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Global Waste Crisis: A Rising Threat to Environment

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The global waste crisis has become an issue of concern worldwide in an age of climate change. The World Bank warns that global waste will increase up to 70 percent on current levels by 2050 unless urgent actions are undertaken. The international financial institution also mentions that global annual waste is expected to jump to 3.4 billion tons over the next 30 years. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) also reports, “The world produces over 2 billion tons of municipal solid waste every year, enough to fill over 800,000 Olympic sized swimming pools.”

The lack of solid waste management both by developed and developing nations is of the major reasons behind the increase of global waste at an alarming rate. The United States ranks first of the garbage pile only re-using 35 percent of solid waste, while the European countries produce 25 million tons of plastic waste annually remaining less than 30 percent recycled. In addition, at least 33 percent of the global waste is mismanaged through open dumping or burning where the poor and most vulnerable are disproportionately affected. It is because over 90 percent of waste openly dumped or burned in low-income countries.

The decline of recycling trade following China’s recent waste ban has triggered the concern on the waste or trash management crisis across the globe. China, the biggest worldwide importer of foreign waste, has imported around 45 percent of plastic waste since the early 1990s. However, due to environmental concerns, China has banned the import of 24 types of waste including electronic items; plastics such as PET, PVC, polyethylene, ashes, wool and cotton waste; mixed and unsorted paper; and slag from manufacture of steel since December 31, 2017. Prior to that, Beijing announced to reduce the imports of global plastic and paper waste in July 2017 at the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) held in Geneva. To be noted, domestic garbage has increased largely with the production of some 520,000 tons of waste every day in China alone, because of the country’s consumption-driven economy.

China’s firm position of no longer recycling the foreign waste has made far-reaching effects on the overseas exporters of waste and China-based purchasers of waste, including companies purchasing raw materials made from reprocessed waste. Most particularly, the developed countries, dependent on Chinese recycling industry to handle their excess waste, are facing challenges not only in waste trade but also waste management with efficient technology. China’s renouncement from accepting certain types of plastic and paper recycling since two years have become a matter of concern for industrial nations to find other countries to export their waste. It is because many countries, including the developed ones, lack the necessary infrastructure to process and recycle all the waste that they produce. China is the export destination of the US and the European Union (EU) trade in metals, plastics and paper. The EU sent 1.6 million tons of plastic waste only in 2016, while the rest of the world’s amount was 7.3 million. It is also becoming more complex with the shipping containers of low-quality recycling sending from the Southeast Asian countries, mainly the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia back to Europe and North America.

The widespread plastic particles and use and disposal of plastic materials across the globe are posing severe challenges to the environment, especially for the planet’s oceans. Environmental scientists say that 8 million tons of plastic are dumped in the sea every year. Around 70 percent of trash in the ocean is the result of single-use plastic objects and fishing gear. Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission said, “If we do not change the way we produce and use plastics, there will be more plastics than fish in our oceans by 2050. The only long-term solution is to reduce plastic waste by recycling and reusing more.”

In a recent report conducted by International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) titled “Ocean deoxygenation: Everyone’s problem”, the environmental experts have raised the concern that the loss of oxygen from the world’s ocean driven by climate change is causing disastrous consequences both for sea and human lives. The report shows that roughly 700 ocean areas– compared with 45 in the 1960s–across the globe are affected by low oxygen conditions caused by the constant increase of areas of water with low oxygen concentrations. Eutrophication resulted by the increased nutrient run-off from land and sewage pollution, nitrogen deposition from the burning of fossil fuels and ocean warming  have been referred to the primary causes of deoxygenation of world’s ocean.

Given these concerns, in March 2019, the United Nations’ member states agreed to significantly restrain hazardous items such as plastic bags and straws and reduce single-use plastic products by 2030. The move aims to curb the use of disposable plastic products including bags, cups, cutlery and drinking straws. Almost all the world’s countries also agreed on imposing the restriction of the shipments of hard-to-recycle plastic waste to poorer countries. Earlier, the UN member states, committed to fight plastic pollution together in an event held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) at the UN Headquarters, New York, in September 2018. The EU also unveiled plans to reduce single-use plastic, make all plastic packaging recyclable and curb micro-plastic by 2030.

