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While COVID-19 was the biggest issue of 2020, we at Earth.Org are hoping that as the virus becomes somewhat manageable, the attention will be turned to climate change in 2021. Between the COP25 conference being postponed to this year and a damning WWF report about the decline of species, countries have a limited time in which to act if we are to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. We have put together 6 reasons why 2021 will be an important year in the fight against climate change. 

Besides the human lives lost or shaken in general, COVID-19 has delivered the most significant economic shock since the Great Depression in the 1920s and 1930s. To restart economies, governments have produced stimulus packages, and some have used them as a way to incorporate green spending into recovery plans. 

The EU and US President-elect Joe Biden have promised trillions of dollars of green investments to reboot their economies while achieving decarbonisation as well. It is hoped that other countries will join them- and many have pledged to, as detailed later- which will help to reduce the cost of renewable energy globally. Already, a new report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) has found that global renewable energy electricity installation will hit record levels in 2020 compared to the sharp declines in the fossil fuel sectors caused by COVID-19. Almost 90% of new electricity generation in 2020 will be from renewable energy sources. The EU and Biden also say that they intend to stick a tax on imports of countries that emit too much carbon in an attempt to encourage them to clean up their acts.

It is hoped that the world will use COVID-19 to forge a greener path, but countries need to cooperate to ensure that this task is taken on by all. 

While the annual Global Carbon Budget report says that global emissions dropped 7% in 2020, it will make no difference to long-term climate change. Further, according to the UN, despite the growth of renewable energy, developed nations are spending 50% more on sectors linked to fossil fuels than on low-carbon energy. 

This drop is temporary because it was due to behavioural changes, not structural. However, these behavioural changes can become structural; for example, if more people continue to work from home and if cities are made more cyclist and walker- friendly. Other changes, like switching to renewable energy and an increase in electric vehicles, should also be pursued urgently. 

According to the IPCC, emissions need to be halved by 2030 if we are to meet the 1.5C goal as outlined in the Paris Agreement. Considering that this year, atmospheric carbon dioxide is set to hit 412 ppm, this can’t come sooner. 

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2021 climate change

Source: BBC

In October 2020, the International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organisation, said that the best solar power schemes now offer “the cheapest source of electricity in history.” In much of the world, renewables are already often cheaper than fossil fuel power when it comes to building new power stations.

If countries ramp up their investments in wind, solar and power batteries, in a few years it will make more commercial sense to shut down and replace existing coal and gas power stations. 

2021 climate change

Source: BBC

2020 was a year in which many countries, some being major emitters, committed to reducing carbon emissions to zero this century. In September in a surprise announcement, China pledged to reach peak emissions by 2030, and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. In June 2019, the UK pledged to reach zero emissions, followed by the EU in March 2020. 

Since then, Japan and South Korea have joined what the UN estimates is now a total of over 110 countries that have set net zero targets for mid-century. Together, they represent more than 65% of global emissions and more than 70% of the world economy, according to the UN. President-elect Joe Biden in the US has made climate change one of the central tenets of his campaign, so it is hoped that in 2021, he can make some headway in bringing down the emissions of the biggest economy in the world.

After being postponed last year, the COP26 conference will now take place in Glasgow in November this year, where world leaders will discuss their climate plans. The conference is seen as the successor to the landmark Paris meeting of 2015, which was the first time nearly all nations of the world came together to agree that climate change action needed to be taken by all. However, the world has fallen far short of the targets set by the agreement, which was to keep global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100, but ideally to keep it below 1.5C.

Following current trajectories, the world is expected to breach this 1.5C threshold within 12 years or less and to hit 3C of warming by 2100. It is hoped that Glasgow will allow countries a chance to improve on their previous commitments. 

Fossil fuels are becoming an increasingly unattractive investment. Added to this is that the cost of renewable energy is falling and there is mounting public pressure for action on climate, all of which is changing the attitudes in business. Why invest in new oil wells or coal power stations that will become obsolete before they can repay themselves over their 20 to 30-year life?

