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Green Planet

Raging Oceans, Dying Pollinators, And Then The Virus

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Authors: Dr. Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust

If the coronavirus is life-threatening, and almost all of the USA is in varying levels of lockdown, the speed of its arrival and impact should at least remind us of the fragility of life — not just for our own species but on the planet itself.  Of course, Donald Trump disbanded the White House’s National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense.  Set up after the Ebola scare, its job was to deal exactly with the type of threat we are facing; that is, to prepare for, lead  and coordinate resources to deal quickly and effectively with the emergency — its absence is yet another reason for the White House’s lackluster response.    

Then there is man-induced climate change.  The Antarctic hit a record 64.9F (18.3C) last month surpassing the previous high of 63.5F (17.5C) set in 2015.  Three days later on February 9th, the same measuring research station experienced an astounding 69.35F (20.75C) (livescience.com).  Perhaps it is to be expected when we are pumping CO2 to record levels in the atmosphere.  Current measurements are 413 ppm (Feb., 2020), a rise of 100ppm over 1950 figures (climate.nasa.gov/evidence/). 

Global warming is also blamed for hot Australian summers and the deadly forest fires in South Australia fueled by drought and extreme heat.  Most distressingly, these destroyed the entire habitats of several animal species and cost the lives of an estimated billion animals. 

One bright note is a stand of conifers (the Wollemi Pine) dating back to the dinosaurs has been saved through the extraordinary efforts of firefighters who dropped water and flame retardant from airplanes into the single canyon where they exist.  Millions of years ago, they were common across the ancient Gondwana supercontinent. 

Greenland and Antarctica are now losing ice at a six-times faster rate than in the 1990s raising sea levels and threatening coastal areas.  The rise of 17.8 mm since 1992 has been 60 percent due to Greenland and the rest to Antarctica (Nature, Dec 10, 2019).  Scientists now expect an extra 17mm (6.7 inch) rise in sea levels above current projections by 2100, and massive flooding of coastal areas, already experiencing very early signs (Greenland and Antarctica Ice Melt — BBC).   But that is small potatoes in comparison with the Denman Glacier in East Antarctica. 

This massive glacier has retreated 5 km (about 3 miles) in the last 22 years reports a new study appearing in Geophysical Research Letters (Science Daily, March 23, 2020).  From 1979 to 2017, it has lost a cumulative 268 billion tons.  Of particular concern to researchers is the ground surface underneath which renders the glacier more susceptible to global-warming collapse.  This vast ice sheet has the potential by itself to raise sea levels by 1.5 meters (5 feet).

While global warming is causing a speedup of many ocean currents, an anomaly is the consequence of Greenland ice melt reaching the Atlantic at the origins of the Gulf Stream current.  Reducing salinity, it impacts its driver, namely, the sinking salt water (Science, Feb. 7, 2020, p.612) weakening the current — its  beneficence accounting for the relatively benign winters in Britain and Ireland and extending as far north as Iceland, Norway and southern Sweden

At the same time, an analysis of data from the Argo array, some 4000 floats deployed across the globe to collect data, indicates an acceleration in currents, particularly in the tropics and the Southern Ocean (Science Advances, Feb 5, 2020).  Global warming is the likely cause spurring ocean winds to speed currents, although proof awaits more data collection.  A speed-up of currents and rising sea levels paints a picture of a rising, raging sea threatening coastal communities (National Geographic, Oct, 15, 2019) that have been popularized by developers in living memory.

The ecosystem is also threatened in other ways, particularly through the demise of pollinator species — on whom we, too, depend for our necessary crops.  A recent paper (Science February 7, 2020, p.626) reports widespread decline in bumble bee populations in North America and Europe.  Warming temperature is the likely culprit.  A temperature rise beyond the tolerable limits for bumble bees necessitates migration, often to areas that had been too cold for them before but have warmed up now to be tolerable.

Unfortunately, the rate of extirpation has exceeded that of colonization causing widespread decline.  The resulting consequences to plant species deprived of the ecosystem services of this pollinator are clearly unfavorable — if not disastrous — but have yet to be surveyed.

Meanwhile, wild bee species are in decline worldwide.  A halving from an estimated 6700 species in the 1950s to a shocking 3400 in the 2010s was reported in Science News (January 22, 2020).  While previous bee studies have addressed declining populations, the evidence collected had been limited to industrially developed Europe and North America.  The significance of the new research is its global scope.

