regional Plan of Action for Adaptation to Drought.
Make finance available where it matters the most
Finance and investment are uniquely placed to propel the transitions needed. The past five years have seen thematic bonds in our region grow tenfold. Private finance is slowly aligning with climate needs. The new Loss and Damage Fund and its operation present new hopes for financing the most vulnerable. However, climate finance is not happening at the speed and scale needed. It needs to be accessible to developing economies in times of need.
Innovative financing instruments need to be developed and scaled up, from debt-for-climate swaps to SDG bonds, some of which ESCAP is helping to develop in the Pacific and in Cambodia. Growing momentum in the business sector will need to be sustained. The Asia-Pacific Green Deal for Business by the ESCAP Sustainable Business Network (ESBN) is important progress. We are also working with the High-level Climate Champions to bring climate-aligned investment opportunities closer to private financiers.
Lock in higher ambition and accelerate implementation
Climate actions in Asia and the Pacific matter for global success and well-being. The past two years has been a grim reminder that conflicts in one continent create hunger in another, and that emissions somewhere push sea levels higher everywhere. Never has our prosperity been more dependent on collective actions and cooperation.
Our countries are taking note. Member States meeting at the seventh session of the Committee on Environment and Development, which opens today (29 November) are seeking consensus on the regional cooperation needed and priorities for climate action such as oceans, ecosystem and air pollution. We hope that the momentum begun at COP27 and the Committee will be continued at the seventy-ninth session of the Commission as it will hone in on the accelerators for climate action.
In this era of heightened risks and shared prosperity, only regional, multilateral solidarity and genuine ambition that match with the new climate reality unfolding around us — along with bold climate action — are the only way to secure a future where the countries of Asia and the Pacific can prosper.
The Collapse of the Climate Change Cult
Despite the attempts by the media coverage and attendees at the COP27 Climate Change Summit in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt touting the creation for a loss and damage fund where developed countries who are allegedly responsible for the planet’s demise will pay reparations to countries who are seemingly impacted by our climate warming sins, there was significant turmoil as the Summit went into two-days of overtime to come up with a watered down agreement. The cracks are becoming more evident in the collapse of the politically driven climate agenda that is exposing the folly, hypocrisy, and an emerging suffering caused by the climate policies.
Ask people in developed nations if the summit is of any concern when survival for their family is top of mind. People can’t afford the 30% increase to heat their homes or fill their vehicle with enough gas to get to work. Then add inflation on food from rising supply-chain costs and a carbon tax veneer on consumer items. No wonder we are seeing people choose between food, medicine, and heat. Some are turning to burning dirtier coal and wood to weather the ensuing frigid winter with energy blackouts. The most obvious and immediate fallout from the past decade of climate action and unreliable green energy is just beginning to come home to roost.
COP27 opened with the tiring end-of-the-world doomsday rhetoric by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ stark warning that the world is losing the fight against climate change, “We are in the fight for our lives…our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible…we are on a highway to climate hell”. He added, “Humanity has a choice, cooperate, or perish. It is either a Climate Solidarity Pact or a Collective Suicide Pact”. One might add ‘a loss of Sovereignty Pact too’ by relinquishing power to the climate zealots.
Questions remain from the summit as to who will pay into the climate justice fund, how much, who will receive our personal taxes, and how will the down payment be deployed? One might ask why some 400 private jets spewing carbon lined the airports in Egypt where attendees ate lavishly in an air-conditioned luxury resort town could not have sailed or biked to a summit in tents or just go on a call and allocate the millions of dollars into their justice fund. It is estimated that the Summit will emit well over 100,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases.
The summiteers came away with no deal to phase out or eliminate fossil fuels and they hinged their hopes on their science to limit a global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees -referencing to 2015’s Paris Agreement, which aims to cut man-made carbon dioxide to net-zero by 2050. In all reality, only a handful of countries are keeping their promises and attaining their climate plan. If the 1.5-degree target is even a proven fact, some estimates would require global emissions to be cut 43% by 2030 where we are currently on track to dip by 1%. A reduction of this amount would tailspin the world into economic collapse resulting in wars, famine, deforestation, and societal failure unparalleled to the greatest extermination of humans.
