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It is time to fix the broken nitrogen cycle

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From breathtaking advances in synthetic biology to pitfalls in climate adaptation, UN Environment’s latest Frontiers report, launched today, explores the biggest emerging environmental issues that will have profound effects on our society, economy and ecosystems, along with some exciting and novel solutions.

By scanning the technological and environmental horizons, the report identifies five major topics:
Synthetic biology, modern biotechnology that combines science and engineering to manufacture and modify genetic materials, living organisms and biological systems.
Ecological connectivity – the linking and bridging of fragmented habitats into a connected landscape to prevent species extinctions.
Permafrost peatlands the ground in the northern hemisphere that remains permanently frozen and holds approximately half of the world’s soil organic carbon, threatened by rising temperatures in the Arctic.
Nitrogen pollution – the disturbance of ecosystems, human health and economies by massively altering of the global nitrogen cycle through human activity.
Maladaptation to climate change – the unintended increases in climate-related damages or diminished welfare of sustainable adaptation efforts.

“The issues examined in Frontiers should serve as a reminder that, whenever we interfere with nature – whether at the global scale or the molecular level – we risk creating long-lasting impacts on our planetary home, “Joyce Musya, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment said in the foreword to the report. “But by acting with foresight and by working together, we can stay ahead of these issues and craft solutions that will serve us all, for generations to come.”

Synthetic Biology: Re-engineering the environment

The report lays out the opportunities and challenges that synthetic biology – or the reengineering of our natural biology – holds for our society, zeroing in on how the genetic manipulation of living organisms to acquire new functions that otherwise do not exist in nature can serve human needs.

CRISPR technology, which enables scientists to cut out a chosen DNA segment and replace it with an entirely new DNA strand, which can alter the characteristics of an organism. With this new DNA, the organism can be released into the wild to mate and expand the appearance of these modified genes in our environment. This might be used to render a species immune to certain diseases or to inhibit the reproduction of invasive species.

The strategies to release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment have raised valid concerns about the potential far-reaching impacts and unintended consequences. This requires multifaceted societal debate because of its power to modify, suppress or replace the entire population of the target species, bypassing the fundamental principles of evolution.

Ecological Connectivity: A bridge to preserving biodiversity

Large-scale industrialization has caused widespread fragmentation of natural landscapes around the globe. Habitats that were once continuous are now compartmentalized and isolated, causing a spiralling decline of some species as they can no longer disperse to find food or mates.

“A consequence of the segmentation of natural landscapes is that mammals and other species are moving less than half the distance they once did,” the report notes. “This limited ability to migrate, disperse, mate, feed and thrive means that wild animals are cornered into a situation where the threat of extinction looms larger.”

Permafrost Peatlands: Losing ground in a warming world

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average and scientists are increasingly concerned at the accelerating rate of permafrost thaw. Permafrost is so expansive that it underlies 25% of the northern terrestrial hemisphere, and it holds titanic volumes of greenhouse gases locked in its peatlands – all which could potentially be released as the ground defrosts. 

Permafrost thaw not only has direct impacts on ecology and infrastructure in local regions, it could set in motion an uncontrollable snowball effect: as carbon is released from the thawing peat and heats the atmosphere, thus worsening climate change ad infinitum.

Research is underway, but at present, too little is known about the precise location of permafrost peatlands, how they’re changing, and what will happen to the atmosphere if they all would thaw.

The Nitrogen Fix: From nitrogen cycle pollution to nitrogen circular economy

Nitrogen is essential for life, and an extremely abundant element in the Earth’s atmosphere. In the form of the N2 molecule, nitrogen is harmless, making up 78 per cent of every breath we take.

Growing demand on the livestock, agriculture, transport, industry and energy sector has led to a sharp growth of the levels of reactive nitrogen – ammonia, nitrate, nitric oxide (NO), nitrous oxide (N2O) – in our ecosystems,

Excess nitrogen pollution has tremendous consequences on humans and the environment. In the form of nitrous oxide, for example, it is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, in addition to the effects of various nitrogen compounds on air quality and the ozone layer.

“Altogether, humans are producing a cocktail of reactive nitrogen that threatens health, climate and ecosystems, making nitrogen one of the most important pollution issues facing humanity,” the report warns. “Yet the scale of the problem remains largely unknown and unacknowledged outside scientific circles.”

Maladaptation to Climate Change: Avoiding pitfalls on the evolvability pathway

In a rapidly changing climate reality, strategies for adaptation need to increase human and ecosystem resilience on a global scale, while avoiding short-term fixes that may only have local benefits.

In its final chapter, the report explores the various ways in which adaptation can go wrong, from processes that do not work to adaptive actions that damage resources, narrow future options, compound the problem faced by vulnerable populations, or pass on responsibility for solutions to future generations.

It delves into the key discussions about what exactly constitutes maladaptation in relation to the objective of keeping global temperatures below 1.5°C and offers guidance on how to implement responsible adaptation strategies.

