Vulnerable communities disproportionately bear the brunt of environmental degradation caused by plastics pollution, and action is urgently needed to address the issue and restore access to human rights, health and well-being, according to a new UN report published on Tuesday.
The report, entitled, Neglected: Environmental Justice Impacts of Plastic Pollution, was produced by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) together with the grassroots environmental group, Azul. The findings aim to empower communities affected by plastic waste and advocate for their inclusion in local decision making.
“Environmental justice means educating those on the frontlines of plastic pollution about its risks, including them in decisions about its production, use, and disposal, and ensuring their access to a credible judicial system”, said Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director.
The report showcases how environmental injustices are linked to plastic production, in areas such as deforestation for road building, the displacement of indigenous peoples to conduct oil drilling, as well as contamination of potable water by fracking operations to extract natural gas, in countries such as the United States and Sudan.
Moreover, the report warns of health problems among African-American communities living near oil refineries in the Gulf of Mexico, and the occupational risks faced by some two million waste pickers in India.
The impacts of plastics on marginalized populations are severe, and exist at all stages of the production cycle, from extracting raw materials and manufacturing, through to consumption and disposal, according to the report.
Plastic waste not only endangers the livelihoods of those relying on marine resources, it also causes a raft of health issues for people who consume seafood infested with toxic micro and nano plastics.
Women, in particular, suffer from plastic-related toxicity risk, due to higher aggregate exposure to plastics at home and even in feminine care products.
Differences in gender, social roles, and political power in regulating plastic use and health standards place women at high risk of miscarriages and cancer, further exacerbating gender-related disparities overall.
Aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, plastic waste has become a major part of the global pollution crisis, along with biodiversity loss and climate change, representing a triple emergency that must be tackled by strong and effective action plans, says UNEP.
The report calls for governments to prioritize the needs of those disproportionately affected by plastic pollution, underscoring that action must be taken at multiple levels.
It calls for an expansion in plastic waste monitoring, better studies into its health impacts, and more investment in waste management. Governments should further enforce bans on single-use plastics and encourage their reduction, recycling and reuse.
Other actors such as business and industry leaders, non-governmental actors, and consumers should also make efforts to reverse the situations for those who are socially, economically, politically marginalized.
The Caribbean is ‘ground zero’ for the global climate emergency
The UN Secretary-General’s final day in Suriname began on a small plane and ended at a podium. A 90-minute flyover from Paramaribo into the Central Suriname Nature Reserve revealed to António Guterres the astounding beauty of the Amazon but also spotlighted the threats the rainforest is facing from mining and logging activities, and climate change.
The Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an immense protected area covering around 11 percent of the national territory, is recognized for its tabletop mountains and endless biodiversity – some believed to be undiscovered – and remains for the most part inaccessible and unaffected by human activity.
From above, the rainforest canopy was painted with countless shades of green, with some treetops covered in waves of orange or even purple flowers. Along the way, the mighty Coppename River, as well as the upstream parts of the Lucie, Saramacca, and Suriname Rivers flowed by the trees in what looked like a landscape painting.
However, before reaching the protected area, the UN chief could see that Suriname’s forests are seriously threatened by the activities of the mining sector and timber production, both fuelled by incentives to boost economic activities. Strikingly visible above the deep green canopy, the brownish patches of deforestation, evidence of destructive gold mining and flooding were difficult to miss.
A moment of ‘maximum peril’
Although Suriname is part of the South American continent, it is considered a Caribbean nation due to its history, culture, and the similar challenges it faces with the small island nations.
Later on Sunday, the UN chief arrived at the Assuria Event Centre in Paramaribo, to attend the opening of the 43rd Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) Conference.
Mr. Guterres’s arrival was met with four distinct music and cultural performances. The short walk showcased Suriname’s unique ethnic diversity, a product of its long history and Dutch colonization. Afro-Surinamese, East Indian, Indigenous natives, Chinese and Javanese descendants presented their traditional dances and folkloric sounds
At the podium, the Secretary-General highlighted the region’s diversity and climate action leadership, while outlining a series of actions to be taken in the face of the planetary crisis, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and global financial challenges.
“Rich in diversity, uniting land and sea, and protecting fragile coastal ecosystems, mangroves are a fitting symbol of Caribbean nations – facing challenges, seizing opportunities, preserving natural gifts,” the UN chief told the region’s Heads of State and Government on Sunday, inspired by his isit to these coastal carbon-sink wonders in Paramaribo a day before.
Mr. Guterres recognized that the small island low-lying coastal states of the Caribbean are especially vulnerable to what he called “the biggest challenge facing our world today” — the climate crisis.
“The Caribbean is ground zero for the global climate emergency,” he said, underlining that unfortunately, it is not the only challenge that the region is facing.
