Toxic blaze: the true cost of crop burning
People around the world are bracing for what has become known as the season of smog.
With autumn around the corner, many countries are entering agricultural crop burning season, where farmers burn their fields to make way for a new crop, sending up plumes of toxic smoke.
These large areas of agricultural lands set ablaze every year are contributing to the air pollution that, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), kills 7 million people a year including 650,000 children.
“Improving the quality of the air we breathe is absolutely necessary to our health and well-being,” says Helena Molin Valdés, Head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)-hosted Climate and Clean Air Coalition Secretariat. “It is also critical to food security, climate action, responsible production and consumption – and fundamental to equality. In fact, we can’t talk about the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development unless we are serious about air quality.”
Many farmers consider agricultural burning the most effective and cost-efficient way to clear land, fertilize soil and prepare it for new plantation. However, these blazes and the wildfires that spread from them are the world’s largest source of black carbon, a threat both to human and environmental health.
Black carbon is a component of PM2.5, a microscopic pollutant that penetrates deep into the lungs and bloodstream. PM2.5 increases the risk of dying from heart and lung disease, stroke and some cancers, causing millions of people to perish prematurely every year. In children, PM2.5 can also cause psychological and behavioural problems. In older people, it is associated with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and dementia. And because air pollution compromises respiratory health, it may also increase vulnerability to COVID-19.
Black carbon is also a short-lived climate pollutant, meaning that, although it exists only for a few days or weeks, its impact on global warming is 460–1,500 times stronger than carbon dioxide.
A better way
Ironically, far from stimulating growth, agricultural burning actually reduces water retention and soil fertility by 25 to 30 per cent, and thus requires farmers to invest in expensive fertilizers and irrigation systems to compensate. Black carbon can also modify rainfall patterns, especially the Asian monsoon, disrupting the weather events necessary to support agriculture.
“Burned lands actually have lower fertility and higher erosion rates, requiring farmers to overcompensate with fertilizer,” says Pam Pearson, Director of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, which has worked with farmers globally to introduce fire-free cultivation.
“The no-burn alternatives, such as incorporating stubble back into fields or even planting right through the stubble, almost always save the farmer money.”
Pearson notes that changing the long-established habit of burning agricultural waste will require education, awareness-raising and capacity-building for farmers. It is a lofty undertaking, but the impacts would be considerable and far-reaching. Reducing air pollution from farms in Northern India, for example, could prevent increased flooding and drought caused by black carbon accelerating the melting of Himalayan ice and glaciers – a life-changing outcome to the billions who depend on rivers fed by those mountains.
The Climate and Clean Air Coalition works in countries and with regional networks to promote alternatives to field burning. In India, for example, it provides farmers with information and assistance to access alternatives to crop fires, using satellites to monitor fires and track their impact, supporting policy interventions, subsidizing farmers and ultimately turning agricultural waste into a resource.
In Punjab, the coalition and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are looking at ways to turn the crop residue that would otherwise be burnt into a renewable fuel source. Creating a circular economy for such waste provides farmers with more income and reduces air pollution.
Countries around the world are working to reduce air pollution. That drive will be front and centre on 7 September, the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, which is designed to spur global action against dangerous particulates.
With an eye on global warming and food security, a project called the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture is mainstreaming farming into the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The next round is to take place at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), this year.
Largest river and wetland restoration initiative in history launched at UN Water Conference
A coalition of governments today launched the Freshwater Challenge – the largest ever initiative to restore degraded rivers, lakes and wetlands, which are central to tackling the world’s worsening water, climate and nature crises.
Announced at the UN Water Conference in New York, the Freshwater Challenge aims to restore 300,000km of rivers – equivalent to more than 7 times around the Earth – and 350 million hectares of wetlands – an area larger than India – by 2030.
Along with water supplies, healthy freshwater ecosystems provide a wealth of benefits to people and nature, and are critical to mitigating and adapting to climate change, and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Yet one-third of the world’s wetlands have been lost over the past 50 years, and we are still losing them faster than forests. Rivers and lakes are the most degraded ecosystems in the world, with fish populations, many of which are vital for community food security, pushed to the brink.
Released this week, the IPCC’s sixth assessment report outlines the serious impacts of climate change on freshwater ecosystems, highlighting the need to protect and restore them to enhance adaptation and build resilient societies, economies and ecosystems.
Championed by the governments of Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Gabon, Mexico and Zambia, the Freshwater Challenge calls on all governments to commit to clear targets in their updated National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans, National Determined Contributions and National Implementation Plan for the SDGs to urgently restore healthy freshwater ecosystems.
Susana Muhamad, Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development, Colombia: said”This initiative is in line with the priorities of the National Development Plan 2022-2026, which will allow the country to strengthen Territorial Planning around Water by protecting all water systems from a perspective of water as a common resource and fundamental right. This implies the participation of communities to resolve socio-environmental conflicts, respecting cultural diversity and guaranteeing the conservation of biodiversity”.
