Behavior acculturated to ancestral norms, originally necessitated by occupation, is the focus of a new study in China with interesting ramifications for climate change. In general, farming requires more stable relationships than, say, herding with the constant movement of animals. Now the authors have taken farming a step further:
They observed that northerners were three times more likely than southerners to push an obstructing chair in a Starbucks out of the way; southerners eased themselves around in order not to inconvenience whosoever had placed the chairs. The behaviors were true to type as northerners are considered brash and aggressive, while southerners are conflict averse and deferential.
The authors ascribe the behavior to ancestral occupation. Wheat is farmed in the north, and such dry-land farming is more individualized than rice farming in the south. The latter requires complex irrigation systems for paddies and forces cooperation and coordination among multiple families. The interdependence also means it is crucial not to offend anyone. This ancestral culture prevailed despite the fact that most descendants were no longer farmers.
The question of which people change their environment and who change themselves is an important one at a time when the world has to face the existential challenge of climate change. In the last couple of years we have seen a cooperative Europe facing a quintessential maverick, as in Donald Trump.
Mr. Trump lives in his own world ignoring the mounting research and irrefragable evidence for climate change with its human fingerprint that can no longer be disputed. Worse still are the consequences and the inevitable danger of conflict fueled by resource needs. Thus the melting of Arctic ice has made possible new sea pathways, opening up oil and gas exploration, and pitting Russia, the U.S., Canada and other Arctic countries against each other.
China is now in virtual control of solar panel manufacture through a heavily subsidized industry against which producers in other countries are unable to compete. The U.S. imposed tariffs in 2017 and India might follow suit.
As electric car use increases, the demand for the rare minerals necessary for their batteries has begun to soar. Unfortunately the Congo with its incessant tribal wars is by far the largest producer of cobalt. Nickel has varied sources including Indonesia and the Philippines although the largest reserves are in Australia, Brazil and Russia. Chile has the highest reserves of Lithium followed by China, while Australia is the top current producer. The scramble for these resources is underway and producer countries have begun to guard their reserves through tariffs and controls.
Perhaps the most fraught issue is that of sharing water. For millennia one country has relied on the Nile. The annual flooding in ancient Egypt brought new alluvial soil yielding rich harvests. Even now more than 95 percent of the country’s mostly farmer population lives on the river’s banks in an area approximately 5 percent of Egypt’s land mass. That whole way of life could be in jeopardy depending on how quickly Ethiopia chooses to fill a huge reservoir behind a vast damn it is constructing.
China shares the Mekong with six other countries and is the only one not a member of the Mekong River Commission. The problem is upstream dams and delicate negotiations for the equitable treatment of downstream farmers and fishermen.
Then there are India and Pakistan, perennial enemies, now nuclear supercharged. They share the Indus and some of its tributaries. Thanks to the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, they have never fought a water war although there have been others. Now India is planning upstream dams. The situation can only worsen if the sources in the Himalayas diminish with global warming.
How should humans respond to these environmental challenges? Should diffuse bodies deal with associated problems, and/or should there be a world environment court as a last resort against individualistic mavericks?
The Paris Agreement deals with greenhouse gas emissions and continues to function. It has added new members, despite the US withdrawal, which, by the way, is not effective until November 2020 leaving open the possibility of a newly elected president rescinding it.
The Montreal Protocol, dating back to 1987, protected the depleting ozone layer through the control of substances, chlorine and bromine, causing the problem. The culprits hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were to be phased out and replaced by hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). The latter lacking chlorine are safe in this regard.
Governor Jerry Brown is independently hosting the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco (Sept. 12-14) next month to “put the globe back on track to prevent dangerous climate change and realize the historic Paris Agreement.”
Then there is the New York Declaration on Forests (2014) which pledges to halve the rate of deforestation by 2020 and to end it by 2030. It resulted from dialogue among governments, corporations and civil society following the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit in New York.
Meanwhile, China produces 20 percent of emissions and it will need to address the consequences of its Belt and Road Initiative. However, an agreement between China and the US, the two largest polluters, could open the intriguing possibility of the US returning to the Paris accord.
Such diffuse bodies dealing with the myriad problems emanating from climate change and the evident cooperation of different actors relegate an out-of-sync Trump into a discordant minority. While the US remains a hugely important party responsible for 18 percent of global emissions, a hopeful sign is that other politicians in the country are clearly not following President Trump’s lead.
These ad hoc arrangements might work for the present. But what of the future? What of environmental degradation leading eventually to mass migrations, even wars for scarce resources? We have the benefit of Europe’s experience with large numbers of refugees from America’s wars in Libya, the Middle East and Afghanistan; the welcome mat has been gradually rolled back. How effectively will the UN Security Council counter environmental wars, particularly those involving China or other countries with veto power ? That all such questions need to be addressed and soon is a no-brainer, and COP 24 (Dec 3-14, 2018) could be an appropriate venue to begin the discourse.
Author’s Note: Aside from minor changes, this article first appeared on Counterpunch.org.
