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Earth Day Gets a Fiftieth Birthday Gift from the Coronavirus

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Although celebrating its fiftieth birthday, Earth Day (April 22) this week lacked the usual demonstrations around the world to publicize its purpose.  That is, a focus on responsibility towards the earth and on adjusting our lives to respond to climate change.  If the lockdown across many countries due to COVID-19 stopped the demonstrations, it also had a beneficial effect:  no planes in the air, few cars on the ground, few trains, and fewer factories running meant that demand for fossil fuels evaporated.

The effects were evident in many smoggy cities when the air suddenly cleared.  And then a startling consequence … the price of oil dropped precipitously.  For the first time in history, it turned negative reaching as low as -$40 a barrel as wholesalers contractually obligated to receiving the oil from producers ran out of storage tanks and were paying to have it taken away.  Why?  Lacking demand the refineries had shut down and were no longer buying.

Countries are ending lockdowns although China had been threatening to reimpose one as a second wave of infections seemed to appear.  Eventually it will be over and the world will gradually return to its usual state of pumping record amounts of CO2 into the air.

One of its devastating effects now is the hot, arid Australian summer resulting in forest fires.  The unbelievably devastating fires in the 2019-20 season cost the lives of an unprecedented 800 million animals in New South Wales according to estimates.

Melting ice sheets are raising ocean levels and coastal flooding has become more common.  Yes, it is a matter of millimeters and inches in our reckoning, but it is also worth remembering that 14,000 years ago the Eurasian ice sheet melted raising sea levels by some 8 meters.

One of the worst culprits for global warming is beef.  As ruminants, cows produce vast amounts of gas (methane, more potent than CO2 for warming) as they digest their feed, and it has been suggested that if cattle were a country, they would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases.  The coronavirus is closing some meat processing plants, eventually affecting the producer end of the chain, a positive for the earth if temporarily. 

Salmon and the herring family increase good cholesterol and lower blood pressure while beef and pork do the reverse.  Fish in general are good for us as are vegetables and fruits.  That people on a Mediterranean diet (less red meat, more fish, fruits and vegetables) live longer is an established fact, yet habits die hard.

The coronavirus and the lockdown drove Earth Day celebrations to the virtual world where millions gathered.  The digital landscape was filled with performances for Earth Day — teach-ins, global meets and so on.  The Pope joined in with a special Earth Day catechesis dedicated to human responsibility to care for our earth.  Political leaders including Senator Elizabeth Warren and celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio joined in with the latter making a bold plea for leaders convening on Friday at the UN to go beyond the Paris Agreement in their ambitions.  Greta Thunberg advocated a ‘real sarcastic clap’ for the corporations destroying our world, while climate warming was generally agreed to be a worse emergency than the coronavirus scare.

What can we do to help planet earth? 

Aside from being parsimonious with meat, one can also walk or bike for short trips.  Plastic bottles are an enormous waste problem.  Filtered tap water costs less, is just as safe in developed countries and avoids the plastic waste.  A car carries us plus another 3000 lbs or so of its weight propelled by fossil fuel combustion, together being one of the planet’s worst polluters.  Using public transit adds little more to what scheduled services already generate in pollution and adds some exercise since service is seldom door to door.  These simple measures are not impossible.  For Earth Day can we at least adopt the Mediterranean diet for a week?  We might like it, live longer and do the earth a world of good.

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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Six things you can do to bring back mangroves

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Don’t be fooled by their modest appearance: mangroves are important players in some of the greatest challenges facing the world today. They provide a defense between land and sea, absorb carbon, contribute to economic and food security, and are home to some of the most rare and colourful species.

But mangroves are disappearing at an accelerating rate.In some areas of the Western Indian Ocean region – one of the two most important global mangrove hotspots, together with Southeast Asia – more than 80 per cent of mangroves have already been lost.

The United Nations (UN) Decade on Ecosystem Restoration is a global rallying cry to change our relationship with nature – from degradation to restoration. Here are six things you can do to start bringing back mangroves today.

1. Understand the importance of mangroves.

Only with healthy ecosystems can we enhance people’s livelihoods, counteract climate change, and stop the collapse of biodiversity.

UNEP research shows that mangrove ecosystems underpin global and local economies, by supporting fisheries, providing other food sources and protecting coastlines. In fact, every hectare of mangrove forest represents an estimated US$33–57,000 per year.  

They’re also important protectors – sheltering land and coastal communities from storms, tsunamis, rising sea levels and erosion. And with the world at risk of a temperature rise of over 3°C this century, mangroves are also an invaluable ally in the race to adapt. They extract up to five times more carbon from the atmosphere than forests on land, and protecting mangroves is 1000 times less expensive, per kilometer, than building seawalls.

