Coral reefs are being killed by the climate crisis, which is leading to rising sea temperatures. “Cryopreservation”, a pioneering scientific technique, could be one way to help save them.
A tiny piece of coral is stuck to a thin sheet of plastic, and submerged in a tank at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology on Coconut Island in Kaneohe Bay, on the island archipelago. This is part of a unique process which includes the cryopreservation [the use of very low temperatures to preserve living cells and tissues] of sperm, larvae and tissue, to create what has been called the “Book of Life” for coral.
Marine biologists, working on land and in the water, collect sperm and eggs from reefs during their annual spawning events, in the warm tropical water surrounding palm-fringed Coconut Island, and then in labs, where they prepare the coral for cryopreservation.
Mary Hagedorn, a senior research scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, leads the team at the Institute which is pioneering these techniques.
“Cryopreservation is a relatively new field of science originating in the late 1940s, but was only first used to preserve human embryos in the early 1980s and then eggs at the end of the 90s,” she told UN News on a visit to Coconut Island.
“We have been working for the last 16 years on adapting those techniques to successfully preserve coral sperm, and also coral larvae, to store in living frozen bio-repositories, and help restore reefs now and potentially reseed the ocean in the future. We’re really collecting the Book of Life for coral reefs, and that’s significant.”
Coral reefs across the world are being threatened by climate change. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that about 25 to 50 per cent of the world’s coral reefs have been destroyed and another 60 per cent are under threat.
Warm, acidic oceans, and coral ‘heart attacks’
As oceans become warmer and more acidic, the corals are bleached, an event which Mary Hagedorn compares to a person suffering a heart attack. “If bleaching happens on an annual basis then corals may ultimately die off,” she said.
Corals are animals that create their own skeleton to help support them. These animals live in shallow warm waters around the world using sunlight to synthesize their sugar-based food. Reefs are not just “beautiful ecosystems” renowned for their biological diversity, according to Dr. Hagedorn, they are also crucial to life on Earth. “Almost 25 per cent of all marine life lives on a reef at some point and so without them many species of fish that we eat wouldn’t exist. Corals provide a natural protection for our coastlines, for example against tsunamis. They also support people’s livelihoods in the form of fishing and tourism and contribute 350 billion annually to the global economy. So, there are many reasons we should save them.”
Researching for the benefit of future generations
A small international team of marine biologists is based in the lab on Coconut island, which sits on top of a coral reef and is surrounded by many more, making it possible for the scientists to collect samples in a small dinghy, or by snorkeling. They also travel to many tropical countries around the world to help preserve their reefs including in Australia, Singapore and French Polynesia, among others.
In the institute’s laboratory, Australian postdoctoral researcher Dr. Jonathan Daly examines polyps, individual coral animals, under a microscope.
“Corals have a very restricted annual cycle for reproduction (just a few days) and so there is a very brief window to collect their sperm and eggs in the field, and bring them into the lab for cryopreservation,” he says, adding that “today, coral reproduction is impacted very heavily by warming oceans.”
The material gathered by the team is stored in frozen biorepositories and it’s hoped ultimately that other marine biologists in laboratories worldwide will eventually be able to preserve corals where they work. This would save the biodiversity and genetic diversity of their local coral reefs and help to create the Book of Life for corals that Mary Hagedorn talks of.
This means that, if one of the many thousands of coral species found around the world becomes extinct, then potentially it could be regrown from the frozen biorepository.
The role of the ocean in economic and social development
“Our job is really not about today, it’s about 200 or 500 years from now when, hopefully, our oceans have returned to pre-industrial conditions,” says Mary Hagedorn in her laboratory. I’ll never see the fruition of our work in my life, nor will my students or their students. Nevertheless, we have set this whole thing in motion, and as a scientist, I know we’re doing something that really is good for the planet. However, it is very critical that we do this work now, while corals still have robust genetic diversity.” Mary Hagedorn and her colleagues were interviewed as part of a photographic project called “Dignity at Work” which is being undertaken across the United States by the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO).