 “Evidence indicates that maladaptation can be avoided by evaluating all costs and benefits, including co-benefits, for all groups in society, and by being explicit about who the winners and losers will be, and how the burdens could be better shared.”

UN Environment

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Green Planet

How Climate Change Has Been Politicized?

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We are living in a world where the political side of individuals is ruling over the highly sensitive issues like Climate Change even. It is evident that political ambitions of individuals and states have overruled the threatening issue of global climate change and the fact that it is highly politicized. Looking at the discourse that surround the topic of climate change or global warming entails terms like cap and trade, emission intensity, policies, measures etc. but what is still missing is the realization of the impact of human behavior that without any doubt is adding more to the threatening issue.

Scrutinizing the roots of issue from the past, it shot up when industrialization and the race among states to gain more technology, industries, economy and military might have caught everyone’s attention. After that there was a slight wave of realization majorly in the second half of twentieth century, as a result of which mass media started to emphasize on climate change narrative and there were discourses spread through print media to create awareness. As the awareness seemed to have increased the concerns of public regarding the issue also rose ultimately leading to the birth of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. A legacy followed after IPCC and climate change for the first time was coined as an environmental or green issue. There were NGOs like Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and The Environmental Defense Fund that took the voices for Climate Change as their prime priority.

Parallel to this there was a prominent backlash to these efforts too. In late 1980s there was emergence of coalition among many industrial companies of oil and cars that were the highest voices for business at the international level whose prime focus was to make business and turning a blind eye towards the threatening Climate Change. Moreover, the Convention that was considered to be a highly effective one, aimed at reducing global emissions of Carbon and greenhouse gases was framed. But even Kyoto Protocol turned out to be a battle among states whose ambitions were their national interests. In the pursuit of their offensive power and politics the quota allotted to all the member states of the convention was overruled. The richer states started to buy carbon quotas from the poorer states and both were in pursuit of what they needed the most; richer countries emitting carbon and poorer ones getting money. Hence the aim of the convention was severely affected. Adding more to the issue in 2001, the then US President George W. Bush called the Kyoto agreement as fatally flawed and the concern of climate change was no more considered to be a Green issue.

From that day till now, the issue has witnessed lesser ups and major downs in its magnitude and modern times have witnessed degradation of environment due to limitless cycle of consumption and production. As a matter of fact, 2015 to 2018 were recorded as the four hottest years ever. Two major evidences that depict how the issue of severe attention has been politicized for material gains are US withdrawal from Paris Climate Agreement and Kyoto Protocol that went in vain merely because of states only wanting to pursue their material interests and ambitions.

It now turns out to be easily understandable how and why the enigma between soft issue like Climate and hard core politics have led to severe degradation of nature and still the world is not realizing that the future of humanity has been put at risk. Unfortunately, the pursuit of leaders still depict that the humanity would continue to be at risk as long as they are not willing to shift their focus towards the need of the day that is climate change.

Immediate realization is necessitated that the short time political gains of the world is threatening the future of generations to come and the world cannot afford to lose another decade of dismay because decisions and actions done in this decade is going to impact the century to come. If only the world realizes the need of immediate measures, actions and strict compliance and the need of spreading the awareness of the demanding issue through mass media and discourses, then the world would be able to cope the issue and endeavor to save the future of generations to come.

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World Ocean Day And Economic Potential Of Oceans

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The World Ocean Day is celebrated internationally on 8 June every year since 2008, with an aim to advance awareness of the vital importance of oceans, the role they play in sustaining a healthy planet, and to foster public interest in their protection, and the sustainable management of their resources. This year’s theme is “The Ocean: Life and Livelihoods”.

The oceans cover over 70% of the planet. It is our life source, supporting humanity’s sustenance and that of every other organism on earth. These produce at least 50% of the planet’s oxygen. It is home to most of earth’s biodiversity, and is the main source of protein for more than a billion people around the world. The oceans are key to our economy with an estimated 40 million people being employed by ocean-based industries. The mode of transportation through the sea is the cheapest as compared to rail, road, and air. There are around 56,000 merchant ships trading internationally.  Some 11 billion tons of goods are transported through seas.

The oceans offer many organisms including dried sponges, corals & jellyfish, shells of crabs, oysters, conch and other mollusks, pearls and cuttlefish ‘bones’, sea cucumbers, sea horses and many other marine animals to prepare medicines such as antibiotics, powders, ointments and decoctions. Oceans are also a big source of energy in the form of oil and gas. An average 28% of world energy source is from off shore. The coral reefs which are found closer to the coast provide an important ecosystem for life underwater. Thousands of species can be found living on one reef. The reefs protect coastal areas by reducing the power of waves hitting the coast, and provide a crucial source of income for millions of people.

