Governments and companies are working actively around the world to create a circular economy for plastics. The momentum is strong – the Global Alliance has committed $1 billion to fight plastic waste and is focusing on implementing full solutions that governments and cities can put in place. “It will take collective action,” said James Quincey, Chief Executive Officer of The Coca-Cola Company, adding that the consumer goods industry is working in a pre-competitive and collaborative space to make a real impact worldwide.
For Coca-Cola and other beverage companies, the issue is water use and packaging. Coca-Cola is working to collect all products and reuse them, said Quincey. Just as the industry has delivered products that are easy to buy and use, it now needs to make it easy to take back and reuse products, especially end-of-life plastics. The European mandate that beverages companies collect 90% of all single-use plastic containers by 2025 has lent urgency to their actions, he said.
The strategy has to include giving a value to each bottle and incentivizing the consumer to return it. This has been done successfully in some countries – 60% of the company’s bottles worldwide are recovered, recycled and reused, he said – and innovation will make it even more efficient. Even with existing technology, there have been successes such as in Mexico and South Africa, where recycling has gone from 10% to 70% in a decade. Action on PET plastics is imminent, though other kinds of plastic will take more innovation. From a long-term perspective, the value proposition has to be compelling – recycled PET bottles must become the norm, available at the price of entry.
Many leaders of consumers goods companies have a personal belief that this needs to be done. “We are all fathers, we will be grandfathers someday,” said Ramon Laguarta, Chairman-elect and Chief Executive Officer of Pepsico. NGOs play a big role, he said, adding that the “right level of tension supported by the right level of dialogue and finance” can lead to workable solutions that can be scaled up.
On the technological front, Laguarta said, innovation is taking place along several vectors: technologies that help make dirty PET into reusable, clean PET; materials with functionality that can carry beverages but are biodegradable; and new business models that, say, give consumers the option to create their own beverages. His company last year partnered with sustainable plastic company Loop Industries to create a circular packaging initiative, he said, adding that there are specific markets, specific actions and specific funds going into solving the plastics problem.
The problem of plastic pollution is most acute in developing countries where no infrastructure for waste management and scientific recycling exists, said Jim Fitterling. Chief Executive Officer of The Dow Chemical Company. Much waste in China and India is dumped into rivers and ends up in oceans. These countries need to design their waste management systems for 100% recyclability, to build the infrastructure and the value chain to collect used plastics, and to recycle and reuse them. “It’s about putting a value on waste plastics, which currently people think has zero value,” he said. Some things are much harder to recycle, and alternatives have to be found to reduce production and use of such materials and replace them with newer materials, such as packaging that biodegrades.
Innovation and research are a big part of the solution, Fitterling said, adding that for the 35 years that he has been with Dow, the company has been focusing on source reduction, cutting waste in half, making plastics better and taking leadership in the industry. More recently, these efforts have been stepped up in what amounts to “mobilizing a global circular economy army,” he said.
Presenting the developing country perspective, Trang Hong Ha, Minister of Natural Resources and Environment of Viet Nam, said his country is ready to roll out a strategy for solid waste management, which will include tax-led deterrents, a stop to all import of plastic scrap, government support and financing for recycling projects, new standards for waste treatment, knowledge exchange with research organizations and businesses and global cooperation.
France has been behind its EU peers on recycling, but has made circular economy a priority, said Brune Poirson, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy of France. Its roadmap includes a ban on single-use plastic such as cutlery, which will entail behaviour and cultural changes; recycling, by encouraging 55 companies and collectives of companies to incorporate more recycled plastics in the products they use and commercialize; and a push for the same kind of policies at the EU level, and then at the G7.
At the G7, France is building a coalition where 20%-25% of stakeholders are taking action under the One Planet Summit, putting pressure on the remaining 80% to join, and to show the regulator that there is no excuse to not regulate.
Poirson said that, in France, the extended producer responsibility system has not yet worked very well. “When businesses don’t do it well enough, governments have to step in,” she said, adding that government and business are working in close collaboration, with an emphasis on identifying business models that are working and improving how public money is being allocated and used. There has been progress, but the road is long and many other sectors (such as fashion) must get on board. Citizens must put pressure on government, especially their mayors, she said.
Consumers are increasingly concerned about the plastics problem, and some are ready to pay for more eco-friendly solutions, Laguarta said. But this is not true for all consumers. In many ways, companies are ahead of demand, and by the time demand becomes big enough, they will have solutions ready. Overall, brands that have a purpose – which show an impact on society – grow faster, so there is a clear incentive to move brands into that space, he said. Education plays a crucial role; in Switzerland, for instance, kids think about recycling from the first year of school, but in the US or Spain, they do not. Brands can play a role in educating consumers.