Oceans’ role in economic and social development
Kevin Cassidy is the Director of the ILO Office for the United States: “We have seen the far-sighted and truly inspiring work on coral reefs by Mary and her team,” he said, explaining the key role the ocean plays in economic and social activity.
“When one is fishing for seafood it creates income for the fisherman, his workers, more jobs in wholesale markets and shops, purveyors and transport workers, chefs and waiters serving food, patrons at restaurants and taxis.
It is an economic string that threads its way through society.”
And he warns of the danger of not looking after marine resources. “The impact of dying oceans would not only be an ecological disaster but would also take a large human and economic toll.”
Back outside on Coconut Island, the work continues in between tropical rain showers. The plastic sheets which were planted in water tanks with individual corals on different occasions show how, over time, the animals grow bigger and stronger. Ultimately, when the conditions are right, they could be returned to the ocean to restore reefs. And in the longer term, the corals now stored in frozen biorepositories could bring back to life species killed by the effects of climate change.
Building a green economy, brick by brick
In Uruguay, thousands of families earn a precarious livelihood making bricks, using traditional methods that are often inefficient and harmful to the environment. A UN project, in collaboration with the Uruguayan government, aims to make the industry less polluting, whilst preserving jobs for the many artisans who depend on it.
Land, fire and water
When Eduardo Romero was 40 years old, he was fired from his job as a bricklayer. It was 1992, in the city of Durazno, Uruguay. With his few belongings on his shoulder, Eduardo headed for the north of the country and stopped only when he found work. It was in the city of Tranqueras, and his new source of income came from land, fire and water: Eduardo started making bricks.
Today, five jobs, two ventures, three children and 28 years later, Mr. Romero is still linked to this insecure industry, which is both an easy source of employment for those who need it most, but where people work without social security or insurance, and with their labour rights continuously violated. “It is a precarious sector,” says Mr. Romero. “We are always on the edge of town, wearing dirty clothes.”
Reliable statistics on the industry are hard to come by, but estimates suggest that there are some 14,000 families working in 3,500 production units across the country. The informal nature of the work makes for high turnover.
On top of the pressure on individual workers, the industry has a negative impact on the environment; emissions are high and some brickmakers, lacking other sources of fuel, burn protected species of trees.
During the brickmaking season, which lasts from September to April, an artisanal producer can make an average of about 30,000 bricks per month; the entire sector in Uruguay yields enough bricks every year to build at least 1,500 new houses, plus hundreds of businesses, kilns, factories, and more.
Eduardo is one of a growing number of artisanal producers who are changing the way they make bricks and, in the process, helping the entire country enjoy a cleaner environment. But in a sector like this, changing traditions is difficult.
Turning mud and garbage into solid foundations
Making bricks the traditional way, is an art that requires several stages. First the elements are obtained to make the raw material: water, soil, clay, sand, and organic matter such as horse dung.
This material is mixed and put into moulds, then laid out to dry for three days. Then they are baked in an oven, with firewood serving as the main fuel, for between two and seven days, and allowed to cool. Four days later they are ready for sale.
At each stage of the process, there are abundant occupational hazards and environmental impacts.
‘Far behind in technological terms’
In addition, this method is far more inefficient than modern, mechanized techniques: according to the government, factories can churn out bricks almost seven times faster than an artisanal producer.
“The artisanal brick industry is far behind in technological terms,” says Pablo Montes, who works for the Uruguayan government, and is also national coordinator of PAGE Uruguay (Partnership for Action on the Green Economy), a project involving the UN and the Uruguayan Government.
He explains that there are significant obstacles to artisans moving to newer techniques: it has fewer job opportunities; it also requires certification that most artisans don’t have, whether for the expense, or because many have not finished primary school and can barely read or write.
That’s why PAGE is looking to support the artisanal industry, helping workers to enjoy greater rights and higher incomes, and cutting pollution during the production process.
PAGE staff talked to brickmakers from all over the country, looking for improvements at every stage of the production process, and brought in consultants from other countries – such as Colombia, which has already undergone its own transformation – to give workshops on how to make better bricks.
By doing so, PAGE is helping to move Uruguay closer to the twin goals of a greener and more prosperous economy. The project is still in progress, and is developing even better methods and training more brickmakers.