Another importance aspect is Deep Seabed Mining (DSM) to collect metal-rich resources from the deep seafloor, like seafloor massive sulphides, cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts, and polymetallic nodules. Oceans are also a big source of entertainment and sports. As of December 2018, there are 314 cruise ships operating worldwide. This has become a major part of the tourism industry, with an estimated market of $29.4 billion per year, and over 19 million passengers carried worldwide annually. Numerous type of water sport is provided by the seas such as surfing, sailing, swimming, water skiing, scuba diving, canoeing, fishing, and snorkeling etc. It is pertinent to mention that in the Holy Quran, the sea (Albehar) is mentioned 41 times in the verses giving its importance to mankind.  One is quoted here, “It is He who has subjected the sea on to you, that ye may eat fish thereof that is fresh and tender, and extract there-from ornaments to wear, and thou seest the ships therein that plough the waves that ye may seek to enrich yourself of the bounty of Allah and that ye may be grateful (16:14)”.

The oceans need special attention from the mankind to keep these clean especially from various forms of pollutants. The developing and underdeveloped countries usually discharge industrial waste and sewerage into the seas and harbors without proper treatment which pollute the beaches and the harbors. Ships cruising through the oceans sometimes discharge their sludge to clean bilges and sewerage tanks. This unwanted waste virtually reaches to the beaches. It is also injurious to marine life. Although IMO laws exist not to pollute the oceans but some dhows and other small vessels do not follow in letter and spirit. Mangroves are special plants which grow in the salt water in the swampy areas. These are breeding ground for the marine life and provide valuable ecosystem services by protecting the coastline. These plants need special attention for preservation as well as regular forestation.

Pakistan is blessed with about 1002 km long coast. The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extends up to 200 Nautical Miles (370 KM) and extended continental shelf 350 NM (648 km), total area 290,000 square km. Pakistan has not been able to utilize its vast area except for carrying out fishing and means of transportation. Pakistan needs to utilize this huge area by employing latest technological developments in the maritime field to derive maximum economic benefits. Mangroves along the coast are usually used by the poor residents because of no alternate source of energy. The supply of LPG at subsidized cost may be considered. The enforcement of laws regarding industrial waste and sewerage going to sea without proper treatment may be ensured by the concerned authorities.  Pakistan needs to focus on a ‘Sustainable Ocean-led Development Paradigm’ to ‘improve the policy and governance of the marine ecosystem.’ Citizens should be made aware of the importance and potential of this sector for the economy and for job creation. Regular TV talk shows may be conducted for the awareness of the masses. Maritime-related subjects should be included in the curriculum of the universities.

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Water Crisis: Pakistan running dry

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Water is considered to be one of the most important elements on Earth, with two thirds of it covered with water, it is the basic component of human life. Global environment is changing due to the high involvement of humans into nature; they unknowingly contribute to major exploitation of natural resources and then have to face the consequences. Pakistan is already facing a severe water shortage issue, and it is expected that if no emergency measures are taken then the country will dry in the coming years. Pakistan is lacking an efficient water management mechanism, drastic changes are required in policy making regarding the issue in order to secure water for future generations.

Pakistan is a country whose major part of the economy is dependent on agriculture and for the agriculture sector to flourish the country requires continuous supply of water and it is very necessary to ensure availability of water for all domestic, industrial, and economic sectors. By 2035 it is predicted to become a water scarce country, though some experts analyse that this may happen in 2020’s, if not earlier. The on-going water condition is very serious and indicates that Pakistan is on the verge of ending up dry because there is no proper mechanism to ensure water security. Pakistan is ranked amongst one of the most water stressed countries. The availability of water is less and the demand is a lot more. This situation is also known as the ‘Tragedy of Commons’.

There are various major and minor causes of the emerging water crisis in Pakistan. Starting with the Water clash with India which is a constant fear for Pakistan as on various occasions India has threatened and practically stopped the flow of water towards Pakistan and often violated the Indus Water Treaty. Moreover the mismanagement and wastage of resources had added much to this crisis; lastly the political elite still shows no seriousness regarding this issue which is further deteriorating the situation. The Water Scarcity in Pakistan is the result or consequence of inefficient water management by the country. It is time that the country gets serious on the issue and generates proper mechanisms to ensure water security. From the very individual level steps should be taken to conserve water. Political parties should make this issue part of their manifestos and government should initiate National Action Plan to conserve water and reduce wastage of water, through lining of canals, construction of dams and creating awareness all across the country about the adverse situation and what measures are to be adopted in order to overcome this severe crisis. If this adverse situation prolonged it is expected that within Pakistan amongst provinces and internationally amongst countries a war will start, “War on Water”.

Water is not only important for sustenance of life but equally essential for socio-economic development. The rapid growing need of water in the country can only be met through continuous supply of water and for that Pakistan needs to formulate proper mechanisms to conserve water through all possible measures. Therefore, construction dams/reservoirs and an effective water management strategy are the need of time.

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