“Mama, why do I have to wear this again? It hurts my mouth,” says Norik, 5, to his mother, Igballe, before she puts a small, child-size air pollution mask over his face.
Igballe Ferati, a finance specialist, makes the usual walk to a local kindergarten every weekday with Norik along the streets of central Skopje, a city which often experiences dangerous levels of air pollution.
“I am really scared about the health of my child and I always check the pollution levels on my phone via the MojVozduh [MyAir] app before going outside. Especially in winter when the air pollution gets worse, I can’t let Norik go out, and I know some parents who don’t even allow their children to go to school on certain days, so they are not exposed to the air pollution. We are locked in our houses with air purifiers hoping that this will not affect the health of our children in the years to come,” says Igballe.
“We are forced to tell the children that they are superheroes to put on the masks. It is too difficult and sad to explain this situation to a child.”
Skopje, a city of more than half a million people, located in the centre of the Balkan peninsula in southern Europe has been listed by the World Health Organization (WHO) amongst the cities in Europe with the highest concentration of harmful fine particulate matter (PM) 2.5 in the air.
Particulate matter 2.5 includes a variety of components such as nitrates, sulphates, organic chemicals, metals, dust and black carbon, which pose a risk to human health. Due to their small size, they penetrate the lungs and are known to cause heart, lung and other diseases.
The latest data released by the World Health Organization in 2018 shows a PM 2.5 annual mean level of 40 micrograms per cubic metre in Skopje—four times the recommended levels of 10µg/m³.
In terms of mean concentrations of both PM 10 and PM 2.5, the World Health Organization Ambient Pollution Database for 2018 ranks Skopje as Europe’s most polluted capital city.
Moreover, Skopje suffers spikes in air pollution. To take one day as an example, on 13 November 2018, the European Environment Agency rated the Skopje municipality of Karpos as having “very poor” air quality. It registered 104.6µg/m3 of PM 2.5 – more than 10 times the levels recommended by the World Health Organization.
The organization estimates that 2,574 people die prematurely in the country annually because of air pollution.
Causes of the Skopje air pollution
The city’s pollution has been blamed on a mix of coal burning, fuel oil and wood burning stoves in households, open waste burning, emissions from aging industry and old, highly-polluting vehicles.
In particular, the city has been reliant on lignite coal for heat during winters – a leftover from the Yugoslav era.
Many Skopje residents cannot afford to move to cleaner, more sustainable forms of heating and thus rely on cheaper, more polluting ones, such as wood.
The geography of Skopje, surrounded by mountains, means that the polluted air is effectively trapped. Skopje is particularly affected by pollution in the winter season which has contributed several times to the closure of the city’s airport.
“You can feel a sour, metallic taste in your mouth when the air pollution levels get high,” says Hristijan Gjorgievski, a Skopje office worker.
The unanswered call for solutions
Numerous public protests have taken place in Skopje and in a city in the north of the country, Tetovo, calling for state action against air pollution in those areas.
“While there has been much talk of the damage that climate change is doing in the long term, we need to look at the damage that air pollution is doing now, to Skopje and to the people who live there,” says Ana Čolović Lesoska, from Eko-svest (Eco-sense), a non-profit organization that advocates for environmental protection. “A lot of people have had enough of inaction on air pollution and civil society across the country is rising up to force change.”
On days with high air pollution in the city, Skopje authorities deploy emergency measures such as days off from work for pregnant women, those over 60 years of age, and people suffering from chronic asthma and related conditions. The city has previously offered free public transport and cancelled sporting events.
However, the root causes of pollution still need to be addressed. The city encourages people to move away from polluting heating systems such as wood-burning stoves to pellets and is considering car scrappage schemes for older, more polluting cars. If households burned cured wood instead of young, wet wood, that would also reduce smoky emissions.
“An integrated approach is really necessary and there is not going to be a ‘silver bullet’ for cities like Skopje,” says Rob de Jong, Head of UN Environment’s Air Quality and Mobility Unit. “UN Environment’s Share the Road Programme is centered around designing cities for pedestrians, to make it easier for those who walk and cycle while trying to reduce people’s reliance on polluting vehicles.”
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development approved a US$13.5 million project to upgrade Skopje’s older diesel buses to low-emission, compressed natural gas buses. The government itself approved a US$1.8 million programme in November 2018 to tackle air pollution.
Given that household heating accounts for 32 per cent of the city’s air pollution, the United Nations Development Programme’s office in Skopje works with national partners to design cost-effective solutions to reduce air pollution caused by polluting heating systems.
