Wildfires, noise pollution, disruptive timing of life cycles: Looming environmental threats
Wildfires are burning more severely and more often, urban noise pollution is growing into a global public health menace, and phenological mismatches – disruptions in the timing of life-cycle stages in natural systems – are causing ecological consequences. These critical environmental issues, requiring greater attention, are highlighted in the new Frontiers Report published today by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
This is the fourth edition of the Frontiers Report, which was first published in 2016 with an alert to the growing risk of zoonotic diseases, four years before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Frontiers Report identifies and offers solutions to three environmental issues that merit attention and action from governments and the public at large,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP. “Urban noise pollution, wildfires and phenological shifts – the three topics of this Frontiers report – are issues that highlight the urgent need to address the triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss.”
The latest edition of the Frontiers report, Noise, Blazes and Mismatches: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern, is released days before the resumed fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA):
Noise pollution in cities is a growing hazard to public health
Unwanted, prolonged and high-level sounds from road traffic, railways, or leisure activities impair human health and well-being. This includes chronic annoyance and sleep disturbance, resulting in severe heart diseases and metabolic disorders such as diabetes, hearing impairment, and poorer mental health.
Noise pollution already leads to 12,000 premature deaths each year in the EU and affects one in five EU citizens. Acceptable noise levels are surpassed in many cities worldwide, including Algiers, Bangkok, Damascus, Dhaka, Ho Chi Minh City Ibadan, Islamabad and New York.
Particularly affected are the very young, the elderly and marginalized communities near high traffic roads, and industrial areas and far from green spaces.
It is also a threat to animals, altering communications and the behaviour of various species, including birds, insects, and amphibians.
At the same time, natural sounds can offer diverse health benefits. Urban planners should prioritize the reduction of noise at the source; investments in alternative mobility; and urban infrastructure that creates positive soundscapes such as tree belts, green walls, green roofs, and more green spaces in cities.
Positive examples include London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone, Berlin’s new cycle lanes on wide roads, and Egypt’s national plan to combat noise.
COVID-19 lockdowns brought a new appreciation for green spaces and the reduction of urban traffic noise. Programmes meant to ‘build back better’ represent an under-utilized opportunity for policymakers, urban planners and communities to create additional green spaces for all.
Dangerous wildfire weather is projected to get worse
Each year, between 2002 and 2016, an average of about 423 million hectares or 4.23 million square km of the Earth’s land surface – an area about the size of the entire European Union – burned, becoming more common in mixed forest and savannah ecosystems. An estimated 67% of the annual global area burned by all types of fires, including wildfires, was on the African continent.
Dangerous wildfire weather conditions are projected to become more frequent and intense and to last longer, including in areas previously unaffected by fires. Extremely intense wildfires can trigger thunderstorms in smoke flumes that aggravate fires through erratic wind speeds and generate lightning that ignites other fires far beyond the fire front, a hazardous feedback loop.
This is due to climate change, including hotter temperatures and drier conditions with more frequent droughts. Land-use change is another risk factor, including commercial logging and deforestation for farms, grazing land, and expanding cities. A further cause for the proliferation of wildfires is the aggressive suppression of natural fire, which is essential in some natural systems to limit the amounts of combustible material, and inappropriate fire management policies that exclude traditional fire management practices and indigenous knowledge.
Long-term effects on human health extend beyond those fighting wildfires, evacuated, or suffering losses. Smoke and particulate matter from wildfires deliver significant consequences for health in downwind settlements, sometimes thousands of kilometres from the source, with impacts often exacerbated among those with pre-existing illness, women, children, the elderly and the poor. Changes in fire regimes are also expected to lead to massive biodiversity loss, endangering over 4,400 terrestrial and freshwater species.
Wildfires generate black carbon and other pollutants that can pollute water sources, enhance the melting of glaciers, cause landslides and large-scale algal blooms in oceans, and turn carbon sinks such as rainforests into carbon sources.
The report calls for greater investment in reducing the risks of wildfires; development of prevention and response management approaches that include vulnerable, rural, traditional and indigenous communities; and further refinements in remote sensing capabilities, such as satellites, radar and lightning detection.
Climate change disrupts natural rhythms in plants and animals
Phenology is the timing of recurring life cycle stages, driven by environmental forces, and how, within an ecosystem, interacting species respond to the changing conditions. Plants and animals in terrestrial, aquatic and marine ecosystems use temperature, day-length or rainfall as cues for when to unfold leaf, flower, bear fruit, breed, nestle, pollinate, migrate or transform in other ways.
