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Going Directionless: The Disease of Climate Dialogue

Sisir Devkota

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As weird as it may have seemed, Greta Thunberg’s sea voyage from Europe to New York is the latest environmental scandal for the irrationals. For the rational(s), she was only biding time to save more than 500 kilograms of carbon dioxide; by taking on a zero emission yacht, Thunberg invited more hypocrisy than appreciation. In almost a decade, a young Swedish activist has put the climate issue on stage, like never before, her bold statements are not asking for swifter actions. It rather sounds like a threat for a global action against the prolonged inaction. Unfortunately, such antics are the only way the world has ever managed to acknowledge the devastating effects of climate change.

This year in September, UN Chief, Antonio Guterres, called international stakeholders to New York; the United Nations Climate Action Summit was rather rushed in the wake of the Paris treaty. Here is the third problem. Guterres convened the meeting to inspire world leaders to enhance their already existing climate ambition. New York was anticipating for an aggressive upgrade in future plans to curb the effects of climate change. Yet, the language was old, climate scientists will testify the scale of ambition required in policies and consumption patterns. While the conference itself was aimed for an action platform, it however, did not live up to its expectations. Participating nations arrived unprepared with expected upgrades; nevertheless, their willingness to seek interaction demands acknowledgement. Climate strategies need time for evaluation and policy recovery. As such, the meeting was in haste. Therefore, it is of no surprise why Thunberg’s voyage became the most talking point.

Climate meetings have seen it all. It is by far the most resourceful experience of how governments apply trickery and treachery, behind explicit promises. As much as new age governmentalism would bereft from the events that led to the Paris treaty, climate dialogue has disappointed to extremes that likeminded stakeholders would no longer trust the global institution. Of particular mention is the Climate Conference held in Durban, South Africa (2011); India, China and the United States retracted from their past promises, rather sensationally, they instead vowed to work on a legally binding treaty, latest by 2015. This is the second order of problem. Appeasement is abundant for dishonest nations, and unlike other global institutions, international policing is absent. There are incentives for the signatories of carbon trading mechanisms but punishment for slackers is non-existent. The viruses of non-conviction have paralyzed climate dialogues. Greta Thunberg had a face when she spoke to the older generation of decision makers; the world has truly failed to make baby steps when it comes to reducing carbon emissions.

This is the first problem. In 1997, Kyoto hosted the first legally binding climate treaty conference. It was proven that human beings would need to limit rising earth temperatures by 2°C.Almost twenty-two years later, Greta’s adventure points to our failure to address the basic climate change problem-reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The year 2019 would have been more about alternative energies and sustainable policies, had climate dialogue taken a more concentrated approach. More than ten climate meetings later, climate dialogue is looping without oxygen; disastrously, world leaders have failed to address the first step. 22 years later, humankind living in emancipated societies cannot yet agree on a collective plan to phase out dirty emissions.

Nation states are still making excuses. Behind Guterres’ hastiness lies the dangerous reality of catastrophe. Regardless of our immediate actions, by 2050, most of the island nations are going under water; ecosystems are going to collapse, our food supplies will take a major hit and fresh water will dwindle by more than 30%. For the climate irrationals, at least, Thunberg is not doing dialogues, she is doing action.

Global Affairs Analyst based in Kathmandu, Nepal. Founder, Trainer & Researcher at "The Protocol" which facilitates analytical research on current affairs and workshops on Diplomacy and Leadership. Masters of Social Science in Democracy & Global Transformations from the University of Helsinki, Finland. Author for a book chapter titled as "Armed Conflicts in South Asia 2013".

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Post-coronavirus crisis looming for the environment

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The rapid outbreak of the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, among countries around the world is not only a huge challenge for the public health, but the environment will also bear its dire consequences.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses. Some cause illness in people and others only infect animals. Very rarely have animal coronaviruses infected and spread between people. This is what’s suspected to have happened for the virus that has caused the outbreak of the current severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, known as SARS-CoV-2. This is the virus that causes the coronavirus disease 2019, COVID-19, according to the Conversation website.

