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A small island with big plans: The Kingdom of Bahrain commits to environmental sustainability

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In June 2019, the Kingdom of Bahrain revealed its plans to ban plastic bags. The move took many by surprise. Ahmed Rajab, a photographer in Bahrain for the Gulf Daily News, is one supporter of the decision. He recalls a sad episode he captured on his camera: “With their bright pink colour, flamingos are so majestic and beautiful during flight, but then I saw a dead flamingo on the coast surrounded with plastic waste, and it was the exact opposite of beauty. It was gut-wrenching to capture that picture on my camera—a beautiful bird surrounded by plastic bottles and waste… It almost seemed like our waste murdered it and that is the sad truth.”

The ban is a great start, he says, and it will put the country on the road to sustainability. But he also believes in the importance of changing people’s attitudes and perceptions, especially those of children, to ensure that they grow up environmentally conscious. “Anything harming the environment will eventually harm us, so we need to take steps to regulate and ban harmful substances, and work together towards a healthier planet for all creatures.”

Bahrain means two seas in Arabic, a tribute to its sweet water springs and salty seawater. The small island, home to nearly 1.5 million people, is particularly vulnerable to plastic waste. Historically, its waters have been known for their richness, hosting more than 200 varieties of fish. Fishing, more specifically pearl fishing, was for centuries the main means of livelihood for the people of Bahrain.

In 2013, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized Bahrain’s Pearl Road as a World Heritage Site, recalling the nation’s longstanding reputation for an industry that has shaped its culture.

However, with the booming oil industry and pollution, marine life in the waters of the Gulf of Bahrain have declined drastically. Coral reefs, sea turtles, dugongs and numerous fish species are suffering the effects of marine pollution. With population growth and the increased production and consumption of plastic products and packaging, marine litter exacerbated the problem and contributed to the diminishing fish stocks.

To address these critical environmental challenges, the Kingdom of Bahrain seized the opportunity in 2018 to join the UN Environment Programme’s global Clean Seas campaign. Since then, youth networks, civil society, the government and others have spared no effort to turn the tide on plastic.

In June 2019, a ministerial order to regulate and phase out the use of plastic bags was announced across the Kingdom and the region. The order also aims to ban the import of bags that are non-biodegradable, and future phases will include a permanent ban on the use of plastic bags at certain malls and supermarkets.

Furthermore, the government plans to expand recycling by increasing the total number of recycling bins, thereby reducing plastic waste that ends up in landfills.

Bahrain is moving steadily towards a full-fledged ban. The Supreme Council for the Environment together with the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Tourism are working on policies and guidelines for manufacturers and suppliers to ensure a smooth transition to a suitable alternative. A seminar on plastic products regulations was held following the announcement of the ban to help manufacturers and importers meet the technical requirements. It also introduced measures that will be taken to monitor ports customs and local markets.

UN Environment’s West Asia Office Director and Regional Representative Sami Dimassi commended the bold decision that made the Kingdom the second country in West Asia to take a stand against non-biodegradable plastic bags after the Sultanate of Oman. “Plastic in the ocean has a disproportionately large impact on marine life. Small pieces of plastic are eaten by fish, sea turtles and sea birds, often resulting in their death. This is in addition to the fact that often, these animals become entangled in plastic debris which leads to fatal injuries and consequently puts an end to their short-lived lives.” He also added that non-biodegradable plastics break down into small pieces which are eaten by smaller marine animals and enter the food chain, eventually impacting human health. 

Prior to the ministerial decision, many stores in Bahrain had already substituted plastic bags with paper ones. For them, the transition was not that difficult—they are mostly European franchises that had already switched to more sustainable alternatives years back at their mother companies.

However, during the years 2018 and 2019, a huge interest was sparked by local supermarkets and hypermarkets in building a culture of sustainability in Bahrain. At least 15 branches of the two main hypermarkets in Bahrain introduced reusable bags as part of their green policies. For instance, Lulu and Carrefour management have both sought the advice of UN Environment’s West Asia Office during the transition. For a small island like Bahrain, this is a great achievement.   

The smaller corner shops and the food service industry are the main culprits when it comes to the use of plastics in the Kingdom. While biodegradable alternatives are available, it is less costly and more convenient to use the good old plastic bag. Nevertheless, activists, the government and youth are relentlessly raising awareness on the negative impacts of plastic pollution on the environment, while the Supreme Council for the Environment is guaranteeing that consumers will not bear the cost of the ban.

