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Green Planet

The Threat to Life from Ocean Microplastics

Meena Miriam Yust

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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

Is the world living up to its climate commitments?

MD Staff

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As the United Nations gears up for the September Climate Action Summit in New York, one of its most high-profile climate conferences in recent times, what progress is the world making in tackling the climate crisis, and how is that progress being measured?

Around three years ago, the global community gathered in Paris in order to build a common approach to fighting climate change. They agreed to make efforts to restrict the rise in global temperatures to “well below”  2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and, if possible, reach 1.5 degrees Celsius.

However, in July of this year the temperature measured 1.2 degrees Celsius above those levels – matching, and even breaking, the record for the hottest month since records began – and the trend is continuing upwards. Extreme weather events across the world mean the planet is on track to record the five hottest years on record, according to the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres.

Mr. Guterres says that we are engaged in a “race to limit climate change”. So are we winning? UN News decided to take a closer look at one of the key international instruments used to measure the fight against global warming: Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs.

What are NDCs?

It should be stressed that the Paris Agreement on Climate Change is not legally binding in its entirety: it does not tell countries how they should reduce emissions or build climate resilience and adaptation, but encourages countries to write their own ticket: the NDCs.

These climate plans outline what a country promises to do, and how much they plan to reduce emissions. Recognizing that developing countries often lack the resources, finance, and technology, the Paris Agreement calls for developing countries to show what they can do on their own, and what they can do with assistance from the international community.

Why are they important?

Countries have many options on how they can pursue the goals of the Paris Agreement.  This could involve legislation, financial incentives, or tax policies to promote activities that will reduce emissions.  For example, countries can decide to put a price on carbon, through a tax or by building a carbon trading system.

The idea is that, if people have a clear idea of the cost of carbon pollution, they will invest and spend in areas, or fuels, that cost less.  For the average citizen, this could affect what kind of car, or heating, or cooling system they use, among a myriad of other facets of life.

In addition, these policies can help regulate development in areas that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as coastal areas that are facing rising sea levels.

Why are we talking about them now?

Under the Paris Agreement, countries are supposed to enhance their NDCs every few years to show increased ambition over time.

This is known as the “ratchet” mechanism, acknowledging that the initial submissions were nowhere near where we need to be: even if you added up the NDCs of all countries, we would only, at best, be a third of where we need to be, in order to achieve the Paris Goals.

So, countries are supposed to submit updated and enhanced NDCs in 2020, and it is important to mobilize now, to push for increased ambition and action: this is why the Climate Action Summit is being held in 2019.

Is it all doom and gloom?

No! We are seeing a surge of action around the world to move to renewable energy, with huge solar power plants being built in Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, Portugal receiving most of its energy now from renewables, and increasingly, many countries finding that they can power their grids entirely on renewable energy. 

Investment in renewable energy is now outpacing that in fossil fuels, particularly in developing countries, and many countries and sub-regions have successfully enacted carbon pricing.

At the same time, the bottom line is that the world is not moving quickly enough: global emissions are increasing, and the temperature is rising. 

Which regions are leading the way?

No region is clearly surpassing others, but there are countries, and cities, that are showing great progress.  Many countries, including Pacific Island Small Island Developing States, have said that they are moving towards climate neutrality, or having a net zero carbon footprint.

In practice, that means they are able to balance carbon emissions, for example from industry or even just car usage, with carbon removal from the atmosphere, via such techniques as planting more trees, which absorb carbon.

It is a sad irony that these countries, among the most affected by climate change, have done little to contribute to the problem.

Climate action requires investment, and that often requires sound government policies to provide the incentive. Alongside Portugal, several other countries have invested heavily in renewables – including Chile, Ireland, Kenya and Costa Rica –and many European nations have made major advances in reducing their emissions.   

How can we move faster?

We need to see greater political leadership and political will. Carrying on with business as usual will be disastrous and will lead to a global temperature rise of 3 degrees Celsius, or more, this century.

Bold leadership, on the part of government, business and civil society leaders, is critical for advancing climate action. People make a difference as well: changing consumer behavior is important in moving toward a low-carbon economy, which is why the UN has promoted the ActNow Campaign, to offer basic ideas on the steps we all can take.

So, can we solve the climate crisis?

Yes. We have the solutions that we need to address climate change, but we need to use them.  We need to shift investment from the grey, dirty, economy, to the green economy.  The money is there.

We have the technology, now we need to make it accessible to all people in all countries. 

But we need to take action now.  Every bit of warming matters, and the longer we wait, the greater the negative impact.

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Green Planet

Towards a sustainable Blue economy: A Plan to restore the health of our oceans

MD Staff

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Samba Lahy recalls the time when, as a young man, he used to go fishing with his parents off the coast of Tampolove, one of the fishing villages dotting the southwestern coast of Madagascar. Every time his family returned from the sea, their long and narrow canoe would be filled to the brim with fish. But things have changed.

Mr. Lahy, now with a family of his own, has seen his catches dwindle. As a result, like others in Tampolove, he can no longer rely on fishing as his main source of income. His story sounds familiar to many, in scores of fishing villages around the world. 

Today, one third of the world’s fish stocks are overfished, up from 10 per cent in the mid-1970s. Another 60% of fish stocks have been exploited at their maximum sustainable limit. But overfishing is only one of many problems affecting the oceans. Over the past 30 to 40 years, the world has lost half of its coral reefs. Other problems include a rise in ocean temperatures and acidity, both a result of the climate crisis.

Despite a growing awareness of these challenges, progress in tackling them has been slow. This is due to many factors, not least the perception that protecting the environment is costly and will therefore hinder economic growth and socio-economic development. However, the quest for a healthy environment can be compatible with a prosperous economy and a global trading system.

