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Dangerous Plastics Are a Threat to Us and Future Generations

Meena Miriam Yust

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Every day people make decisions about what to eat, sometimes opting for colorful fruits and veggies, sometimes finding the smell of bacon irresistible.  At the end of the day people are controlling their own health.  What is remarkable though, is the possibility that something one swallows today could have a lasting effect on future offspring – children, grandchildren, great grandchildren.  New research is finding a generational impact of certain chemicals.  This time it’s not the bacon we’re worried about – but plastics and the toxins within them.  

Twenty years ago, researchers  at Washington State University discovered accidentally that the now-infamous bisphenol A (BPA) was leaching out of plastic cages, harming the mice within.  The contamination caused abnormalities in mice eggs and fertility.  Numerous subsequent studies found BPA exposure affects adult fertility and health across species, including monkeys, fish, and humans.  Known to decrease sperm count in rats and to cause breast cancer in women, BPA was banned in 2012 by the FDA from being used in baby bottles and sippy cups.  Yet BPA is still used in many products, including epoxy resins used to coat canned foods.  A 2004 study of 2,517 people found that 93% had detectable quantities of BPA’s by-product in their urine. 

Since the toxic effects of BPA came to light, several replacement bisphenols were quickly brought to market by chemical companies and are now in widespread use.  Twenty years after the BPA toxicity discovery, by remarkable chance, the same Washington State University lab recently noticed again that something was amiss with their mice.  This time the mice were housed in cages comprised of replacement bisphenols, largely believed to be safer than BPA.  The researchers subsequently performed controlled studies with several of the replacement bisphenols including BPS, a widely used replacement.  

Results demonstrated that the new bisphenols behaved similarly to BPA, causing health problems including detrimental effects on fertility in both males and females, reported in Cell Biology in September 2018.  Scientist Sarah Hunt explained, “This paper reports a strange déjà vu experience in our laboratory.”  What the lab discovered once with BPA, it was seeing again with the replacements.  Perhaps most troubling were the long-lasting effects of the toxins.  Even if all bisphenols could be magically eliminated today, the toxic effects would still last about three generations through the germline of people already exposed.  This means bisphenols ingested today could affect the fertility of one’s great grandchildren.

The bisphenol case demonstrates that FDA bans do not necessarily solve the root problem.  Chemical companies tend to roll out similar chemicals to those that have been banned, because this is the easiest way to bring something to market quickly.  But more testing is needed before chemicals are released into the environment.  Long term problems such as generational infertility and cancer risk often cannot easily be examined in clinical trials, and environmental effects are not rigorously analyzed prior to release.  

The Washington State University study also proved that damaged and heated plastics are particularly deadly, as the damaged cages leached more toxins.  This should serve as a warning for those who microwave food in plastic containers for their families.  And it should remind us that discarded plastic bottles degrading in oceans and rivers are releasing toxins that cause irreversible infertility.

The current estimate of plastics in our oceans is approximately 150 million metric tons. By 2050, the amount is expected to ‘outweigh the fish,’ according to Jim Leape, co-director of the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions.  A recent study has determined microplastics (small plastic particles) are present in every river and lake in Britain.  And they have been found in tap water, everywhere from the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC to the Trump Grill in New York.  A study of 159 drinking water samples on five continents found that 83% of those samples were contaminated.  Plastics are everywhere, from the highest mountains to the deepest parts of the ocean and Arctic.  Nanoplastics less than 50 nanometers long have even been found in plankton, which is ingested by fish that humans eat.

Scientists are finding that plastics are disrupting marine mammals’ ability to reproduce.  Many forms of plastic including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and Bisphenol A are endocrine disruptors, meaning they affect the hormonal systems of animals.  An orca of adult age called Lulu, researchers recently found, was barren as if she was a juvenile.  Analysis revealed very high levels of PCBs in her lipid tissues.  One orca pod off the coast of Scotland has not produced a calf in 25 years.  Despite bans on PCBs 30 years ago,  toxins remain in orca mothers’ milk, and are passed from mother to baby.  A recent study published in the journal Science predicts that half the world’s population of orcas will be extinct in just a few decades due to PCB poisoning.  Researchers have also found that despite the PCB ban in Europe, levels of PCBs have not decreased, indicated that they may be leaching out of landfills.  Hormone disruptors have also been found to impair male frogs’ fertility, and to cause tadpoles to more frequently develop ovaries rather than testicles, thus skewing the proportion of males to females.  Similar problems have been found in fish.  Reproductive risks associated with endocrine disrupting chemicals span species.