“This year’s CARICOM summit comes at a moment of maximum peril – for people and planet alike,” he added, referring to the devastating effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on health systems and tourism, as well as on economic growth and foreign investment, now exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.
The Secretary-General told the CARICOM leaders that bold solutions were necessary to tackle these issues, highlighting three.
1. Match climate action to the scale and urgency of the crisis
Mr. Guterres called for urgent and transformative emissions reduction to halt global warming at a 1.5C, support for adaptation from climate impacts, and financial assistance to secure resilience.
“I thank Caribbean leaders for helping to show the way. I am inspired by your many efforts to safeguard your incredible biodiversity and natural gifts, including by the efforts of the indigenous communities,” he said.
He added that more ambition and climate action are needed by all, but specially the G20 who account for 80 per cent of global emissions.
“The war in Ukraine cannot lead to short-sighted decisions that shut the door on 1.5C. With the commitments presently registered, emissions are still predicted to grow by 14 per cent through 2030. This is simply suicide – and it must be reversed.”
The UN chief stressed that wealthier countries need to lead the way in a just and equitable “ renewables revolution ”, and they need to fulfil their promise to deliver $100 billion in climate finance for adaptation starting this year.
“And it is time for a frank discussion and space for decision-making regarding the loss and damage that your countries are already experiencing,” he emphasised.
2. Reform ‘morally bankrupt’ global financial system and spur sustainable recovery
The Secretary General underlined that developing economies need access to financing at no or low costs, as well as debt relief and restructuring.
“On the debt side, we need immediate relief for developing countries whose debt is about to become due,” he said.
The UN chief added that he fully supports the creation of a Caribbean Resilience Fund and the reform of the international financial system to help the region better respond and prevent massive vulnerability to external shocks.
“Clearly, our old metrics have failed us. It’s time to change them,” Mr. Guterres said, proposing to move beyond the financial system’s preoccupation with per capita income, and establishing a ‘multidimensional vulnerability index’ to determine access to financial support.
“For your countries, this would mean ensuring that the complex and interdependent factors of debt and climate change impact are captured in any eligibility analysis for debt relief and financing,” he told the Caribbean Heads of State and Government.
3. Keep up the combat against the COVID-19 pandemic
The Secretary-General made a push for governments, organizations and pharmaceutical companies to work better together to locally produce tests, vaccines and treatments.
“We’re not out of the woods yet… And we need to continue working closely together to stop the spread of the virus across the Caribbean through proven public health measures and prepare for future pandemics through bold investments in preparedness and training,” he stated, and stressed that countries must never again be so unprepared.
Finally, Mr. Guterres reaffirmed the support of the United Nations to the Caribbean to work towards these solutions.
New UN financing initiative goes live to power climate action
A new UN-led financing tool to strengthen weather and climate forecasting, improve life-saving early warning systems, safeguard jobs, and underpin climate adaptation for long-term resilience, officially opened for business on Thursday.
The Systematic Observations Financing Facility (SOFF) is a key building block for a new initiative spearheaded by UN Secretary-General General António Guterres to ensure that early warning services cover everyone on Earth, within the next five years.
SOFF seeks to address the long-standing problem of inadequate weather forecasting and climate services, especially in Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS).
In support of the Paris Agreement on climate change, it will strengthen the international response to keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, “by filling the data gaps that limit our understanding of the climate”, according to a press release issued by the World Meteorological Organization, WMO.
These gaps affect national agencies’ ability to predict and adapt to extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and heatwaves, all of which are on the rise, in line with the warming climate.
Heads of the three founding agencies, WMO, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and UN Environment Programme (UNEP), joined ministers from donor countries, LDC Group members, Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) representatives and development partners, at the first SOFF Steering Committee meeting in Helsinki on Thursday to get the facility up and running.
Boost ‘the power of prediction’
“As the climate crisis worsens, it is crucial that we boost the power of prediction for everyone so countries can reduce disaster risk”, said the UN chief.
“That is why we have launched an initiative to ensure that every person on Earth is protected by early warning systems within the next five years. SOFF is an essential tool to achieve this. I thank all the countries that are providing initial funding to the SOFF UN Multi-Partner Trust Fund and urge others to do the same”.
“Early warning systems are built on the foundation of weather observation data, but this foundation is patchy to non-existent in many in LDCs and African countries,” stated Selwin Hart, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Climate Action and Just Transition.
Join the club
“I want to congratulate all the countries that have come forward and announce or soon will announce their financial contributions to the SOFF UN Multi Partner Trust Fund. I urge others to follow suit and help create a strong global data foundation upon which timely, accurate, people centered early warning systems can be built for everyone. Our collective efforts are needed more than ever.”
WMO Secretary-General, Petteri Taalas, pointed out that today, less than 10 per cent of required basic weather and climate forecasting systems are available from SIDS and LDCs.