These “stranded assets” are causing sustainability to come to the fore in the business world- Tesla’s share price has skyrocketed, while Exxon’s has plummeted. Meanwhile, more investment firms are making it clear that they will no longer invest in dirty fuels and that the companies they do invest in must embed climate risk into their financial decision making. 

In 2021, it is imperative that countries with big climate commitments follow them up with strategies to achieve them to fight against climate change. This is the hope at Glasgow; that countries will sign up to policies that will start reducing emissions now. We don’t have much more time. 

 

In her 2020 Policy Address, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam outlined the city’s 2050 carbon neutrality target. The government recognises that achieving carbon neutrality will require a variety of measures, including expanding local renewable energy, improving energy efficiency in the building sector, promoting low-carbon mobility and improving waste management. This is the second article in a series of articles that takes a closer look at individual elements needed to achieve the “Carbon Neutrality 2050” target in Hong Kong – this time with a focus on promoting electric vehicles and low-carbon waterborne mobility. 

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Transitioning away from our present transportation system may well be one of this generation’s most difficult tasks. In general, electric mobility plays an important role in this transition, as electric vehicles operate more efficiently than vehicles with internal combustion engines and rely on electricity that can be sourced sustainably. Transit Jam estimates that if every vehicle in Hong Kong were an electric vehicle (and assumed to travel with the same energy efficiency as the 2018 fleet average and a 90% charging efficiency), the total carbon footprint for the transportation sector would drop to 1.4 million tons. This is equivalent to only 19% of the current 7.35 million tons. As a result, many countries and organisations have introduced EV-roadmaps. However, the adoption of electric mobility is still relatively slow, as is the case in Hong Kong. 

The potential is, however, evident – or as Tesla CEO Elon Musk said at a Tesla event in Hong Kong in early 2016: “Hong Kong will be the city with the highest share of electric vehicles in the world and can therefore serve as a model for other cities with high population density on the way to a sustainable future.” In terms of new registrations, electric vehicles in Hong Kong accounted for 6.3% of all new registrations of private cars in 2019 (2 423 out of a total of 38 309 newly registered private cars). In order for this figure to increase, and especially for other forms of electric mobility such as electric commercial vehicles or electric ferries to be increasingly adopted, a number of elements must be addressed: 

Of the total 6 604 vehicles in the city’s public fleet, 224 are electric vehicles. By adapting the procurement guidelines in all departments, electric mobility could be given a priority – for example by introducing a principle that whenever a vehicle is being replaced, it must be switched to electric mobility / low CO2 alternatives wherever possible. Such a policy would have an additional positive side effect: the more electric vehicles are on the road, the greater the awareness and acceptance among the population and the business sector.

While electric mobility is growing in the passenger car segment, growth in the commercial vehicle sector is still low. This is problematic because the main source of roadside air pollution in Hong Kong originates from commercial vehicles (including public transport, lorries, taxis, etc.). These types of vehicles account for 95% of the vehicular emissions of respirable suspended particulates and nitrogen oxides in Hong Kong. Hence, increasing the speed of adoption of electric mobility in the commercial sector would not only significantly reduce CO2 emissions, but also improve air quality. Two areas can be identified for an e-mobility push in the commercial vehicles sector: public transport, including taxis and light commercial vehicles up to 7.5 tons. In these two categories there is a viable range of electric vehicles which are close to being economically competitive. 

Public transport, including taxis, are predestined for electric mobility: other big cities such as Amsterdam have for example signed covenants with most official taxi organisations with the aim of creating a full electric taxi fleet before 2025 and they are well on track. All the more so for taxis that manage predictable routes such as taxi services to and from airports. This also means that charging infrastructure can be installed at the right place and taxis can charge their vehicles while waiting for new guests at the airport. However, the investment cost of electric taxis and vehicles for public transport such as electric double-decker buses or single-deck electric buses are still higher than their diesel counterparts which, despite lower maintenance and fuel costs of electric vehicles, still has a deterring effect. Here is where a targeted policy would be useful; substantially subsidising the purchase of e-taxis and electric double decker, single-deck and public light buses in order to reduce the barrier of the higher investment costs would help to introduce electric mobility in public transport and improve air quality. 

