Connect with us

Environment

The future is circular: What biodiversity really means

Avatar photo

Published

on

Subtle shifts aren’t good enough, says Doreen Robinson, Chief of Wildlife at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). It’s time for a system-wide transformation. On the day of the UN Summit on Biodiversity, Robinson explains where we’ve gone wrong and how we can do better.

Why are we talking about biodiversity now – in the midst of a global disease pandemic, with economies stretched to their limits and a looming climate crisis?

As we speak, more species are threatened with extinction than ever before. Extreme weather events – and consequently, fires, floods and droughts – are happening more frequently and with greater intensity; and zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 now account for the majority of infectious diseases emerging in humans.

These are symptoms of a systemic problem, and this requires a systemic solution. We need to completely recalibrate our relationship to nature – and we need to do so, urgently.   Biodiversity is the foundation for all life on earth.

How does biodiversity affect the actual experiences of people in their everyday lives?

Biodiversity affects just about every aspect of human life, from job security and basic health to saving the planet for future generations.

More than half of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) is dependent on nature. Three-quarters of all food crop types – including fruits and vegetables and some of the most important cash crops, like coffee and almonds – require animal pollination. About half of the global population relies mainly on natural medicines and most of the drugs used to treat cancer are either natural or modelled after nature. So there is a direct and relationship between biodiversity and some very basic aspects of survival. 

There is also an important long-term, preventive aspect – which we are experiencing very acutely today.  Where native biodiversity is high, for example, the infection rate for some zoonotic diseases is lower.  So protecting natural habitats and wildlife is also a way to help protect ourselves.  Biodiversity is the basis for healthy ecosystems as well, and healthy ecosystems capture and store greenhouse gases and mitigate climate change, whereas damaged ecosystems release carbons and add to it.

When we work with nature, it works with us. And when we work against nature, we dismantle the very system that supports and protects us.

What exactly do you mean when you say “recalibrate our relationship to nature”?

Human actions have typically been shaped by a paradigm in which a “good life” means material consumption and perpetual economic growth. For decades, we have extracted natural resources, destroyed critical habitats, and generated pollution.  Our relationship with nature is unbalanced: humans are continuously taking and discarding, and nature is continuously giving.  This one-way relationship is unsustainable.

So we need to reset the balance: not just hoarding benefits, but investing as much back into nature as we extract from it. It’s time to develop a new paradigm that recognizes the value of nature and understands that life quality is not purely a matter of GDP. Instead of a linear approach in which things are used and discarded, we need to apply circular thinking in which life is sustained and things are continuously repurposed.  We need to think about these things in all the choices we make, from how we select and deliver the food we grow and eat to how we build our cities and provide water and electricity for our growing human population.

In the context of global challenges we now face, and with so many jobs and industries dependent on traditional economic models, is this kind of dramatic change possible?

Not only is it possible, but it is also our only hope.

Aside from the unprecedented global challenges we are experiencing, biodiversity loss is making it difficult to ensure even the most basic human rights – nutritious food, clean water and affordable energy. It is undermining progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals. And without a fundamental shift in our approach, we are unlikely to keep global warming within safe limits – a failure that would only magnify the challenges we face in the future.

It might seem counter-intuitive but, actually, now is the time to get serious about – precisely because of the challenges on our doorstep.  In times of uncertainty, biodiversity is a form of insurance, availing options and protecting us from shocks.

It also creates opportunities for new jobs, innovations – and better, healthier lives. And by prioritizing resource-intensive sectors in the shift toward sustainable consumption and production, we have the potential to achieve very significant gains over a relatively short period.

What does this mean in a practical sense: what specific actions need to be taken?

This means translating good intentions into concrete action.

As countries around the world launch various post-crisis initiatives and stimulus packages, we must include nature as part of those recovery packages.  That means natural capital must be included in decision making.  It means investing in green jobs including in areas of ecosystem protection and restoration.  Now is the time to establish new,nature-positive standards for production and consumption. And we need to invest in the environment dimensions of integrated One Health approaches to avoid future pandemics and other human health crises.  We can build back better – but only if we match words with deeds.

