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Writing a greener story in Asia and the Pacific

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Rising economic prosperity and poverty reduction may not tell the whole story of progress in Asia and the Pacific. Telling signs in the natural world recount a narrative that is far from complete. This year has been particularly affected by the COVID-19 global health pandemic, with devastating impacts on our health and the economy. Yet, building on its achievements, the region must continue its drive towards a sustainable conclusion.

There have been promising developments as we turn the page to a critical Decade of Action for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The region is on track to achieve targets on eradicating income poverty. The prevalence of undernourishment has dropped from 17 per cent in 2000 to 11 per cent in 2017. The proportion of the population using basic sanitation services has increased from 48 per cent to almost 75 per cent since 2000.

Nonetheless, we will miss the mark on all 17 SDGs by 2030 unless we quicken the uneven pace across each subregion. The next chapters of progress we write must not only be faster, but also fight for higher quality of life and a healthy environment.

Most strikingly, there is a lack of progress on environmental goals across all subregions. Data from the 2020 edition of the Asia and the Pacific SDG Progress Report published by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific show that we are neither sustainably managing the rich, precious natural resources in our region nor taking adequate action to combat climate change. Myopic consumption practices have led to marine pollution and irreversible damage to ecosystems. Air pollution has clouded the skies, with the Asia-Pacific region emitting half the world’s greenhouse gas. Disasters are occurring with increasing frequency and intensity, hitting the most vulnerable the hardest.

The earth continues to warn us that human progress cannot come at the expense of environmental degradation. As we make gains, it is our responsibility to advocate for measures that protect the planet. To urgently improve waste management, increase resilience against natural disasters and adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change.

In addition to environmental considerations, advancements in the region’s GDP growth are also challenging us to expand normative thinking on poverty. Although the region is making good progress on SDG targets related to economic growth, one-dimensional assessments are no longer enough. Mounting evidence reveals that the region is likely to miss all measurable SDG targets related to other forms of poverty, hunger, gender equality and reduced inequalities. This means that our ambitions must be far-reaching and informed by the complex realities of multi-dimensional poverty.

Thankfully, countries in Asia and the Pacific have made resolute commitments to sprint toward the 2030 finish line. Momentum for the future has been established by substantial groundwork. Existing efforts have laid policy foundations for a more favorable outlook in areas like access to clean energy and education. Progress towards the SDGs is not a linear process, but there is an emerging basis for acceleration in the coming years.

By speeding up efforts, the region can balance its fast-growing economy with prosperity for people and planet. The total capacity of the region to produce renewable electricity has increased almost fivefold since 2000, faster than any other region in the world. Many countries have adopted clean and environmentally sound technologies to reduce the intensity of carbon dioxide emissions from the manufacturing sector.
Recent trends also given hope for an acceleration of progress on several goals in the coming decade. Increases in labour productivity, access to quality education and resource flow for development all provide examples that the Asia-Pacific region has built a basis for acceleration in many targets.

While we have harmed the planet along the way, I believe we also have the power to reverse negative trends and fight for the environment, as it has provided for us. If the region doubles its concerted efforts, the future may be brighter for target areas where progress has been slow.

The extensive efforts required means we cannot do it alone. Uneven gains across subregions convey that cooperation is more important than ever. We must rally the region to collectively move toward an enduring vision of development that protects natural resources, particularly the ocean, and fights climate change. Listening to the data and supporting its availability will help create integrated policies fundamental to reversing negative trends. Revitalizing partnerships at all levels and across all stakeholders will enable us to implement them.

With decisive action, the region has the capacity to achieve a strong finish by 2030. During an unprecedented global health emergency and increasing economic uncertainty, let us not lose sight of the future. The determination and rich resources of the region can help us overcome COVID-19 and beyond. Together, we can write a story of Asia and the Pacific which is one of success for every aspect of nature and society.

UN ESCAP

Ms. Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

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Making Women Visible in Plastic Waste Management: Examples from Indonesia

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Plastic Waste: Long History, Massive Consumption

Plastic was invented by John Wesley Hyatt in 1869 and has an original sense of “pliable and easily formed.” It is known as a polymer material. However, Leo Baekeland introduced the revolutionary of plastic in 1907, with the intention of creating a material that could be used as an insulator, was versatile, heat resistant, and could be mass-produced in large quantities. The glory of plastic was exalted during World War II, when the plastic industry in the United States expanded rapidly. Since it could be used to replace natural resources that had become scarce due to the war, plastic use peaked during that time span. Since then, plastic has been touted as an “award-winning” commodity due to its plethora of uses. Unfortunately, the use of plastic distracted in the 1960s as people became more worried about environmental issues and discovered that many coastal lines in America were littered with plastic waste.

