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Green Planet

The Threat to Life from Ocean Microplastics

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Authors: Meena Miriam Yust and Arshad Khan

When Chelsea Rochman at the University of Toronto and colleagues began their study on medakas (small Japanese rice paddy fish), they did not expect to find what they did.

They first soaked ground-up polyethylene in San Diego Bay for three months and then fed it to these fish along with a laboratory diet.  They also fed the same diet to a comparison group of medakas but along with virgin polyethylene also ground-up.  The medakas eating the plastic immersed in the Bay suffered greater liver damage.  How much of a danger then is our seafood?  

Defined as less than 5mm in size,  microplastics have been found in 114 types of aquatic life, over half of which are consumed by humans.   Oysters exposed to food-container plastic (polystyrene) have fewer eggs and impaired less-motile sperm.  Does eating them do the same to us?  Nobody knows.  A comprehensive study of plastics in seafood and its implications for human health points to the gaps in our knowledge.  It calls for more research into the toxicity of various plastics and in identifying lower risk seafood.  

There is some evidence for the quantity of microplastic pieces per cubic meter of water — from the surface to a depth of 1000 meters in one study.  The numbers range from four pieces at the surface increasing to about a dozen at 200 meters down then declining to three or so at a 1000 meters down.  It is certainly not super dense.  At the same time, little fish ingesting it and bigger fish eating smaller ones, and one can see a problem developing, particularly for us the final consumer.  

The copious plastic debris flowing into the ocean estimated at 8 million tons annually continues to add to the 100 million tons already there.  Engineering experts at Stanford University have discussed “the potential for meaningful change” in the status quo.  They have some interesting observations:  Microplastics are now in “about a quarter of the sea foods in our markets and even in table salt.”  They are also in “94 percent of tap water samples in the US and in nearly every brand of bottled water.”  At this we checked tap water and some bottled water and did not notice any.  Insidious, if these are microscopic.   

Research in other parts of the world exemplify the global extent of the microplastics menace.  In a study of commercial fish caught off the Portuguese coast, microplastics were found in 19.8 percent of the 26 species of fish tested.  Plastic polymers, polyethylene and polypropylene as well as fibers like polyester, rayon and nylon had been ingested.  As might be expected, the fish taken off Lisbon and its environs were worst affected.  

In another study, fish and bivalves taken from markets in California and Makassar, Indonesia were  examined for anthropogenic debris.  Plastic was again confirmed in seafood sold for human consumption.  Debris was found in about a quarter of individual fish and a third of shellfish raising concerns about human health.

North Sea fish have been studied for plastic ingestion also.  Foekema and his fellow researchers found particles up to 4.8 mm in five of seven common North Sea fish species.  Usually only one particle was found and in only 2.6 percent of the 1204 individual specimens tested.  Cod showed the highest frequency with one third involved.  In another study of 400 individual fish from four species, only two particles were found, both in one individual, a sprat, confirming the relative low incidence of plastics in North Sea fish.  The particles in the sprat were microbeads.

Then there is the ubiquitous cigarette butt.  Is there something prophetic about dropping and stubbing it as the final act of a habit statistically known to shorten the lives of smokers?  Discarding butts may be socially acceptable but when 6.5 trillion cigarettes are smoked each year around the world, and an estimated two-thirds of the ends flicked away carelessly, butts become the most littered plastic item.  Made of cellulose acetate they degrade slowly, and then into tiny microplastic pieces finding their way often into waterways and oceans.

The thrown-away butt, a lethal parcel of absorbed nicotine, heavy metals and chemicals, appears to marine life as food floating on the surface.  It has been found to be deadly to fish, and to inhibit plant growth.  A new addition, e-cigarettes are growing in popularity, their discarded pods posing a similar problem  — not to mention the e-cigarette itself, a package of plastic, electric circuitry and battery.

Another disturbing trend is for manufacturers to add plastic microbeads as cheap fillers in household products like toothpaste, shampoo and cosmetics.  Washed down the drain, and small enough to bypass the water filters at reclamation plants, these eventually find their way into the ocean.  Of course some can be swallowed accidentally by product users.  A Mother Jones (May 28 , 2015) article pictures an array of products containing them.  

