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The transformers: UN Champions who dared to reimagine their worlds

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A corporate titan with an unconventional agenda; the food specialists who looked outside the (takeaway) box; the ocean explorer whose name has become synonymous with conservation: these are just some of the environmental heroes who have dedicated their lives to bringing their audacious visions of a better world to life.

These pioneers are all previous winners of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Champions of the Earth award—the world’s flagship environmental honour—and their actions have inspired others to join them in their fight for a cleaner, fairer and more sustainable world.

As the countdown begins to the announcement of this year’s Champions of the Earth, and ahead of a pivotal Climate Action Summit in New York on 23 September 2019, the energy and vision demonstrated by previous Champions are needed more than ever as the world races to decisively cut carbon emissions before the worst effects of global warming become inevitable.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres wants world leaders, businesses and civil society to come to the Summit with concrete plans to cut emissions by 45 per cent in the next decade and achieve net zero emissions by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and the Sustainable Development Goals.

What is required is nothing less than a complete transformation of economies and societies. In short, it’s a job for heroes.

Thankfully, we already have model citizens to lead us forward. The Champions of the Earth have shown year after year that real change is possible if individuals commit to overhaul the way they live so that we safeguard the planet’s resources and ensure our own survival.

Here we look at five Champions of the Earth who transformed their own worlds.

The trailblazing tycoon: Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever

2015 laureate for entrepreneurial vision

During more than a decade as Chief Executive Officer of consumer goods giant Unilever, Paul Polman always dared to do things differently. Long before “sustainability” became a buzzword, he sought to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation and increase Unilever’s positive social impact.

Since stepping down last year, Polman has continued his work to put sustainability at the heart of global business. He is chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce and recently co-founded the Imagine foundation to help eradicate poverty and stem climate change by helping companies pursue the Sustainable Development Goals. He announced the news on Twitter, quoting the lyrics of the John Lennon song: “You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one.”

Polman would like to see “heroic Chief Executive Officers” drive a shift to a low-carbon, more inclusive way of doing business. This call chimes perfectly with one of the six priorities laid out by Guterres for the Climate Action Summit—mobilizing public and private sources of finance to drive decarbonization of all priority sectors and advance resilience.

The Summit’s ambitious agenda finds an echo in Polman’s heart: tweeting out Guterres’ call for urgent action at the meeting, he wrote: “With extreme heat getting worse, nature is telling us what we already know: there’s no time to waste against climate change.”

The food mavericks: Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods

2018 laureates for science and innovation

The role of agriculture in the production of greenhouse gases has led to mounting calls for people to move towards a more plant-based diet. But how can you get hungry, red meat-loving consumers to shift?

The entrepreneurial founders of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, who won the Champions of the Earth award for creating sustainable alternatives to beef burgers, took up that challenge with gusto.

Beyond Meat worked with top scientists to strip down the core components of meat and extract them from plants instead, using ingredients like peas, beetroot, coconut oil and potato starch.

Impossible Foods took a slightly different tack to arrive at a similar result. Chief Executive Officer Patrick O. Brown’s team discovered an iron-containing molecule that occurs naturally in every cell of every animal and plant and that is responsible for the unique flavours and aromas of meat. They used this knowledge to produce a meatless burger.

The two companies have tapped into a growing demand, especially among younger consumers, for products that are good for both planet and people, proving that it makes good business sense to harness this hunger for products that don’t cost the earth.

Their can-do attitude is exactly what’s needed on a global scale to tackle our climate crisis.

As Patrick O. Brown says: “There are huge global problems, but they are solvable and we’re going to solve them. Just wait.”

The Son of the Desert: Wang Wenbiao, Chairman of Elion Resources Group

2017 laureate for lifetime achievement

When Wang Wenbiao bought the Hangjinqi Saltworks in the middle of the Kubuqi desert in Inner Mongolia in 1988, he embarked on an adventure that would see him rise to the top of the country’s largest private green industries enterprise, Elion Resources Group.

His journey began, as most interesting journeys do, with a problem—how to make the saltworks profitable when the creeping desert was swallowing the salt lake, damaging equipment and making it difficult to transport the salt to market?

Wang, who grew up in Kubuqi, partnered with local communities and the Beijing government to fight the advancing sands and give hope to some of the 70,000 people who had been struggling to survive. In doing so, he showed how private industry could contribute to the fight against climate change and environmental degradation, while still turning a profit.

