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The most polluted capital in Europe, you didn’t even know about

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“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

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Green Planet

Youth Pessimistic Attitude and Their Noteworthy Role as Climate Justice Norm Entrepreneur

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What we do or don’t do right now, will affect my entire life and the lives of my children and grandchildren. What we do or don’t do right now, me and my generation can’t undo in the future” – Greta Thunberg At the TEDxStockholm on November 23, 2018

That is just one of the many discordant statements voiced by Greta Thunberg (19) on behalf of her generation in order to respond to the inability of world leaders who are more likely to provide “lip service” yet lack of action to deal with the current climate crisis. According to her, the agenda of international climate negotiations is merely an opera, full of nonsense pledges and false hope, because behind it developed countries are still trying to find a way out to maintain their status quo and do not have to proceed with bigger sacrifices. Even though the world has collectively launched its commitment to Net Zero 2050. Net Zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah”. Thunberg’s threw criticism again.

What is the importance of climate change for the youth?

Youth is a demographic category aged 15-25, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs definition. Kegan (1982) argued that youth have belief systems, values, views of the world, hold hope for the future and are at a stage where they actively try to connect themselves with their environment. Then why do they have a high awareness and concern for the climate? Based on the 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, 2050 will be the time when children born in 2000 will live with CO2 concentrations across the atmosphere of 463 and 623 parts per million volume (ppmv), higher than 400 ppmv in 2016. They will live crammed on an earth that is 0.8 oC – 2.6 oC hotter with sea levels rising 5 – 32 cm compared to 1990s. Thus, what today’s world leaders decide, will borne by future generations. In addition, based on the narratives of Strazdin and Skeat, some scientists think that young people’s concern for the issue of climate change is also caused by the spread of ideas related to the adverse effects of climate change.

Thunberg doesn’t seem to be the only young person worried about the future. Based on the results of a collaborative study by Bath University with five other universities (2021) on 10,000 young people aged 16-25 years, 60% of them are worried and very worried about their survival in the future. Many of them also feel betrayed, ignored and even discarded by politicians in the form of adults.

As a logical consequence, nowadays, climate change activism is enlivened by the presence of young people. Name it Fridays For Future (FFF), for instance. This movement is a follow-up to school strikes for climate by school children in Sweden. No one thought that Thurnberg’s decision to skip school every Friday to demonstrate alone in front of The Riksdag (Swedish Parliament) on demand towards the government’s seriousness in dealing with climate change could give rise to a movement that is currently growing very rapidly. Relatively new, FFF has been able to attract 14 million people from 7,500 cities around the world (Fridays For Future 2022) to work hand in hand fighting the climate crisis and structural problems that surround it. The birth of Fridays For Future in 2019 represents the rise of a new face for the movement against global climate change (Moor 2020). Through a five-day consensus in Lausanne Switzerland in August 2019, Fridays For Future has adopted the Lausanne Climate Declaration with three points of demands to world leaders (Fridays For Future 2022). First, maintaining the increase in global temperature to remain below 1.5 oC compared to pre-industrial era levels. Second, ensuring the realization of climate justice and equality. Third, urges all stakeholders to not be anti-science and be guided by the existing epistemic community. Furthermore, Thunberg’s FFF is not the only attribute of the young generation’s struggle against climate change, besides encouraging stagnation of decision-making at the international forum. There are other great young figures, such as Vanessa Nakate, Mya-Rose Craig, Xiuhtezcatl, Nyombi Morris, Lycipriya Kangujam, Xiye Bastida, Lasein Mutunkei, Luisa Neubauer, Xiyun Wu, Daniel Koto Dagnon and Autumn Peltier. They are also struggling to prove the real power of youth as agents of change, and participate in fighting for climate justice for their communities and the world.

Youth as Climate Justice Norm Entrepreneur

Talking about climate change means talking about justice. This is validated by David Pellow’s opinion which states that climate change is an issue of justice. Justice requires recognition that allows marginalized groups to follow participatory decision-making procedures in a system. Climate justice is seen as a norm that must be agreed upon before combating the impacts of climate change. Norms in the science of International Relations are defined as standards of appropriateness of action that are accepted and mutually agreed upon or a set of collective expectations regarding actions that are considered appropriate by international actors. And youth can be considered as norm entrepreneurs. In her research, Dorota Heidrich explains that climate change activists by global youth (represented by Thunberg) can be categorized as norm entrepreneurs. Heidrich considered two things. First, do their activities meet the criteria to be called norm entrepreneurs? Second, do their activities provide a significant stimulus to encourage action by states, international institutions and the international system as a whole?

