We are destroying rainforests so quickly

If you want to see the world’s climate changing, fly over a tropical country. Thirty years ago, a wide belt of rainforest circled the earth, covering much of Latin America, south-east Asia and Africa. Today, it is being rapidly replaced by great swathes of palm oil trees and rubber plantations, land cleared for cattle grazing, soya farming, expanding cities, dams and logging.

People have been deforesting the tropics for thousands of years for timber and farming, but now, nothing less than the physical transformation of the Earth is taking place. Every year about 18m hectares of forest – an area the size of England and Wales – is felled. In just 40 years, possibly 1bn hectares, the equivalent of Europe, has gone. Half the world’s rainforests have been razed in a century, and the latest satellite analysis shows that in the last 15 years new hotspots have emerged from Cambodia to Liberia. At current rates, they will vanish altogether in 100 years.

About 12% of all man-made climate emissions now comes from deforestation, mostly in tropical areas
As fast as the trees go, the chance of slowing or reversing climate change becomes slimmer. Tropical deforestation causes carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, to linger in the atmosphere and trap solar radiation. This raises temperatures and leads to climate change: deforestation in Latin America, Asia and Africa can affect rainfall and weather everywhere from the US Midwest, to Europe and China.

The consensus of the world’s atmospheric scientists is that about 12% of all man-made climate emissions – nearly as much as the world’s 1.2bn cars and lorries – now comes from deforestation, mostly in tropical areas. Conserving forests is critical; the carbon locked up in Democratic Republic of the Congo’s 150m hectares of forests are nearly three times the world’s global annual emissions.

 

Rainforests are home to more than half of the world’s animals.

 

And as the forests come down, the people who live in or around them and depend on them become impoverished. Without the forests, people migrate to cities, or move to richer countries in search of work. The world’s rainforests not only provide food, energy security, incomes and medicinal plants for 300 million people, but are home to the richest wildlife in the world.

So, what to do? The positive news is that all countries formally pledged at the Paris climate summit in December 2015 to reduce emissions and keep global temperature rises to well below 2C; and in so doing they recognised that this would not be possible without stopping or at least reducing tropical deforestation.

The 50 or more developing countries who share the world’s tropical forests all recognised their contribution and promised to crack down on illegal forestry, replant trees and restore degraded forest lands.

Some countries were highly ambitious. China, Brazil, Bolivia and Congo DRC together put forward targets that could protect over 50 million hectares of forest over the next 15 years, an area the size of Spain.

Indonesia, the world’s sixth largest carbon emitter, promised to cut its emissions by 29% by ending illegal deforestation and restoring 12m hectares of forested land. Ecuador said that it planned to restore 500,000 hectares of forest land by 2017 and then increase that amount by 100,000 hectares a year. Honduras committed to plant or restore 1m hectares of forest by 2030.

If countries stick to their pledges and let damaged forests recover, annual global greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by as much as 24 to 30% – an enormous step.

 

A logging mill in the Amazon Basin, Peru

 

The science and economics needed to stem deforestation are in place, but there is one huge caveat: countries with tropical forests are some of the poorest in the world, desperate to develop and use their natural resources to grow their economies. Their pledges to stop or reduce deforestation are mostly conditional on rich countries financially and technically helping them achieve this – and the onus on reducing emissions is on these rich countries which have historically caused most climate change.

Rich countries pledged at Paris to raise $100bn a year to help poor countries reduce their emissions. Some of that money should go to tropical forest protection.
In addition, a new UN-backed mechanism called Redd (reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) has been initiated that involves rich countries paying countries to protect forests and the carbon stored within them. Tropical and sub-tropical countries could receive both public and private funding if they succeed in reducing their emissions from deforestation. But this is deeply controversial as global schemes are prone to corruption, difficult to implement and hard to measure.

If there is money to protect forests, will it go to big companies as subsidy, or lead to evictions of people and human rights abuses?

There must be safeguards, but Germany, Norway and the UK have together promised up to $1bn a year for Redd schemes until 2020. The World Bank plans to contribute a similar amount to work with African countries. A further fund is intended to benefit indigenous and other forest communities which have been the traditional protectors of the forest.

Until Paris, stopping tropical deforestation was at best unlikely and probably impossible. It remains very difficult, but a political and financial mechanism has now been created to incentivise countries, companies and communities to do so at a fraction of the cost of reducing comparable emissions in the US or Europe. Protecting the forests now depends on rich governments not ducking their responsibilities and playing their part.