Wang set up a special fund to pay for afforestation and assigned a third of his staff to plant trees around the lake. He also encouraged local people to grow licorice, a hardy plant that grows well in deserts and is widely used in traditional Chinese medicine. Elion provided locals with seeds, training and other support, and also bought the harvest at a fair price.

Today, around two thirds of the desert has been greened and Wang, who is known as the Son of the Desert, says he is in it for the long haul.

“Greening the deserts is like a marathon, as long as there is a desert, my marathon will not come to an end,” he said.

The Dutch dreamer: Boyan Slat

2014 laureate for inspiration and action

Dutch inventor Boyan Slat was only 19 when he won the Champion of the Earth award for inspiration and action but he was already a young man on a mission: to clean the seas of plastic waste using a revolutionary floating boom.

Since then, Slat has brought his vision to life with The Ocean Cleanup project and although his team was forced to bring the first prototype back to port, they have now returned to sea, hoping to scoop up some of the trillions of pieces of plastic that are choking our fish, killing marine wildlife, damaging coral reefs and turning beaches into rubbish dumps.

Slat’s ongoing passion for the project reflects growing public concern. In 2017, the UN Environment Programme launched its Clean Seas campaign to inspire governments, businesses and people to take action, including cleaning beaches, cutting plastic use and investing more in recycling facilities.

Slat’s original System 001—a 600-metre-long U-shaped floater with a tapered three-metre-deep skirt attached below to trap the plastic—was launched in September 2018 and towed to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gigantic swell of rubbish twice the size of France.

But The Ocean Cleanup team found that the floater was failing to hold onto the plastic. They tried to modify the design at sea, but were eventually forced to tow the system back to port after it suffered a fatigue fracture.

More tests and modifications were needed but in August, Slat said System 001/B had arrived at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

“We move forward cautiously knowing we may be presented with more unscheduled learning opportunities… Yet it is safe to say that we are closer than ever to having a tool capable of cleaning up these garbage patches for good,” he wrote on The Ocean Cleanup website.

Her Deepness: Sylvia Earle

2014 laureate for lifetime leadership

A renowned pioneer of deep sea exploration and a distinguished marine biologist, Sylvia Earle has dedicated her life to exploring and protecting the oceans. Her philosophy is simple: “We need to respect the oceans and take care of them as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.”

Earle, 83, has logged more than 7,000 hours underwater across over 100 expeditions—including leading the first team of women aquanauts and setting a record for solo diving to a depth of 1,000-metres. Her list of laudatory titles is impressive: she has been called Her Deepness, a Living Legend, a Hero for the Planet, and the Face of Marine Biology.

Earle was the first woman to serve as the Chief Scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and, since 1998, she has been Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society.

She is also the founder of Deep Ocean Exploration and Research Inc and the Sylvia Earle Alliance as well as being the leader of the National Geographic Society Sustainable Seas Expeditions.

In 2009, she founded Mission Blue, a global alliance to ignite public support for the protection of a network of Hope Spots—special places that are vital to the health of the ocean. The alliance aims to bring about a significant increase in ocean protection by 2020.

In 2014, she was awarded the Champions of the Earth prize for lifetime leadership. And that works goes on. Earle is still travelling the world, seeking to inspire others with her passion to preserve our seas.

UN Environment

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Green Planet

Increasing Frequency of Cyclones and Flooding Portends Worse Problems

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Sixteen years ago on August 29th, hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana coast causing widespread damage that was estimated at $125 billion.  This year, by a remarkable coincidence, hurricane Ida hit on the same date, again August 29th.  The weather service  holds the end of August though the beginning of September as the period with the highest likelihood of tropical cyclones hitting the Louisiana coast.  In light of this, perhaps the coincidence is not quite as uncanny.

While not as large as Katrina, hurricane Ida was more powerful with winds in excess of 150 miles per hour.  That is in line with climate scientists who now believe extreme weather events will tend to increase in both severity and frequency unless something is done about global warming.

Another example has been the heat wave last June in the Pacific Northwest in which hundreds of people died.  Canada set an all-time-high temperature record of 49.6 degrees Celsius in the village of Lytton.  The chance of all this happening without human-induced global warming is about 1 in a 1000.  However, the warming makes the event 150 times more likely. 

