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Creating a safer future for girls

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Chemicals and waste are integral to our everyday life, but they also have major impacts on the environment and human health. As the world’s population approaches 8 billion, the sound management of chemicals and waste is becoming ever more important.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) works closely with governments, international organizations, industry and civil society organizations around the world to develop mainstream solutions for the sound management of chemicals and waste.

As the world focuses on International Women’s Day, here are some examples of how women are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the unsustainable management of chemicals and waste, and have an especially high stake in global sustainable development.

In many countries, women may be asked to handle the management and disposal of household waste, which could expose them to highly toxic substances that may significantly impact their health and that of their families.

Women and girls make up nearly half of all agricultural workers in developing countries and could be at an increased likelihood of mishandling chemicals and pesticides due to higher illiteracy rates as compared to men.

Cultural norms may also put women and girls at risk from potentially unsafe beauty and hygiene products, especially women of colour in some part of the world who are more likely to use products containing toxic substances, such as skin whiteners and specialized hair products.

“Addressing the unique needs and circumstances of women when developing sustainable solutions for the sound management of chemicals and waste is of paramount importance,” says Dina Abdelhakim, gender focal point for the UNEP’s Chemicals and Health Branch.

“Compared to men, women have vastly different exposures and interactions with chemicals and waste in their daily lives. It’s been estimated that women are exposed to over 160 chemicals every day through personal hygiene products. If you also factor in exposure to household chemicals and waste as well as workplace exposure, the chemical burden on women becomes significant. This, combined with differences in their physiology and their role in child bearing and rearing, means that failing to address gender differences neglects the needs of half of the world’s population as well as of future generations. To effectively mainstream gender issues into the chemicals and waste agenda requires that countries are consistent in collecting gender disaggregated data, and use that evidence to make informed decisions and policies at the national level.

This is why it is even more important for meetings such as the Fifth session of the International Conference for Chemicals Management scheduled for October 2020 in Bonn, Germany, to take into account gender aspects and vulnerabilities, as commitments on chemicals and waste are made for the beyond 2020 agenda.

Sustainable Development Goal 5 focuses on achieving gender quality and empowerment for all women and girls. This starts with education: girls are significantly under-represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, which play a crucial role in sustainable development, and make up only a little over a quarter of all researchers worldwide. Therefore, empowering girls to launch careers in the sciences is vital to create a significant change.

“Policy must be underpinned by excellence and innovation in science to move society in the direction of greater sustainability,” says Monika Macdevette Chief of UNEP’s Chemicals and Health Branch. “One of the best ways to push for that change is to involve women and girls in the process, from primary education to the most influential decision-making bodies. Let’s start today, so we can ensure a bright future for the girls born tomorrow.”

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Environment

The Caribbean is ‘ground zero’ for the global climate emergency

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Suriname is the most forested country in the world, but its pristine rainforests are being threatened, among others, by mining for gold, bauxite and kaolin. Photo: UN News/Laura Quiñones

The UN Secretary-General’s final day in Suriname began on a small plane and ended at a podium. A 90-minute flyover from Paramaribo into the Central Suriname Nature Reserve revealed to António Guterres the astounding beauty of the Amazon but also spotlighted the threats the rainforest is facing from mining and logging activities, and climate change. 

The Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an immense protected area covering around 11 percent of the national territory, is recognized for its tabletop mountains and endless biodiversity – some believed to be undiscovered – and remains for the most part inaccessible and unaffected by human activity.

From above, the rainforest canopy was painted with countless shades of green, with some treetops covered in waves of orange or even purple flowers. Along the way, the mighty Coppename River, as well as the upstream parts of the Lucie, Saramacca, and Suriname Rivers flowed by the trees in what looked like a landscape painting.

However, before reaching the protected area, the UN chief could see that Suriname’s forests are seriously threatened by the activities of the mining sector and timber production, both fuelled by incentives to boost economic activities. Strikingly visible above the deep green canopy, the brownish patches of deforestation, evidence of destructive gold mining and flooding were difficult to miss.

A moment of ‘maximum peril’

Although Suriname is part of the South American continent, it is considered a Caribbean nation due to its history, culture, and the similar challenges it faces with the small island nations.

Later on Sunday, the UN chief arrived at the Assuria Event Centre in Paramaribo, to attend the opening of the 43rd Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) Conference.

Mr. Guterres’s arrival was met with four distinct music and cultural performances. The short walk showcased Suriname’s unique ethnic diversity, a product of its long history and Dutch colonization. Afro-Surinamese, East Indian, Indigenous natives, Chinese and Javanese descendants presented their traditional dances and folkloric sounds

At the podium, the Secretary-General highlighted the region’s diversity and climate action leadership, while outlining a series of actions to be taken in the face of the planetary crisis, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and global financial challenges. 

“Rich in diversity, uniting land and sea, and protecting fragile coastal ecosystems, mangroves are a fitting symbol of Caribbean nations – facing challenges, seizing opportunities, preserving natural gifts,” the UN chief told the region’s Heads of State and Government on Sunday, inspired by his isit to these coastal carbon-sink wonders in Paramaribo a day before.

