Nine out of 10 people globally breathe polluted air, causing about 7 million premature deaths every year. On 7 September 2020, the United Nations observed the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies. This article is part of UNEP’s continuing coverage of air pollution and its impact globally.
Over 40 per cent of the U.S. population – about 134 million people – face health risks resulting from air pollution, -according to the American Lung Association. The burden is far from evenly shared. Studies show that in the United States, people of color and low-income communities face a significantly higher risk of environmental health effects, highlighting that the impacts of air pollution are experienced unequally throughout the country.
People of color are more likely to live in areas affected by pollution and high road traffic density, increasing risks to their health. As prominent American environmental justice activist and leader Robert D. Bullard emphasizes, race and place matter.
For example, along the Mississippi River in the southern United States, there is an area with some of the worst air pollution in the country. In the stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge Louisiana, many people live right next to several high-polluting industrial plants. Residents, who are predominately Black, have seen significant cancer clusters, with cancer risks in the area reaching up to 50% more than the national average. In St. John the Baptist parish alone, an area of about 2 square miles, the cancer rate is about 800 times higher than the American average.
Similarly, New York City neighborhood Mott Haven, home to mainly LatinX and Black families, has a very high level of air pollution from traffic, warehouses, and industry. Residents in Mott Haven face some of the highest rates of asthma cases and asthma-related hospitalizations in the country, especially among children.
Often, communities experiencing high levels of air pollution are among the most vulnerable, facing poor access to health services, limited economic opportunity, more polluted work environments and racial injustices. Comprehensive policies are needed to address these interrelated challenges.
“There is a strong correlation between socioeconomic factors and risk of air pollution,” said Dr. Barbara Hendrie, Regional Director for UN Environment Programme North America. “Recognizing this, and the disproportionate impacts of air pollution throughout the United States is a critical part of developing effective solutions.”
On the first-ever International Day of Clean Air for blue skies in September, the UN Environment Programme called upon governments, corporations, to civil society and individuals, to take action to reduce air pollution and bring about transformative change.
Air pollution does not have to be a part of our collective future. We have the solutions and must take the necessary actions to address this environmental menace and provide #CleanAirForAll.
Giraffes, parrots, and oak trees, among many species facing extinction
Around one million species are facing extinction, according to a report from IPBES, an independent intergovernmental science and policy body supported by the UN.
It may be surprising to learn that even giraffes, parrots, and oak trees are included in the list of threatened species, as well as cacti and seaweed.
It may be surprising to learn that giraffes, parrots, and even oak trees are included in the list of threatened species, as well as cacti and seaweed.
Seaweed is one of the planet’s great survivors, and relatives of some modern-day seaweed can be traced back some 1.6 billion years. Seaweed plays a vital role in marine ecosystems, providing habitats and food for marine lifeforms, while large varieties – such as kelp – act as underwater nurseries for fish. However, mechanical dredging, rising sea temperatures and the building of coastal infrastructure are contributing to the decline of the species.
The world’s trees are threatened by various sources, including logging, deforestation for industry and agriculture, firewood for heating and cooking, and climate-related threats such as wildfires.
It has been estimated that 31 per cent of the world’s 430 types of oak are threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species. And 41 per cent are of “conservation concern”, mainly due to deforestation for agriculture and fuel for cooking.
Giraffes are targeted for their meat, and suffer from the degradation of their habitat due to unsustainable wood harvesting, and increased demand for agricultural land; it’s estimated there are only around 600 West African giraffes left in the wild.
Catastrophic results for humanity
The current biodiversity crisis will be exacerbated, with catastrophic results for humanity, unless humans interact with nature in a more sustainable way, according to UN experts.
“The IPBES report makes it abundantly clear that wild species are an indispensable source of food, shelter and income for hundreds of millions around the world,” says Susan Gardner, Director of the Ecosystems Division at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
“Sustainable use is when biodiversity and ecosystem functioning are maintained while contributing to human well-being. By continuing to use these resources unsustainably, we are not just risking the loss and damage of these species’ populations; we are affecting our own health and well-being and that of the next generation.
The report illustrates the importance of indigenous people being able to secure tenure rights over their land, as they have long understood the value of wild species and have learned how to use them sustainably.
Examples of the kinds of transformative changes that are needed to reduce biodiversity loss, include an equitable distribution of costs and benefits, changes in social values, and effective governance systems.
Currently, governments around the world spend more than $500 billion every year in ways that harm biodiversity to support industries like fossil fuels, agriculture, and fisheries. Experts say these funds should be repurposed to incentivize regenerative agriculture, sustainable food systems, and nature-positive innovations.
In climate drama, the volcano is no villain
BY SARAH WILD
New analysis of ash clouds created from large volcanic eruptions shows the temporary cooling effects are changed as the environment becomes hotter.
On 15 June 1991, the Mount Pinatubo volcano in the Philippines erupted with a cataclysmic explosion so violent, the volcano collapsed in on itself. Its gas and ash cloud reached about 40km into the air, and in the weeks that followed, the cloud entered the stratosphere and spread around the globe. During the next year, the average global temperature dropped by about 0.5°C.
