International Mother Earth Day is a chance to reflect on how humanity has been treating our planet, and let’s face it: we’ve been poor custodians. And while a steady stream of IPCC reports has painted a legitimately worrying picture of the current state of the planet, don’t lose hope – here’s why: there are more innovative ideas for serious climate action than ever and around the world, people are working together on solutions to help repair the damage that’s been done to our fragile home.
But before we get to the exciting stuff, there’s no denying the gravity of the problem.
The Earth is facing a ‘triple planetary crisis’: climate disruption, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste.
“This triple crisis is threatening the well-being and survival of millions of people around the world. The building blocks of happy, healthy lives – clean water, fresh air, a stable and predictable climate – are in disarray, putting the Sustainable Development Goals in jeopardy”, the UN Secretary-General warns in a video message for Earth Day 2022.
The good news is that there is still hope, António Guterres stresses, reminding us that 50 years ago, the world came together in Stockholm for the pivotal UN Conference on the Human Environment, which kickstarted a global movement.
“Since then, we have seen what is possible when we act as one. We have shrunk the ozone hole. We have expanded protections for wildlife and ecosystems. We have ended the use of leaded fuel, preventing millions of premature deaths. And just last month, we launched a landmark global effort to prevent and end plastic pollution”.
The positive developments have not stopped there, the recently recognized right to a healthy environment is gaining traction and young people are more engaged than ever in the combat to take on our planetary threats.
“We have proven that together, we can tackle monumental challenges”, Mr. Guterres says.
Of course, much more needs to be done – and more quickly – to protect our home, but to celebrate Earth Day, we want to highlight five projects being implemented around the world right now aimed at repairing the damage we have caused.
These solutions are just some of the founding initiatives of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a global rallying cry launched last year to heal our planet. It aims to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and ocean.
So here are 5 ways that we (humans) are working to restore our ailing Earth:
1. Converting coal mines into carbon sinks
In Appalachia, a geographical and cultural region in the eastern United States that includes Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia and is named after the Appalachian Mountains, the NGO Green Forests Work (GFW) is restoring forests on lands impacted by coal surface mining projects.
Surface mining is a technique used when coal is less than 200 feet underground. Large machines remove the topsoil and layers of rock and expose coal seams. Miners might also dynamite the tops of mountains and remove them to access the seams.
Once the mining is completed, what was once a forest is often converted into grasslands often composed of non-native species. This means, of course, the loss of large tracts of forested areas and the displacement and even loss of species.
To reverse this incredible damage, since 2009, Green Forests Work has been restoring mined lands by planting nearly 4 million native trees across more than 6,000 acres.
“Many mined lands are among the best places to plant trees for the purposes of mitigating climate change. Because the soils of reclaimed mined lands initially have very little organic carbon, they can serve as carbon sinks for decades, if not centuries, as the forests grow and build the soils,” Michael French, GFW Director of Operations explains to UN News.
He adds that by restoring native forests to these lands, they are restoring the ecosystem services they provide to society, including clean air and water, improved wildlife habitat, climate change mitigation through carbon sequestration, as well as a sustainable economic resource base.
“We at GFW hope that everyone is able to get out and experience the wonders of the natural world and make their own contribution to improving the world around them this Earth Day and every day,” Mr. French highlights.
2. Restoring ecosystem connectivity
Twenty years ago, a satellite photograph of Australia’s south-western corner showing the vast extent of natural vegetation lost due to human activity since the European settlement inspired a group of activists to form Gondwana Link.
The image showed how two-thirds of the vegetation in the region had been cleared across thousands of kilometres, and, over much of the agricultural region, many areas had less than 5-10 per cent of their original bushland (natural undeveloped areas) left.
They realized, however, that many biodiversity hotspots remained intact in conservation areas, although disconnected, across 1000 kilometres.
Even the largest patches of natural habitats are unable to guarantee the survival or continued evolution of species if they remain isolated from each other. Many bird and animal species are being reduced to small, isolated populations that are under stress, for example.
Unless these areas are reconnected, many species could be lost, something Godwana Link is working to prevent.
