Plastic pollution in oceans and other bodies of water continues to grow sharply and could more than double by 2030, according to an assessment released on Thursday by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
The report highlights dire consequences for health, the economy, biodiversity and the climate. It also says a drastic reduction in unnecessary, avoidable and problematic plastic, is crucial to addressing the global pollution crisis overall.
To help reduce plastic waste at the needed scale, it proposes an accelerated transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies, the removal of subsidies and a shift towards more circular approaches towards reduction.
Titled From Pollution to Solution: a global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution, the report shows that there is a growing threat, across all ecosystems, from source to sea.
Solutions to hand
But it also shows that there is the know-how to reverse the mounting crisis, provided the political will is there, and urgent action is taken.
The document is being released 10 days ahead of the start of the crucial UN Climate Conference, COP26, stressing that plastics are a climate problem as well.
For example, in 2015, greenhouse gas emissions from plastics were 1.7 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent; by 2050, they’re projected to increase to approximately 6.5 gigatonnes. That number represents 15 per cent of the whole global carbon budget – the amount of greenhouse gas that can be emitted, while still keeping warming within the Paris Agreement goals.
Recycling not enough
Addressing solutions to the problem, the authors pour cold water on the chances of recycling our way out of the plastic pollution crisis.
They also warn against damaging alternatives, such as bio-based or biodegradable plastics, which currently pose a threat similar to conventional plastics.
The report looks at critical market failures, such as the low price of virgin fossil fuel feedstocks (any renewable biological material that can be used directly as a fuel) compared to recycled materials, disjointed efforts in informal and formal plastic waste management, and the lack of consensus on global solutions.
Instead, the assessment calls for the immediate reduction in plastic production and consumption, and encourages a transformation across the whole value chain.
It also asks for investments in far more robust and effective monitoring systems to identify the sources, scale and fate of plastic. Ultimately, a shift to circular approaches and more alternatives are necessary.
Making the case for change
For the Executive Director of UNEP, Inger Andersen, this assessment “provides the strongest scientific argument to date for the urgency to act, and for collective action to protect and restore our oceans, from source to sea.”
She said that a major concern is what happens with breakdown products, such as microplastics and chemical additives, which are known to be toxic and hazardous to human and wildlife health and ecosystems.
“The speed at which ocean plastic pollution is capturing public attention is encouraging. It is vital that we use this momentum to focus on the opportunities for a clean, healthy and resilient ocean”, Ms. Andersen argued.
Currently, plastic accounts for 85 per cent of all marine litter.
By 2040, it will nearly triple, adding 23-37 million metric tons of waste into the ocean per year. This means about 50kg of plastic per meter of coastline.
Because of this, all marine life, from plankton and shellfish; to birds, turtles and mammals; faces the grave risk of toxification, behavioral disorder, starvation and suffocation.
The human body is similarly vulnerable. Plastics are ingested through seafood, drinks and even common salt. They also penetrate the skin and are inhaled when suspended in the air.
In water sources, this type of pollution can cause hormonal changes, developmental disorders, reproductive abnormalities and even cancer.
According to the report, there are also significant consequences for the global economy.
Globally, when accounting for impacts on tourism, fisheries and aquaculture, together with the price of projects such as clean-ups, the costs were estimated to be six to 19 billion dollars per year, during 2018.
By 2040, there could be a $100 billion annual financial risk for businesses if governments require them to cover waste management costs. It can also lead to a rise in illegal domestic and international waste disposal.
The report will inform discussions at the UN Environment Assembly in 2022, where countries will come together to decide a way forward for more global cooperation.
UNIDO and the Alliance to End Plastic Waste partner to scale circular solutions to plastic waste
A cooperation framework for jointly tackling global plastic waste using circular economy approaches was signed today by LI Yong, Director-General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), and Jacob Duer, President and CEO of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (Alliance).
Through the partnership, UNIDO and the Alliance aim to develop, implement and scale projects and programmes to advance plastics circularity. The collaboration will also help to facilitate knowledge sharing and best practices to support inclusive and sustainable industrial development.
A transition to a circular plastics economy would reduce the presence of plastics in the environment while maintaining the value of plastic materials for as long as possible. The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the creation of new and inclusive jobs and cost savings to governments, are some of the significant environmental and socio-economic co-benefits of transitioning to a circular plastics economy.
LI Yong, UNIDO Director-General, expressed his enthusiasm for the partnership. “Ending plastic waste in the environment will require new business models, technologies, perspectives and partnerships. We are pleased to enter this partnership with the Alliance and bring our expertise in circular economy solutions to bear in solving this environmental crisis.”
Jacob Duer, President and CEO of the Alliance, said, “We are investing in projects and solutions that can scale and will be able to deliver long-term benefits to the environment and to the communities where they are situated. We are excited to partner with UNIDO to amplify the impact of our mission to end plastic waste in the environment and support inclusive and sustainable development.”
