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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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Environment

‘No time to lose’ curbing greenhouse gases

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Last year, heat-trapping greenhouse gases reached a new record, surging above the planet’s 2011-2020 average, and has continued in 2021, according to a new report published on Monday by the UN weather agency.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Greenhouse Gas Bulletin contains a “stark, scientific message” for climate change negotiations at the upcoming UN climate conference, known as COP26, in Glasgow, said Petteri Taalas, head of the UN agency.

“At the current rate of increase in greenhouse gas concentrations, we will see a temperature increase by the end of this century far in excess of the Paris Agreement targets of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels”, he explained. “We are way off track.”

Emissions rising

Concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2020 was 149 per cent above the pre-industrial level; methane, 262 per cent; and nitrous oxide, 123 per cent, compared to the point when human activitity began to be a destabilizing factor.

And although the coronavirus-driven economic slowdown sparked a temporary decline in new emissions, it has had no discernible impact on the atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases or their growth rates.

As emissions continue, so too will rising global temperatures, the report maintained.

Moreover, given the long life of CO2, the current temperature level will persist for decades, even if emissions are rapidly reduced to net zero.

From intense heat and rainfall to sea-level rise and ocean acidification, rising temperatures will be accompanied by more weather extremes – all with far-reaching socioeconomic impacts.

“The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was three to five million years ago, when the temperature was 2-3°C warmer and sea level was 10-20 meters higher than now”, stated the WMO chief. “But there weren’t 7.8 billion people then”, he reminded.

Lingering CO2

Roughly half of today’s human-emitted CO2 remains in the atmosphere and the other half is absorbed by oceans and land ecosystems, the Bulletin flagged.

At the same time, the capacity of land ecosystems and oceans to absorb emissions may become a less effective buffer against temperature increases in the future.

Meanwhile, many countries are currently setting carbon neutral targets amidst the hope that COP26 will see a dramatic increase in commitments.

“We need to transform our commitment into action that will have an impact of the gases that drive climate change. We need to revisit our industrial, energy and transport systems and whole way of life”, said the WMO official. 

The needed changes are economically affordable and technically possible“, he assured. “There is no time to lose”.

Battling emissions

CO2 is the single most important greenhouse gas and has “major negative repercussions for our daily lives and well-being, for the state of our planet and for the future of our children and grandchildren”, argued the WMO chief.

Carbon sinks are vital regulators of climate change because they remove one-quarter of the CO2 that humans release into the atmosphere.

Nitrous Oxide is both a powerful greenhouse gas and ozone depleting chemical that is emitted into the atmosphere from both natural and anthropogenic sources, including oceans, soils, biomass burning, fertilizer use and various industrial processes.

Multiple co-benefits of reducing methane, whose gas remains in the atmosphere for about a decade, could support the Paris Agreement and help to reach many Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), said the Bulletin.

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Landmark decision gives legal teeth to protect environmental defenders

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A 46-strong group of countries across the wider European region has agreed to establish a new legally binding mechanism that would protect environmental defenders, the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) said on Friday.

“I remain deeply concerned by the targeting of environmental activists”, said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, welcoming the rapid response mechanism as “an important contribution to help advance my Call to Action for Human Rights”. 

The agreement will delegate setting up the new mechanism to the United Nations, or another international body.

As the first ever internationally-agreed tool to safeguard environmental defenders, it marks an important step in upholding the universal right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment – as recognized by the Human Rights Council earlier this month

“Twenty years ago, the Aarhus Convention entered into force, bridging the gap between human and environmental rights.

Today, as the devastating effects of climate change continue to ravage the world, the Convention’s core purpose – of allowing people to protect their wellbeing and that of future generations – has never been more critical”, spelled out the UN chief. 

A protective eye

The agreement to establish the mechanism was adopted on Thursday by the Meeting of the Parties to the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, known as the Aarhus Convention. 

“This landmark decision is a clear signal to environmental defenders that they will not be left unprotected”, said UNECE chief Olga Algayerova.

“It demonstrates a new level of commitment to upholding the public’s rights under the Aarhus Convention, as well as Parties’ willingness to respond effectively to grave and real-time challenges seen in the Convention’s implementation on the ground”.   

Vital defence

Whether it is groups protesting the construction of a dangerous dam or individuals speaking out against harmful agricultural practices in their local community, these activists are vital to environmental preservation across the globe, said the UNECE.

The Aarhus Convention ensures that those exercising their rights in conformity with the provisions of the Convention shall not be penalized, persecuted or harassed in any way for their involvement.

As such, the mechanism will establish a Special Rapporteur – or independent rights expert – who will quickly respond to alleged violations and take measures to protect those experiencing or under imminent threat of penalization, persecution, or harassment for seeking to exercise their rights under the Convention.  