Phenological shifts occur when species shift the timing of life cycle stages in response to changing environmental conditions altered by climate change. The concern is that interacting species in an ecosystem do not always shift the timing in the same direction or at the same rate.
These phenological shifts are increasingly disturbed by climate change, pushing plants and animals out of synch with their natural rhythms and leading to mismatches, such as when plants shift life cycle stages faster than herbivores.
Long-distance migrants are particularly vulnerable to phenological change. Local climatic cues that normally trigger migration may no longer accurately predict conditions at their destination and resting sites along the route.
Phenological shifts in crops in response to seasonal variations will be challenging for food production in the face of climate change. Shifts in the phenology of commercially important marine species and their prey have significant consequences for stock and fisheries productivity.
The full impacts of phenological mismatches require further research. Maintaining suitable habitats and ecological connectivity, strengthening the integrity of biological diversity, coordinating international efforts along migratory routes, supporting resilience and maintaining genetic variation within species are crucial conservation goals. Above all, limiting the rate of warming by reducing CO2 emissions is essential.
A liveable future for all is possible, if we take urgent climate action
A major UN “report of reports” from the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), outlines the many options that can be taken now, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to human-caused climate change.The study, “Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report”, released on Monday following a week-long IPCC session in Interlaken, brings into sharp focus the losses and damages experienced now, and expected to continue into the future, which are hitting the most vulnerable people and ecosystems especially hard.
Temperatures have already risen to 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a consequence of more than a century of burning fossil fuels, as well as unequal and unsustainable energy and land use. This has resulted in more frequent and intense extreme weather events that have caused increasingly dangerous impacts on nature and people in every region of the world.
Climate-driven food and water insecurity is expected to grow with increased warming: when the risks combine with other adverse events, such as pandemics or conflicts, they become even more difficult to manage.
Time is short, but there is a clear path forward
If temperatures are to be kept to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, deep, rapid, and sustained greenhouse gas emissions reductions will be needed in all sectors this decade, the reports states. Emissions need to go down now, and be cut by almost half by 2030, if this goal has any chance of being achieved.
The solution proposed by the IPCC is “climate resilient development,” which involves integrating measures to adapt to climate change with actions to reduce or avoid greenhouse gas emissions in ways that provide wider benefits.
Examples include access to clean energy, low-carbon electrification, the promotion of zero and low carbon transport, and improved air quality: the economic benefits for people’s health from air quality improvements alone would be roughly the same, or possibly even larger, than the costs of reducing or avoiding emissions
“The greatest gains in wellbeing could come from prioritizing climate risk reduction for low-income and marginalized communities, including people living in informal settlements,” said Christopher Trisos, one of the report’s authors. “Accelerated climate action will only come about if there is a many-fold increase in finance. Insufficient and misaligned finance is holding back progress.”
Governments are key
The power of governments to reduce barriers to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, through public funding and clear signals to investors, and scaling up tried and tested policy measures, is emphasized in the report.
Changes in the food sector, electricity, transport, industry, buildings, and land-use are highlighted as important ways to cut emissions, as well as moves to low-carbon lifestyles, which would improve health and wellbeing.
“Transformational changes are more likely to succeed where there is trust, where everyone works together to prioritize risk reduction, and where benefits and burdens are shared equitably,” said IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee.
“This Synthesis Report underscores the urgency of taking more ambitious action and shows that, if we act now, we can still secure a liveable sustainable future for all.”
UN chief announces plan to speed up progress
In a video message released on Monday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres described the report as a “how-to guide to defuse the climate time-bomb.”
Climate action is needed on all fronts: “everything, everywhere, all at once,” he declared, in a reference to this year’s Best Film Academy Award winner.
The UN chief has proposed to the G20 group of highly developed economies a “Climate Solidarity Pact,” in which all big emitters would make extra efforts to cut emissions, and wealthier countries would mobilize financial and technical resources to support emerging economies in a common effort to ensure that global temperatures do not rise by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Mr. Guterres announced that he is presenting a plan to boost efforts to achieve the Pact through an Acceleration Agenda, which involves leaders of developed countries committing to reaching net zero as close as possible to 2040, and developing countries as close as possible to 2050.
The Agenda calls for an end to coal, net-zero electricity generation by 2035 for all developed countries and 2040 for the rest of the world, and a stop to all licensing or funding of new oil and gas, and any expansion of existing oil and gas reserves.
