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More countries than ever hit by forest fires in 2018

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Today, the European Commission published the 2018 edition of its Annual Report on Forest Fires in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. According to the report, wildfires destroyed nearly 178 000 hectares (ha) of forests and land in the EU last year. While this is less than one sixth of the area burnt in 2017, and less than the long-term average, more countries than ever before suffered from large fires.

Karmenu Vella, Commissioner for Environment, said: “Forests are vital to our efforts to tackle the climate and ecological emergency. They are our lungs and life-support system, hosting 80% of the Earth’s biodiversity. But today, like never before, they are under severe threat. 800 football fields of forest are lost every hour, and devastating fires are raging around the world. As we have shown with our recent action on deforestation, the EU stands ready to work with partner countries to protect forests in the EU and across the world through investing in forest fire prevention.”

Tibor Navracsics, Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, responsible for the Joint Research Centre, added: “Changing weather conditions associated with climate change increase the risk for forest fires globally. We need to respond and step up our efforts to make our forests more resilient to a warmer and drier climate. Evidence provided by the Joint Research Centre allows us to focus on the most effective ways to prevent wildfires, helping us protect our forests, which is key to preserve biodiversity and citizens’ quality of life.”

Key findings

The highest numbers of fires of 30 ha or larger were mapped by the European Forest Fire Information System in Italy (147 fires, 14 649 ha burned), Spain (104 fires, 12 793 ha burned), Portugal (86 fires, 37 357 ha burned), the UK (79 fires, 18 032 ha burned) and Sweden (74 fires, 21 605 ha burned) during last year.

1. Sweden experienced the worst fire season in reporting history. The total burnt area of over 21 605 ha mapped in Sweden was registered as the second highest in the EU, an unusual position in the ranking for a northern country. Although Portugal was again the country with the highest burnt area, its total was a small fraction of the area lost to fire in 2017 and one of the lowest totals of the last 10 years.

2. Vulnerable ecosystems of the Natura 2000 network, home to several endangered plant and animal species, lost 50 000 ha to fires, accounting for 36% of the total burnt area in 2018.

3. Despite a smaller overall area burnt than in previous years, above average temperatures persisted in central and northern Europe for most of the summer. This created conditions that helped the ignition and spread of forest fires, causing high economic and environmental losses.

In 2018, the EU Civil Protection Mechanism was activated five times to respond to forest fires in Europe: in Sweden, Greece, Latvia, and Portugal. In total, 15 planes, 6 helicopters and over 400 firefighters were mobilised in the summer, with the European Union having funded €1.6 million in transportation costs to mobilise support to the affected countries. Furthermore, over 139 Copernicus satellite maps on forest fires were produced on the request of Member States. In addition, the EU sent forest fire experts from across the EU to Portugal on a prevention and preparedness mission to help boost the country’s capacity to deal with forest fires.

In March 2019, the EU upgraded the EU Civil Protection Mechanism and launched rescEU to improve the protection of citizens from disasters and the management of emerging risks in Europe and beyond. The EU created a transition fleet of firefighting aircraft in the summer of 2019, and deployed it already twice to fight forest fires in Greece and Lebanon. Additionally, in July, the European Commission called for stepping up EU action on deforestation and forest degradation in a Communication, and committed itself to further action, including the development of the European Forest Fire Information System into a tool for wildfire monitoring on a global scale.

The 2018 edition of the Annual Report on Forest Fires also notes that in 2019 the fire season started early, because of dry and windy conditions, with high temperatures. Already by March this year, the number of fires was higher than the average for the whole year in the last decade, with numerous fires in mountain regions and critical fires in the Danube delta.

Background

The report “Forest Fires in Europe, Middle East and North Africa 2018”, drawn up by the Joint Research Centre, the European Commission’s science and knowledge service, provides a detailed analysis of wildfires in 2018, including country-specific reports. The report contains data coming from the Copernicus European Forest Fire Information System as well as data coming from 33 member countries of the Expert Group on Forest Fires.

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New State of Nature report points to persisting pressures on Europe’s nature

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European Commission published its latest assessment of the state of nature in the European Union. It provides a comprehensive overview of the situation of Europe’s most vulnerable species and habitats protected under EU nature laws

Decline of protected habitats and species still continues, caused mostly by intensive agriculture, urbanisation, unsustainable forestry activities and changes to freshwater habitats. Pollution of air, water and soil also impacts habitats, as well as climate change, over-exploitation of animals through illegal harvesting and untenable hunting and fishing. If not addressed, this decline will inevitably result in the continued erosion of our biodiversity and the vital services it provides, putting human health and prosperity at risk.

The report underlines the clear need for action if we are to have any serious chance of putting Europe’s biodiversity on a path to recovery by 2030, as envisaged in the new EU Biodiversity Strategy. In this regard, the full implementation of the goals and targets proposed in the Strategy, as well as in the Farm to Fork Strategy will be essential.

