This month’s oil spill in California and the sinking of the X-Press Pearl off the coast of Sri Lanka in July have renewed attention to the environmental dangers of such disasters, especially the toll they take on marine and coral life. In this question and answer segment, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) explores the dire impact of oil spills, the cost of clean-ups and what can be done to limit damage to the environment and ecosystems.
How do oil spills happen?
There are many types of oil spills and most are minor, for example when oil spills from a ship when it is being refuelled. But serious incidents, like the 2020 oil spill in Mauritius, bring consequences that can be felt for decades. Most of the major oil spills happen when a pipeline breaks, a tanker sinks or runs aground or when a drilling operation goes wrong.
Are some oil spills worse than others?
Yes, not all oil spills are the same. Aside from the size of the spill, the type of oil or refined oil product will impact the severity of the spill. For example, gasoline is worse than crude oil as it is lighter and more toxic. In the Sri Lankan spill, the environmental issue was compounded as the ship was also carrying nurdles, small plastic pellets, that take thousands of years to degrade, as well as over 80 containers of various hazardous chemicals. The nurdles flooded beaches and turned up in the stomachs of fish, causing further environmental damage. The risk of bunker oil leaking remains and will only be put to rest once the shipwreck is removed from the sea.
How can we prepare for future oil spills?
Governments and the oil industry must have preparedness plans in place and understand what to do when an oil spill happens. Equally important is conducting regular spill response training exercises. The quicker and better prepared the reaction the less the environmental impact. Oil spill response can be tiered so that small spills are handled at a local level, larger spills are handled on a national level and major spills call on an international response. The Sri Lanka case also demonstrates the growing risks of growing global container shipping, and the need to prepare for complex incidents involving oil, hazardous chemical spills and other products.
How do you clean up an oil spill?
It all depends on the time it takes for the clean-up crew to get to the site of the spill, the weather conditions, type of oil, shoreline type and environmental sensitivity amongst other factors. If a crew can reach a spill in a few hours, they can aim to contain and skim the oil. Containment and skimming is done by mechanical means such as using booms and skimmers. Booms are floating physical barriers, that stop the oil spreading, and skimmers, modified boats, skim the oil off the top of the water.
Once the oil reaches the shoreline or spreads out it becomes harder to clean up. When oil gets close to the shoreline, manual clean-up campaigns are typically deployed, while trying to get wildlife away from the impacted area using floating dummies and balloons as a deterrent.
However, no solution completely removes the oil, in the best case scenario, only 40 per cent of oil from a spill can be cleaned up by mechanical means. The ability of natural recovery to restore the environment can play an important role, and actions to enhance its effectiveness needs to be considered.
How do oil spills harm ocean and animal life?
If an oil spill happens in an area with wildlife the damage can be significant. Oil destroys the insulating ability of fur on mammals and impacts the water repelling qualities of a bird’s feathers, without the insulation or water repelling qualities mammals and birds can die from hypothermia. Dolphins and whales can inhale oil, which has an impact on their immune system and can impact reproduction. While fish and shellfish aren’t immediately impacted, because oil floats on water, as the oil mixes and sinks, fish can experience impacted growth, enlarged livers, fin erosion and a reduction in reproductive capabilities. In fish and shellfish, the impact can also be lethal, when it is not lethal, they are often no longer safe for human consumption.
How important is restoration after an oil spill?
Restoring an area impacted by an oil spill is crucial to recovery. Before restoration can begin an understanding of the damage done by the spill needs to be undertaken, this is done through continued ecological, biological and chemical studies and analysis.
Once the damage is understood steps can be taken to accelerate the recovery, particularly those enhancing natural processes. Restoration can include the reintroduction of species affected by the spill, erosion control, if damage from the spill has sped up erosion, and a change in management practices, such as controlling fishing and hunting, in impacted areas.
Do oil spills have a financial impact?
