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.
How UNEP is helping education systems go green
The world is facing a three-pronged environmental crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. To turn around the planet’s fortunes, the participation of young people will be key, says Sam Barratt, Head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Youth, Education and Advocacy Unit.
Ahead of the International Day of Education on 24 January, we spoke to Barratt about the role of young people in reviving the natural world and what UNEP is doing to enlist their support.
Lots of different players are involved in youth education. What is UNEP’s mandate?
Sam Barratt (SB): The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is the lead on education in the UN system. But here at UNEP, we work closely with them, focusing on non-formal education and higher education. This mandate allows us to work with major global partners and networks that can reach millions to bring environmental issues into the curriculum of schools, on to university campuses, into massive games, such as Subway Surfers, or even into Scout and Girl Guide badge curricula. It’s a huge opportunity to shift norms and reach billions of youth, both inside and outside the classroom.
Collaborating with universities to promote sustainable development seems to be a key aspect of UNEP’s education work. Is that right?
SB: Yes, it’s huge as universities produce the leaders of tomorrow. Our approach is to see how universities can be Petri dishes to shift the habits of students. In September 2020, UNEP launched The Little Book of Green Nudges in 136 campuses around the world. It’s a quick guide composed of 40 nudges to spark sustainable behaviour among students and staff.
In 2021 we launched UNEP’s Sustainable University Framework, which seeks to define what it means to be a sustainable university and lays out a pathway to becoming one, and the Global Guidance for Education on Green Jobs. These initiatives are designed to give the higher education community, employers and youth organizations the tools to prepare students to participate in a green transition.
And in October 2021, UNEP worked with Times Higher Education to organize the inaugural Climate Impact Forum at which Times Higher Education launched its new data-led report, The Race to Net Zero. It presented how well higher education institutions across the globe are performing when it comes to reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to net zero. So far 1,086 universities from 68 countries, representing over 10 million students, made commitments to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
What are you doing to support developing countries?
SB: There are already lots of networks in Europe and North America, but we want to focus on emerging economies. Given this, we’ve launched the Africa Green University and Youth Education Network hosted by the Hassan II International Centre for Environmental Training in Morocco. The network is growing and now includes 22 universities from eight African countries. With the support of the TERI School of Advanced Studies, we talked to stakeholders who agreed that there is a need to establish an India Green University Network. The plan is for this network to be built up and officially launched in 2022.
Any initiatives specifically on the climate front?
SB: Yes. We’ve provided early support for initiatives such as Count Us In, a campaign that aims to inspire 1 billion people to take simple, impactful actions which will directly reduce carbon dioxideemissions, accelerate the uptake of climate solutions and challenge leaders to act boldly to deliver global systems change.
Hundreds of millions of young people play video games. How is UNEP working with the video gaming industry to promote environmental awareness?
SB: UNEP facilitates the Playing for the Planet Alliance, which is an initiative in support of the video gaming industry to use their influence, reach, and creativity to address some of the world’s biggest environmental challenges. Gaming companies in the alliance have made commitments ranging from integrating green activations in games to reducing their emissions. Since the Playing for the Planet Alliance was launched in 2019, 60 per cent of its members have made a commitment to become net zero or carbon negative by 2030. On top of that, the second annual Green Game Jam welcomed 30 (game) studios with a combined reach of 1 billion players.
UNEP’s GEO-6 for Youth report shows how youth have the power to bring about transformative change for the environment. How is UNEP getting youth to help tackle the scourge of single-use plastics?
SB: The Tide Turners Plastic Challenge Badge seeks to support the World Organization of the Scout Movement, the World Associations of Girl Guides and Scouts, Junior Achievement and university students to take action to reduce single-use plastic in their lives. Since February 2019, more than 470,000 young people have started the badge in over 32 countries in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Thanks to financial support from the United Kingdom government this work will continue in 2022.
UNEP and partners launched “Earth School” in April 2020 in response to school closures in the wake of the pandemic. In just three weeks, it reached nearly 1 million students. How did you come up with such an idea?