Bisphenol A is known to decrease sperm count and to cause cancer in many species.  Its counterpart replacement plastics (BPS, BPF, BPAF, BPZ, BPP, BHPF… to name just a few), researchers have recently discovered, are no better.  Whether these pollutants have already affected humans is anyone’s guess, but it would be wise to view statistics during the time period since plastics became popular, starting in the 1960s, and to see if there is a significant trend over time.  

It appears there is.  Notably, a 2017 study found that sperm counts per milliliter declined by more than 50% from 1973 to 2011, with total sperm counts down almost 60%.  Two other recent studies have demonstrated that over the past few decades in the U.S. and Europe, both sperm count and motility have decreased.

The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) recently debated a proposed legally binding treaty to address plastic pollution.  One objective of the proposed treaty was to phase out single use plastics by 2025.  Norway also suggested a global agreement for handling ocean plastic pollution.  Sadly, the U.S. was the largest voice against the proposed treaty and the proposed global waste disposal plan.  

Eventually a non-legally-binding agreement was reached in which the U.S. watered down the language to “significantly reduce” plastics by 2030, eleven years from now.  One UN delegate described the Trump representatives as “trying to remove all targets and timelines.”  

Meanwhile, the U.S. has been exporting large quantities of plastics overseas for years, historically mostly to China.  In the previous year, 70% was exported to China and Hong Kong.  But in 2018, China banned imports of plastic waste.  Since the ban the U.S. has looked to poorer nations for its overseas garbage dump.  Unearthed, Greenpeace’s research group, has found that in the first six months of 2018, almost half of U.S. plastic waste was sent to developing countries: Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam.  U.S. plastic waste exports to Thailand went up by nearly 2,000% this year.  

Most developing nations do not have sufficient recycling infrastructure to properly handle plastic waste.  On Earth Day 2018, the top producers of mismanaged ocean plastic waste were ranked by tons of waste.  The top five after China were Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.  In some cases as in parts of the Philippines, recycling is done laboriously by hand, picking bottles out of large dumps.  As this is very difficult and time consuming, large quantities find their way into oceans and rivers.  Sadly and not surprisingly, the Pasig River in the Philippines transports approximately 72,000 tons of plastic downstream, and has been declared “biologically dead” since 1990.  Instead of helping these countries to develop recycling infrastructure, we are sending them more toxic waste.

We might think we are kicking the can down the road by sending plastics overseas but they will wash right back up on the Hawaiian and California coast.  Beachgoers might witness solid litter washing ashore, or unearthed from the stomachs of dead whales.  Or they might not notice the pollution  — instead unknowingly consuming microplastics in their next Ahi Tuna sandwich.  On the East Coast, one might encounter them in a glass of water at the Trump Grill in New York.  There is only one world sink after all.  Tossing poison to the other end of the tub only works for so long – it will inevitably, over time, mix and wash back to your side of the water.  And when one of us is diagnosed with cancer, do we really know the cause? 

It is instructive to remember the orca Lulu, a mammal like us, who no longer produces eggs.  And to remember that if sperm counts continue to decline at the present rate, they will soon reach levels where it becomes difficult to have children.  By then, the world’s water supply may be irreversibly contaminated and an enforceable treaty will be too late.

Postponing a legally binding treaty may put us on the path of our fellow mammals the orcas, half of which already face inevitable extinction worldwide.  And we can not forget the tragedy of the orca Tahlequah, who last summer carried her dead calf for a record 17 days and 1,000 miles in mourning. 

Eleven years may be too late.  

Author’s note: this piece first appeared in CommonDreams.org

Meena Miriam Yust is an attorney based in Chicago, Illinois. Educated at Vassar College and Case Western Reserve University School of Law, she published a draft Migratory Insect Treaty with commentary in the Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law.

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Carbon market negotiations under the Paris Agreement

Luca Lo Re

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Climate negotiators gathered in Bonn, Germany, in recent weeks for talks aimed at making progress ahead of the COP25 meeting in Santiago, Chile, in December. (Photograph: UNFCCC)

The world’s climate negotiators recently concluded two weeks of discussions about the next steps for the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement, with carbon market rules high on the agenda.

