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Air pollution: Know your enemy

MD Staff

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Sometimes you can’t even see it, but air pollution is everywhere.

Perhaps you think that air pollution doesn’t affect you because you don’t live in a city shrouded in smog. You are most likely wrong. Statistically, nine out of ten people worldwide are exposed to levels of air pollutants that exceed World Health Organization safe levels. This means that with every breath, you are sucking in tiny particles that attack your lungs, heart and brain. For millions of people across the globe, this is causing a host of problems – illness, lower IQs and death chief among them.

We can’t stop breathing. But we can do something about the quality of our air, and global action is growing at all levels. To have any chance of truly clearing the air, however, we need to know our enemy better and what we can do to defeat it.

What is air pollution and where does it come from?

Air pollution is broken down into ambient (outdoor) air pollution and indoor air pollution. This pollution comes from many sources, the majority of them a result of human activity:

  • the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal to generate electricity for homes and businesses, or petrol and diesel to power our cars, buses, ships and planes
  • industrial processes, particularly from the chemical and mining industries
  • agriculture, which is a major source of methane and ammonia
  • waste treatment and management, particularly landfills
  • dirty indoor cooking and heating systems, a major problem in the developing world
  • volcanic eruptions, dust storms and other natural processes

These sources spew out a range of substances including carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, nitrogen oxide, ground level ozone, particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, hydrocarbons and lead – all of which are harmful to human health.

Deaths and illnesses from air pollution are largely down to tiny, invisible airborne particles, known as particulate matter, which can be as small as a molecule. These particles are clumps of poison, containing anything from black carbon (soot), to sulphates to lead. The smallest particles are the deadliest: PM2.5 particles, which are 2.5 microns or less in diameter, and PM10, which are 10 microns or less in diameter. These tiny killers bypass your body’s defences and lodge in your lungs, bloodstream and brain.

How much of this pollution we breathe in is dependent on many factors, such as access to clean energy for cooking and heating, the time of day and the weather. Rush hour is an obvious source of local pollution, but air pollution can travel long distances, sometimes across continents on international weather patterns. Nobody is safe.

What is air pollution doing to us?

Air pollution has been called a major global health epidemic, causing one in nine of all deaths. It also has massive negative impacts on climate change and economies.

Health

In 2016, PM2.5 exposure reduced average global life expectancy at birth by approximately one year.

Around seven million people die each year from exposure to polluted air, both indoor and outdoor. The three biggest killers attributable to air pollution are stroke (2.2 million deaths), heart disease (2.0 million) and lung disease and cancer (1.7 million deaths).

Ambient (outdoor) air pollution accounts for:

  • 25 per cent of all deaths and disease from lung cancer
  • 17 per cent of all deaths and disease from acute lower respiratory infection
  • 16 per cent of all deaths from stroke
  • 15 per cent of all deaths and disease from ischaemic heart disease
  • 8 per cent of all deaths and disease from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Air pollution doesn’t just kill, however. It also contributes to other illnesses, hampers development and causes mental health problems.

One study found that ambient PM2.5 contributed to 3.2 million cases of diabetes in 2016.

Research from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) shows that breathing in particulate air pollution can damage brain tissue and undermine cognitive development in young children – with lifelong implications. An estimated 17 million babies under one year old live in areas where air pollution is six times higher than safe limits.

Other studies have linked air pollution to lower intelligence levels, with the average impact equivalent to one lost year of education, and to an increased risk of dementia, with those living closest to major traffic arteries up to 12 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with the condition.

Economy

If you are lucky enough to not suffer the negative health impacts of air pollution, it can still hit you in the pocket. Air pollution creates a burden on healthcare systems, which costs taxpayers money.

Air pollution from energy production in the U.S. caused at least US$131 billion in damage to its economy, including increased healthcare costs, in 2011.

One Oxford University study found that air pollution from cars and vans cost society 6 billion pounds per year.

The European Environment Agency found that emissions from 14,000 industrial facilities in Europe cost society and the economy up to 189 billion euros in 2012.

Without action, the costs will rise. A study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showed that the annual global welfare costs of premature deaths from outdoor air pollution are projected to be US$18-25 trillion in 2060. In addition, the costs of pain and suffering from illness are estimated at around US$2.2 trillion by 2060.

Climate

Air pollution doesn’t just impact human health and economic growth. Many of the pollutants also cause global warming. Take black carbon, which is produced by diesel engines, burning trash and dirty cookstoves. Black carbon is deadly, but it is also a short-lived climate pollutant. If we were to reduce the emissions of such pollutants, we could slow global warming by up to 0.5°C over the next few decades.