“I am really scared of what the long-term health effects on children growing up in Skopje might be,” says Igballe. “My family and I have to get away from the city on the weekends in search of clean air. This affects our lives and budgets heavily.”
“What is clear is that if the authorities don’t react timely with a structured and serious approach towards the reduction of air pollution in the city, then the consequences for families living in cities such as Skopje are going to be severe.”
UN Environment, Google, EC partnership effective to depoliticize water crisis in South Asia
This year the theme for World Water Day 2019 is ‘Leaving no one behind’ and goes hand in hand with the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)-six which is ‘water for all by 2030’. However, the ground reality in South Asia appears gloomy and too far to achieve the SDG-6 as the countries are still politicizing water crisis.
The women and children walk miles each day in search for water in Pakistan’s financial capital, Karachi. While, in India, according to a 2018 WaterAid report, about 163 million people in India lack access to clean water close to their home and 70 percent of the country’s water is contaminated. The situation in Bangladesh is no better, the demand for water in the Dhaka is 2.2 billion liters a day, while the production is 1.9 billion liters a day.
Besides, in Bhutan and Nepal, South Asia’s per capita water availability is already below the world average. The region could face widespread water scarcity— less than 1,000 cubic meters available per person.
Warning bells too have been sounded by Down To Earth, the magazine that Centre for Science and Environment, Bengaluru will see Cape Town-like water crisis in the not too distant future. As the number of waterbodies in Bengaluru has reduced by 79% due to unplanned urbanization and encroachment – while built-up are has increased from 8% in 1973 to 77% now.
Despite common concerns over the inevitable threat of water scarcity South Asian countries have found it difficult to collectively curate effective agreements over efficient water resource management within international river basins. The absence of guiding frameworks plagues hydro-diplomatic relationships of these countries. It is also being said that water will be one of the critical drivers of peace and stability in South Asia in the second decade of the 21st century.
Though there are some joint mechanisms like India-Pakistan Indus Waters Treaty of 1960.Both have repeatedly accused each other of violating the 1960s Indus Waters Treaty that ensures shared management of the six rivers crossing between the two neighbors, which have fought three major wars in the past 71 years.
Yet fast-growing populations and increasing demand for hydropower and irrigation in each country means the Indus is coming under intense pressure. Also, the NASA in one of its reports mentions that the Indus Basin aquifer of northwestern India and Pakistan is the second-most overstressed basin. Another one is between India-Bangladesh Ganges Water Sharing Treaty of 1996, long-standing and seemingly intractable regional disputes have put a strain on these agreements.
The EastWest Institute, researchers have suggested steps should be taken towards enabling effective hydro-political regimes to take root in South Asia and involved countries should endorse the United Nations Watercourses Convention (UNWC). This will ensure, sharing of transboundary hydrological data and water bodies would be managed through the Integrated River Basin Management process.
Besides, Hydro-diplomats have a role to play along with the multilateral institutions like the World Bank. Local and international NGOs also have a key role to play by bring all stakeholders of these countries together for cooperation on the Indus basin.
The recent partnership between the UN Environment, Google, and the European Commission, which aims to ‘leave no one behind’ on World Water Day, have launched a groundbreaking data platform that would track the world’s water bodies—and countries’ progress in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And this partnership could be of vital importance for South Asian countries to depoliticize the water crisis.
I love the the Green New Deal but …
Ever since out first ancestor lit a fire, humans have been pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. Add to that the first herder because ruminants are another large emitter of greenhouse gas (GHG).
Some people want to declare a national emergency and ban fossil fuels within ten years. How? I am for it and all ready to go. But please tell me how. Think of the quarter billion vehicles in the U.S. and the infrastructure supporting them; the myriad gas stations and repair shops and the people employed in them; the thousands of miles of domestic gas pipelines to homes using gas stoves and gas heating. Think of the restructuring, the replacement, the energy required, the megatons of metal and other materials used and their production which all require one thing — energy. And what about air travel and the shipping industry?
What of the millions of jobs lost? Think of the jobholders and their families. Most of these workers cannot switch skills overnight. These are not just the million and a half employed in the industry directly, but include gas company employees, your gas furnace repair and maintenance man, the people building furnaces, gas stoves, the auto repair infrastructure — electric motors of course are darned reliable and need attention only to brakes, tire rotation and battery coolant checks for the most part — and so on.