These measures, continued Mr. Guterres, must accompany safeguards for the most vulnerable communities, scaling up finance and capacities for adaptation and loss and damage, and promoting reforms to ensure Multilateral Development Banks provide more grants and loans, and fully mobilize private finance.
Looking ahead to the upcoming UN climate conference, due to be held in Dubai from 30 November to 12 December, Mr. Guterres said that he expects all G20 leaders to have committed to ambitious new economy-wide nationally determined contributions encompassing all greenhouse gases, and indicating their absolute emissions cuts targets for 2035 and 2040.
Journey to net-zero ‘picks up pace’
Achim Steiner, Administrator, of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) pointed to signs that the journey to net-zero is picking up pace as the world looks to the 2023 UN Climate Change Conference or COP28 in the United Arab Emirates.
“That includes the Inflation Reduction Act in the U.S., described ‘the most significant legislation in history to tackle the climate crisis’ and the European Union’s latest Green Deal Industrial Plan, a strategy to make the bloc the home of clean technology and green jobs,” he said.
“Now is the time for an era of co-investment in bold solutions. As the narrow window of opportunity to stop climate change rapidly closes, the choices that governments, the private sector, and communities now make — or do not make – will go down in history.”
A Treaty to Preserve Oceans – And Our World
There is cause for celebration in our climatically distressed world for a treaty of historic proportions has been signed by the UN member states. It is the culmination of 15 years of talks and discussions.
Vital to the preservation of 30 percent of our earth, i.e. land and ocean, the oceans treaty broke many political barriers. The EU environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius applauded the event saying it was a crucial step towards preserving marine life and its essential biodiversity for generations to come.
The UN Secretary General commended the delegates, his spokesperson calling the agreement a “victory for multilateralism and for global efforts to counter the destructive trends facing oceanhealth, now and for generations to come.”
The real problem is the oceans belong to no one — and thus available to everyone — because the exclusive economic zones of countries end beyond 200 nautical miles (370 kms) from their coastlines.
These high seas are threatened by overfishing, man-made pollution including damaging plastics, and also climate change. People are unaware that oceans create half the oxygen we breathe, and help in containing global warming by absorbing the carbon dioxide released by human activities — one can think of all the coal and wood fires, particularly in developing countries, and the coal-fired power stations everywhere among other uses of fossil fuels.
The fact is we have to value the environment that nurtures us for the consequences of our disregard can in the final analysis destroy life itself. As it stands, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reports in its 2022 Living Planet Index a 69 percent decrease in monitored populations since 1970, a mere half century. Their data analyzed 32,000 species.
As the apex species, such a loss forces humans to assume responsibility. It rests on each and everyone of us from individuals to governments to corporate entities, and across the spectrum of human activity.
The treaty furnishes legal tools to assist in creating protected areas for marine life; it also requires environmental assessments for intended commercial activity … like deep sea mining for example. The nearly 200 countries involved also signed a pledge to share ocean resources. All in all, it has been a triumph of common sense over the individual greed of people and nations.
So it is that the treaty has made possible the 30×30 target, namely, to protect 30 percent of oceans by 2030. Now comes the hard work of organizing the protection. Who will police the areas? Who will pay for it?
Environmental Crisis in South Asian Countries
During thetwenty-first century, South Asian countries have been facing and dealing with enormous problems. But the environmental crisis is one of the major and most emerging issues. South Asia is the southern part of the continent Asia, which is also known as the Asian societies. Mainly consist of eight countries India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Sir Lanka, and Bangladesh. Most of the environmental problem has been started after the 1960s due to high economic activities, population growth, industrialization, urbanization, and poverty. The combined effects of all these factors caused the situation more complex because of less management of negative and deviant behavior in economic activities. South Asian countries are the developing region that mainly constitutes middle-income countries struggling to flourish their economies and to cope with challenges of political and environmental sustainability, although they are still yet facing many environmental crises which are highly interactive, interlinked with human activities and also human life which it is the need of the hour to be addressed.
Population Density and Population Pressure
Population growth is one of the major elements which play an important role in environmental crises. As all the South Asian developing countries have an extensive density of populations such as India which considers the world second most populated country after China, because the growing population in all South Asian countries, it’s put tremendous population strain on natural and environmental resources such as increase the extraction of resources from the environment influence negatively in our environment. The Intergovernmental Panel Discussion (IPCC) on climate change says that most of the environmental crises are attributed to human activities. The population of Pakistan is also increasing at the rate of 1.9 % annual changes and the population of other South Asian countries is also not up to the mark, but increasing day by day which adversely affects the economy and the natural setting of the environment.
