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Plastic planet: How tiny plastic particles are polluting our soil

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The millions of tons of plastic swirling around the world’s oceans have garnered a lot of media attention recently. But plastic pollution arguably poses a bigger threat to the plants and animals – including humans – who are based on land.

Very little of the plastic we discard every day is recycled or incinerated in waste-to-energy facilities. Much of it ends up in landfills, where it may take up to 1,000 years to decompose, leaching potentially toxic substances into the soil and water.

Researchers in Germany are warning that the impact of microplastics in soils, sediments and freshwater could have a long-term negative effect on such ecosystems. They say terrestrial microplastic pollution is much higher than marine microplastic pollution – estimated at four to 23 times higher, depending on the environment.

The researchers concludethat, although little research has been carried out in this area, the results to date are concerning: fragments of plastic are present practically all over the world and can trigger many kinds of adverse effects.

The study estimates that one third of all plastic waste ends up in soils or freshwater. Most of this plastic disintegrates into particles smaller than five millimetres, known as microplastics, and these break down further into nanoparticles (less than 0.1 micrometre in size). The problem is that these particles are entering the food chain.

Sewage

Sewage is an important factor in the distribution of microplastics. In fact, between 80 per cent and 90 per cent of the plastic particles contained in sewage, such as from garment fibres, persist in the sludge, says the study. Sewage sludge is often applied to fields as fertilizer, meaning that several thousand tons of microplastics end up in our soils each year. Microplastics can even be found in tap water.

Moreover, the surfaces of tiny fragments of plastic may carry disease-causing organisms and act as a vector for diseases in the environment. Microplastics can also interact with soil fauna, affecting their health and soil functions. “Earthworms, for example, make their burrows differently when microplastics are present in the soil, affecting the earthworm’s fitness and the soil condition,” says an article in Science Daily about the research.

Toxic effects

In 2020, the first-ever field study to explore how the presence of microplastics can affect soil fauna was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. The paper notes that terrestrial microplastic pollution has led to the decrease of species that live below the surface, such as mites, larvae and other tiny creatures that maintain the fertility of the land.

Chlorinated plastic can release harmful chemicals into the surrounding soil, which can then seep into groundwater or other surrounding water sources, and also the ecosystem. This can cause a range of potentially harmful effects on the species that drink the water.

Generally speaking, when plastic particles break down, they gain new physical and chemical properties, increasing the risk that they will have a toxic effect on organisms. And the larger the number of potentially affected species and ecological functions, the more likely it is that toxic effects will occur.

Chemical effects are especially problematic at the decomposition stage. Additives such as phthalates and Bisphenol A (widely known as BPA) leach out of plastic particles. These additives are known for their hormonal effects and can disrupt the hormone system of vertebrates and invertebrates alike. In addition, nano-sized particles may cause inflammation, traverse cellular barriers, and even cross highly selective membranes such as the blood-brain barrier or the placenta. Within the cell, they can trigger changes in gene expression and biochemical reactions, among other things.

The long-term effects of these changes have not yet been sufficiently explored. “However, it has already been shown that when passing the blood-brain barrier nanoplastics have a behaviour-changing effect in fish,” according to the Leibnitz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries.

How do microplastics get into our water?

One of the main sources is our clothing. Minuscule fibres of acrylic, nylon, spandex, and polyester are shed each time we wash our clothes and are carried off to wastewater treatment plants or discharged to the open environment.

According to a recent study cited by Water World in 2016, more than 700,000 microscopic plastic fibres could be released into the environment during each cycle of a washing machine. This has not yet been studied in the case of handwashing, which is more common in developing counties, but the effects could be significant there as well.

Another study commissioned in the same year by clothing company Patagonia and conducted by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that washing a single synthetic jacket just once released an average of 1.7 grams of microfibres.

In 2019, it was estimated that 1.5 million trillion microfibers were present in the oceans around the world.

Microbeads

Microbeads are solid plastic particles that typically range from 10 micrometers (0.00039 inches) up to 1 millimeter (0.039 inches).

Numerous countries around the world have introduced legislation to ban the manufacture of cosmetics and personal care products containing microbeads. Such laws have already been passed in Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

In May 2018, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and its Global Soil Partnership, the World Health Organization, the Secretariats of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Convention, and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) organized the Global Symposium on Soil Pollution (GSOP18) to bring together science and policy to understand the status, causes, impacts and solutions to soil pollution. The outcome document of the symposium, ‘Be the solution to soil pollution’ paved the way to the implementation of a coordinated set of actions to #StopSoilPollution.

