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Access to safe water: Is the green revolution around the corner?

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Nature-based solutions can play an important role in improving the supply and quality of water and reducing the impact of natural disasters, according to the 2018 edition of the United Nations World Water Development Report. The study, which will be presented by Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, Gilbert Houngbo, Chair of UN-Water, at the 8th World Water Forum in Brasilia (Brazil), argues that reservoirs, irrigation canals and water treatment plants are not the only water management instruments at our disposal.

In 1986, the State of Rajasthan (India) experienced one of the worst droughts in its history. Over the following years, an NGO worked alongside local communities to set up water harvesting structures and regenerate soils and forests in the region. This led to a 30% increase in forest cover, groundwater levels rose by several metres and cropland productivity improved.

These measures are good examples of the nature-based solutions (NBS) advocated by the latest edition of the report, Nature-based Solutions for Water. It recognizes water not as an isolated element, but as an integral part of a complex natural process that involves evaporation, precipitation and the absorption of water through the soil. The presence and extent of vegetation cover across grasslands, wetlands and forests influences the water cycle and can be the focus for actions to improve the quantity and quality of available water.

“We need new solutions in managing water resources so as to meet emerging challenges to water security caused by population growth and climate change. If we do nothing, some five billion people will be living in areas with poor access to water by 2050. This Report proposes solutions that are based on nature to manage water better. This is a major task all of us need to accomplish together responsibly so as to avoid water related conflicts,” declared the Director-General of UNESCO.

“For too long, the world has turned first to human-built, or “grey”, infrastructure to improve water management. In so doing, it has often brushed aside traditional and Indigenous knowledge that embraces greener approaches. Three years into the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, it is time for us to re-examine nature-based solutions (NBS) to help achieve water management objectives”, writes Gilbert Houngbo, Chair of UN-Water and President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development in the foreword of the report.

Focusing on ‘environmental engineering’

So-called ‘green’ infrastructure, as opposed to traditional ‘grey’ infrastructure, focuses on preserving the functions of ecosystems, both natural and built, and environmental engineering rather than civil engineering to improve the management of water resources. This has multiple applications in agriculture, the greatest consumer of water by far. Green infrastructure can help reduce pressures on land use while limiting pollution, soil erosion and water requirements by contributing to the development of more effective and economic irrigation systems, for example.

Thus, the System of Rice Intensification, originally introduced in Madagascar, helps restore the hydrological and ecological functioning of soils rather than using new crop varieties or chemical products. It enables savings of 25 to 50% in water requirements and 80 to 90% in seeds while raising paddy output by 25 to 50%, depending on the region in which it is implemented.

It is estimated that agricultural production could be increased by about 20% worldwide if greener water management practices were used. One study cited by the Report reviewed agricultural development projects in 57 low-income countries and found that using water more efficiently combined with reductions in the use of pesticides and improvements in soil cover, increased average crop yields by 79%.

Green solutions have also shown great potential in urban areas. While vegetated walls and roof gardens are perhaps the most recognizable examples, others include measures to recycle and harvest water, water retention hollows to recharge groundwater and the protection of watersheds that supply urban areas. New York City has been protecting its three largest watersheds since the late 1990s.  Disposing of the largest unfiltered water supply in the USA, the city now saves more than US$ 300 million yearly on water treatment and maintenance costs.

Faced with an ever-increasing demand for water, countries and municipalities are showing a growing interest in green solutions. China, for example, recently initiated a project entitled “Sponge City” to improve water availability in urban settlements. By 2020, it will build 16 pilot Sponge Cities across the country. Their goal is to recycle 70% of rainwater through greater soil permeation, retention and storage, water purification and the restoration of adjacent wetlands.

The importance of wetlands

Wetlands only cover about 2.6 % of the planet but play a disproportionately large role in hydrology. They directly impact water quality by filtering toxic substances from pesticides, industrial and mining discharges.

There is evidence that wetlands alone can remove 20 to 60% of metals in water and trap 80 to 90% of sediment from runoff. Some countries have even created wetlands to treat industrial wastewater, at least partially. Over recent years, Ukraine, for example, has been experimenting artificial wetlands to filter some pharmaceutical products from wastewater.

However, ecosystems alone cannot perform to totality of water treatment functions. They cannot filter out all types toxic substances discharged into the water and their capacity has limits. There are tipping points beyond which the negative impacts of contaminant loading on an ecosystem becomes irreversible, hence the need to recognize thresholds and manage ecosystems accordingly.

Mitigating risks from natural disasters

Wetlands also act as natural barriers that soak up and capture rainwater limiting soil erosion and the impacts of certain natural disasters such as floods. With climate change, experts predict that there will be an increase in the frequency and intensity of natural disasters.

Some countries have already started taking precautions. For example, Chile announced measures to protect its coastal wetlands after the  tsunami of 2010. The State of Louisiana (USA) created the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority following Hurricane Katrina (2005), whose devastating impact was magnified by the degradation of wetlands in the Mississippi Delta.