Methane, a large percentage of which comes from agriculture, is another culprit. Methane emissions contribute to ground-level ozone, which causes asthma and other respiratory illnesses. It is also a more potent global warming gas than carbon dioxide – its impact is 34 times greater over a 100-year period, according to the International Panel on Climate Change.

Where is air pollution worst?

Air pollution is a problem across the globe, but it disproportionately affects people living in developing nations. For example, the 3.8 million people who die each year from indoor air pollution are overwhelmingly from countries where people living in poverty are forced to cook, or heat their homes, with dirty fuels in poorly ventilated indoor spaces.

According to the World Health Organization’s air quality database, 97 per cent of cities in low- and middle-income countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants do not meet air quality guidelines. In high-income countries, the proportion is 40 per cent.

Delhi, India and Cairo, Egypt have the worst PM10 pollution levels out of the world’s megacities (over 14 million people), but Argentina, Brazil, China, Mexico and Turkey all have cities in the top-ten list of most-polluted places.

You can find out how your city is doing here.

What is being done about air pollution?

A global movement to address air pollution is growing. BreatheLife – a global network headed by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, the World Health Organization and UN Environment – is running cleaner air initiatives that cover 39 cities, regions, and countries, reaching over 80 million citizens.

By instituting policies and programmes to curb transport and energy emissions and to promote the use of clean energy, cities are proving to be focal points where change that improves the lives of the most people possible is happening. From Accra to Mexico City, local governments are implementing plans to improve air quality. And change is happening. The World Health Organization in 2018 found that more than 57 per cent of cities in the Americas and more than 61 per cent of cities in Europe had seen a fall in PM10 and PM2.5 particulate matter between 2010 and 2016.

The rise of renewable energy is also set to make a big difference, with investment in new renewable sources outstripping fossil fuel investments each year.

What can I do?

We are all part of the problem. Business, public buildings and households account for around half of all PM2.5 and carbon monoxide emissions. But this means we are all part of the solution. By making small changes to our lives, we can all play our part in clearing the air.

For instance, by reducing consumption of meat and dairy products, individuals can contribute to cutting harmful methane emissions. There is a wide range of other areas where people can make a difference when it comes to reducing air pollution.

Manage waste

Compost food and garden items. Recycle non-organic trash if available. Reuse grocery bags and dispose of remaining trash by local collection. Never burn trash, as this contributes directly to air pollution.

Cook and heat clean

Burning coal and biomass (e.g. wood) contributes to indoor air pollution when used for cooking and outdoor air pollution when used for heating. Check efficiency ratings for home heating systems and cookstoves to use models that save money and protect health.

Move mindfully

Use public transportation, cycle or walk. Consider switching to a hybrid or electric if you must drive. Diesel vehicles, particularly older ones, are large contributors of black carbon, which are carcinogenic for health and damaging to our climate.

Rethink your energy use

Turn off lights and electronics not in use. Use energy-efficient equipment. Rooftop solar panels may be an option to generate hot water and power.

Call for change

Call on local leaders to adopt national air quality standards that meet WHO guidelines. Support policies that strengthen emissions standards and provide incentives for purchase of cleaner vehicles, low-energy appliances and energy-efficient housing.

Watch our short animations for more information.

>I don’t drive during rush hour

>I walk to work

>I drive an electric vehicle

>I compost my waste

>I recycle my waste

>I don’t burn waste

>I use renewable energy to power my home

>I use clean energy to cook

>I check my air pollution levels

>I turn off lights and electronics not in use

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Green Planet

Climate Risks: Wildfires, Glacier Melt, Coastal Flooding … A Beautiful Antelope

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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California wildfires are again in the news as the Kincade Fire now raging risks 50,000 people, who have been evacuated.  It might come as a surprise but there have been 41,074 wildfires compared to 47,853 in 2018 for the first nine months of the year.  Blame the downslope Santa Ana winds for fanning them.  Fires can occur naturally through lightning strikes but these days some 90 percent are due to human carelessness:  discarded cigarettes, unquenched campfires and the like, all exacerbated by a warming climate.  Killing 85 people, the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history seemed to have been caused by Pacific Gas and Electric power lines (although it is still under investigation), and they are suspected in the present Kincade Fire.  Wildfires do clear brush — 4.4 million acres burned off this year — ensuring a worse fire will not occur in the future.

As can be expected, such fires also place property at risk.  California, Texas and Colorado have the highest numbers of properties at risk, while Montana and Idaho are tops in percentage terms; in Montana 29 percent and in Idaho 26 percent of properties are in the danger zone.