2016 the hottest year on record

Last year was the hottest year on record globally, beating even 2015’s exceptionally high temperatures, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) has said.

The global average temperature in 2016 was 1.1C higher than pre-industrial levels and about 0.07C higher than the previous record set in 2015.

Worldwide temperatures received a boost from a strong El Nino event, but experts say 2016 would have been record-breaking even without the Pacific warm water phenomenon.

The analysis is based on data from the UK’s Met Office Hadley Centre, the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

WMO secretary general Petteri Taalas said: “2016 was an extreme year for the global climate and stands out as the hottest year on record, but temperatures only tell part of the story.

“Long-term indicators of human-caused climate change reached new heights in 2016.

“Carbon dioxide and methane concentrations surged to new records. “Both contribute to climate change.”

WWF UK said warming temperatures were causing the bleaching of coral reefs “at an alarming rate” and causing glaciers to melt.

“There are more and more danger signs that we are breaching the environmental limits of our planet,” said Tanya Steele, the organisation’s chief executive.”

E-waste in East and Southeast Asia jumps 63 percent in 5 years

The volume of discarded electronics in East and Southeast Asia jumped almost two-thirds between 2010 and 2015, and e-waste generation is growing fast in both total volume and per capita measures, new UN research shows.

Driven by rising incomes and high demand for new gadgets and appliances, the average increase in e-waste across all 12 countries and areas analyzed — Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam — was 63% in the five years ending in 2015 and totalled 12.3 million tonnes, a weight 2.4 times that of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

China alone more than doubled its generation of e-waste between 2010 and 2015 to 6.7 million tonnes, up 107%.

The average e-waste generation per capita in the region was approximately 10 kg in 2015, with the highest generation found in Hong Kong (21.7 kg), followed by Singapore (19.95 kg) and Taiwan, Province of China (19.13 kg).

There were large differences between nations on the per capita scales, with Cambodia (1.10 kg), Vietnam (1.34 kg) and the Philippines (1.35 kg) the lowest e-waste generators per capita in 2015.

 

 

The report cites four main trends responsible for increasing volumes:

  • More gadgets: Innovation in technology is driving the introduction of new products, particularly in the portable electronics category, such as tablets and wearables like smart watches.
  • More consumers: In the East & Southeast Asian region, there are industrializing countries with growing populations, but also rapidly expanding middle classes able to afford more gadgets.
  • Decreasing usage time: The usage time of gadgets has decreased; this is not only due to rapidly advancing technology that make older products obsolete due to hardware incompatibility (e.g., flash drives replacing floppy disks) and software requirements (e.g., minimum requirements for PCs to run operating software and various other applications) but also soft factors such as product fashion. As more devices are replaced more rapidly, e-waste arising grows.
  • Imports: Import of EEE provides greater availability of products, both new and second- hand, which also increases e-waste arising as they reach their end of life.
    The report warns of improper and illegal e-waste dumping prevalent in most countries in the study, irrespective of national e-waste legislation.

Consumers, dismantlers and recyclers are often guilty of illegal dumping, particularly of “open dumping”, where non- functional parts and residues from dismantling and treatment operations are released into the environment.

Studies in the region show that the main reasons are:

  • Lack of awareness: End users do not know that they should dispose of their obsolete EEE separately or how or where to dispose of their e-waste. Additionally, informal e-waste recyclers often lack the knowledge about the hazards of unsound practices;
  • Lack of incentives: Users choose to ignore collection and/or recycling systems if they need to pay for them;
  • Lack of convenience: Even if disposal through existing systems does not incur a fee, users may choose not to dispose of their e-waste in the proper channels if it is inconvenient or requires their time and effort;
  • Absence of suitable sites: There may be a lack of proper locations for hazardous waste disposal where residues from e-waste recycling can be sent; and
  • Weak governance and lax enforcement: A country with inadequate management or enforcement of e-waste legislation may result in rampant non-compliance.
    The report also points to common practices such as open burning, which can cause acute and chronic ill-effects on public health and the environment.

Open burning of e-waste is practiced mainly by informal recyclers when segregating organic and inorganic compounds (e.g. burning cables to recover copper).

Though less common, spontaneous combustion sometimes occurs at open dumping sites when components such as batteries trigger fires due to short circuits.

Informal recycling, also called “backyard recycling,” is a challenge for most developing countries in the region, with a large and burgeoning business of conducting unlicensed and often illegal recycling practices from the backyard.