Answering first question, youth climate activism meets the requirements of norm entrepreneur. The most prominent character of their movement is the massive use of social media and the label of marginalized groups with unheard voices in the political space of adult domination as validation of their actions. Youth as a norm entrepreneur is present as a new element in the public sphere that enhances the process of formation, diffusion and internalization of norms, especially climate justice. Heidrich refers to the constructivism assumption, that actors with certain identities and interests have the capacity to bring changes in the structure. Climate change activism by youth can stimulate decision-making by other international political actors, particularly states and international governmental organizations. As tangible evidence, look at how Thunberg has been involved in various prestigious international climate forums, criticizing world leaders right in front of their eyes with her fierce shaming communication technique. Then she also personally met with big figures such as Barrack Obama, Jeremy Corbin, Pope Francis, Antonio Guterres to Angela Merkel for one purpose. Crystal clear, realizing climate justice for the sake of her generation.  

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A Healthy Environment is Now a Universal Human Right: But What Does the Recognition Mean?

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On July 28, 2022, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted a resolution that “recognizes the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right” and emphasizes its connection with “other rights and existing international law”. The resolution also calls upon “states, international organizations, business enterprises and other relevant stakeholders” to “scale up efforts” to pursue this new human right.

The resolution is based on a similar text adopted in October of last year by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), a group of 47 UN member states, which equally called upon states, international organizations, and business enterprises to scale up efforts to ensure a healthy environment for all. The recent UNGA resolution has been praised as a “landslide vote”, as “historic”, and as a “victory for the environment”. Yet, UNGA resolutions, even though they become part and parcel of international law, are not legally binding for any member states – a typical UN paradox.

Humanity faces a “wicked” crisis

UN Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the UNGA decision as a milestone in the “collective fight” against what he called “the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution”. However, while this statement was well-intentioned, it may not entirely reflect the true nature and extent of the “wicked” crisis humanity finds itself in just two decades into the 21st century.

Firstly, even the term “quintuple crisis” would not do justice to the perfect storm of planetary disturbances and destruction that 200 years of intense extractive capitalism and 50 years of largely unregulated economic globalization have brought to Earth and mankind. In addition to the three crises mentioned by Guterres, the oceans, freshwater resources, soils, and land cover are all under attack, and pandemics, food, and energy crises are on the rise.

Secondly, if there really was a “collective fight” against this perfect storm, we would notice it and, among other things, see a tangible decline in annual carbon emissions, biodiversity loss rates, or amounts of plastic found in the oceans. But rather, we are yet to see measurable improvement in any of the many alarming trends and trajectories of global environmental pollution and destruction – because most nations still do not fight against these trends. They do too little too late, or nothing at all, or prefer lip service and downright disinformation over real action.

The elevation of environmental health and sustainability to the international legal status of a “universal human right” by many of Earth’s worst polluters also raises the question of how well human rights are actually being respected, observed, and implemented these days and what is being done to sanction trespassers. The UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in response to World War II and the Holocaust in 1948. The entire set of UN human rights has never been legally binding and so depended on national governments and courts at various levels to litigate and sanction human rights violations.

The exercise of universal rights is in crisis, too

In recent decades, the list of human rights has been expanded, now including the rights of children, indigenous peoples, and persons with disabilities among others. In 2010, access to clean water also became a universal human right. But does the codification of these “rights” by the UN actually guarantee real and measurable freedoms, dignity, and safety for all? Unfortunately not, as the list of obvious violations of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the International Bill of Rights by countries that have signed and ratified these treaties is shockingly long.

Too often, individuals are detained and prosecuted for exercising free speech, free expression, or even academic freedom. Recently, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights formally stated that China’s treatment of the Uighur minority  may constitute a “crime against humanity”. Similar statements were made after the recent coup in Myanmar. And Russia’s brutal illegal war against Ukraine is in gross violation of a whole set of human rights. Sadly, all too often despots and perpetrators are getting away with their violations and crimes despite international human rights law and its institutions.       

