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Rooting for the environment in times of conflict and war

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Eighteen years ago, on 5 November 2001, the United Nations General Assembly declared 6 November the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict.

Despite the protection afforded by several legal instruments, the environment continues to be the silent victim of armed conflicts worldwide.

Public concern regarding the targeting and use of the environment during wartime first peaked during the Viet Nam War. The use of the toxic herbicide Agent Orange, and the resulting massive deforestation and chemical contamination it caused, sparked an international outcry leading to the creation of two new international legal instruments.

The Environmental Modification Convention was adopted in 1976 to prohibit the use of environmental modification techniques as a means of warfare. Protocol I, an amendment to the Geneva Conventions adopted in the following year, included two articles (35 and 55) prohibiting warfare that may cause “widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment”.

The adequacy of these two instruments, however, was called into question during the 1990–1991 Gulf War. The extensive pollution caused by the intentional destruction of over 600 oil wells in Kuwait by the retreating Iraqi army and the subsequent claims for US$85 billion in environmental damages led to further calls to strengthen legal protection of the environment during armed conflict.

And there have been other instances in which armed conflicts have continued to cause significant damage to the environment—directly, indirectly and as a result of a lack of governance and institutional collapse. For instance, dozens of industrial sites were bombed during the Kosovo conflict in 1999, leading to toxic chemical contamination at several hotspots, namely in Pančevo, Kragujevac, Novi Sad and Bor and raised alarm over potential pollution of the Danube River. In another example, an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 tonnes of fuel oil were released into the Mediterranean Sea following the bombing of the Jiyeh power station during the conflict between Israel and Lebanon in 2006.

More recently, armed conflict in Iraq which began in June 2014, and ended with the capture of the last ISIL-held areas and retreat of ISIS militants in 2017, left a deep environmental footprint in its wake. As the militants retreated, they set fire to oil wells triggering the release into the air of toxic mix of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, particulate matter and metals such as nickel, vanadium and lead.

However, despite these challenges, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has been working with various Member States and other partners to strengthen the protection of the environment before, during and after armed conflict.

“From early 2018, the Iraqi government and UNEP partnered to build a cross-ministry team capable of tackling pollution from the conflict. The initiative is also meant to strengthen the government’s capacity in responding to future environmental emergencies that may result from attacks against critical installations, particularly Iraq’s booming oil sector,” says Hassan Partow, UNEP’s Iraq Country Programme Manager.

In September 2019, UNEP in collaboration with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq organized a workshop on remediation of oil spills, and is assisting the Ministries of Oil and Environment trial cost-effective biological clean-up techniques.

Iraq is also among seven countries selected to participate in UNEP’s Special Programme, an initiative designed to help states meet their chemicals and waste management obligations under the Basel, Rotterdam, Minamata and Stockholm conventions and the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management. These countries will receive technical know-how and assistance with drafting hazardous waste management legislation. 

Recently, on 8 July 2019 the International Law Commission adopted 28 draft legal principles on first reading to enhance protection of the environment in conflict and war situations. The International Committee of the Red Cross is also set to release a revised version of the Guidelines for Military Manuals and Instructions on the Protection of the Environment in Times of Armed Conflict.

“Protecting the environment before, during and after armed conflict must rise to the same level of political importance as protecting human rights. A healthy environment is the foundation upon which ​peace and many human rights are realized,” says David Jensen, UNEP’s Head of Environmental Peacebuilding.

Since 1999, UNEP has conducted over twenty-five post-conflict assessments using state-of-the-art science to determine the environmental impacts of war. From Kosovo to Afghanistan, Sudan and the Gaza Strip, the organization has established that armed conflict causes significant harm to the environment and the communities that depend on natural resources. Increasingly, UNEP hopes to leverage big data, frontier technology and citizen science to improve the systematic monitoring and detection of environmental damage and risks caused by armed conflicts in order to improve the protection of human health, livelihoods and security. Building a digital ecosystem for the planet to map, monitor and mitigate environment, peace and security risks is one of the next priority investments.

UN Environment

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Environment

Landmark decision gives legal teeth to protect environmental defenders

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A 46-strong group of countries across the wider European region has agreed to establish a new legally binding mechanism that would protect environmental defenders, the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) said on Friday.

“I remain deeply concerned by the targeting of environmental activists”, said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, welcoming the rapid response mechanism as “an important contribution to help advance my Call to Action for Human Rights”. 

The agreement will delegate setting up the new mechanism to the United Nations, or another international body.