Fish are fooled by microbeads which are a similar size and shape to fish eggs.  Add all the other plastics and the chemicals adhering to them and they become a meal with long-term consequences for other predators as well.  The Guardian newspaper reports on five species affected by ocean plastics.  Fish-eating birds, whales with plastic-clogged stomachs, turtles snagged by plastic six-pack holders, crabs ingesting microplastics that also enter through their gills, even vital oxygen producing ocean bacteria are being harmed.   

Birds eating plastic had stunted growth and kidney problems noted a University of Tasmania study with particular reference to the near-threatened flesh-footed shearwaters (long-winged oceanic birds).  They have estimated a million seabirds dying annually from plastic ingestion, and other researchers have tagged balloons as the “no.1 marine debris risk of mortality for seabirds.”  A high-risk item, ingesting a balloon fragment is 32 times more likely to cause death than a hard plastic item.

A map of the US showing the interest levels in plastic pollution for the different states as measured by the numbers of tweets about the subject might be appropriate in our new world of politics by tweet led by the president.  None of it helps the individual dying of kidney, liver or pancreatic cancer.  Infertility clinics abound as sperm counts decline in the west and specially in the US … joining the oysters mentioned earlier.

If we reflect on the issues, a logical answer emerges; that is, to reduce plastics, ban single-use items, increase recycling, and dispose of the rest safely.  Above all, educating us remains key.  Who knew cigarette butts are not just an unsightly nuisance but deadly?  

Author’s note: This piece first appeared in CounterPunch.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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Green Planet

How do greenhouse gases actually warm the planet?

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Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – the atmospheric gases responsible for causing global warming and climatic change – are critical to understanding and addressing the climate crisis. Despite an initial dip in global GHG emissions due to COVID-19, the United Nations Environment Programme’s latest Emissions Gap Report (EGR) expects a strong rebound in 2021, when emissions are expected to be only slightly lower than the record levels of 2019.

While most GHGs are naturally occurring, human activities have also been leading to a problematic increase in the amount of GHG emitted and their concentration in the atmosphere. This increased concentration, in turn, can lead to adverse effects on climate. Effects include increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events – including flooding, droughts, wildfires and hurricanes – that affect millions of people and cause trillions in economic losses.

The Emissions Gap Report found that if we do not halve annual GHG emissions by 2030, it will be very difficult to limit global warming to 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. Based on current unconditional pledges to reduce emissions, the world is on a path to see global warming of 2.7 °C by the end of the century compared to pre-industrial levels.

“Human-caused greenhouse gas emissions endanger human and environmental health,” says Mark Radka, Chief of UNEP’s Energy and Climate Branch. “And the impacts will become more widespread and severed without strong climate action.”

So how exactly do GHG emissions warm the planet and what can we do?

What are the major greenhouse gases?

Carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide are the major GHGs. CO2 stays in the atmosphere for up to 1,000 years, methane for around a decade and nitrous oxide for approximately 120 years. Measured over a 20-year period, methane is 80 times more potent than CO2 in causing global warming, while nitrous oxide is 280 times more potent.

Coal, oil and natural gas continue to power many parts of the world. Carbon is the main element in these fuels, and when they’re burned to generate electricity, power transportation or provide heat, they produce CO2, a colourless, odourless gas.

Oil and gas extraction, coal mining and waste landfills account for 55 per cent of human-caused methane emissions. Approximately 32 per cent of human-caused methane emissions are attributable to cows, sheep and other ruminants that ferment food in their stomachs. Manure decomposition is another agricultural source of the gas, as is rice cultivation. 

Human-caused nitrous oxide emissions largely arise from agriculture practices. Bacteria in soil and water naturally convert nitrogen into nitrous oxide, but fertilizer use and run-off add to this process by putting more nitrogen into the environment.

What are the other greenhouse gases?

Fluorinated gases – such as hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride – are GHGs that do not occur naturally. Hydrofluorocarbons are refrigerants used as alternatives to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which depleted the ozone layer and were phased out thanks to the Montreal Protocol. The other gases have industrial and commercial uses.

While fluorinated gases are far less prevalent than other GHGs and do not deplete the ozone layer like CFCs, they are still very powerful. Over a 20-year period, the various fluorinated gases’ global warming potential ranges from 460–16,300 times greater than that of CO2.

Water vapour is the most abundant GHG in the atmosphere and is the biggest overall contributor to the greenhouse effect. However, almost all the water vapour in the atmosphere comes from natural processes. Human emissions are very small and thus relatively less impactful.