SB: We saw that many pupils, parents and teachers were struggling with COVID-19 so we wanted to try and do something different. Earth School was built with educators and over 40 partners and shows what can happen when a big idea is run by many. It’s the biggest online learning initiative in UNEP’s history and is available for free on TED-Ed’s website.
2021 joins top 7 warmest years on record
Last year joined the list of the seven warmest years on record, the UN weather agency said on Wednesday, and was also the seventh consecutive year when the global temperature has been more than 1°C above pre-industrial levels; edging closer to the limit laid out under the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
Although average global temperatures were temporarily cooled by the 2020-2022 La Niña events, 2021 was still one of the seven warmest years on record, according to six leading international datasets consolidated by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).
Global warming and other long-term climate change trends are expected to continue as a result of record levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the agency said.
The average global temperature in 2021 was about 1.11 (± 0.13) °C above the pre-industrial era levels. The Paris Agreement calls for all countries to strive towards a limit of 1.5°C of global warming through concerted climate action and realistic Nationally Determined Contributions – the individual country plans that need to become a reality to slow down the rate of heating.
WMO said that it uses six international datasets “to ensure the most comprehensive, authoritative temperature assessment”, and the same data are used in its authoritative annual State of the Climate reports.
Since the 1980s, each decade has been warmer than the previous one, said WMO and “this is expected to continue.”
The warmest seven years have all been since 2015; the top three being 2016, 2019 and 2020. An exceptionally strong El Niño event occurred in 2016, which contributed to record global average warming.
“Back-to-back La Niña events mean that 2021 warming was relatively less pronounced compared to recent years. Even so, 2021 was still warmer than previous years influenced by La Niña”, said WMO Secretary-General, Prof. Petteri Taalas.
“The overall long-term warming as a result of greenhouse gas increases, is now far larger than the year-to-year variability in global average temperatures caused by naturally occurring climate drivers”.
“The year 2021 will be remembered for a record-shattering temperature of nearly 50°C in Canada, comparable to the values reported in the hot Saharan Desert of Algeria, exceptional rainfall, and deadly flooding in Asia and Europe as well as drought in parts of Africa and South America”, the WMO chief added.
“Climate change impacts and weather-related hazards had life-changing and devastating impacts on communities on every single continent”, Mr. Taalas underscored.
Others key indicators of global heating include greenhouse gas concentrations, ocean heat content, ocean pH levels (levels of acidity), global mean sea level, glacial mass and the extent of sea ice.
WMO uses datasets – which are based on monthly climatological data from observing sites and ships and buoys in global marine networks – developed and maintained by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (NASA GISS), the United Kingdom’s Met Office Hadley Centre, and the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (HadCRUT); and the Berkeley Earth group.
WMO also uses reanalysis datasets from the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts and its Copernicus Climate Change Service, and the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA).
WMO said that the temperature figures will be incorporated into its final report on the State of the Climate in 2021, which will be issued in April this year.
In Jamaica, farmers struggle to contend with a changing climate
It’s 9 am and the rural district of Mount Airy in central Jamaica is already sweltering. As cars trundle along the region’s unpaved roads, chocolate-brown dust clouds burst from behind their back wheels.
It is here, 50km west of Kingston and 500 meters above sea level, that the Mount Airy Farmers group are having a morning meeting. There are around two dozen people and they all say the same thing; they’re struggling to keep their plots productive amid dwindling rainfall, a byproduct of climate change.
“The weather here’s a lot drier for longer these days,” says Althea Spencer, the treasurer of the Mount Airy Farmers group, which is based in Northern Clarendon. “If you don’t have water, it makes no sense to plant seeds because they will just die.”
The farmers though, have recently gotten some help in their search for water.
Just meters from where they are gathered stands a two-storey shed with a drainpipe on the roof that funnels rainwater into a tall, black tank. It’s one of more than two dozen reservoirs dotted across these mountains. They are part of a project backed by six United Nations (UN) bodies to help Mount Airy’s farmers adapt to climate change.
