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Beach bots, sea ‘raptors’ and marine toolsets mobilised to get rid of marine litter

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Often quickly disposed of but lasting in the environment for tens to hundreds of years, plastic litter pollutes our seas worldwide, creating a serious threat to wildlife and contributing to climate change as they break down.

‘It’s the scale of it – it’s a global problem. You can guarantee that any beach you walk on, you’ll find pieces of plastic,’ said James Comerford, a senior researcher in materials and nanotechnology at SINTEF, an independent research organisation in Oslo, Norway. 

Plastics are estimated to comprise 85% of marine litter, with 11 million metric tonnes entering the oceans annually and the volume potentially tripling by 2040. Some have predicted that, by weight, there will be more plastics than fish in the seas by 2050

In light of the alarming outlook, innovative approaches are required to tackle the problem. This is exactly what the EU Mission “Restore our Ocean and Waters by 2030” is targeting, with the ambition of reducing plastic litter at sea by at least 50%, cutting microplastics released into the environment by 30%, and halving agricultural nutrient losses as well as the use of chemical pesticides. 

To reduce pollution, the Mission is launching a ‘lighthouse’ in the Mediterranean Sea that will act as a hub to develop, demonstrate and deploy solutions far and wide across the world by getting all the relevant players on board. Its role is to connect and structure activities, disseminate and upscale solutions and mobilise relevant actors. 

Its initial focus is on plastic pollution. Projects such as In-No-Plastic and AQUA-LIT are exploring ways to reduce the contribution of people and sea-based industries to plastic pollution, while the Maelstrom project looks at where marine debris is distributed and how best to remove it from the seabed and water. It is also exploring economically viable ways to recover and recycle marine plastic debris, such as circular product design for fishing gear.

The wide-reaching In-No-Plastic project, led by Comerford as the project coordinator, is developing a range of technologies that deal not only with easily visible, large pieces of plastics – or macroplastics – but also the insidious threat of tiny microplastics measuring less than 5 millimetres, and even smaller nanoplastics.

‘Macroplastics are going to need different cleaning technologies to microplastics, so we’re looking at the whole spectrum,’ said Comerford.

Several separate technologies that are currently under development can be deployed in tandem to clean up the water. A couple of them help to deal with microplastics by clumping them into more manageable sizes, one using biodegradable chemical substances called flocculants that cause particles to coagulate, and the other – known as SepaRaptor – using ultrasonic waves that push the particles into clusters. 

These can be combined with another technology that uses a screen to sift out plastic debris.

On the macroplastics side of things is SEEker, a four-wheeled plastic-waste-collection robot being trained using artificial intelligence to identify and pick up litter from beaches and put it in a bin carried on its back. The robot will also have a loading station near the beach, where it can dispose of waste and recharge.

‘It’ll be entirely autonomous,’ said Comerford. ‘Because there’s so much litter and because it’s everywhere, you need something focusing on it all the time. To have solely a human influence is really time-consuming.’

Mobile application

Another technology, which includes features that could be key to tackling the issue of plastic pollution in the long-term future, is an application for smartphones. This encourages volunteers to gather litter and record data on their activities, using “social rewards” sourced via the local economy – for example, discounts on pizzas or at the gym.

However, the app will also eventually help to track the amount of plastic waste collected, recycled and used in products, allowing us to get more of a handle on how effectively the circular economy is working. 

Although that function is currently under development, Comerford explained that it will be supported using photos and GPS data on collected litter, as well as blockchain technology – which can enable better tracing of the contents of goods by storing data on the movement of materials through a supply chain.

‘So many people say they include recycled material in products,’ said Comerford. ‘If we’re really to make a difference and turn this whole thing round, that’s got to be countable.’

But apart from the pure tech side, public buy-in for solutions to the plastic problem is crucial. Partners in In-No-Plastic, such as non-profit organisation Venice Lagoon Plastic Free (VLPF), are also conducting clean-up initiatives supported by the mobile application and gauging the attitudes of the public on plastic pollution. 

Davide Poletto, an executive director at the organisation, says Venice is an ideal place to run plastic pollution initiatives, as a location with an enclosed area of water, and intense marine traffic, aquaculture, fishery activity and tourism. ‘The lagoon of Venice is the largest wetland in the Mediterranean basin and a World Heritage Site of UNESCO, and this is an extraordinary laboratory to work in because you have a lot of different problems,’ he said. 