Diving into a cleaner blue ocean in 2019
When Miao Wang started diving, she was shocked at the deterioration of the ocean ecosystem around her. Now, three months after winning the Young Champions of the Earth prize for Asia and the Pacific, she has made great strides in addressing ocean protection.
“About eight million tonnes of plastic waste enter the ocean every year, causing 15 million deaths among marine life,” she explains. “Divers, who as a group stay long enough with the ocean, witness the degradation of the ecosystem while touched by its beauty.”
Her Better Blue initiative has already forged relationships with new donors, and she has signed agreements with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, the watch manufacturers Rossini and The Paradise Foundation.
As well as looking for further funding to support her projects going forward, she has trained many others to become divers and was selected to participate in a “speed incubator programme,” which trains young people in diving and collecting information about the ocean.
Wang has also developed a prototype for an education programme on sustainable consumption, which can be shared among people visiting popular cafes. Already, she has implemented the education programme in 10 cafes across Shanghai.
The cooperation among various popular cafes in Shanghai and soon other cities in China too, will advocate for providing alternatives to single-use plastic straws, and encouraging the cafes to replace their plastic cups with degradable ones.
Miao and Better Blue also attended the Xiamen Marathon – the first international marathon to join UN Environment’s Clean Seas campaign – and had a stand in the exhibition hall during the week leading up to the marathon.
“We continue to focus on the most essential job of organizing ourselves internally to handle operations and logistics. We are a small team and need to constantly prioritize to ensure we can deliver on all our goals. Going forward in 2019, this is an aspect of our business that we aim to strengthen, to keep Better Blue heading in the right direction.”
“Next year, we hope to engage in more cross-border collaboration, especially with some major brands, to convey key messages about sustainable living, turning marine protection into a way of life. We also hope to inspire other people to protect the ocean too, as that is where all life begins,” she said.
“The Young Champions of the Earth prize has been a major support for Better Blue, helping us to take our mission from strength to strength.
“In addition to participating in the Professional Association of Diving Instructors annual gala and providing trainings to diving centers, Better blue will continue to work on its development strategy and financial risk management, as we look forward to a successful 2019,” she said.
Lessons from China on large-scale landscape restoration
In the 1980s, the hilly Qianyanzhou region in Jiangxi Province, southern China, faced severe soil erosion due to deforestation and unsustainable farming practices. Fertile red soil was being washed away causing crop yields to tumble.
But a remarkable change has taken place in the last 30 years thanks to a government-backed land-use plan which has seen the upper hills reforested, citrus orchards planted on moderate slopes, and rice paddies in valley bottoms. Within a few years, this mosaic of sustainable land use was yielding higher incomes. Biodiversity and environmental quality, as well as the microclimate, improved.
In early November 2018, the head of UN Environment’s freshwater, land and climate branch, Tim Christopherson, together with his colleague Xiaoqiong Li, visited several sites in the area to better understand how large-scale ecological restoration works.
Huimin Wang, the director of an ecological research station in Ji’an, Qianyanzhou region, briefed UN Environment on the problem and the centre’s role in restoring the landscape.
“Thirty years ago, this area was denuded of trees and vulnerable to landslides. Erosion gullies washed fertile red soil away,” says Wang.
“We set up this ecological research station to work out how best to restore the land. We brought together experts from around the world, including from the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation in Germany.”
Research focused on forest structure optimization and how to improve ecosystem services from the forest; the structure and functions of forest ecology; carbon, water and nutrient cycling in forest ecosystems under climate change; and the Qianyanzhou upgrade model to be achieved by improving ecological and economic benefits in the watershed.
Another key element of the restoration process was agroforestry, supported by the local government: farmers continued to grow cash crops such as peanuts, sesame and vegetables among the restored orchards, and breed Silkie chickens (black-boned with fluffy plumage) in orchards and forest plantations. This ensured economic returns in the early stages of the project and helped improve soil fertility. As well as building dams and ponds, government agencies provided loans to households to help them get started.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, about 21.9 per cent, or 206,861,000 hectares of China, was forested in 2010. In just one decade, the Qianyanzhou restoration drive has increased China’s total forest area by 74.3 million hectares. Qianyanzhou’s forest coverage has increased from 0.43 per cent to nearly 70 per cent.
Qianyanzhou restoration efforts have helped the region and the country take a big step towards implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals, in particular Goals 1 (No Poverty), 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), 8 (Good Jobs and Economic Growth), 12 (Responsible Consumption), and 15 (Life on Land), as well as the Bonn Challenge and the New York Declaration on Forests, all of which fall under UN Environment’s programme of work.
Forests are a major, requisite front of action in the global fight against catastrophic climate change, thanks to their unparalleled capacity to absorb and store carbon. Forests capture carbon dioxide at a rate equivalent to about one-third the amount released annually by burning fossil fuels. Stopping deforestation and restoring damaged forests, therefore, could provide up to 30 per cent of the climate solution.
The United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (The UN-REDD Programme) was launched in 2008 and builds on the convening role and technical expertise of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the United Nations Development Programme and UN Environment.
