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New report explores the impact of sand and dust storms

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On the launch of the report, Impacts of Sand and Dust Storms on Oceans: A Scientific Environmental Assessment for Policy Makers, author and University of Oxford lecturer, Nick Middleton discusses how the dust cycle affects and interacts with other global-scale biogeochemical cycles.

What exactly are we talking about when we refer to the “dust cycle”?

The dust cycle describes the movement of trillions of tiny particles through the Earth System. Sand and dust is raised by strong winds from areas of bare or sparsely vegetated ground. While some of this material falls back to the surface near the source, the smaller dust particles are carried further in the wind – sometimes thousands of kilometres – before being deposited.

Each year, an estimated two billion tonnes of dust is raised into the atmosphere; and one-quarter of this reaches the oceans.

Is this movement regular and predictable?

These long-distance dust flows are highly seasonal and can vary significantly from year to year.  But most dust comes from deserts and semi-deserts, and a particularly dusty area known as the Dust Belt stretches from the Sahara across the Middle East to the deserts of Central and Northeast Asia.

The planet’s largest sources are in the Sahara. Much Saharan dust is transported south-westward by the Harmattan wind that prevails between November and April. This dust has marked effects on the North Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea, but Saharan dust also impacts the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea.

What role do sand and dust storms play in a healthy ecosystem?

Desert dust particles consist of minerals, nutrients, and organic and inorganic matter. Dust plays a role in a range of Earth’s physical, chemical and bio-geological processes, and interacts with the cycles of energy, nitrogen, carbon, and water. All are necessary for Earth system functions.

How do they affect ocean ecosystems? 

Dust carries nutrients such as phosphorus, and trace metals—including iron, manganese, titanium, aluminium—to oceanic ecosystems, elements that are essential for all life forms. In this way, desert dust is a principal driver of oceanic primary productivity, which forms the base of the marine food web.

Marine primary production also fuels the global carbon cycle via the exchange of CO2 between ocean and atmosphere, so desert dust has impacts on our climate system. Dust also provides some of the building blocks for coral reefs: dust particles are incorporated into coral skeletons as they grow.

Desert dust also provides the primary external source of iron to offshore waters, but controls on iron aerosol solubility are poorly understood. Iron is required for phytoplankton growth, but the iron must be in a form that can be used by living organisms, which is dependent partly on its solubility. What are some of the negative effects of sand and dust storms?  

The fertilizing effect of desert dust is thought to have an impact on algal blooms, some of which can be harmful, and may contribute to Sargassum seaweed mats. Unusually large blooms of floating Sargassum seaweed have been noted since 2011 in parts of the Caribbean Sea and along the Atlantic coastlines of West Africa and Brazil. These drifting seaweed mats provide important habitat for many species in the open ocean, but close to shore, they can disrupt shipping, fishing and tourism.

Potential links have also been identified between microorganisms, trace metals and organic contaminants carried in desert dust and some of the complex changes on coral reefs observed in numerous parts of the world. Disease has undoubtedly been an important factor in recent coral reef declines worldwide and several of the diseases that affect corals are associated with microorganisms carried in desert dust.

A wide variety of microorganisms—including fungi, bacteria and viruses—has been found in desert dust. Most of these pathogens come from dryland soils and are highly resistant to desiccation, temperature extremes, conditions of high salinity and exposure to ultraviolet radiation. They are therefore typically able to survive in the atmosphere for many days.

Do sand and dust storms play a role in transporting diseases like COVID-19?

We still have numerous basic questions to answer regarding these desert-derived bioaerosols. It is thought that many of the microorganisms transported in desert dust are capable of causing disease outbreaks in a wide range of organisms, both terrestrial and marine, but we have little data on specific microbes found in dust storms known to cause disease in people and animals.

How does this report contribute to existing knowledge about sand and dust storms?

While our understanding of the dust cycle has improved greatly in recent decades, large uncertainties and knowledge gaps remain. Nonetheless, this knowledge has significant implications for a number of Sustainable Development Goals ­– particularly Goal 14 on Life Below Water and Goal 15 on Life on Land.

Marking the start of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021–2030), this report explores the impacts of sand and dust storms on oceans—their ecosystem functions, goods and services—which are potentially numerous and wide-ranging. Sand and dust storms thus warrant continued careful monitoring and research.

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Climate Action: It’s time to make peace with nature

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The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, has described the fight against the climate crisis as the top priority for the 21st Century, in a passionate, uncompromising speech delivered on Wednesday at Columbia University in New York.

The landmark address marks the beginning of a month of UN-led climate action, which includes the release of major reports on the global climate and fossil fuel production, culminating in a climate summit on 12 December, the fifth anniversary of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

Nature always strikes back

Mr. Guterres began with a litany of the many ways in which nature is reacting, with “growing force and fury”, to humanity’s mishandling of the environment, which has seen a collapse in biodiversity, spreading deserts, and oceans reaching record temperatures.