The sole dependency on China, burdened with its own problematic waste, for the garbage management cannot be a solution. It is highly crucial to completely implement the pledges committed by the world’s nations at the earliest possible time. Along with the ban of several plastic products, the nations need to sort their waste better with advanced technologies.  Booming up world’s waste management industries through setting up recycling plants across the globe and raising awareness about the severe danger of plastic waste are also crucial to tackle global waste crisis.

Sultana Yesmin is a PhD Candidate at the School of Politics and International Studies (SPIS), Central China Normal University (CCNU), Hubei, China. She was a Visiting Research Fellow at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences (YASS) in China in 2015. She holds BSS and MSS in International Relations from the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Her research interests are broadly in China Affairs, regional and sub-regional cooperation, security studies, South Asian and East Asian affairs. Email: sultanayesmindu[at]gmail.com.

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Healthy planet needs ‘ocean action’ from Asian and Pacific countries

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As the Second Global Ocean Conference opens today in Lisbon, governments in Asia and the Pacific must seize the opportunity to enhance cooperation and solidarity to address a host of challenges that endanger what is a lifeline for millions of people in the region.

If done right ocean action will also be climate action but this will require working in concert on a few fronts.

First, we must invest in and support science and technology to produce key solutions. Strengthening science-policy interfaces to bridge practitioners and policymakers contributes to a sound understanding of ocean-climate synergies, thereby enabling better policy design, an important priority of the Indonesian Presidency of the G20 process. Additionally policy support tools can assist governments in identifying and prioritizing actions through policy and SDG tracking and scenarios development.

We must also make the invisible visible through ocean data: just three of ten targets for the goal on life below water are measurable in Asia and the Pacific. Better data is the foundation of better policies and collective action. The Global Ocean Accounts Partnership (GOAP) is an innovative multi-stakeholder collective established to enable countries and other stakeholders to go beyond GDP and to measure and manage progress towards ocean sustainable development.

Solutions for low-carbon maritime transport are also a key part of the transition to decarbonization by the middle of the century. Countries in Asia and the Pacific recognized this when adopting a new Regional Action Programme last December, putting more emphasis on such concrete steps as innovative shipping technologies, cooperation on green shipping corridors and more efficient use of existing port infrastructure and facilities to make this ambition a reality.

Finally, aligning finance with our ocean, climate and broader SDG aspirations provides a crucial foundation for all of our action. Blue bonds are an attractive instrument both for governments interested in raising funds for ocean conservation and for investors interested in contributing to sustainable development in addition to obtaining a return for their investment.

These actions and others are steps towards ensuring the viability of several of the region’s key ocean-based economic sectors, such as seaborne trade, tourism and fisheries. An estimated 50 to 80 per cent of all life on Earth is found under the ocean surface. Seven of every 10 fish caught around the globe comes from Pacific waters. And we know that the oceans and coasts are also vital allies in the fight against climate change, with coastal systems such as mangroves, salt marshes and seagrass meadows at the frontline of climate change, absorbing carbon at rates of up to 50 times those of the same area of tropical forest.

But the health of the oceans in Asia and the Pacific is in serious decline: rampant pollution, destructive and illegal fishing practices, inadequate marine governance and continued urbanization along coastlines have destroyed 40 per cent of the coral reefs and approximately 60 per cent of the coastal mangroves, while fish stocks continue to decline and consumption patterns remain unsustainable.

These and other pressures exacerbate climate-induced ocean acidification and warming and weaken the capacity of oceans to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Global climate change is also contributing to sea-level rise, which affects coastal and island communities severely, resulting in greater disaster risk , internal displacement and international migration.

To promote concerted action, ESCAP, in collaboration with partner UN agencies, provides a regional platform in support of SDG14, aligned within the framework of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030). Through four editions so far of the Asia-Pacific Day for the Ocean, we also support countries in identifying and putting in place solutions and accelerated actions through regional dialogue and cooperation.