There have been many prophetic end-of-the-world climate dates from scientists, politicians, and celebrities claiming we have a limited number of years remaining. One that sticks out was the cinematic release of ‘An Inconvenient Truth (2006) featuring former US Vice President Al Gore who convinced moviegoers the world was warming because human activity. The movie cited food crop failures, CO2 concentrations rising, and catastrophic super hurricanes. Gore, himself, predicted in 2009 there would be a 75% chance that the ice in the Arctic could vanish within 5-7 years.
These predictions all fell well short. Seventeen years following the movie, new technology and smart farming has resulted in bountiful harvests, super-sized hurricanes have not materialized although there has been significantly more collateral damage with the increasing number of homes and communities built along the coastal waters, CO2 concentrates have increased but not near the modeling, and the Arctic ice has not disappeared. We do know for sure that Gore got very rich by scaring the public into thinking there was an impending climate apocalypse.
There is no denying climate has ebbed and changed over time. This could be attributed to the core of the earth’s volcanic eruptions ejecting ash into the atmosphere, huge forest fires releasing carbon over centuries, and the impact of solar winds surging 150 million kilometers from a medium-sized Sun. Perhaps man-made actions have marginally impacted the climate relative to the big players; and who’s to say we could not ebb back into the big freeze that we found ourselves in during the 70’s.
In February 2022, the Fraser Institute in Canada took an in-depth look at the doomsday predictions from climate models provided by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) -widely considered to be the authority on matters related to the climate. The IPCC determines the number of years to the catastrophic tipping points on models of greenhouse gases, atmospheric warming, and ecological impact. According to the Fraser Institute Fraser Institute, the periodic assessments by the IPCC are flawed scenarios not based on actual real data. They stated that with each passing year, there are discrepancies from the IPCC projected climate warming exceeding actual observations over the past 35 years.
Essentially these findings undercut the current narrative at the annual COP Climate Summits that we are on ‘the highway to climate hell’ rather than taking a more balanced approach to addressing climate concerns. One cannot overlook the IPCC’s funding is derived from governments who leverage the data in their political pursuits while disregarding opposing scientific positions as climate terrorism or deniers.
Why not cheaper, reliable, and cleaner energy. Why not collaborate on nuclear energy and much cleaner natural gas through advanced technology to trap carbon? Why not work to get the world off dirtier coal and wood. Should we also question solar farms requiring massive swaths of land cleared of animals and vegetation to erect mineral-laden panels made from scorched earth mining that will generate diluted energy at high costs. What about the non-degradable hazardous panels filling landfills when decommissioned after a 20-year life span. Aside from ground species being wiped out, tens of thousands of birds are igniting in midair as they fly overhead the garage-size mirrors. Workers call them “streamers”, for the smoke plume that comes from their incineration.
It is unrealistic to believe the world will stop using oil-based energy, and bi-products and lubricants over the next century. Mandating EVs without having the charging infrastructure in place; let alone the massive amounts of energy required to power millions of chargers could result in grid-failing blackouts when people crank up the A/C.
If COP27 was more serious beyond the world’s leaders parachuting in with sound bites and empty promises, they might want to turn their attention to pressuring China whose large coal-powered industries cause air quality to threaten the health of tens of millions of people. With the enormous boom in manufacturing and huge surge in motorized vehicles, China’s CO2 emissions in 2021 rose above 11.9 million tonnes accounting for 33% of the global total. It is appalling COP27 gave China a pass on contributing to their loss and damage fund whereas America, who has lower emissions, will be coughing up billions of dollars.
