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Air pollution and climate change: Two sides of the same coin

MD Staff

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Erupting volcanoes, earthquakes, dust storms and meteorites smashing into the Earth’s crust are natural phenomena that can cause climate change and air pollution: dinosaurs may have met their end after a giant meteorite kicked up so much dust that it blocked out the sun for decades, reducing photosynthesis and preventing the growth of plants.

Adding to these potential threats, we have also been contributing to air pollution and global warming through our resource-intensive lifestyles. We’re producing and consuming more than ever before, and we’re generating more greenhouse gases as a result, as well as air pollutants in the form of chemicals and particulate matter, including “black carbon”.

Although they may seem to be two very different issues, climate change and air pollution are closely interlinked, so by reducing air pollution we also protect the climate. Air pollutants include more than just greenhouse gases—principally carbon dioxide but also methane, nitrous oxide and others—but there’s a big overlap: the two often interact with each other.

For instance, air pollution in the form of particulate matter from diesel engines is circulated around the globe, ending up in the most remote places, including the polar regions. When it lands on ice and snow it darkens them slightly, leading to less sunlight being reflected back into space, and contributing to global warming. The slightly warmer temperatures encourage plants in the sub-Artic region to grow a tiny bit bigger, and as they grow through the snow they cast a shadow, which, when multiplied over millions of small plants, also has the effect of darkening the Earth’s surface, leading to further warming.

The good news is that immediate changes to air pollution levels also have immediate effects. Quick action on reducing highly potent, short-lived climate pollutants—methane, tropospheric ozone, hydrofluorocarbons and black carbon—can significantly decrease the chances of triggering dangerous climate tipping points, like the irreversible release of carbon dioxide and methane from thawing Arctic permafrost.

Meanwhile, we should continue cutting down on the release of long-lived greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.

A recent concern is trichlorofluoromethane, or CFC-11, which is to be phased out worldwide under the Montreal Protocol, the global agreement to protect the ozone layer. The industrial gas, used illegally, for example, in insulation material, also contributes to global warming.

Aerosols, the atmospheric pollutant with an effect on the climate

The October 2018 report by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlights the importance of keeping global temperature rises to 1.5˚C below pre-industrial era levels. Urgent action is need over the next 12 years if there is to be any chance of achieving this target.

Aerosols may be of either natural or anthropogenic origin and can influence climate in several ways: “through both interactions that scatter and/or absorb radiation and through interactions with cloud microphysics and other cloud properties, or upon deposition on snow- or ice-covered surfaces thereby altering their albedo and contributing to climate feedback,” says the Panel’s report.

It defines aerosols as “a suspension of airborne solid or liquid particles, with a typical size between a few nanometres and 10 μm that reside in the atmosphere for at least several hours.”

The report defines air pollution as “degradation of air quality with negative effects on human health or the natural or built environment due to the introduction, by natural processes or human activity, into the atmosphere of substances (gases, aerosols) which have a direct (primary pollutants) or indirect (secondary pollutants) harmful effect.”

Air pollution is the theme for World Environment Day on 5 June 2019. The quality of the air we breathe depends on the lifestyle choices we make every day. Learn more about how air pollution affects you, and what is being done to clean the air. What are you doing to reduce your emissions footprint and #BeatAirPollution?

The 2019 World Environment Day is hosted by China.

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Green Planet

India advances ground-breaking plan to keep planet and people cool

MD Staff

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India’s new comprehensive Cooling Action Plan targets an increase in sustainable cooling for the good of its population, while helping to fight climate change

Four years after temperatures hit the high forties in India, claiming over 2,000 lives, parts of the country are again baking in intense, and deadly, heatwaves. Throughout April and into May, the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan have seen daily highs of 42°C.

As climate change increases, such temperatures are becoming the new normal. Combined with economic growth and urbanization, this brings a huge growth in cooling demand. The number of air conditioners in India is expected to rise from 15 million in 2011 to 240 million in 2030.

Cooling isn’t just about protecting against extreme temperatures. A recent study from the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative puts India in the top nine countries at greatest risk from lack of access to cooling technology that also keeps food fresh, vaccines stable and children in education.