It is abundantly clear there can be no healthy planet without a healthy ocean. Our leaders meeting in Lisbon must step up efforts to protect the ocean and its precious resources and to build sustainable blue economies.

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Green Planet

The Human Price of Tea

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There is nothing quite like that first cup of tea (or coffee) in the morning.  The aroma swirls about in the nostrils and a sip of the hot brew, then another, quickly readies body and mind for the day that awaits. 

Whoever gives a thought to the long journey of the tea leaf from its birthplace to a kitchen in the West.  The tea bush is unusual in that it requires an abundance of water but not in its roots.  So it is grown on the windward side on foothills as in Darjeeling and Assam. 

The workers picking tea are mostly women because men prefer the harder work in the fields for it pays more.  The wages paid to the tea pickers can be illegally low, that is below the minimum wage requirements, and the workers dare not file any complaints because the wealthy landowners and tea merchants are too powerful. 

Since they are not earning a living wage, workers usually forage to supplement their diet relying on mushrooms and other edibles.  So it was (BBC report, May 20, 2022) that Anjali Kharia sat down with her daughter to a meal of mushrooms — a special treat thanks to her father-in-law Rajesh Kharia, who had found a good-sized lot in a nearby forest.  They were enough for his family plus friends and neighbors to share with, as is their custom.  

Unfortunately growing among their batch was a particularly tasty — and poisonous — variety indistinguishable from the rest.  And Anjali’s daughter Sushmita and others soon began to feel sick.  Many went to hospital including Anjali’s son and father-in-law.  Sushmita seemed to improve so everyone assumed she was over the worst. 

It was only a temporary respite for she soon started vomiting again, grew steadily worse and died.  They have been eating mushrooms for years; it is a treat and fairly regular part of their diet, and no one suspected the cause.  

Local officials say warnings are not heeded for they do not reach the illiterate workers.  In 2008, more than 20 people died from poisonous mushrooms, the highest numbers recorded.  Most were tea workers or their family members.  The government set up a panel to study the problem.  And there have been campaigns to teach people to distinguish the poisonous types. 

As long as Ms. Kharia is paid 130 rupees ($1.67) a day, far below the unenforced minimum wage, it is unlikely such problems will recede.  She has to feed a family of six.  There are public welfare schemes for the poor but Ms. Kharia says she has never received any free food grain rations.  Meanwhile, prices of vegetables and essential commodities continue to rise. 

It is not just tea.  From the 1906 Upton Sinclair book, “The Jungle,” an expose of the meatpacking industry to Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” published just two decades ago, the problem may be revisited but U.S. meatpacking continues to remain a dangerous place to be.  A 2018 Guardian article’s headline “Two Amputations a Week” illustrates the point.

And tea pickers will have to forage as long as their government does not enforce minimum wage laws.  Fighting against entrenched economic interests is not just India’s problem. 

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The climate crisis is a health crisis

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With one in eight people worldwide threatened by a lethal heat wave in South Asia that’s already taken close to 100 lives, it’s time we recognize that the climate crisis is a health crisis.

This is not an isolated issue. In South Africa, recent floods took over 400 lives, across the Sahel violence and insecurity are on the rise as people struggle with hunger, malnutrition and other factors made exponentially worse by climate change, and in place like Colombia, health and food security are at risk as floods displace communities and trigger disease outbreaks. 

This is the most pressing health and humanitarian challenge of the 21st century. A quarter of a million people are expected to die every year from climate change between 2030 and 2050 if we do nothing about it, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Climate change affects the social and environmental determinants of health – clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food, and secure shelter. According to recent IPCC Climate Change Report, climate change has harmful impacts on human health ranging from mortality from extreme events, morbidity from increasing temperatures and heat waves, malnutrition and disease susceptibility.

And for the first time ever, the IPCC Report includes mental health as a key area impacted by the climate crisis, noting that climate change has adversely affected the physical and mental health of people globally.

