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Green Planet

Raging Oceans, Dying Pollinators, And Then The Virus

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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

When Sea Levels Rise And Coastal Waters Darken…

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image source: University of Oldenburg (Foto: Zielinski)

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

The coastal waters by Wilmington, Delaware, the president’s home base, have risen a record 3 mm in the past year.  Worse, the rate of increase is itself increasing portending a foot or more in the next century.  It means a rebuilding of docks plus barriers to prevent serious tidal flooding.

The Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences (VIMS), affiliated with the College of William and Mary, has been collecting data on sea levels for the past 52 years.  It released its latest annual report recently, noting sea level rising by historic amounts — as in the case of Wilmington — as well as the accelerating rate of increase.

There are 32 tide gauges placed along the US coasts all the way to Alaska.  Maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), these measure levels every six minutes.  Researchers at VIMS take a monthly average to avoid a skewed analysis due to unusual weather patterns like storms.

The Institute’s report presents sea level changes, assesses future trends, and tries to explain the increases or even decreases at particular localities.  Sea level changes are relative to the adjoining land.  For example, the rates are actually falling in Alaska but that is caused by shifting tectonic plates raising land and off-setting the sea level rise.

Researchers describe the persistent sea level rise as a “slow emergency” — not a storm that will be hitting tomorrow but trouble ahead and the report cards can help local authorities plan for the future.

Wetlands Watch works to preserve wetlands in Virginia’s coastal areas.  Rising sea level is a particular concern because it is expected to affect most of the state’s coastal wetlands.  Therefore in addition to policy advocacy, Wetlands Watch has developed Sea Rising Solutions, which helps in mapping out where flooding is likely.

Spreading the word about sea level rise and its consequences engages the whole community and motivates legislators and developers to adapt to the new norm and prepare ahead for a changing environment. 

There is another problem with coastal areas:  a gradual darkening of the sea water.  It is serious for such a change in color and clarity poses a significant threat to marine life.  The Coastal Ocean Darkening Project at the University of Oldenburg in Germany simulated the effects by filling huge metal vats with water and phytoplankton and hanging lamps above them to simulate sunlight.  They then darkened the water using low, medium and high concentrations of a brown liquid extracted from peat to simulate decaying organic matter.  The phytoplankton were all negatively affected but particularly in the vats with medium and high concentrations which blocked off more light.  Also some phytoplankton were affected more than others.  

The adverse consequences to the elemental base of the ocean’s food threatens marine species up the chain, and especially those relying on the phytoplankton types most affected.  Moreover, reduced vision hinders those species, like fish, relying on vision to hunt, while not affecting those that do not, like jellyfish.  

Why is the water darkening?  One hint might be that environmental regulation of fertilizer use goes along with improvements in the Mediterranean, the North Sea and parts of the North American coast.  And of course reducing global warming would decrease ice melt and subsequent sea level rise.

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Green Planet

Promoting Green Finance in Qatar: Post-Pandemic Opportunities and Challenges

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The recent COVID-19 pandemic had significant implications for both national economies and the global financial system, in addition to hindering the achievement of the sustainable development goals agenda. The UNDP estimates global human development—a combination of education, health, and living standards—could fall this year for the first time since 1990, which highlights how the effects of the pandemic present both an enormous challenge and tremendous opportunities for reaching the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

With the additional challenges arising from climate change, governments have committed to several policy measures which promote a green recovery to rebuild their economies, while benefiting the people and the planet. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that the public resources committed by governments to support a green recovery amount to at least USD 312 billion. These measures present tremendous opportunities for green finance in general, and Islamic green finance in particular, in the context of Muslim-majority countries.

The State of Qatar, in light of its National Vision 2030 and in order to enhance the diversification of its economy away from hydrocarbon, has taken several measures to mitigate climate change. These include increasing the use of solar energy to more than 20% of its energy mix by 2030, the optimal use of water, improving air quality, waste recycling, increasing green spaces, in addition to the country’s commitment to organizing the first “carbon neutral” tournament featuring the use of solar-powered stadiums and water and energy-saving cooling and lighting technology. The State is also a signatory of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and supports a number of global initiatives in relation to climate change mitigation.

All these initiatives could be funded via green finance. In this regard, there are four global trends in the financial industry that the State of Qatar can leverage to promote green finance for green recovery:

Growth of SRI and ESG awareness:

Socially responsible investing (SRI) and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing are two of the fastest growing investing areas globally. Both are driven by the increasing awareness of social and environmental responsibility. According to the Global Sustainable Investment Alliance, global sustainable investment reached $30.7 trillion in the five major markets at the start of 2018, a 34 percent increase in two years. These include Europe, United States, Japan, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Developing green finance instruments and products can attract a growing SRI investor base that seeks to align social and environmental values with its investment portfolios.

Upward trend of Islamic Finance:

According to the Islamic Financial Services Board (IFSB), the total worth of the Islamic Financial Services Industry across its three main segments (banking, capital markets, and takaful) is estimated at $2.44 trillion in 2019, marking a year-on-year 11.4% growth in assets in US dollar terms. According to Thomson Reuters, the industry is projected to reach $3.8 trillion by 2022. Qatar is one of the global Islamic finance hubs with Islamic finance assets representing more than 20% of the local financial system’s assets. With the recent development of Islamic green finance, Qatar has the opportunity to position itself as a sustainable finance leader in the region by promoting synergies between Islamic and green finance growing markets.

Financial innovation for sustainability:

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) highlights that achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will take between $5 and $7 trillion, with an investment gap in developing countries of about $2.5 trillion and the additional net investment required to implement renewable energy solutions standing at $ 1.4 trillion, or about $100 billion per year on average between 2016 and 2030, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Mitigating this funding gap requires an engaged private sector to make green investments. That is why several green instruments and products were developed across the various segments of the financial industry. These include green retail banking products, including green loans and green mortgages, green corporate and investment products, green project finance, and green venture capital and private equity, as well as green capital market instruments, like green investment funds, green bonds, and sukuk.

