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Travel and tourism industry takes aim at plastic pollution but more action needed

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With some of the world’s most beautiful beaches paying a heavy price for our plastic addiction, the travel and tourism industry is taking action to reduce its plastic footprint and encourage its customers to do the same.

One of Britain’s biggest tour operators, Thomas Cook, said in November 2018 that it would remove around 70 million single-use plastic items—enough to fill 3,500 suitcases—from domestic operations, planes and branded hotels during the next year.

A pilot scheme in its #noplaceforplastic campaign will run this summer on the Greek island of Rhodes where the company will try out sustainable alternatives and work with the local community and government to improve recycling infrastructure.

Thomas Cook will trial plastic-free toiletries in some of its brand hotels and promote water fountains and other fresh water sources. The company will also work with sustainable designers Wyatt and Jack to turn broken and discarded inflatables, like lilos and armbands, into bags and holiday accessories. On its airline, it will remove plastic wrappers on headsets and reduce the size of its duty-free plastic bags.

“This is very important because many of the tourist destinations that we travel to do not have appropriate systems for recycling,” says Xavier Font, professor of sustainability marketing at the University of Surrey. “Their action is important to create awareness amongst destination stakeholders and, more importantly, to empower them to look for solutions.”

While tourism contributes 10 per cent of global gross domestic product and accounts for one in 10 jobs worldwide, UN Environment’s research has shown that the industry’s use of key resources, like energy and water, is growing commensurately with its generation of solid waste, including marine plastic pollution, sewage, loss of biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions.

The World Wildlife Fund reported in June 2018 that more than 200 million tourists visiting the Mediterranean every summer cause an almost 40 per cent spike in plastic entering the sea. With 80 per cent of all tourism taking place in coastal areas, this destructive pattern is repeated elsewhere.

Last April, the Philippines temporarily closed the island of Boracay to clean up dumped sewage and upgrade its drainage systems. Thailand has closed Maya Bay, made famous by the 2000 film The Beach, to allow it to recover from pollution and other damage caused by tourists. And in 2017, Indonesia declared a “garbage emergency” in parts of Bali.

As part of its Clean Seas campaign, UN Environment is working with governments, businesses and citizens to reduce the use of disposable plastics. Among those who have signed up are dozens of hotels from Thailand’s Phuket Hotels Association and the airline Hi Fly.

Increasingly aware of public dismay over the toxic tide of plastic, the industry is cracking down on single-use plastics. Delta Airlines, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Virgin Australia and United Airlines are among carriers pledging to phase out single-use plastics like straws and stirrers. Ryanair has pledged to eliminate all non-recyclable plastics by 2023, switching instead to wooden cutlery and biodegradable coffee cups, for example.

Hotel group Iberostar has made its staff uniforms out of recycled plastic and is eliminating single-use plastics from its rooms, while the Walt Disney Company is set to ban single-use plastic straws and stirrers from nearly all its theme parks and resorts from mid-2019. Polystyrene cups will be eliminated at its parks.

Hotel giant Hilton pledged to get rid of plastic straws in all its 650 locations and eliminate plastic bottles from its conferences. Marriott International is eliminating plastic straws and replacing small bottles of toiletries with dispensers in its North American hotels.

MSC Cruises aims to phase-out single-use plastics by March next year, while Norwegian cruise operator Hurtigruten says it has removed all unnecessary single-use plastic items. Lindblad Expeditions, an adventure cruise company, has said it is now free of single-use plastics with all such items banned from its 13 ships.

Royal Caribbean has said its 50 ships would stop using plastic straws by the end of last year. P&O Cruises and Cunard are also planning to abolish plastic straws, water bottles and stirrers by 2022, while Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings has launched an anti-plastics initiative, including a ban on straws.

However, while eliminating plastic products is positive, the industry must do more, Font says.

“If a hotel group, for example, removes plastic straws, this is great to create staff and customer consciousness around this topic. But this cannot be the only thing that the company does. Otherwise, it becomes tokenistic, and any campaign that focuses on that is another form of greenwashing,” he says.