What is the greenhouse effect?

The Earth’s surface absorbs about 48 per cent of incoming solar energy, while the atmosphere absorbs 23 per cent. The rest is reflected back into space. Natural processes ensure that the amount of incoming and outgoing energy are equal, keeping the planet’s temperature stable,

However, GHGs, unlike other atmospheric gases such as oxygen and nitrogen, are opaque to outgoing infrared radiation. As the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere increases due to human-caused emissions, energy radiated from the surface becomes trapped in the atmosphere, unable to escape the planet. This energy returns to the surface, where it is reabsorbed.

Since more energy enters than exits the planet, surface temperatures increase until a new balance is achieved. This temperature increase has long-term climate impacts and affects myriad natural systems.

What can we do to reduce GHG emissions?

Shifting to renewable energy, putting a price on carbon and phasing out coal are all important elements in reducing GHG emissions. Ultimately, stronger nationally determined contributions are needed to accelerate this reduction to preserve long-term human and environmental health.

 “We need to implement strong policies that back the raised ambitions,” says Radka. “We cannot continue down the same path and expect better results. Action is needed now.”

During COP26, the European Union and the United States launched the Global Methane Pledge, which will see over 100 countries aim to reduce 30 per cent of methane emissions in the fuel, agriculture and waste sectors by 2030.

UNEP has outlined its six-sector solution, which can reduce 29–32 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2030 to meet the 1.5°C warming limit. UNEP also maintains an online “Climate Note,” a tool that visualizes the changing state of the climate with a baseline of 1990.

Despite the challenges, there is reason to be positive. From 2010 to 2021, policies were put in place which will lower annual emissions by 11 gigatons by 2030 compared to what would have otherwise happened.

Through its other multilateral environmental agreements and reports, UNEP raises awareness and advocates for effective environmental action. UNEP will continue to work closely with its 193 Member States and other stakeholders to set the environmental agenda and advocate for a drastic reduction in GHG emissions.

Beyond these movements, individuals can also join the UN’s #ActNow campaign for ideas to take climate-positive actions.

By making choices that have less harmful effects on the environment, everyone can be part of the solution and influence change. Speaking up is one way to multiply impact and create change on a much bigger scale.

UNEP

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Green Planet

The social aspect of biodiversity reduction in Brazil

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What most people ignore is that climate change is also a social issue, arising from unawareness of the human population about the impact of their activities. Biodiversity plays a key role in ecosystems and also services benefits to the tourism industry. Marine life biodiversity specifically plays a role in attracting tourists for activities like scuba diving, snorkeling and other observation activities alike. Currently, the Brazilian Guitarfish, commonly found in the South Atlantic Brazilian waters, specifically around the South coast of Rio De Janeiro is facing massive decline in numbers, and is also on the list of critically endangered species.

One major reason for the rapid decline in numbers of Brazilian Guitarfish is overfishing of the female population for illegal, highly valued meat sale in fish markets. Most fishermen catch the female guitarfish along with their little offspring in shallow waters around Rio De Janeiro. The decline in species of guitarfish is mostly among the female population, however this impacts the long term numbers of the guitarfish population. Fishermen who catch guitarfish and engage in the illegal meat industry know little about the impact created by their fishing activities on biodiversity in the oceans. A valid solution to solving the issue of high levels of guitarfish fishing in Brazil is empowering fishermen to engage in other trades and businesses that are more sustainable with steady profits, simply raising awareness about the downside of overfishing endangered species might not be enough. A dollar is a dollar, or in this case a real is a real.

An alternate model for sustainable fishing has been developed in Fuji, specifically to protect the coastline that attracts tourism across the year. The local government in fishing villages is working in collaboration with fishers to ensure that they have access to a greater number of opportunities, even outside the fishing industry. Moreover, the local government is regulating the prices of fish meat and creating a bandwidth for sustainable profits by encouraging fishing of species that are more abundant in the local waters. This is creating a low incentive situation for Fujian fishers to fish endangered species and engage in local trade. This unique model, with a mix of government involvement and local incentives, can be amplified to other countries like Brazil too.