The annual mid-year climate negotiations are generally held ahead of the annual Conference of the Parties (COP), the top decision-making body for climate negotiations.

The recent COP24, in Katowice, Poland, was heralded by many as a success in multilateralism and diplomacy. It adopted an almost complete set of rules and guidelines supporting implementation of the Paris Agreement. However, the parties did not ultimately reach a consensus on one specific area: the rules for using carbon markets.

These rules are known in the climate jargon as the “Article 6 rules”, after the Paris Agreement article that mandates them. After the inconclusive talks at COP24, negotiators were tasked to come up with a new proposal for the Article 6 rules that could be adopted at the next COP25, in Santiago, Chile, later this year.

At the recent meeting in Bonn, which concluded last week, countries made good progress on technical discussions and came up with a new negotiating text. But disagreements remain about the status of the text and how to take it forwards. This means that there is everything to play for as we move towards COP25.

Here are some key points for understanding why carbon markets matter so much under the Paris Agreement and what the bottlenecks are in the negotiations.

What is Article 6 of the Paris Agreement?

Carbon markets are aimed at lowering the cost of reducing greenhouse gases emissions. Expanding and linking those markets internationally can help further drive down the cost of achieving emission reduction targets, helping to stimulate the needed investments for clean energy transitions.

By agreeing to Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, countries opened the way for a new form of international interaction on carbon markets. Article 6 builds on a long history of market approaches under the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement’s predecessor.

Article 6 is intended to support countries in enhancing the ambitions of their stated climate actions, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which collectively contribute to the overarching goal of the Paris Agreement: keeping the rise in global average temperatures to well below 2 degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, the nature of carbon markets means that robust rules are important to ensure that environmental and sustainable development gains are realised. Article 6 introduces two voluntary market-based paths for international co-operation.

Article 6.2 sets out the principles for voluntary co-operative approaches. One country can transfer so-called “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes” (ITMOs) to another country, which can then use them towards its NDC target. These transfers must apply robust and transparent accounting rules to avoid double counting of ITMOs and to ensure environmental integrity. The transfers can take place using various approaches and mechanisms, such as bilateral cooperation programmes between countries, or national or regional emission trading schemes (ETS).

Article 6.4 establishes a mechanism to contribute to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and support sustainable development, under the oversight of a central UN governance body. Public and private entities can participate in this mechanism if authorised by a country. While the main intention is that emissions reductions from the mechanism will count towards achievement of countries’ NDCs, the mechanism could also be used in other ways. For example, airlines could use credits from the mechanism to comply with the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Other companies could use them to count towards carbon neutrality. However, double counting of these emission reductions must be avoided.

Despite the lack of a formal outcome on Article 6 at the recent negotiations in Bonn, countries made substantial progress and had constructive discussions. Differences remain on several issues ahead of COP25, though. For instance, countries have not yet agreed on an accounting system to avoid double counting and other elements needed to prevent potential environmental integrity risks.

How is the IEA contributing?

The IEA is contributing to the discussions on Article 6 – as well as to the negotiations more broadly – through technical analysis by the joint OECD-IEA Climate Change Expert Group (CCXG). For more than 25 years, the CCXG has been developing and publishing technical papers in consultation with a wide range of countries to inform ongoing climate negotiations.

Through the CCXG, the IEA recently co-published a technical paper that analyses two specific unresolved issues in the negotiations of rules for Article 6 of the Paris Agreement: the accounting system of Article 6.2, and the implications of a potential transition of Kyoto Protocol mechanisms to the Article 6.4 mechanism. The outcomes of the paper were presented at a side event during the Bonn conference and directly informed the negotiations.

The CCXG also convenes two major events per year to promote dialogue among government delegates and experts from developed and developing economies, outside of the formal negotiations. Discussions stretch well beyond carbon markets, also covering the transparency framework of the Paris Agreement and climate finance issues, among others. The next edition of these invitation-only Global Forums on the Environment and Climate Change will be held at the IEA headquarters in Paris on 1-2 October. In addition, the IEA is ramping up its efforts to support countries in implementing and enhancing their NDCs.

IEA

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Does economic growth worth degrading the environment?