At the same time, we cannot afford to lessen our commitments to securing a new, ambitious and accountable Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that all of society can support.   

Channel long-term financing and investment toward nature and climate health.  Currently, governments around the world spend more than US$500 billion every year in ways that harm biodiversity, primarily to support industries like fossil fuels, agriculture and fisheries.  These funds could be repurposed to incentivise regenerative agriculture, sustainable food systems, clean technology and nature-positive innovations.

UN Environment

Continue Reading
Comments

Environment

GHG emissions from pyrolysis are nine times higher than in mechanical recycling

Avatar photo

Published

on

New study published today by Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) finds that greenhouse gas emissions from pyrolysis of plastic packaging are nine times higher than that of mechanical recycling. The “Climate impact of pyrolysis of waste plastic packaging in comparison with reuse and mechanical recycling” study is based on the estimated future recycling content targets in plastic packaging.

BACKGROUND: In the context of the revision of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD), the European Commission (EC) assigned the independent consultancy Eunomia to consider the possible introduction of recycled content targets for plastic packaging by 2030. Based on the estimated future recycling content targets in plastic packaging, Eunomia determined to recycle quantities that must come as outputs from chemical recycling or mechanical recycling. Chemical recycling, in this case, means thermo-chemical (i.e. pyrolysis) recycling.

With this study, commissioned by ZWE and Rethink Plastic alliance to Öko-Institut, we calculated the impact of Eunomia’s proposed scenario regarding greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and carbon loss. The study compares seven scenarios to meet the projected recycled content target by 2030, and puts them into perspective with the Paris Agreement commitments to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

The study found that: 

  • Pyrolysis GHG emissions are nine times higher than those in mechanical recycling – in all scenarios considered over 75% of greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to chemical recycling;
  • Over half of the carbon content of plastic is lost in the pyrolysis process and has to be replaced by new plastic;
  • Mechanical recycling must be prioritised over pyrolysis wherever possible –  shifting 30% of the production attributed to chemical recycling by Eunomia to mechanical recycling would reduce GHG emissions by 31%;
  • Combining shit to more mechanical recycling together with a reduction of 20% of packaging would result in a 45% reduction of GHG emissions compared to the “chemical recycling scenario”.
  • Combining mechanical and chemical recycling to transform plastic waste into recyclate avoids the GHG emissions associated with the use of primary plastic.


ZWE’s Chemical Recycling and Plastic-to-Fuel Policy Officer, Lauriane Veillard says: “The revision of the PPWD should serve as a lever to make the packaging sector more circular and be in line with European climate commitments to limit Global Warming to 1.5 Degrees Celsius. There are other ways than pyrolysis for contact-sensitive materials. The climate impact of the managing pathways should be considered when setting targets. The revision is the opportunity to rethink the overall volume and the use we make of plastic packaging.“

With this in mind, ZWE urges the European Commission (EC) to consider the reports’ findings in the upcoming revision of the PPWD and to:

  • Introduce legal safeguards to prioritise mechanical recycling over pyrolysis;
  • Consider the climate impact of different recycling technologies when settings targets for recycled content;
  • Incentivise measures such as design for recycling and innovations along the plastic packaging value chain to facilitate mechanical recycling.

Lauriane Veillard adds: “If we are serious about achieving net-zero emission economy, mechanical recycling must be preferred over pyrolysis. However, this cannot be achieved unless legal safeguards as part of the P&PWD revision are introduced to prioritise mechanical processes for recycling packaging waste complemented with ambitious prevention and reuse targets”. 

Continue Reading

Environment

UN spotlights transformational potential of family farming for world food supply

Avatar photo

Published

on

María Fernanda Masís and her family are the owners of the hot sauces brand Xoloitzcuintle, named after their farm. Photo: UNEP

A Global Forum highlighting the UN’s Decade of Family Farming (UNDFF) got underway on Monday, aimed at identifying priority policies to boost support for family farmers and agricultural development worldwide.

