International Day of Clear Blue Skies

Aside from Labor Day in the U.S., today is the first International Day of Clear Blue Skies, which was established by the United Nations General Assembly to bring awareness to the largest environmental risk to public health globally: air pollution.

Over 90% of our world is exposed to polluted air, which causes an estimated seven million premature deaths every year (more than cigarette smoking) and leaves millions more with chronic health problems like asthma and cognitive decline.

Fortunately, the world has a precedent for successful action: Over 30 years ago this month, the UN-sponsored Montreal Protocol saw literally every country commit to working together to eliminate CFCs, which were causing severe depletion of the ozone layer; it remains one of the few treaties with universal agreement. It took only 14 years between the discovery of the problem and the world committing to resolve it—and we’ve already seen the results.

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A few years ago, it was confirmed that the ozone layer is slowly recovering, and most projections show it fully healing within the next four decades. In an era of rising conflict and poor global leadership, this unlikely and little known success story of international cooperation is a glimmer of hope.

The Humblest Thing on Earth

Humanity seems a lot like the Martians in The War of the Worlds: An unstoppable force that can overcome and overwhelm every ecosystem with impunity, only to be brought to its lowest point by a tiny pathogen, “the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth” (to quote H.G. Wells nameless narrator in the book).

A bit dramatic, I know, but it is a reminder of how much more vulnerable we are to nature than we think. Many of us are so insulated in our highly industrialized and urbanized societies that we forget “the environment” is not some distant rainforest or coral reef: It is everywhere, part of a single planetary system that does not care about political or physical barriers; viruses can spread everywhere and anywhere, and environmental collapse or degradation in one part of the world can reverberate everywhere else.

An international study found that just eight countries — all but one of them in Asia — are responsible for about 63 percent of all plastic waste in the oceans:

China
Indonesia
Philippines
Vietnam
Sri Lanka
Thailand
Egypt
Malaysia

An unspoken factor that most of these countries have in common: They have been turned into the world’s factories, as mostly Western firms have outsourced some of their most polluting and resource-intensive manufacturing plants to poorer countries that generally lack regulations and/or rule of law.

Most of the nations are also literally the world’s dumping grounds: Much of our garbage — particularly plastic — is shipped to China, the Philippines, Malaysia, and others for recycling, though they cannot always handle the volume.

In a strange way, this deluge of waste also indicates progress: All the countries have a burgeoning middle class — China’s alone is bigger than the whole U.S. by several hundred million — and that means catching up with Western-style consumption and waste, for which they lack the infrastructure and resources.

This is yet another example of why environmental degradation must be addressed at a global level. Just as our trade, commerce, and economic activity transcends borders, so do the waste and resource scarcity they produce. We can’t ship our garbage and pollution to poorer countries and expect them to handle it on their own. Like it or not, we all depend on the same oceans, atmosphere, and resources.

Note: Nigeria and Bangladesh round up the top ten. The U.S. is the only rich country in the top 20, and while it is by far the largest, it also has the most resources to address the issue.

Source: Bloomberg

How Average Indians Revived a Beachside Dump Into a Turtle Hatchery

In spring of 2018, something amazing happened in one of the most polluted beaches in the world: For the first time in decades, an extremely vulnerable turtle species has been spotted on the shores of Mumbai, India.

As The Guardian reported:

At least 80 Olive Ridley turtles have made their way into the Arabian Sea from nests on the southern end of Versova beach in the past week, protected from wild dogs and birds of prey by volunteers who slept overnight in the sand to watch over them.

Versova has undergone what the United Nations has called the “world’s largest beach cleanup project” over the past two years, transformed from a shin-deep dump yard for plastics and rubbish to a virtually pristine piece of coastline.

The man who leads the ongoing cleanup operation, the lawyer Afroz Shah, said he started anticipating the turtle hatchings two months ago when farmers on the southern end of the two-mile (3km) beach reported seeing turtles in the sand.

“The moment we got that news I knew something big was going to happen,” he told the Guardian. Last Thursday, some of his volunteers called to say they had spotted dozens of baby Olive Ridley turtles emerging from their nests.

He called the forest department and then went down to the beach with about 25 others, guarding the area while the tiny creatures hobbled across the sand, “making sure not one hatchling suffered a death”, he said.

In just two years, average Indians were able to reverse ecological devastation and watch a dying species begin to rejuvenate. Imagine volunteering day and night to make sure these little creatures had a fighting chance.

For more than two years, Shah has been leading volunteers in manually picking up rubbish from Versova beach and teaching sustainable waste practices to villagers and people living in slums along the coastline and the creeks leading into it.

About 55,000 people live along the beach and the waterways that feed it in the crowded megacity. Shah said he taught them by example, offering to clean communal toilets and pick up rubbish himself before he ever sought their help.