In 2021, FAO and UNEP teamed up again to launch the Global Assessment of Soil Pollution, which details the risks and impacts of soil pollution on human health, the environment and food security.

UNEP

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Women and Climate Change in South Asia

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Over the past decade, climate change has emerged as a major non-traditional security threat that demands an urgent response. South Asia has been identified as particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change according to the sixth assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report predicts that the region will experience more extreme weather conditions in the coming decades, which will have serious consequences for vulnerable and marginalized populations, including increased heatwaves and flash floods.

Women are vulnerable to climate-related dangers in a variety of ways. Informal settlements or urban slums are one such setting, which are ecologically, socioeconomically, and sometimes politically fragile, and are rapidly spreading across South Asia. Poor infrastructure, energy strain, ecological damage, impoverishment, climatic risks, social alienation and stigma, livelihood vulnerability, health hazards, and other instabilities (such as political, ethnic, or religious) all contribute to the fragility concerns in these situations. Women and other underprivileged populations are disproportionately harmed due to their lack of authority. According to Urban Institute research (conducted in Delhi, Dhaka, Islamabad, and Lahore slums), “climate change impacts every element of their lives: their economic security, marital relationships, and physical well-being.”

Despite South Asia’s diversity of cultures, faiths, and ideals, its cultural standards remain backward and male-dominated. Women in most South Asian nations have very little access to education and basic healthcare than their male counterparts, and they are more likely to be poor. Women do not have the means, skills and knowledge, or authority to articulate their concerns and fight for their rights since they are subjected to rigid gender limits and restrictions. Unfortunately, climate change and related risks have exacerbated existing gender disparities, rendering women less robust and disabled in the face of current and future difficulties.

Because women’s movement is often limited, social norms have a key impact in how they react to calamities. In several  states in India, women spend up to four hours each day walking, often over dangerous distances, to get water for their families. In other circumstances, women and young girls sacrifice their education and jeopardize their mental and physical well-being in order to complete domestic responsibilities. Women need access to clean water not only for cleaning, cooking, and consuming, but also for health and cleanliness. Rapid salt-water infiltration has rendered groundwater and water from ponds and wells exceedingly unsuitable for drinking in Bangladesh’s coastal regions. Pregnant women in these coastal regions are said to have increased incidences of preeclampsia and gestational hypertension related of the use of saline water.

Climate-induced migration of men has had such an influence that in the case of a disaster in Bangladesh, women do not travel to evacuation centers since they do not have men with them. Women also make up the majority of individuals who have been relocated or uprooted as a result of climate change. After the floods in Pakistan in 2010, women and children constituted more than 70% of those relocated. Gender-based violence, human trafficking, and prostitution are forced on these vulnerable women and children in refugee camps and informal settlements.

Women in Pakistan are disproportionately impacted by catastrophes since their mobility beyond the community is constrained and they become reliant on men for survival. During the recovery period, wife beating becomes widespread. Poor rural women in Afghanistan face barriers to accessing financial services, limiting their ability to pursue career opportunities or adapt to the effects of climate change.

South Asia is experiencing socioeconomic consequences as a result of climate change. South Asian livelihoods rely on natural resources and are hence climate susceptible. Agriculture and aquaculture are expected to be impacted by sea-level rise, floods, heat and water strain. In the case of a rainfall failure, rain-fed agriculture, which seems to be the primary source of employment in most nations, will have an impact on those do not own lands and the impoverished who rely on this sector and other related industries. Agriculture and aquaculture are expected to be impacted by sea-level rise, floods, heat and water stress. Climate change has had a negative impact on South Asia and is quickly rising as one of the leading causes of migration. People’s money, livelihoods, and houses are frequently destroyed by natural catastrophes, leaving them with little choice but to relocate in search of work.

Looking at the timeline of gender in the intergovernmental approach of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), it is clear that the process of involving women into different parts of climate change negotiations and climate policy procedures is moving at a snail’s pace. Despite the need for a Gender Action Plan, which aims to incorporate a gender perspective in all aspects of climate action, this objective is often neglected. In most situations, a gender viewpoint or element is added as an afterthought rather than incorporated from the start. The pace of involving women in various aspects of climate change negotiations and policies is slow.

