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Five things you should know about disposable masks and plastic pollution

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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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No pathway to reach the Paris Agreement’s 1.5˚C goal without the G20

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“The world urgently needs a clear and unambiguous commitment to the 1.5 degree goal of the Paris Agreement from all G20 nations”, António Guterres said on Sunday after the Group failed to agree on the wording of key climate change commitments during their recent Ministerial Meeting on Environment, Climate and Energy.

“There is no pathway to this goal without the leadership of the G20. This signal is desperately needed by the billions of people already on the frontlines of the climate crisis and by markets, investors and industry who require certainty that a net zero climate resilient future is inevitable”, the Secretary General urged in a statement.

The UN chief reminded that science indicates that to meet that ‘ambitious, yet achievable goal’, the world must achieve carbon neutrality before 2050 and cut dangerous greenhouse gas emissions by 45 % by 2030 from 2010 levels. “But we are way off track”, he warned.

The world needs the G20 to deliver

With less than 100 days left before the 2021 United Nations Climate Conference COP 26, a pivotal meeting that will be held in Glasgow at the end of October, António Guterres urged all G20 and other leaders to commit to net zero by mid-century, present more ambitious 2030 national climate plans and deliver on concrete policies and actions aligned with a net zero future.

These include no new coal after 2021, phasing out fossil fuel subsidies and agreeing to a minimum international carbon pricing floor as proposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“The G7 and other developed countries must also deliver on a credible solidarity package of support for developing countries including meeting the US$100 billion goal, increasing adaptation and resilience support to at least 50% of total climate finance and getting public and multilateral development banks to significantly align their climate portfolios to meet the needs of developing countries”, he highlighted.

The UN Chief informed that he intends to use the opportunity of the upcoming UN General Assembly high-level session to bring leaders together to reach a political understanding on these critical elements of the ‘package’ needed for Glasgow.

A setback for Glasgow

The G20 ministers, which met in Naples, Italy on July 23-25, couldn’t agree to a common language on two disputed issues related to phasing out coal and the 1.5-degree goal, which now will have to be discussed at the G20 summit in Rome in October, just one day before the COP 26 starts.

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Western Indian Ocean region has declared 550,000 square kilometers as protected

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The Western Indian Ocean region has declared 143* marine and coastal areas as protected – an area covering 553,163 square kilometers, representing 7 percent of the total Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for the region – according to a new publication by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP)-Nairobi Convention and the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association.

The Marine Protected Areas Outlook, released today, indicates that almost half of the total area – an estimated 63 percent of the overall square kilometers – was brought under protection in the seven years since the 2015 adoption of Sustainable Development Goal 14.5, which committed countries to conserving at least 10 percent of their marine and coastal areas by 2020.

This Outlook examines the current and future status of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Comoros, Kenya, France (in its Western Indian Ocean territories), Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, South Africa, and Tanzania, emphasizing the increased commitment of countries to strengthen marine protection. In 2019 alone, Seychelles brought 30 percent of its Exclusive Economic Zone under protection, safeguarding the habitats of 2,600 species, while South Africa declared 20 new MPAs – enabling both countries to exceed the 10 percent target. Comoros has developed new MPA-specific legislation, while over three hundred Locally Managed Marine Areas – i.e., areas in which coastal communities shoulder the mantle of conservation – have been declared across the region.

The publication further documents the dozens of proposed MPAs currently under consideration by countries, which would cover an additional 50,000 square kilometers or more. Nevertheless, with only 7 percent of the region’s total EEZ under protection, greater momentum and investments will be required by countries to reach the more ambitious target of 30 percent protection by 2030, as proposed under the Global Biodiversity Framework.  

Although the ocean provides us with resources essential for survival, including food, employment, and even oxygen, the world is damaging and depleting it faster than ever. Soon, the region may no longer be able to count on the many jobs, health, and economic benefits – valued at 20.8 billion USD – that the Western Indian Ocean provides. Marine protected areas offer one of the best options to reverse these trends. 

“A well-managed MPA can bring significant economic, social, and environmental benefits to a country,” said Yamkela Mngxe, Acting Director of Integrated Projects and International Coordination in South Africa’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment. “They can increase food security by preventing the overexploitation of fish stocks; create and protect jobs in the tourism and fisheries sectors; build resilience to climate change; and protect species and habitats.”

Though countries in the region have made significant strides in protecting its marine and coastal areas, the Outlook outlines best practices, challenges, and several opportunities to build on thisprogressto ensure the entire region meets future Global Biodiversity Framework targets on marine protected areas. The Outlook’s assessment of the management effectiveness of MPAs indicates that MPA frameworks and institutions do not always function effectively. Nor is relevant legislation consistently implemented, due to financial or personnel capacity gaps; weak enforcement on MPA boundaries; and management decisions that are not guided by science.