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Although environmental consequences of economic growth bring about numerous reactions of economists and environmentalists, there is still doubt that environment protection rules and regulations hinder economic growth, or future development has dire consequences on the environment which does not worth it.

Here the question arises that whether eliminating natural resources must continue to make up for the slow economic growth or come up with more practicable solutions to safeguard non-renewable resources.

Many cases in Iran and other countries demonstrate the direct relation between socio-economic development and environmental degradation, showing that human are using natural resources at a pace much faster than it can replenish.

For instance, deforestation is the permanent destruction of forests in order to make the land available for other uses. An estimated 18 million acres (7.3 million hectares) of forest, which is roughly the size of the country of Panama, are lost each year, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Reza Bayani, an official with Forests, Range and Watershed Management Organization said in April that approximately 12,000 hectares of forests across Iran is wiped out annually.

Bayani referring to illegal logging as the leading cause of forest degradation, noted that timber smuggling steadily proceeding in the forests poses a serious threat to the country’s ecology for a minor population benefits.

Yousefali Ebrahimpour, commander of the protection unit of natural resources and watershed management department of West Azarbaijan province said in February that over 450 tons of smuggled log has been seized in the forests in the province, which were being smuggled to the northern provinces of the country.

While the following year flash floods in 31 provinces of the country started on March 19, caused great losses and damages which was due to deforestation and vegetation depletion in addition to building encroaching river beds.

Seyed Mohammad Mojabi, head of environment committee of the Expediency Council, said in May that following recurrent droughts and low precipitation, related organizations believed that severe rainfalls seem far-fetched in a country with arid and semi-arid climate and decided to allow construction projects through river banks, which increased flood devastation.

Road construction also is another way of development which is at loggerheads with nature, mainly resulting in many irreparable damages including road surface erosion and sediment yield, slope failures and mass movement, direct loss of habitat (by the conversion of the original land cover into an artificial surface) and indirect loss of habitat (by the fragmentation of an ecosystem into smaller and more isolated patches).

The chief of Mazandaran provincial department of environment Ebrahim Fallahi said in September 2018 that long stretches of roads are under construction in Savadkuh forest.

Moreover, excessive groundwater withdrawal, dam construction, water transfer projects, land use changes and wildfires are also the fallouts of unplanned industrial expansion which bring environmental damages, and if thinking deeply it can be realized that they can also cause immeasurable financial losses in the long run.

Mohammad Reza Goldansaz, a researcher in the field of water resources stated in June that an annual amount of 50 billion cubic meters of groundwater resources are withdrawn to supply agricultural, industrial as well as drinking water in Iran.

How growth even affects air we breathe?

When it comes to air pollution the situation even gets more complex, as car manufacturing companies produce more cars without scrapping emitting clunker ones for generating profit and responsible devices not improving fuel quality, in addition to not preparing proper plan to curb the emissions.

Deputy interior minister for urban and rural development, Mehdi Jamalinejad, has said that some 22,000 busses are operating in the country’s public transport fleet, 16,000 of which are clunkers, accounting for 70 percent of the volume of bus transport system.

Ali Mohammadi, an official with traffic police, said in January that the scrappage of clunker vehicles has decreased by 65 percent in the past Iranian calendar year 1397 (ended in March 2019) compared to a year earlier.

While last year some 140,000 vehicles were scrapped, this year only 50,000 old vehicles were discarded, he added.

Environment should not be destroyed for sake of growth

MP Homayoun Yousefi has said that economic growth is not worth of environmental degradation.

He lamented that environmental protection has decreased in Western Asia, which is mostly due to decision making is based on personal tastes not environmental assessment.

“Iran’s climate being arid is fragile, so development should be done in light of the fragility and low capacity of the country’s environment,” he highlighted, regretting, nature seems to be less considered in some development plans.

“An important factor for showing power of countries is sustainable environment, and we also need to focus more on the environment in this regard,” he added.

Toward economic growth while safeguarding environment

Green production is likely to become the center of attention globally in the near future due to the proven importance of environment, however, economic and industrial expansion resulting in urbanization are a reality that is inevitable specially in developing countries, so, we must never lose sight of the need to safeguard the environment.

Every country regarding the resources each have, has an important opportunity to make policies or take steps in line with regulations which can guide it to developmental goals. By considering environmental issues and planning for appropriate confrontation measures wherever necessary, we can even set a role model for other countries to follow.