Mr. Guterres recognized that the small island low-lying coastal states of the Caribbean are especially vulnerable to what he called “the biggest challenge facing our world today” — the climate crisis.

“The Caribbean is ground zero for the global climate emergency,” he said, underlining that unfortunately, it is not the only challenge that the region is facing.

“This year’s CARICOM summit comes at a moment of maximum peril – for people and planet alike,” he added, referring to the devastating effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on health systems and tourism, as well as on economic growth and foreign investment, now exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.

Bold solutions

The Secretary-General told the CARICOM leaders that bold solutions were necessary to tackle these issues, highlighting three.

1. Match climate action to the scale and urgency of the crisis

Mr. Guterres called for urgent and transformative emissions reduction to halt global warming at a 1.5C, support for adaptation from climate impacts, and financial assistance to secure resilience.

“I thank Caribbean leaders for helping to show the way. I am inspired by your many efforts to safeguard your incredible biodiversity and natural gifts, including by the efforts of the indigenous communities,” he said.

He added that more ambition and climate action are needed by all, but specially the G20 who account for 80 per cent of global emissions.

“The war in Ukraine cannot lead to short-sighted decisions that shut the door on 1.5C. With the commitments presently registered, emissions are still predicted to grow by 14 per cent through 2030. This is simply suicide – and it must be reversed.”

The UN chief stressed that wealthier countries need to lead the way in a just and equitable “ renewables revolution ”, and they need to fulfil their promise to deliver $100 billion in climate finance for adaptation starting this year.

“And it is time for a frank discussion and space for decision-making regarding the loss and damage that your countries are already experiencing,” he emphasised.

2. Reform ‘morally bankrupt’ global financial system and spur sustainable recovery

The Secretary General underlined that developing economies need access to financing at no or low costs, as well as debt relief and restructuring.

“On the debt side, we need immediate relief for developing countries whose debt is about to become due,” he said.

The UN chief added that he fully supports the creation of a Caribbean Resilience Fund and the reform of the international financial system to help the region better respond and prevent massive vulnerability to external shocks.

“Clearly, our old metrics have failed us. It’s time to change them,” Mr. Guterres said, proposing to move beyond the financial system’s preoccupation with per capita income, and establishing a ‘multidimensional vulnerability index’ to determine access to financial support.

“For your countries, this would mean ensuring that the complex and interdependent factors of debt and climate change impact are captured in any eligibility analysis for debt relief and financing,” he told the Caribbean Heads of State and Government.

3. Keep up the combat against the COVID-19 pandemic

The Secretary-General made a push for governments, organizations and pharmaceutical companies to work better together to locally produce tests, vaccines and treatments.

“We’re not out of the woods yet… And we need to continue working closely together to stop the spread of the virus across the Caribbean through proven public health measures and prepare for future pandemics through bold investments in preparedness and training,” he stated, and stressed that countries must never again be so unprepared.

Finally, Mr. Guterres reaffirmed the support of the United Nations to the Caribbean to work towards these solutions.

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Environment

New UN financing initiative goes live to power climate action

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A new UN-led financing tool to strengthen weather and climate forecasting, improve life-saving early warning systems, safeguard jobs, and underpin climate adaptation for long-term resilience, officially opened for business on Thursday.

The Systematic Observations Financing Facility (SOFF) is a key building block for a new initiative spearheaded by UN Secretary-General General António Guterres to ensure that early warning services cover everyone on Earth, within the next five years.

SOFF seeks to address the long-standing problem of inadequate weather forecasting and climate services, especially in Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS).

In support of the Paris Agreement on climate change, it will strengthen the international response to keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, “by filling the data gaps that limit our understanding of the climate”, according to a press release issued by the World Meteorological Organization, WMO.

These gaps affect national agencies’ ability to predict and adapt to extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and heatwaves, all of which are on the rise, in line with the warming climate.

Heads of the three founding agencies, WMO, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and UN Environment Programme (UNEP), joined ministers from donor countries, LDC Group members, Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) representatives and development partners, at the first SOFF Steering Committee meeting in Helsinki on Thursday to get the facility up and running.

Boost ‘the power of prediction’

“As the climate crisis worsens, it is crucial that we boost the power of prediction for everyone so countries can reduce disaster risk”, said the UN chief.

“That is why we have launched an initiative to ensure that every person on Earth is protected by early warning systems within the next five years. SOFF is an essential tool to achieve this.  I thank all the countries that are providing initial funding to the SOFF UN Multi-Partner Trust Fund and urge others to do the same”.

“Early warning systems are built on the foundation of weather observation data, but this foundation is patchy to non-existent in many in LDCs and African countries,” stated Selwin Hart, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Climate Action and Just Transition.

Join the club

“I want to congratulate all the countries that have come forward and announce or soon will announce their financial contributions to the SOFF UN Multi Partner Trust Fund. I urge others to follow suit and help create a strong global data foundation upon which timely, accurate, people centered early warning systems can be built for   everyone. Our collective efforts are needed more than ever.”