These processes are not only hazardous for the recyclers, their communities and the environment, but they are also inefficient, as they are unable to extract the full value of the processed products.

Mostly, these recyclers recover gold, silver, palladium and copper, largely from printed circuit boards (PCBs) and wires using hazardous wet chemical leaching processes commonly also known as acid baths.

Typically, informal recyclers use solvents such as sulphuric acid (for copper) or aqua regia (for gold). The leachate solutions go through separation and purification processes to concentrate the valuable metals and separate impurities. This often results in the release of toxic fumes.

“Open burning and acid bath recycling in the informal sector have serious negative impacts on processers’ occupational health,” Shunichi Honda co-author of this study warns. “In the absence of protective materials such as gloves, glasses, masks, etc., inhalation of and exposure to hazardous chemicals and substances directly affect workers’ health.”

“Associations have been reported between exposure from improper treatment of e-waste and altered thyroid function, reduced lung function, negative birth outcomes, reduced childhood growth, negative mental health outcomes, impaired cognitive development, cytotoxicity and genotoxicity.”

Adds co-author Deepali Sinha Khetriwal, Associate Programme Officer, UN University: “Indirect exposure to these hazardous substances is also a cause of many health issues, particularly for families of informal recyclers who often live and work in the same location, as well as for communities living in and around the area of informal recycling sites.”

Top marks to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan

According to the report, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have a head-start in the region in establishing e-waste collection and recycling systems, having begun in the late nineties to adopt and enforce e-waste specific legislations. This was built in large part on experience in solid waste management. Among the most advanced economies and areas in Asia, the three are also characterised by high per capita e-waste generation, formal collection and recycling infrastructure and relatively strong enforcement.

Hong Kong and Singapore, meanwhile, do not have specific e-waste legislation. Instead, the governments collaborate with producers to manage e-waste through a public-private partnership. As small island nations with large shipping and trade networks, both countries have significant transboundary movements of e-waste generated domestically, as well as in transit from other countries.

China, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam all have recent e-waste legislation. The four countries are therefore in a transitionary phase, with a mix of formal and informal elements in an evolving eco-system in terms of collection and recycling infrastructure. The countries face similar challenges in enforcing regulations with limited resources and capacity and low public awareness regarding the hazards of improper disposal of e-waste.

Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand have yet to establish legal frameworks for e-waste management. However, there is an active informal sector in these countries with an established network for collection and import of end-of-life products and their recycling, particularly repair, refurbishment and parts harvesting.

Dams be damned, let the world’s rivers flow again

Fifty years ago, environmentalists and dam builders in the United States were locked in a bitter battle. Dam building had swept the nation in the 1940s and 1950s, blocking and impounding some of the most important rivers of the American west. On the Snake river (where controversies about dams continue to this day), dam construction had led to a massive fish kill and decimated salmon and steelhead runs.

Frank Church, a senator from the state of Idaho, originally supported the dams. But having seen the environmental damage they created, he spoke out for rivers. He saw “a groundswell of public concern for the fate of these majestic streams, many of them threatened by dams which would forever destroy their beauty and ecology”. Church authored the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which was passed in 1968. The Act now protects more than 12,000 miles of free-flowing rivers in the US.

For the past 60 years, large dams have had devastating impacts on people and the environment. They alter a river’s ecosystem from one that’s cold, flowing and connected, to one that’s warm, stagnant and fragmented – with devastating consequences for wildlife. Dams are one of the main reasons freshwater fish numbers are plummeting – the world has lost 80% of freshwater populations since 1970. In 2000, the World Commission on Dams found that dams were responsible for displacing between 40-80 million people.

Dams are one of the main reasons freshwater fish numbers are plummeting

The US is now leading the movement to decommission dams. Dam removal on the Elwha river in Washington state has been an enormous success. One year after the last dam was removed in 2014, more than 4,000 Chinook spawners were counted above the former dam site – the first time Chinook had been seen there in more than 100 years. In New York State, the Mohawks recently became the first US tribe to remove a federal dam when it took down the Hogansburg dam on the St Regis river, opening up 275 miles of stream habitat to migratory fish.

Even though the US leads the world in dam decommissioning, it continues to export a flawed development model of dam construction, and the dam-building boom has continued around the world. Not surprisingly, this has led to a groundswell of public concern about protecting free-flowing rivers.

As part of a combined effort with local communities and other NGOs, we have won enormous victories in recent months, forcing governments to cancel or suspend many destructive projects.