The link between COVID-19 and man-made climate change was also made plain by the UN chief, who noted that the continued encroachment of people and livestock into animal habitats, risks exposing us to more deadly diseases.

And, whilst the economic slowdown resulting from the pandemic has temporarily slowed emissions of harmful greenhouse gases, levels of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane are still rising, with the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere at a record high. Despite this worrying trend, fossil fuel production – responsible for a significant proportion of greenhouse gases – is predicted to continue on an upward path.

‘Time to flick the green switch’

The appropriate global response, said the Secretary-General, is a transformation of the world economy, flicking the “green switch” and building a sustainable system driven by renewable energy, green jobs and a resilient future.

One way to achieve this vision, is by achieving net zero emissions (read our feature story on net zero for a full explanation, and why it is so important). There are encouraging signs on this front, with several developed countries, including the UK, Japan and China, committing to the goal over the next few decades.

Mr. Guterres called on all countries, cities and businesses to target 2050 as the date by which they achieve carbon neutrality – to at least halt national increases in emissions – and for all individuals to do their part.

With the cost of renewable energy continuing to fall, this transition makes economic sense, and will lead to a net creation of 18 million jobs over the next 10 years. Nevertheless, the UN chief pointed out, the G20, the world’s largest economies, are planning to spend 50 per cent more on sectors linked to fossil fuel production and consumption, than on low-carbon energy.

Put a price on carbon

For years, many climate experts and activists have called for the cost of carbon-based pollution to be factored into the price of fossil fuels, a step that Mr. Guterres said would provide certainty and confidence for the private and financial sectors.

Companies, he declared, need to adjust their business models, ensuring that finance is directed to the green economy, and pension funds, which manage some $32 trillion in assets, need to step and invest in carbon-free portfolios.

Far more money, continued the Secretary-General, needs to be invested in adapting to the changing climate, which is hindering the UN’s work on disaster risk reduction. The international community, he said, has “both a moral imperative and a clear economic case, for supporting developing countries to adapt and build resilience to current and future climate impacts”.

Everything is interlinked

The COVID-19 pandemic put paid to many plans, including the UN’s ambitious plan to make 2020 the “super year” for buttressing the natural world. That ambition has now been shifted to 2021, and will involve a number of major climate-related international commitments.

These include the development of a plan to halt the biodiversity crisis; an Oceans Conference to protect marine environments; a global sustainable transport conference; and the first Food Systems Summit, aimed at transforming global food production and consumption.

Mr. Guterres ended his speech on a note of hope, amid the prospect of a new, more sustainable world in which mindsets are shifting, to take into account the importance of reducing each individual’s carbon footprint.

Far from looking to return to “normal”, a world of inequality, injustice and “heedless dominion over the Earth”, the next step, said the Secretary-General, should be towards a safer, more sustainable and equitable path, and for mankind to rethink our relationship with the natural world – and with each other.

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The race to zero emissions, and why the world depends on it

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A host of countries have recently announced major commitments to significantly cut their carbon emissions, promising to reach “net zero” in the coming years. The term is becoming a global rallying cry, frequently cited as a necessary step to successfully beat back climate change, and the devastation it is causing.

What is net zero and why is it important?

Put simply, net zero means we are not adding new emissions to the atmosphere. Emissions will continue, but will be balanced by absorbing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere.

Practically every country has joined the Paris Agreement on climate change, which calls for keeping the global temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial era levels. If we continue to pump out the emissions that cause climate change, however, temperatures will continue to rise well beyond 1.5, to levels that threaten the lives and livelihoods of people everywhere.

This is why a growing number of countries are making commitments to achieve carbon neutrality, or “net zero” emissions within the next few decades. It’s a big task, requiring ambitious actions starting right now.

Net zero by 2050 is the goal. But countries also need to demonstrate how they will get there. Efforts to reach net-zero must be complemented with adaptation and resilience measures, and the mobilization of climate financing for developing countries.

So how can the world move toward net zero?

The good news is that the technology exists to reach net zero – and it is affordable.

A key element is powering economies with clean energy, replacing polluting coal – and gas and oil-fired power stations – with renewable energy sources, such as wind or solar farms. This would dramatically reduce carbon emissions. Plus, renewable energy is now not only cleaner, but often cheaper than fossil fuels.

A wholesale switch to electric transport, powered by renewable energy, would also play a huge role in lowering emissions, with the added bonus of slashing air pollution in the world’s major cities. Electric vehicles are rapidly becoming cheaper and more efficient, and many countries, including those committed to net zero, have proposed plans to phase out the sale of fossil-fuel powered cars.

Other harmful emissions come from agriculture (livestock produce significant levels of methane, a greenhouse gas). These could be reduced drastically if we eat less meat and more plant-based foods. Here again, the signs are promising, such as the rising popularity of “plant-based meats” now being sold in major international fast-food chains.

What will happen to remaining emissions?

Reducing emissions is extremely important. To get to net zero, we also need to find ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Here again, solutions are at hand. The most important have existed in nature for thousands of years.