COP26 closes with ‘compromise’ deal on climate, but it’s not enough
After extending the COP26 climate negotiations an extra day, nearly 200 countries meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, adopted on Saturday an outcome document that, according to the UN Secretary-General, “reflects the interests, the contradictions, and the state of political will in the world today”.
“It is an important step but is not enough. We must accelerate climate action to keep alive the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees”, said António Guterres in a video statement released at the close of the two-week meeting.
The UN chief added that it is time to go “into emergency mode”, ending fossil fuel subsidies, phasing out coal, putting a price on carbon, protecting vulnerable communities, and delivering the $100 billion climate finance commitment.
“We did not achieve these goals at this conference. But we have some building blocks for progress,” he said.
Mr. Guterres also had a message to young people, indigenous communities, women leaders, and all those leading the charge on climate action.
“I know you are disappointed. But the path of progress is not always a straight line. Sometimes there are detours. Sometimes there are ditches. But I know we can get there. We are in the fight of our lives, and this fight must be won. Never give up. Never retreat. Keep pushing forward”.
A snapshot of the agreement
The outcome document, known as the Glasgow Climate Pact, calls on 197 countries to report their progress towards more climate ambition next year, at COP27, set to take place in Egypt.
The outcome also firms up the global agreement to accelerate action on climate this decade.
However, COP26 President Alok Sharma struggled to hold back tears following the announcement of a last-minute change to the pact, by China and India, softening language circulated in an earlier draft about “the phase-out of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels”. As adopted on Saturday, that language was revised to “phase down” coal use.
Mr. Sharma apologized for “the way the process has unfolded” and added that he understood some delegations would be “deeply disappointed” that the stronger language had not made it into the final agreement.
By other terms of the wide-ranging set of decisions, resolutions and statements that make up the outcome of COP26, governments were,among other things, asked to provide tighter deadlines for updating their plans to reduce emissions.
On the thorny question of financing from developed countries in support of climate action in developing countries, the text emphasizes the need to mobilize climate finance “from all sources to reach the level needed to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, including significantly increasing support for developing country Parties, beyond $100 billion per year”.
1.5 degrees, but with ‘a weak pulse’
“Negotiations are never easy…this is the nature of consensus and multilateralism”, said Patricia Espinosa, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
She stressed that for every announcement made during the past two weeks, the expectation is that the implementation “plans and the fine print” will follow.
“Let us enjoy what we accomplished but also prepare for what is coming,” Ms. Espinosa said, after recognizing the advancements on adaptation, among others.
Meanwhile, COP26 President Alok Sharma stated that delegations could say “with credibility” that they have kept 1.5 degrees within reach.
“But its pulse is weak. And it will only survive if we keep our promises. If we translate commitments into rapid action. If we deliver on the expectations set out in this Glasgow Climate Pact to increase ambition to 2030 and beyond. And if we close the vast gap that remains, as we must,” he told delegates.
He then quoted Prime Minister Mia Mottley, who earlier in the conference had said that for Barbados and other small island states, ‘two degrees is a death sentence.’ With that in mind, Mr. Sharma asked delegates to continue their efforts to get finance flowing and boost adaptation.
He concluded by saying that history has been made in Glasgow.
“We must now ensure that the next chapter charts the success of the commitments we have solemnly made together in the Glasgow Climate Pact, he declared.
The ‘least worst’ outcome
Earlier during the conference’s final stocktaking plenary, many countries lamented that the package of agreed decisions was not enough. Some called it “disappointing”, but overall, said they recognized it was balanced for what could be agreed at this moment in time and given their differences.
Countries like Nigeria, Palau, the Philippines, Chile and Turkey all said that although there were imperfections, they broadly supported the text.
“It is (an) incremental step forward but not in line with the progress needed. It will be too late for the Maldives. This deal does not bring hope to our hearts,” said the Maldives’ top negotiator in a bittersweet speech.
US climate envoy John Kerry said the text “is a powerful statement” and assured delegates that his country will engage constructively in a dialogue on “loss and damage” and adaptation, two of issues that proved most difficult for the negotiators to agree upon.
“The text represents the ‘least worst’ outcome,” concluded the top negotiator from New Zealand.
Other key COP26 achievements
Beyond the political negotiations and the Leaders’ Summit, COP26 brought together about 50,000 participants online and in-person to share innovative ideas, solutions, attend cultural events and build partnerships and coalitions.
The conference heard many encouraging announcements. One of the biggest was that leaders from over 120 countries, representing about 90 per cent of the world’s forests, pledged to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030, the date by which the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to curb poverty and secure the planet’s future are supposed to have been achieved.
There was also a methane pledge, led by the United States and the European Union, by which more than 100 countries agreed to cut emissions of this greenhouse gas by 2030.
Meanwhile, more than 40 countries – including major coal-users such as Poland, Vietnam and Chile – agreed to shift away from coal, one of the biggest generators CO2 emissions.