“This partnership among the UN and with communities is exactly the type of activity needed to address the day-to-day and practical impacts of climate change,” says Vincent Sweeney, Head of the Caribbean Sub-Regional Office at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “As we look beyond the Glasgow Climate Change Conference, it is vital that we… adapt to the new realities of a warmer planet in order to protect lives and livelihoods in Jamaica and the Caribbean.”
The challenge is not unique to the region. Droughts, floods, and the spread of pests, the byproducts of climate change, are threatening agricultural production around the globe, says the Food and Agriculture Organization. That is potentially disastrous in a world where almost 700 million people go hungry each year.
Small-hold farmers, who work more than 80 per cent of the world‘s farms, in particular, will need support to remain resilient in the face of climate change, say experts.
A country at risk
Farmers in Jamaica, an island nation of 3 million, are especially vulnerable. In 2020, Jamaica became the first Caribbean country to submit a tougher climate action plan to the UN because the country was at risk from rising sea levels, drought and more intense hurricanes, its government said.
In 2018, the Mount Airy farmers enrolled in the United Nations-backed programme that helps build the resilience of communities to threats such as climate change, poverty and water insecurity. It is regarded as the first joint programme of the United Nations in Jamaica, combining the resources of six agencies, including UNEP.
In Mount Airy, the UN programme has invested in 30 new water harvesting systems. The large, black tanks, which appear across the hilltops like turrets, catch and store rainfall, allowing the farmers to use it evenly via a drip irrigation system. This reduces the emerging threat of longer and more intense dry spells.
The new irrigation system also frees farmers from watering their crops by hand. “Before we got the new system, you had to predict rainfall to put seedlings in,” says Spencer, a rollerball pen tucked neatly into her hair and her feet shifting on the sunbaked earth. “It feels pretty good. It allows me more time to do housework, keep up with my farm records, and I have time to go down to the market.”
Alongside the tanks sit drums which mix fertilizer with water and spread it evenly among the crops, saving the farmers valuable time. The dissolvable fertilizer is also cheaper than standard fertilizers.
On top of that, the irrigation system improves yields. Spencer now grows and sells more sweet potatoes, peppers and tomatoes than ever before.
Coupled with the water tanks, the programme has also prioritized education. Seminars are run by the Rural Agricultural Development Authority, a government agency, which aims to broaden the farmer’s knowledge and skills.
Although it is not unusual for women to farm these lands, Spencer speaks about how the trainings have helped to empower the female members of the group by coming together. “To me, the learnings and the trainings bond us ladies together,” she says.
A life in the mountains
Back at the gathering of the Mount Airy farmers, the assembled say some prayers and repeat their mantra aloud two times: “We are the Mount Airy Farmers Group our motto is: All grow in fear and failure bearing fruits of confidence and success.”
Spencer, who is in her 40s, is a vocal participant at the meeting and obviously well-liked. She was born in Mount Airy and has been farming these fields most of her life. She has vivid memories of working on her father’s farm as a child. Unable to afford to pay anyone else, he often pulled her out of school to sow and reap the fields.
That’s a common refrain among many who grew up in Mount Airy – and one the new UN programme is aiming to change.
“If my father had this harvesting system, would I have gone to school more?” Spencer asks herself. “Yes, probably. But even then, he was always working us. So I’m sure he’d find something for us to do,” she says laughing.
Spencer welcomes the introduction of the water tanks. However, she says current rainfall patterns mean water sometimes still runs out. “If you don’t manage your water properly, one will run out before you get anywhere,” she says ominously.
Her story may be one of success today, but it shows that living with climate change will require adaptation and continued investment for years to come. UNEP’s 2021 Adaptation Gap Report called for an urgent increase in financing for climate adaptation. It found that adaptation costs in developing countries are five to ten times greater than current public adaptation finance flows, and the adaptation finance gap is widening.
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