The UNDFF runs through the end of 2028, and the Forum is being convened by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

FAO Director-General QU Dongyu, pointed out in his video address to the Global Forum’s opening that the world is moving backwards in its efforts to eliminate hunger and malnutrition.

Growing hunger

He said the number of people facing hunger increased in 2021, and it risks rising further especially among the most vulnerable, of which almost 80 percent live in rural areas and are small-scale, family farmers.

Family farmers around the world are also subject to the new challenges to food systems everywhere, created by the climate crisis, as well as conflict. The war in Ukraine has added further pressure, to already fragile agrifood systems, UN agencies said.

Mr. QU said the forum provides a way, firstly, to discuss “the unique role of family farmers in transforming our agrifood systems; two, take stock of achievements and challenges in the implementation of the UN Decade; and three, strengthen collaboration to ensure global food security, enhance livelihoods and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”.

80 percent

Family farmers need to be at the centre of efforts to transform agrifood systems if we are to make real progress towards ending hunger,” Mr. Qu said.

He added that “family farming is the main form of agriculture in both developed and developing countries and is responsible for producing 80 percent of the world’s food,” in terms of value.

Family struggle

He noted that often, these family farmers struggle to feed their own families.

Since its launch three years ago, the UN Decade of Family Farming has been promoting integrated policies and investments to support family farmers, and FAO has been assisting national implementation of international tools and guidelines to strengthen family farming, Mr. Qu told the virtual forum.

He also noted that FAO hosts the Family Farming Knowledge Platform to facilitate the exchange of experience, innovation and specialised knowledge.

In addition, the FAO Strategic Framework 2022-31 includes a priority area of work aimed at better supporting small-scale food producers and delivering concrete results.

Push for the future

The main objectives of the Global Forum are to provide a general overview of policy trends and the relevance of family farming to the global push towards reaching the Sustainable Development Goals; highlight the main outcomes of the first three years of implementation; and re-orient the UNDFF agenda through the practical lessons learned so far.

Participants include representatives from national governments, governmental agencies, UN agencies, family farmers and their organizations, civil society organizations, as well as NGOs; the private sector, the media and academia.

Continue Reading

Environment

Microalgae promise abundant healthy food and feed in any environment

Avatar photo

Published

on

By Sofia Strodt

Feeding a growing world population that will reach 9.8 billion by 2050, according to United Nations forecasts, and the need to conserve natural resources for generations to come may seem conflicting at first.

But a solution, while not yet in sight, is certainly not out of reach. European scientists recently have developed an appetite for microalgae, also called phytoplankton, a sub-group of algae consisting of unicellular photosynthetic microorganisms.

Most people are familiar with the largest form of algae, kelp or seaweed. It can grow up to three metres long and, in some forms, is a well-known delicacy. The related species microalgae, which can be found in both seawater and freshwater, have gained attention in research due to their extraordinary properties.

These microscopic organisms can be used for animal feed, particularly in aquaculture, and various foods including pasta, vegan sausages, energy bars, bakery products and vegetable creams. 

Most commercial microalgae cultivation centres on the production of dried biomass such as chlorella or spirulina powder as a food providing considerable health benefits. Some microalgae strains not only accumulate up to 65–70% of protein but also are sustainable sources of omega-3 fatty acids – a substance that is conventionally derived mainly from fish and fish oil.

Additional bioactive compounds, such as vitamins B12, K or D, mean microalgae contain significant health properties, potentially reducing the risk of cancer and cardiovascular illness.

Desert algae

‘Microalgae can be cultivated in many different locations, under very different conditions,’ said Massimo Castellari, who is involved in the Horizon-funded ProFuture project aimed at scaling up microalgae production. ‘We can grow it in Iceland and in a desert climate.’  

The technologies for the intensive cultivation of microalgae have been in development since the 1950s.

Today, microalgae are cultivated in open- or closed-system photobioreactors, which are vessels designed to control biomass production. The closed-system version, while more expensive to build, offers more control over experimental parameters and less risk of contamination. 