These days, plastic can be categorized as the most manufactured materials in the world and commonly used by society. From the latest data by IUCN, over 300 million tons of plastic are manufactured yearly and utilized as main materials for industry and households. About 8 million metric tons of plastic wastes end up in our coastal zones every year, posing a serious threat to our marine ecology and ocean sediments. By the end of 2040, it is estimated that the amount of plastic waste dumped along the coast will be tripled compare with today.

In most developing countries, plastic contamination has become a major problem that requires immediate concern and management. Indonesia is currently the world’s second-largest plastic polluter after China, and produces about 200,000 tons of waste every day, which is thrown into the coastal areas. Despite the fact that there are plenty studies on plastic waste, people still ignored the problem due to their lack of knowledge and awareness about how harmful the effect could become in the upcoming years. Plastics production and consumption will make greater impacts not only on human health because it contained chemicals, but also will change human behavior to environment, both men and women. In Indonesia, women take role as the main contributor to raise such awareness in segregating and sorting plastic waste. This fact is parallel with the research that has been conducted by Phelan et al (2020) in two small islands in Indonesia (Selayar and Wakatobi), which found that women are mostly identified as binners (those who manage waste disposal) while men are likely identified as litterers. It was noted that almost 60% of women are in charge of household waste management, while only 40% of men involve in this activity. Women are expressing an interest in learning more about waste management, especially to learn about the next steps or what happens to the waste after disposal. Men, on the other hand, are taking important roles in waste collection and disposal process.

Gender Sensitive Approach to Manage Plastic Waste

Women play an important role in the use and recycling of plastic, but their contribution is often overlooked by many stakeholders. Plastic waste management is viewed solely from a scientific standpoint, with little consideration given to the gender implications. For example, at the micro level (households), it is customary for women to have control over the purchase of food and home-products (which has influenced them to use plastic packaging), but they may also be recycling and processing the plastic for other uses at the same time. As a result, their involvement and inclusion are critical in every attempt to enhance waste management and reduce plastic pollution. When looking at recent developments in the field, the relevance of gender-sensitive approaches to handling plastics becomes even more apparent.

Plastic waste management is not something that can be done overnight because it necessitates continuous steps and massive behavioral changes on the part of all parties concerned. Since women play such an important role in the use and recycling of plastic waste, it is critical to involve them as a key player in changing household and community disposal habits. Furthermore, as the primary caregivers in the home, women should raise awareness among family members about the dangers of plastic waste. Similar actions can be taken in society; for example, women can organize a soft-campaign and disseminate waste management information to the community (through regular social gathering conducted by women that called ‘arisan’ or regular religious meeting in community that called ‘pengajian’).Women, at the other side, cannot act alone; they need a cost-effective and simple plastic waste management system, as well as waste management training (which has been initiated by local governments and NGOs). Hence, providing a plastic collection station will help many stakeholders embrace this action. Finally, strong commitment and collaboration from relevant parties can help to improve plastic waste management.

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The global plastic problem

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Global plastic pollution is becoming increasingly severe. According to a report by the German weekly magazine ‘Focus‘, plastic particles have recently been found in samples collected all over the world, : from the Arctic to rivers and even deep seas.

Even Mount Everest, the top of the world, has been found to contain plastic particles. The United States has long accused developing countries of being the main responsible for plastic pollution. The waste approach has overshadowed the U.S. “major contribution” to the plastic pollution crisis. If we also consider the export of plastic waste and the latest statistics on illegal dumping and littering, the United States is one of the most severe sources of plastic pollution in the global coastal and marine environment, ranking third in the world.

The research report published by Science Advances clearly states that the United States blames Asian countries for the plastic waste pollution problem, although it is the world’s largest producer of plastic waste. The report was written in collaboration with scholars from the American Association for Marine Education, the University of Georgia and the National Geographic Association.

The Comprehensive Assessment Study on Global Plastic Waste Issues, published in 2015, stated that the top five countries producing most of the plastic waste are China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand.

The latest report, however, finds that the 2015 study ignored any mismanagement of waste after it had been exported to another country for recycling.