In Thailand, for example, the ground nesting bee, Megachili bicolor, is fast losing habitat to expanding urbanization and agriculture.

With more scientists entering the field, the total number of bees observed by them has increased as one would expect.  But sadly, the number of species recorded keep plummeting on most continents.  The exception has been Australia where bee species first rose from 300 to 500 in the 2000s.  Then in the 2010s they fell back to 300.  What was once seen as a trend only in advanced countries is now global, and thousands of species have become either very rare or extinct. 

Bees and other insects like butterflies are vital in that they pollinate 75 percent of our most important crops.  Now butterflies are also under threat.  The monarchs in the US are the victims of herbicides like glyphosate, and global warming upsets their seasonal migration patterns.  They are also losing habitat, the loss estimated at 165 million acres in the US reports the Center for Biological Diversity.

Of the two migratory populations of monarchs, the western population numbered 1.2 million in the 1990s and the eastern about a billion.  These numbers have dropped drastically to a critical 30,000 in the west  and 225 million in the east.  Since 2018 when these winter counts were taken, the numbers in the west have declined further this year to a little over 29,000.

Now we have the coronavirus giving modern humans an intimate foretaste of their ecological vulnerability.  As it is easily transmissible, the situation can turn quickly into an out-of-control pandemic.  If  it affects 70 percent, as an expert recently predicted (CBS News), of the world’s population of about 8 billion, it will infect 5.6 billion people.  Assuming a 1 percent death rate, which is on the low side of recent estimates, it results in 56 million fatalities — not unlike WW2.  The same figures applied to the US yield 2.3 million deaths.      

One might be forgiven for wondering if it is not Mother Earth’s Gaian response to destructive human activity.  Could it even be just the initial onslaught?  Now that is a frightening thought. 

Authors’ Note:  An earlier version of this article appeared on Counterpunch.org

Dr. Arshad M. Khan is a former Professor based in the US. Educated at King's College London, OSU and The University of Chicago, he has a multidisciplinary background that has frequently informed his research. Thus he headed the analysis of an innovation survey of Norway, and his work on SMEs published in major journals has been widely cited. He has for several decades also written for the press: These articles and occasional comments have appeared in print media such as The Dallas Morning News, Dawn (Pakistan), The Fort Worth Star Telegram, The Monitor, The Wall Street Journal and others. On the internet, he has written for Antiwar.com, Asia Times, Common Dreams, Counterpunch, Countercurrents, Dissident Voice, Eurasia Review and Modern Diplomacy among many. His work has been quoted in the U.S. Congress and published in its Congressional Record.

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Green Planet

Grasp the silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic

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The human tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought an unexpected positive outcome.

With industries in lockdown for months and cars off the streets of our cities, we’ve witnessed dramatic falls in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions across the planet.

Meanwhile, disruptions to global foods systems have breathed new life into urban farming. In cities such as Bangkok and Paris lockdowns measures have pushed more city dwellers to grow fruit and vegetables in their homes. Singapore, which currently imports more than 90 per cent of its food, aims to produce 30 per cent of its nutritional needs locally by 2030, and has encouraged communities and social enterprises to engage in urban farming.

In several African countries social entrepreneurs, universities and individuals have developed eco-friendly and cost-effective products as part of the fight against the virus. For example, several prototypes of touch-less hand washing systems have been produced using recycled and/or reused materials generated by carpenters and welders. In addition, because of the tremendous growth in e-commerce and home delivery during the pandemic, leading packaging companies are researching the development of environmentally sustainable packaging.

The northern Italian city of Milan – one of Europe’s most polluted cities and especially hard hit by the virus – is to transform 35km of streets into an experimental, citywide, network of cycling and walking spaces, to protect residents as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

The pandemic also prompted a number of companies to protect themselves from future shocks by integrating environmental and disaster risk management into their business planning and investing in sustainable supply chains.

However, as lockdowns ease across the world, we are already seeing pollution levels and greenhouse gas emissions rise, as countries attempt to go back to ‘business as usual’.

So, while the pandemic has shown the possibilities of making dramatic, positive changes to our environment in a short space of time, it has also exposed how easily the planet can sink back onto its previous destructive path.