People are losing their homes and loved ones as conflicts flare over scarce resources in places like the Lake Chad Basin, and they are redlining on stress as we deal with the prolonged impacts of COVID-19 and the spectre of other zoonotic pathogens that will rise as heat and environmental damage push animals out of their traditional zones, according to Harvard

And even as countries and communities emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, it is evident that the pandemic has reinforced pre-existing structural inequalities, accentuated systemic challenges and risks, and threatens to reverse hard-earned progress across the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Climate change is expected to further worsen the risks. We are already witnessing “irreversible” damage from climate change. According to the IPCC report, over 3 billion people – nearly half of the world’s population – live in “contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change.” And the direct costs of climate change to the health system – not including health determining sectors such as agriculture, water and sanitation – is estimated between US$2 and $4 billion a year by the WHO.

Rethinking climate and health

Climate change adaptation will be one of the key highlights of this year’s Climate Talks in Egypt. World leaders have the chance to connect the dots between health, food security, livelihoods, sustainable economic development and climate actions as we come together to accelerate the ambition of Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement and sprint to achieve the lofty goals outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 

Most Nationally Determined Contributions have identified health as a priority concern. At COP-26 over 50 countries committed to build climate resilient and low-carbon health systems. These include 47 countries, representing over a third of global health care emissions. Fourteen countries have also set a target date to reach net zero carbon emissions in their health system before 2050.

There are a number of entry points that can assist countries in reaching these goals. The main opportunities come from adaptation interventions that contribute to food and water security, climate-informed health planning that can be inserted into National Adaptation Plans, early warning systems for climate-sensitive infectious diseases, capacity building for health facilities to build the protocols and prepare for the changing health needs that are arising as a result of the climate crisis, public health education campaigns, and community-level investments in water and sanitation facilities and other infrastructure that prevents the spread of disease.

When you think about it as a whole, the climate-health crisis is amazingly complex. In places like Egypt, people need air-conditioning units just to survive the 120-plus degree days. But more AC means more greenhouse gases. So, we also need to rethink economic development, incentives for renewable energy, and reduction of hydro-chloro-fluorocarbons and other pollutants that are literally poisoning our planet.

We also need to rethink climate resilience in our cities, on the farm, and in the marketplace, redefining how we approach commerce and economic development as we adapt to the new challenges of the 21st century.  

Piloting climate-health actions

The good news is that we are making progress.

With funding from the Global Environment Facility Special Climate Change Fund, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and WHO supported local governments to pilot climate change adaptation efforts to protect human health in Barbados, Bhutan, China, Fiji, Jordan, Kenya and Uzbekistan.

In Barbados, community-based public health campaigns supported the safe use of wastewater. In Bhutan, the government has advanced its ability to predict climate-sensitive infectious diseases. And in China, three pilot cities have implemented a heat-health warning system.

With funding from the GEF, UNDP is partnering  with the WHO to build resilient health systems in Least Developed Countries in Asia, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Nepal, Timor-Leste, and Small Island Developing States such as Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Among the various outputs, the programmes will advance climate-informed health planning and early warning systems, build capacity at health facilities, implement public health campaigns, and support localized community actions directed at the climate-health crisis.

There’s a bigger picture here. In the end, projects designed to address food and water security, advance ecosystem-based adaptation, or enhance livelihoods, will help us in addressing these interconnected issues. In partnership with governments, donors, the private sector, civil society and other key stakeholders, UNDP’s current climate change adaptation portfolio is geared to benefit 126 million people through US$1.6 billion in investments from the vertical funds and bilateral donors, as well as an additional US$3.8 billion leveraged from partners.

This good start, but far shy of the US$20 to US$40 billion in yearly spending for climate change adaptation called for at the Glasgow Climate Talks.

It’s critical that we take a systems-wide approach, embrace new technologies and new ways of working, engage with the private sector, and activate locally led climate actions if we are going to address this crisis.

Millions of lives hang in the balance. It’s time we step up and make climate action – and climate-health action – a global priority. This is our investment in planet Earth, our investment in future generations, our investment in a better world. 

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