The research report also revised the 2015 claim that China is the world’s largest emitter of marine plastic waste.

The latest research report published by Science Advances calculated the total amount of plastic waste generated by countries around the world in 2016, based on waste generation and characteristic data from 217 countries and regions reported by the World Bank.

Global plastic production in 2016 was 422 million tonnes, with a 26% increase as against 2010. The share of plastics in solid waste rose from 10% to 12% in 2010. In 2016, global plastic waste generation reached 242 million tonnes.

The report clearly states that in 2016 the United States was the country that produced the largest amount of plastic waste (42 million tonnes). It also ranked first in terms of annual per capita production of plastic waste (130 kilograms).

The 28 EU Member States ranking second produce 54.56 kilograms of plastic waste per capita per year, which is only half of the United States’ plastic waste, while India ranks third. In 2016 China ranked fourth in terms of plastic waste production (21.6 million tonnes), equivalent to half the U.S. amount, but its annual plastic waste production per capita was only 15.67 kilograms, equivalent to only 12% of the amount produced by the United States.

Nick Mallos, senior director of the Marine Conservation Organisation’s Garbage-Free Ocean Program, stated: “The plastic waste generated in the United States is the largest amount of any country, but we have been ignoring the problem, outsourcing it to developing countries. And we are making a heavy contribution to the plastic crisis in the oceans”.

In terms of rubbish, illegal dumping, littering and other improperly managed waste products on the coast, the United States ranks third among coastal countries and is the main cause of pollution in the world’s coastal areas.

The study also said that the United States collected 3.91 million tonnes of plastics in 2016, more than half of which was shipped overseas, and exported 1.99 million tonnes of plastic waste to 89 trading partners. “Over 88% of plastic waste is exported to countries that cannot properly manage and dispose of it due to insufficient resources.” Much of this exported plastic waste cannot be reused, which will eventually pollute the local environment.

One of the authors of the research report, oceanography professor Cara Lavender Law, stated: “For several years, many of the plastic products we throw in the rubbish can be exported to countries where it is already difficult to manage their own waste for recycling. Not to mention the large amount of plastics shipped from the United States. Considering the large amount of our plastic waste that is actually non-recyclable because it is of low value, contaminated or difficult to dispose of, it is not surprising that a lot of plastics will end up polluting the environment”.

Relevant data show that 5% of plastic waste generated in the United States is discarded or dumped illegally due to “improper handling and management” or cannot be disposed of properly after being transported to other countries.

The report underlines that it seems that only 5%is “improperly managed” but, considering the total amount of plastic waste, this figure cannot be ignored.

It should also be stated that eight million tonnes of plastics enter the oceans every year, which is equivalent to a plastic load being spilled into the sea every minute.

These plastic products have undertaken a long and destructive journey from the moment they have reached the sea. Winnie Liu, a senior official with The Pew Charitable Trust’s Marine Plastics Prevention Project, said: “Plastics reaching the seas will be carried far away by ocean currents. They are found all over the world, even on the edge of Antarctica and the deepest place on earth. Plastics can be found in the Mariana Trench. As they drift with currents, theywill penetrate the ecosystem and cause immeasurable damage to marine life”.

Despite the severity of this problem, global plastic production continues and is posing increasing threats to the seas. What makes the oceans so vulnerable to plastic pollution? How can we control the plastics entering the ocean? What is wrong with plastics?

In our daily lives we can hardly avoid plastics. From food packaging to toiletries, clothes, furniture, computers and cars, plastics is everywhere. Plastics durability makes it difficult to biodegrade them. In a way, it can be compared to long nuclear decay.

Depending on their type, some plastics can take decades or even millions of years to decompose in landfills. Therefore, unless plastics are incinerated (a process which, in turn, causes pollution), virtually all the plastics we have produced so far still exist in the world and, once entered the ocean, their impact will last for hundreds of years.

Where does waste come from? The world produces over 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, and this amount is still growing. Only 9% of this plastic waste is recycled. The rest is incinerated or discarded. Most of the discarded plastic waste is landfilled. The reason for this is that half of the plastics we produce is disposable plastics, i.e. plastic products such as straws, plastic bags and water bottles that are thrown away after they have been used.

It is precisely because disposable plastics are easy to produce and discard, and lead to a continuous increase in the amount of waste landfilled, that they inevitably increase the amount of plastic waste polluting the environment.