A volcano is an opening in the Earth’s crust that allows hot, molten rock to escape to the surface. It also allows gas and ash to escape from the high-temperature interior of the earth.
Volcanic eruptions play an important role in cooling the planet. The sulphur gases from the volcanic plumes combine with other gases in the atmosphere, and these aerosols scatter solar radiation, reflecting it into space. But scientists are concerned that climate change could make eruptions less effective at reducing global temperatures. This feedback loop, in which climate change could hinder or amplify the ability of volcanic eruptions to combat rising temperatures, is currently not included in future climate scenarios.
The VOLCPRO project set out to investigate two different types of eruptions to see if global heating would compromise their cooling effect.
Thomas Aubry, a researcher at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) fellow on VOLCPRO, wondered whether an eruption like Mount Pinatubo would have had the same cooling effect were it to happen a hundred years later in a world where global temperature rise – through the effects of climate change – continues unchecked.
High intensity eruption
The first type of eruption, similar to Mount Pinatubo, is known as a high intensity eruption. This type emits plumes of ash and particles that reach 25km or higher into the atmosphere, and contains billions of tons of sulphur gases. Relatively rare, an eruption of this very powerful type arises every few decades –– Mount Pinatubo was one of the largest eruptions the world had seen in a century.
The second type is smaller, but more frequent. ‘We were wondering how climate change will affect these two different types of eruptions, the small ones versus the big ones,’ said Aubry.
The VOLCPRO team modelled historical eruptions showing their influence on climate, and then simulated what would happen if those same eruptions took place in the future, when the climate has changed and global temperatures are hotter.
Their simulations relied on the UK Met Office’s advanced climate model. ‘Inside that (UK Met Office) model, we added another model that can simulate the rise of a volcanic plume and how high this volcanic column can rise depending on, for example, the wind condition during eruption day, or the temperature in the atmosphere on the day, and so on,’ Aubry said.
For the large eruptions, they found that the cooling would be amplified by global warming, ‘which is kind of good news,’ said Aubry. ‘More global warming, more volcanic cooling.’
In a warmer atmosphere, the plumes of high intensity eruptions will rise even higher, allowing the tiny volcanic particles to travel further. This haze of aerosols will cover a wider area, reflecting more solar radiation and amplifying these volcanoes’ temporary cooling effect.
The opposite was true of the smaller, more frequent volcanic eruptions. In those cases, the hotter temperatures thwarted the cooling effects from the eruptions.
However, before they push to have their findings included in scientists’ global climate change projections, Aubry wants to investigate other volcanoes and other models to reinforce their results.
VOLCPRO focused on tropical volcanoes, as eruptions around the equator tend to affect climate globally because the volcanic particles spread to both hemispheres easily. By including volcanoes closer to the poles, the researchers will be able to determine how other eruptions respond to higher temperatures. They also want to include more climate models, not just the UK’s, to make sure that their findings are robust.
Meanwhile, Elena Maters, a former MSCA fellow now based at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, is working to figure out what happens to volcanic ash in the atmosphere and how it influences cloud formation and, ultimately, climate.
Volcanic ash promotes ice formation in the atmosphere, which ultimately replaces water in clouds. Clouds are one of the biggest question marks in climate research, and the more we understand how they are formed and behave, the more precise our models.
‘The common assumption is that liquid water will turn to ice below zero (degrees),’ Maters explained. That is not always the case and small droplets can remain as liquid down to around minus 35°C. But particles in the atmosphere create ‘catalytic surfaces that make it easier for water molecules to form an ice crystal.’
Mineral dust, from sand originating in desert regions around the world such as the Sahara and Gobi deserts, is the dominant source of solid particles in the atmosphere. However, there are many other sources, including volcanic ash.
The INoVA project sought to determine the extent to which volcanic ash aids ice formation.
‘On a yearly average, there’s about 10 times less volcanic ash (than mineral dust) in the atmosphere,’ Maters said. ‘But you can have big eruptions that can quickly, in a matter of hours to days, release huge amounts of particles, and this has been neglected in a lot of climate modelling and even in cases that look at the impacts of volcanoes.’
As part of INoVA, Maters and colleagues investigated the efficacy of volcanic ash in promoting ice formation. They compared this to the ubiquitous mineral dust, testing to see which types were the most successful.
Volcanic ash is mostly glass, with a sprinkling of minerals like feldspars and iron oxides. The composition of the ash depends on the make-up of the magma roiling underneath, and the speed at which it is explosively ejected from the volcano, among other things.
Previous studies compared only a handful of ash types, said Maters, whose research focuses on volcanic ash reactivity and chemistry. ‘You can’t measure two or three samples and then make a conclusion for all volcanic ash and volcanic eruptions worldwide. They vary hugely in the glass composition, the proportion of glass to minerals, the types of minerals, and so the experiments I did were trying to get to the bottom of the range of efficacy of volcanic ash from different types of eruptions,’ she said.