The people of Bahrain have always been pioneers in many aspects. Their openness to other cultures and interest in modern education have been the drive for many green-thinking advocates. The nation’s younger generation is empowered and entrepreneurial. There are several youth-led green initiatives in the country, including a focus on organic and green cosmetics production and upcycled fashion.

Bahrain’s active civil society has been on the back of polluters. Even schools have started exposing children to environmentally friendly practices and information, while the country’s private sector fosters environmental responsibility for the community.

And now, the people of Bahrain have a government that is adamant about making significant progress towards sustainable development.

UN Environment

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Green Planet

The global plastic problem

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Global plastic pollution is becoming increasingly severe. According to a report by the German weekly magazine ‘Focus‘, plastic particles have recently been found in samples collected all over the world, : from the Arctic to rivers and even deep seas.

Even Mount Everest, the top of the world, has been found to contain plastic particles. The United States has long accused developing countries of being the main responsible for plastic pollution. The waste approach has overshadowed the U.S. “major contribution” to the plastic pollution crisis. If we also consider the export of plastic waste and the latest statistics on illegal dumping and littering, the United States is one of the most severe sources of plastic pollution in the global coastal and marine environment, ranking third in the world.

The research report published by Science Advances clearly states that the United States blames Asian countries for the plastic waste pollution problem, although it is the world’s largest producer of plastic waste. The report was written in collaboration with scholars from the American Association for Marine Education, the University of Georgia and the National Geographic Association.

The Comprehensive Assessment Study on Global Plastic Waste Issues, published in 2015, stated that the top five countries producing most of the plastic waste are China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand.

The latest report, however, finds that the 2015 study ignored any mismanagement of waste after it had been exported to another country for recycling.

The research report also revised the 2015 claim that China is the world’s largest emitter of marine plastic waste.

The latest research report published by Science Advances calculated the total amount of plastic waste generated by countries around the world in 2016, based on waste generation and characteristic data from 217 countries and regions reported by the World Bank.

Global plastic production in 2016 was 422 million tonnes, with a 26% increase as against 2010. The share of plastics in solid waste rose from 10% to 12% in 2010. In 2016, global plastic waste generation reached 242 million tonnes.

The report clearly states that in 2016 the United States was the country that produced the largest amount of plastic waste (42 million tonnes). It also ranked first in terms of annual per capita production of plastic waste (130 kilograms).

The 28 EU Member States ranking second produce 54.56 kilograms of plastic waste per capita per year, which is only half of the United States’ plastic waste, while India ranks third. In 2016 China ranked fourth in terms of plastic waste production (21.6 million tonnes), equivalent to half the U.S. amount, but its annual plastic waste production per capita was only 15.67 kilograms, equivalent to only 12% of the amount produced by the United States.

Nick Mallos, senior director of the Marine Conservation Organisation’s Garbage-Free Ocean Program, stated: “The plastic waste generated in the United States is the largest amount of any country, but we have been ignoring the problem, outsourcing it to developing countries. And we are making a heavy contribution to the plastic crisis in the oceans”.

In terms of rubbish, illegal dumping, littering and other improperly managed waste products on the coast, the United States ranks third among coastal countries and is the main cause of pollution in the world’s coastal areas.

The study also said that the United States collected 3.91 million tonnes of plastics in 2016, more than half of which was shipped overseas, and exported 1.99 million tonnes of plastic waste to 89 trading partners. “Over 88% of plastic waste is exported to countries that cannot properly manage and dispose of it due to insufficient resources.” Much of this exported plastic waste cannot be reused, which will eventually pollute the local environment.

One of the authors of the research report, oceanography professor Cara Lavender Law, stated: “For several years, many of the plastic products we throw in the rubbish can be exported to countries where it is already difficult to manage their own waste for recycling. Not to mention the large amount of plastics shipped from the United States. Considering the large amount of our plastic waste that is actually non-recyclable because it is of low value, contaminated or difficult to dispose of, it is not surprising that a lot of plastics will end up polluting the environment”.

Relevant data show that 5% of plastic waste generated in the United States is discarded or dumped illegally due to “improper handling and management” or cannot be disposed of properly after being transported to other countries.

The report underlines that it seems that only 5%is “improperly managed” but, considering the total amount of plastic waste, this figure cannot be ignored.

It should also be stated that eight million tonnes of plastics enter the oceans every year, which is equivalent to a plastic load being spilled into the sea every minute.