As time is of the essence to buttress the safety of environmental defenders, any member of the public, secretariat or Party to the Aarhus Convention, will be able to submit a confidential complaint to the Special Rapporteur, even before other legal remedies have been exhausted.   

Defenders targeted

Although it is crucial for environmental defenders to confidently exercise their rights, cases have been reported in which instead, they face being fired, heavy fines, criminalization, detention, violence, and even death. 

Moreover, incidents of harassment and violence against environmental defenders are far from uncommon

A report to the Human Rights Council by Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, found that one-in-two human rights defenders who were killed in 2019 had been working with communities around issues of land, environment, impacts of business activities, poverty and rights of indigenous peoples, Afrodescendants and other minorities.  

Since January 2017, among the Parties to the Aarhus Convention, incidents of persecution, penalization and harassment of environmental defenders have been reported in 16 countries

In contrast to current existing initiatives, which mainly rely on applying political pressure through the media, the Aarhus Convention’s rapid response mechanism will be built on a binding legal framework, giving it much greater powers to act.

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Plastic pollution on course to double by 2030

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Plastic pollution in oceans and other bodies of water continues to grow sharply and could more than double by 2030, according to an assessment released on Thursday by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). 

The report highlights dire consequences for health, the economy, biodiversity and the climate. It also says a drastic reduction in unnecessary, avoidable and problematic plastic, is crucial to addressing the global pollution crisis overall.  

To help reduce plastic waste at the needed scale, it proposes an accelerated transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies, the removal of subsidies and a shift towards more circular approaches towards reduction. 

Titled From Pollution to Solution: a global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution, the report shows that there is a growing threat, across all ecosystems, from source to sea. 

Solutions to hand 

But it also shows that there is the know-how to reverse the mounting crisis, provided the political will is there, and urgent action is taken. 

The document is being released 10 days ahead of the start of the crucial UN Climate Conference, COP26, stressing that plastics are a climate problem as well.  

For example, in 2015, greenhouse gas emissions from plastics were 1.7 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent; by 2050, they’re projected to increase to approximately 6.5 gigatonnes. That number represents 15 per cent of the whole global carbon budget – the​​ amount of greenhouse gas that can be emitted, while still keeping warming within the Paris Agreement goals. 

Recycling not enough 

Addressing solutions to the problem, the authors pour cold water on the chances of recycling our way out of the plastic pollution crisis. 

They also warn against damaging alternatives, such as bio-based or biodegradable plastics, which currently pose a threat similar to conventional plastics. 

The report looks at critical market failures, such as the low price of virgin fossil fuel feedstocks (any renewable biological material that can be used directly as a fuel) compared to recycled materials, disjointed efforts in informal and formal plastic waste management, and the lack of consensus on global solutions. 

Instead, the assessment calls for the immediate reduction in plastic production and consumption, and encourages a transformation across the whole value chain. 

It also asks for investments in far more robust and effective monitoring systems to identify the sources, scale and fate of plastic. Ultimately, a shift to circular approaches and more alternatives are necessary.  

Making the case for change 

For the Executive Director of UNEP, Inger Andersen, this assessment “provides the strongest scientific argument to date for the urgency to act, and for collective action to protect and restore our oceans, from source to sea.” 

She said that a major concern is what happens with breakdown products, such as microplastics and chemical additives, which are known to be toxic and hazardous to human and wildlife health and ecosystems. 

“The speed at which ocean plastic pollution is capturing public attention is encouraging. It is vital that we use this momentum to focus on the opportunities for a clean, healthy and resilient ocean”, Ms. Andersen argued.  

Growing problem 

Currently, plastic accounts for 85 per cent of all marine litter. 

By 2040, it will nearly triple, adding 23-37 million metric tons of waste into the ocean per year. This means about 50kg of plastic per meter of coastline. 

Because of this, all marine life, from plankton and shellfish; to birds, turtles and mammals; faces the grave risk of toxification, behavioral disorder, starvation and suffocation. 

The human body is similarly vulnerable. Plastics are ingested through seafood, drinks and even common salt. They also penetrate the skin and are inhaled when suspended in the air. 

In water sources, this type of pollution can cause hormonal changes, developmental disorders, reproductive abnormalities and even cancer. 

Economy 

According to the report, there are also significant consequences for the global economy. 

Globally, when accounting for impacts on tourism, fisheries and aquaculture, together with the price of projects such as clean-ups, the costs were estimated to be six to 19 billion dollars per year, during 2018. 

By 2040, there could be a $100 billion annual financial risk for businesses if governments require them to cover waste management costs. It can also lead to a rise in illegal domestic and international waste disposal. 

The report will inform discussions at the UN Environment Assembly in 2022, where countries will come together to decide a way forward for more global cooperation. 

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