Prior to the pandemic, ILO studies showed that if patterns of global warming remained unchanged, by 2030 labour productivity equivalent to 80 million full time jobs could be lost because of heat stress.

In addition, changes in the natural environment due to climate change are likely to have a negative impact on an estimated 1.2 billion jobs (or 40 per cent of the global labour force) that are linked to ecosystems and the services they provide – including regulation of water systems, fertile soils or standing forests.

For all these reasons, leaders from government, industry, trade unions and civil society are calling for a post COVID-19 recovery that is not a return to business-as-usual. Rather, we need coherent and integrated responses so that we rebuild economies and societies that are more resilient to future shocks, and that are more sustainable and less damaging to human health, ecosystems and ultimately, jobs and incomes.

Through social dialogue, governments, workers’ and employers’ organizations have an important opportunity to forge a strong consensus and create broad-based support for a sustainable recovery that promotes employment creation, resilient enterprises and workplaces, and environmental sustainability.

The innovations in green and circular economies, and the positive changes we’ve seen in business and workplace practices, public policy and consumer attitudes during this crisis have shown that a sustainable post COVID-19 recovery is not mission impossible.

ILO

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Green Planet

Sea-Level Rise Could Sink The U.S. Southeast: How To Fight It As Individuals

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Authors: Dr. Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust

The latest news on rising sea levels can be described as another example of human folly.  The Anthropocene has seen plant extinctions, animal extinctions, both at an unforeseen pace, and now there is not only worsened coastal flooding but a vast area of low-lying south-eastern United States eventually could be under water.  Who says so?   And with what level of confidence can we make such a prediction? 

An assessment by 106 specialists, who study sea-levels and were selected on the basis of peer-reviewed published research, projects a meter rise by century’s end.  Earlier, in September 2019, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report estimating, with statistical confidence levels, a global mean sea level rise of 0.3 to 1.1 meters by 2100.  Present sea levels are already about a foot higher than in the 1970s, and coastal communities are experiencing chronic flooding that is worsened by storm surges and extreme rainfall events — now more frequent due to climate change.

If global warming remains within 2 degrees Celsius, the experts estimate a sea level rise limited to an average 0.5 meters by 2100 and to between 0.54 — 2.15m by 2300.  This is the scenario resulting from the Paris Agreement.  However, Donald Trump representing a country that is one of the major contributors to climate warming has already withdrawn from the Paris accord.

The earth’s average surface temperature has risen by 1C since the preindustrial era but the trajectory uncontrolled is expected to lead to another 3.5C rise by 2100.  This predicts a 0.63 — 1.32m sea-level rise by 2100.  But by 2300, this scenario also means a possible 1.8m increase from melting Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets as noted by the experts with knowledge of this aspect of climate change.  The resulting total rise by 2300 is then estimated at 1.67 – 5.61m.  To those of us used to thinking in terms of the English system, the last figure amounts to 18ft. 5ins.

Consider that some 10 percent of the world’s population or about 770 million people live on land less than 5m above high tide levels.  Consider also that the scenarios above are based on mean sea levels.  It implies there are areas with lower seas — the lucky coastal areas — but also the unfortunates living beside higher seas in low-lying regions.  Hence, the unfortunate southeast of the US.

If the figures quoted previously are not scary enough, it is worth noting what happened during the melting of the Eurasian ice sheet 14,000 years ago — it raised sea levels by 8 meters or 26 1/4 feet.  All of which leads once again to the question of what we can do as individuals to alleviate global warming in the age of Trump, a man who believes climate change is a hoax.  Thanks to him making an ass of himself during his coronavirus news conferences, there is a chance he may not be around.

As individuals, aside from avoiding unnecessary auto trips and walking short distances, one of the best things we can do is to eat less beef (lamb is even worse, pork much less).  As ruminants, cows emit gases, mostly methane when chewing their cud and then also from the other end — although there is now hope for a vaccine that can inactivate the digestive bacteria causing it.  Methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat.  It is why livestock cause 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activity.  It is said, if cows were a country, they would rank third in emissions.

On the positive side, replacing meat with poultry, fish, vegetables and fruit — the Mediterranean diet  — helps us live longer, healthier lives.  So, what do we have to lose?