Worldwide, more than 93,000 people have been infected and at least 3,100 have died, predominantly in China, where the coronavirus originated in late December. However, the virus appears now to be spreading much more rapidly outside the Asian country, WHO reported.

Since Wednesday, with over 2,990 infections, deaths in Iran surged to 92.

The global spread of the new type of virus triggered demand for face masks, disposable gloves, and detergents.

Hazardous waste generation

Binge fear buying was clearly cited as people rushed to pharmacies to lay their hands on either N95 or a simple surgical face mask to protect themselves, the wave even reached medical gloves and detergents.

Many manufacturing companies has gone into overdrive to produce more such personal protection equipment; despite epidemiologists and infectious disease experts have been at pains to emphasize against a scramble for face masks in recent weeks.

However, people have not yet stopped panic buying face masks and other equipment to protect themselves from the fast-spreading coronavirus; with many negligently tossing their used face masks and gloves on the streets.

While an exact shelf life time period is dependent on what specific material the gloves are made of, a general rule is three years for disposable natural latex gloves and up to five years for disposable nitrile gloves. 

That means more and more waste ends up in the landfills despite the environmental threat these kind of hazardous waste can cause both for the environment and people.

Antiseptics: double-edged swords

Detergents are the second choice for people to prevent novel coronavirus infection, and these days many consumers are rushing to get these items from stores and shopping malls.
Detergents with certain compounds can be harmful to health as much as they can relieve people of disease.

Excessive consumption of detergents is a risk factor for environment in addition to water and soil resources; wastewater from these substances enters our life cycle and can come up with a health hazard, Mohammad Khaleqi, head of Bojnourd department of environment told IRNA on Wednesday.

There is no doubt that the environment is affected by the excessive use of detergents, so people are expected to be careful not to damage nature when taking care of their health, he added.

Until recently, it was widely believed that antiseptics do not cause any harm, and do not affect human health or the environment. However, after conducting numerous studies and tests, some of their risks which can be caused by the excessive use of household antiseptics have emerged.

Some of these risks include affecting the environment, where it has become clear that some of the substances used in household antiseptics, especially aerosols, may contaminate the air. In addition, they are dangerous if applied to the skin continuously; though they eliminate harmful organisms, they also kill useful microorganisms located under the layers of the skin, which helps the cells to renew and wounds to heal.

Moreover, a recent American study has revealed a major surprise that might make using antiseptics a real public health hazard. The study revealed that they help creating advanced types of germs and bacteria that are difficult to eradicate, according to the Biblex website.

40% rise in water consumption 

Following outbreak of the coronavirus in Iran, water consumption has climbed up due to hand washing and cleaning possessions, ISNA reported.

Furthermore, Norouz (Persian New Year) is approaching and every year during the same period water consumption rate increases because home cleaning is at its peak; but water consumption in Tehran raised by 14 percent, which is unusually high.

In normal conditions, however, average water consumption in Tehran is 2.5 times more than the global average, so the infectious disease has only made a bad situation worse.

Increasing consumption in the past few days has led to water pressure in some areas in Tehran and other provinces of the country as some of the cities faced cuts.

Kerman province’s Water and Wastewater Company announced that the outbreak of coronavirus has increased water consumption in Kerman city by 40 percent.

A 15 percent increase in water consumption in Ahvaz city is another report published by the news agencies in recent days.

Panic, not the way to survive

Given the climate change pressures, if the condition continues, environmental damages are likely to add insult to injury; and there can be a post-coronavirus crisis globally.

Governments needs to be more vigilant on waste disposal and defining strict rules on discarded medical equipment in the urban areas, fining the violators would come efficient in some cases.

Make people more aware of the time when they have to use face masks and other self-protection equipment.

People must also be more cautious in emergency situations, not to be easily effected by fear but to broad their vision to the future and act more sensible.

From our partner Tehran Times

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EU fertilizer regulations: What are the consequences for the European food chain?