Following Ida was hurricane Larry.  Also powerful, it formed in the Atlantic but luckily for the Atlantic coast chose a path straight north.  These recurring extreme weather events have caught the attention of scientists.  Thus Myhre from the Center for Climate Research in Norway and his coauthors find a strong increase in frequency and confirm previously established intensity.  They collected data for Europe over a three-decade period (1951-1980) and repeated the process for 1984-2013.  This historical data also allowed them to develop climate models for the future, and, as one might imagine, the future is not rosy.

Expanding their horizon, the authors note that historical and future changes in Europe follow a similar pattern.  This does not hold when including the US, Japan and Australia which are likely to experience bigger changes.  Given intensity and frequency going hand in hand and also that the study considered natural variability alone, we can only dread the inclusion of human forcing through climate drivers like greenhouse gases.

For coastal residents, sea level rise adds to the hazard.  Worse, it is now a problem for people several miles inland.  In South Florida, drainage canals are used to return water to the ocean after storm and flooding events; the difficulty now lies in rising sea levels that hinder the efficiency of the drainage canals. 

Residents as far away as 20 miles inland have noticed water coming up their driveway, a new and frightening portend of the future.  The South Florida Water Management District oversees the canals.  It raises and lowers the gates controlling flow to the ocean or vice versa.  Thus they can open the gates to release flood water from storms to the ocean. 

The problem now is that the ocean level in the Atlantic during some storms is higher than the water level inland so they cannot open the gates — that would simply bring in more water.   

All of these happenings are clearly not a happy future prospect … unless we take global warming seriously and act soon. 

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Green Planet

Human activity the common link between disasters around the world

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Disasters such as cyclones, floods, and droughts are more connected than we might think, and human activity is the common thread, a UN report released on Wednesday reveals.

The study from the UN University, the academic and research arm of the UN, looks at 10 different disasters that occurred in 2020 and 2021, and finds that, even though they occurred in very different locations and do not initially appear to have much in common, they are, in fact, interconnected.

A consequence of human influence

The study builds on the ground-breaking Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment released on 9 August, and based on improved data on historic heating, which showed that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General described the IPCC assessment as a “code red for humanity”.

Over the 2020-2021 period covered by the UN University, several record-breaking disasters took place, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a cold wave which crippled the US state of Texas, wildfires which destroyed almost 5 million acres of Amazon rainforest, and 9 heavy storms in Viet Nam – in the span of only 7 weeks.

Arctic-Texas link

Whilst these disasters occurred thousands of miles apart, the study shows how they are related to one another, and can have consequences for people living in distant places.

An example of this is the recent heatwave in the Arctic and cold wave in Texas. In 2020, the Arctic experienced unusually high air temperatures, and the second-lowest amount of sea ice cover on record.

This warm air destabilized the polar vortex, a spinning mass of cold air above the North Pole, allowing colder air to move southward into North America, contributing to the sub-zero temperatures in Texas, during which the power grid froze up, and 210 people died.

COVID and the Cyclone

Another example of the connections between disasters included in the study and the pandemic, is Cyclone Amphan, which struck the border region of India and Bangladesh.

In an area where almost 50 per cent of the population is living under the poverty line, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns left many people without any way to make a living, including migrant workers who were forced to return to their home areas and were housed in cyclone shelters while under quarantine.

When the region was hit by Cyclone Amphan, many people, concerned over social distancing, hygiene and privacy, avoided the shelters and decided to weather the storm in unsecure locations. In the aftermath, there was a spike in COVID-19 cases, compounding the 100 fatalities directly caused by Amphan, which also caused damage in excess of 13 billion USD and displaced 4.9 million people.

Root causes

The new report identifies three root causes that affected most of the events in the analysis: human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, insufficient disaster risk management, and undervaluing environmental costs and benefits in decision-making.

The first of these, human induced greenhouse gas emissions, is identified as one of the reasons why Texas experienced freezing temperatures, but these emissions also contribute to the formation of super cyclones such as Cyclone Amphan, on the other side of the world.

Insufficient disaster risk management, notes the study, was one of the reasons why Texas experienced such high losses of life and excessive infrastructure damage during the cold snap, and also contributed to the high losses caused by the Central Viet Nam floods.

The report also shows how the record rate of deforestation in the Amazon is linked to the high global demand for meat: this demand has led to an increase in the need for soy, which is used as animal feed for poultry. As a result, tracts of forest are being cut down.