The Freshwater Challenge is a country-driven initiative with an inclusive, collaborative approach to implementation, where governments and their partners will co-create freshwater solutions with indigenous people, local communities, and other stakeholders.
Building on the Global Biodiversity Framework agreed in Montreal in December 2022, which included the restoration of 30% of the world’s degraded ‘inland waters’, the Challenge will contribute to the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The UN Decade is a drive to revive our planet, co-led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director said, “Healthy rivers, lakes and wetlands underpin our societies and economies, yet they are routinely undervalued and overlooked. That is what makes the commitment by the governments of Colombia, DR Congo, Ecuador, Gabon, Mexico and Zambia so commendable. While countries have pledged to restore one billion hectares of land, the Freshwater Challenge is a critical first step in bringing a much-needed focus on freshwater ecosystems.”
Stuart Orr, Freshwater Lead at WWF International said, “The clearest sign of the damage we have done – and are still doing – to our rivers, lakes and wetlands is the staggering 83% collapse in freshwater species populations since 1970. The Freshwater Challenge puts the right goals and frameworks in place to turn this around – benefiting not only nature but also people across the world. We need governments and partners to commit to this urgently as part of the Water Action Agenda coming out of this UN conference.”
The Freshwater Challenge will focus on providing the evidence needed at country level to effectively design and implement restoration measures, identify priority areas for restoration, update relevant national strategies and plans, and mobilise resources and set up financial mechanisms to implement the targets.
Championed by the coalition of countries, the Freshwater Challenge is supported by the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, the Secretariat of the Convention on Wetlands, WWF, IUCN, The Nature Conservancy, Wetlands International and ABinBev.
Clouds in the sky provide new clues to predicting climate change
While barely being given a second thought by most people, the masses of condensed water vapour floating in the atmosphere play a big role in global warming.
By MICHAEL ALLEN
Predicting how much Earth’s climate will warm is vital to helping humankind prepare for the future. That in turn requires tackling a prime source of uncertainty in forecasting global warming: clouds.
Some clouds contribute to cooling by reflecting part of the Sun’s energy back into space. Others contribute to warming by acting like a blanket and trapping some of the energy of Earth’s surface, amplifying the greenhouse effect.
‘Clouds interact very strongly with climate,’ said Dr Sandrine Bony, a climatologist and director of research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris.
They influence the structure of the atmosphere, impacting everything from temperature and humidity to atmospheric circulations.
And in turn the climate influences where and what types of clouds form, according to Bony, a lead author of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning assessment report in 2007 by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
So many processes and feedback loops can affect climate change that it’s helpful to break down the issue into smaller parts.
‘Every time we manage to better understand one of the pieces, we decrease the uncertainty of the whole problem,’ said Bony, who coordinated the EU-funded EUREC4A project that ended last year.
A number of years ago, Bony and her colleagues discovered that small, fluffy clouds common in trade wind regions cause some of the largest levels of uncertainty in climate models. These clouds are known as trade cumulus.
While trade cumulus clouds are small and relatively unspectacular, they are numerous and very widely found in the tropics, according to Bony. Because there are so many of these clouds, what happens to them potentially has a huge impact on climate.
EUREC4A used drones, aircraft and satellites to observe trade cumulus clouds and their interactions with the atmosphere over the western Atlantic Ocean, near Barbados.
Many models assume that the structure and number of these clouds will change significantly as the global temperature warms, leading to possible feedback loops that amplify or dampen climate change. The models that project a strong reduction in such clouds as temperatures rise tend to predict a higher degree of global warming.
But Bony and her colleagues discovered that trade cumulus clouds change much less than expected as the atmosphere warms.
‘In a way, it is good news because a process that we thought could be responsible for a large amplification of global warming does not seem to exist,’ she said. More importantly, it means that climatologists can now use models that more accurately represent the behaviour of these clouds when predicting the effect of climate change.
Reducing this element of uncertainty in forecasts of the global extent of warming will make predictions of local impacts such as heatwaves in Europe more precise, according to Bony.
‘The increase in the frequency of heatwaves very much depends on the magnitude of global warming,’ she said. ‘And the magnitude of global warming depends very much on the response of clouds.’
Water and ice
Meanwhile, Professor Trude Storelvmo, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Oslo in Norway, has been exploring the processes inside a different type of cloud – mixed-phased clouds – to help improve climate models.
She is fascinated by how processes in clouds that occur on a tiny, micrometre scale can have such a big influence on global-scale atmospheric and climate processes.
Mixed-phase clouds contain both liquid water and ice and are responsible for the majority of rainfall across the globe. In recent years, it has become clear that they also play an important role in climate change.
Storelvmo coordinated the EU-funded MC2 project, which ran for five years until last month and unearthed new details about how mixed-phase clouds react to higher temperatures. The results highlight the urgency of transitioning to a low-carbon society.
The more liquid water that mixed-phased clouds contain, the more reflective they are. And by reflecting more radiation from the sun away from the Earth, they cool the atmosphere.