As the first ever internationally-agreed tool to safeguard environmental defenders, it marks an important step in upholding the universal right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment – as recognized by the Human Rights Council earlier this month

“Twenty years ago, the Aarhus Convention entered into force, bridging the gap between human and environmental rights.

Today, as the devastating effects of climate change continue to ravage the world, the Convention’s core purpose – of allowing people to protect their wellbeing and that of future generations – has never been more critical”, spelled out the UN chief. 

A protective eye

The agreement to establish the mechanism was adopted on Thursday by the Meeting of the Parties to the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, known as the Aarhus Convention. 

“This landmark decision is a clear signal to environmental defenders that they will not be left unprotected”, said UNECE chief Olga Algayerova.

“It demonstrates a new level of commitment to upholding the public’s rights under the Aarhus Convention, as well as Parties’ willingness to respond effectively to grave and real-time challenges seen in the Convention’s implementation on the ground”.   

Vital defence

Whether it is groups protesting the construction of a dangerous dam or individuals speaking out against harmful agricultural practices in their local community, these activists are vital to environmental preservation across the globe, said the UNECE.

The Aarhus Convention ensures that those exercising their rights in conformity with the provisions of the Convention shall not be penalized, persecuted or harassed in any way for their involvement.

As such, the mechanism will establish a Special Rapporteur – or independent rights expert – who will quickly respond to alleged violations and take measures to protect those experiencing or under imminent threat of penalization, persecution, or harassment for seeking to exercise their rights under the Convention.  

As time is of the essence to buttress the safety of environmental defenders, any member of the public, secretariat or Party to the Aarhus Convention, will be able to submit a confidential complaint to the Special Rapporteur, even before other legal remedies have been exhausted.   

Defenders targeted

Although it is crucial for environmental defenders to confidently exercise their rights, cases have been reported in which instead, they face being fired, heavy fines, criminalization, detention, violence, and even death. 

Moreover, incidents of harassment and violence against environmental defenders are far from uncommon

A report to the Human Rights Council by Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, found that one-in-two human rights defenders who were killed in 2019 had been working with communities around issues of land, environment, impacts of business activities, poverty and rights of indigenous peoples, Afrodescendants and other minorities.  

Since January 2017, among the Parties to the Aarhus Convention, incidents of persecution, penalization and harassment of environmental defenders have been reported in 16 countries

In contrast to current existing initiatives, which mainly rely on applying political pressure through the media, the Aarhus Convention’s rapid response mechanism will be built on a binding legal framework, giving it much greater powers to act.

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Plastic pollution on course to double by 2030

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Plastic pollution in oceans and other bodies of water continues to grow sharply and could more than double by 2030, according to an assessment released on Thursday by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). 

The report highlights dire consequences for health, the economy, biodiversity and the climate. It also says a drastic reduction in unnecessary, avoidable and problematic plastic, is crucial to addressing the global pollution crisis overall.  

To help reduce plastic waste at the needed scale, it proposes an accelerated transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies, the removal of subsidies and a shift towards more circular approaches towards reduction. 

Titled From Pollution to Solution: a global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution, the report shows that there is a growing threat, across all ecosystems, from source to sea. 

Solutions to hand 

But it also shows that there is the know-how to reverse the mounting crisis, provided the political will is there, and urgent action is taken. 

The document is being released 10 days ahead of the start of the crucial UN Climate Conference, COP26, stressing that plastics are a climate problem as well.  

For example, in 2015, greenhouse gas emissions from plastics were 1.7 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent; by 2050, they’re projected to increase to approximately 6.5 gigatonnes. That number represents 15 per cent of the whole global carbon budget – the​​ amount of greenhouse gas that can be emitted, while still keeping warming within the Paris Agreement goals. 

Recycling not enough 

Addressing solutions to the problem, the authors pour cold water on the chances of recycling our way out of the plastic pollution crisis. 

They also warn against damaging alternatives, such as bio-based or biodegradable plastics, which currently pose a threat similar to conventional plastics. 

The report looks at critical market failures, such as the low price of virgin fossil fuel feedstocks (any renewable biological material that can be used directly as a fuel) compared to recycled materials, disjointed efforts in informal and formal plastic waste management, and the lack of consensus on global solutions. 

Instead, the assessment calls for the immediate reduction in plastic production and consumption, and encourages a transformation across the whole value chain. 

It also asks for investments in far more robust and effective monitoring systems to identify the sources, scale and fate of plastic. Ultimately, a shift to circular approaches and more alternatives are necessary.  

