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The lone woman in the ice

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Photo credit: Varda Sharma

As Dr. Madhubala Chinchalkar walked in for the interview, the panel asked,” You will be the only woman in the team, is that alright for you?”. She replied, “That’s not even a problem.”

Antarctica, the fifth largest continent in the world with a huge wall of ice shelf surrounding it can be described in all superlatives, the country with coldest, highest, windiest, driest weather. Breaking the mould, Dr. Madhubala brings us a real story in the documentary film named, “And the Skua Returned  Early” where she narrates her journey of surviving all odds and completing her expedition in Antarctica as the medical professional.

Isolation, confinement, very dry air, no access to supplies, danger, extreme weather conditions, the monotony of everyday life. Except for lack of gravity, living in Antarctica is the closest thing to a long journey to Mars, for example. This time of year — our summer, their winter — there is sunlight for only three hours a day, and it’s like being on the moon, and just as isolated

While there is no native population on Antarctica, there are 40 permanent research stations, with an average of 1,000 people living there year-round (around 25 people per station), braving harsh winds and an inhuman cold 

As Antarctica is so difficult to get to, once you arrive, you can’t leave — until the next ship/airdrop comes six to eight months later. You are completely isolated from February to October, when the cold and the dark make flights too dangerous to attempt.

Dr. Madhubala describes her eight-month long expedition to Antarctica as a spiritual experience of which she became a part. On clear winter nights, seeing Southern lights better known as Aurora Australis from  behind an ice shelf often rolling waves of green, blue, red like giant reels of fairy dust and painting over the head while spreading to fill the sky is a spectacular scene which will stay forever captured in her mind camera. Silvery moon light on glistening white snow reflecting all around is a sight to behold. The naturally occurring ice caves are the mysteries that mother nature unfolds where the wall is decorated with delicate ice crystals. The ice is so vast, it stretched all the way to the horizon and continued to extend for hours as they walked to explore it. 

In summer nature’s magic touch creates a miracle as plant and animal life blossoms. The team habits in the Indian research station-Maitreyi which stays busy in summer. The work stretches from geological survey, ozone study, geomagnetism, ice core drilling, recording new climatic history to observing plant and animal life.

It’s a mix of emotions as the sun sets welcoming winter. It’s exciting for the winter to start. There’s also a little bit of trepidation too because it’s unknown: How are you going to react without the sun 24/7 for six months? What’s it going to be like working in extreme cold conditions that you really haven’t seen up to that point yet? There’s just a lot of unknowns, so it’s both exciting and a little bit frightening.

Planes with supplies stop flying to Antarctica during the winter, as it’s physically too cold for them to fly when the temperatures plummet to minus 40 F. Fuel freezes to slush, skis can stick to the ice and the hydraulics begin to falter in the harsh conditions. What the team has on hand starting in February is what they’ll have to rely on to last them through the dark, brutal winter.

She remembers as she pens down an instance where Dr. Madhubala was advised by a fellow team member that she should stay indoors and do the domestic work like cooking rather than going outside and taking generator readings. She smiled as she braved the harsh temperature, took more accurate readings than her peers, proving that there is no such thing that women cannot do. She is an example of how you can break a glass ceiling even without making a noise! Her advice for people is always to explore their options and seize opportunities when they present themselves. Keep your eyes open, being open to taking some risk is great too and will take you places you didn’t know exist

The climate is so cold, windy and harsh there, one immediately feels like an intruder. Antarctica is not made for humans, and rightfully so as there should be one place on this planet that we cannot put our sticky, oily handprints all over. But we are doing just that, even from our comfortable homes in temperate climes, and the ice in Antarctica is waking up and shifting in response. The central message that Dr. Madhubala tries to convey is, how much impact global warming is having on Antarctica. You might not feel the effect around you right now, but it isn’t inevitable.

Global sea levels will also rise, because the Earth’s finite reserves of freshwater that were once stored as ice on the land, end up melting into the ocean instead. 