He also points out that the pandemic has provided a ‘unique opportunity’ to analyse just how much overtourism contributes to pollution, including that caused by plastics, and the capacity of the local ecosystem to recover. Poletto cites a study showing that 17 of 40 chemical contaminants previously found in the Venice lagoon were undetectable after early-2020 lockdowns, while the presence of many others was significantly lower.

Boosting awareness

Recent In-No-Plastic events appear to have shown promise for growing public awareness and interest in getting involved. In one clean-up event organised in Venice in 2021, 130 people collected three tonnes of waste, including more than 1,500 kilograms of plastics.

Poletto also cites figures from an ongoing awareness study carried out by his team on more than 1,500 people in Italy, the UK and Croatia, the vast majority from outside related work sectors. Over 85% of respondents per country said joining clean-up events had helped them better understand the seriousness of marine plastic pollution, while almost 95% identified microplastics as a bigger issue than macroplastics – suggesting understanding is now widespread on the perils of invisible fragments. 
 
Poletto pointed to growing coverage in the news and social media, as well as first-hand experience. ‘It’s interesting to see how people are realising all those things,’ he said. ‘And it’s not that they are specialists.’

But apart from stimulating public interest, he said more knowledge is needed on sources of plastic pollution to better advise decision-makers on how to deal with it. Using another app that aids with beach litter identification as part of the Maelstrom project, VLPF found that on some beaches, up to 40% of plastics on nearby islands such as Pellestrina came from fishing gear – mostly mussel nets.

This is important to show, for instance, that a big proportion of plastics in these areas goes straight into the sea rather than originating in rivers, said Poletto. ‘Then there’s evidence brought to the public administration that we should do more in certain locations.’

Aquaculture challenge

Gear is a big issue in the aquaculture industry too, where there is also an urgent need to tackle plastic pollution given that it is the world’s fastest-growing food sector. Aquaculture is estimated to account for more than half of global fish consumption, and could reach over 60% in the next decade.

But Mariana Mata Lara, project manager at environmental technology organisation Geonardo, says that much more knowledge is needed on how to tackle plastic pollution from the sector, caused by items including cages, ropes, nets and buoys.

She also said we need to separate data on pollution caused by aquaculture, or farming of aquatic produce, from that caused by traditional fisheries that catch wild fish. ‘In reality, we don’t know exactly the amount of plastics that comes from this sector,’ added Lara.

With this in mind, a project she led called AQUA-LIT sought to create a knowledge base on both plastics and other marine waste before the problem gets too big as the sector surges. ‘In many things in life, we come up with solutions once the problem exists. The idea with AQUA-LIT was to go in parallel and start solving this as it grows, so we don’t later have to come up with solutions to cover what we did in the past,’ said Lara.

AQUA-LIT did this by developing a toolbox of measures to monitor and prevent marine littering in the sector, as well as to remove and recycle waste.

The team gathered the information by working with research institutes, organisations and people involved in aquaculture in the Mediterranean, North Sea and Baltic Sea. Activities included interactive ‘Learning Lab’ workshops to discuss marine litter issues, exchange knowledge and brainstorm ideas.

More than 400 ideas and solutions

The resulting toolbox contains a variety of measures, arranged by topics including different sea basins, aquaculture types, and stage of removal and recycling, as well as policy recommendations. ‘In the toolbox, we have provided more than 400 ideas and solutions,’ said Lara.

As part of its work, AQUA-LIT has created an inventory detailing 65 sources of waste generated by aquaculture, a database on how European ports deal with litter and regional maps on percentages of aquaculture-related litter across its focus sea basins.

Lara added that many of these ideas can be applied or expanded on elsewhere. ‘We wanted this information to be useful not only for these three sea basins we worked in, so we created action plans to transfer the knowledge to other regions,’ she said. 

As an example, Lara described how the resources had been used by the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, an alliance involving the fishing industry, private sector, corporates, NGOs, academia and governments that focuses on solving the problem of lost and abandoned fishing gear.

‘The Global Ghost Gear Initiative developed a best-practice framework for the management of aquaculture gear, and they used four of our reports, our marine inventory and our toolbox to help build it,’ said Lara.