Nevertheless, the use of nature-based solutions remains marginal and almost all investments are still channelled to grey infrastructure projects. Yet, to satisfy the ever-growing demand for water, green infrastructure appears to be a promising solution complementing traditional approaches. The authors of the report therefore call for greater balance between the two, especially given that nature-based solutions are best aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2015.  Coordinated by the UN World Water Assessment Programme of UNESCO, the United Nations World Water Development Report is is the fruit of collaboration between the 31 United Nations entities and 39 international partners that comprise UN-Water. Its publication coincides with World Water Day, celebrated every year on 22 March.

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Bicycle comeback amongst initiatives to help Hangzhou cut air pollution

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The city of Hangzhou in eastern China was once described by the Italian explorer Marco Polo as the, “finest and most splendid city in the world”. Today it is once again on the map thanks to a range of initiatives to cut air pollution and increase the livability of the city.

Indeed, many cities across China have suffered from the effects of air pollution. To remedy the situation, China introduced an Air Pollution Action Plan in 2013 to reduce dangerous particulate matter (PM) 2.5 levels.

For the city of Beijing, the solution has been to drastically eliminate the use of coal: the city closed its coal-fired power stations and banned people in surrounding areas from burning coal for heat. The city’s efforts were so effective that, while in 2013, Beijing ranked as the 40th worst city for PM 2.5 by the World Health Organization, it ranked in 187th place in 2018. As part of nationwide efforts to curb air pollutants, other cities in China followed suit and dramatically reduced their PM 2.5 levels.

The new 2018-2020 Three-year Action Plan for Winning the Blue Sky War, announced in July 2018, is the successor of the original air pollution action plan. It calls for a reduction of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide by more than 15 per cent compared with 2015 levels by 2020.

Hangzhou’s bike-sharing success

The bustling city of Hangzhou, home to nearly 10 million people, is world-famous for being home to the high-tech industry, including the world’s leading e-commerce group, Alibaba.

However, like other cities in China, Hangzhou has had to tackle the scourge of air pollution. Since most of the Hangzhou’s PM 2.5 pollution comes from vehicle emissions, Hangzhou city authority started China’s very first public bike-sharing scheme. Launched in 2008, the primary purpose of this initiative was to a provide a convenient public service for short journeys in the city. They ended up with two knock-on benefits: less traffic and a reduction in air pollution.

In 2017, when the number of bikes hit a peak, a total of 10 companies, including commercial ones, operated more than 882,000 bikes. The number of bike trips is estimated in the range of hundreds of millions since 2008.

Furthermore, the integration of the public bike-sharing scheme with other public transport in the city has increased its attractiveness and ease-of-use. “This healthy transport has made our city better and its air quality is good,” says Tao Xuejun, general manager of the Hangzhou Public Bicycle Service.

China was known as the “Kingdom of the bicycle” in the 1980s. With economic progress, many people moved to motorized forms of transport. The re-emergence of the bicycle in Hangzhou since 2008 may have been somewhat unexpected but its contribution to helping reduced air pollution is undeniable.

In 2017, the Hangzhou bike-sharing scheme won an award from the Ashden charity which said that “the combination of convenient and free bicycles, well separated bicycle lanes and good public transport appears to have led to reduced use of cars and their associated congestion, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions”.

“Hangzhou is a great example of how cities can introduce initiatives like bike sharing to encourage people to get out of their cars and reduce air pollution,” says Rob de Jong, Head of UN Environment’s Air Quality and Mobility Unit. “We really need to encourage city governments and planners around the world to design cities for people, and not cars – leading to safer and cleaner living spaces”.

Switching to non-polluting vehicles an international priority

Tackling air pollution by removing cars from the road is the focus of UN Environment’s Share the Road Programme. The Programme is centered around the concept that everyone begins and ends their journeys as pedestrians, and in cities, some people rely almost exclusively on walking and cycling. Yet, investors and governments continue to prioritize road space for cars. To make the switch to more eco-friendly means of transport, UN Environment supports governments and other stakeholders in developing countries to systematically prioritize and invest in infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists.

Bike-sharing schemes have not been without criticism, however. As the number of bicycles grew rapidly across China, many found their way to massive dumps, as companies went bankrupt because of insufficient demand. Vast piles of impounded, abandoned or broken bicycles have become a familiar sight in many big cities.

Hangzhou itself has had to cut the number of bikes. Cities around the world are learning from this example and ensuring they have full control over the number of bikes released into the city within their bike-sharing schemes.

Other initiatives in Hangzhou to reduce air pollution

Conscious of the risk air pollution poses to health, Hangzhou has implemented many other measures to improve air quality. It expanded its metro system to reduce traffic and invested in thousands of electric buses and taxis.

The city also developed an innovative battery-swapping mechanism for the its electric taxi fleet, allowing one electric taxi to travel for 230 kilometers on two to three fully charged batteries every day. Hangzhou’s goal is to reach a total fleet of 1,000 electric taxis, ultimately aiming at a zero-emission taxi fleet.

UN Environment

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Putting the brakes on fast fashion

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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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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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