Integration of sustainability objectives into national strategies:

Several governments around the world have integrated sustainability objectives and green finance roadmaps into their national strategies, either through a top-down approach, whereby green finance frameworks and taxonomies are harmonized at the country level (as with China), or via market-led collaborative actions. In addition, to overcome private sector investment barriers, such as high up-front costs, long investment timelines, and higher perceived risks, several countries have put in place incentives in the form of subsidies and tax exemptions. The State of Qatar can leverage these experiences through collaborations and partnerships to develop a unique green finance model in the region

Green Sukuk: A Fast Growing Market

Green sukuk is an innovative instrument for financing green infrastructure. It has the potential to become a new asset class targeting both Islamic and socially responsible investors.

Since the issuance of the first green sukuk in 2017 in Malaysia, the market has grown significantly, with twelve issuers in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the United Arab Emirates tapping the market, in addition to the Islamic Development Bank. About $7.6 billion in four currencies (EUR, IDR, MYR, and USD) was raised up to September 2020, with tenors ranging from two to 21 years. The amounts raised were allocated to green construction, energy efficiency, and clean transportation projects.

Promoting Green Finance in Qatar

Although the green finance market is still in an early stage of development in the country, the market has witnessed several initiatives by local institutions that might pave the way to the development of a more dynamic market. In September 2020, Qatar National Bank (QNB) issued the first ever green bond in Qatar, a $600 million tranche, under its MTN Program, with a maturity of five years under its established Green, Social, and Sustainability Bond Framework.

In addition, Qatar Stock Exchange (QSE) introduced an ESG Guidance in 2017 to assist listed companies wishing to incorporate ESG reporting into their existing reporting processes.

While Bond and sukuk issuance in Qatar reached $28 billion in 2019, the market is largely driven by government issuance and commercial banks for corporate issuances, with the exception of Ezdan Sukuk in 2016 and 2017. The development of green sukuk in the country with the enabling ecosystem could facilitate corporate sukuk issuance, thus enhancing market liquidity.

In conclusion, promoting a green recovery in line with the country’s economic diversification objectives and climate mitigation strategies will require the development of an enabling ecosystem for the development of green finance in Qatar. Developing a pipeline of bankable green projects at the country level, market awareness, and promoting synergies between Islamic and green finance will provide the basis for further innovation and policy action, such as green labels, frameworks, and incentives.

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Green Planet

2021 will be defined by the more long-term crisis facing humanity: Climate change

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Rather than low-tech and often unworkable solutions (reduced or no travel, mass vegan diets) governments are increasingly embracing technology to help us understand and influence the climate – rather than merely respond to it. This should become the norm for public authorities across the world.

China’s weather modification programme, for example, could be a lifeline for workable solutions to climate change globally. The technique, known as cloud-seeding, uses silver iodide and liquid nitrogen to thicken water droplets in the cloud, leading to increased rain or snowfall. 

The technology has been used to prevent droughts and regulate weather before major events, like in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics

The Chinese cabinet has announced that its weather modification programme will cover half the country by 2025, with the aim to revitalize rural regions, restore ecosystems, minimize losses from natural disasters and redistribute water throughout the country.  

And China’s ambitious ‘Sky River’ programme could eventually divert 5 billion cubic meters of water annually across regions, which could protect millions of people from the effects of drought and water scarcity. 

Although critics have, without evidence, described these projects as ‘weaponization of the weather’, the humanitarian and development potential is huge. 

Necessity is the mother of invention, and this is truer than ever with regards to the climate. The world faces a climate-change induced water crisis, with 1.5 billion people affected globally. 

The UN predicts that at the current water usage levels, water scarcity could displace 700 million people by 2030. 

Carbon emissions are unlikely to be eliminated in high growth economies in regions like Asia, meaning that the world must develop a way to manage emissions’ effects on the climate. 

Whilst it is true that the basic solutions of eating less meat, cycling to work and cutting back on international flights can help to curb our carbon output in the long-run, it does nothing to help those who suffer from flooding or water scarcity today. 

Ultimately, technology is an essential part of the solution.

Big Tech is leading the charge in tackling climate change through the use of Big Data and machine learning. In November 2019, a group of data scientists published a paper entitled ‘Tackling Climate Change with Machine Learning’. The paper laid out 13 different applications of using machine learning to tackle the impacts of climate change. One such application was using machine-learning to predict extreme weather events. 

Such an application is already being put into action. For example, Bangladesh is one of the most flood-prone countries in the world; approximately 5 million people were negatively affected by flooding last year alone. In order to help combat this, Google teamed up with the Bangladesh Water Development Board and the Access to Information (a2i) Programme to develop a flood notification app that is approximately 90% accurate

The app, which is enabled by AI flooding simulation, provides the population with timely, updated, and critical information that can help users make informed decisions on the safety of their families and friends. 

The same technology has been used in both India and South Africa, and has the potential to save thousands of lives and livelihoods. It is these sorts of innovations that we must rely on to help those who are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change. 

It is not only cloud-seeding and weather prediction technologies that will provide humanity with a route out of its biggest existential threat. Breakthrough battery technology, green hydrogen, 5G-based smart grids and carbon-negative factories are set to become commonplace in our fight against rising CO2 levels. 

As a global society, we must set our political divisions and some critics’ technophobia aside, and step forward in a spirit of international collaboration.

Similarly to how the pandemic showed the need for united global action, climate change will do the same. And just as technology and science was a key part in how the pandemic was brought under control, climate change can only be addressed through tech-based solutions.

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