With a section in the toolbox for people to contribute ideas, she hopes it will grow further and that the knowledge base will ultimately lead to more practical solutions. ‘The idea is that it’s for everyone and fed by everyone,’ she said.

Lara said that promise was shown by AQUA-LIT being invited to present at events in locations such as the Black Sea, and for a Latin American audience, reflecting the significant need for this type of information and its importance as a widespread issue. ‘I think the value of AQUA-LIT is having done that first step,’ she said.

With In-No-Plastic likewise hoping to provide foundations to drive forward solutions to marine waste, the problem of plastics and other litter is set to be tackled from multiple angles.

That will also require wide societal strategies to deal with waste, said Comerford. ‘It’s a holistic approach we need,’ he said. ‘You need to look at everything in the environment currently, but also we can be a bit cleverer about our products in terms of sustainability and end-of-life options.’

The research in this article was funded by the EU. If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.

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China will aim to plant and conserve 70 billion trees by 2030

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Xie Zhenhua, China’s Special Envoy for Climate Change announced the country’s active response to the World Economic Forum’s 1t.org initiative, the platform supporting the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The World Economic Forum and China Green Foundation will actively echo and support the contribution to be implemented in China. This initiative will encourage society-wide stakeholders, including enterprises, individuals, and local governments at all levels to commit with actions to plant, conserve, restore and manage 70 billion trees in China by 2030.

1t.org was launched at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting two years ago to support the growing momentum around nature-based solutions by mobilizing the private sector, facilitating regional multi-stakeholder partnerships, and supporting innovation and ecopreneurship on the ground.

During his speech at the Forum’s 2022 Annual Meeting in Davos, Xie Zhenhua said: ‘China’s forest cover and forest stock volume have been growing in the last 30 years, and China accounts for more than 25% of the world’s new green areas. China responds actively to contribute to the 1t.org initiative from the World Economic Forum, and I am announcing here that China aims to plant and conserve 70 billion trees within 10 years to green our planet, combat climate change, and increase forest carbon sinks.’

In support of this bold contribution, Chairman Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum said:

‘We appreciate China’s effort in supporting the 1t.org initiative of the World Economic Forum and relevant UN initiatives, we highly appreciate China’s practices upholding relative international commitment such as the Paris Agreement and Biodiversity target through Nature-Based Solutions.’

China’s Bold Action

In the past decade, China has regrown more than 70 million hectares of forest cover. The country has benefited greatly from solutions in biodiversity conservation, sustainable usage and climate governance, resulting in wetland and forest restoration that also combats desertification.

China’s 14th “Five Year Plan” has a stated target of increasing forest coverage to 24.1% by 2025, and forest stock volume up to 19 billion cubic meters. Science-based greening efforts and inter-ministerial cooperation have provided the key vehicle for forest ecosystem restoration.

China’s contribution will encourage the 1t.org initiative to collaborate more closely in the local context to fulfill this contribution and will stimulate collective community actions at large scales and empower Chinese organizations and individuals to make contributions. China’s active response to 1t.org displays the nation’s capacity and strong commitment to safeguard the Paris Agreement and post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

How Trees Can Play Their Part

China’s land restoration and afforestation projects provide fundamental support to the country’s poverty reduction targets of elevating 20 million people out of poverty, with the lives of 3 million people already improved through increased household income. Healthy and resilient forests are also part of people’s expectations for better living qualities according to China’s strategy. During the period of China’s13th Five year plan, the Chinese forest tourism industry grew substantially with an annual average of 1.5 billion tourists visiting national forests.

Mobilize Society-wide Action, Plant Future Trees of Hopes

China’s active response to the 1t.org initiative encourages all stakeholders to promote solutions and activities to meet climate and nature targets. These include emission reduction policies for committed companies and individuals; guiding local governments to promote climate adaptation activities such as afforestation and ecological restoration, engaging scientific organizations, think-tanks, and civil societies to promote accountable and credible tools and evaluation frameworks; creating digital environments and crowd funding opportunities for innovation solutions; and adding afforestation and carbon storage incentives.

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More Industrial Hubs to Accelerate Their Net-Zero Transition

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Four leading industrial clusters in the Netherlands, Belgium and the US today announced that they are working together with the World Economic Forum to reduce their carbon emissions faster through the Transitioning Industrial Clusters towards Net Zero initiative.