Making the case for change 

For the Executive Director of UNEP, Inger Andersen, this assessment “provides the strongest scientific argument to date for the urgency to act, and for collective action to protect and restore our oceans, from source to sea.” 

She said that a major concern is what happens with breakdown products, such as microplastics and chemical additives, which are known to be toxic and hazardous to human and wildlife health and ecosystems. 

“The speed at which ocean plastic pollution is capturing public attention is encouraging. It is vital that we use this momentum to focus on the opportunities for a clean, healthy and resilient ocean”, Ms. Andersen argued.  

Growing problem 

Currently, plastic accounts for 85 per cent of all marine litter. 

By 2040, it will nearly triple, adding 23-37 million metric tons of waste into the ocean per year. This means about 50kg of plastic per meter of coastline. 

Because of this, all marine life, from plankton and shellfish; to birds, turtles and mammals; faces the grave risk of toxification, behavioral disorder, starvation and suffocation. 

The human body is similarly vulnerable. Plastics are ingested through seafood, drinks and even common salt. They also penetrate the skin and are inhaled when suspended in the air. 

In water sources, this type of pollution can cause hormonal changes, developmental disorders, reproductive abnormalities and even cancer. 

Economy 

According to the report, there are also significant consequences for the global economy. 

Globally, when accounting for impacts on tourism, fisheries and aquaculture, together with the price of projects such as clean-ups, the costs were estimated to be six to 19 billion dollars per year, during 2018. 

By 2040, there could be a $100 billion annual financial risk for businesses if governments require them to cover waste management costs. It can also lead to a rise in illegal domestic and international waste disposal. 

The report will inform discussions at the UN Environment Assembly in 2022, where countries will come together to decide a way forward for more global cooperation. 

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UNESCO ‘eDNA’ initiative to ‘unlock’ knowledge for biodiversity protection

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To understand the richness of biodiversity across World Heritage marine sites, the UN scientific organization launched on Monday a project to protect and preserve biodiversity, based on the study of environmental DNA – cellular material released from living things into their surroundings. 

Launching the new programme, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said that scientists and local residents would take samples of genetic material from fish waste, mucous membranes or cells, eDNA, to monitor species. 

Marine World Heritage sites play a critical role in protecting marine ecosystems of exceptional universal value and provide opportunities for the public to appreciate and preserve marine environments”, reminded UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture, Ernesto Ottone Ramírez. 

Species under threat 

UNESCO said that the two-year initiative would help measure the vulnerability of marine biodiversity to climate change and its impact on the distribution and migration patterns of marine life across World Heritage sites. 

The eDNA project, which involves collecting and analyzing samples from the environment – such as soil, water and air – rather than an individual organism, will also better monitor and protect endangered species included in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.  

Climate change is affecting the behaviour and distribution of underwater life and we must understand what is happening so we can adapt our conservation efforts to evolving conditions”, explained the UNESCO official. 

Beneath the waves 

UNESCO’s marine World Heritage sites are recognized for their unique biodiversity, outstanding ecosystems, or for representing major stages in Earth’s history.  

In the context of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030), the project was launched to contribute to the understanding of global trends and knowledge to preserve marine ecosystems. 

Since 1981, when Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was inscribed at UNESCO’s first marine site, a global network of 50 others are now included as “beacons of hope for healing the ocean”, according to the UN agency. 

Guided by expert support, the eDNA project will engage local citizens to gather material, so samples such as particles gathered through water filtering, can be genetically sequenced in specialized laboratories, without having to disturb animals themselves.   

Implemented by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) and World Heritage Centre, IOC chief Vladimir Ryabinin described the project as “a step toward the Ocean Decade’s vision of unlocking the knowledge we need to create the ocean we want by 2030”. 

Breaking new ground 

The use of eDNA in ocean monitoring and data collection is still in its infancy and standard protocols for sampling and data management will be streamlined in UNESCO’s groundbreaking eDNA project.  

For the first time, it will apply a consistent methodology across multiple marine protected areas simultaneously, helping establish global standards, data monitoring and management practices while making that information available to the public. 

All data will be processed and published by the Ocean Biodiversity Information System (OBIS), the world’s largest open-access data system on the distribution and diversity of marine species, maintained and collectively supported by a worldwide network of scientists, data managers and users.  

Sustainability goal 

The project works to advance the world’s understanding of life in the ocean, and establish conservation and management policies indicators.   

“eDNA sampling can provide an innovative, affordable, and long-awaited capacity to better understand the ocean ecosystems, their composition and behaviour, and to start managing ocean resources more sustainably”, said Mr. Ryabinin. 

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