If the west is prone to wildfires, the east has an opposite problem:  flooding.  Sea levels are rising.  The Greenland ice sheet holding enough water to raise the water line by 7 meters is melting.  Scientists estimate two-thirds of the ice loss is due to glacier calving as chunks of ice detach from the 300 odd outlet glaciers that end in the fjords.  As reported in Science magazine recently, (October 11, 2019), Helheim, a major glacier responsible for 4 percent of Greenland’s annual ice loss is being observed by a team headed by Fiamma Straneo of the Scripps Institution.

In severe retreat since 2014, the glacier has reduced “by more than 100 meters, leaving a tell-tale ring on the rock around the fjord.”  This summer its water temperature is 0.2C above the previous high in a relentless rise.  Also the data collected will improve mathematical modeling to predict future consequences.

Coastal flooding on the East Coast has been noted by the New York Times (October 8, 2019) in a feature article,  As Sea Levels Rise, So Do Ghost Forests.  Trees in coastal areas are dying off due to frequent total incursions of saltwater.

An excellent estimate of coastal flooding on the East and Gulf coasts, Encroaching Tides, was prepared by the Union of Concerned Scientists a few years ago.  Sober reading, it forecasts coastal innundation over the next three decades.  It talks about adaptation to the new norms, the responsibility of Municipalities, States and the Federal Government, sea walls, economic consequences, and a retreat from heavily impacted areas.  Is anybody listening, and when they called for reducing emissions was the US listening?

When more than 190 countries signed up to almost all of the rulebook buttressing the 2015 Paris Agreement, it made the 24th International Climate Conference in Katowice, Poland (Dec 2018) a major success.  This December the 25th International Climate Conference will convene in Santiago, Chile.  A primary issue before it is how to avoid double counting i.e. counting the same emission reduction more than once.  Countries have so far failed to reach common ground on how to avoid it despite the threat to carbon markets underpinning the Paris Agreement.  Is bashing heads together in Santiago one answer? 

Meanwhile on the top of the world, inhabiting the Tibet plateau, the beautiful and majestic chiru or Tibetan antelope, once in trouble from excessive poaching and then recovering, is at risk again.  This time it is due to climate change.  It has caused excessive melt and a burst natural dam that used to surround Lake Zonag right beside their calving site.

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Satellites record second lowest Arctic sea ice extent since 1979

MD Staff

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The polar oceans are among the most rapidly changing oceans in the world. The yearly cycle of the build-up and melting of Arctic sea ice is one of the earth’s vital signs and a key climate variable monitored by scientists.

While they may be far from the world’s major population centres, changes in the polar regions have global implications: they affect the world’s climate through carbon storage and/or release, heat balance, and other environmental and ecological impacts.

One of the most visible indicators of this change is the reduction in the extent of Arctic sea ice by the end of September each year.

Since 1979, scientists have observed a decrease in the extent of Arctic sea ice in all months of the year. The September minimum extent is 36.5 per cent smaller in the period 2010–2019 than it was in the 1980s.

In a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (IPCC, 2019), scientists observed a reduction trend of 12.8 per cent (± 2.3 per cent) per decade. With 4.1 million square kilometres, the 2019 minimum arctic sea ice extent is the second lowest (after the record low of 2012) since the beginning of satellite monitoring in 1979. This rate of decline is likely (between a 66 per cent and 90 per cent probability) to be unprecedented in at least the past 1,000 years.

Arctic sea ice increases its extent during the northern hemisphere winter, reaching its maximum in March before decreasing during the summer. The extent of Arctic sea ice in 2019 was the second smallest since satellite monitoring started in 1979. This graph is updated daily and can be accessed from the UNEP World Environment Situation Room.
Graph by UNEP/GRID-Geneva, based on data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Snow and Ice Data Center

Under a scenario of global heating of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, by the end of the 21st century, the Arctic ocean would only be ice-free in September once in every 100 years. Under a global warming scenario of 2°C, this would occur as much as one year in three, according the IPCC.

During the period monitored by satellites (1979-2019), the minimum Arctic sea ice extent in mid-September has shown a sharp decline (12.8 per cent per decade), which is likely to be unprecedented in the last 1,000 years. The summer of 2019 saw the second smallest extent of Arctic sea ice (after 2012).
Graph by UNEP/GRID-Geneva, based on data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Loss of sea ice increases global heating. White snow reflects sunlight, whereas water absorbs it. Declining Arctic sea ice, therefore, amplifies the warming up of the Arctic. Temperatures increased by around 0.5°C per decade between 1982 and 2017, primarily due to increased absorbed solar radiation accompanying sea ice loss since 1979. This is twice as fast as the global average.