While most experts talk about climate change, they ignore the social aspect of climate change, which is perhaps the biggest contributor. Human activities impacting climate change don’t just arise from unawareness but also from lack of other opportunities that can incentivise a change in decision making. Creating consumer end awareness about the downside of consuming illegal meat is also crucial. The same can be done in fish markets with the use of artwork to support behavioral change. Brazilian Guitarfish also carry high content of Mercury and chemicals and are therefore not the safest to consume in the unregulated illegal meat industry, without safety approvals from the government. Making consumers aware about the fact that they are not just paying high prices for meat that is illegal but also consuming meat that can potentially give them cancer and other diseases is crucial. This can be done using artwork in fish markets, as is being done across fishing villages in Bali.

Brazilian Guitarfish are also rare in other parts of the world and attract divers to premium diving locations, fetching around $75 to $100 per dive, higher than most other locations where rare species like Guitarfish cannot be spotted. More efforts can be taken to set up dive centers in Brazil specifically dedicated towards Brazilian Guitarfish. This will not only be an attractive source of income for locals but also encourage conservation efforts. Tourism can be a major source of revenue for Brazilian fishermen and farmers, encouraging development and infrastructural promotion across major cities in Brazil, thereby creating a line of opportunities for Brazilian citizens across different industries.

With biodiversity as high as Brazil, more efforts should be taken to fuel tourism, interaction and awareness with Brazilian biodiversity, including rainforests and marine life. With the empowerment of local communities, we can together create a more sustainable future, inclusive towards all organisms.

To promote the cause of Brazilian Guitarfish conservation, I have started a movement called The Brazilian Guitarfish movement, operating via  whatsapp group involving people across continents from various fields – climate researchers, marine conservationists, scuba divers, fishing industry experts, government authorities, public policy enthusiasts and tourism officials to curate solutions specific to conserving Brazilian Guitarfish. It’s a global initiative, with hands contributing from across the world to save Brazilian Guitarfish by empowering local fishers with diverse opportunities. There is always an alternate solution, sometimes all we need is a fresh approach along with fresh minds to find it. Fortunately, connecting globally in the digital world makes problem solving  easier for all of us.

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Green Planet

Global Warming Impacts Antarctic Glaciers and Wildfires

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Come year end and prognosticators abound.  Dire portents from the pessimists and the reverse from the optimists; from disasters of one kind or another to the stock market going sky high.

Not necessarily in 2022, yet there is the possibility with global warming of a melting Greenland ice cap or the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica.  The latter is the size of Florida, and its collapse has the potential of rising sea levels by 10 feet.  Imagine the effect when almost 250 million people live just 3 feet above high tide levels.

The difference between Greenland and the Antarctic is that Greenland’s glaciers are on solid ground and melt from above due to warmer temperatures; the Antarctic ice shelf melts from the bottom due to warmer ocean water.  As it is eaten away from the bottom it destabilizes.  Cracks begin to form on the surface, a harbinger of collapse, and eventually massive chunks of ice shear off and fall into the ocean.  Like adding ice cubes to a drink, it does not have to melt to raise sea levels.  

It is almost impossible to predict when chunks will collapse but some cracks have been observed.  In 2019, satellite images revealed a massive block of ice 15 by 21 miles cracking up in a few days.  Scientists from the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration reported on cracks and fissures in the glacier’s ice shelf, predicting its fracture within five years and disappearance into the sea in less than a decade. 

Then there is the case of forest fires and in particular the fire in Colorado that has been in the news.  A fire in December is certainly unusual because the fire season runs from May to September although extended to November of late due to global warming.  The rest of the time the trees are too wet to sustain a fire and any small fires started by broken power lines or lightning strikes during storms tend to extinguish on their own. 

Thus the devastating wildfire that has swept through the Denver suburbs is unprecedented, as Governor Jared Polis observed.  He has declared a state of emergency thereby permitting access to disaster funding.  The fast spreading fire left residents in commuting suburbs like Superior very little time to evacuate and nearby roads were soon clogged with traffic.  Fortunately, to date, no deaths have been reported and no serious injuries although three people are still missing.  A substantial loss of property however, as around a 1000 houses have been destroyed.  About the only explanation for a changing equation for natural disasters is global warming.  It affects weather patterns, rain and snow, drought and floods. 

We hear no loss of life or serious injuries and we move on to the next news story.  Yet it is not too difficult to imagine the trauma of families standing in front of a heap of ashes, who have had their life’s memories swept away in a couple of hours.  Nothing left except the clothes covering them. 

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