Learn more about mangrove ecosystems in this short video; and their role in climate change adaptation in this animation.

2. Understand what is driving their loss.

Home to forty per cent of the world’s population, coastlines are among the most densely-populated areas on Earth. Consequent development of coastlines – clearing mangrove forests to create space for buildings, and to farm fish and shrimp – is the main driver of mangrove loss. Worldwide, this has caused the loss of 20 per cent of mangrove ecosystems. 

Pollution also plays a role. Because they form a protective line between coasts and ocean, mangroves are effectively a “plastic trap”. When plastic bags and litter cover roots and sediment layers, it can starve mangroves of oxygen; and can harm sea animals.

3. Make sustainable choices.

The choices we make are a powerful way to express our values and to affect consumption and demand. Ask questions about the food you consume; choose foods that are sustainably sourced; say no to single-use plastic and reduce consumption in general.   

Learn more about what you can do through the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Clean Seas campaign, and see examples of restoration supportive choices in the Ecosystem Restoration Playbook.

4. Learn how restoration works.

Before planting new mangroves, it is important to understand the cause of forest degradation or disappearance. In the case of pollution, over-harvesting or other causes that can be eliminated, mangroves can recover naturally.

When recovery requires human intervention, it is important to follow key steps, like involving local communities, selecting native seedlings and establishing a functioning nursery. To learn more, see UNEP’s Guidelines on Mangrove Ecosystem Restoration, which elaborate each step of the process.

5. Be an advocate and an activist.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, you can begin to take action today. Discuss the importance of mangroves with your friends, family, colleagues and networks. Share information, images and ideas that inspire you.

If you’re not sure where to start, find inspiration in what others are doing. In Kenya and Madagascar, communities have recognized the contribution of mangroves to their own livelihoods and are actively participating in carbon monitoring, reforestation and education to prevent exploitation and ensure the livelihoods of future generations.

To get ideas about actions that could be right for you, play this game; and go to the UN Decade for Ecosystem Restoration Implementers Hub to find out how others are taking the lead in this work.

6. Make some noise.

Despite the scale of the challenge, there are solutions; and some governments are already taking action. Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic have prioritized mangrove restoration through the Caribbean Biological Corridor initiative; and in Cuba, mangrove forests still cover 70 per cent of the coastline. Pakistan has committed to planting 10 billion trees by 2023 in an initiative led by Prime Minister Imran Khan and supported by UNEP, and millions – if not billions – of these trees will be mangroves. Restoration pledges from other countries can be found here.

UN Environment

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Oil, acid, plastic: Inside the shipping disaster gripping Sri Lanka

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Fires crews attempt to put out the fire onboard the X-Press Pearl. The ship would burn for two weeks before finally sinking. Photo: Unsplash/Nilantha Ilangamuwa

It’s visible in satellite images from just off Sri Lanka’s coast: a thin grey film that snakes three kilometres out to sea before disappearing into the waves.

This, experts say, is fuel oil leaking from the X-Press Pearl, a Singapore-flagged cargo ship that caught fire and sank off Sri Lanka’s western coast last month.

The slick is a visceral reminder of what observers say is a slow-motion environmental disaster – one of the worst in the country’s history – and of the mammoth effort that will be needed to clean it up.

“This is the biggest environmental catastrophe to hit Sri Lanka since the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami,” said Thummarukudyil Muraleedharan, the acting head of the disasters and conflicts branch with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Thummarukudyil is among more than a half-dozen UNEP experts advising Sri Lanka’s government on how to contain the toxic fallout from the X-Press Pearl, which was carrying 81 containers of dangerous goods when it sank in June, according to its owner, X-Press Feeders. The ship’s cargo included 25 tonnes of nitric acid, 348 tonnes of oil and, according to independent estimates, up to 75 billion small plastic pellets known as nurdles that has created a pollution crisis—one that could plague Sri Lanka for years.

“This is a toxic ship,” said Hemantha Withanage, Executive Director of Sri Lanka’s Centre for Environmental Justice, an advocacy group. “This will be a long-running disaster.”

Fire down below

Crew members first noticed smoke coming from the X-Press Pearl’s hold on 20 May while the ship was anchored off Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. Over the next two weeks, fire crews battled a raging inferno punctuated by at least two major explosions. As the ship slowly sunk—it would be 17 June before it settled on the seabed—strong currents scooped up shipping containers and sprinkled them along Sri Lanka’s coast.

One container surfaced more than 100 kilometres south of the wreck, coating prime tourist beaches near the southwestern resort town of Galle with nurdles.

“It was like a cluster bomb,” said Hassan Partow, part of UNEP’s disaster response team.