Launched at COP26 in November 2021, the initiative aims to accelerate the decarbonization of hard-to-abate industrial sectors, while maximizing job creation and economic competitiveness. The approach focuses on building cross-industry and cross-cluster partnerships to better implement low-carbon technologies – as in the case of the regionally developed Basque Hydrogen Corridor – and on accessing public funding and blended-finance options for clusters’ decarbonization projects.

Under this initiative, the World Economic Forum, working closely with Accenture and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) as knowledge partners, connects private and public stakeholders to assess how to meet individual and collective decarbonization goals, fosters new enabling policies and provides guidance and support for local community engagement.

Industrial clusters are geographic regions where industrial companies are concentrated, making them an attractive target for impactful emissions reduction strategies. Since industrial assets are located in close proximity of each other, sharing of infrastructure (such as CO2 and hydrogen pipelines or renewable energy assets), financial and operational risks, and natural and human resources becomes possible. This also provides opportunities to deploy and scale new green technologies, such as hydrogen and the capture, utilization and storage of carbon for industrial applications, enabling a systemic approach to emissions reduction.

The clusters joining the initiative are:

· Brightlands Circular Space, together with Brightlands Chemelot Campus, Chemelot, and the Chemelot Circular Hub in Geleen, Netherlands. It will help accelerate the energy transition and circular economy.

· H2Houston Hub, formed through the Center for Houston’s Future and encompassing more than 100 organizations and companies. It will leverage the Houston area’s position as the US’s largest hydrogen producer and consumer, and use innovation and scale to reduce the cost of clean hydrogen and emissions.

· Ohio Clean Hydrogen Hub Alliance, with approximately 100 corporate, governmental and community organization members. It will lead the region’s campaign to establish a clean hydrogen hub in the state of Ohio, US.

· Port of Antwerp-Bruges, Europe’s second-largest port. It will drive the circular economy and energy transition.

These four large industrial emissions centres, involving oil and gas extraction and processing, shipping, heavy-duty transportation, chemicals and other sectors, currently account for CO2 emissions of 296 million metric tonnes per year – greater than the annual emissions of Poland. They employ more than 470,000 people and represent an annual gross domestic product (GDP) of $135 billion.

“Supporting industrial clusters and corporate partners in the development and implementation of their net-zero strategies is at the heart of what we do,” said Roberto Bocca, Head of Energy, Materials and Infrastructure Platform, World Economic Forum. “We are proud to leverage our collaborative platform and expertise in partnership building to grow the clusters initiative as well as other decarbonization efforts we support, such as the First Movers Coalition, Mission Possible Partnership and Clean Hydrogen Initiative.”

The four new clusters join four others in the UK (Zero Carbon Humber and Hynet North West), Australia (Kwinana Industries Council) and Spain (Basque Net-Zero Industrial Supercluster), which were part of the initial launch of the initiative. Based on metrics provided by each cluster, all eight clusters could potentially save more than 334 million tonnes of CO2 – more than the equivalent annual emissions output of France. They could also create and protect 1.1 million jobs and contribute $182 billion to regional GDP.

“The Ohio Clean Hydrogen Hub Alliance seeks to locate a clean hydrogen hub in the state of Ohio, leading to the eventual decarbonization of much of the transportation, electricity, industrial and heating sectors,” said Kirt Conrad, Co-Founder, Ohio Clean Hydrogen Alliance and Chief Executive Officer, Stark Area Regional Transit Authority. “Investment into a clean hydrogen hub in Ohio will help create massive economic, environmental and health benefits for the state and its citizens.”

“With our focus on becoming the premier circular ecosystem in Europe, it is of upmost importance that we foster competitive collaboration between the companies in our cluster as well as with other global clusters,” said Lia Voermans, Director Brightlands Circular Space, “We believe that this initiative provides a gateway to access the best practices and processes supporting industrial decarbonization.”

The new clusters are already actively advancing their decarbonization journey. For instance, the Port of Antwerp-Bruges is starting to convert hydrogen into sustainable raw materials and fuel for the port’s chemicals sector, whereas the Ohio Clean Hydrogen Hub Alliance has developed hydrogen fuel cell buses which tour around the US, educating transit authorities on the potential and viability of clean transportation. However, to achieve net-zero emissions, these efforts must be scaled up. Often, financial mechanisms, rather than technology, are the main roadblock, and policy frameworks to support valuable future technologies are lacking. As value chains are transformed, the creation of new partnerships will be key.