“Habitats are protected, managed, restored and reconnected throughout the climate gradient that wildlife will move along in the face of climate change, from semi-arid woodlands to tall wet forests. This work is being achieved in ways that support the aspirations of the Noongar and Ngadju people, who were dispossessed in colonial times but are now regaining the right and the ability to be land managers once again,” CEO Keith Bradby explains to UN News.
Mr. Bradby describes how significant gains have been made with the work of a broad range of groups, businesses and individuals contributing a 16-million-hectare habitat area now recognised as the Great Western Woodlands.
“Over 20,000 hectares of farmland has been purchased in the critical habitat gaps, with large swathes under restoration plantings and wildlife already returning. Our state government has announced the end of logging in our native forests”, he adds.
The work of the organization has been recognized globally as an example of what large-scale ecosystem restoration looks like.
“Every day can be Earth Day. We can do it – and the more the merrier”, says Mr. Bradby.
3. Transplanting ‘survivor’ coral fragments
The image above is from Laughing Bird Caye National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Belize. It shows a restored coral reef previously victim of a bleaching event and in danger of death.
Coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse and valuable ecosystems on Earth, harbouring 25 per cent of all marine life.
They are in danger of disappearing by the end of the century all over the world due to the rising temperature and acidity of our ocean’s consequence of climate change.
Their loss would have devastating consequences not only for marine life, but also for over a billion people globally who benefit directly or indirectly from them.
Fragments of Hope is successfully re-seeding devastated reefs by planting genetically robust, diverse and resilient corals in southern Belize.
As a diver, Lisa Carne, the organization’s founder, explains that besides massive coral bleaching events and hurricanes in the region, she saw some corals bouncing back.
“These are the stronger survivors that we are propagating and replenishing the reef with,” she tells UN News.
Since the early 2000’s, Ms. Carne and other women divers and marine biologists from the NGO have been growing healthy corals in nurseries and them transplanting them by hand in shallow water.
“Our work is important because we are striving to prevent the extinction of the Caribbean acroporids corals which are listed as critically endangered which is one step away from extinct in the wild. We think it is also important to educate and inspire people to do more to understand reefs and the threats to them such as climate change,” she explains.
Today, over 49,000 nursery-grown coral fragments have been successfully out-planted in Laughing Bird Caye National Park, turning it once again into a vibrant tourism destination with thriving corals and abundant marine life. These corals have over six years survivorship and are considered the longest documented in the Caribbean.
New nursery and out-plant sites include Moho Caye (over 11,000 corals out-planted) and South Silk Caye (over 2,000 corals out-planted).
“Our message for this Earth Day 2022 is that we as a global society need to do better. What we’ve been doing so far is not working for our planet. We often think about ecosystems and biomes on a small scale but on a larger scale, business as usual is not working, so we all need to do our part to radically change our ways to protect our planet earth,” urges Ms. Carne.
4. Restoring watersheds affected by the climate crisis in the Andes
Another example of large-scale restoration and conservation efforts is happening in the Andes mountains in South America where local communities across five different countries are working together to grow and plant native trees and protect their water sources.
“Native forests have been largely lost in the Andes over the last 500 years following the Spanish conquest. With the last Andean glaciers melting rapidly, water security is now becoming a major issue for local communities and even major South American cities,” Constatino Aucca Chutas, co-founder of the NGO Acción Andina tells UN News.
Mr. Aucca explains that native forests, especially the Polylepis species [shrub and trees that are endemic to the mid- and high-elevation regions of the tropical Andes] and wetlands help create and store large amounts of water around their roots, soils and moss.
“They are our best allies to adapt to climate change and will help secure water for our livelihoods in the next decades to come. But we have to bring them back”, he highlights.
And that’s exactly what Accion Andina is doing: by the end of 2022, they will have planted more than 6 million native trees across the Andes. Their goal is to protect and restore one million hectares of high Andean forests in the next 25 years.
“We have found a unique way to do so: we are reviving the ancient Inca traditions of “Ayni and Minka – which stands for collaboration and community services in our local Quechua culture. With our growing network of local NGO partners, we help communities protect remaining forests; we invest in local nurseries to grow new native forests; we organize community planting festivals – our renowned Queuña Raymi – to plant up to 100,000 trees in a single day; and we are supporting communities to make an additional living from these new restoration opportunities,” Mr. Aucca explains.
He says that while world leaders are still just talking about possible solutions to climate change, thousands of people are already acting on the ground.