“What we can learn from this report is that disasters we see happening around the world are much more interconnected than we may realize, and they are also connected to individual behaviour”, says one of the report’s authors, UNU scientist Jack O’Connor. “Our actions have consequences, for all of us,”

Solutions also linked

However, Mr. O’Connor is adamant that, just as the problems are interlinked, so are the solutions.

The report shows that cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions can positively affect the outcome of many different types of disasters, prevent a further increase in the frequency and severity of hazards, and protect biodiversity and ecosystems.

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Green Planet

Blue sky thinking: 5 things to know about air pollution

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Around 90 per cent of people go through their daily lives breathing harmful polluted air, which has been described by the United Nations as the most important health issue of our time. To mark the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, on 7 September, UN News explains how bad it is and what is being done to tackle it.

1) Air pollution kills millions and harms the environment

It may have dropped from the top of news headlines in recent months, but air pollution remains a lethal danger to many: it precipitates conditions including heart disease, lung disease, lung cancer and strokes, and is estimated to cause one in nine of all premature deaths, around seven million every year.

Air pollution is also harming also harms our natural environment. It decreases the oxygen supply in our oceans, makes it harder for plants to grow, and contributes to climate change.

Yet, despite the damage it causes, there are worrying signs that air pollution is not seen as a priority in many countries: in the first ever assessment of air quality laws, released on 2 September by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), it was revealed that around 43 per cent of countries lack a legal definition for air pollution, and almost a third of them have yet to adopt legally mandated outdoor air quality standards.

2) The main causes

 Five types of human activity are responsible for most air pollution: agriculture, transport, industry, waste and households.

Agricultural processes and livestock produce methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, and a cause of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Methane is also a by-product of waste burning, which emits other polluting toxins, which end up entering the food chain. Meanwhile industries release large amounts of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, particulate matter and chemicals.

Transport continues to be responsible for the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, despite the global phase out of dangerous leaded fuel at the end of August. This milestone was lauded by senior UN officials, including the Secretary-General, who said that it would prevent around one million premature deaths each year. However, vehicles continue to spew fine particulate matter, ozone, black carbon and nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere; it’s estimated that treating health conditions caused by air pollution costs approximately $1 trillion per year globally.

Whilst it may not come as a great shock to learn that these activities are harmful to health and the environment, some people may be surprised to hear that households are responsible for around 4.3 million deaths each year. This is because many households burn open fires and use inefficient stoves inside homes, belching out toxic particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead and mercury.

3) This is an urgent issue

 The reason that the UN is ringing alarm bells about this issue now, is that the evidence of the effects of air pollution on humans is mounting. In recent years exposure to air pollution has been found to contribute to an increased risk of diabetes, dementia, impaired cognitive development and lower intelligence levels.

On top of this, we have known for years that it is linked to cardiovascular and respiratory disease.

Concern about this type of pollution dovetails with increased global action to tackle the climate crisis: this is an environmental issue as well as a health issue, and actions to clean up the skies would go a long way to reducing global warming. Other harmful environmental effects include depleted soil and waterways, endangered freshwater sources and lower crop yields.

4) Improving air quality is a responsibility of government and private sector

On International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, the UN is calling on governments to do more to cut air pollution and improve air quality.

Specific actions they could take include implementing integrated air quality and climate change policies; phasing out petrol and diesel cars; and committing to reduce emissions from the waste sector.

Businesses can also make a difference, by pledging to reduce and eventually eliminate waste; switching to low-emission or electric vehicles for their transport fleets; and find ways to cut emissions of air pollutants from their facilities and supply chains.

5)…and it is our responsibility, as well

At an individual level, as the harmful cost of household activities shows, a lot can be achieved if we change our behaviour.

Simple actions can include using public transportation, cycling or walking; reducing household waste and composting; eating less meat by switching to a plant-based diet; and conserving energy.

The Website for the International Day contains more ideas of actions that we can take, and how we can encourage our communities and cities to make changes that would contribute to cleaner skies: these include organizing tree-planting activities, raising awareness with events and exhibitions, and committing to expanding green open spaces.

How clean is your air?

You may well be wondering exactly how clean or dirty the air around you is right now. If so, take a look at a UNEP website which shows how exposed we are to air pollution, wherever we live.

The site indicates that more than five billion people, or around 70 per cent of the global population, are breathing air that is above the pollution limits recommended by the World Health Organization.

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