“The world urgently needs this data and this is why SOFF will be a partnership of equals where everyone has a role and responsibilities.”
SOFF provides benefits not only to the most vulnerable countries, but to all countries across the globe, said WMO. The improved availability of weather and climate observations enabled by the SOFF are essential if the world community is to realize the 162 billion US dollars annually in socio-economic benefits of weather and climate prediction.
Best science, best data
Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director, emphasized that “now is the time to begin business by providing financial resources and technical capacity, by ensuring that from local to the global, all our actions can be informed by the best science and the best data. My deep thanks to the generous funders who will announce their firm pledges today. I encourage all to follow suit because now is the time to roll up our sleeves and get to work for people and for planet.”
UN Under-Secretary General and UNDP Associate Administrator Usha Rao-Monari followed, adding that “The United Nations Development Program is a proud co-founder of the SOFF UN Multi-Partner Trust Fund. Together with WMO and UNEP we are building upon the momentum generated over the past two years and I want to sincerely thank all stakeholders that contributed to the development of the SOFF. The specialized support provided by SOF is needed more than ever.”
Making carbon dioxide into protein for innovative animal feed
by Tom Cassauwers
Having a big idea may not be enough to change the world – innovation is a commercial process as well as scientific inspiration. Turning research into marketable products is partly a business challenge.
It’s common knowledge that proteins, a key component of human nutrition, are also essential for making animal feeds. Less well known is the uncomfortable fact that much of the protein we feed animals in Europe leads to deforestation and overfishing worldwide.
Biotechnology start-up Deep Branch have designed a biochemical transformation process that turns carbon dioxide (CO2) into a protein-rich powder for animals to eat.
The Deep Branch process converts carbon dioxide into a powder, called Proton, which has around 70% protein content. This is much higher than natural soy, which has around 40%.
British-Dutch company Deep Branch is the brainchild of Peter Rowe, a PhD graduate in molecular biology of Nottingham University in the UK. For him, the idea to convert CO2 into protein just kept popping up. ‘We looked at the field and wondered “Why the hell isn’t anyone doing this?”’ said Rowe.
Raising livestock and fish farming requires foods with high protein densities. Around 80% of the world’s soy crop is used to raise beef and dairy, with demand for these products increasing with the growing population.
Aquaculture depends on fishmeal production, which is partly reliant on harvesting fish from the wild.
Soy agriculture drives deforestation, global warming and habitat loss while overfishing endangers ecosystems and affects the balance of life in the oceans. Overall, food production has a huge role to play in the climate and biodiversity crises.
There’s also the issue of food security. ‘Europe is almost completely reliant on South America for the protein we use to feed our animals,’ said Rowe. ‘There’s a high risk of extreme events, geopolitics or even weather, disrupting that.’
The carbon dioxide can come from many sources. In the pilot, Deep Branch used gas coming from a bioenergy plant that burns waste wood. ‘We culture these microbes in a bioreactor,’ said Rowe. ‘This is the same technology used to make enzymes in biotechnology, or even brew beer.’
The carbon dioxide is put into a fermentation tank as a gas, with hydrogen added to serve as an energy source. After the cellular process is complete, the protein is then dried into a powder to be used as an ingredient in a sustainable animal feed.
It’s the type of idea that could make a circular, sustainable economy grow. Deep Branch emerged with Rowe’s biotech qualification. However, he wasn’t necessarily interested in a career in academics.
‘I never saw myself as a career academic, but a PhD is a good choice for a career in biotechnology,’ he said. On the other hand, ‘I like the idea that my research has real, short-term impacts in the world,’ he said.
According to Rowe, speculative research is always necessary, and universities are ideal places to pursue that. But bridging the gap from academia to the private sector presents its own challenges.
‘Some technologies would never have been invented in the private sector,’ said Rowe. ‘Sometimes you need fundamental scientific breakthroughs. But afterwards there needs to be a transition to the market.’
Universities will need to improve their policies around spin-off businesses for this process to work better, argues Rowe. As it stands, when technology is developed at an institution, universities and even individual academics take a share of the value in a spin-off company.
The problem is, sometimes this share becomes too high. When this happens it potentially impacts the further growth of the company by disincentivising private investment.
‘The university or academic who gets the equity doesn’t get any risk,’ said Rowe. ‘The PhD-students or postdocs who founded the company take all the risk.’
By taking an equity stake that is too large, institutions could potentially affect the development of the business. ‘We need to ensure that young researchers can go out and take risks,’ said Rowe.
In the meantime, Deep Branch seems to be a good example of how the transition from academia to private industry can work well. With a growing team, the business is seeking further investment to develop their next facility.
‘We’re keeping busy’, said Rowe, smiling.
The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
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