Plastic pollution

For Sri Lankans, the small plastic pellets, which are about the size of a lentil, have been the most visible sign of the X-Press Pearl sinking.

Using publicly available data, Withanage estimates the ship contained 70-75 billion individual pellets. Partow said the disaster is the single-largest release of nurdles into the ocean ever reported.

The plastic has flooded onto beaches around Colombo. One, Sarukkuwa, was blanketed in meter-deep piles of plastic. The nurdles also turned up in the gills and guts of fish. Local fishers, who have been barred from the rich fishing grounds around Colombo, have blamed the nurdles for killing sea life, though that claim is still being investigated by Sri Lanka scientists. Withanage said pellets have also been found in a turtle sanctuary 300km north of Colombo.

Over time the pellets, which will take up to 1,000 years to disintegrate, may build up in the food chain, sickening fish and potentially humans, Withanage said. “When it comes to the environment, every plastic nurdle is a disaster.”

Making matters worse, many of the pellets were charred, causing them to crumble into a potentially toxic powder when disturbed.

“These weren’t just virgin pellets,” said Partow. “Around half were combusted, so the jury is out about their toxicity.”

In the immediate aftermath of the X-Press Pearl sinking, hundreds of Sri Lankan navy, air force and coast guard members were deployed in a massive clean-up operation overseen by the Marine Environment Protection Authority.  Working around the clock under strict COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, they have so far collected more than 53,000 bags of pellets, burnt plastic and other debris mixed with sand. The small size of the plastic pellets means that many had to be hand sieved.

There is no way, though, to clean plastic pellets still in the ocean.

“What is in the sea could be there for a long time,” said Thummarukudyil.

A toxic brew

It also appears likely that at least some of the highly corrosive nitric acid aboard the X-Press Pearl seeped into the ocean. Experts are worried it may have scalded sea life at a nearby coral reef. Sri Lanka’s government has recovered turtle carcases that show signs of burns, though Partow said scientists are still examining the animals and that it was too early to determine what had killed them.

While the nitric acid has likely dissipated into the ocean, concerns have now turned to another toxic chemical carried by the X-Press Pearl: epoxy resin. Around 9,800 metric tonnes of epoxy was aboard and experts worry that if it was in toxic liquid form—as opposed to solid form—that it could spread along the Sri Lankan coast.

The ship also contained a witches’ brew of other chemicals, including methanol, gear oil, brake fluid and urea, along with lead, copper and lithium batteries, according to Withanage.

The question of oil

Exactly how much toxic material remains in the ship’s hold or in containers on the ocean floor remains unknown. Sri Lanka’s annual monsoon, coupled with a country-wide COVID-19 lockdown, has hampered salvage efforts.

The ship’s owner, X-Press Feeders, said much of the cargo could have been incinerated in the fire, including the black, molasses-like fuel that powered the X-Press Pearl. But the UN team thinks that even if the oil was burnt it is unlikely to have evaporated. Instead, it would probably be transformed into a more viscous mixture.

“We should assume the oil is still there,” said Thummarukudyil. The ship, he added, was carrying enough oil to blanket Sri Lanka’s entire western coast. “The potential is there for this to be a lot worse than what we’ve already seen.”

Disaster response 

The UNEP staff working on the X-Press Pearl sinking are part of a disaster response unit jointly run by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).  The unit has helped broker an agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the X-Press Pearl’s owner to contain a potential offshore oil spill as well as clean-up the shoreline. Specialized equipment, including inflatable booms designed to trap oil, arrived in Colombo on 2 July.

“The United Nations is supporting the Government of Sri Lanka to address the disaster of the MV X-Press Pearl,” said UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka Hanaa Singer-Hamdy. “We are coordinating international efforts and mobilizing partners to ensure a cohesive and coherent response to the crisis (and) ensure prevention of such disasters in the future.”

UNEP has called for the ship’s owner and insurer to hash out what Partow called a “peer-reviewed, government-approved” road map for removing the X-Press Pearl and the stray containers on the ocean floor, saying they constitute the most immediate risk of pollution.

“This plan needs to be developed now so that when the conditions allow, the ship can be removed and properly decommissioned,” said Partow.

Sri Lanka’s government is also pushing the ship’s owners and insurers to refloat the X-Press Pearl.

“The Sri Lankan government is deeply concerned about its environment and the livelihood of the vulnerable fishing communities,” said Dharshani Lahandapura, Chairperson of Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority. “The foremost thing that the owners and salvors, caretakers and wreck removers have to do is remove the wreckage, underwater containers and debris as soon as possible.”

For Withanage, time is of the essence. “It is a business for them,” he said of the salvage company hired to raise the ship and the vessel’s owners. “But it is our environment. As long as the ship is there contamination is there.”