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Green Planet

Development but Not At The Cost Of Biodiversity: A Plan For “Living In Harmony With Nature”

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Authors: Partha PratimMitra and Prakash Sharma*

The United Nations General Assembly in 2006 adopted 22nd May every year as the International Day for Biological Diversity.The day commemorates the adoption of the agreed text of the Convention on Biological Diversity(CBD).This year’s slogan is “Our solutions are in nature”, which emphasizes upon ‘hope, solidarity and the importance of working together at all levels’, and a future built in harmony with nature. This year is important because it is the final year for three major instrument, namely United Nations Decade on Biodiversity (2011-2020), the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity (2011-2020) and its Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

The year is also important because CBD is revising and working on another strategic plan to adopt post-2020 global biodiversity framework as a stepping stone towards the 2050 vision of “Living in harmony with nature”. The present paper discusses how ‘biodiversity’ is central to the development of environment discourse, especially when issues concerning ‘biodiversity’ makes international negotiations and agreements controversial and highly politicized. Amongst issues, perhaps three appears to be crucial i.e. national sovereignty; conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity; access and sharing of benefits of biodiversity.

CBD: Relevance

CBD was signed in the year of 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development(the Rio Earth Summit).CBD links traditional conservation efforts to the economic goal of sustainable using of biological resources. CBD has ensured that international environment law recognizes the conservation of biodiversity as “a common concern of humankind”, and at the same time remains an integral part of the development process.CBD is legally binding, and nation-states that join it are obliged to implement its provisions.

CBD covers ecosystems, species, genetic resources, biotechnology, and links traditional conservation efforts to the economic goal of using biological resources. It sets out principles for a fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources. While it reminds decision-makers that natural resources are not infinite and its sustainable use, it recognizes that ecosystems, species and genes must be used for the benefit of humans. The earlier conservation efforts were only aimed at protecting particular species and habitats. Further, CBD offers guidance based on the precautionary principle to the decision makers and demands that where there is a threat of significant reduction or loss of biological diversity, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to avoid or minimize such a threat.

To date the Conference of the Parties (COP) has held 14 ordinary meetings, and one extraordinary meeting, namely the Biosafety Protocol, which was held in two parts. From 1994 to 1996, COP was held annually, and thereafter meetings were held less frequently. However, following a change in the rules of procedure in 2000, COPs were held every two years. COP is the governing body of the Convention, and advances implementation of the Convention through the decisions it takes at its periodic meetings.

Through its Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, it addresses concern of technology development and transfer, benefit-sharing and biosafety issues. It is the first international regulatory framework for the safe transfer, handling and use of Living Modified Organisms. Likewise, the Jakarta Mandate on marine and coastal biological diversity was adopted by the CBD Parties in 1995 to underline the importance of establishing coastal and marine protected areas. Subsequently, the CBD Parties have agreed that marine and coastal protected areas are one of the essential tools and approaches in the conservation and sustainable use of marine and coastal biodiversity. In the same year, Protocol concerning specially protected areas and biological diversity in the Mediterranean was adopted in Barcelona(came into force on 12 December, 1999). It is a key facilitator of CBD implementation in the Mediterranean area. Under the instrument, Parties are obliged to take necessary actions, In order to protect, preserve and manage in sustainable and environmentally sound way, areas of particular natural or cultural value, notably by the establishment of specially protected areas, and to protect, preserve and manage the threatened or endangered species of flora and fauna.

Another important instrument was the Nagoya Protocol on access to genetic resources and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from their utilization. Adopted in the year 2010, the instrument sets out core obligations for its contracting Parties to take measures in relation to access to genetic resources, benefit-sharing and compliance. It also creates incentives mechanism for conserving and sustainably using genetic resources for human well-being.

Balancing Intellectual Property Rights and Biological Diversity: Key Issues

Article 8 (j), CBD encourages to take steps that respect, preserve, maintain knowledge, innovations, practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. It also suggests use of measures that promote their wider application with the approval and involvement of the holders of such knowledge, and encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits. Article 15(7), CBD mandates that each contracting Party, upon mutually agreed terms, shall take legislative, administrative or policy measures, with the aim of sharing in a fair and equitable way the results of research and development and the benefits arising from the commercial and other utilization of genetic resources with the contracting Party providing such resources. Under Article 16(5), CBD the contracting Parties are required to recognize patents and other intellectual property rights (IPRs)that may have an influence, and shall cooperate in this regard, subject to national legislation and international law in order to ensure that such rights are supportive of and do not run counter to its objectives.