In its Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report in 2017, the World Economic Forum noted that degradation of the natural environment was having a serious effect on the tourism sector: as natural capital depletes—because of overfishing, deforestation or water and air pollution—so tourism revenues decline.

“Given the close relationship between natural resources and a very large segment of the tourism industry, then, a lack of progress on fostering sustainability, both from a general and sectoral point of view, will reduce tourism development opportunities,” it said.

Some tour operators are going the extra green mile, offering holidays designed to help tourists ditch their plastic habits. For example, Responsible Tourism offers a “no single-use plastics” section on its website while Undiscovered Mountains offers a plastic-free trip in the French Alps which includes a night in a refuge with guests asked to carry the rubbish away with them.

Innovative solutions to environmental challenges will be at the heart of the fourth UN Environment Assembly in March. The meeting’s motto is to think beyond prevailing patterns and live within sustainable limits.

Authorities in some popular tourist destinations are doing just that. Fort Myers Beach, in Florida, has banned the sale or use of plastic straws throughout the island in a bid to protect turtles nesting on the beaches. In Italy, the archipelago of Isole Tremiti has banned all plastic plates, cups and utensils, with fines for those who do not comply.

While such initiatives may offer inspiration to others in the industry, Font says the scale of the plastic pollution problem demands a collaborative approach.

“What we need is for industry associations to get behind these individual actions [by tour operators, etc.] and introduce industry-wide standards as a requirement to be a member of the association. We need whole destinations to act on this. We are not there yet.”

The UN World Tourism Organization is developing a way to measure the sustainability of tourism to create an international standard for tourism statistics. The standard will eventually be able to connect tourism indicators to the Sustainable Development Goals, expanding existing measurements beyond primarily economic indicators.

Beyond industry initiatives, individuals can also play a role. The World Travel and Tourism Council has urged travellers to minimize their plastic footprint by doing four simple things: bring your own water bottle and purification system, carry a collapsible tote bag, refuse small bottles of toiletries in hotels and find out where you can recycle your plastic waste.

Simple steps, but if taken by every one of the estimated 1.3 billion international tourists, they could make a world of difference.

UN Environment

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Green Planet

Increasing Frequency of Cyclones and Flooding Portends Worse Problems

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Sixteen years ago on August 29th, hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana coast causing widespread damage that was estimated at $125 billion.  This year, by a remarkable coincidence, hurricane Ida hit on the same date, again August 29th.  The weather service  holds the end of August though the beginning of September as the period with the highest likelihood of tropical cyclones hitting the Louisiana coast.  In light of this, perhaps the coincidence is not quite as uncanny.

While not as large as Katrina, hurricane Ida was more powerful with winds in excess of 150 miles per hour.  That is in line with climate scientists who now believe extreme weather events will tend to increase in both severity and frequency unless something is done about global warming.

Another example has been the heat wave last June in the Pacific Northwest in which hundreds of people died.  Canada set an all-time-high temperature record of 49.6 degrees Celsius in the village of Lytton.  The chance of all this happening without human-induced global warming is about 1 in a 1000.  However, the warming makes the event 150 times more likely. 

Following Ida was hurricane Larry.  Also powerful, it formed in the Atlantic but luckily for the Atlantic coast chose a path straight north.  These recurring extreme weather events have caught the attention of scientists.  Thus Myhre from the Center for Climate Research in Norway and his coauthors find a strong increase in frequency and confirm previously established intensity.  They collected data for Europe over a three-decade period (1951-1980) and repeated the process for 1984-2013.  This historical data also allowed them to develop climate models for the future, and, as one might imagine, the future is not rosy.

Expanding their horizon, the authors note that historical and future changes in Europe follow a similar pattern.  This does not hold when including the US, Japan and Australia which are likely to experience bigger changes.  Given intensity and frequency going hand in hand and also that the study considered natural variability alone, we can only dread the inclusion of human forcing through climate drivers like greenhouse gases.