“Mobilizing thousands of people to restore forests and achieve immediate climate action is possible… Our Mother Earth is tired of seeing all this hypocrisy, comfort and ego of the leaders who can decide and put on the ground the solutions to have a healthy planet. Local communities and the planet claim for more action, is time to take action for the sake of all of us,” Mr. Aucca urges in his message for Earth Day.
5. Restoring carbon absorbing seagrass
Seagrass provides food and shelter for many marine organisms. They are multifunctional ecosystems and are often referred as nursery habitats because they usually harbour young fish, smaller species of fish and invertebrates.
Because they are plants, seagrasses photosynthesise in the same way terrestrial plants do, using sunlight to synthetise nutrients from carbon dioxide and water and releasing oxygen.
This means that they are an essential tool in combating climate change, on top of their biological functions.
In the last 40 years, the world has lost one third of seagrass meadows due to sustain pressure from coastal development, water quality decline and of course, climate change.
Project Seagrass in the United Kingdom has been working for a decade to reverse that trend.
With the help of over 3000 volunteers, they have been able to plant over a million seagrass seeds and create awareness of the importance of these plants.
“With two full hectares of seagrass successfully restored, our organization has proved that large-scale seagrass restoration in the UK is possible. We are using a mix of cutting-edge technologies to assess sites and plan field trials”, the organization explains.
That’s not all folks
These are just five examples of the more than 50 projects registered with the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. There are thousands of people and organizations already on the ground and making a difference to protect our Earth.
When the UN General Assembly meets this September, we will find out the first 10 World Restoration Flagships, the most promising examples of large-scale and long-term ecosystem restoration.
Bringing back ecosystems from the brink of degradation and loss is possible – and people around the world are already making it happen.
“Because we have only one Mother Earth. We must do everything we can to protect her”, the UN chief reminds us.
Using nature and data to weather coastal storms
Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and intense, sometimes with tragic consequences. Europe’s coastal cities are preparing to meet the challenges with help from nature and data from outer space.
As the people of La Faute-Sur-Mer – a small French coastal town in the Vendée north of La Rochelle – tucked into bed on the night of 27 February 2010, a violent storm was raging out at sea.
Swirling, cyclonic winds, high waves and heavy rain blown up across the Bay of Biscay combined with a high spring tide to wreak havoc as it battered the coastline of western France. Residents awoke to a scene of utter devastation.
Perched perilously between the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the river Lay on the other, the town was completely inundated by flooding from the storm surge. Homes, property and businesses were ruined.
Of the 53 people in France who died as a result of Storm Xynthia, 29 were from La Faute.
In a town with a population of just 1000 people, it was a devastating tragedy.
Such extreme weather events are becoming more common and seaside regions are particularly vulnerable, says Dr Clara Armaroli, a coastal geomorphologist who specializes in coastal dynamics (how coastlines evolve).
In response, the University School for Advanced Studies (IUSS) in Pavia, Italy, is leading a pan-European project to develop an early-warning system to increase coastal resilience. Armaroli coordinates the project, called the European Copernicus Coastal Flood Awareness System (ECFAS).
‘Given climate change and sea-level rise, we know there will be an increase in the tendency and the magnitude of coastal storms,’ Dr Armaroli said.
‘What’s needed is an awareness system at a European level to inform decisions.’
ECFAS has been set up to develop a proof-of-concept for an early-warning system for coastal flooding. It will develop a functional and operational design.
It draws on data and uses tools from the EU’s Copernicus Earth observation satellites and from the Copernicus Services.
Central to this is how data about storm surges, magnitude of flooding and potential impact could be incorporated into the EU’s Copernicus Emergency Management Service (Copernicus EMS).
Copernicus EMS is a space-based monitoring service for Europe and the globe that uses satellite data to spot signs of impending disaster, whether from forest fires, droughts or river flooding.
Coastal flooding is not yet part of the Copernicus emergency management mix so ECFAS wants to ‘plug the gap’ says Armaroli.
This will ensure that coastal flooding is monitored in future and that such vulnerabilities become part of its watching brief.
In addition to charting the progression of storms that break on Europe’s coastlines, the ECFAS team is integrating data about the changes to shorelines caused by coastal erosion. It’s a growing concern as sea-levels rise across the globe.
