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Climate change: Proof in numbers

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Photo by UNEP

UNEP’s novel ‘World Environment Situation Room’ provides real-time data on PM2.5 levels across the planet, informing scientists, policy-makers and citizens alike.

Last month, as wildfires continued to rage across the American West, Pascal Peduzzi, a climate scientist with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Geneva, followed the situation with air quality in Mammoth Lakes, a town high in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.

On Wednesday 23 September on the town’s Ranch Road the PM2.5 measurement – the tally of airborne particulate matter with a diameter less than 2.5 micrometres – reached 501mg per cubic metre (µg/m3) of air. That is over 50 times the threshold that the World Health Organisation (WHO) considers safe for the average PM2.5 reading over one year. It is more than 20 times the level considered safe for a 24-hour period.

“I’ve never seen it that high,” Peduzzi stated.

The scientist was not in California, nor in the US. He was in Switzerland, over 9,000km away. Nonetheless, he, and anyone with an internet connection, can now follow in detail PM2.5 levels in the West Coast fire zone, and across the planet, via UNEP’s World Environment Situation Room (WESR). This online portal offers a near-real-time monitor of global air quality.

“The intention of this platform was to connect to people,” said Sean Khan, an expert on air pollution with UNEP in Nairobi. “It was designed to inspire and stimulate action, whether that’s communities trying to convince policymakers to do things or vice versa.”

In August, following record-breaking high temperatures, lightning strikes from severe thunderstorms ignited fires in California, Oregon and Washington. By the end of September, these blazes had consumed over 2 million hectares of land across the three states. They had destroyed over 7,000 structures and left at least 40 people dead.

“We now currently have five active fires that are five of the most destructive fires in the history of the state,” Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, said on 11 September, standing in smoky air among scorched trees.

The fires threw fine particulate matter into the atmosphere. Alongside producing the extraordinary orange skies seen in television reports, studies have linked elevated PM2.5 levels with a range of health problems. These include asthma, respiratory inflammation, jeopardised lung function and even cancer.

One study conducted for seven years (from 2000 to 2007) in the US indicated that average life span extends by 0.35 years for every 10 µg/m3 decrease in PM2.5. Another, which tracked 1.2 million American adults for 26 years from 1982 to 2008, found that the mortality of lung cancer increased by 15–27% when PM2.5 air concentrations increased by 10 µg/m3

“If you are someone with pulmonary complications, then you are vulnerable, you’ll be at risk,” Khan said. The WESR Air Portal includes a mobile app which offers weekly and daily hyperlocal forecasts in addition to user customised alerts for PM2.5.

In the last 20 years, California experienced more years of drought – as classified on the US Drought Monitor’s (USDM) five-point scale – than it did without drought. The USDM gradings range from D0 – an area experiencing short-term dryness – up to D4, an area experiencing “exceptional and widespread crop and pasture losses, fire risk, and water shortages that result in water emergencies.”

There were droughts between 2001 and 2005, 2007 and 2010, and from 2012 to 2017. These became more intense over time. The most severe period, between January 2014 and January 2017, led to a severe water deficit in both the soil and underground aquifers.

“It’s definitely a shift in climate, it’s no longer a 10%, extreme event,” Pascal Peduzzi said. The changing climate also creates loop effects; warmer temperatures generate more evaporation, drying out soils and vegetation, in turn leaving them more susceptible to fire. The fires themselves, meanwhile, add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, alongside particulates, further contributing to climate change.  

“If you have dry soils, and basically no precipitation, put a bit more wind on that and someone lighting a barbecue, and that’s it,” Peduzzi added. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”  

The WESR platform is a collaboration between the UN and Swiss firm IQAir, which operates its own air quality monitoring platform.

At maximum zoom-out, it shows a map of the planet, with arrows depicting wind patterns and air quality in particular areas represented by a shading system; green is good, yellow moderate, orange is unhealthy for sensitive groups.

Red represents unhealthy conditions, while two shades of purple show very unhealthy and hazardous levels. Last Friday, 5,185,211,024 people, or 66.4% of the world’s population, were exposed to polluted air worse than WHO recommended limits. That figure updates every four hours.

Zoom in and you come to circles containing numbers, at first average PM2.5 readings across a region and then down to individual sensors like that on Ranch Road in Mammoth Lakes. Flame icons show burning fires. By Friday the PM2.5 tally on Ranch Road had fallen to 32.8 µg/m3

However, a mobile monitoring station in Pollock Pines, further north in the Sierra Nevada, was registering 706.4 µg/m3. The US wildfire season is not over yet.

UN Environment

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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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South Africa Invests in Biodiversity to Promote Rural Development and Conservation

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South Africa is stepping up investment for its wildlife and biodiversity sectors thanks to a grant of $8.9 million from the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The Catalyzing Financing and Capacity for the Biodiversity Economy Around Protected Areas Project aims to enhance South Africa’s stewardship of its rich biodiversity and expand the benefits of protected areas for local communities. It will also help address high unemployment and limited livelihoods options in and around protected areas as well as inequality in rural economies.

The project supports South Africa’s efforts to foster the unrealized potential of its wildlife and biodiversity sectors as drivers for economic growth, including through expanding conservation areas and mitigating threats to protected areas and conservation objectives.

It puts into action South Africa’s biodiversity economy node concept, which identifies certain areas within the country as containing both high-value biodiversity and opportunities for economic development. The project will target activities in three biodiversity economy nodes: (i) the Greater Addo to Amathole node in the Eastern Cape Province, (ii) the Greater Kruger-Limpopo node in Limpopo Province, and (iii) the Greater-iSimangaliso node in KwaZulu-Natal Province.

“The biodiversity economy is central to South Africa’s tourism industry and building the resilience of communities to climate change. Empowering communities to invest in the biodiversity economy will create jobs, promote biodiversity stewardship and stimulate rural development in a climate-smart way,” said Marie Françoise Marie Nelly, World Bank Country Director for South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, and Namibia.

Project activities include providing training, mentorship, and capital to micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs); expanding the area of land under protected status through South Africa’s land stewardship  program; and facilitating knowledge exchange to support expansion of the biodiversity economy across the country based on lessons learned from the three nodes.

The project is aligned with South Africa’s National Development Plan 2030 and its National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan 2015-2025, both of which identify the wildlife economy as an important sector for job creation and economic growth. It also supports South Africa’s climate change objectives and Nationally Determined Contribution to the Paris Climate Agreement. The project’s focus on inclusive job creation and economic growth through the development of MSMEs, integrated value chains, and entrepreneurship is also fully aligned with a draft World Bank Group Country Partnership Framework for South Africa.

About the Global Environment Facility

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) was established 30 years ago on the eve of the Rio Earth Summit to tackle our planet’s most pressing environmental problems. Since then, it has provided more than $21.5 billion in grants and mobilized an additional $117 billion in co-financing for more than 5,000 projects and programs. The GEF is the largest multilateral trust fund focused on enabling developing countries to invest in nature and supports the implementation of major international environmental conventions including on biodiversity, climate change, chemicals, and desertification. It brings together 184 member governments in addition to civil society, international organization, and private sector partners. Through its Small Grants Programme, the GEF has provided support to more than 25,000 civil society and community initiatives in 135 countries.

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