The assessment – based on a more detailed technical report of the European Environment Agency – shows that while there are protected species and habitats that are managing to hold the line despite being subject to major pressure, the majority have poor or bad status at EU level, with some showing continued deteriorating trends.

Among species, birds that are closely associated with agriculture continue to decline, while freshwater fish have the highest proportion of bad conservation status (38 %) primarily due to changes to waterbodies and water-flow and hydropower installations. Among habitats, only 15% of them are in good condition. Restoration of peatlands and other wetlands can deliver nature benefits, but also significantly contribute to addressing climate change, creating employment opportunities in rural and peripheral areas.

The report also shows that targeted conservation action brings results. The Iberian lynx, the forest reindeer and the otter, each of which has been targeted by major conservation projects, are now recovering. Initiatives under the EU LIFE programme, dedicated agri-environment schemes under the common agricultural policy, and the Natura 2000 network with its 27,000 sites continue to have a positive influence, but this needs to be scaled up considerably. 

Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Virginijus Sinkevičius said: “This State of Nature assessment is the most comprehensive health check of nature ever undertaken in the EU. It shows, yet again, very clearly that we are losing our vital life support system. As much as 81 % of protected habitats are in poor condition in the EU. We urgently need to deliver on the commitments in the new EU Biodiversity Strategy to reverse this decline for the benefit of nature, people, climate and the economy.”

Hans Bruyninckx, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency, said: “Our assessment shows that safeguarding the health and resilience of Europe’s nature, and people’s well-being, requires fundamental changes to the way we produce and consume food, manage and use forests, and build cities. These efforts need to be coupled with better implementation and enforcement of conservation policies, a focus on nature restoration, as well as increasingly ambitious climate action, especially in the transport and energy sector.”

Background

Every six years, EU Member States report on the conservation status and trends of species and habitat types protected under the EU Directives. The present reporting cycle is the largest and most extensive data-gathering exercise ever undertaken on the state of Europe’s nature. The report provides an analysis of data on status and trends related to all wild bird species occurring in the EU (460 species), 233 habitat types and almost 1400 other wild plants and animals of European interest.

This knowledge will guide EU’s action on biodiversity in the coming years, providing a crucial baseline for monitoring progress towards achieving the targets of the new EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2030.

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Celebrating African youth turning the tide on plastic pollution

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More than 400 young Africans were today honoured for their leadership in addressing plastic pollution in their communities as part of the Tide Turners Plastic Challenge. At a high-level event, political leaders, senior UN officials and Grammy-nominated Ghanaian musician Rocky Dawuni lauded the leadership shown by young people in global efforts to fight plastic pollution.

The African Youth Summit – Tide Turners Plastic Challenge acknowledged the role of more than 400 champions who have completed all three levels of the Tide Turners Plastic Challenge Badge. Participants in the Challenge have shown leadership by raising awareness through social media, championing plastic waste collection campaigns and demonstrating sustainability in their own lives, among other things.

Funded by the United Kingdom for the past two years, the Tide Turners Plastic Challenge has been completed by more than 225,000 young people in over 25 countries, including 50,000 in Africa. The challenge takes the participants on a learning journey consisting of three different levels: entry, leader, and champion.

More than 1,500 young people attended the Summit, organised by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in partnership with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, the World Organization of the Scout Movement and Junior Achievement Africa.

“As a former Girl Guide, I am very proud of Tide Turners and all the inspiring young people who are part of it; so far, more than 50,000 young people in 18 countries across Africa have joined this important programme. Let’s continue this momentum, adding seven more countries to reach youth in nearly half of all African countries,” said Joyce Msuya, Deputy Executive Director of UNEP.

The Summit which took place alongside the Scouts during their annual Jamboree on the Air and Jamboree on the Internet event (JOTA-JOTI) to share lessons from the actions young people have taken to fight plastic pollution and become environmental leaders in their communities. Six young changemakers shared their stories about how they went about provoking change and inspiring their peers to join them in taking action on plastic pollution.

“The Tide Turners Plastic Challenge gave me a great platform to pass on the message against plastic waste and share my solutions,” said Fyona Seesurrun, a 22-year old student from Mauritius, one of the champions who was honoured at the summit.

“100,000 mammals and one million birds die every year from eating or getting tangled in plastic in the ocean. If we do nothing, the amount of plastic in the ocean is set to treble by 2025. We must take collective action now. The Tide Turners are a force to be reckoned with, inspiring a whole new generation of leaders to tackle plastic pollution within their communities. That’s why the UK is supporting the UNEP to extend the work of the Tide Turners Plastic Challenge Badge to a further 20 countries around the world”, said Zac Goldsmith, UK Minister of State for Pacific and the Environment. 