 These “nature-based solutions” include forests, peatbogs, mangroves, soil and even underground seaweed forests, which are all highly efficient at absorbing carbon. This is why huge efforts are being made around the world to save forests, plant trees, and rehabilitate peat and mangrove areas, as well as to improve farming techniques.

Who is responsible for getting to net zero?

We are all responsible as individuals, in terms of changing our habits and living in a way which is more sustainable, and which does less harm to the planet, making the kind of lifestyle changes which are highlighted in the UN’s Act Now campaign.

The private sector also needs to get in on the act and it is doing so through the UN Global Compact, which helps businesses to align with the UN’s environmental and societal goals.

It’s clear, however, that the main driving force for change will be made at a national government level, such as through legislation and regulations to reduce emissions.

Many governments are now moving in the right direction. By early 2021, countries representing more than 65 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions and more than 70 per cent of the world economy, will have made ambitious commitments to carbon neutrality. 

The European Union, Japan and the Republic of Korea, together with more than 110 other countries, have pledged carbon neutrality by 2050; China says it will do so before 2060.

Are these commitments any more than just political statements?

These commitments are important signals of good intentions to reach the goal, but must be backed by rapid and ambitious action. One important step is to provide detailed plans for action in nationally determined contributions or NDCs. These define targets and actions to reduce emissions within the next 5 to 10 years. They are critical to guide the right investments and attract enough finance.

So far, 186 parties to the Paris Agreement have developed NDCs. This year, they are expected to submit new or updated plans demonstrating higher ambition and action. Click here to see the NDC registry.

Is net zero realistic?

Yes! Especially if every country, city, financial institution and company adopts realistic plans for transitioning to net zero emissions by 2050.

The COVID-19 pandemic recovery could be an important and positive turning point. When economic stimulus packages kick in, there will be a genuine opportunity to promote renewable energy investments, smart buildings, green and public transport, and a whole range of other interventions that will help to slow climate change.

But not all countries are in the same position to affect change, are they?

That’s absolutely true. Major emitters, such as the G20 countries, which generate 80 per cent of carbon emissions, in particular, need to significantly increase their present levels of ambition and action.

Also, keep in mind that far greater efforts are needed to build resilience in vulnerable countries and for the most vulnerable people; they do the least to cause

climate change but bear the worst impacts. Resilience and adaptation action do not get the funding they need, however.

Even as they pursue net zero, developed countries must deliver on their commitment to provide $100 billion dollars a year for mitigation, adaptation and resilience in developing countries.

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EU greenhouse gas emissions fell in 2019 to the lowest level in three decades

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The Commission today adopted its annual EU Climate Action Progress Report, covering the EU’s progress in cutting greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. Greenhouse gas emissions in the EU-27 decreased by 3.7 % year-on-year, while GDP grew by 1.5%. Emissions have now been reduced by 24% compared to 1990 levels.  

Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal, said: “The European Union is proving it is possible to reduce emissions and grow your economy. However, today’s report again confirms we need to step up our efforts across all sectors of the economy to reach our common goal of climate neutrality by 2050. The transition is feasible if we stick to our commitment and seize the opportunities of the recovery to reboot our economy in a greener, more resilient way and create a healthy, sustainable future for all.”

Emissions covered by the Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) saw the greatest reduction in 2019, dropping by 9.1%, or about 152 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2eq), compared to 2018. This drop was driven mainly by the power sector, where emissions fell by almost 15%, primarily due to coal-fired electricity production being replaced by electricity production from renewables and gas. Emissions from industry decreased by close to 2%. Verified emissions from aviation, which currently only cover flights within the European Economic Area, continued to grow modestly, increasing by 1%, or about 0.7 Mt CO2eq, compared to 2018. Emissions that are not covered by the EU ETS, such as those from non-ETS industry, transport, buildings, agriculture and waste, saw no significant change compared to 2018 levels.

EU expenditure on climate action, financing of green technologies, deployment of new solutions and international cooperation increased in 2019, and will see a further increase in the context of Europe’s recovery from COVID-19.

EU ETS auction revenue is an increasingly important source of climate financing. The total revenue received by Member States, the UK and EEA countries from the auctions between 2012 (the start of auctioning under the EU ETS) and mid-2020 was over €57 billion, with more than half generated in 2018 and 2019 alone. In 2019, total auction revenue exceeded €14.1 billion. Of this total, 77% will be used for climate and energy purposes, 7 percentage points higher than the 70% share reported in 2018. In addition, a growing number of EU-funded climate projects are financed through the monetisation of emission allowances via the NER 300 programme, the Innovation Fund and the Modernisation Fund.

Background

The Climate Action Progress Report “Kick-Starting the Journey Towards A Climate Neutral Europe” describes progress made by the EU and its Member States in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as reporting on recent developments in EU climate policy. The report is produced by the Commission’s Directorate-General for Climate Action based on data submitted by Member States under the Climate Monitoring Mechanism Regulation (MMR, Regulation No 525/2013).

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