Plastic recycling: An underperforming sector ripe for a remake
While there is no silver-bullet solution to the toxic tide of plastic surging into our oceans, recycling must form part of the answer. The problem, many experts say, is that current processes are not fit for purpose.
The world produces around 300 million tonnes of plastic waste each year. To date, only 9 per cent of the plastic waste ever generated has been recycled, and only 14 per cent is collected for recycling now.
The reasons are complex. Not all plastic can be recycled and a lack of public awareness means plastic collections are often contaminated. This can increase the cost of recycling.
In the United States, for example, the introduction of single-stream recycling—where recyclables are not separated in household collections—led to a huge surge in recycling rates, but as plastics became more complex, people started placing the wrong things in their bins. Waste Management, the largest processor of residential recycling in North America, says that one in every four items in recycling bins today is not recyclable.
“Chemicals added to plastic polymers, products made of mixed materials and food packaging contaminated with food waste make recycling difficult and costly,” wrote the authors of UN Environment’s The State of Plastics report.
The need to rethink recycling became more apparent when China, which has imported nearly half the world’s waste since 1992, stopped taking foreign plastic waste this year. China’s decision exposed weaknesses in recycling facilities in many other countries.
There are financial reasons for the shortfalls. Depending on the oil price, it is often cheaper to make virgin plastic while the market for recycled plastic is notoriously volatile, making investors reluctant to commit to the sector.
For years, activists have argued that packaging producers and retailers should pay more to cover the cost of dealing with their waste. While many brands have committed to using more recycled plastic, the pressure is growing for them to do more.
In Britain, the government is said to be planning to charge supermarkets, retailers and major drinks brands tens of millions of pounds more towards the cost of recycling. The strategy would include plans to increase contributions from retailers and producers from an average of about 70 million pounds a year to between 500 million pounds and 1 billion pounds a year. There are also plans to include smaller producers.
The European Commission unveiled a Plastics Strategy in January, saying that its drive to make all plastic packaging recyclable or reusable by 2030 could create 200,000 jobs but only if recycling capacity was multiplied fourfold. The European Union recycles less than 30 per cent of its 25 million tonnes of plastic waste each year, and half of that used to be sent to China.
As part of its strategy, the European Union will develop new rules on packaging to improve the recyclability of plastics and increase demand. It wants to see improved and scaled up recycling facilities and a more standardized system for the separate collection and sorting of waste.
UN Environment, which started its Clean Seas campaign in 2017 to push for the elimination of unnecessary single-use plastics, also supports the implementation of integrated waste management systems through its International Environmental Technology Centre in Japan.
There is clearly a need to support waste management strategies in poorer countries, where municipal authorities often do not have the capacity to implement suitable policies. Some of these countries are also among the biggest marine polluters: 90 per cent of the plastic in our oceans comes from just 10 rivers, with eight of those in Asia.
Some of the industry’s top players have spotted the gaps. In October, waste management company Veolia and consumer goods giant Unilever said they would work together to invest in new technologies to increase recycling and move towards a circular economy.
The three-year partnership will focus, at first, on India and Indonesia where the firms will work to scale up waste collection and recycling infrastructure.
Circulate Capital, an investment management firm dedicated to preventing ocean plastic, said in October that it expected US$90 million in funding from some of the world’s leading consumer good groups and chemical companies, including PepsiCo, P&G, Dow and Coca-Cola.
Created in collaboration with Closed Loop Partners and the Ocean Conservancy, Circulate Capital aims to demonstrate the value of investing in waste management and recycling in South and Southeast Asia. It uses philanthropic and public funds, as well as technical assistance, to support and develop public and nonprofit entities to implement new approaches and build capacity that can support large institutional capital commitments.
“We have recognized that financing is a key barrier—as people always want to know ‘who is going to pay for it?’ By removing capital for infrastructure and operators as a barrier, we believe we can accelerate solutions to policy, education, supply chains and more,” said Rob Kaplan, the founder and CEO of Circulate Capital.
Big name corporations are not the only players. In many developing economies, recycling is carried out by millions of waste pickers, often women, children, the elderly and the unemployed. They may be on the frontline of sustainability but their own lives are often marred by unhealthy working conditions, lack of rights and social stigma.
The World Bank said in its What a Waste 2.0 report that when waste pickers are properly supported and organized, informal recycling can create employment, improve local industrial competitiveness, reduce poverty and decrease municipal spending.
Citizens also have a role to play but education and information are essential. The World Bank cites the example of Jamaica, where environmental wardens, employed by the National Solid Waste Management Authority, teach their neighbours about environmentally friendly disposal of waste. The communities involved collect plastic bottles and remove plastic litter from shared spaces and drains. They then sell the collected bottles to recyclers.
“There is no silver bullet to solving ocean plastic and scaling global recycling—investing in public education without infrastructure won’t achieve results, and vice versa,” said Circulate Capital’s Kaplan. “It is a systems challenge that requires systems solutions.”
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