‘As the atmosphere warms, these clouds tend to shift away from ice and towards liquid,’ said Storelvmo. ‘What happens then is the clouds also become more reflective and they have a stronger cooling effect.’
But some years ago, Storelvmo and colleagues discovered that most global climate models overestimate this effect. MC2 flew balloons into mixed-phase clouds and used remote sensing data from satellites to probe their structure and composition.
The researchers discovered that current climate models tend to make the mix of water and ice in mixed-phase clouds more uniform and less complex than in real clouds, leading to overestimations of the amount of ice in the clouds.
Because these model clouds have more ice to lose, when simulations warm them the shift in reflectiveness is greater than in real clouds, according to Storelvmo. This means the models overestimate the dampening effect that mixed-phase clouds have on climate change.
When the team plugged the more realistic cloud data into climate models and subjected it to simulated warming, they made another important finding: the increase in the reflectiveness of mixed-phased clouds weakens with warming.
While with moderate warming the dampening effect on higher temperatures is quite strong, this is no longer the case as warming intensifies.
There comes a point when the ice in the cloud has all melted and the cooling effect weakens – and then completely vanishes. Exactly when this starts to happen is a question for future research.
But, according to Storelvmo, this reinforces the need for urgent reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions.
‘Our findings suggest that if we just let greenhouse-gas emissions continue, it won’t just be a linear and gradual warming – there could be a rapidly accelerating warming when you get to a certain point,’ she said. ‘We really need to avoid reaching that point at all costs.’
As new findings on clouds such as these are integrated into models, climate predictions used by policymakers will become more refined.
Research in this article was funded via the EU’s European Research Council (ERC). The article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
Kazakhstan Discusses Ways for Achieving Carbon Neutrality and Building Resilience
Today the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources and the Ministry of National Economy of the Republic of Kazakhstan jointly with the World Bank and Kazakhstan Association “ECOJER” launched a series of policy dialogues to support Kazakhstan in implementing its critical climate and environmental strategies, including the transition to a low-carbon economy, air quality management, and resilience to climate change. The first of the workshop series held today focused on supporting Kazakhstan’s transition to carbon neutrality by 2060.
Kazakhstan made a bold leap forward on a newly charted course for the country’s development by adopting The Strategy on Achieving Carbon Neutrality by 2060. Approved by the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan on February 2, 2023, the strategy sets ambitious net-zero carbon goals for climate action and identifies key technological transformations needed for the country’s decarbonization. To achieve these transformations, the country will require determining and implementing effective and targeted policies and programs across the whole of the country’s economy.
“Our goal is to reduce our carbon footprint and use the benefits of sustainable economic growth, improved public health and reduced climate risks. Net investment in low-carbon technologies is estimated at $610 billion. This will certainly lead to the emergence of new and expanding existing markets and niches for domestic manufacturers, and stimulate the creation of high-skilled jobs,” said Alibek Kuantyrov, Minister of National Economy of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
Participants of the first policy dialogue discussed a roadmap for the implementation of the government policies, measures, and investments in support of the approved strategy. The event also provided a forum for the experts to share best practices and experience in low-carbon policy implementation in the Czech Republic, Germany, and Poland.
“The recently adopted strategy for Kazakhstan’s transition to carbon neutrality attests to the government’s resolve to pivot towards a growth model that is driven less by fossil fuels and more by investments in climate-smart industries in water, agriculture, and rangelands management. This broad economic transformation will require an enabling environment centered on policies, investments, and ensuring a just transition for people and communities,” says Andrei Mikhnev, World Bank Country Manager for Kazakhstan.
To help Kazakhstan prioritize the most impactful actions that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and boost climate change adaptation while delivering on broader development goals and carbon-neutral future, the World Bank recently published Kazakhstan Country Climate and Development Report. The report suggests main pathways to support Kazakhstan’s low-carbon, resilient transition.
“Reduction of greenhouse emissions is a non-alternative course for Kazakhstan and there is an obvious need for legislative instruments. Today, government agencies need to develop the implementation roadmap, and the industry needs to get clear messages – in which direction they will move in the coming decades and what kind of support from the government they can count on. Such dialogues needed to ensure a balance of interests of state bodies and institutions, to identify business opportunities, and get knowledge of the best world experience, so that we can achieve our goals and improve the environmental situation in the country,”said Lazzat Ramazanova, Chairman of the Council of the Kazakhstan Association “ECOJER”.
The policy dialogues series aims to provide a robust platform for multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral engagement. By bringing together Kazakhstan’s government agencies, the private sector, civil society, academia, international development organizations, and the world’s leading experts, the dialogues aim to foster collaboration and action to accelerate the implementation of Kazakhstan’s carbon neutrality targets as well as low-emission development strategy, international climate action commitments, and adaptation measures. The focus of the series’ next policy dialogues scheduled in April and June 2023 will be on air pollution reduction and climate change adaptation in support of Kazakhstan’s climate and development goals.
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