Grammy-nominated Ghanaian musician Rocky Dawuni – a UNEP Goodwill Ambassador – also addressed the young people at the Summit and serenaded guests with hits including “Rock Your Soul”.

The Tide Turners Plastic Challenge Badge is the first ever Scout and Girl Guide Badge made from recycled plastic; the Challenge has been integrated into a new digital platform for World Scouting’s new environmental education initiative: Earth Tribe, which unites 54 million Scouts in a global youth movement for the environment, and offers young people the opportunity to learn and act on key environmental issues that are affecting their communities.  

In 2021, organisers will be adding a new element to the badge which will focus on influencing policy and practice change.

Each year, more than 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the oceans, wreaking havoc on marine wildlife, fisheries, and tourism, and costing at least $8 billion in damage to marine ecosystems. World production of plastic materials in 2018 was estimated at 359 million tonnes and by 2040, the amount of plastic going into our oceans could triple.

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Eating better – for us and the planet

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Industrialized farming has been a reliable way to produce lots of food, at a relatively low cost. But it’s not the bargain it was once believed to be. Unsustainable agriculture can pollute water, air and soil; is a source of greenhouse gas; and destroys wildlife – an environmental cost equivalent to about US$3 trillion every year. The use of chemicals and antimicrobials can have adverse health effects and lead to resistant infections. And to top it all off, our production and consumption habits have been linked to the emergence of zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19.

To mark World Food Day on 16 October, we take a closer look at sustainable agriculture – how it can help reduce our environmental footprint, improve our health and even create jobs.

What exactly is sustainable agriculture?

It is farming that meets the needs of existing and future generations, while also ensuring profitability, environmental health and social and economic equity. It favours techniques that emulate nature–to preserve soil fertility, prevent water pollution and protect biodiversity. It is also a way to support the achievement of global objectives, like the Sustainable Development Goals and Zero Hunger.

Does sustainable agriculture really make a difference to the environment?

Yes. It uses up to 56 per cent less energy per unit of crops produced, creates 64 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions per hectare and supports greater levels of biodiversity than conventional farming.

Why does sustainably produced food seem more expensive?

It may be more costly because it is more labour-intensive. It is often certified in a way that requires it to be separated from conventional foods during processing and transport. The costs associated with marketing and distribution of relatively small volumes of product are often comparatively high. And, sometimes, the supply of certain sustainably produced foods is limited.

Why are some foods so much more affordable–even when they require processing and packaging?

The heavy use of chemicals, medicines and genetic modification allows some foods to be produced cheaply and in reliably high volumes, so the retail price tag may be lower. But this is deceiving because it does not reflect the costs of environmental damage or the price of healthcare that is required to treat diet-related diseases. Ultra-processed foods are often high in energy and low in nutrients and may contribute to the development of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some forms of cancer. This is particularly concerning amid the COVID-19 pandemic; the disease is especially risky for those with pre-existing health problems.

Do we all have to be vegan?

No. But most of us should eat less animal protein. Livestock production is a major cause of climate change and in most parts of the world, people already consume more animal-sourced food than is healthy. But even small dietary shifts can have a positive impact. The average person consumes 100 grams of meat daily.  Reducing that by 10 grams could improve human health while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

Is sustainable agriculture possible in developing countries?

Yes. Because sustainably produced food is typically more labour-intensive than conventionally made food, it has the potential to create 30 per cent more jobs. And because it can command higher prices, it can also generate more money for farmers.

Is it possible to make sustainably produced food that is affordable for everyone?

Yes. As demand for certain foods increases, the costs associated with production, processing, distribution and marketing will drop, which should make them less expensive for consumers.  Policymakers can also play a role, facilitating market access and leveling the financial and regulatory playing field.

If it is so important, why hasn’t sustainable farming been adopted as a global standard?

There is a lack of understanding of the way that agriculture, the environment and human health intersect. Policymakers do not typically consider nature as a form of capital, so legislation is not designed to prevent pollution and other kinds of environmental degradation. And consumers may not realize how their dietary choices affect the environment or even their own health. In the absence of either legal obligations or consumer demand, there is little incentive for producers to change their approach.

What are some ways to consume food more sustainably?

Diversify your diet and cook more meals at home. Eat more plant-based foods; enjoy pulses, peas, beans and chickpeas as sources of protein. Eat local, seasonal foods. Purchase sustainably produced foods and learn more about farming practices and labeling. Avoid excessive packaging, which is likely to end up as landfill. Don’t waste food: eliminating food waste could reduce global carbon emissions by 8-10 per cent. Cultivate your own garden, even if it is a small one in your kitchen. Support organizations, policies and projects that promote sustainable food systems. And discuss the importance of healthy and sustainable foods with producers, vendors, policymakers, friends and family.

UN Environment

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