The substance is by no means just a trendy food supplement. For example, in Chad, a landlocked, low-income country, the consumption of spirulina harvested from Lake Chad has significantly improved people’s nutritional status because spirulina is an excellent source of proteins and micronutrients.

On top of its nutritional value, microalgae offer climate benefits by sequestering carbon dioxide as well as economic advantages by using farming areas more efficiently and – through the use of non-arable land – expanding the possibility of biomass production. 

With a total of less than 57 000 tonnes cultivated in 2019, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), production of microalgae is still very much in its early stages. By comparison, primary-crop output was 9.4 billion tonnes in 2019. 

Food inflation

Russia’s continuing war in Ukraine has highlighted just how vulnerable global food supply can be. Halts to Ukrainian grain exports and increases in energy prices have helped push food inflation around the world to record highs, with developing countries being hit disproportionately hard. In May this year, costs for food had risen by 42% compared with 2014-2016, the UN reported.  

Last year, as many as 828 million people were affected by hunger – an increase of roughly 46 million compared with 2020 and a surge of 150 million since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The FAO projects that some 670 million people will still face hunger by the end of the decade.   

While the benefits of cultivating organic microalgae for food and feed are substantial, market growth will require overcoming obstacles including a lack of automated production in the industry, according to Castellari, who works at the Institute of Agrifood Research and Technology in Barcelona, Spain.

‘The automatisation is still not completely implemented,’ he said. ‘There are small producers in Europe – many steps still involve manual labour. So they are still working on optimising the process.’ 

Processed biomass

The challenges go well beyond cultivation. With microalgae, biomass has to be processed, cleaned and dried before a usable powder can be obtained. The next step is to scale up production to drive down costs. 

In addition, there are regulatory challenges. Only a few species of microalgae are currently authorised in the European Union.

‘In Europe it’s still in a preliminary stage of development,’ said Castellari. ‘There are thousands of species of microalgae, but for food consumption or feed there are only seven species authorised.’ 

To gain knowledge about the possibilities to use other species, Castellari and his team are also investigating these other kinds of microalgae.

Due to these challenges, the portfolio of products containing microalgae remains limited today. But, if these hurdles can be overcome, the overall prospects for the microalgae industry are promising. Besides being a source of food and feed, the plant can be used for biofuels, cosmetics, fertiliser and health supplements.

Astaxanthin, a blood-red pigment extracted from algae, already has notable uses. A powerful antioxidant, astaxanthin can be found in seafood and is commonly used to colour shrimp. It is also sold in the form of pills as a food supplement.

Astaxanthin is thought to have potentially a positive impact on brain function, athletic performance and ageing skin, among other things.

Matteo Ballottari, associate professor of biotechnology at the University of Verona in Italy, helped start the European Research Council’s Horizon-funded project AstaOmega simultaneously to produce astaxanthin and omega-3 fatty acids in microalgae for aquaculture and human nutrition. 

Quality and quantity 

Most omega-3 supplements are derived from fish oils. This, however, raises sustainability concerns such as damage to marine ecosystems as a result of overfishing.  

‘There is more demand for eating high-quality foods, along with an awareness for incorporating omega-3 rich ingredients in our diets,’ Ballottari said. Responding to this trend while feeding a growing world population is ‘a big challenge,’ he said.

Meanwhile, on the astaxanthin front, the AstaOmega researchers have made progress. They have been able to obtain a new strain that can produce astaxanthin on its own, without needing to be “stressed”. This means the researchers don’t have to change production parameters such as light intensity, temperature or nitrates concentration. Also, extracting the substance has become easier, resulting in lower costs.  

Scientists agree that microalgae have the potential to change the ways in which we eat for the better.  

‘Microalgae can help us to increase the protein production within Europe to reduce our dependence on other countries,’ said Castellari of the ProFuture project.  

Research in this article was funded by the EU and it was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine. 

Continue Reading

Publications

Latest

Trending