These plastic products have undertaken a long and destructive journey from the moment they have reached the sea. Winnie Liu, a senior official with The Pew Charitable Trust’s Marine Plastics Prevention Project, said: “Plastics reaching the seas will be carried far away by ocean currents. They are found all over the world, even on the edge of Antarctica and the deepest place on earth. Plastics can be found in the Mariana Trench. As they drift with currents, theywill penetrate the ecosystem and cause immeasurable damage to marine life”.

Despite the severity of this problem, global plastic production continues and is posing increasing threats to the seas. What makes the oceans so vulnerable to plastic pollution? How can we control the plastics entering the ocean? What is wrong with plastics?

In our daily lives we can hardly avoid plastics. From food packaging to toiletries, clothes, furniture, computers and cars, plastics is everywhere. Plastics durability makes it difficult to biodegrade them. In a way, it can be compared to long nuclear decay.

Depending on their type, some plastics can take decades or even millions of years to decompose in landfills. Therefore, unless plastics are incinerated (a process which, in turn, causes pollution), virtually all the plastics we have produced so far still exist in the world and, once entered the ocean, their impact will last for hundreds of years.

Where does waste come from? The world produces over 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, and this amount is still growing. Only 9% of this plastic waste is recycled. The rest is incinerated or discarded. Most of the discarded plastic waste is landfilled. The reason for this is that half of the plastics we produce is disposable plastics, i.e. plastic products such as straws, plastic bags and water bottles that are thrown away after they have been used.

It is precisely because disposable plastics are easy to produce and discard, and lead to a continuous increase in the amount of waste landfilled, that they inevitably increase the amount of plastic waste polluting the environment.

Why is the impact of plastics on the oceans so severe? The vast and deep oceans are like a retention tank for pollutants, which collects toxic material from all over the world. Besides the load dropped from ships, plastic fishing nets and longlines (known as ‘ghost fishing gear’) are also a major source of plastic waste in the oceans, accounting for about 10%. In addition, expanded polystyrene used in aquaculture to make cages is also a source of marine plastic pollution.

The vast majority of marine debris, however, comes from the land. Extreme weather conditions and strong winds sweep waste along the coast, which is quickly picked up by the tide. Oceans are also the final destination of thousands of rivers, carrying large amounts of waste from landfills, and eventually sinking it into the sea.

Once plastic waste enters the ocean, it is broken down into particles with a diameter of less than 5 mm, called microplastics. This happens because of the harsh conditions and endless ocean movements.

This form of plastics will spread ever deeper into the ocean. It will invade more biological habitats and cannot actually be recycled at all. What will happen to us if also thousands of marine animals get caught in plastic waste every year, especially ‘ghost fishing gear’? Furthermore, the harm to marine life from ingesting plastics is less evident: seabirds, sea turtles, fish and whales often mistake plastic waste for food because its colour and shape are similar to their preys. We end up eating them. Once we ingest these toxic particles, our organs will be damaged, thus making us more liable to diseases. Our fertility will also change, with great risks of genetic mutations.

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Climate politics and the future of carbon emissions

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Climate change is no longer a far-off problem, it is happening here, it is happening now and if it is happening now then efforts to curb it should be done right now rather to wait for tomorrow when tightening nature grip made us regret even more than now. To talk specifically about carbon emission, it is a single issue, a “world issue” that is demanding serious world efforts, not mere words to highlight the problems which we all know quite well. It is the right time we stand up, we fight together to save our existing and the future. Yet, like any path having its troubles, one major hurdle on the way to reduce carbon emission is the climate politics in the form of the North-South divide. The divide which has been existing ever since not only in areas of hard politics but also in areas of soft politics i.e climate change, and imposing a challenge to all future efforts and on those been done already including the Kyoto protocol, Rio+20 agreement, the Paris climate agreement, etc.

Issue here is that both the North (Developed) and the South (Developing) give their sides of the argument yet no one is ready to take the responsibility or at least willing to find a collective solution. Thus making the environment suffer and the carbon emission constantly increasing.