So, does the mere existence of a new universal human right on environmental health and sustainability mean that      all countries that voted for it in the UN, actually respect, ensure, and defend it? Likely, no. In a way, this latest resolution of the UNGA might rather be more cause for concern than relief. Too often in recent years and decades has the UN system been misused by its own members as a talk shop deluxe, a place of hollow announcements and declarations – usually after lengthy and tough negotiations – with little action or measurable progress on the promises made. For example, seven years after the adoption of the much-revered Paris Agreement, greenhouse gas emissions are still on the rise and the 2022 UN conference for the protection of the oceans ended without a decision. Governments and corporations spend huge amounts of money for PR campaigns and lobbying – only to cover up their inaction.

Global crises need a new type of action

The science is clear that the world is fast running out of time to act on climate change. There      is literally no time left for more of the same endless conference cycles, hollow statements, and watered-down compromise declarations, and symbolic “rights” that are not enforced with hard sanctions. This is the time for civil society to stand up where governments fail to act responsibly, and businesses keep profiting from extraction and pollution. We need a worldwide movement, a global alliance of “citizens of Earth” leading to a new social contract on planetary boundaries, limits to growth, and respect for nature and other species, to transform the age of extraction into a new age of renewable, sustainable stewardship. It is unclear whether the UN is still an effective venue for the much necessary action in the face of environmental crises since, despite the move to engage nine “Major Groups” in processes related to sustainable development, it remains a closed club of nation-state governments, a majority of whom are not  elected by their people. Rather, in the age of #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, or #FreePalestine, global social movements show that real change is possible.

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The Ravages Of Earth: Natural And Man-Made

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Italy has suffered a terrible drought, and its longest river, the Po, ran dry.  It is about 400 miles in length and flows east from the Cottian Alps.  Not in anyone’s living memory has it been that parched in the region.   

It never rains but it pours they say, and it describes Italy’s weather perfectly for when the drought finally broke, the storms were so fierce as to result in massive flooding.

Several thousand miles east, past Greece, past Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan lies Pakistan, a nation of over 200 million, which is now also devastated by heavy rain and floods.  President Biden has called for a $2.9 billion international aid package for a country a third under water to revive itself; also for people, who lost everything when their homes and crops were washed away, to be restored to some kind of normalcy.

As often happens with flooding, water-borne diseases follow and in Pakistan they include malaria that is deadly for young children.

The ravages of the planet do not end there for in the Antarctic, a large chunk of what is sometimes referred to as the doomsday glacier, has sheared off and fallen into the sea.  One can guess the name implies a catastrophe, that is if all of it melted, it would raise sea levels enough to cause chaos on earth.

Then there are man-made ravages and foremost among them is war.  Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made another fiery speech.  Recorded earlier in Ukraine, it was replayed at the UN where the new session is underway.  He claims victories and seizure of some 5000 square miles of territory.  Despite his tendency to exaggerate, it is clear Russia has suffered a setback.  Putin has ordered a mobilization — the first since the Second World War — and has called up reserves and army retirees.  He says he needs more troops to man the now 600 mile front line.  So far he has avoided inexperienced general conscripts who are known to suffer higher casualties. 

It’s pointless to go back in detail to the early days of an independent Ukraine, of the coup organized by the U.S. against an elected president, of the famous “F— the EU” remark by Victoria Nuland, who was running the show and could not obtain EU support, and of the off-again-on-again civil war that ensued and continues.  But the result has been tens of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons, thousands dead and no peace in sight.

What Zelenskyy has been crowing about seems pretty small potatoes in comparison.  And how Biden can talk about freedom for Ukraine is the sort of hypocrisy only politicians can muster.  Remember Boris Johnson, the British PM, flying to Ukraine to meet Zelenskyy and express the UK’s solidarity with the Ukrainian people.  Boris was in trouble back home and looking for favorable headlines.  The ploy didn’t work.  He is now out.

In a couple of months, the US will be having a midterm election.  It is not unusual for the opposition to do well in such an election, but given the razor thin majority a couple of seats lost by the Democrats could flip the senate.  That would place Biden’s aid package for Ukraine in jeopardy for the armaments have to be contracted, built and shipped.

Mr. Zelenskyy appears to be a high-wire act without a safety net.   And most unfortunately, our climate ravaged earth is not equipped with one. 

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