In Jamaica, farmers struggle to contend with a changing climate
It’s 9 am and the rural district of Mount Airy in central Jamaica is already sweltering. As cars trundle along the region’s unpaved roads, chocolate-brown dust clouds burst from behind their back wheels.
It is here, 50km west of Kingston and 500 meters above sea level, that the Mount Airy Farmers group are having a morning meeting. There are around two dozen people and they all say the same thing; they’re struggling to keep their plots productive amid dwindling rainfall, a byproduct of climate change.
“The weather here’s a lot drier for longer these days,” says Althea Spencer, the treasurer of the Mount Airy Farmers group, which is based in Northern Clarendon. “If you don’t have water, it makes no sense to plant seeds because they will just die.”
The farmers though, have recently gotten some help in their search for water.
Just meters from where they are gathered stands a two-storey shed with a drainpipe on the roof that funnels rainwater into a tall, black tank. It’s one of more than two dozen reservoirs dotted across these mountains. They are part of a project backed by six United Nations (UN) bodies to help Mount Airy’s farmers adapt to climate change.
“This partnership among the UN and with communities is exactly the type of activity needed to address the day-to-day and practical impacts of climate change,” says Vincent Sweeney, Head of the Caribbean Sub-Regional Office at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “As we look beyond the Glasgow Climate Change Conference, it is vital that we… adapt to the new realities of a warmer planet in order to protect lives and livelihoods in Jamaica and the Caribbean.”
The challenge is not unique to the region. Droughts, floods, and the spread of pests, the byproducts of climate change, are threatening agricultural production around the globe, says the Food and Agriculture Organization. That is potentially disastrous in a world where almost 700 million people go hungry each year.
Small-hold farmers, who work more than 80 per cent of the world‘s farms, in particular, will need support to remain resilient in the face of climate change, say experts.
A country at risk
Farmers in Jamaica, an island nation of 3 million, are especially vulnerable. In 2020, Jamaica became the first Caribbean country to submit a tougher climate action plan to the UN because the country was at risk from rising sea levels, drought and more intense hurricanes, its government said.
In 2018, the Mount Airy farmers enrolled in the United Nations-backed programme that helps build the resilience of communities to threats such as climate change, poverty and water insecurity. It is regarded as the first joint programme of the United Nations in Jamaica, combining the resources of six agencies, including UNEP.
In Mount Airy, the UN programme has invested in 30 new water harvesting systems. The large, black tanks, which appear across the hilltops like turrets, catch and store rainfall, allowing the farmers to use it evenly via a drip irrigation system. This reduces the emerging threat of longer and more intense dry spells.
The new irrigation system also frees farmers from watering their crops by hand. “Before we got the new system, you had to predict rainfall to put seedlings in,” says Spencer, a rollerball pen tucked neatly into her hair and her feet shifting on the sunbaked earth. “It feels pretty good. It allows me more time to do housework, keep up with my farm records, and I have time to go down to the market.”
Alongside the tanks sit drums which mix fertilizer with water and spread it evenly among the crops, saving the farmers valuable time. The dissolvable fertilizer is also cheaper than standard fertilizers.
On top of that, the irrigation system improves yields. Spencer now grows and sells more sweet potatoes, peppers and tomatoes than ever before.
Coupled with the water tanks, the programme has also prioritized education. Seminars are run by the Rural Agricultural Development Authority, a government agency, which aims to broaden the farmer’s knowledge and skills.
Although it is not unusual for women to farm these lands, Spencer speaks about how the trainings have helped to empower the female members of the group by coming together. “To me, the learnings and the trainings bond us ladies together,” she says.
A life in the mountains
Back at the gathering of the Mount Airy farmers, the assembled say some prayers and repeat their mantra aloud two times: “We are the Mount Airy Farmers Group our motto is: All grow in fear and failure bearing fruits of confidence and success.”
Spencer, who is in her 40s, is a vocal participant at the meeting and obviously well-liked. She was born in Mount Airy and has been farming these fields most of her life. She has vivid memories of working on her father’s farm as a child. Unable to afford to pay anyone else, he often pulled her out of school to sow and reap the fields.
That’s a common refrain among many who grew up in Mount Airy – and one the new UN programme is aiming to change.
“If my father had this harvesting system, would I have gone to school more?” Spencer asks herself. “Yes, probably. But even then, he was always working us. So I’m sure he’d find something for us to do,” she says laughing.
Spencer welcomes the introduction of the water tanks. However, she says current rainfall patterns mean water sometimes still runs out. “If you don’t manage your water properly, one will run out before you get anywhere,” she says ominously.
Her story may be one of success today, but it shows that living with climate change will require adaptation and continued investment for years to come. UNEP’s 2021 Adaptation Gap Report called for an urgent increase in financing for climate adaptation. It found that adaptation costs in developing countries are five to ten times greater than current public adaptation finance flows, and the adaptation finance gap is widening.