“For the first six to eight weeks, nobody joined,” he said. “Then two men approached me and said, very politely, ‘Please sir, can we wear your gloves?’ Both of them just came and joined me. That’s when I knew it was going to be a success.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, in the eastern state of Odisha, a record-breaking 428,083 Olive Ridley turtles had nested a month before. This is hardly an isolated incident.

Think about these little-known success stories whenever we hear rhetoric about the developing world not pulling its weight in the fight against climate change or ecological devastation.

And let’s keep these efforts in mind when we begin to lose hope that we are losing this fight. In the grand scheme of things, cleaning up one polluted beach for one single species doesn’t seem like a lot, but it reveals our amazing potential to fix things if we have actually invested the time and will power.

Source: The Guardian

Over 70% of Greenhouse Gas Emissions Comes from 100 Companies

While we should all do our part to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, a recent study reported in the Guardian finds that such efforts will frankly be worthless so long as a handful of powerful private entities account for the vast majority of climate change-causing pollution.

The Carbon Majors Report (pdf) “pinpoints how a relatively small set of fossil fuel producers may hold the key to systemic change on carbon emissions,” says Pedro Faria, technical director at environmental non-profit CDP, which published the report in collaboration with the Climate Accountability Institute.

Traditionally, large scale greenhouse gas emissions data is collected at a national level but this report focuses on fossil fuel producers. Compiled from a database of publicly available emissions figures, it is intended as the first in a series of publications to highlight the role companies and their investors could play in tackling climate change.

The report found that more than half of global industrial emissions since 1988 – the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established – can be traced to just 25 corporate and state-owned entities. The scale of historical emissions associated with these fossil fuel producers is large enough to have contributed significantly to climate change, according to the report.

ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron are identified as among the highest emitting investor-owned companies since 1988. If fossil fuels continue to be extracted at the same rate over the next 28 years as they were between 1988 and 2017, says the report, global average temperatures would be on course to rise by 4C by the end of the century. This is likely to have catastrophic consequences including substantial species extinction and global food scarcity risks.

This puts addressing climate change square in the hands of executives, investors, and shareholders–the narrow class of individuals less likely to be impacted by climate change, best equipped to adapt to it, and most likely to be wrapped up in short-term gains ahead of long-term consequences.

Investors should move out of fossil fuels, says Michael Brune, executive director of US environmental organisation the Sierra Club. “Not only is it morally risky, it’s economically risky. The world is moving away from fossil fuels towards clean energy and is doing so at an accelerated pace. Those left holding investments in fossil fuel companies will find their investments becoming more and more risky over time.”

There is a “growing wave of companies that are acting in the opposite manner to the companies in this report,” says Brune. Nearly 100 companies including Apple, Facebook, Google and Ikea have committed to 100% renewable power under the RE100 initiativeVolvo recently announced that all its cars would be electric or hybrid from 2019.

And oil and gas companies are also embarking on green investments. Shell set up a renewables arm in 2015 with a $1.7bn investment attached and a spokesperson for Chevron says it’s “committed to managing its [greenhouse gas] emissions” and is investing in two of the world’s largest carbon dioxide injection projects to capture and store carbon. A BP spokesperson says its “determined to be part of the solution” for climate change and is “investing in renewables and low-carbon innovation.” And ExxonMobil, which has faced heavy criticism for its environmental record, has been exploring carbon capture and storage.

But for many the sums involved and pace of change are nowhere near enough. A research paper published last year by Paul Stevens, an academic at think tank Chatham House, said international oil companies were no longer fit for purpose and warned these multinationals that they faced a “nasty, brutish and short” end within the next 10 years if they did not completely change their business models.

It is also worth pointing out that while a large number of the corporate culprits are based in the West, overall they span most of the world: rich and poor, developed and developing, democratic and autocratic:

screenshot-www.theguardian.com-2018.10.23-10-19-00

Most of these companies are not household names, which reflects the low-key nature of the global energy industry: many of us in the developed world take for granted the seemingly endless supply of electricity, gasoline, and other energy supplies. The extraction, production, refinement, and delivery of these fossil fuels occurs unseen, involving a complex network of companies dispersed around the globe.

Thus, as with so many other solutions to climate change, there will need to be a comprehensive, globally coordinated effort by the international community to reign in on pollution and environmental degradation, in cooperation with–or even in opposition to–some of the most powerful corporate interests in the world.

Is there any possibility that the global masses can apply pressure their governments (and to a lesser degree their businesses) to take action? Are these individuals and institutions too wealthy and far removed from the public to be influenced and accountable to either governments or their constituents? What are your thoughts?

Pakistan’s Environmental Milestone

When it comes to environmental progress, Pakistan is far from anyone’s mind. Yet according to a recent report by the World Economic Forum, a Swiss nonprofit foundation, the country has planted over a billion trees, making its otherwise barren northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa resplendent with fresh saplings. Continue reading

The Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon

On this day in 1914, the passenger pigeon, which once numbered in the billions, became extinct when the last individual, Martha, died in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo.