Answer: In short, yes. Not only does the clean-up have to be paid for, and in the cases of big spills this can run into billions of dollars, but the long-term impact of a spill also has an economic consequence. If, for example, like in Sri Lanka, the spill is in an area of outstanding natural beauty tourist numbers often decline, if the area is reliant on fishing, this often must be halted while the area recovers. Legal action to obtain compensation for economic and environmental damage is often a long and burdensome affair, especially for countries with limited experience and lacking the legislative framework to deal with such incidents.
Climate change: For 25th year in a row, Greenland ice sheet shrinks
2021 marked the 25th year in a row in which the key Greenland ice sheet lost more mass during the melting season, than it gained during the winter, according to a new UN-endorsed report issued on Friday.
The data from the Danish Arctic monitoring service Polar Portal – which forms part of the UN weather agency WMO’s annual State of the Climate report – shows that early summer was cold and wet, with unusually heavy and late snowfall in June, which delayed the onset of the melting season.
After that, however, a heatwave at the end of July, led to a considerable loss of ice.
In terms of “total mass balance” (the sum of surface melting and loss of ice chunks from icebergs, in addition to the melting of glacier “tongues” in contact with seawater), the ice sheet lost around 166 billion tonnes during the 12-month period ending in August 2021.
These numbers mean the ice sheet ended the season with a net surface mass balance of approximately 396 billion tonnes, making it the 28th lowest level recorded, in the 41-year time series.
This could be considered an average year, but Polar Report notes how perspectives have changed, due to rapidly advancing climate change.
At the end of the 1990s, for example, these same figures would have been regarded as a year with a very low surface mass balance.
The report also notes that the cause of the early summer chill, could be due to conditions over southwest Canada and the northwest United States.
In these territories, an enormous “blocking” high pressure system was formed, shaped like the Greek capital letter Omega (Ω).
This flow pattern occurs regularly in the troposphere, and not just over North America, but it had never been observed with such strength before.
According to the report, an analysis by World Weather Attribution demonstrated that it could only be explained as a result of atmospheric warming caused by human activity.
According to the report, 2021 was notable for several reasons.
It was the year in which precipitation at Summit Station, which is located at the top of the ice sheet at an altitude of 3,200 metres above sea level, was registered in the form of rain.
The year also saw an acceleration of the loss of ice at the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, where the rate of loss had otherwise been stagnant for several years.
Winter snowfall was also close to average for the period between 1981 and 2010, which was good news, because a combination of low winter snowfall and a warm summer can result in very large losses of ice, as was the case in 2019.
2022: Emergency mode for the environment
As the new year gets underway, the world continues to grapple with a number of familiar challenges – the continued COVID-19 pandemic, resurgent wildfires, enduring crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. Yet, 2022 could prove to be a seminal year for the environment, with high-level events and conferences scheduled, which are hoped to re-energize international cooperation and collective action.
The coming year will also mark two golden jubilees. In 1972, the world took up the environmental mantle at the historic UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. The meeting firmly placed the environment on the priority list of governments, civil society, businesses and policymakers, recognizing the inextricable links between the planet, human well-being and economic growth. Now, fifty years later, the Stockholm+50 meeting in June 2022 will commemorate the event, reflect upon half a century of global environmental action and look forward.
The Stockholm Conference also birthed the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the UN entity mandated to monitor the state of the environment, inform policymaking with science and galvanize action. For fifty years since, UNEP has used its convening power and rigorous scientific research to coordinate a global effort to tackle environmental challenges. A series of activities will mark UNEP’s 50th anniversary this year.
UNEP is going into 2022 with a new “Medium-Term Strategy” featuring seven interlinked subprogrammes for action: Climate Action, Chemicals and Pollutions Action, Nature Action, Science Policy, Environmental Governance, Finance and Economic Transformations and Digital Transformations. The strategy was agreed at 2021’s fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly; the resumed session, known as UNEA 5.2 will take place in February 2022. Under the overarching theme of ‘Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals’, discussions will highlight the pivotal role of nature in social, economic and environmental sustainable development.