To give just a few examples, a quarter of vaccines in India arrive damaged because of broken or inefficient cold chains, while only four per cent of fresh produce is transported in refrigerated vehicles, leading to economic losses of US$4.5 billion annually.

Aware of these worrying statistics, the government launched earlier this year the India Cooling Action Plan, the first such holistic plan from any national government.

“Cooling is a developmental need, yet India has one of the lowest levels of access in the world,” says CK Mishra, Secretary at the Ministry for Environment, Forest and Climate Change. “To support economic growth and improve resilience, it is inevitable that India will embrace cooling.

“By accelerating and integrating policies, regulations, workforce training and research and development, this plan mobilizes government, industry and society to ensure thermal comfort for all while keeping to our international environmental commitments and not burdening ourselves with inefficient, expensive infrastructure and an overstretched power grid.

“The plan recognizes the significant role of accelerated action on building and appliance efficiency, and the economic and environmental benefits of new technologies such as thermal storage and district cooling.”

Energy efficiency a key approach

By 2038, the plan aims to reduce cooling demand by up to 25 per cent, refrigerant demand by 25–30 per cent and cooling energy requirements by up to 40 per cent. It aims to double farmers’ incomes by improving the cold chain and so wasting less food.

These are big goals, but experts believe India’s plan is sensible and achievable.

“Living in India you quickly understand the importance of keeping cool for your health and day-to-day functioning,” says Benjamin Hickman, a UN Environment technical advisor based in India. “This plan acknowledges head-on that Indian cooling demand will grow eightfold in 20 years and recommends a myriad of cross-cutting solutions that urgently need to be implemented and scaled up.”

Crucially, the plan also aligns India’s cooling growth with the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. This international agreement obliges nations to phase down the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)—refrigerants that are thousands of times more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide.

Globally, the agreement can deliver up to 0.4°C of avoided warming by the end of this century just by phasing out hydrofluorocarbons. Simultaneously improving the energy efficiency of cooling equipment could double the benefits. According to a study by the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory, such energy efficiency improvements can benefit India. If the average room air conditioner efficiency improves by six per cent per year, more than 64 TWh per year of energy could be saved by 2030. This would cut greenhouse gas emissions, protect cities’ power infrastructure from overload, and bring cumulative consumer benefits of up to US$25 billion.

Prioritizing new cooling solutions

The plan doesn’t just look at efficiency. It prioritizes other solutions, such as passive cooling, building design, fans and coolers, new technologies and behavioural change. Among the new technologies is district cooling—the distribution of cooling energy from a central plant to multiple buildings.

The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change is co-chair of the UN Environment-led District Energy in Cities Initiative, which is working with three pilot cities—Amaravati, Rajkot and Thane – in India to demonstrate these technologies. Three quarters of the buildings required for 2030 have yet to be built, so there is a huge opportunity for new urban developments to use district cooling, which can be up to 50 per cent more efficient than stand-alone solutions.

“UN Environment praises India’s leadership in being the first country to adopt a comprehensive plan for the cooling sector,” says Atul Bagai, Head of UN Environment’s India Country Office. “Singling cooling out is vital to scaling up and targeting action on what has for years been a silently growing environmental catastrophe, and India’s Cooling Action Plan should set the benchmark for other countries to follow. UN Environment stands ready to support India to achieve and surpass its targets.”

Last month, UN Environment, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program, and Sustainable Energy for All launched the Cool Coalition. The coalition is a unified front that links action across the Kigali Amendment, Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals. It will inspire ambition, identify solutions and mobilize action to accelerate progress towards clean and efficient cooling.

These kinds of actions provide hope that we can help keep everyone, and the planet, cool.

UN Environment

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Just One-Third of the World’s Longest Rivers Remain Free-Flowing

MD Staff

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Just over one-third (37%) of the world’s 246 longest rivers remain free-flowing, according to a new study published in the scientific journal Nature. Dams and reservoirs are drastically reducing the diverse benefits that healthy rivers provide to people and nature across the globe.