Maters took nine ash samples with a range of compositions and used them to create nine synthetic samples through melting and rapid cooling. She compared these 18 samples to identify which properties make volcanic ash more active in creating ice. In another study with a group at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, Maters and colleagues analysed another 15 volcanic samples to identify their ice-making properties.
She suggested that the most ice-active component in volcanic ash is alkali feldspar, a mineral composed of aluminium, silicon and oxygen commonly found in the Earth’s crust. ‘Now, having this understanding of which minerals in ash are good at nucleating (forming) ice,’ said Maters, ‘you might be able to predict when a volcano erupts whether that volcano, based on its magma composition, could produce ice-active ash.’
While her work was previously very laboratory-based, the Covid pandemic has forced her into modelling, she joked. She is now investigating the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruptions in Iceland to see how that introduced ice-forming particles into the atmosphere, and how those particles compared to the abundance of mineral dust.
The study will examine how volcanic ash has a role in ice formation when we actually plug it into the atmosphere. It will compare it to other types of particle, such as mineral dust and asks the question, “Does it matter?”
As better climate models are developed, ‘It’s a proof of concept to demonstrate that explosive eruptions could be important to include’, said Maters.
The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
New Net-Zero Tracker Gives Heavy Industries a Platform to Catch Up on Climate Goals
The World Economic Forum released today the first edition of a report on the state of the net-zero transition in key industrial sectors, the Net-Zero Industry Tracker 2022. The report highlights the need to fully understand the scope and scale of the challenge for these sectors and identifies a significant gap versus the pace of decarbonization necessary to achieve net-zero goals to limit global warming to 1.5C by 2050. The urgency for industrial decarbonization is reinforced by high energy prices and energy supply chain disruptions.
This initiative, launched by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with Accenture, establishes a common, fact-based understanding of the industrial sector’s net-zero transformation enabling cross-industry and multistakeholder collaboration. The report introduces a holistic framework for a 360-degree perspective and standard metrics needed to measure progress, as well as key recommendations for industrial firms, policymakers, consumers and other stakeholders.
Progress-tracking and transparency are essential to help industries determine the trajectory of their decarbonization, maintain steady progress, and inform necessary course corrections along the way.
“While there are efforts under way and climate commitments being made, we currently lack a robust and comprehensive mechanism to understand the pace and direction of the progress of transformation of heavy industries, which account for 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions,” said Roberto Bocca, head of Energy, Materials and Infrastructure, World Economic Forum. “Several industrial sectors and individual companies have set up targets with the aim of reaching net zero emissions. We believe that bringing transparency to closing net-zero gaps and reporting on this progress is critical to achieve these ambitious goals.”
The report provides qualitative and quantitative measures to track the evolution of key enabling dimensions such as maturity of technology, access to enabling infrastructure, supporting policy frameworks, demand for low-emission products and availability of capital for investments in low-emission assets. It assesses the state of these enablers, which need to advance simultaneously, and highlights sector-specific accelerators and priorities in five heavy industries – steel, cement, aluminium, ammonia, and oil and gas, which together generate 80% of industrial emissions, according to Accenture analysis.
Given the cross-sector nature of barriers and priorities for industrial net-zero transformation, innovative forms of partnership within and across sectors, and with other stakeholders, will be fundamental to addressing the challenge. Other measures include consensus on defining “low-emission” industrial products and processes, robust and stable green demand signals, and risk-sharing mechanisms to attract necessary capital in technology and infrastructure development.
The report points out that over $2 trillion will be required to make low-emission industries a reality and that the first full-scale commercial projects still hold significant risks for companies to invest in.
Espen Mehlum, head of Energy, Materials and Infrastructure Programs for Benchmarking, World Economic Forum, said: “Investments in low-emission assets are riskier for companies due to their dependencies on new technologies and infrastructure. Collaboration will be at the heart of making the enablers of policy, fuel demand, technology, capital and infrastructure all pull in the same direction to accelerate progress towards climate goals.”
Muqsit Ashraf, a senior managing director and global Energy industry lead, Accenture, said: “Accelerating the transformation of industries, and in particular hard-to-abate industries such as cement and steel, is critical to realize net-zero ambitions. In addition, in today’s high energy and material prices environment, reducing the energy intensity of industries will also become a source of competitive advantage. Along with innovation, regulation and investments, the Net-Zero Industry Tracker will become an essential tool by bringing transparency to the decarbonization and energy efficiency journey.”
The report underlines that concerted efforts also should include policy-makers, financial institutions and consumers.
“Companies are at a sustainability inflection point, where embedding sustainability by design deep into their enterprises is no longer an option,” said Kathleen O’Reilly, global lead, Accenture Strategy. “To lead in this moment, companies must focus on multi-stakeholder collaborations — for example, helping customers reshape demand, teaming with industry peers to bring technology costs down and developing shared infrastructures and working with policy-makers on regulations to create differentiated markets for low-emission products.”
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