June will be a busy month on the environmental calendar. On the 5th, the world will come together to celebrate World Environment Day. Led by UNEP and held annually since 1974, the day has grown to be the largest global platform for environmental outreach, with millions of people engaging to protect the planet. This year’s event will be hosted by Sweden, under the campaign slogan “Only One Earth“, with a focus on living sustainably in harmony with nature.
While this timeline of environmental achievements is proof of what can be achieved through multilateral action, the science remains irrefutable. Unsustainable patterns of consumption and production are fuelling the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has warned that the triple crisis is humanity’s number one existential threat.
Several global events in 2022 aim to encourage dialogue and influence policy decisions to address the triple crisis. These include a post-2020 global biodiversity framework, which will be adopted in May at COP 15, and could stave off the extinction of over one million species, and the UN Ocean Conference in July, which seeks to protect one of our most vital ecosystems. A detailed list of related events is available on the UN web site.
Last year, the UN Secretary-General reminded the world that “We are at a crossroads, with consequential choices before us. It can go either way: breakdown or breakthrough.”
Experts hope that 2022 will be a year of breakthroughs for the environment.
With decent work and a sustainable model aquaculture could feed the world
Harnessing aquaculture’s potential to effectively contribute to feeding the world’s growing population in the decades to come will require concerted efforts to promote sustainable enterprises and decent work for its workforce.
These are among the main conclusions of the Technical meeting on the future of work in aquaculture in the context of the rural economy (13-17 December 2021) that brought together representatives from governments, employers and workers at the ILO to discuss the decent work challenges and opportunities in the aquaculture sector.
In recent decades aquaculture has made important contributions to reducing poverty and hunger in many impoverished rural communities. It remains an important source of livelihoods and food for many rural workers today. At least 20.5 million people work in primary aquaculture production. Many more are engaged along the aquaculture supply chain.
With a growing world population and environmental pressures, aquaculture is increasingly recognized as holding potential for sustainably addressing challenges of food and nutritional security. In a number of developing countries there is also growing appreciation of its role in enterprise development, job creation and livelihood diversification, especially for the rural poor. In order to promote the sustainability and growth of the aquaculture sector and harness its potential to advance sustainable development, inclusive growth and decent work, there needs to be a stronger focus on addressing employment and labour challenges facing the sector.
“If we are to ensure that the aquaculture industry will contribute to inclusive growth and decent work opportunities for more women and men we must create a level playing field and an enabling environment for sustainable production and for workers to enjoy their rights at work,” said Magnús Magnússon Norɖdahl, Chairperson of the meeting.
“Sustainable and inclusive growth in the aquaculture industry could further be beneficial in terms of increasing income and livelihoods for many rural communities, both coastal and inland, and in this process, also contribute to governments’ efforts in alleviating rural poverty,” added Fatih Acar, Government group Vice-Chairperson.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been felt by both businesses and workers in the sector. Workers, especially in processing, have been at heightened risk of exposure to the virus, with the long working hours in close quarters and low temperatures. Businesses have struggled to remain viable, which has been reflected in reduced working hours or lay-offs, impacting the livelihood of workers and their families. The lessons learnt from the crisis should encourage reforms towards more sustainable and resilient aquaculture and food systems more generally.
“The current pandemic has exacerbated decent work deficits in the sector. But many of these deficits had existed long before its outbreak” said Krisjan Bragason, Workers’ group Vice-Chairperson. “Social dialogue, based on the respect of freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining, is the key to finding solutions that work for all.”
“Coherent policy frameworks should be created that focus on sustainable enterprise development and productivity improvements, the promotion of inclusive labour markets, skills development and adequate social dialogue mechanisms which involve Employers’ federations. All these elements will drive and enable the future growth of the sector,” said Employers’ group Vice-Chair, Henrik Munthe.
The meeting adopted conclusions that will assist governments, workers and employers to take measures to tap the potential of the sector to support full and productive employment and decent work for all, so contributing to food and nutrition security and making sure that no one is left behind.
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