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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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Green transformation will rival industrial revolution

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IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva and US Climate Envoy John Kerry discuss climate action on the CNN news channel. Image: IMF

The transition to a global economic model which will slow down climate change and create jobs will be the “biggest economic transformation since the industrial revolution” according to John Kerry, the US climate envoy.

Mr. Kerry expressed the view in a discussion with Kristalina Georgieva, the head of the International Monetary Fund as part of the 2021 Spring meetings of the IMF and World Bank.

They agreed that a “green and resilient recovery” from the COVID-19 pandemic is possible but economic growth globally is likely to be slow and uneven.

‘No bank will fund a new coal plant’

John Kerry: There are many ways that we can address the climate challenge in America. President Biden has put a $2 trillion plan on the table, which will result in 500,000 charging stations for electric vehicles being built in the country, thousands of electric buses, including school buses, and a target of 100 per cent carbon-free power, by 2035.

All these measures will generate actions in the private sector. The decisions of some of the largest financial institutions in the world are being driven by environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors, and trillions of dollars is going to be invested in this new sector to avoid sheer catastrophe. We’re way behind, but we believe that this is going to be the biggest economic transformation since the industrial revolution.

In Europe, no bank or financial institution or even private source will fund a coal-fired power plant, but we have to move away from coal faster. Many old coal-fired plants are operating at less than 50 per cent efficiency. They are losing money and are not even sending energy to the main grid. They could be phased out over a period of time. Gas will, to some degree, be a bridge fuel [to renewables].

The United States could help mobilize finance to reduce risk, and then bring more money to the table for a commercial investment in alternative fuel sources.

Kristalina Georgieva: At the IMF we have identified three pillars in the transition to a low-carbon economy. First of all, put a price on all carbon emissions. Today only 23 per cent of emissions are being priced. The average price is $2 per ton. By 2030, we need to be at $75 a ton.

Second, funding is needed for public investment in green infrastructure. The IMF can support countries in this regard. Five per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) invested now, would generate an additional 0.7 per cent growth every year. This means that the investment would pay for itself within 15 years and create at least 12 million net jobs.

The third, hugely important pillar, is to lessen the impact on those who are currently employed in the high carbon economy. For example, there must be a just transition for miners, so that they can have benefit from new job opportunities. If we raise revenues from carbon pricing, some of that money must be used to provide a buffer, to soften the pressure on those businesses that need to move away from carbon dependency. This is doable, and it must be done.

China and the US

John Kerry : Right now, China is saying that they are going to reach peak emissions by 2030, and that they may be able to reach that target earlier, maybe by 2025. The problem is that the current models shows China peaking but then basically staying at a plateau, rather than sufficiently lowering emissions.

Some 30 per cent of all the emissions on the planet are produced by China, so if we don’t see a reduction between 2020 and 2030, we lose the capacity to keep the global temperature to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, and we lose the capacity to hit net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Every nation must work together on this. If the United States went to zero emissions tomorrow, it wouldn’t make the kind of difference we need because we all have to reduce at the same time. That’s the struggle we’re facing.

China obviously has a need to continue to grow and to develop. We want that, and we’re not begrudging that. We want to work with China and other countries to make sure that they don’t make the mistakes that we made, and that we work together to develop new technologies such as hydrogen fuel, and biofuels for aircraft.

Doing nothing is too expensive

John Kerry: The United States is the number two emitter in the world. We need to do a better job at reducing emissions on an accelerated basis. President Biden is stepping up to do that.  He’s hosting a virtual climate summit in April, he has rejoined the Paris climate agreement, and he has put together a $2 trillion piece of infrastructure legislation.

Climate action means jobs, whether in the creation of new energy sources, or transitioning out of the existing ones, building new cars or retrofitting homes. Those are jobs for workers in all countries. We should embrace this.

The economists have warned us again and again: doing nothing is more expensive to our citizens, our taxpayers, than responding to the climate crisis. We spent $365 billion cleaning up after three storms a couple of years ago, but we haven’t invested the $100 billion in the Green Climate Fund that would have provided resilience and adaptation to climate change, and prevented some of that damage from being done. We’re just not making the right choices.

Kristalina Georgieva:  We’ve already started offering a helping hand, especially to countries devastated by natural disasters.  We have put measures in place to help countries to be in a better position when disaster hits. For example, we are discussing with our membership a provision that will make $650 billion available for countries to not only take the necessary measures to deal with the pandemic and its impact, but also to take on the investments necessary for transformation of their economy.