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With a population between 3 and 5 billion, it was by far the most abundant bird in North America, if not the world; flocks were said to stretch on for miles and be thick enough to block out the sun. An account from naturalist John James Audubon claims that one flock was fifty-five miles in length and continued in “undiminished number” for three days. Continue reading

Africa’s Great Green Wall

Africa does not come to mind when one thinks of audacious public works projects. But the continent’s growing wealth and political stability, combined with the pressing challenges of climate change and environmental degradation, is driving its leaders to come together and concentrate their efforts into forging bold new solutions.

Among them is the Great Green Wall, an incredible idea to create a wall of vegetation across the width of the Sahara to stave off rapid desertification and improve agricultural output (which most Africans depend on for survival). It would be around 4,000 kilometers in total, making it the largest “living structure” in the world, three times the size of the Great Barrier Reef. Continue reading

The World’s Looming Water Crisis

Today is World Water Day, which the U.N. commemorated in 1993 to highlight the importance — and growing scarcity — of potable freshwater. Unfortunately, the problem has only gotten worse in the subsequent decades, as the following map from National Geographic makes vividly clear:

Water Scarcity Worldwide.jpg Continue reading

Peru and Chile Protects Over 13 Million Acres of Wilderness Between Them

As one of the world’s 17 megadiverse countries — places with a vast abundance of plant and animal life found nowhere else beyond their borders — Peru is the unique heir to an incredible and precious environmental heritage. Fortunately, the government seems to have recognized this as well, announcing this past January the creation of a massive new national park for its most endangered land. As The Manual reported:

 

The Yaguas National Park is located near Peru’s border with Colombia in the northern region of Loreto. Its boundaries encompass a land mass roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park but with more than 10 times the diversity of flora and fauna. This is due in large part to the Putumayo  River,  an Amazon River tributary that runs through the heart of the park.

From a wildlife perspective, it’s a rich, varied, and critical ecosystem that’s home to more than 3,000 plant species, 160 species of mammals (like manatees and the Amazonian river dolphin), and 500 species of birds. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a vital piece of the country’s marine ecosystem with approximately 550 fish species that represent a full two-thirds of Peru’s freshwater fish diversity, which is among the richest assemblages of freshwater fish on the planet.

The advent of the automobile and subsequent boom in demand for rubber are arguably more responsible for the destruction of Amazon Rainforest land than any human act in history. The park’s creation is a long time coming, and has consequently been applauded by some of the world’s most active and well-respected environmental group. The South American-based Andes Amazon Fund has already pledged $1 million toward the park’s implementation.

Beyond the environmental damage, however, there’s been a very real human toll related to the rainforest’s decline. Some 29 communities — including 1,100 people from the Tikuna, Kichwa, Ocaina, Mürui, Bora, and Yagua tribes — call the area home. These are direct descendants of the area’s native people who rely on the land in general, and the endemic fish population in particular, to survive. For millennia, the area has been sacred land to their ancestors.

0113-yaguas2-map

As deforestation encroaches on intact rainforest, Peru is taking the initiative to protect the most pristine areas of its rainforest. Photo courtesy of Mongabay.

Fortunately, Peru is not the only Latin American nation taking a bold and necessary approach to conservation. Though less well known for its gorgeous scenery and wilderness, neighboring Chile also has a unique environmental heritage in desperate need of protection — and to that end, the country has committed itself to forming what may be the most ambitious conservation project yet. Also from The Manual (bolding mine):

For the last 25 years, self-described “wildland philanthropists” Doug Tompkins (co-founder of the Patagonia outdoor brand) and Kristine McDivitt worked to collect and cultivate more than a million acres of Patagonia known as Parque Pumalín. The duo’s wish was to forever preserve the land by gifting it to the Chilean people. Sadly, Tompkins died in a kayaking accident in December 2015 and would never live to see his dream fulfilled.

However, last month, the land was officially handed over to the country’s people, and Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, issued an executive order to turn the previously private park into a national park. She noted, “Today, we are bequeathing to the country the greatest creation of protected areas in our history.”

With the stroke of a pen, Parque Pumalín became the single largest donation of private land to a government ever in Latin America. But, the story doesn’t end there. Bachelet — a long-time supporter of Tompkins’ vision — bolstered the donation by combining Parque Pumalín with 10 million acres of federal land. To put that into perspective, the combined space will be a staggering 5,000 times larger than Central Park in Manhattan. Combining both Yellowstone and Yosemite would occupy less than one-third of the preserved land. The new order will simultaneously create and interconnect five new national parks and be dubbed “The Route of Parks.” What’s more, the land has long been in use by adventurous travelers, so cabins, trails, and an overall tourism “infrastructure” already exists.

stock-patagonia-chile-national-park-800x800

Just a small taste of Chile’s 11 million acres of pristine wilderness

While it remains to be seen how well these countries will enforce these protection — Peru in particular is less developed and well-governed than Chile — these ambitious efforts are certainly a welcome move in the right direction.