Now, the current IPR regime encourages commercialization of seed development, monoculture, protection of new plant varieties, microorganisms, and genetically modified organisms. As a consequence, the rich biogenetic diversity is being eroded irreversibly. The relationship between the CBD and IPRs has been even considered by the COP in a number of decisions. In this regard, invitation was made to Word Trade Organization (WTO) to consider relevant provisions of CBD, their interrelationship with the provisions of the TRIPS Agreement, and to further explore this interrelationship. Policy-makers and members of civil society have registered concerns that the TRIPS Agreement promotes private commercial interests at the expense of public policy objectives contained in the CBD. It is disastrous to allow commercial priorities at the expense of the diverse eco-systems. The extent IPRs are considered essential to the industries, and in view of the increasing corporate control of biotechnological research, demands revisit of CBD. In this sense many argue that CBD is now regarded as a case of a hard treaty gone soft in the implementation trajectory.

Indian Position on Biodiversity Conservation

India plays a significant role in the protection of biodiversity acknowledges the value of biodiversity for sustaining and nourishing human communities. There are17 “mega-diverse” nation-states that contain 70 % of world’s biodiversity. India is one of these megadiverse countries with 2.4% of the land area, accounting for 7-8% of the species of the world, including about 91,000 species of animals and 45,500 species of plants, that have been documented in its ten bio-geographic regions. In order to honour the mandate of CBD, India had enacted the Biological Diversity Act, 2002for preservation of biological diversity, and establishes a mechanism for equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the use of traditional biological resources and knowledge. The Act establishes Authorities at both Central [National Biodiversity Authority (NBA)] and State level [State Biodiversity Board (SBB)].India has framed Guidelines on Access to Biological Resources and Associated Knowledge and Benefits Sharing Regulations, 2014 in pursuance of the Nagoya Protocol. As a result, any person who intends to obtain any IPR by whatever name called, in or outside India, for any invention based on any research or information on any biological resources obtained from India, shall make an application to the NBA in Form III of the Biological Diversity Rules, 2004.Now, where the applicant himself commercializes the process or product or innovation, the monetary sharing shall be in the range of 0.2 to 1.0% based on sectoral approach, which shall be worked out on the annual gross ex-factory sale minus government taxes. Likewise, where the applicant assigns or licenses the process or product or innovation to a third party for commercialization, the applicant shall pay to NBA monetary sharing of 3.0 to 5.0% of the fee received (in any form including the license or assignee fee) and 2.0 to 5.0% of the royalty amount received annually from the assignee or licensee, based on sectoral approach. However, any person applying for any right under the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, 2001 is exempted from this procedure.

India is a leading country in having established a comprehensive legal and institutional system to realize the objectives of CBD. Besides, the efforts on behalf of NBA is recognized globally for its pioneering work to implement the CBD and fully operationalize the access and benefit-sharing provisions, among others through a national network of Biodiversity Management Committees, alongside the establishment of People Biodiversity Registers. There have been certain collaborative efforts, for instance the Government of India in collaboration with the Norwegian Government has established “Centre for Biodiversity Policy and Law” (CEBPOL) for strengthening the biodiversity policy and law in India.

Concluding remarks

Policy-makers have an important role to play in ensuring that policies and practices relating to IPRs, and the need for the conservation of biodiversity, remain mutually supportive. In this regard, Governments are required to adopt an integrated approach ‘across’and ‘between’ different national and international fora, to strictly implement the objectives and provisions of the CBD. Presently, CBD is in the epicenter of Global North-South debate, wherein developed States wants to promotes “scientific development, IPR for plant verities, genetically modified foods”,and developing States wants to extent protection on “agriculture, farmer’s rights, animal welfare, environment and ecology”.

We need to understand that the presentCOVID-19 pandemic has shown us how important is biodiversity in nature, and how scientific development and medicinal advancement are incomplete to handle situations like these. It is a clarion call from our creator is to remind ourselves of “live and let others live”. Extinction of species do affect our ecosystem, particularly when every specie has an important role to play on the planet. Biodiversity combines interactions of all living organisms and their existence on the planet. Only this time no Noah’s ark will come unless strict adherence to CBD is made. Indeed, itis possible to save all species in the mother earth because “Solutions are in Nature”.

*Assistant Professor, VSLLS, Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, New Delhi.

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