Arctic sea ice reflects the sun’s rays. As ice cover decreases, more of the sun’s rays are absorbed by the ocean, leading to further warming. While melting of sea ice does not directly contribute to sea-level rise, it contributes to the warming of the oceans, thus inducing thermal expansion.
Satellite images for 1979 and 2012 are from NASA (arrows added by UNEP/GRID-Geneva).

Thinner ice

Not only is the extent of Arctic sea ice reducing, but it is also much thinner, and scientists observe a transition to younger ice. Five-year-old sea ice has declined by about 90 per cent since 1979.

This has several impacts. It reduces the reflection of light, thus contributing to thermal expansion of the oceans. The change in Arctic sea ice extent may influence mid-latitude weather, and it may affect the regional composition of species, their spatial distribution, and the abundance of many marine species, with impacts on the structure of ecosystems.

For instance, reduced ice cover is adversely affecting the habitat of polar bears which now need to travel greater distances and swim more than previously, particularly threatening young cubs.

While the science tells us that global heating is happening, the exact impacts on fragile habitats and ecosystems are much harder to predict. 

“There is an urgent need to reduce our greenhouse gases emissions,” says Peduzzi.

UN Environment

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Dying Wildlife on a Warming Planet

Meena Miriam Yust

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Authors: Meena Miriam Yust and Arshad M. Khan

The emaciated polar bear, a sorry remnant of magnificence, raiding garbage cans in an iconic, even infamous photo, is one consequence of global warming.  As the September (2019) National Geographic cover story displays depressingly, Arctic ice collected over winter is sparser, thinner, and now disappears completely during summer in parts of Canada.  If the effects of global warming are staring us in the face, then only the woefully or willfully ignorant – like Trump – can ignore them.  

One more aspect of warming on Arctic ice has been reported recently.  As we know, two-thirds of an iceberg lies under water.  As sea water warms, melt increases and scientists have made measurements to discover that submerged parts of icebergs and glaciers entering the sea are melting significantly more than was previously believed, contributing to rising sea levels.

Researchers are warning that permafrost collapse in the Arctic is releasing nitrous oxide, methane, and carbon dioxide.  The store is vast: nearly 1,600 billion tonnes of carbon lies trapped in the frozen soils of the permafrost region as a result of decaying organic matter over millennia.  That is almost double the quantity in the atmosphere.

The environmental costs of global warming appear in yet other unexpected ways.  A new paper in Science reports the threat to coral reef reproduction.  Free-spawning marine species synchronize spawning as a way to ensure reproduction.  In this way the gametes developed are so numerous that some escape their predators, ensuring species survival.  Global warming is now affecting this reproductive synchrony, threatening coral reef recovery.

Rising ocean temperatures impact fish, plankton and crustaceans, in turn affecting the creatures that feed on them.  So now sea birds, like the puffin, are struggling to stay alive.  These are striking birds with black and white plumage, bright orange legs and feet, and, during the mating season, orange beaks.  This past May, it was estimated that between 3,150 and 8,500 puffins starved to death in the Bering Sea, their emaciated bodies washing ashore on the Pribilof Islands, some 300 miles west of mainland Alaska.  Prior to the mass deaths, there was a documented period of elevated sea surface temperatures in the eastern Bering Sea according to scientists.  The unfortunate result was a shift in zooplankton composition and in forage fish distribution, both food sources for the puffin.

In Iceland, too, puffins are in trouble.  Researchers discovered that thousands of puffin chicks had died from starvation in the summer of 2018.  It turns out rising ocean temperatures have pushed cold-water fish farther north leaving the baby pufflings with little to eat.  The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has categorized the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) as vulnerable on its red list.  

Rising ocean temperatures are also affecting food availability and the habitat of many Arctic creatures, including the walrus, polar bear, gray whale, arctic fox, and ice seal.  Some are starving to death, some wandering long and far in search of food.  Polar bears rely on sea ice to hunt seals at their breathing holes.  When the sea is not covered in ice, breathing holes become unnecessary as the seals can come up anywhere for air, and are no longer easy for polar bears to snatch up.  The World Wildlife Fund has reported a 40% drop in number of the southern Beaufort Sea polar bears between 2001 and 2010.   Worse still, scientists forecasting global polar bear populations estimate a high probability that 30% of polar bears worldwide will be gone by 2050.

Declining sea ice is also harming seals. Baby harp seals lie on the ice during their fragile first few weeks of life.  Without a thick and stable span of ice, seal pups may drown or be crushed by broken ice.  In 2007, a then surprising 75 percent plus of pups died due to thin ice conditions; in 2010, nearly all.  “Some years, when there’s poor ice in a given pupping ground, essentially all of the pups don’t make it,” says Duke marine biologist David Johnston.  As temperatures continue to rise, seal survival becomes precarious.