For coastal residents, sea level rise adds to the hazard.  Worse, it is now a problem for people several miles inland.  In South Florida, drainage canals are used to return water to the ocean after storm and flooding events; the difficulty now lies in rising sea levels that hinder the efficiency of the drainage canals. 

Residents as far away as 20 miles inland have noticed water coming up their driveway, a new and frightening portend of the future.  The South Florida Water Management District oversees the canals.  It raises and lowers the gates controlling flow to the ocean or vice versa.  Thus they can open the gates to release flood water from storms to the ocean. 

The problem now is that the ocean level in the Atlantic during some storms is higher than the water level inland so they cannot open the gates — that would simply bring in more water.   

All of these happenings are clearly not a happy future prospect … unless we take global warming seriously and act soon. 

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Green Planet

Human activity the common link between disasters around the world

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Disasters such as cyclones, floods, and droughts are more connected than we might think, and human activity is the common thread, a UN report released on Wednesday reveals.

The study from the UN University, the academic and research arm of the UN, looks at 10 different disasters that occurred in 2020 and 2021, and finds that, even though they occurred in very different locations and do not initially appear to have much in common, they are, in fact, interconnected.

A consequence of human influence

The study builds on the ground-breaking Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment released on 9 August, and based on improved data on historic heating, which showed that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General described the IPCC assessment as a “code red for humanity”.

Over the 2020-2021 period covered by the UN University, several record-breaking disasters took place, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a cold wave which crippled the US state of Texas, wildfires which destroyed almost 5 million acres of Amazon rainforest, and 9 heavy storms in Viet Nam – in the span of only 7 weeks.

Arctic-Texas link

Whilst these disasters occurred thousands of miles apart, the study shows how they are related to one another, and can have consequences for people living in distant places.

An example of this is the recent heatwave in the Arctic and cold wave in Texas. In 2020, the Arctic experienced unusually high air temperatures, and the second-lowest amount of sea ice cover on record.

This warm air destabilized the polar vortex, a spinning mass of cold air above the North Pole, allowing colder air to move southward into North America, contributing to the sub-zero temperatures in Texas, during which the power grid froze up, and 210 people died.

COVID and the Cyclone

Another example of the connections between disasters included in the study and the pandemic, is Cyclone Amphan, which struck the border region of India and Bangladesh.

In an area where almost 50 per cent of the population is living under the poverty line, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns left many people without any way to make a living, including migrant workers who were forced to return to their home areas and were housed in cyclone shelters while under quarantine.

When the region was hit by Cyclone Amphan, many people, concerned over social distancing, hygiene and privacy, avoided the shelters and decided to weather the storm in unsecure locations. In the aftermath, there was a spike in COVID-19 cases, compounding the 100 fatalities directly caused by Amphan, which also caused damage in excess of 13 billion USD and displaced 4.9 million people.

Root causes

The new report identifies three root causes that affected most of the events in the analysis: human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, insufficient disaster risk management, and undervaluing environmental costs and benefits in decision-making.

The first of these, human induced greenhouse gas emissions, is identified as one of the reasons why Texas experienced freezing temperatures, but these emissions also contribute to the formation of super cyclones such as Cyclone Amphan, on the other side of the world.

Insufficient disaster risk management, notes the study, was one of the reasons why Texas experienced such high losses of life and excessive infrastructure damage during the cold snap, and also contributed to the high losses caused by the Central Viet Nam floods.

The report also shows how the record rate of deforestation in the Amazon is linked to the high global demand for meat: this demand has led to an increase in the need for soy, which is used as animal feed for poultry. As a result, tracts of forest are being cut down.

“What we can learn from this report is that disasters we see happening around the world are much more interconnected than we may realize, and they are also connected to individual behaviour”, says one of the report’s authors, UNU scientist Jack O’Connor. “Our actions have consequences, for all of us,”

Solutions also linked

However, Mr. O’Connor is adamant that, just as the problems are interlinked, so are the solutions.