There is a virtual isolation of women from conflict management processes due to institutionalised implementation process of roles that men and women ‘needs’ to perform in society – while men are attributed with power, economic, policy, and related interactions, women are seen in terms of their ‘function’ in society. The conservative nature of most main regional religions, which are frequently motivated by patriarchal ideas that place women in a secondary position, contributes to even greater gender discrepancies. As a result, it is not odd that regional climate talks have failed to surpass barriers. Climate change’s far-reaching consequences necessitate an immediate revamp of the system. To that purpose, integrating women in the climate dialogue and taking into account their linked socioeconomic vulnerabilities should be policymakers’ first steps.

Climate change adaptation techniques have been used by various governments in South Asian nations, which can be valuable for other nations in the region, and the knowledge can be applied appropriately by other countries. The Pakistan government’s National Climate Change Policy recognizes women’s contributions and preservation of natural resources and attempts to develop climate change adaption strategies based on indigenous knowledge of women. Health coverage in Afghanistan has increased owing to the 2002 Basic Package of Health Services and the 2005 Essential Package of Hospital Services, and more women now have access to prenatal care and experienced delivery attendants. Rural women from 17 states in India and 15 countries in Africa, South America, and South Asia could establish a solar power system for their communities with the aid of solar energy installation and maintenance training obtained at Barefoot College in Tilonia, India.  This has helped homes save money on kerosene and electricity.

To achieve gender equality in climate change, governments, development agencies, and regional organizations must use a combination of bottom-up and top-down methods. Climate change presents itself in several ways: quick catastrophes can devastate homes, lives, and livelihoods in a single day, but gradual events progressively alter the terrain for existence over time. Gender-disaggregated data, especially on how men and women contribute to and are impacted by climate change, must be collected, organized, and analyzed.

Because women confront several obstacles in obtaining resources and benefits from government resources, widows and women-headed households must be recognized in order to guarantee that women receive their rights and are not denied because registration is completed in their husband’s name. Additional changes and actions are required to guarantee that women have equitable access to resources. Gender sensitization programs for disaster management officials/workers are required.

Shelters must provide adequate security to safeguard women from violence and sexual harassment during natural disasters. Women must be included in local-level initiatives for addressing the consequences of severe events since they typically have indigenous knowledge of managing the environment and responding to climate change and climate-induced extreme events.

Women’s roles in our society, as well as their vital contributions, must be recognized. The deterioration of South Asia’s climatic predicament necessitates a greater acknowledgement of women as change agents who must be given a seat at the policymaking table. Gender-balanced climate policies that elevate and empower women will contribute to a more robust, harmonious, and sustainable regional future.

South Asian countries have mainly taken a reactive approach to climate change adaptation, focusing on improving disaster risk management systems. However, this has led to increased casualties and economic losses. To address this, South Asian nations must adopt a proactive approach to climate change and related hazards, updating their policies and incorporating gender and climate risk management into their conservation and construction efforts. This includes both structural and non-structural measures to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Countries such as India, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Pakistan need to improve access to sanitation and safe drinking water to reduce the risks of climate-sensitive illnesses. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan must also prioritize reducing rates of maternal mortality, anemia, and climate-sensitive illnesses by increasing access to education and health services for women and addressing societal norms that place women at a disadvantage.

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Staring an Ecological and Humanitarian Disaster in the Face

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Image source: UN Photo

Authors: Meena Miriam Yust and Arshad M. Khan  

The Red Sea is a rich marine haven, diverse and home to hundreds of species of fish and coral colonies.  At its southern mouth, it also harbors an almost half-century old static oil tanker.  

If one were to recount the history of Safer, this fuel storage and off-loading (FSO) vessel, most would find it impossible to believe.  Thirty years ago, it was grounded about five miles off the west coast of Yemen; it is still there!  To make matters worse, it is also loaded with almost all of its original cargo.  This amounts to 1.1 million barrels of oil or four times what was on the Exxon Valdez, which caused the worst environmental disaster in US history.  

Maintenance of the ship stopped in 2015 when the Yemen civil war began, presumably because the operation was based in Yemen.  Built 45 years ago, the rusting vessel is now in danger of breaking up.  