WMO Secretary-General, Petteri Taalas, pointed out that today, less than 10 per cent of required basic weather and climate forecasting systems are available from SIDS and LDCs.

“The world urgently needs this data and this is why SOFF will be a partnership of equals where everyone has a role and responsibilities.”      

SOFF provides benefits not only to the most vulnerable countries, but to all countries across the globe, said WMO. The improved availability of weather and climate observations enabled by the SOFF are essential if the world community is to realize the 162 billion US dollars annually in socio-economic benefits of weather and climate prediction.

Best science, best data

Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director, emphasized that “now is the time to begin business by providing financial resources and technical capacity, by ensuring that from local to the global, all our actions can be informed by the best science and the best data. My deep thanks to the generous funders who will announce their firm pledges today. I encourage all to follow suit because now is the time to roll up our sleeves and get to work for people and for planet.”

UN Under-Secretary General and UNDP Associate Administrator Usha Rao-Monari followed, adding that “The United Nations Development Program is a proud co-founder of the SOFF UN Multi-Partner Trust Fund. Together with WMO and UNEP we are building upon the momentum generated over the past two years and I want to sincerely thank all stakeholders that contributed to the development of the SOFF. The specialized support provided by SOF is needed more than ever.”

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Making carbon dioxide into protein for innovative animal feed

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by Tom Cassauwers

Having a big idea may not be enough to change the world – innovation is a commercial process as well as scientific inspiration. Turning research into marketable products is partly a business challenge.

It’s common knowledge that proteins, a key component of human nutrition, are also essential for making animal feeds. Less well known is the uncomfortable fact that much of the protein we feed animals in Europe leads to deforestation and overfishing worldwide.

Biotechnology start-up Deep Branch have designed a biochemical transformation process that turns carbon dioxide (CO2) into a protein-rich powder for animals to eat.

The Deep Branch process converts carbon dioxide into a powder, called Proton, which has around 70% protein content. This is much higher than natural soy, which has around 40%.

British-Dutch company Deep Branch is the brainchild of Peter Rowe, a PhD graduate in molecular biology of Nottingham University in the UK. For him, the idea to convert CO2 into protein just kept popping up. ‘We looked at the field and wondered “Why the hell isn’t anyone doing this?”’ said Rowe.

Fish meals

Raising livestock and fish farming requires foods with high protein densities. Around 80% of the world’s soy crop is used to raise beef and dairy, with demand for these products increasing with the growing population.

Aquaculture depends on fishmeal production, which is partly reliant on harvesting fish from the wild.

Soy agriculture drives deforestation, global warming and habitat loss while overfishing endangers ecosystems and affects the balance of life in the oceans. Overall, food production has a huge role to play in the climate and biodiversity crises.

There’s also the issue of food security. ‘Europe is almost completely reliant on South America for the protein we use to feed our animals,’ said Rowe. ‘There’s a high risk of extreme events, geopolitics or even weather, disrupting that.’

Proton powder

The carbon dioxide can come from many sources. In the pilot, Deep Branch used gas coming from a bioenergy plant that burns waste wood. ‘We culture these microbes in a bioreactor,’ said Rowe. ‘This is the same technology used to make enzymes in biotechnology, or even brew beer.’

The carbon dioxide is put into a fermentation tank as a gas, with hydrogen added to serve as an energy source. After the cellular process is complete, the protein is then dried into a powder to be used as an ingredient in a sustainable animal feed.

Real impact

It’s the type of idea that could make a circular, sustainable economy grow. Deep Branch emerged with Rowe’s biotech qualification. However, he wasn’t necessarily interested in a career in academics.

‘I never saw myself as a career academic, but a PhD is a good choice for a career in biotechnology,’ he said. On the other hand, ‘I like the idea that my research has real, short-term impacts in the world,’ he said.

According to Rowe, speculative research is always necessary, and universities are ideal places to pursue that. But bridging the gap from academia to the private sector presents its own challenges.

‘Some technologies would never have been invented in the private sector,’ said Rowe. ‘Sometimes you need fundamental scientific breakthroughs. But afterwards there needs to be a transition to the market.’

Risk takers

Universities will need to improve their policies around spin-off businesses for this process to work better, argues Rowe. As it stands, when technology is developed at an institution, universities and even individual academics take a share of the value in a spin-off company.

The problem is, sometimes this share becomes too high. When this happens it potentially impacts the further growth of the company by disincentivising private investment.  

‘The university or academic who gets the equity doesn’t get any risk,’ said Rowe. ‘The PhD-students or postdocs who founded the company take all the risk.’

By taking an equity stake that is too large, institutions could potentially affect the development of the business. ‘We need to ensure that young researchers can go out and take risks,’ said Rowe.

In the meantime, Deep Branch seems to be a good example of how the transition from academia to private industry can work well. With a growing team, the business is seeking further investment to develop their next facility.

‘We’re keeping busy’, said Rowe, smiling.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.  

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