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Green Planet

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

Types of Natural Fibers from Plants and Their Characteristics

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Nature has provided abundant resources and can be used into various processed products that can help ease human life. With the enormous potential of nature that is already available, it is the human task to utilize it and maintain the preservation and balance of nature so that it does not become extinct or lost due to excessive use without being accompanied by environmental conservation. One of the wealth that is widely available in nature is natural fiber. Natural fiber is a raw material used in the textile industry which can then be processed into various useful needs, not only into cloth, but many products actually require fiber as a raw material, one example is composites. Composites are generally made of powder or particles which are usually used to increase the strength of the material. However, in the era where technology began to develop, various composites derived from fiber. Fiber composites themselves are the same as composites in general, but the material used is not wood powder or particles but the main ingredient is fiber. So that the type of fiber greatly affects the strength of a composite made.

Generally, fiber comes from 2 sources, namely synthetic fiber and natural fiber. Natural fiber itself can come from animals and plants. Animal fibers such as wool, silk, alpaca, camel, etc. The highest content of animal fiber origin is protein. Then the fiber from plant can be further divided into several types according to its origin, fiber from seeds, stems and leaves. Fibers from seeds such as cotton and kapok, fibers from stems such as ramie and bamboo fibers, fibers from leaves such as pineapple and sisal leaf fibers. Chemically, all fiber derived from plants, the main element in the fiber is cellulose, although other elements in varying amounts are also contained in it, such as hemicellulose, lignin, pectin, ash (Hidayat, 2008).

The trend of using natural fiber to be processed into objects that have benefits and selling value continues to increase from year to year. This happens because many people have realized the importance of protecting the earth, so many have started to use materials that come from nature so that they can be decomposed and do not create waste that is difficult to decompose such as plastic, metal, and styrofoam. The trend of using sustainable materials is very positive and has a good impact in the long term. Because with increasing public awareness about the importance of protecting this aging earth, it can help protect nature and reduce the extinction of animals and plants.

Here are some examples of types of natural fibers and their unique characteristics.

Pineapple leaf fiber

Who would have thought if it turns out that pineapple leaves can be made into fiber that has a high selling value. Pineapple leaf fiber is fiber taken from pineapple leaves. The extraction of fiber from the leaves is carried out by a series of special processes. Pineapple leaves have an outer layer consisting of an upper and lower layer. Between these layers there are many bonds or strands of fibers that are bound to one another by a kind of gummy substance in the leaves. From the weight of fresh green pineapple leaves, approximately 2.5% to 3.5% of pineapple leaf fiber will be produced (Hidayat, 2008). The properties of this pineapple leaf fiber include being able to absorb moisture, its unique color because it has a whitish or silvery accent, it has a very high cellulose content, this fiber is quite strong and does not shrink easily, has antibacterial properties, has a distinctive smell and is shiny.

Hemp fiber

Is a fiber produced from the stems of the flax or flax plant. According to several sources, hemp fiber is one of the fibers that has been used for hundreds of years and is still being processed and utilized. Hemp fiber has a low lignin content, which makes this fiber have a white color. The characteristic properties of hemp fiber are its relatively long fiber, this fiber has better tensile strength than cotton, the absorption capacity of this fiber is quite high, and it has resistance to bacteria and fungi (Fitinline, 2020).

Bamboo Fiber

Is a type of fiber that is processed from the bamboo plant. There are many types of bamboo in this world but the most commonly used bamboo for processing into cloth is banbu moso (Phyllostachys edulis). The process of processing bamboo into fiber is quite complicated but it is comparable because it turns out that bamboo fiber has many advantages. Some of the characteristics of the properties of bamboo fiber include antibacterial and antifungal properties, even after washing it many times, these properties do not disappear but remain, can absorb and reduce odors, have a good absorption rate, and this fiber is very smooth and soft so it is suitable for several applications. people who have sensitive skin (Bamboo, 2016).

Sisal Fiber

Is a fiber that comes from the agave plant, types of agave cantala and agave sisalana. Agave itself is one of the unique types of plants because the stems and leaves are united and the fiber contained in the leaves is quite strong. Sisal fiber itself has the characteristics of hard, rough, very strong and yellowish white. Sisal fiber has many functions that can be used, among others, for textiles, geotextiles, car body reinforcement, crafts, building and construction materials, etc. One sisal plant produces about 200-250 leaves and one leaf contains 1000-1200 fiber bundles(Basuki, 2017).

Abaka Fiber

Is a fiber derived from the leaves of the abaca plant (Musa Textilis) including the family of Musaceae or types of bananas. Abaca fiber has the characteristics of being strong, waterproof, flexible and has good buoyancy. Because of these advantages, this fiber is widely used for the production of ropes and nets, which can also be used for making clothes. As well as raw materials for making filter paper, stencil paper to paper that requires high durability and storage power such as banknotes, securities, document paper, map paper, and other commercial products. Abaca fiber is used as a material for making currency because it has the advantages of fiber, including having the strength not brittle and not easy to break, having a very good texture, shiny like reflecting light, durable, flexible, and resistant to salinity (Balittas R & D agriculture, nd).

Each natural fiber has its own advantages and uniqueness. It is estimated that in the future the use of natural fibers will continue to increase considering the various human needs that are increasing from year to year and increasingly sophisticated technology does not rule out the possibility that in the future the use of natural fibers can be more optimal than now. However, to achieve this, we need to protect and preserve nature and protect the earth so that natural fibers can still grow and not experience extinction or scarcity.

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Global Warming And The Future Of Food

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Kelp, a type of seaweed, can be fed to animals and could help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Unsplash/Shane Stagner

While there may be uncertainty as to the level of global warming, there is little to none about its reality and its anthropological basis.  Even if the warming ceased today, the accumulated energy in the system will continue to raise the average global temperature 0.2C per annum or 2C in a decade.