In April 2022, the UN unveiled a plan which had been largely funded by the summer to follow.  It had also secured the backing of the official Yemeni government and the de facto controlling authorities.  

The plan calls for installing a replacement for the FSO Safer within an 18-month period and then an emergency operation over four months to transfer the oil to a safe temporary vessel and void the immediate threat.  But the plan has gone nowhere.

As reported by Inter Press Service (IPS), Paul Horsman of Greenpeace International is convinced of the seriousness of the problem and states, “We are staring a major disaster in the face.”  He holds the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) fully responsible, accusing it of jeopardizing an agreement that took years to negotiate.  

A breakup of the vessel would be a monumental disaster for it would destroy the livelihood of Yemeni fishermen and put at peril the ecology of the Red Sea.  

The Red Sea’s varied ecological environment is home to several hundred species of fish and a striking 600-year-old coral colony.  The sea serves as habitat for many endangered species including the hawksbill sea turtle and the halavi guitarfish.  Several species of sharks and dolphins live in these waters, and the sea has the third largest population of dugong in the world.  A large marine mammal, the dugong is cousin to the manatee and listed by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) as a species vulnerable to extinction.  If endangered, scientists believe recovery would be hampered by its slow reproduction rate.  

“If the Safer leaks, or worse explodes, it is the UNDP that will carry the blame,” says Horsman adding, “The technology and expertise are available … they [UNDP] should just get out of the way. …”

But the UNDP has its own internal bureaucracy.  According to Russell Geekie who is a UN Senior Communications Advisor on site, the UNDP is required to work with other UN agencies and partners.  Complicating the issue is the political crisis in Yemen.

Also another major challenge now is the limited availability of suitable storage vessels to off-load the oil, mostly due to the war in Ukraine which has substantially increased their price.

In September 2022, $77 million was pledged at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting, although another $38 million for a double-hulled storage vessel to hold the oil is still lacking.  As an update, donors have now deposited $73.4 million and pledged another $10 million.

So the blame game continues and the numbers in millions of dollars plod through the UNDP bureaucracy.  Small potatoes, when one realizes the cost of an oil-spill clean-up there, should it happen, is estimated at $20 billion.  This excludes the humanitarian catastrophe it would cause in an already war-torn Yemen as well as the parts of Somalia that depend on the fisheries in the area.

Human folly, tragedy and irony go hand-in-hand as all of the above is transpiring during Achim Steiner’s tenure as head of UNDP.  A Brazilian of German descent, he has also served as Director General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.  

President Biden professes to be an environmentalist, although he has supported oil on occasion for energy security.  Surely he could do something to avert a terrible disaster.  But then the Red Sea is far away and the Yemenis and Somalis don’t vote in the US elections.  

Authors’ Note: This piece first appeared in CommonDreams.org.

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Warm Winters and Global Warming: Does the COP work?

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We have passed 2022 with many environmental problems and the impact of a changing climate, natural disasters that cannot be avoided, wars that are still happening, and social habituation with the COVID-19 outbreak. However, more than the things that have been mentioned, humans who are in this anthropocene period need to be more cautious in responding to their environment. The loss of many animals and the increase in seawater temperature are indications that the real threats from the environment are no longer in “alert” or “alert” status but are already at the “danger” level. Some scientists are predicting a worst-case scenario of the earth in the next few years.

In early 2023, the news was shocked by the fact that the Saudi Arabian desert had become green due to the incessant rains in recent months. Saudi Arabia, a desert country, has become a green land, something that has never existed in history, violating its natural laws. It’s different in Arabia and Europe, which go through the winter and experience a temperature rise so that the ice is no longer present in some parts of Europe this year. Although there are numerous traditions and sports practiced by the community that can only be practiced in winter, for example, ski sports,

In 2022, the warmest weather record was broken into different parts of the world, including England, where it was recorded above 40 degrees Celsius. The cause of this increase in temperature is triggered by many factors, of course; for example, severe forest fires that hit parts of Europe and Australia are related to hot weather. During this time, the weather in Pakistan and India is very warm because the temperature reaches 51 degrees Celsius.

In a range of studies, scientists have concluded that the increase in temperature is probably due to climate change. Rising temperatures are expected to negatively impact humans and nature, including frequent droughts and diseases caused by warm weather.