The term “climate change” is a bit misleading, because what’s happening is about so much more than rising temperatures — it’s about how all the different parts of the Earth’s system are being affected by the climate. We need to protect the last naturally occurring delicately balanced ecosystem of Antarctica isn’t our responsibility but a ticket to live on the planet a little longer

We’re all dancing among the icebergs now, and we have a choice: we can try to hold onto the futile dream of returning to the way things once were, or we can talk, think and prepare for how we’ll live on this new Earth

Vidhi Bubna is a freelance journalist from Mumbai who covers international relations, defence, diplomacy and social issues. Her current focus is on India-China relations.

Green Planet

The solution to marine plastic pollution is plural, and plastic offsetting is one of them

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Due to growing concerns around environmental protection, businesses, individuals and governments have been looking for solutions that can be largely implemented to close the tap on plastic pollution.

In the last five years, businesses have strengthened their Sustainability Approach to acknowledge the need to take responsibility for their plastic production and consumption.

If targets have been defined and strong policies followed them to ensure high recycling rates of plastic products, a problem remains. What is the solution for low-value non-recyclable plastics?

This is where plastic offsetting enters the scene. As a derivative of the Carbon Offsetting concept, where trees are planted or protected to capture CO2 emissions, Plastic offsetting also known as Plastic Neutralization, enables companies to take responsibility for their plastic footprint.

Put simply, neutralizing means funding the collection and treatment of plastic, equivalent to the plastic impact of the business. Therefore, giving it the opportunity to compensate for every ton of plastic it has produced by ensuring there is one ton less in the environment.

From linear to Circular Economy Itis also a breakthrough in our traditional model of production, the linear economy. By extending the producer responsibility (EPR), this concept allow to build the bridge that lead to the ideal model, the circular economy, where no waste remains.

This innovative solution brings with it diverse positive impact. To the environment, by protecting ecosystems from plastic pollution, reducing landfilling and CO2 emissions. A strong social impact, by local communities by empowering local communities with work and better incomes. But also businesses, by becoming more sustainable with the reduction of the plastic footprint and a strengthen corporate social responsibility.

TONTOTON, a Vietnamese company, based in Ho Chi Minh City has succeed to connect all stakeholders to create a new market for low-value non-recyclable post-consumer plastic, on the scheme of circular economy.

TONTOTON Plastic Neutralization Program

Following the idea that the informal sector achieve to collect and recycle large amount of plastic in poor waste management areas, Barak Ekshtein, director of TONTOTON decided to look closer to the problem. In fact, a study shows that ‘97% of plastic bottles were collected by informal waste pickers.

The problem therefore does not lie in the logistics but in the price. By giving a market price to non-recyclable plastic, it allows waste collectors to collect and treat waste and thus avoid plastic pollution.

TONTOTON currently works in Southern Vietnamese Islands, Hon Son and Phu Quoc, and has already few tons of low-value plastic waste. To do so, it collaborates with local waste-pickers and thus provide them better incomes. The program focuses on preventing ocean plastic by following the Ocean Bound Plastic Certification. Their activities are audited by a 3rd party control body, the internationally recognized company, Control Union.

To treat the waste, TONTOTON partners with a certified cement plant, through co-processing, to valorize waste as an alternative energy and raw material. “Our system can solve two issues. Plastic is made of fossil fuels and contains more energy than coal. Thus we can replace industrial coal consumption with non-recyclable plastic waste. The plastic will not end up in landfill or oceans, therefore reduce levels of coal consumption and thus also CO2 emissions.”, says Barak Ekshtein.

Businesses engaged in their program can claim plastic neutrality on the amount of plastic neutralized to share their sustainability efforts. Moreover, indicate it on their neutralized product by bearing the “Plastic Neutral Product” label.

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Green Planet

Climate Change in Vanuatu: Problems Ensue

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Authors: Harsh Mahaseth and Shubham Sharma*

Vanuatu announced its intention to seek legal action against corporations and governments who have benefited from products which had caused climate change. Minister Regebvanu, in the 2018 Climate Vulnerable Summit sought to explore legal actions against companies, financial institutions and governments liable for the damages caused to Vanuatu due to climate change, either by direct to indirect actions of the said parties. Vanuatu, like other small island nations, is seeking damage claims against carbon emitters who have contributed to climate change and benefited from it. Vanuatu seeks to claim reparations for damage caused by events related to climate change such as the 2015 cyclone which wiped out an estimated 64 per cent of Vanuatu’s GDP.