Artisanal, safer, greener
“Transforming the industry will allow these ventures to be successful,” says Mr. Romero. Still, he has no illusions that such a change will be easy to achieve.
“In this profession, there are men and women who have made an honest living for decades or for their whole lives,” he explains. Artisanal brickmaking is a way of life, a tradition. Countless homes and businesses in every part of Uruguay have been built with bricks made by the hands of anonymous laborers. They have invested their lives in the profession, and they are proud of what they have created.
“That is what we are trying to defend,” says Mr. Romero. Even as he changes his own way of working, with guidance from PAGE, he realizes that not everyone will be so quick to adapt. Some may be sceptical of outsiders who come to teach them a skill they’ve practiced for many years.
Pablo Montes of PAGE is optimistic that brickmakers will be won over by the benefits that the new ways of working offer them. “We want to keep the industry artisanal, while making it safer and greener,” he says. “We can have both.”
The status of climate risk management in Latin American and Caribbean banks
A survey among 78 financial institutions in Latin America and the Caribbean holding 54% of the total assets managed by the banking sector in the region, revealed that 38% of banks incorporate guidelines on climate change in their strategy and 24% have a policy on climate risk evaluation and disclosure.
The study entitled “How the Banks of Latin America and the Caribbean incorporate climate change in their risk management,” presented today during an online event, was prepared by the UN Environment Programme Finance Initiative (UNEP FI) and CAF – Development Bank of Latin America, with the collaboration of the Latin American Federation of Banks (FELABAN).
69% of the participant banks identified forestry and agriculture as the sector most exposed to climate risks, followed by the energy generation sector at 44%. 80% of the institutions recognized that the main physical risk to be incorporated in their risk evaluation and management was ‘flooding,’ followed by ‘drought’ (mentioned by 41% of the banks).
Banks in the region have an opportunity to improve the assessment of climate risks in their plans and strategies, with the aim of increasing their resilience and be better prepared to support the transition to low carbon economies.
According to the report, 41% of the institutions that took part in the survey recognized they do not have mechanisms to identify, analyze and manage climate risks.
The authors concluded that climate risks remain unmanaged mainly due to a lack of knowledge regarding the financial impact of climate change, and because of the absence of regulatory demands.
Banks in the region still tend to perceive climate risks from the perspective of how companies impact the environment, and not how exposed these companies are to climate threats. Considering the latter is key for financial institutions in the face of the expected increase in disasters and other impacts of extreme weather, the report notes.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, given current concentrations and on-going emissions of greenhouse gases, it is likely that by the end of this century the rise in global temperature will exceed 1.5°C above preindustrial levels. This will come with higher sea levels and more frequent and intense climate disasters.
“During the last decade, banks in Latin America and the Caribbean have made significant progress in integrating sustainability criteria in their different areas of work. The study that we present today will also contribute to the timely management of climate risks in their financing portfolios,” said Julián Suárez, Vice President of Sustainable Development at CAF.
“Climate risk assessment is key to the goal of aligning the banking industry with a sustainable and equitable global economy in the 21st century, which becomes even more relevant today as we need to build back better after the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Eric Usher, Head of UNEP FI.
The authors call to follow the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), and to replicate initiatives like the UNEP FI pilot project with 16 of the world’s leading banks to develop analytical tools and indicators that strengthen the assessment and disclosure of climate risks.
The survey revealed that 53% of the banks utilized the Sustainability Report as a mechanism to disclose risks linked to climate change, while only 16% reported through regulatory financial forms as advocated by the TCFD recommendations.
Due to the lack of knowledge regarding climate-related risks definitions, the authors also recommend the banking sector of Latin America and the Caribbean to prepare a common taxonomy on these issues.
Five things you should know about disposable masks and plastic pollution
The fight against plastic pollution is being hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, as the use of disposable masks, gloves and other protective equipment soars, but UN agencies and partners insist that, if effective measures are put into place, the amount of plastics discarded every year can be significantly cut, or even eliminated.
1) Pollution driven by huge increase in mask sales
The promotion of mask wearing as a way to slow the spread of COVID-19 has led to an extraordinary increase in the production of disposable masks: the UN trade body, UNCTAD, estimates that global sales will total some $166 billion this year, up from around $800 million in 2019.