‘The vulnerability and exposure of our coastal areas are also increasing due to erosion, which is narrowing the boundary between the land and the sea,’ said Dr Armaroli.
The early-warning system will gather data from an array of sources, all of which impact flood risk. This includes geographic factors such as land use and cover, soil type, tidal changes, wave components and sea levels.
It is being designed to provide forecasts for coastal storm hazards up to five days out. Potentially, it could work in tandem with pre-existing regional and national systems to improve local defenses.
Looking beyond the proof-of-concept stage, Armaroli hopes ECFAS-Warning for coastal awareness can play a critical role in helping areas better prepare for when disaster strikes.
‘Our work has started a process, but in the future, we hope this can really help increase the resilience of our coastal areas to the coming extreme weather events,’ she said.
On the west coast of Ireland, in the Atlantic seaport town of Sligo, an environmental engineer named Dr Salem Gharbia is taking the challenges faced by coastal cities to the next level.
With the project – SCORE – Smart Control of the Climate Resilience in European Cities – Dr Gharbia’s team is building a network of ‘living labs’ to rapidly and sustainably enhance local resilience to coastal damage.
‘Coastal cities face major challenges currently because they are so densely populated and because their location makes them vulnerable to sea-level rise and climate change,’ he said.
With SCORE’s network of 10 coastal cities – from Sligo to Benidorm, Dublin to Gdańsk – Dr Gharbia intends to create an integrated solution that should help coastal centres to mitigate the risks.
‘The main idea behind the concept is that we have coastal cities learning from each other,’ he said.
‘Each living lab faces different local challenges,’ he said, ‘But each has been established to include citizens, local stakeholders, engineers, and scientists to co-create solutions that can increase local resilience.’
Through the network, SCORE wants to pioneer nature-based solutions such as the restoration of floodplains or wetlands that reduce the risk of flooding in coastal regions. It’s a model that is already proving effective.
One example, a project to bio-engineer sand dunes in Sligo for stronger natural defenses, is also being tested in Portugal.
The team is developing smart technologies to monitor and evaluate emerging coastal risks. In addition to using existing Earth observation data, this means the community can become involved through new citizen science projects aimed at expanding local data collection.
In Sligo, locals are already getting involved in the monitoring of coastal erosion using what Dr Gharbia terms ‘DIY sensors’ – drone kites – equipped with cameras, to survey local topography.
Elsewhere, citizens are helping to monitor and record water levels and quality, as well as wind speed and direction with a variety of other sensors.
Sustaining local citizen involvement in this way is crucial to SCORE’s success, said Gharbia.
‘It’s essential that this is two-way for citizens,’ he said.
Without engaging them fully in the process of co-design and co-creation of ideas to mitigate risks, you will never get them committed to the types of solution proposed.’
All of this, of course, is creating a wealth of new data from a multitude of sources. But Dr Gharbia is adamant that an integrated approach is critical.
‘The main reason we’re developing this system is,’ he said, ‘We’ve realised that to increase climate resilience we have to utilise all the information coming in from different sources.’
Ultimately, the goal behind the work is for a real-time, early warning system that could be used by local and regional policy makers to test a range of ‘what if’ scenarios.
Currently, the team are categorising the data and optimising the systems and models. In time, they hope other regions can learn from the approach and develop similar living labs.
Dr Gharbia said the impact of his research project should be ‘to create an integrated solution that can be used in multiple different locations and can make a big impact in increasing local coastal resilience.’
Resilience like it should spread far and wide. ‘The main purpose is a solution that can be replicated and scaled up,’ said Dr Gharbia. The tragic consequences of more frequent and more intense coastal storms must be averted.
The research in this article was funded by the EU. If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.
Heat, drought and wildfires during one of the warmest Julys on record
Amidst extreme heat, drought and wildfires, many parts of the world had just experienced one of three warmest Julys on record, the UN weather agency said on Tuesday.
According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), temperatures were close to 0.4℃ above the 1991-2020 average across much of Europe, with southwestern and western Europe being the most above-average regions, because of an intense heatwave around mid-July.
“This is despite the La Niña event that’s meant to have a cooling influence,” explained WMO spokesperson Clare Nullis.