Looking at the North, it claims that climate change is a worldwide danger jeopardizing the biological system and is to a great extent the aftereffect of CO2 outflow by both North and the South. Thus it is a collective responsibility of both to reduce emission and to ensure carbon cut not just the North. However, in response to this the South argues, yes climate change is an issue that is raising world temperature and major emitters are in both North and South, but the North is ignoring the fact that it has been emitting gases for centuries. For instance, Europe, United States, Canada are polluting the environment since the 19th century while the developing countries have begun in 1980’s. Furthermore, what the developed world ignores is that the development of the North has already got peaked while of the developing world has just started. So based on this the North should go for the carbon cuts and use alternative sources of energy i.e hydro, wind, green energy, etc. As the South at this stage cannot afford carbon cuts which will affect its development process. Also, it does not even have enough carbon-free resources at present to ensure carbon reduction.

Hence, this N-S divide has ruined the success of so far twenty-five Conference of Parties (COP) related to climate change held each year in Nov and Dec mostly in Bonn, Germany. Taking a gander at them individually to explore how the divide has not let any single agreement on carbon emission to effectively achieve its set target.

Starting with the Kyoto protocol that came into effect in 2005 with 192 parties determining to reduce emission according to the allotted carbon quota. An important aspect of this protocol was “common but differentiated responsibility” by which the North was held largely responsible for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere. However, if we analyze it deeply then from the very start commitment to the agreement had flaws. As the United States being the world hegemon should’ve lead the agreement from the front but sadly it even didn’t ratify the agreement as the then-President George W. Bush stated “Senate’s vote, 95–0, shows there is a clear consensus that the Kyoto Protocol is an unfair and ineffective means of addressing global climate change concerns. Signing protocol will cause potential damage to USA economy”. Thus a clear depiction of the USA preferring its economic development over the environmental concerns.

Then the first commitment period (2008-2012) of this agreement failed to achieve its targets with emission further increased by 32%.Moreover, Canada withdrew from the protocol in 2012 with its then environment minister, Peter Kent stated “the Kyoto protocol doesn’t cover world two largest emitters USA and China, therefore it cannot work” and as “Canada didn’t meet target so it wants to avoid $14 billion in penalties”. Seeing this response by the developed world, in the second commitment round (2012 onwards) only 37 countries had binding targets, and Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan withdrew. Not just this, but Russia, Japan, New Zealand though participated in the 1stcommitment round but refused to go for the 2ndcommitment. So, it’s clear how the N-S divide affected the commitment to reduce carbon emission with the developed world especially the largest emitters like the USA and China not even ratifying it and even those like Canada who did ratify but withdrew later. The same is with the developing south because if the developed North is unwilling then the south’s one-sided efforts are meaningless.

Now, looking at the Copenhagen agreement (2009) which aims to limit the global temperature no more than 2 °C (above pre-industrial level). It was believed to be the largest and the first-ever true agreement that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and can ensure environmental stability because it was initiated by the USA along with the four other largest emitters’ china, India, Indonesia, and Brazil. Nevertheless, the Copenhagen agreement just like the Kyoto protocol had flaws and most importantly the N-S divide has again tumbledown its progress. This is because it doesn’t contain any legally binding commitments to reduce CO2 emissions as the then PM of Great Britain, Gordon Brown, stated “We have made a start” but that the agreement needs to become legally binding quickly.” Then Brazil’s climate change ambassador called the agreement “disappointing”.

This is the response of North, now looking at South. The Bolivian president, Evo Morales said, “The meeting has failed. It’s unfortunate for the planet”. Most importantly Lumumba Aping, a Sudanese diplomat who was the chief negotiator for the G77 group of developing nations at the UNFCC conference in 2009 criticized the agreement by stating “It’s an incredibly imbalanced text intended to subvert two years of negotiations. It does not recognize the proposals and the voice of developing countries. Thus we have been asked to sign a suicide pact”. Consequently, this conflict of opinion between the North and the South has again led to the failure of the Copenhagen agreement in reducing carbon emission and the world temperature.

Moving to the Rio+20 convention on biological diversity, it shows no difference from the rest. As the United States was among those four countries that have signed but not ratified the agreement. Then key world leaders including G20 members, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UK Prime Minister David Cameron have not attended the conference showing that they don’t even prioritize sustainability issues. Not just this but the developing countries too showed resentment when the USA, EU, and Switzerland rejected the G77 plan to frame the context of green economy explicitly. 

Likewise, COP-19 held in Warsaw, Poland to reduce greenhouse gases emission saw the same divide as G77 and china proposal for a new funding mechanism ($100 million every year) to help the vulnerable South deal with “loss and damage” caused by climate change was opposed by developed countries leading to 132 poor countries and major environment activist like Oxfam, Greenpeace, Action Aid, etc. walkout from the conference.