Why is the impact of plastics on the oceans so severe? The vast and deep oceans are like a retention tank for pollutants, which collects toxic material from all over the world. Besides the load dropped from ships, plastic fishing nets and longlines (known as ‘ghost fishing gear’) are also a major source of plastic waste in the oceans, accounting for about 10%. In addition, expanded polystyrene used in aquaculture to make cages is also a source of marine plastic pollution.

The vast majority of marine debris, however, comes from the land. Extreme weather conditions and strong winds sweep waste along the coast, which is quickly picked up by the tide. Oceans are also the final destination of thousands of rivers, carrying large amounts of waste from landfills, and eventually sinking it into the sea.

Once plastic waste enters the ocean, it is broken down into particles with a diameter of less than 5 mm, called microplastics. This happens because of the harsh conditions and endless ocean movements.

This form of plastics will spread ever deeper into the ocean. It will invade more biological habitats and cannot actually be recycled at all. What will happen to us if also thousands of marine animals get caught in plastic waste every year, especially ‘ghost fishing gear’? Furthermore, the harm to marine life from ingesting plastics is less evident: seabirds, sea turtles, fish and whales often mistake plastic waste for food because its colour and shape are similar to their preys. We end up eating them. Once we ingest these toxic particles, our organs will be damaged, thus making us more liable to diseases. Our fertility will also change, with great risks of genetic mutations.

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Climate politics and the future of carbon emissions

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Climate change is no longer a far-off problem, it is happening here, it is happening now and if it is happening now then efforts to curb it should be done right now rather to wait for tomorrow when tightening nature grip made us regret even more than now. To talk specifically about carbon emission, it is a single issue, a “world issue” that is demanding serious world efforts, not mere words to highlight the problems which we all know quite well. It is the right time we stand up, we fight together to save our existing and the future. Yet, like any path having its troubles, one major hurdle on the way to reduce carbon emission is the climate politics in the form of the North-South divide. The divide which has been existing ever since not only in areas of hard politics but also in areas of soft politics i.e climate change, and imposing a challenge to all future efforts and on those been done already including the Kyoto protocol, Rio+20 agreement, the Paris climate agreement, etc.

Issue here is that both the North (Developed) and the South (Developing) give their sides of the argument yet no one is ready to take the responsibility or at least willing to find a collective solution. Thus making the environment suffer and the carbon emission constantly increasing.

Looking at the North, it claims that climate change is a worldwide danger jeopardizing the biological system and is to a great extent the aftereffect of CO2 outflow by both North and the South. Thus it is a collective responsibility of both to reduce emission and to ensure carbon cut not just the North. However, in response to this the South argues, yes climate change is an issue that is raising world temperature and major emitters are in both North and South, but the North is ignoring the fact that it has been emitting gases for centuries. For instance, Europe, United States, Canada are polluting the environment since the 19th century while the developing countries have begun in 1980’s. Furthermore, what the developed world ignores is that the development of the North has already got peaked while of the developing world has just started. So based on this the North should go for the carbon cuts and use alternative sources of energy i.e hydro, wind, green energy, etc. As the South at this stage cannot afford carbon cuts which will affect its development process. Also, it does not even have enough carbon-free resources at present to ensure carbon reduction.

Hence, this N-S divide has ruined the success of so far twenty-five Conference of Parties (COP) related to climate change held each year in Nov and Dec mostly in Bonn, Germany. Taking a gander at them individually to explore how the divide has not let any single agreement on carbon emission to effectively achieve its set target.

Starting with the Kyoto protocol that came into effect in 2005 with 192 parties determining to reduce emission according to the allotted carbon quota. An important aspect of this protocol was “common but differentiated responsibility” by which the North was held largely responsible for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere. However, if we analyze it deeply then from the very start commitment to the agreement had flaws. As the United States being the world hegemon should’ve lead the agreement from the front but sadly it even didn’t ratify the agreement as the then-President George W. Bush stated “Senate’s vote, 95–0, shows there is a clear consensus that the Kyoto Protocol is an unfair and ineffective means of addressing global climate change concerns. Signing protocol will cause potential damage to USA economy”. Thus a clear depiction of the USA preferring its economic development over the environmental concerns.