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European food security is at risk from well-meaning, but problematic regulations representing elements of the European Union’s Circular Economy Package 2018. While capping cadmium content in phosphate fertilisers is being touted as a matter of public health, the absence of supporting science, incoherent policy, and the hazardous market consequences are being negligently overlooked. Partially to blame may be the misleading arguments pushed by environmental and industrial lobbies.

The European Union (EU) is increasingly dependent on non-member countries supplying its various needs. When it comes to vital fertiliser, the EU depends on imports for approximately 85% of its phosphate (P2O5). In 2017 most phosphate came from Morocco (1.8Mt), Russia (1.6Mt), Algeria (0.7Mt), Israel, and South Africa. Phosphate is crucial to industrial food production. The fewer phosphate exporters to the EU there are the less competition there is: prices will inevitably rise as a result.

The restrictions proposed in the EU aim to limit the amount of cadmium permitted in phosphate fertilisers. Cadmium is a toxic heavy metal. Present as an impurity in phosphate, it can enter crops and soil through fertilisers. As part of the Circular Economy Package, the Commission proposed an initial cadmium limit of 60mg/kg P2O5, for three years, sliding down to 40mg/kg after nine years, and 20mg/kg after 12 years.

The European Parliament has suggested a final limit of 20mg/kg P2O5 after 12 years while the EU Council’s initial position is a limit of 60mg/kg P2O5 after 8 years.

As a quirk of geology, the phosphate rocks extracted in different regions have differing levels of impurities, like cadmium. This means that the lower the upper limit, the fewer territories that can realistically supply viable phosphate. Notably, at present the phosphate industry maintains that decadmiation is neither technologically nor financially possible.

Problems with the science

Crucially, the science that various EU authorities believe supports their position is hotly contested. The Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks (SCHER), confirmed there was no accumulation of cadmium in soils when fertilisers have an average of 80 mg/kg P2O5, revised to 73mg/kg P2O5 after taking into account new worst-case scenarios. In either case, this is above the limits pushed by the EU authorities, and the difference between the SCHER average figure and the EU maximum limit is equally significant.

“There is substantial uncertainty with respect to the effects of cadmium in fertilizer on cadmium accumulations in humans,” argue agricultural economists Justus Wessler and Dušan Drabik. According to their findings “cadmium concentration in soils in the EU is declining” and therefore “maximum limits on cadmium, voluntary or mandatory, will increase cost without generating additional benefits,”. 

These findings are echoed by researchers for the Swiss Centre for Applied Human Toxicology (SCAHT), who conclude that the “use of P

[phosphate]

 fertiliser at current levels will not lead to soil accumulation of cadmium, and thus there will be no increase human exposure to cadmium.”

Even the European Commission’s own impact assessment found that “on average, cadmium accumulation is not likely to occur in EU 27 + Norway arable soils when using inorganic phosphate fertiliser containing less than 80 mg Cd/kg P2O5.”

How is the policy causing harm to farmers?

While the regulation may be based on largely unsupported health concerns, the effects of the change will be very real for EU farmers, EU fertiliser producers, and the wider European agri-food industry.

Limitations on the concentrations of cadmium permitted in phosphate fertilisers will ultimately reduce the number of viable suppliers of fertiliser products, and therefore, reduce market competition. Farmers and industry insiders believe that this will raise prices for fertiliser products, which are already an expensive overhead.

Fertilisers currently comprise a significant percentage of EU farmers input costs. Many feel that they will not be able to cope with increased prices, as they often already receive insufficient returns for their products. The European farmers’s interest group COPA and COGECA has argued that “the increase in input costs will be detrimental [to farmers’s]…economic viability and to the sustainability of farms.”

“It will have a negative impact on farmers profitability and the competitiveness of European agriculture which plays a key role in a global economy,” the group also said.

Isabel García Tejerina is a Spanish minister who opposed the proposals for cadmium limitations out of consideration to Spanish farmers and fertiliser producers. Tejerina argued that the regulation demonstrated disregard for farmers interests.

“Too strict cadmium limits would exclude us from the market of phosphate fertilizers”, she said, adding that France and the UK have similar concerns.