Lastly, the Paris climate agreement in 2015 which showed diversion from the rest considering it was binding on all 197 countries, and committed to achieve zero-emissionwith both developing and developed states agreed on a carbon cuts.  The agreement was achieved under the leadership of Obama as he stated “President Xi and I intend to continue working together in the months ahead to make sure our countries lead on climate”. For the first time, the two largest emitters, China and the USA, worked on common grounds. However, Donald Trump during his presidency calls it a “job-killing” and a “total disaster”as said“Obama pledges to cut emission has hurt the competitiveness of USA” and withdrew the USA on 4th-Nov, 2020. Yet, in response to this Joe Biden tweeted “Today, the Trump Administration officially left the Paris Climate Agreement. And in exactly 77 days, Biden Administration will rejoin it.” This is exactly what happened as President Joe Biden’s very first act in the Oval Office was his signing an executive order to have the United States rejoin the Paris climate agreement.

To sum up, the North-South divide is at the core of global environmental politics and is a debate that prevails on the grounds of unanswered questions as to who should bear the responsibility of the environmental damages. When the North shows willingness for change then it’s the South that creates hurdles, similarly when the South steps forward then the North shows aversion. If this will continue then the future of carbon emissions is intimidating. Therefore, need is to build a global consensus to free the environment from this blame game and to move towards sustainable development based on equitable contribution and accountability. It is now high time to put an end to all the differences existing now and in the past, as being humans our survival is at great risk. The need of the day is to work together to devise a common solution to our common problem and to ensure a healthy world for our existing and future generations.

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Green Planet

When Sea Levels Rise And Coastal Waters Darken…

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image source: University of Oldenburg (Foto: Zielinski)

Authors: Dr. Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust

The coastal waters by Wilmington, Delaware, the president’s home base, have risen a record 3 mm in the past year.  Worse, the rate of increase is itself increasing portending a foot or more in the next century.  It means a rebuilding of docks plus barriers to prevent serious tidal flooding.

The Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences (VIMS), affiliated with the College of William and Mary, has been collecting data on sea levels for the past 52 years.  It released its latest annual report recently, noting sea level rising by historic amounts — as in the case of Wilmington — as well as the accelerating rate of increase.

There are 32 tide gauges placed along the US coasts all the way to Alaska.  Maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), these measure levels every six minutes.  Researchers at VIMS take a monthly average to avoid a skewed analysis due to unusual weather patterns like storms.

The Institute’s report presents sea level changes, assesses future trends, and tries to explain the increases or even decreases at particular localities.  Sea level changes are relative to the adjoining land.  For example, the rates are actually falling in Alaska but that is caused by shifting tectonic plates raising land and off-setting the sea level rise.

Researchers describe the persistent sea level rise as a “slow emergency” — not a storm that will be hitting tomorrow but trouble ahead and the report cards can help local authorities plan for the future.

Wetlands Watch works to preserve wetlands in Virginia’s coastal areas.  Rising sea level is a particular concern because it is expected to affect most of the state’s coastal wetlands.  Therefore in addition to policy advocacy, Wetlands Watch has developed Sea Rising Solutions, which helps in mapping out where flooding is likely.

Spreading the word about sea level rise and its consequences engages the whole community and motivates legislators and developers to adapt to the new norm and prepare ahead for a changing environment. 

There is another problem with coastal areas:  a gradual darkening of the sea water.  It is serious for such a change in color and clarity poses a significant threat to marine life.  The Coastal Ocean Darkening Project at the University of Oldenburg in Germany simulated the effects by filling huge metal vats with water and phytoplankton and hanging lamps above them to simulate sunlight.  They then darkened the water using low, medium and high concentrations of a brown liquid extracted from peat to simulate decaying organic matter.  The phytoplankton were all negatively affected but particularly in the vats with medium and high concentrations which blocked off more light.  Also some phytoplankton were affected more than others.  

The adverse consequences to the elemental base of the ocean’s food threatens marine species up the chain, and especially those relying on the phytoplankton types most affected.  Moreover, reduced vision hinders those species, like fish, relying on vision to hunt, while not affecting those that do not, like jellyfish.  

Why is the water darkening?  One hint might be that environmental regulation of fertilizer use goes along with improvements in the Mediterranean, the North Sea and parts of the North American coast.  And of course reducing global warming would decrease ice melt and subsequent sea level rise.

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