The report shows that cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions can positively affect the outcome of many different types of disasters, prevent a further increase in the frequency and severity of hazards, and protect biodiversity and ecosystems.

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Green Planet

Blue sky thinking: 5 things to know about air pollution

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Around 90 per cent of people go through their daily lives breathing harmful polluted air, which has been described by the United Nations as the most important health issue of our time. To mark the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, on 7 September, UN News explains how bad it is and what is being done to tackle it.

1) Air pollution kills millions and harms the environment

It may have dropped from the top of news headlines in recent months, but air pollution remains a lethal danger to many: it precipitates conditions including heart disease, lung disease, lung cancer and strokes, and is estimated to cause one in nine of all premature deaths, around seven million every year.

Air pollution is also harming also harms our natural environment. It decreases the oxygen supply in our oceans, makes it harder for plants to grow, and contributes to climate change.

Yet, despite the damage it causes, there are worrying signs that air pollution is not seen as a priority in many countries: in the first ever assessment of air quality laws, released on 2 September by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), it was revealed that around 43 per cent of countries lack a legal definition for air pollution, and almost a third of them have yet to adopt legally mandated outdoor air quality standards.

2) The main causes

 Five types of human activity are responsible for most air pollution: agriculture, transport, industry, waste and households.

Agricultural processes and livestock produce methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, and a cause of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Methane is also a by-product of waste burning, which emits other polluting toxins, which end up entering the food chain. Meanwhile industries release large amounts of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, particulate matter and chemicals.

Transport continues to be responsible for the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, despite the global phase out of dangerous leaded fuel at the end of August. This milestone was lauded by senior UN officials, including the Secretary-General, who said that it would prevent around one million premature deaths each year. However, vehicles continue to spew fine particulate matter, ozone, black carbon and nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere; it’s estimated that treating health conditions caused by air pollution costs approximately $1 trillion per year globally.

Whilst it may not come as a great shock to learn that these activities are harmful to health and the environment, some people may be surprised to hear that households are responsible for around 4.3 million deaths each year. This is because many households burn open fires and use inefficient stoves inside homes, belching out toxic particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead and mercury.

3) This is an urgent issue

 The reason that the UN is ringing alarm bells about this issue now, is that the evidence of the effects of air pollution on humans is mounting. In recent years exposure to air pollution has been found to contribute to an increased risk of diabetes, dementia, impaired cognitive development and lower intelligence levels.

On top of this, we have known for years that it is linked to cardiovascular and respiratory disease.

Concern about this type of pollution dovetails with increased global action to tackle the climate crisis: this is an environmental issue as well as a health issue, and actions to clean up the skies would go a long way to reducing global warming. Other harmful environmental effects include depleted soil and waterways, endangered freshwater sources and lower crop yields.

4) Improving air quality is a responsibility of government and private sector

On International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, the UN is calling on governments to do more to cut air pollution and improve air quality.

Specific actions they could take include implementing integrated air quality and climate change policies; phasing out petrol and diesel cars; and committing to reduce emissions from the waste sector.

Businesses can also make a difference, by pledging to reduce and eventually eliminate waste; switching to low-emission or electric vehicles for their transport fleets; and find ways to cut emissions of air pollutants from their facilities and supply chains.

5)…and it is our responsibility, as well

At an individual level, as the harmful cost of household activities shows, a lot can be achieved if we change our behaviour.

Simple actions can include using public transportation, cycling or walking; reducing household waste and composting; eating less meat by switching to a plant-based diet; and conserving energy.

The Website for the International Day contains more ideas of actions that we can take, and how we can encourage our communities and cities to make changes that would contribute to cleaner skies: these include organizing tree-planting activities, raising awareness with events and exhibitions, and committing to expanding green open spaces.

How clean is your air?

You may well be wondering exactly how clean or dirty the air around you is right now. If so, take a look at a UNEP website which shows how exposed we are to air pollution, wherever we live.

The site indicates that more than five billion people, or around 70 per cent of the global population, are breathing air that is above the pollution limits recommended by the World Health Organization.

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