Recent media reports, showing videos and photos of divers picking up masks and gloves, littering the waters around the French Riviera, were a wake-up call for many, refocusing minds on the plastic pollution issue, and a reminder that politicians, leaders and individuals need to address the problem of plastic pollution.
2) A toxic problem
If historical data is a reliable indicator, it can be expected that around 75 per cent of the used masks, as well as other pandemic-related waste, will end up in landfills, or floating in the seas. Aside from the environmental damage, the financial cost, in areas such as tourism and fisheries, is estimated by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) at around $40 billion.
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has warned that, if the large increase in medical waste, much of it made from environmentally harmful single-use plastics, is not managed soundly, uncontrolled dumping could result.
The potential consequences, says UNEP, which has produced a series of factsheets on the subject, include public health risks from infected used masks, and the open burning or uncontrolled incineration of masks, leading to the release of toxins in the environment, and to secondary transmission of diseases to humans.
Because of fears of these potential secondary impacts on health and the environment, UNEP is urging governments to treat the management of waste, including medical and hazardous waste, as an essential public service. The agency argues that the safe handling, and final disposal of this waste is a vital element in an effective emergency response.
“Plastic pollution was already one of the greatest threats to our planet before the coronavirus outbreak,” says Pamela Coke-Hamilton, UNCTAD’s director of international trade. “The sudden boom in the daily use of certain products to keep people safe and stop the disease is making things much worse.”
3) Existing solutions could cut plastics by 80 per cent
However, this state of affairs can be changed for the better, as shown by a recent, wide-ranging, report on plastic waste published by The Pew Charitable Trusts, and sustainability thinktank Systemiq.
The study, “Breaking the Plastic Wave: A Comprehensive Assessment of Pathways Towards Stopping Ocean Plastic Pollution”, which was endorsed by Inger Andersen, head of the UN environment agency UNEP, forecasts that, if no action is taken, the amount of plastics dumped into the ocean will triple by 2040, from 11 to 29 million tonnes per year.
But around 80 per cent of plastic pollution could be eliminated over this same period, simply by replacing inadequate regulation, changing business models and introducing incentives leading to the reduced production of plastics. Other recommended measures include designing products and packaging that can be more easily recycled, and expanding waste collection, particularly in lower income countries.
4) Global cooperation is essential
In its July analysis of plastics, sustainability and development, UNCTAD came to the conclusion that global trade policies also have an important role to play in reducing pollution.
Many countries have introduced regulations that mention plastics over the last decade, an indicator of growing concern surrounding the issue, but, the UNCTAD analysis points out, for trade policies to be truly effective, coordinated, global rules are needed.
“The way countries have been using trade policy to fight plastic pollution has mostly been uncoordinated, which limits the effectiveness of their efforts, says Ms. Coke-Hamilton. “There are limits to what any country can achieve on its own.”
5) Promote planet and job-friendly alternatives
Whilst implementing these measures would make a huge dent in plastic pollution between now and 2040, the Pew/ Systemiq report acknowledges that, even in its best-case scenario, five million metric tons of plastics would still be leaking into the ocean every year.
A dramatic increase in innovation and investment, leading to technological advances, the report’s study’s authors conclude, would be necessary to deal comprehensively with the problem.
Furthermore, UNCTAD is urging governments to promote non-toxic, biodegradable or easily recyclable alternatives, such as natural fibres, rice husk, and natural rubber. These products would be more environmentally-friendly and, as developing countries are key suppliers of many plastic substitutes, could provide the added benefit of providing new jobs. Bangladesh, for example, is the world’s leading supplier of jute exports, whilst, between them, Thailand and Côte d’Ivoire account for the bulk of natural rubber exports.
“There’s no single solution to ocean plastic pollution, but through rapid and concerted action we can break the plastic wave,” said Tom Dillon, Pew’s vice president for environment. As the organization’s report shows, “we can invest in a future of reduced waste, better health outcomes, greater job creation, and a cleaner and more resilient environment for both people and nature”.
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