UNEP will deliver a final report on the disaster to Sri Lanka’s government next week. It will contain recommendations for the clean-up and suggestions for how Sri Lanka, a country vying to become a major shipping hub, can handle future maritime disasters. Partow said UNEP will also stand by to advise Sri Lanka on longer-term environmental monitoring.

Ghostly scene

Today, the ship sits largely submerged in 21 metres of water, its castle and a few charred cranes poking up over the waves. A caretaker ship circles it 24 hours a day, keeping tabs on the oil leak.

Partow, who toured the wreck by boat and in a helicopter, saw plastic pellets mixed with oil bobbing in the waves around the vessel. Brown patches of oil surrounded by a grey sheen stretched two to three kilometres out into the sea.

He described the 186-metre-long ship, which entered service in February, as a “write off.”

Thummarukudyil has spent 18 years responding to oil spills around the world. When asked if the X-Press Pearl was the worst maritime ecological disaster he’d seen, he paused.

“There are lots of chemicals still sitting there,” he said. “This story is not yet over.”

UN Environment

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Reusing 10% Will Stop Almost Half of Plastic Waste From Entering the Ocean

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It is possible to prevent almost half of annual plastic ocean waste by reusing just 10% of our plastics products. This is just one of the key findings of The Future of Reusable Consumption Models Report.

The report is a collaboration between the World Economic Forum and Kearney and suggests that shifting from single use towards a ‘reuse’ model of consumption can help society regain ground in the fight against plastic waste. Currently, 50% of global plastic production is for single use and only 14% of global plastic packaging is collected for recycling. The report outlines the urgent need to drive a systemic shift towards reuse models as an integral part of the reduce-reuse-recycle agenda.

‘Reuse’ is a production and consumption model gaining ground around the world as an alternative to single-use. In this model, consumer items are designed to be used several times, generating added value across the economy.

The findings are based on proposals by governments and NGOs around the world and research conducted with senior leaders from private and public sectors. The team conducted in-depth interviews, data analysis and scenario modelling to create first of its kind framework that can be applied across consumer product categories and geographies.

Three scenarios show how much plastic waste could be reduced from ocean and landfills if a reuse model is used.

Scenario One: Between 10 and 20% of plastic packaging could be reusable by 2030. This equates to 7-13 million tonnes of plastic packaging, representing 45-90% of annual plastic ocean waste.

Scenario Two Reusables make up between 20% and 40% of packaging, equivalent to 90–185% of annual plastic ocean waste or 25–50% of plastic landfill waste.

Scenario Three If between 40-70% of all packaging is reusable, it would equal anywhere from 185% to 320% of annual plastic ocean waste or 50–85% of plastic landfill waste.

Zara Ingilizian, Head of Consumer Industries and Consumption at World Economic Forum, said: “The shift from disposable consumer goods to reusables is still in its early stages, but there are already signs of progress. Just as recycling and composting were once considered eccentric and electric cars were written off as science fiction, when it comes to sustainability, attitudes about just what is viable are changing rapidly. Reuse may well prove to be among the most potent manifestations of that shift.”

Beth Bovis, Project Leader, Partner, Leader of Global Social Impact & Sustainability at Kearney, said: “We need to shift from merely “treating” or “handling” waste to simply never creating it in the first place. But any shift towards reusable consumer goods will depend on the choices and actions of the three driving forces of our economy: consumers, the private sector and the public sector. Each of these groups has a unique role to play in making reuse a reality. The need for a more reuse-centred economic model is urgent and grows more so with each passing year. It is up to all stakeholders to answer the call.”

Mayuri Ghosh, Head of Consumers Beyond Disposability initiative, Future of Consumption Platform at World Economic Forum, said: “When we talk of the three scenarios, it is worth emphasizing that any of these scenarios would represent extremely valuable progress over the present status quo. The plastic waste challenge has grown too large for us to simply recycle our way out of. With no global agreement over an ambition level to target plastic waste, the sooner we can make systemic and meaningful advance towards reuse, the better.”

The report goes into these scenarios in depth and provides detailed information on the methodology. It addresses some of the key challenges businesses and the public sector have faced about reuse, namely, how to make reuse scalable and viable.

The report aims to give leaders in business, government, civil society a clear picture of an alternative plastic waste-reduction model. The first half of the report discusses the three primary actors of systems change required. The second half presents the Reuse Viability Framework to help leaders make reuse scaleable and viable.

It calls for the public and the private sectors to collaborate on the development of reuse systems to meet the needs of our economy and the environment. It is part of the World Economic Forum‘s Consumers Beyond Disposability initiative, which focuses on innovative reuse solutions, and has been working to test and scale such solutions.

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