A case of action against global polluters isn’t novel. Climate Change litigation has its precedence, with over 1300 cases having been filed across 28 countries, where various public and private entities have petitioned the Courts for environmental action or relief. The source of the litigation comes for various multilateral treaties, such as the Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment, Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and others treaties combating pollution.

For Vanuatu, one of the major obstacle, other than the likely opposition from powerful States, includes finding a suitable forum; identifying relevant substantive obligations and various challenges relating to attribution, causation and evidence before they are able to make successful climate litigation before an international body such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ), scholars have argued that a path for successful litigation exists through Article 36, paragraph 2 of the ICJ Statute, where by accepting compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJa case for prevention obligations under the lex special is of the UNFCCC, human rights law or customary international law.

Strategic Public Climate Litigation, an injunctive relief solution where the aim is to influence public policy or policy decisions primarily through the attainment of injunctive relief by asserting governmental failure to account for GHG emissions associated with public projects and cases of judicial review of public regulatory action (or inaction) on climate change, has already achieved some degree of success. An example would be the Australian Conservation Foundation et al. v. Minister for Planning where there were concerns with regards to GHG emissions of a new coal mine which lead a tribunal to determine the lasting significant environmental effects of the coal mine in the future would be against the objective of the act which is to “maintenance of ecological processes” and the “future interest of all Victorians.” Another example is that of the State of the Netherlands v. Urgenda Foundation, where an injunction was sought to compel the Dutch government to reduce GHG emissions, the supreme court of appeals, upheld this view and ordered the Dutch government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent by the end of 2020, compared with 1990 level.

The second option for Vanuatu is to cast a wide net of a variety of legal theories, such as domestic tort law against carbon majors similar to the petition brought before the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines, which investigate the responsibility of 47 investor-owned carbon majors for human rights violations due to climate change. For this approach, the initial challenge Vanuatu faces is the lack of a national human rights institution who can bring rights violations caused by climate change. However, the lack of a human rights institution can be mitigated by Vanuatu’s independent judicial system, as it is competent to address claims for damage caused by climate change by the polluters. The major hurdle Vanuatu faces is establishing the causation between the defendants’ conduct and its result, which is to say whether the action of the defendant lead to or contributed to the disaster, and secondly, the ability to certain specific damage sorted by Vanuatu on the other, especially in cases of non-economic loss and damage.

The recent surge in climate change litigation bodes well for Vanuatu, as the establishing precedence only strengthens their claim for damages. However, Vanuatu still faces major obstacles. Firstly, a lack of an international body to address the issue. Even if a case is brought before the ICJ, it can only be against a Member State. Thus, action against private entities cannot be brought before the ICJ. Secondly, identifying the rights violated and then assessing and assigning the damage liability to individuals, entities and governments. Thirdly, if Vanuatu pursues action in domestic courts, there are issues relating to the appearance of the party to the summons and the ability of Vanuatu to enforce the judgment. As the primary means of compliance for offenders in the international area are sanctions, Vanuatu without support from larger nations wouldn’t be able to handout sanctions to force compliance. There are many problems that Vanuatu faces but they cannot sit still now, and it is time to act and make the polluters liable.

* Shubham Sharma is a graduate from NALSAR University of Law. He has worked on several research projects relating to human rights, juvenile justice, and climate change.

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Green Planet

Five years on, the Paris Climate Accord needs political will more than ever

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December 12, 2020 marked five years since the signing of the historic Paris Climate Agreement, or the Paris Accord. A total of 196 countries agreed on a coordinated plan of action to tackle global heating at the 21st annual meeting of Conference of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held in Paris in 2015. It entered into force on 4 November 2016.

What is to be achieved by this Accord?