Climate change is also a major problem. South Asian developing counties are vulnerable to climate change-related disasters. The history of Pakistan, and Bangladesh showed how much they suffered due to climate flood disasters. Pakistan and India are facing the brunt of extreme weather almost every year. Being affected by environmental problems severely influence economic activities in the summer of 2022 due to “Heat Waves” in India and Pakistan, “Flood Crisis” in Pakistan last year affected the largest region about one–third of the whole country. Melting glaciers in Pakistan, almost twenty glacier bodies in Nepal, and twenty-five in Bhutan are so unsafe glacial water bodies. Land erosion in India, and Nepal land erosion, and land sliding. With rising sea levels in Bangladesh, Maldives, and Pakistan it is expected that by 2050 most of them swallowed by the sea. This climate condition is not new for this region, according to the World Bank Report 750 million people across South Asian societies are impacted by the last almost 20 years. In Afghanistan, farmers face climate-induced drought, and nearly 19 million Afghans are unable to feed themselves and almost 5 million people across India and Bangladesh. According to the climate change risk index Bangladesh and Pakistan ranked sixth and seventh while India ranked fourth among them respectively. A recent report of intergovernmental on climate change called “Code Red for Humanity” by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, it is predicted that in the next two decades, global warming will increase up to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Almost all Asian societies adversely face the problem of pollution associated with indoor and outdoor elements which may be the source of pollution. With the increase of demographic pressure and urbanization, pollution is also considered a vital concern in South Asian countries. Due to industrialization, transportation, burning of coal, and biomass, excessive use of metals, and soil depletion of natural resources and minerals merely falls under the category of pollution. According to the report of the Air Quality Life Index Pakistan is the fourth most pollution-causing country in the world and India is the second most polluted country in the world and number one in Bangladesh. Excess methane, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, sulfur, and insoluble and soluble materials emitted by vehicles and industries are harmful effects on humans such as lung cancer, asthma, and water-borne diseases. It badly influences plants and animals.
Water scarcity is a major concern in almost every region. South Asian countries have become water-default regions due to population exploitation, and unplanned urbanization. Almost 90- 95 of water is consumed by agriculture and industries, and there is insufficient storage and a wasteful irrigation method. Per capita, water availability is less than the world average and 4.5% of freshwater resources availability. Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan face varying degrees of water scarcity. Groundwater depletion caused by irrigation, agriculture runoff, industries, and the unregulated release of sewage needs a major concern. Along with scarcity of water quality and quantity, both are also affected by the reduction in the quantity of water because of the recession of glaciers and disruption in the monsoon.
Furthermore, global warming is also a main issue that is observed globally it is specifically due to human activities primarily the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, and petroleum, fire burning, and along with the emission of harmful gases. South Asian countries are the major source of carbon dioxide, so it is a crucial component in global warming. However many South Asian countries implement a tax on the use of carbon-related components, a form of small fiscal policy to reduce the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere.
In addition to all these South Asia approximately uses only 5.9 % of global energy resources excluding the non- commercial energy resources. South Asian counties have increased the demand for energy in the last few decades, increasing demand by up to 50% since 2000. The rising energy demand is induced by population growth and the manufacturing sector. All the south Asian countries have increased the demand for electricity on average by more than five percent annually over the past two decades and are expected for the future that requires more than double by 2050. More than two third of the energy is imported. So it put pressure to increase cost recovery if the demand increase. In South Asia, disruptions due to conflict among other countries adversely impact fuel imports and put greater pressure on the government to ensure the security of their energy supply.
South Asian countries are major part and contributors to the world economy. Due to the crisis, economic activities were destroyed and diminished in many regions, because of damage to productivity and infrastructure, security threats, and mass migration, as the results growth rate declined and the world economy gets affected. Globally, all the economies of the world somehow depend upon each other for trade. To facilitate this connection it is necessary to maintain a balance. There are many organizations are working in South Asian countries to control the environmental crisis, such as the intergovernmental organization of South Asia Co-operative Environment Program (SACEP). Climate Action Network of South Asia, South Asian form for the environment. So the main purpose of all these organizations is to provide support, protection, and management in context to contribute in terms of sustainable development, along with issues of economic and social development. In addition to all these, urgent action is needed to curb all the challenges. The most immediate and pragmatic step to cope with the challenges is to make a collective UN committee for collaboration among the countries, reduce the global emission of harmful gases, decarbonize the energy sector, educate people to spread awareness among people start campaigns related to the protection of environmental at county level, uses of renewable resources, new policy initiation, formulation, and Implementation.
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