Key recommendations from the Outlook therefore include:

  1. The need for dedicated budgets for MPA management;
  2. Adopting proactive law enforcement and compliance strategies to ensure MPA regulations and guidelines are being respected which could be informed by the best practices in fishery reserves like Mauritius, which have helped to restore fish stocks and protect biodiversity;
  3. Incorporating research and monitoring programmes on biodiversity and ecosystems into decision-making in MPAs;
  4. Strengthening community engagement in marine protection by implementing lessons learned by the MIHARI Network, which brings together more than 200 Locally Managed Marine Areas in Madagascar.

“The MPA Outlook comes at a time when the region has embarked on large-scale socio-economic developments that are equally exerting pressure on MPAs,” said Hon. Flavien Joubert,Minister of Agriculture, Climate Change, and Environment of the Seychelles. “The Outlook thus provides some answers and innovative approaches to minimize the scale of negative impacts on MPAs.”

The MPA Outlook concludes that by seizing the opportunities it presents, countries in the region can capitalize on this progress to safeguard the Western Indian Ocean’s immense natural beauty and resources for generations to come – and sustain momentum towards achievement of the post 2020 biodiversity framework targets.

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Deadly flooding, heatwaves in Europe, highlight urgency of climate action

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Floods have affected cities across Europe, including Zurich in Switzerland. Unsplash/Claudio Schwarz

Heavy rainfall that has triggered deadly and catastrophic flooding in several western European countries, is just the latest indicator that all nations need to do more to hold back climate change-induced disasters, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said on Friday.

The agency said that countries including Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands had received up to two months’ rain in two days from 14 to 15 July, on ground that was “already near saturation”.

Photos taken at the scene of some of the worst water surges and landslides show huge, gaping holes where earth and buildings had stood until mid-week, after media reports pointed to well over 100 confirmed fatalities in Germany and Belgium on Friday morning, with an unknown number still missing across vast areas.

“We’ve seen images of houses being…swept away, it’s really, really devastating”, said WMO spokesperson Clare Nullis adding that that the disaster had overwhelmed some of the prevention measures put in place by the affected developed countries.

In a statement issued by his Spokesperson, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, said he was saddened by the loss of life and destruction of property. “He extends his condolences and solidarity to the families of the victims and to the Governments and people of the affected countries.”

The UN chief said the UN stood ready to contribute to ongoing rescue and assistance efforts, if necessary.

“Europe on the whole is prepared, but you know, when you get extreme events, such as what we’ve seen – two months’ worth of rainfall in two days – it’s very, very difficult to cope,” added Ms. Nullis, before describing scenes of “utter devastation” in Germany’s southwestern Rhineland-Palatinate state, which is bordered by France, Belgium and Luxembourg.

Highlighting typical preparedness measures, the WMO official noted In Switzerland’s national meteorological service, MeteoSwiss, had a smartphone application which regularly issued alerts about critical high-water levels.

The highest flood warning is in place at popular tourist and camping locations including lakes Biel, Thun and the Vierwaldstattersee, with alerts also in place for Lake Brienz, the Rhine near Basel, and Lake Zurich.

Dry and hot up north

In contrast to the wet conditions, parts of Scandinavia continue to endure scorching temperatures, while smoke plumes from Siberia have affected air quality across the international dateline in Alaska. Unprecedented heat in western north America has also triggered devastating wildfires in recent weeks.

Among the Scandinavian countries enduring a lasting heatwave, the southern Finnish town of Kouvola Anjala, has seen 27 consecutive days with temperatures above 25C. “This is Finland, you know, it’s not Spain, it’s not north Africa,”, Ms. Nullis emphasised to journalists in Geneva.

“Certainly, when you see the images we’ve seen in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands this week it’s shocking, but under climate change scenarios, we are going to see more extreme events in particular extreme heat,” the WMO official added.

Troubled waters

Concerns persist about rising sea temperatures in high northern latitudes, too, Ms. Nullis said, describing the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic Sea at a “record” high, “up to 26.6C on 14 July”, making it the warmest recorded water temperature since records began some 20 years ago.

Echoing a call by UN Secretary-General António Guterres to all countries to do more to avoid a climate catastrophe linked to rising emissions and temperatures, Ms. Nullis urged action, ahead of this year’s UN climate conference, known as COP26, in Glasgow, in November.

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