The Paris Accord is a ‘legally binding’ international treaty and a watershed moment in multilateral diplomacy, considering that a truly global response to the looming climate crisis was agreed upon for the first time bringing almost all nations together specifically for this cause.

The Paris Accord sets an ambitious long-term goal to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, preferably to 1.5, compared to pre-industrial levels, taking into account the rising levels of global heating that threatens lives and livelihoods by causing extreme weather events such as melting of icebergs, submerging of low-lying areas, frequent floods, bushfires, and cyclones in various parts of the globe.

Support for the needy countries

Although the climate issue is global in scale, some countries are more vulnerable than the other where the people fear loss of lives and livelihoods and in some cases even creating a new category of ‘climate refugees’, mostly developing and under-developed countries.

As per the UN Refugee Agency, year 2017 recorded about 18.8 million new disaster-related internal displacements, and among them many are climate-induced. All countries aren’t capable enough to deal with this looming threat. Therefore, the developed countries, particularly in the West, were stipulated by a framework to provide financial and technological assistance to countries that are mostly in need of it.

What all have changed in the past five years?

A lot of events have occurred in these five years since the signing of the agreement in 2015. In the fight against climate crisis, the actions of individual countries do matter as important as multilateralism alone and domestic politico-economic factors of these countries play a significant role in their national responses.

The world needs leaders who believe in climate science and cooperate with each other to build a collective response, particularly with regard to powerful and industrialized countries or power blocs such as the United States and the European Union.

The Trump challenge and the hope of a Biden presidency

The conduct of the US leadership under the outgoing US President Donald Trump was disappointing, given the tremendous influence and power it yields in the global stage.

Trump’s unilateral acts such as pulling the United States out of the Accord, just 18 months after signing it, was so unbecoming of a country of that stature.

Trump stated that it puts a huge financial burden on developed countries such as the US, the world’s second largest carbon emitter, and is favourable to the interests of other countries.

But, hope is still on as the US awaits a leadership transition next year, as President-elect Joe Biden promised to rejoin the Accord as soon as he assumes office.

Many countries reassured their commitments to the climate cause by setting deadlines for net carbon neutrality, meaning to strike a balance between emitting carbon and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.

How other countries responded

The UK became the first country in the world to declare a ‘climate emergency’ in 2019, followed by Ireland, Canada and France the same year. Many countries and subnational entities have followed the move in the later months and in this year, with New Zealand being the latest in the league. More countries are expected to follow soon enough.

Being the largest carbon emitter on the planet owing to its enormously large levels of domestic manufacturing activity, China is by far the largest emitter of greenhouse gases causing global heating and has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.

Japan, South Korea, and the European Union have also set deadlines for net zero emissions or carbon neutrality.

Meanwhile, theper capita emissions of another key nation, India, were 60% lower than the global average. But, emissions grew slightly in 2019, but still much lower than it’s per annum average over the last decade.

At the recently concluded Climate Ambition Summit this month, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on world leaders to declare a state of ‘climate emergency’ in their respective nations.

Role of people and non-state actors

Apart from national governments and international organisations, more and more people and non-state actors are becoming aware of the climate crisis as each day passes, particularly with the rising popularity of movements such as ‘Global Climate Strike’ and ‘Fridays For Future’ led by activists such as Greta Thunberg who keeps on pushing for global action on the climate crisis. They are evolving a powerful force to persuade timely policy action.

The way ahead

The Paris Accord envisages a step-by-step ‘climate action’ based on a five-year cycle wherein greenhouse gas emissions are significantly reduced, thereby achieving a climate neutral world by 2050.

Accordingly, as the first step, countries that are parties to the Accord were directed to submit their national plans for climate action known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs) by this year.

The pandemic has caused disruptions, but most of the countries still remain wholeheartedly committed to what they’ve agreed five years back. But, the developed countries should not shy away from supporting low-income countries to achieve their respective NDCs.

The Accord’s journey so far, therefore, throws light on the need to have a resolute and well-informed political will, both at domestic and multilateral levels, to realise the goals set for a co-ordinated climate action, rooted in science and mutual cooperation.

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