The private sector also showed strong engagement with nearly 500 global financial services firms agreeing to align $130 trillion – some 40 per cent of the world’s financial assets – with the goals set out in the Paris Agreement, including limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Also, in a surprise for many, the United States and China pledged to boost climate cooperation over the next decade. In a joint declaration they said they had agreed to take steps on a range of issues, including methane emissions, transition to clean energy and decarbonization. They also reiterated their commitment to keep the 1.5C goal alive.
Regarding green transport, more than 100 national governments, cities, states and major car companies signed the Glasgow Declaration on Zero-Emission Cars and Vans to end the sale of internal combustion engines by 2035 in leading markets, and by 2040 worldwide. At least 13 nations also committed to end the sale of fossil fuel powered heavy duty vehicles by 2040.
Many ‘smaller’ but equally inspiring commitments were made over the past two weeks, including one by 11 countries which created the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA). Ireland, France, Denmark, and Costa Rica among others, as well as some subnational governments, launched this first-of-its kind alliance to set an end date for national oil and gas exploration and extraction.
A quick refresher on how we got here
To keep it simple, COP26 was the latest and one of the most important steps in the decades long, UN-facilitated effort to help stave off what has been called a looming climate emergency.
In 1992, the UN organized a major event in Rio de Janeiro called the Earth Summit, in which the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted.
In this treaty, nations agreed to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere” to prevent dangerous interference from human activity on the climate system. Today, the treaty has 197 signatories.
Since 1994, when the treaty entered into force, every year the UN has been bringing together almost every country on earth for global climate summits or “COPs”, which stands for ‘Conference of the Parties’.
This year should have been the 27th annual summit, but thanks to COVID-19, we’ve fallen a year behind due to last year’s postponement – hence, COP26.
Cooling community announces steps to beat global warming with GBP 12M boost from UK
The UN-led Cool Coalition today announced a series of steps to reduce the climate impact of the cooling industry, including a GBP 12 million boost from the UK Government, the host of COP26.
Just 1.5°C of global warming, a temperature limit the world currently looks set to far exceed could leave 2.3 billon people vulnerable to heatwaves. Cooling will be essential to protect human health and productivity under such circumstances – but 7 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from cooling already.
“The need for cooling in our daily lives – to protect people against heat extremes – will grow. But the way we cool our homes and workplaces is a major driver of climate change. Today, around 10 per cent of the world’s electricity is used for air conditioning. If left unchecked, emissions related to cooling are expected to double by 2030, driven by heat waves, population growth, urbanization and the demands of a growing middle class,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director.
A transition to efficient and climate friendly cooling, including natural solutions, could allow the expansion of cooling and avoid 4-8 years of global emissions. This includes work under the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol to replace climate-warming gases, known as hydrofluorocarbons, that are used as refrigerant gases.
Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, Minister for Pacific and the Environment at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), said, “I am delighted that we have announced GBP 12 million of Defra Official Development Assistance programming today to provide valuable assistance to developing countries, enabling them to make rapid progress on reducing hydrofluorocarbons and adopting energy efficient cooling solutions.
“This funding will support vital work to address inefficient cooling technologies and help develop a resilient and sustainable food supply chain in Africa, delivering the first African centre of excellence for rural cooling and cold chain.”
Partners have set out a comprehensive agenda to begin delivering on the climate potential of the cooling industry in the wake of COP26. Through its membership of over 120 countries, cities, companies and investors, and other organizations, the Cool Coalition has been an essential catalyst for the Race to Zero in accelerating global efforts and commitments on sustainable cooling.
Some highlights include:
- 14 cooling suppliers have joined the Race to Zero, representing 28% of the residential AC market. They are ready to supply solutions aligned with their customers’ net-zero commitments. See how Trane and Electrolux are doing this.
- Gree and Haier committed to bring to market by 2025 residential AC units that have five times less climate impact.
- 14 countries made the largest government commitment ever to double product efficiency globally by 2030, with a focus on AC, refrigerators, motors and lighting (accounting for 40 per cent of global electricity).
- EP100 has doubled its membership during the UK’s Presidency of the COP, so more cooling manufacturers and buyers are improving their energy productivity.
- 53 enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) have integrated sustainable cooling.
- 25 countries have committed to developing National Cooling Action Plans.
- 16 cities have committed to tackle extreme heat using the newly launched Beating the Heat: A Sustainable Cooling Handbook for Cities
- Energy Efficiency Services Limited committed USD 50million for the development of sustainable cold chain projects in India
- The UK announced 12 million of Defra Official Development Assistance programming today to make rapid progress on reducing hydrofluorocarbons and adoption of energy efficient cooling solutions. Multilateral Development Banks committed at least USD185 million to stimulate investment in sustainable cooling.
In support of these commitments, an unprecedented surge of implementation will fill 2022 and beyond. These implementation efforts will go a long way in turning commitments into emissions reduction and increase resilience.
“Cooling is becoming increasingly critical to strengthen our resilience to a warming world. National, local and business commitments to reducing emissions urgently need to translate into implementation that can keep the world cool and achieve net zero in time,” said Nigel Topping, COP26 High Level Climate Champion.
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