Add this inexorable rise to another, that is the continued increase in population, and scientists have been exploring foods that may fare better in the new environment.  The six below were the focus of a recent article in Science News (May 21, 2022).

For animal protein, mussels and other bivalves could comprise about 40 percent of our seafood by 2050.  Super-nutritious, they are also easier to scale up in production for the simple reason they do need to be watered or fertilized, or even require land, a scarce resource.  And unlike land-based aquaculture, it is not handicapped by environmental issues.

All in all, edible food from the sea has the potential for an estimated 36-74 percent increase to help feed the 9.8 billion people expected to be living on earth by 2050.

The United Nations has declared 2023 the International Year of Millets following a proposal by India.  A staple in parts of Asia and Africa, it is a hardy crop that is more resilient than wheat to climate change and can grow in poor soil.  It does not require as much water and thrives in a warmer, drier environment.  It can also be turned into beer.  The UN hopes the focus on it in 2023 will raise awareness, encourage global production and increase research investment and extension services.

The Bambara groundnut is native to sub-Saharan Africa.  A drought tolerant legume, it grows well in poor soil without the need for fertilizers.  Bacteria on the plant convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia making it self-sufficient in crucial nitrogen.  Like all legumes, it is rich in protein and is also a source of fiber and the minerals, iron, magnesium and potassium.  It is more drought tolerant than soybeans but has less yield per acre.  However in a warming, harsher climate, it could, unlike soybeans, continue to yield a decent legume crop.

Enset is native to Ethiopia.  Dubbed the false banana because it resembles a banana tree, its starchy stems can be harvested at any time of the year making it a reliable buffer food between crops.  Its processing though is complex and an indigenous art, so any expansion would necessarily have to be led by communities possessing that knowledge.

Cassava is a starchy root vegetable from South America noted for its tolerance to drought and salt.  An added plus is that higher atmospheric CO2 enhances its ability to withstand stress and can result in greater yields. 

Kelp grows in water and is rich in vitamins and minerals, particularly iodine, calcium and iron.  Also, by taking in CO2 it of course aids the environment, but it also lowers the acidity of the water which helps bivalves.  Thus farmers in Maine tend to grow them together.  Kelp is eaten widely in Asia and dried sheets are common in sushi rolls even in the US. 

The above has been a brief summary of what some scientists foresee as food staples of the future.  It is also something to ponder for the rest of us. 

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Healthy planet needs ‘ocean action’ from Asian and Pacific countries

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As the Second Global Ocean Conference opens today in Lisbon, governments in Asia and the Pacific must seize the opportunity to enhance cooperation and solidarity to address a host of challenges that endanger what is a lifeline for millions of people in the region.

If done right ocean action will also be climate action but this will require working in concert on a few fronts.

First, we must invest in and support science and technology to produce key solutions. Strengthening science-policy interfaces to bridge practitioners and policymakers contributes to a sound understanding of ocean-climate synergies, thereby enabling better policy design, an important priority of the Indonesian Presidency of the G20 process. Additionally policy support tools can assist governments in identifying and prioritizing actions through policy and SDG tracking and scenarios development.

We must also make the invisible visible through ocean data: just three of ten targets for the goal on life below water are measurable in Asia and the Pacific. Better data is the foundation of better policies and collective action. The Global Ocean Accounts Partnership (GOAP) is an innovative multi-stakeholder collective established to enable countries and other stakeholders to go beyond GDP and to measure and manage progress towards ocean sustainable development.

Solutions for low-carbon maritime transport are also a key part of the transition to decarbonization by the middle of the century. Countries in Asia and the Pacific recognized this when adopting a new Regional Action Programme last December, putting more emphasis on such concrete steps as innovative shipping technologies, cooperation on green shipping corridors and more efficient use of existing port infrastructure and facilities to make this ambition a reality.

Finally, aligning finance with our ocean, climate and broader SDG aspirations provides a crucial foundation for all of our action. Blue bonds are an attractive instrument both for governments interested in raising funds for ocean conservation and for investors interested in contributing to sustainable development in addition to obtaining a return for their investment.

These actions and others are steps towards ensuring the viability of several of the region’s key ocean-based economic sectors, such as seaborne trade, tourism and fisheries. An estimated 50 to 80 per cent of all life on Earth is found under the ocean surface. Seven of every 10 fish caught around the globe comes from Pacific waters. And we know that the oceans and coasts are also vital allies in the fight against climate change, with coastal systems such as mangroves, salt marshes and seagrass meadows at the frontline of climate change, absorbing carbon at rates of up to 50 times those of the same area of tropical forest.

But the health of the oceans in Asia and the Pacific is in serious decline: rampant pollution, destructive and illegal fishing practices, inadequate marine governance and continued urbanization along coastlines have destroyed 40 per cent of the coral reefs and approximately 60 per cent of the coastal mangroves, while fish stocks continue to decline and consumption patterns remain unsustainable.

These and other pressures exacerbate climate-induced ocean acidification and warming and weaken the capacity of oceans to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Global climate change is also contributing to sea-level rise, which affects coastal and island communities severely, resulting in greater disaster risk , internal displacement and international migration.

To promote concerted action, ESCAP, in collaboration with partner UN agencies, provides a regional platform in support of SDG14, aligned within the framework of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030). Through four editions so far of the Asia-Pacific Day for the Ocean, we also support countries in identifying and putting in place solutions and accelerated actions through regional dialogue and cooperation.

It is abundantly clear there can be no healthy planet without a healthy ocean. Our leaders meeting in Lisbon must step up efforts to protect the ocean and its precious resources and to build sustainable blue economies.

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