Then the first commitment period (2008-2012) of this agreement failed to achieve its targets with emission further increased by 32%.Moreover, Canada withdrew from the protocol in 2012 with its then environment minister, Peter Kent stated “the Kyoto protocol doesn’t cover world two largest emitters USA and China, therefore it cannot work” and as “Canada didn’t meet target so it wants to avoid $14 billion in penalties”. Seeing this response by the developed world, in the second commitment round (2012 onwards) only 37 countries had binding targets, and Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan withdrew. Not just this, but Russia, Japan, New Zealand though participated in the 1stcommitment round but refused to go for the 2ndcommitment. So, it’s clear how the N-S divide affected the commitment to reduce carbon emission with the developed world especially the largest emitters like the USA and China not even ratifying it and even those like Canada who did ratify but withdrew later. The same is with the developing south because if the developed North is unwilling then the south’s one-sided efforts are meaningless.

Now, looking at the Copenhagen agreement (2009) which aims to limit the global temperature no more than 2 °C (above pre-industrial level). It was believed to be the largest and the first-ever true agreement that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and can ensure environmental stability because it was initiated by the USA along with the four other largest emitters’ china, India, Indonesia, and Brazil. Nevertheless, the Copenhagen agreement just like the Kyoto protocol had flaws and most importantly the N-S divide has again tumbledown its progress. This is because it doesn’t contain any legally binding commitments to reduce CO2 emissions as the then PM of Great Britain, Gordon Brown, stated “We have made a start” but that the agreement needs to become legally binding quickly.” Then Brazil’s climate change ambassador called the agreement “disappointing”.

This is the response of North, now looking at South. The Bolivian president, Evo Morales said, “The meeting has failed. It’s unfortunate for the planet”. Most importantly Lumumba Aping, a Sudanese diplomat who was the chief negotiator for the G77 group of developing nations at the UNFCC conference in 2009 criticized the agreement by stating “It’s an incredibly imbalanced text intended to subvert two years of negotiations. It does not recognize the proposals and the voice of developing countries. Thus we have been asked to sign a suicide pact”. Consequently, this conflict of opinion between the North and the South has again led to the failure of the Copenhagen agreement in reducing carbon emission and the world temperature.

Moving to the Rio+20 convention on biological diversity, it shows no difference from the rest. As the United States was among those four countries that have signed but not ratified the agreement. Then key world leaders including G20 members, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UK Prime Minister David Cameron have not attended the conference showing that they don’t even prioritize sustainability issues. Not just this but the developing countries too showed resentment when the USA, EU, and Switzerland rejected the G77 plan to frame the context of green economy explicitly. 

Likewise, COP-19 held in Warsaw, Poland to reduce greenhouse gases emission saw the same divide as G77 and china proposal for a new funding mechanism ($100 million every year) to help the vulnerable South deal with “loss and damage” caused by climate change was opposed by developed countries leading to 132 poor countries and major environment activist like Oxfam, Greenpeace, Action Aid, etc. walkout from the conference.

Lastly, the Paris climate agreement in 2015 which showed diversion from the rest considering it was binding on all 197 countries, and committed to achieve zero-emissionwith both developing and developed states agreed on a carbon cuts.  The agreement was achieved under the leadership of Obama as he stated “President Xi and I intend to continue working together in the months ahead to make sure our countries lead on climate”. For the first time, the two largest emitters, China and the USA, worked on common grounds. However, Donald Trump during his presidency calls it a “job-killing” and a “total disaster”as said“Obama pledges to cut emission has hurt the competitiveness of USA” and withdrew the USA on 4th-Nov, 2020. Yet, in response to this Joe Biden tweeted “Today, the Trump Administration officially left the Paris Climate Agreement. And in exactly 77 days, Biden Administration will rejoin it.” This is exactly what happened as President Joe Biden’s very first act in the Oval Office was his signing an executive order to have the United States rejoin the Paris climate agreement.

To sum up, the North-South divide is at the core of global environmental politics and is a debate that prevails on the grounds of unanswered questions as to who should bear the responsibility of the environmental damages. When the North shows willingness for change then it’s the South that creates hurdles, similarly when the South steps forward then the North shows aversion. If this will continue then the future of carbon emissions is intimidating. Therefore, need is to build a global consensus to free the environment from this blame game and to move towards sustainable development based on equitable contribution and accountability. It is now high time to put an end to all the differences existing now and in the past, as being humans our survival is at great risk. The need of the day is to work together to devise a common solution to our common problem and to ensure a healthy world for our existing and future generations.

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