The ingenuity of rural producers like Lahy offers inspiration and assurance that the two are not inherently incompatible. Faced with dwindling catches, Lahy and others in the community began experimenting with seaweed farming with the help from non-governmental organizations.  Soon this turned into a profitable economic activity, and the village soon started to sell their seaweed to foreign markets, where it is used to produce food, personal care products, cosmetics, paints, adhesives, dyes and gels.

Commercial ventures like seaweed farming can create new economic opportunities, particularly for women in rural communities, enhanced by the interconnectedness of the global economy. They can also be more environmentally friendly than other aquaculture activities. Part of the reason is that seaweed and other species of algae do not need fertilizers to grow—just sunlight, carbon dioxide and water. All these factors begin to show how economic prosperity, trade and the preservation of the environment can, in fact, reinforce each other.

In the context of the Paris Agreement, oceans-based economic diversification can enhance the nationally determined contributions of small island developing states, supporting the implementation of the agreement. This shows that trade can be an enabling factor in adaptation and in mainstreaming oceans-based economic activities, where domestic markets remain small and remoteness is an intractable hindering factor.

In other areas of the oceans economy, adapting trade policies can play a decisive role in making economic activities more sustainable. One example relates to fisheries subsidies, government support schemes for the fisheries sectors. “Despite the clear trend of declining fish populations, a majority of these subsidies further promote overfishing. Instead, support should be provided to improve the sustainability of the sector, or promote new sustainable economic activities.”

explains Steven Stone, Chief of Resources and Markets at UN Environment. “Currently, countries are negotiating on a new set of trade rules at the multilateral level, that can put an end to these harmful practises. Successfully concluding these negotiations in 2020, at the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference will be crucial to move towards sustainable fishing practises. It is also a crucial part and parcel of the 2030 Agenda.”

The oceans economy, climate and efforts to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies are all headline topics of the Third Oceans Forum, an event on the sidelines of the September 2019 UN Trade, SDGs and Climate  Forum in Geneva. The Oceans Forum is a unique global platform to take stock, exchange experiences and present options for the implementation of trade-related targets of Sustainable Development Goal 14 – Life below water – through the involvement of leading United Nations agencies, regional bodies, government institutions and civil society organizations.

This year’s forum is particularly important, as it precedes the 2020 deadline to deliver on several trade-related Sustainable Development Goal targets on healthy oceans. To support countries to deliver on these targets, UNCTAD, FAO, and UN Environment have come together to develop a draft Inter-agency Plan of Action (the so-called ‘IPoA’), on sustainable oceans and trade. Through this Plan of Action, the agencies are proposing a comprehensive instrument to support countries in their transition to sustainable ocean economies, and to align their trade policies with overall sustainable development considerations.

UN Environment

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Green Planet

Hurricanes, Melting Ice Sheets, Rising Sea Levels and A 16-Year Old’s Courage

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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When the Duke of Windsor, the former Edward VIII, was made governor of the Bahamas in 1940, he and his wife Wallis Simpson arrived to peaceful islands favored by a benign climate, away from the violent upheavals of a war-torn Europe.

Whatever the reasons — and many point to rising sea temperatures from climate change — the climate in the Caribbean is a little less benign as the unfortunate residents of Cuba, Haiti and Puerto Rico among others have noticed in the last few years.

And now hurricane Dorian, a category 5 monster when it made landfall on the northern island of Abaco and Grand Bahama on Sunday.  The strongest storm on record to hit the islands with winds reaching 185 mph, it left not a single roof untouched in Abaco, some areas being completely obliterated as if nothing had ever existed.

How many dead?  Nobody knows yet.  Shelters designed to accommodate a few dozen are crammed with  a thousand and more.  Sarah St. George, the chairman of the Grand Bahama Port Authority experienced it first hand.  “Grand Bahama is not in good shape at all because 70 percent of it is under water.”  If water is up to the second floor, then people have lost everything.  Recovery will be long and arduous. 

The islands need help and is owed it.  Mia Mottley the prime minister of Barbados put it bluntly:  “We are on the front line of the consequences of climate change and  we don’t cause it.”  Climate experts predict worse and more frequent storms in the future.  Dorian, for example, formed in August, earlier than normal.  Global warming is playing havoc with weather and warmer seas fuel more moisture-laden, powerful storms. 

Sea levels are rising from higher temperature expansion and greater ice melt, increasing the danger to coastal communities.  In Greenland, the melting ice caps and sheets by a record amount have surprised researchers, who say this summer’s melt has been enough to raise global sea levels by one millimeter.  The ice sheet is 2-3 km thick and covers an area six times the size of Germany.  If all that ice melted, it would raise sea levels worldwide by 7 meters or almost 23 feet.

When greenhouse gases are causing global warming, responsibility lies with the largest producers/polluters.  Would an international court find them liable to the small island nations suffering the consequences?  But then, if it does, who is going to persuade them to pay up?

It is in everyone’s interest to reduce global warming and since the powers that be do not listen to us, 16-year old Greta Thunberg is doing something about it.  To prove her point on greenhouse gases she refused to take a transatlantic flight, crossing on a sailboat instead to attend the United Nations climate summit later this month.  While she gears up for it, she is also preparing for the global strike on Friday September 20th preceding the climate summit on the Monday following.  She chose Friday, a workday, because she is asking adults to join the action and stay away from their jobs. 

Of course UN climate summit reports try to achieve consensus and in doing so have to appease fossil fuel producers.  If caveats are multiplied and uncertainties magnified, it is all part of the game.

Then there are the unexpected consequences.  As electric cars multiply and the demand for copper escalates, new sources must be developed.  Thus a new copper mine is being dug in the pristine wilderness of northern Norway, north of the Arctic Circle.  How well will reindeer and their Sami herders coexist with copper mining in the sparse wilderness is an open question.

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