The British Meteorological Office predicts that the Earth’s temperature will rise in 2023, making it one of the warmest years in the world.

Temperatures are forecast to rise for the 10th consecutive year, when global temperatures have risen at least one degree Celsius above average.

The world is about 1.1 degrees Celsius hotter compared to the period before the Industrial Revolution in 1750–1900, when humans started using large amounts of fossil fuels and released emission gases into the atmosphere.

Temperatures on Earth in 2023 are expected to be 1.08 to 1.32 degrees Celsius warmer than the pre-industrial or pre-industrial average.

COP and its myths

Meanwhile, countries around the world are committed to reducing emissions to keep temperature rises below 1.5 degrees Celsius to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. Many countries around the world have come to an agreement on that commitment since 2015. Similarly, the real actions that have been achieved However, the reality is that global temperatures also become warmer each year without being able to avoid it. The existence of the COP, which aims to slow the rate of increase in the earth’s temperature, actually needs to be questioned again, starting from the formation of the COP itself, the procedures for implementing decisions, and the time-consuming implementation.

Among the things that make the COP less reliable in efforts to control the earth’s temperature, there are:

Firstly, the fact that the COP, which is under the umbrella of the UN, is not a suitable place for efforts to reduce carbon emission commitments because, basically, the UN was originally designed to bring about peace between people, while climate change must be designed for humans to face an environment that cannot be negotiated like humans.

Secondly, the UN has a voluntary system. There is no obligation to follow and obey the rules that are in place. Not all countries in the world have participated in the 2015 COP Paris Agreement. Countries of the world can leave the UN at any time if they are deemed inappropriate and are no longer sought after. There is no ultimate coercive law; it’s all voluntary.

The third, the COP was designed inappropriately based on the needs of nature and the environment, because the environment cannot speak like humans do, but the agendas and communiqués in the COP are prepared based on the needs and interests of the countries in the COP, where the votes are the most and are considered most profitable; that’s how the agenda and the rules of the COP were made. This is clear from previous COPs 26 and 27.

At COP26, the phrase “stop” the use of fossil fuels was modified to “periodically decrease” the use of fossil fuels. With regard to COP27, the discussion focused on financing and the financing system established by developed countries for developing countries. The grants that were issued during the Paris agreement were considered to have not been on target; there was a lot of suspicion in the flow of grants, not to mention that developed countries like America were considered to not be keeping their promises to spend climate change funds as promised at the beginning of the agreement. China, which produces the second-largest gas emissions after America, is considered not entitled to climate compensation funds, but as the second-largest economy, it should contribute funds.

Indirectly, every year, the COP even looks like a myth because they say that if you do this, it’s going to produce this. All the agendas which have been agreed are but temporary human consolations. It’s not that the COP under the umbrella of the United Nations is not functioning properly; all plans and aspirations are actually logical and can be implemented; it’s just who and how these commitments are carried out that makes everything feel like a myth.

An insight into the climate disaster in the future

The IPCC released its most recent report in August 2021 by analyzing 14,000 studies, 234 experts from 65 countries concluded that the earth’s temperature will rise 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial times of 1800–1850 in 2040.

The temperature increase is faster than forecast for 2050. According to this 4,000-page report over seven years, rising global temperatures cannot be avoided even if each country achieves net-zero or net-zero emissions by 2050.

The meaning of this research is that certain countries will run out of water, some lands will sink, diseases from ancient viruses will return to life and attack humans more than COVID-19, there will be no ice in winter, and predictions of extinction or the genetic transformation of humans will occur.

A bright light in the dark

Human instinct will always seek to prevent catastrophes, hunger and fear. Even though the rate of change on the earth is getting worse day by day, several new breakthroughs have still been successfully created by humans to meet their needs in order to survive. Examples such as air conditioners are created by people to cope with warm summers. Cell farms that can cut livestock production costs, carbon bankers for energy, and even plans to occupy the moon and discover new habitable planets All efforts outside of climate agreements and negotiations will always be a way of life for the good hopes of human life in the future, especially for today’s young generation, which will inherit the earth in the future. However, it is important to understand that regardless of the quality of existing discoveries, they will not be the same as the clean air that still exists today. Similarly, whatever the quality of the house in the future, it will not necessarily be as comfortable as the land we live on today.

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