Climate change: For 25th year in a row, Greenland ice sheet shrinks
2021 marked the 25th year in a row in which the key Greenland ice sheet lost more mass during the melting season, than it gained during the winter, according to a new UN-endorsed report issued on Friday.
The data from the Danish Arctic monitoring service Polar Portal – which forms part of the UN weather agency WMO’s annual State of the Climate report – shows that early summer was cold and wet, with unusually heavy and late snowfall in June, which delayed the onset of the melting season.
After that, however, a heatwave at the end of July, led to a considerable loss of ice.
In terms of “total mass balance” (the sum of surface melting and loss of ice chunks from icebergs, in addition to the melting of glacier “tongues” in contact with seawater), the ice sheet lost around 166 billion tonnes during the 12-month period ending in August 2021.
These numbers mean the ice sheet ended the season with a net surface mass balance of approximately 396 billion tonnes, making it the 28th lowest level recorded, in the 41-year time series.
This could be considered an average year, but Polar Report notes how perspectives have changed, due to rapidly advancing climate change.
At the end of the 1990s, for example, these same figures would have been regarded as a year with a very low surface mass balance.
The report also notes that the cause of the early summer chill, could be due to conditions over southwest Canada and the northwest United States.
In these territories, an enormous “blocking” high pressure system was formed, shaped like the Greek capital letter Omega (Ω).
This flow pattern occurs regularly in the troposphere, and not just over North America, but it had never been observed with such strength before.
According to the report, an analysis by World Weather Attribution demonstrated that it could only be explained as a result of atmospheric warming caused by human activity.
According to the report, 2021 was notable for several reasons.
It was the year in which precipitation at Summit Station, which is located at the top of the ice sheet at an altitude of 3,200 metres above sea level, was registered in the form of rain.
The year also saw an acceleration of the loss of ice at the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, where the rate of loss had otherwise been stagnant for several years.
Winter snowfall was also close to average for the period between 1981 and 2010, which was good news, because a combination of low winter snowfall and a warm summer can result in very large losses of ice, as was the case in 2019.
2022: Emergency mode for the environment
As the new year gets underway, the world continues to grapple with a number of familiar challenges – the continued COVID-19 pandemic, resurgent wildfires, enduring crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. Yet, 2022 could prove to be a seminal year for the environment, with high-level events and conferences scheduled, which are hoped to re-energize international cooperation and collective action.
The coming year will also mark two golden jubilees. In 1972, the world took up the environmental mantle at the historic UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. The meeting firmly placed the environment on the priority list of governments, civil society, businesses and policymakers, recognizing the inextricable links between the planet, human well-being and economic growth. Now, fifty years later, the Stockholm+50 meeting in June 2022 will commemorate the event, reflect upon half a century of global environmental action and look forward.
The Stockholm Conference also birthed the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the UN entity mandated to monitor the state of the environment, inform policymaking with science and galvanize action. For fifty years since, UNEP has used its convening power and rigorous scientific research to coordinate a global effort to tackle environmental challenges. A series of activities will mark UNEP’s 50th anniversary this year.
UNEP is going into 2022 with a new “Medium-Term Strategy” featuring seven interlinked subprogrammes for action: Climate Action, Chemicals and Pollutions Action, Nature Action, Science Policy, Environmental Governance, Finance and Economic Transformations and Digital Transformations. The strategy was agreed at 2021’s fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly; the resumed session, known as UNEA 5.2 will take place in February 2022. Under the overarching theme of ‘Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals’, discussions will highlight the pivotal role of nature in social, economic and environmental sustainable development.
June will be a busy month on the environmental calendar. On the 5th, the world will come together to celebrate World Environment Day. Led by UNEP and held annually since 1974, the day has grown to be the largest global platform for environmental outreach, with millions of people engaging to protect the planet. This year’s event will be hosted by Sweden, under the campaign slogan “Only One Earth“, with a focus on living sustainably in harmony with nature.
While this timeline of environmental achievements is proof of what can be achieved through multilateral action, the science remains irrefutable. Unsustainable patterns of consumption and production are fuelling the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has warned that the triple crisis is humanity’s number one existential threat.
Several global events in 2022 aim to encourage dialogue and influence policy decisions to address the triple crisis. These include a post-2020 global biodiversity framework, which will be adopted in May at COP 15, and could stave off the extinction of over one million species, and the UN Ocean Conference in July, which seeks to protect one of our most vital ecosystems. A detailed list of related events is available on the UN web site.
Last year, the UN Secretary-General reminded the world that “We are at a crossroads, with consequential choices before us. It can go either way: breakdown or breakthrough.”
Experts hope that 2022 will be a year of breakthroughs for the environment.
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