A team of 34 international researchers from McGill University, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and other institutions [1] assessed the connectivity status of 12 million kilometers (~7.5 million miles) of rivers worldwide, providing the first ever global assessment of the location and extent of the planet’s remaining free-flowing rivers. [2]

Among other findings, the researchers determined only 21 of the world’s 91 rivers longer than 1,000 km (~600 miles) that originally flowed to the ocean still retain a direct connection from source to sea. The planet’s remaining free-flowing rivers are largely restricted to remote regions of the Arctic, the Amazon Basin, and the Congo Basin.

“The world’s rivers form an intricate network with vital links to land, groundwater, and the atmosphere,’’ said lead author Günther Grill of McGill’s Department of Geography. ‘’Free-flowing rivers are important for humans and the environment alike, yet economic development around the world is making them increasingly rare. Using satellite imagery and other data, our study examines the extent of these rivers in more detail than ever before.”

Dams and reservoirs are the leading contributors to connectivity loss in global rivers. The study estimates there are around 60,000 large dams worldwide, and more than 3,700 hydropower dams are currently planned or under construction. They are often planned and built at the individual project level, making it difficult to assess their real impacts across an entire basin or region.

“Rivers are the lifeblood of our planet,” said Michele Thieme, lead freshwater scientist at WWF and global leader of WWF’s free-flowing rivers initiative. “They provide diverse benefits that are often overlooked and undervalued. This first-ever map of the world’s remaining free-flowing rivers will help decision makers prioritize and protect the full value rivers give to people and nature.”

Healthy rivers support freshwater fish stocks that improve food security for hundreds of millions of people, deliver sediment that keeps deltas above rising seas, mitigate the impact of extreme floods and droughts, prevent loss of infrastructure and fields to erosion, and support a wealth of biodiversity. Disrupting rivers’ connectivity often diminishes or even eliminates these critical ecosystem services.

Protecting remaining free-flowing rivers is also crucial to saving biodiversity in freshwater systems. Recent analysis of 16,704 populations of wildlife globally showed that populations of freshwater species experienced the most pronounced decline of all vertebrates over the past half-century, falling on average 83 percent since 1970.

The study also notes that climate change will further threaten the health of rivers worldwide. Rising temperatures are already impacting flow patterns, water quality, and biodiversity. Meanwhile, as countries around the world shift to low-carbon economies, hydropower planning and development is accelerating, adding urgency to the need to develop energy systems that minimize overall environmental and social impact.

“Renewable energy is like a recipe – you have to find the right mix of ingredients to have both a sustainable energy grid and a thriving natural world,” said Thieme. “While hydropower inevitably has a role to play in the renewable energy landscape, well-planned wind and solar energy can be more viable options for rivers and the communities, cities, and biodiversity that rely on them.”

The international community is committed to protect and restore rivers under Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, which requires countries to track the extent and condition of water-related ecosystems. This study delivers methods and data necessary for countries to maintain and restore free-flowing rivers around the world.

Visit freeflowingrivers.org for more information on free-flowing rivers and an interactive map of the world’s rivers.

[1] Contributing Institutions:

McGill University, WWF-US, WWF-NL, WWF-UK, WWF-Mediterranean, WWF-India, University of Basel, Joint Research Centre (JRC), WWF-China, WWF-Canada, WWF-Zambia, WWF Greater Mekong Programme, The Nature Conservancy, University of Nevada, WWF-Malaysia, IHE Delft, WWF- Germany and HTWG Konstanz, King’s College London, Umeå University, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, University of Washington, Harvard University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Conservation International , WWF-Mexico, WWF International, Stanford University, Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB), Freie Universität Berlin, WWF-Brazil, Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen.

[2]  First ever science-based definition of a free-flowing river:

Rivers where ecosystem functions and services are largely unaffected by changes to fluvial connectivity allowing an unobstructed exchange of water, material, species, and energy within the river system and with surrounding landscapes.

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5 things you need to know about forests and the UN

MD Staff

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Forests are vitally important for sustaining life on Earth, and play a major role in the fight against climate change. With the 2019 session of the United Nations Forum on Forests wrapping up on Friday in New York, we delve deeper into the subject, and find out what the UN is doing to safeguard and protect them.