The urgency to act is evident, and vivid: over the last six months, 10 million people were displaced by floods and other forms of natural disasters. Fast-forward to a world in which there are more climate-related disasters, and more migration.
We have a chance to take advantage of a transformation for growth and for jobs. But we are also under tremendous pressure to prevent a future that would be bleak for those we love the most: our children and grandchildren.

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Environmental rights, here and now: working for change in 2021

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COVID-19 hasn’t only raised concern for health. It has also stimulated thought and debate around issues of human rights – including those related to the environment. After all, the emergence of the zoonotic disease has demonstrated that the health of people and planet are one and the same.

All people have the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment – pollution-free air and water, land and soil, seas and oceans – and a life free from chemicals.

Pollution claims millions of lives every year. But unlike COVID-19, which has drawn rapid and dramatic attention, pollution is widely dismissed as unavoidable; as a consequence of development and daily life, beyond anyone’s control.

“Environmental rights empower individuals, people, and peoples, and help humanity in addressing the triple planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution,” said Arnold Kreilhuber, Acting Director of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) Law Division. “Global recognition of the right to a healthy environment is a unique opportunity to address these pertinent environmental challenges, and to elevate the position of rights-holders in order to ensure that the exercise of these vital rights is available to all.”

This could mean using the law to hold governments and decision-makers to account, or using our purchasing power to influence production trends and business owners. The air we breathe, the water we drink and the world in which we live can mean the difference between life and death. Now is the time to claim the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

Says Ben Schachter, Environment and Climate Change Focal Point at the UN Human Rights Office, “States have an obligation to respect, protect and fulfill human rights for all including the rights to participation, access to information and access to justice in environmental matters. These and other human rights empower all people to play an active role in efforts to preserve the environment for present and future generations. We can change the world by exercising our rights and working together to promote informed decision-making about the environment.”  

It has become clear in this time of global pandemic that quality information matters and can inform decisions with the power to change the world swiftly and dramatically. And on the other hand, misinformation can do great harm.

Transformational change begins with education – building a knowledge base and sharing accurate, science-based information. On 15 April (3pmUTC/4pmCEST), the UNEP Law Division, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Wikimedia Foundation will host an online event, exploring the human right to a healthy environment.

The event will launch the 2021 #WikiForHumanRights campaign – a call for volunteers to improve the content on Wikipedia, relating to human rights, environmental health, and the range of communities impacted by the convergent environmental crises of climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss. The campaign will see communities all over the world populate, strengthen, and translate articles on Wikipedia relating to the right to a healthy environment.

The 90-minute launch event will consider the connection between environmental issues and human rights, how communities are affected by environmental harm and ways for individual and collaborative efforts to create positive change, with live translation available in English, French, Arabic, Spanish and Chinese.

UNEP

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Muscovites Apply for 700 Trees to be Planted in Honor of Their Newborn Children

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moscow plant trees

The Our Tree project launched two years ago by Moscow’s Department of Information Technology and Department of Nature Management and Environmental Protection has quickly become very popular among Muscovites. Thanks to this annual campaign, city residents can now celebrate the happiest event in their family life – the birth of a child – by giving their baby a unique gift – their own personal tree.

Any parent who is permanently resident in Moscow can apply for a tree within three years of the birth of their child. To do so, they need only have an account on the mos.ru website. On average, 700 Muscovites apply for a tree to be planted in honor of their newborn child each month.

In two months, young parents have submitted more than 1,500 online applications to participate in the Our Tree project and plant seedlings in honor of their newborn kids in the autumn. That’s twice as many as during the same period in spring. Acceptance of applications began on January 16 and will continue until June 15.

Last autumn, more than 5,000 trees were planted as part of the project, with linden, Norway maple, pine, white willow and rowan trees being the most popular choices. Spring planting of personal saplings will soon begin.

Eduard Lysenko, Minister of the Moscow Government and Head of the Department of Information Technology, noted that interest in the Our Tree project among young parents is growing every year: in 2019, more than 2,300 trees were applied for and planted, while in 2020 the number increased to 5,000. More than 4,500 saplings will appear in Moscow’s parks this spring thanks to the project participants.

“A set of online services has been created for families with children on the mos.ru portal. The Our Tree project is another opportunity for young parents to celebrate the important milestone of the birth of their child and to contribute to the city’s ecology. Taking part in the project is very simple – just submit an online application on the portal. Some information is filled in automatically from users’ personal accounts, which makes everything even more convenient. On average, Muscovites order more than 700 seedlings to plant as family trees in their favorite park each month,” said Lysenko.

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