 

A bird flies past water spilling through the Glines Canyon dam on the Elwha river in 2011. After the last dam was removed from the river in 2014, fish populations flourished

In April, Brazil’s environmental agency, Ibama, suspended the licensing process for the São Luiz do Tapajós dam, which was expected to be the second largest hydroelectric dam in the country, after the controversial Belo Monte power plant. In July, the World Bank suspended financial support for the Inga 3 dam on the Congo river and in the following month Endesa Chile, the country’s largest power generator, dropped six hydroelectric projects. The Chinese government has also halted plans to construct a series of dams on one of China’s last free-flowing rivers, the Nujiang. In October, the Peruvian government announced that several dams proposed for the Marañón river, a major tributary of the Amazon, are off the table during the current administration.
But after such dam projects are suspended or cancelled the rivers are, in general, not permanently protected. This leaves them at risk if a government decides to move forward with a dam in the future – giving credence to the famous quote that with the environment, victories are temporary but defeats are permanent. Water protectors must always remain vigilant, monitoring new attempts to bring back destructive dams, but we now have a window of opportunity to gain protection for critical watersheds. It’s time to turn these victories into permanent protection for free-flowing rivers.

 

 In July, the World Bank suspended financial support for the Inga 3 dam on the Congo river

We’re starting in Chile where Geute Conservation Sur, which defends ecosystems with high conservation value, is providing legal analysis to develop a new law for river protection in the country. And Ríos Libres (Free Rivers), a new coalition of young activists, is building public support for permanent legal river protection.

In Colombia, we’re working with Ríos Vivos to build support for protection and with lawyers to develop new approaches to long-term protection of free-flowing rivers, such as the upper Magdalena river. Furthermore, in Peru we’re reviewing opportunities to ensure permanent protection of the Marañón to secure the health of the Amazon’s headwaters.

And we cannot stop there. Transboundary rivers – such as the Nujiang/Salween river which runs through China and Myanmar, and the Gongri/Manas river in Bhutan and India – offer critical opportunities for river protection. Saving these rivers requires transboundary cooperation and when this is done right, countries can avoid the strife we’ve seen in places such as China and Thailand where conflicts have arisen over development on the Lancang/Mekong river.

In New Zealand, the government has recognised the Whanganui river by giving it the same constitutional rights as a person. This is a striking recognition that free-flowing rivers provide enormous benefits, from food security to water access, to biodiversity conservation.

It took decades of dam building – and the associated devastation of rivers – before people and their lawmakers in the US started protecting wild and free-flowing rivers. With the impacts of climate change starting to threaten livelihoods, it’s time to protect our free-flowing rivers the world over.

Kate Horner is executive director of International Rivers.

Six Things Stopping Our Energy Sources From Being 100 Percent Renewable

Fossil fuels burn inefficiently. They are non-renewable energy sources, which means we only have a finite amount to work with on the planet. They produce pollutants and toxins that harm our environment. Yet, despite these major disadvantages, they continue to be used throughout the U.S. (and around the world).
Wind, solar, and other forms of renewable energy have made substantial progress over the course of the last decade, both in terms of energy production potential and in terms of practicality. These sources of energy are clean, efficient, and infinitely renewable, so why aren’t we making more progress toward making them the primary sources of energy?

Limits to Growth

The following are some of the main reasons renewable forms of energy haven’t yet taken off:
1. Bureaucratic decision making. As consulting firm Triniti notes, corporate latency is a major problem (and for more than just adoption of renewable energy sources). Bureaucratic decision making tends to slow progress down, and since renewable energy sources are still relatively new, businesses and government bodies are still slow to shift developmental resources to them. A transition is occurring—it’s just occurring very, very slowly.
2. Cost of renewable energy. Despite all the advancements we’ve made to renewable energy technology, it’s still somewhat expensive to pursue. Solar energy systems can cost tens of thousands of dollars to install, and with no efficient way to store solar energy (for periods of cloudiness or night), it’s just not feasible to execute these renewable methods exclusively or on large scales.
3. Lack of available technology. In the previous point, we alluded to the storage problem with solar power—that’s just one of the technological hurdles preventing us from moving forward. Nuclear fusion technology, for example, has the hypothetical power to generate all the world’s energy needs, many times over, cleanly and relatively safely—but we’re still not sure if it could ever be feasible.
4. Cost and profitability of fossil fuels. Even if we had reliable forms of clean energy that were relatively cost efficient, it would be hard to match the cost efficiency of fossil fuels. Mining, producing, and refining things like coal and oil for energy is incredibly cheap, and therefore incredibly profitable for corporations. As long as people want to make money (and they always will), fossil fuels will always be a primary target of the energy industry.
5. Lack of public demand. We also aren’t doing ourselves any favors by not speaking up about the benefits of renewable energy. There’s a stunning lack of public demand for the development and institution of renewable energy sources, and that means major decision makers aren’t motivated to make any big changes. Raising our voices and demanding more progress—especially from lawmakers and politicians—could have a substantial effect here.
6. Dependence on fossil fuels. It’s also important to remember, as TheGuardian points out, that our society is highly dependent on fossil fuels as part of our daily lives. Think about the car you drive—how often do you refuel it with gasoline? How likely are you to trade your car in for a fully electric model in the near future? It’s hard to replace the systems we’ve come to rely on for decades, especially all at once, and especially when the other above factors are also interfering with the feasibility of renewable energy.