Forests are the most cost-effective way to fight climate change

Arguably, protection and enhancing the world’s forests is one of the most cost-effective forms of climate action: forests act as carbon sinks, absorbing roughly 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.  Sustainable forest management can build resilience and help mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Speaking at the 2018 UN climate conference (COP24) in Katowice, Poland, Liu Zhemin, head of the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), said that “forests are central in developing solutions both to mitigate and adapt to climate change, adding that “these terrestrial ecosystems have already removed nearly one third of human-produced carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere. Through sustainable forest management, they could remove much more.”

At this week’s meeting session of the UNFF, it was noted that forest-based climate change mitigation and adaptation actions, if fully implemented, could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 15 gigatonnes of CO2 a year by 2050, which could potentially be enough to limit warming to well below 2°C (the target set by the international community in 2015). Today, fossil fuels emit 36 gigatonnes every year.

In addition, as renewable sources increasingly replace fossil fuels, forests will become more and more important as sources of energy: already, forests supply about 40 per cent of global renewable energy in the form of wood fuel – as much as solar, hydroelectric and wind power combined.

The goal of zero deforestation is close to being reached

Significant progress has been made in international forest protection over the past 25 years. The rate of net global deforestation has slowed by more than 50 per cent, a credit to global efforts to sustainably manage existing forests, while at the same time engaging in ambitious measures to restore degraded forests and land, and to plant more trees to meet the demand for forest products and services. 

The goal of zero net global deforestation is close to being reached, bringing the world one step closer to the UN Strategic Plan for Forest’s target to expand global forest area by 3 per cent by 2030, an area of 120 million hectares, about the size of South Africa.

The biggest threat to forests is…agriculture

Many people will be aware of the devastating effects that illegal and unsustainable logging has on forests, but the biggest global driver of deforestation is actually agriculture, because of the extent to which forests are converted to farmland and livestock grazing land: a key challenge is how to manage the ongoing increase in agricultural production, and improve food security, without reducing overall forest areas.

A major UN report on biodiversity, released in May, made headlines around the world with its headline figure of one million species at risk of extinction, warned against the destruction of forests, noting that this “will likely have negative impacts on biodiversity and can threaten food and water security as well as local livelihoods, including by intensifying social conflict.”

The UN’s growing role in forest protection

The first time forests came to the forefront of the international agenda was at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, widely regarded as one of the landmark UN conferences. The Summit led to the adoption of Agenda 21, the first significant international action plan for achieving sustainable development, which noted the “major weaknesses in the policies, methods and mechanisms adopted to support and develop the multiple ecological, economic, social and cultural roles of trees, forests and forest lands.”

The Earth Summit also saw the adoption of the Forest Principles which, although non-legally binding, was the first global consensus reached on the sustainable management of forests. The Principles called for all countries to make efforts towards reforestation and forest conservation; enshrined the right of nations to develop forests in keeping with national sustainable development policies; and called for financial resources to be provided for targeted economic policies.

To better co-ordinate international efforts to put the principles into practice, an inter-governmental panel and forum were set up in the 1990s, to be replaced in 2000 by the UN Forum on Forests (UNFF), which meets every year at UN Headquarters in New York to monitor progress on the implementation of the six Global Forest Goals.

The Goals set targets for the sustainable management of forests, and reduction of deforestation and forest degradation, and were developed as part the forest community’s response to the 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development, the UN’s overall blueprint for economic progress that protects the environment and humanity.

This year’s top priorities: climate change and the real cost of deforestation

One of the key take-aways from the 2019 session of the UN Forest Forum was that, too often, forests are under-valued, because it’s hard to put a clear monetary value on all of the positive contributions they make to the world.

As a result, the true cost of deforestation and forest degradation is not taken into account when policy decisions are made on land use, such as decisions to clear forest land to use for commercial agriculture. 

The importance of financing was another important element of the session:  sufficient funding is an essential element in ensuring effective action to halt deforestation and forest degradation, promote greater sustainable forest management and increase the world’s forest area: despite the central role forests play in protecting the environment, only 2 per cent of funds available for climate change mitigation are available for efforts to reduce deforestation.

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