While there are limits on cadmium content in fertilisers in order to reduce its consumption, there are currently no limits on cadmium content in food products imported from outside of the EU. This is another source of anger as farmers fear that it could facilitate unfair competition.

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Tipping Points in Australia’s Climate Change debates. Where to Now?

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A record-breaking high summer came early to Australia in 2019. By October, the daily weather map of the country was charting the rapid spread of catastrophic bushfires in disparate regions across the entire island continent. This meant recurrent, intense weather events that combined 40°C temperatures, ferocious winds and dry lightning storms, in which sparse rainfall evaporated before it reached the ground. With the forecasts came repeated warnings: the country’s substantial resources and manpower provided no guarantee the fires that were erupting in such conditions could be contained. Nor that local people and properties could be safeguarded.

For months on end came each day’s tally of the nightmarish realisation of the forecasts. By early January 2020, almost two million hectares of the countryside had been reduced to blackened landscapes. Among the hardest hit were the eastern states where 80% of Australia’s population live. Out-of-control fires in the tinder-dry old eucalypt forests and remote mountain bushland were merging into megafires. Along a 1000 kilometre front on the New South Wales seaboard this meant up to 60 metre walls of flame and ember showers that created windblown spot fires up to 30 kilometres away. With little chance of saving their homes, residents of towns and villages evacuated to makeshift community centres and nearby beaches. An estimated 800-900 houses were destroyed, with a higher number anticipated as evacuated families gradually return to streets of rubble and ash. Driven by the strong winds, a thick, toxic pall of grey smoke had also blanketed coastal areas, as well as inland regions including the national capital of Canberra. Peaking at around 20 times acceptable levels of pollution, the pure mountain air of Australia’s showpiece garden city now had an Air Quality Index that was among the highest in the world. The city’s government handed out free face masks, advised its citizens to stay indoors and for a time closed public institutions and offices. With the sun a spectral red in a sepia-coloured sky, the result was a sensation of eerie, off-world emptiness. As one commentator suggested, the bushfires were like some relentless, hellish creature stalking Australians from all directions.

Meantime, the season of horror and catastrophe has brought renewed momentum to the country’s climate change debates. These are strongly politicised debates. With at least a thirty-year history, they have ranged from the baneful nonsense of the Far Right’s outright climate change denial; to a hesitant, ill-informed scepticism about the limits and accuracy of the science that links Australia’s weather patterns of recurrent droughts, floods and bushfires to wider global climate change; to claims that our carbon emissions are insignificant when compared to those of China, Russia or the US; to apocalyptic predictions of an imminent ‘sixth extinction’ caused by wilful ignorance of the extent of humankind’s destruction of the planet’s eco-systems. In more recent years, there also has gradually emerged qualified optimism that innovative, adaptive technologies can and will provide solutions to the environmental threats.

But in the wake of the bushfires, the prevailing consensus among Australians is challenging the confusion and complacency generated by these debates. To an angry public, the destruction wrought was unarguably unprecedented and only explicable in terms of global climate change. This is evident across social media outlets, the mainstream press, elite opinion makers, the emergency services, the rural towns and farming communities, the more progressive voices in the corporate sector, and to the thousands of anti-government demonstrators on the streets of the state capitals calling for Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s dismissal. Their insistent view has been that their country was blindsided by its third-rate governance under Morrison’s extreme Right-Wing leadership. Specifically, this has meant federal government inertia, dismissal of warnings by independent experts, and funding cuts to key bureaucracies, climate change research institutes and fire control services. The result has been that Australia was drastically ill- prepared for the impact of the coming summer of extreme temperatures combined with prolonged drought.