How to Overcome These Obstacles

Unfortunately, there’s no fast or easy solution to overcome these obstacles—if there were, we probably would have taken it already, and we wouldn’t have to write this article in the first place. The best thing we can do is raise our voices, and speak up about our need and desire for renewable energy resources. Talk to your kids. Talk to your parents. Talk to your neighbors, teachers, coworkers, peers, bosses, and especially your politicians. The more we talk and the more we demand renewable energy, the more motivated our corporations, scientists, and lawmakers will be to develop and implement more forms of renewable energy in our society. It will still take years or even decades to build this momentum, but it’s worth it for the future of our planet.

China smog: millions start new year shrouded by health alerts and travel chaos

Millions in China rang in the New Year shrouded in a thick blanket of toxic smog, causing road closures and flight cancellations as 24 cities issued alerts that will last through much of the week.

On the first day of 2017 in Beijing, concentrations of tiny particles that penetrate deep into the lungs climbed as high as 24 times levels recommended by the World Health Organization. More than 100 flights were cancelled and all intercity buses were halted at the capital’s airport.

In the neighbouring port city of Tianjin, more than 300 flights were cancelled while the weather forecast warned thick smog will persist until 5 January. All of the city’s highways were also shut as low visibility made driving hazardous, effectively trapping residents.

Across northern China 24 cities issued red alerts on Friday and Saturday, while orange alerts persisted in 21 cities through the New Year holiday. A red alert is the highest level of a four-tier warning system introduced as part of China’s high-profile war on pollution.

Decades of economic development have made acrid air a common occurrence in nearly all major Chinese cities, with government-owned coal burning power stations and heating plants and steel manufacturing concentrated in northern provinces the main source of pollution.

Smog worsens in the winter as coal burning spikes to provide heat for millions of people. China declared a “war on pollution” in 2014, but has struggled to deliver the sweeping change many had hoped to see and government inspections routinely find pollutions flouting the law.

 

Selangor to ban retail use of plastic bags in 2017

State Exco Elizabeth Wong says the state government will also launch the polystyrene-free containers campaign next year.
The Selangor government’s “No Plastic Bag Day” campaign, now held on Saturdays, will be extended to every day of the week starting 2017.
Elizabeth Wong said the state government will couple this with the polystyrene-free containers campaign next year.
Beginning Jan 1, 2017, all retailers in Selangor will no longer provide polystyrene containers and free single-use plastic bags.
Local council by-laws have been revised to support this policy and retailers must agree to go plastic-free when applying for or renewing their licences.
“All retailers will be provided with visual materials to build awareness of the #BebasPlastik campaign,” she said at the #BebasPlastik campaign launch at the Selangor state secretariat building today.
Wong, who is Green, Technology, Environment, Tourism and Consumer Affairs Committee chairman, said the state government through research found that 71% of Selangorians felt that the “No Plastic Bag Day” on Saturdays was insufficient.
We need change and we are committed to this change by making it a policy to fight rampant littering and to address environmental issues like global warming.
The Selangor government has also stopped using plastic bags and polystyrene at all official events and buildings.
“Change can only happen when every level of society gets involved in the effort,” she said.
Selangor started the “No Plastic Bag Day” in 2010 with support from most supermarkets, mini markets and retail premises every Saturday.
Customers are charged 20 sen for each plastic bag they require and the money is channelled to charity bodies or consumerism programmes and environmental conservation efforts.