When you offer this laundry list, the response is likely to be, “Well I didn’t mean that.” In effect, it defines the problem with the Green New Deal: It is remarkably short on the ‘whats’ and especially the ‘hows’. Funny though I first searched for the Green New Deal at Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (whose courage I admire greatly) official web page and surprisingly found … well nothing. Why not something practical like mandating solar collectors on new homes constructed?
So you want to suck the CO2 out of the air; you can. It takes 300MW to 500MW of electrical energy per million tons annually. To put it in perspective, we need to remove at least 20 billion tons (20,000 times more) each year to remove the minimum of a trillion tons expected to be emitted by the end of the century. The 10 million megawatt electrical base required for this is ten times the current total US electrical power grid of 1.2 million megawatts.
You want to bring carbon emissions down to zero. I am all for it even though our ancestor — the one who lit the coal fire — could not. Just tell me how. If you want to talk about carbon neutrality … now there’s an idea. But “switching immediately away from fossil fuels” as I read from one advocate recently … I wish it was possible.
The rest of the goals are equally laudable — in fact I have advocated many including the necessity for well-paying jobs, infrastructure spending, eating less meat, and even net-zero emissions. The big question is ‘how’ against entrenched interests.
In the meantime, would someone please electrify my local suburban train. The 1950s diesel-electric locomotives spew black smoke and the carriages were designed in the same era. Worse still, the service is chronically late. Electrification of rail lines and improving public transport in the U.S. should be job one. But every activity — and change particularly — uses energy.
Author’s note: This piece first appeared on counterpunch.org
Seven ways to fix a warming planet
Many people across the world, including schoolchildren, are demanding bolder action on climate change by governments, businesses and investors. There are tremendous opportunities here to “think beyond, solve different,” transform our economies, and change the way we live.
Climate change actions are key to sustainability, and part and parcel of globally agreed efforts in line with the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.
Agriculture and food
According to UN Environment’s Emissions Gap Report 2018, food systems from production to consumption have the potential to mitigate up to 6.7 gigatons of CO2 equivalent, which is second only to the energy sector. We need a global food transformation in the next 12 years in which food waste is halved and diets and health are improved through decreased animal protein intake. We also need to incentivize climate-smart and sustainable agriculture and end the current unjust food situation in which over 820 million people are undernourished.
Buildings and cities
Responsible for some 70 per cent of energy use, buildings and construction account for 39 per cent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. Vast amounts of urban infrastructure are to be built in the coming 15 years as rural-urban migration accelerates. There are huge opportunities here to retrofit existing buildings, improve building standards, and rethink urban planning such as by providing incentives for mini-grid solutions. We also need to tackle human-induced methane, nitrous oxide and CF11 emissions, and find smarter solutions for cooling, heating and waste management.
Educate girls: educated women have fewer and healthier children. Improve global access to, and education on, family planning. We need to focus on economic, social and political inclusion to leave no one behind. Education, skills, and awareness-building are essential ingredients for meaningful inclusion.
Invest in renewables and stop commissioning new coal-fired power plants. We need to redirect fossil fuel subsidies to incentivize large-scale investment and job creation in renewable energy. At the same time, we need energy efficiency standards for electric equipment (lighting, appliances, electric engines, transformers) and a transition towards efficiency-labelled electric equipment.
Help poor countries mitigate and adapt to climate change. According to UN Environment’s Emissions Gap Report 2018, renewable energy and energy efficiency projects in developing countries could significantly cut emissions by 2020 if industrialized nations made good on their pledge to mobilize US$100 billion a year of climate funding. While energy investment is flowing increasingly towards clean energy, it is not flowing at the rate necessary to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goals.
Forests and land use
Protect and restore tropical forests. Plant a trillion trees to boost carbon capture, with associated benefits for biodiversity, food security, livelihoods and rural economies. To do this we need to scale up investment to halve tropical deforestation by 2020, stop net deforestation by 2030 globally, and raise around US$50 billion per year to reach a target of 350 million hectares of forest and landscape restoration by 2030 in line with the Bonn Challenge. So far, 168 million hectares of restoration have been pledged by 47 countries. We should avoid any further conversion of peatlands into agricultural land and restore little-used, drained peatlands by rewetting them. We also need to plant more trees on agricultural land and pastures.
Transport is responsible for about one quarter of all energy-related CO2 emissions, and set to increase to one-third by 2050, growing faster than any other sector. With the right policies and incentives, significant emission reductions can be achieved. For this to happen, we need to put in place vehicle efficiency standards, incentives for zero-emission transportation and invest in non-motorized mobility. For example, the Indian government is prioritizing policies that are helping to shift freight transport from road to rail.
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