Moreover, the Morrison government has been widely accused of falling back on traditional, nationalistic ‘meet and beat’ rhetoric. Here what is implied is that we resourceful Aussies would voluntarily rise to the challenge of the seasonal bushfires and emerge victorious. It has also been the Prime Minister’s sloganizing term for his repeated claim that Australia continues to advance towards its 2030 carbon emission reduction targets. For the country’s climate change researchers, and probably most of the rest of the world, this last apparent reassurance severely strains credibility. Not least this is because the current fires have been belching poisonous carbon monoxide and dioxide into the stratosphere, already reaching approximately twice the levels of Russia’s 2019 Siberian wildfires. According to data from a December, 2019 World Economic Forum Report, the bushfires had already pumped out half a year’s CO2 emissions. As well, the report warned that ‘vegetation vital for absorbing CO2 is being destroyed by the blazes.’ To paraphrase a recent media headline, when it comes to climate change debates, ‘Australia has a serious bulldust problem.’ In short, Prime Minister Morrison’s ad hoc political strategies have been perceived as omitting any substantial forward planning or persuasive policy agenda.

All of which raises the question of the extent to which the bushfires might prove to be a turning point towards a more enlightened, informed plan to protect and nurture our environment. The concern is that it might be slow in coming. With some fires yet to be extinguished and smog predicted to choke cities and regional areas at least until April, 2020, for the immediate future the focus is on clean-up and recovery. The Morrison government is providing a two billion dollar funding package for a range of welfare services and for rebuilding communities, as well as for the millions of injured birds and animals to be rescued, nursed and relocated to surviving bush habitats. Australia’s Defence Forces have also been deployed to help in the recovery efforts. Though much needed, it is a strategy that has been satirised by one of Australia’s leading political cartoonists as a panicked Morrison with his backside on fire holding out a fistful of dollars to a scornful polity.

What then of this alleged absence of substantial national policy-making, of the urgent need for transformational planning as the world changes? At a grassroots level the bushfires are already proving to be a further stimulus to a long list of environmentally conscious initiatives, from the rejection of plastic packaging, to voluntary community replanting of tree coverage and grasslands, to fashionable inner-city restaurants surrounded by their own patches of homegrown vegetables, to eco housing design that includes the use of fireproof materials and air filters, to cycling to one’s workplace. For example, in Canberra its territory government guidelines require all new housing to include a water storage tank under the foundations and solar panels on the roof; there is a network of bicycle paths across the city, weekend markets for regional organic farm produce, and fenced sanctuaries to protect native wildlife, which are monitored by park rangers. In line with other state capitals and countries, the city is also phasing out the use of gas, as a stepping stone towards a target of zero carbon emissions by 2045.

With the hope of a more fundamental impact that transcends federal government complacency, there is also an expanding, grassroots focus on the applied science of long-term regenerative agriculture, whose aim is to rescue the arid, drought-ravaged farmlands. Its methodologies go beyond the long-standing European techniques of artificial soil fertilisation and piped irrigation, of the kind that have risked turning the inland lakes and river systems, most notably the Murray Darling Basin, into shallow, permanently-polluted puddles. Instead the starting point is a geographical survey to identify the potential of a degraded, natural water course. The next step is the planting of an abundance of native trees, shrubs, reeds and rushes along its banks and erecting stock proof fencing. As well, ‘live weirs’ are built at intervals to provide erosion control structures that slow water flow and help to reinvigorate the surrounding floodplain through spreading seepage. Within a decade or so the result is described by its practitioners as: a healthy, vibrant ecosystem, filtering water through its extensive reed beds, capturing flood sediments, recycling nutrients and providing complex habitat for birds, mammals, reptiles, frogs, fish and invertebrates. Productivity on the floodplain also increases by around 60%.

The success of an initial project on Mulloon Creek in the New South Wales hinterland has not only been profitable, but has led to establishment of the Mulloon Institute. The Institute has since been selected by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) as among its top five for its world class development of environmental resilience alongside agricultural productivity. Its current aim is to facilitate 100 landscape projects across Australia and internationally that are similarly profitable and sustainable. Incidentally, it has also been pointed out that these methodologies might well have prevented the fertile gardens of ancient Mesopotamia’s Tigris/Euphrates floodplain becoming the deserts of modern Iraq.