From our partner Tehran Times

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India joins the Climate and Clean Air Coalition

MD Staff

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India has formally joined the Climate & Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), becoming the 65th country to join the partnership, following through on a commitment made by the country’s newly-appointed Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar, during last month’s World Environment Day celebrations.

The announcement underlines India’s commitment to combat air pollution with a solutions-oriented approach.  

“India will work with Coalition countries to adopt cleaner energy sustainable production and consumption patterns and environment-friendly transport, agriculture, industry and waste management to promote clean air,” Minister Javadekar said. “India has taken a lead role in combating air pollution; these activities, including bilateral and multilateral cooperation with partners, will highlight India’s initiatives and expertise in the field.” 

India plans to work with Climate Clean and Coalition countries on best practices and experiences for the effective implementation of India’s National Clean Air Programme (NCAP).

Launched in January 2019, the NCAP is a comprehensive strategy with actions to prevent, control and reduce air pollution and improve air quality monitoring across the country. It aims to reduce fine particulate (PM2.5) and particulate (PM10) air pollution by 20 per cent–30 per cent by 2024. India has identified 102 non-attainment cities, with city-specific action plans being formulated.

Clean air and climate-friendly technologies will be at the forefront of sustainable development for all countries; India is a global leader in the development of technologies, infrastructure and policies in this field.

In 2015, India initiated the International Solar Alliance, a global coalition of nations tackling climate change by leveraging the power of solar energy, and has increased its vehicle emissions standards to BS6, which is similar to Euro 6 standards. In 2017, the Central Government announced that from 2030, all new vehicles sold in the country would be electric.

The Coalition offers India a well-established and action-oriented partnership platform, which will be instrumental in the implementation of the country’s ambitious National Clean Air Programme and will help define priorities when it comes to action on air pollution, development and climate co-benefits of it.

In addition, the Coalition can support India’s efforts to develop the governance and local capacities to adopt and implement environmentally friendly technologies and solutions.

“It is with great pleasure that the CCAC welcomes India as a new partner to the Coalition. India joins a coalition of 64 countries that strives for better air quality, and at the same time, for the mitigation of climate change. With a population of 1.3 billion people, India is a key partner for global action on climate and clean air,” said Yuka Greiler, Head of the Global Programme for Climate Change and Environment at the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and Co-chair to the Climate and Clean Air Coalition. “The participation of India in the CCAC will also reinforce the Coalition. We very much look forward to learning from India’s experiences and to continuing to foster exchanges of experiences among our Coalition partners.”

Albert Magalang, Head of the Climate Change Office of the Philippines and Co-chair of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition said:

“Joining hands with all the partner countries and organizations of CCAC, it is with gladness that we welcome India as the newest partner of the Coalition. India has a great story to share with the whole world in its move to beat air pollution and to mitigate climate change. India’s participation in the Coalition is a great addition to the ever-growing partnership in our fight for clean air and climate change. We are looking forward to the experiences, stories, and knowledge India will impart to the Coalition. Again, welcome aboard, India!”

Helena Molin Valdés, Head of the UNEP-hosted Climate and Clean Air Coalition Secretariat, said India’s leadership and participation in the Coalition would be vital to achieving the Coalition goals to reduce air pollution and keep globally to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030.

“We look forward to working with India on practical steps to reduce short-lived climate pollutants and air pollution. India is already taking the initiative through its National Clean Air Programme and in key sectors like transportation, household energy and waste management,” Ms Molin Valdés said. “These activities and cooperation between partners will highlight India’s leadership and international outreach in the global effort to fight air pollution and climate change.”

The Climate and Clean Air Coalition is a voluntary global partnership of 65countries, 17 intergovernmental organizations, and 56 businesses, scientific institutions and civil society organizations committed to catalyzing concrete, substantial action to reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants, including methane, black carbon and many hydrofluorocarbons.

The Coalition has 11 initiatives working to raise awareness, mobilize resources and lead transformative actions in key sectors. Reducing short-lived climate pollutants can provide benefits to health, development, and the environment; implementing these initiatives can prevent more than 2.5 million premature deaths from air pollution every year. These actions must go hand-in-hand with deep and persistent cuts to carbon dioxide and other long-lived greenhouse gases if we are to achieve the goal of the Paris Agreement and keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

UN Environment

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