Rather than claiming the planet is in the emergency room with a decade to live and denying opposing voices as a political insurgency, would it not be more advantageous to win the hearts and minds of both competing visions of climate responsibility by producing the cleanest, most reliable, and most affordable energy on the planet. We have a choice to see through the political rhetoric to support cleaner and diverse energy with greener technology where the energy industry is not under the knife and unwilling to invest in a future where people do not suffer and can afford to live a better life.
Russia’s war on Ukraine at COP27 -And Energy Security
The 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—known as COP 27–was held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The goal of the COP 27 is to achieve the outcomes of the COP26, which was held in Glasgow from October 31 to November 12, 2021, and its goal was to secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees Celsius, one of its important goals was also to adapt to protect communities and natural habitats, to try to make and prepare at least $100 billion in climate finance per year, countries must work together to finish the Paris agreement rulebook in order to take action.
The COP27 aims to achieve the previously mentioned COP 26 agenda; more than 193 countries from around the world participated in the COP 27, and the main slogan of the COP27 was “Act Now and Together for Implementation.” Climate change is a priority on the United Nations’ agenda, and it always calls on all countries around the world to band together to fight climate change and save lives, putting all political problems aside. The climate change crisis has emerged as one of the most pressing issues occupying the attention of world leaders and policymakers around the world, affecting human lives, and necessary measures must be taken to address climate change in light of an unstable world caused by wars and disputes in many regions and countries around the world.
During COP 27, world leaders discussed wars and their impact on climate change. They also discussed the ongoing Russian-Ukraine conflict and its impact on energy. It is worth noting that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine can be traced back to 2014 when an armed conflict occurred in eastern Ukraine as a result of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Russia’s president Putin stated that the reason for annexing Crimea is to protect the people who speak Russian in Crimea, as well as Russian citizens there. As a result, there were some clashes between pro-Russian and Ukrainian forces. Some countries, including Germany and France, attempted to use diplomatic ties to end the conflict between the two sides through the so-called “Minsk Accord,” but their efforts were futile.
NATO announced in April 2016 that it would deploy four troops in four Eastern European countries, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, with the goal of deterring future Russian aggression in the region. Following NATO’s announcement of troop deployments in Eastern Europe the following year, the United States announced it would send two army tank brigades to Poland in order to strengthen NATO’s presence in Europe The provocation of America and NATO pushed Russia to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Russia launched a just war to prevent the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in eastern Europe, as well as to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO because joining NATO poses a direct threat to Russia’s survival and security.
During COP 27, the participating countries discussed the invasion of Ukraine as an example of the environmental and humanitarian disaster that the world is experiencing. The Russian war on Ukraine increased energy prices, particularly in many European countries that rely heavily on Russia’s fossil fuels. It is worth mentioning that European countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands are attempting to take a chance on the war by accelerating their transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. The European Commission has also presented a strategy to quickly transition EU countries away from Russian energy, which includes increasing renewable energy and supporting the manufacture of hydrogen.
Some country leaders expressed their concern about the war, and President El-Sisi, the president of the Arab Republic of Egypt, mentioned the Russian and Ukrainian crises in his speech at the COP27 opening ceremony of the Climate Conference, and called on the two sides to end and stop the war, saying: “Please stop this war,” and mentioning that Egypt is willing to mediate to resolve the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
At COP27, UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres stated, “the war in Ukraine, conflict in the Sahel, and violence and unrest in so many other places are terrible crises plaguing today’s world.” War could be one of the most damaging factors affecting climate change, energy security, and food security. The invasion of Ukraine may draw more attention to food security research. According to the UN General Secretary, conflict could cause one-fifth of humanity’s estimated 1.7 billion people to suffer from extreme poverty and starvation.
Many countries expect COP27 to produce fruitful results in ending Russia’s war on Ukraine and addressing climate change. And to achieve COP27 goals, countries must act now to take climate change seriously, stop wars and conflicts, and protect the climate and the environment. Leaders and policymakers must start taking action now and sit together around one table, putting politics aside, to implement the plans presented by the UN, to save our plants and protect the climate for the next generation, and to provide a good life; otherwise, it will be too late.
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