“The Houston region has the talent, expertise and infrastructure needed to lead the global energy transition to a low carbon world,” said Brett Perlman, CEO of the Center for Houston’s Future. “Clean hydrogen, alongside carbon capture, use and storage are among the key technology areas where Houston is set to succeed and can be an example to other leading energy economies around the world.”

“The Port of Antwerp-Bruges hosts Europe’s largest chemical cluster and supports the European Green Deal to become climate neutral by 2050,” said Jacques Vandermeiren, Chief Executive Officer, Port of Antwerp. “To reach this goal we will all have to work together with respect for individual company needs, industry characteristics and timing. The Transitioning Industrial Clusters towards Net-Zero initiative is a means to inspire and incentivize companies to share best practices in our common pursuit of staying well below 2°C.”

In addition to the eight clusters currently involved in the initiative, more than a dozen in the US, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region are also in the process of joining. The aim is to build a community of 100 global industrial clusters to accelerate industrial decarbonization.

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Global Food Crisis Must Be Solved Alongside Climate Crisis

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Instability in Ukraine is threatening to intensify an already precarious global food security outlook. Increasing prices of fertilizers and inaccessibility of Ukrainian exports have made a delicate situation potentially dire, as 800 million people now go hungry each night. Russian blockades of Ukrainian ports have further intensified world leaders’ focus on worsening food insecurity.

“Failure to open the ports is a declaration of war on global food security,” said David Beasley, Executive Director, United Nations World Food Programme. The pandemic had already complicated global efforts to reduce famine and food insecurity, and those challenges have only intensified with the conflict in Ukraine. “We’re taking food from the hungry to give to the starving,” said Beasley of the recent conditions.

Food insecurity is a problem not only for public health but also for geopolitics and security. “Hungry societies break down wherever you are in the world,” said Julia Chatterley, Anchor, CNN.

There is a risk that short-term efforts to combat food shortages could come at the expense of meeting climate and sustainability targets given the interconnection between agriculture and climate change. Global food production contributes more than a third of greenhouse gas emissions, and efforts to ramp up food supply could worsen emissions and reliance on fossil fuels.

Innovation technologies and regenerative techniques can improve agricultural productivity. “Agriculture has to be part of the solution to climate change and the solution for food security,” said J. Erik Fyrwald, CEO, Syngenta Group. The goal must be growing more food on less land and, to do so, farmers can employ best practices from both organic and conventional farming. He advised that EU food policy reforms that shift away from a focus on organics towards targets on productivity and emission reduction could better address the current crisis. Techniques such as crop rotation and covering land in winter better protect soil and help farmers increase yield with less fertilizer.

Africa can play a major role in improving global food security, but the continent faces multiple challenges to unlocking agricultural productivity. Already, famine has intensified social and political turmoil in several countries. “If we don’t silence the guns, it’s not going to work,” said Philip Isdor Mpango, Vice-President of Tanzania, regarding the goal of increasing agricultural productivity. He pointed to the continent’s young population – with roughly 70% of the population aged 25 or younger – and the need to include youth in improving agricultural productivity. “We must strategize so we have the youthful population involved in agricultural value chains.”

Another challenge relates to post-harvest losses. Approximately one third of the continent’s food production is lost after harvest due to poor infrastructure, storage and other challenges. Investing in irrigation, transport infrastructure and storage facilities can improve Africa’s contribution to global food security.

Viet Nam is experiencing the current food crisis alongside intensified effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels and saltwater intrusion. The nation has a plan to become a “food innovation hub in South-East Asia,” said Le Minh Khai, Deputy Prime Minister of Viet Nam. Doing so requires a holistic approach that balances short-term and long-term strategies and involves multinational organizations, entrepreneurs, investors and farmers.

Both wealthy and developing nations have a key role to play, particularly given that food production must increase more than 60% by 2050 to feed the world. “Solving the global food crisis is everyone’s business,” said Mariam Mohammed Saeed Al Mheiri, Minister of Climate Change and the Environment, United Arab Emirates.

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