The Pacific walrus population is in decline with only 129,000 animals left.  Due to climate change, the floating summer ice that walruses used to haul themselves upon to rest is now way up north.  Consequently the animals are swimming ashore and taking to land in huge numbers.  Unfortunately their feeding grounds are far away from shore, forcing a 250 mile round trip.  In addition to exhaustion from traveling long distances and food scarcity, walruses also face threats from being on the beach in vast crowds.  In 2014, 35,000 walruses were seen together on the shore near Point Lay, Alaska.  The animals, which can weigh as much as 1.5 tons, can be frightened easily by loud noises like airplanes, causing stampedes and mass deaths by trampling, especially of young calves – as many as 500 in one incident.  If ice continues to diminish, their future looks bleak.  

Then there are the gray whales.  Their favorite crustacean is the amphipod – a small flat morsel with segments and antennae resembling a grasshopper.  These lipid-rich crustaceans are devoured by whales in bulk.  Over the past 30 years, as currents have warmed and sea ice has melted, amphipod populations have declined in the Bering Sea whale feeding area.  As a result, gray whale mothers and babies have had no choice but to swim north through the Bering Strait and far into the Arctic Ocean in search of an alternate food supply.  They are so hungry they are eating krill and mysid shrimp, but as it takes an enormous quantity to match the calories of lipid-rich amphipods, the whales remain hungry.

The North Atlantic right whale, a species federally classified as endangered, is also affected by the rising ocean temperatures.  The Smithsonian reports that right whales eat more than 2,000 pounds each day, mostly copepods.  Their favorite copepod, the Calanus finmarchicus, has dramatically declined because some of the deep waters of the north Atlantic have warmed almost 9 degrees Fahrenheit since 2004, forcing right whales to migrate elsewhere in search of food.  Several right whales have been found dead in Canadian waters in recent months, and a sixth dead whale was found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in July of this year.  The steep rise since 2010 in the deaths of these whales from shipping vessel strikes as well as entanglement with fishing gear is attributed to the animals moving into new and unexpected areas where speed restrictions for vessels are not in place.  With some 400 right whales left (out of 500 in the early 2000s) and about 100 breeding females, the species may face extinction if these trends continue.  Researchers are hoping to use satellite technology to detect whales in new territory, allowing for faster responses in moving fishing nets and large vessels.

Creatures large and small face threats from melting ice.  Lemmings are like hamsters of the tundra – small, furry rodents with faces and whiskers as adorable as the childhood pet.  In winter, northern Norway lemmings burrow under the snow for insulation and protection from prey.  During good snow seasons, they reach population peaks and their young prosper.  But in Norway in recent years, rising temperatures are causing repeated thawing and icing periods resulting in poor snow conditions for the lemmings.  The resulting altered and reduced population cycles mean lemmings are no longer reaching population peaks. 

The arctic fox relies on lemmings as a primary food source, and scientists believe lemming decline has contributed to sharp declines and breeding failures in the arctic fox population of Norway.  Arctic foxes also face threats from the red fox, a larger more aggressive animal, which historically lived south of the arctic fox habitat.  Due to climate change and warming of the Arctic, however, the red fox is encroaching on arctic fox areas.  Warming is also converting the tundra to shrublands, a habitat the red fox desires.  The poor arctic fox faces loss of habitat, decreased food availability, increased competition for food, and possible displacement by the red fox.  And with the Arctic continuing to warm, these changes will only become more extensive.  Small wonder then that the arctic fox often has to travel long and hard to find food.  One female captured all our hearts as it traveled 3,500 km from Norway to Canada in 76 days, its remarkable journey including 1,512 km on sea ice.

These few examples demonstrate the impact of global warming on diverse forms of life — from coral reefs and lemmings to the right whale.  We learn that changes in plankton and tiny crustaceans can starve a giant whale and diminishing ice cover can cause polar bears to lose their primary food source, and we begin to register the intimate interconnectedness in the web of life.  Human well-being too is tied to this chain of life.  If fish decline, so does a food source for humans and the water birds that feed on fish, and as insect pollinators decline, so do our crops and the plants around us.  A study suggests that 40% of insect species are in decline.  And the U.S. and Canada have lost three billion birds since 1970.  In this anthropocene age, humans are not rapacious owners but stewards of our planet, holding it in trust for succeeding generations.  It is what the young led by Greta Thunberg are forcefully making clear to their elders.   

Author’s note: This piece first appeared in CommonDreams.org.

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