“We saw this in some places, but not globally,” she added, noting that it was “one of the three warmest [Julys] on record, slightly cooler than July 2019, warmer 2016- but the difference is too close to call”.
Portugal, western France and Ireland broke record highs, while England hit 40℃ readings for the very first time.
National all-time records for daily maximum temperatures were also broken in Wales and Scotland.
Spain also had its hottest month on record in July, with an average national temperature of 25.6°C – with a heatwave from 8 to 26 July that was the most intense and longest lasting on record.
Using data from the European Commission’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, the UN weather agency confirmed that Europe had its sixth warmest July.
The heat travelled further north and east ushering very high temperatures across other countries, including Germany and parts of Scandinavia, with local July and all-time records broken at several locations in Sweden.
At the same time, from the Horn of Africa to southern India, and much of central Asia to most of Australia experienced below-average temperatures.
It also dominated a band of territory stretching from Iceland, across Scandinavia via the Baltic countries continuing as far as the Caspian Sea.
Moreover, temperatures were generally below average in Georgia and throughout much of Türkiye.
Polar ice shrinking
July also saw the lowest Antarctic Sea ice on record, a full seven per cent below average.
Arctic Sea ice was four per cent below average, ranking 12th lowest for July according to satellite records.
WMO cited the Copernicus Climate Change Service in saying that Arctic Sea ice concentration was the lowest for July on satellite record, which started in 1979, and sea ice there was the 12th lowest ever.
Glaciers have seen a “brutal, brutal summer,” Ms. Nullis continued.
“We started with low snowpack on glaciers in the alps, reported by meteorological services, and now successive heatwaves- this is bad news for glaciers in Europe. The picture for Greenland’s glaciers is more mixed, however, as there has not been relentless heat”.
In the throes of the heat, WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said in a press conference on 18 July, “this kind of heatwave is the new normal”.
Giraffes, parrots, and oak trees, among many species facing extinction
Around one million species are facing extinction, according to a report from IPBES, an independent intergovernmental science and policy body supported by the UN.
It may be surprising to learn that even giraffes, parrots, and oak trees are included in the list of threatened species, as well as cacti and seaweed.
It may be surprising to learn that giraffes, parrots, and even oak trees are included in the list of threatened species, as well as cacti and seaweed.
Seaweed is one of the planet’s great survivors, and relatives of some modern-day seaweed can be traced back some 1.6 billion years. Seaweed plays a vital role in marine ecosystems, providing habitats and food for marine lifeforms, while large varieties – such as kelp – act as underwater nurseries for fish. However, mechanical dredging, rising sea temperatures and the building of coastal infrastructure are contributing to the decline of the species.
The world’s trees are threatened by various sources, including logging, deforestation for industry and agriculture, firewood for heating and cooking, and climate-related threats such as wildfires.
It has been estimated that 31 per cent of the world’s 430 types of oak are threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species. And 41 per cent are of “conservation concern”, mainly due to deforestation for agriculture and fuel for cooking.
Giraffes are targeted for their meat, and suffer from the degradation of their habitat due to unsustainable wood harvesting, and increased demand for agricultural land; it’s estimated there are only around 600 West African giraffes left in the wild.
Catastrophic results for humanity
The current biodiversity crisis will be exacerbated, with catastrophic results for humanity, unless humans interact with nature in a more sustainable way, according to UN experts.
“The IPBES report makes it abundantly clear that wild species are an indispensable source of food, shelter and income for hundreds of millions around the world,” says Susan Gardner, Director of the Ecosystems Division at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
“Sustainable use is when biodiversity and ecosystem functioning are maintained while contributing to human well-being. By continuing to use these resources unsustainably, we are not just risking the loss and damage of these species’ populations; we are affecting our own health and well-being and that of the next generation.
The report illustrates the importance of indigenous people being able to secure tenure rights over their land, as they have long understood the value of wild species and have learned how to use them sustainably.
Examples of the kinds of transformative changes that are needed to reduce biodiversity loss, include an equitable distribution of costs and benefits, changes in social values, and effective governance systems.
Currently, governments around the world spend more than $500 billion every year in ways that harm biodiversity to support industries like fossil fuels, agriculture, and fisheries. Experts say these funds should be repurposed to incentivize regenerative agriculture, sustainable food systems, and nature-positive innovations.
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