What follows considers a more comprehensive national economic plan that addresses directly the failures of successive, backward-looking conservative governments in preparing the country for the savage onslaught of climate change. The plan incorporates more than a decade of econometric monitoring by the University of Melbourne’s Professorial Fellow, Ross Garnaut, that compares the rising financial costs of maintaining our fossil fuel industries with the profitability of transitioning to renewable energy sources. When he began his study in 2007, Garnaut says, his data confirmed the prevalent assumption that a transition economy based on renewable energy and zero carbon emission technologies would be marked by a period of austerity detrimental to both developed and developing countries. His most recent book, Superpower Australia’s Low-Carbon Opportunity, published in November 2019, reviews his earlier data, concluding that such economic considerations have changed fundamentally and will continue to do so. Falling global interest rates which have reduced the cost of capital, combined with the likely rising price of fossil fuels as a result of increasing demand in large developing countries, is making products and projects that reduce green-house gas emissions more lucrative alternative investments.

In addition, there have been relatively rapid transformative cost reductions in machinery for producing electricity from wind and sun, in battery storage of electricity, and decarbonisation through electrification of transport and in other areas from small to medium businesses to large-scale manufacturing. In other words, for an imaginative, forward-looking company there is a considerable wealth to be made in the transition economy. Garnaut also concludes that Australia is singularly blessed with the geography and resources to be a front-runner in the creation of multi- billion dollar domestic and export industries in renewables. ‘If we all understood the economic value of a transition to renewables,’ he says, ‘we could move from policy incoherence to hope.’ With regard to the issue of whether wishing makes it so, of whether despite his detailed pursuit of statistical evidence in the dismal thickets of economics, Garnaut errs on the side of optimism, his book elucidates a couple of core Australian case studies. The first charts his personal experience of applying research-based knowledge in partnership with private-enterprise. In 2015, he became Chairman of Zen Energy, a South Australian company, with plans to scale up from a relatively small supplier of solar energy and battery storage technology to providing renewables to entire communities and industries. In 2017, the company merged with the British- based, multi-billionaire, Sanjeev Gupta’s global GFG Alliance. Though the evidence is not yet available, the rebranded SIMEC Energy Australia has claimed it will supply 100% of South Australia’s electricity needs by 2019. As Garnaut puts it: ‘…what in 2008 and 2011 I had perceived to be a possibility of modest dimension had become a high probability of immense economic gain.’

A second of a number case studies outlined in Garnaut’s book is the massive investment in solar farming in the semi-desert expanses of Northern and Western Australia. A $20 billion development by a Singapore-based company, Sun Cable, together with substantial planning and investment by two of Australia’s wealthiest men, Michael Cannon-Brookes and Andrew Forrest, is currently building what it promises will be ‘the world’s largest solar farm.’ The plan is for a 15,000 hectare array of 10-gigawatt capacity panels, backed by battery storage, which would not only supplement domestic electricity needs. The clean energy would also be exported to Singapore, using a 4500 kilometre, high-voltage, submarine cable. The company’s Chief Executive, David Griffin, describes the project as capturing ‘one of the best solar radiance reserves in the world,’ adding it will operational in less than decade. Further to the west in the Pilbara region, plans are also currently being developed by the Asian Renewable Energy Hub for an even bigger wind and solar hybrid plant, using giant wind turbines and solar panels. The electricity generated would be used primarily to run a hydrogen manufacturing hub to supply a proposed export market in Japan and South Korea.

Among many other researchers, Garnaut describes these projects as climate change mitigation. Implicit here is the deep-seated global concern that they will not be adequate in meeting the imperative that carbon emission increases should be less than 2% – and preferably closer to 1.5% — with a reduction target of zero emissions by 2050 to avoid the acceleration of catastrophic weather events. There is some comfort to be had for Australia in his findings that the country is already embracing a global trend towards a transition economy. But Garnaut also implies that there is little to be gained from a federal government that has continued to stump the debates for renewables against fossil fuels. Instead, state government support, grass roots initiatives, private sector enterprises, expertise that informs new developments, global partnerships and investment have been emerging as a way forward to a more hopeful future.

From our partner RIAC

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