As for the light commercial vehicles, the introduction of a policy providing a full exemption of the first registration tax (FRT) for commercial EVs alongside the incentives which are already in place such as the full profits tax deduction for the capital expenditures on the vehicles in the first year of procurement and the reduced annual vehicle licence fees could increase the attractiveness for local businesses to switch to e-mobility and could at the same time be introduced as a green post-COVID-19 stimulus to support the local economy.

Inner city transport in Hong Kong involves not only road traffic but also traffic on its waterways. Norway is in many ways a role model country in terms of electric mobility, particularly on water. Its first electric ferry entered into service in early 2015, crossing the Sognefjord about 34 times a day with a capacity of 360 passengers and 120 cars. The 6 km crossing takes 20 minutes, and the 1 000 kWh Li-ion battery system of the ferry is charged at each quay for about 10 minutes. Hong Kong seems predestined to follow Norway’s success strategy by adopting electric ferries on its many routes, which have similar characteristics as the Norwegian example. It is a proven concept: Norway’s first all-electric ferry has reduced CO2 emissions by 95% and operating costs by 80% – a clear win-win. 

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Above all, an adequate charging infrastructure is a central pillar of the success of electric mobility – developments in other countries confirm the importance of a widely developed charging infrastructure. The government can play an important role and ensure that the corresponding infrastructure is developed. In light of the land scarcity and dense population in Hong Kong, establishing a charging network has proven to be more challenging than in other economies. However, things are moving forward; Hong Kong has announced that some 65 000 parking spaces in about 540 car parks will be fitted with EV charging-enabling infrastructure. Additionally, the government is preparing for a HKD$2 billion pilot scheme to subsidise installation of EV charging-enabling infrastructure in car parks of existing private residential buildings. It is encouraging that the Hong Kong government is placing focus on meeting the charging needs for the increasing number of electric vehicles. Apart from encouraging installation of charging infrastructure in new and existing buildings, the government should strengthen its building codes in the sense that new buildings, be they residential or commercial, must necessarily equip their parking spaces with charging infrastructure. One thing is clear: e-mobility charging in Hong Kong will be done either at home or at work.

If the government manages to integrate policies addressing all these elements in its soon-to-be-released EV roadmap, Hong Kong could become a role model for e-mobility while at the same time taking a big step towards its goal of climate neutrality in 2050. 

Featured image by: Flickr 

2020 marks the five-year anniversary of the signing of the Paris Agreement. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic delaying the United Nations’ 26th annual climate conference (COP26) until November 2021, world leaders from over 70 countries gathered virtually on December 12th to celebrate the event. As of December 2020, 127 nations, responsible for 63% of global emissions, are discussing or have pledged to bring their emissions to net zero within a specified timeframe. Nations acknowledging their ambitions and announcing these pledges are important steps, although mean little in terms of direct action towards mitigating climate change. Over the past five years, countries have begun to be held accountable for emission rates. Which countries have demonstrated strong and tangible progress, and which have failed to do so?

Considering the numerous net-zero commitments that have emerged over the last few months of 2020, and remaining optimistic that these pledges will be honoured, the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) group has estimated a best-case scenario of  2.1°C temperature rise above pre-industrial levels by 2100.

These projections indicate a markedly better trajectory for the world relative to five years ago, however they still fall short of the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping temperature rise “well below” 2°C, and ideally below 1.5°C. The December 12 event concluded with a frank statement by Alok Sharma, British Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy: “Friends, we must be honest with ourselves […]. As encouraging as all this ambition is, it is not enough.”

Much will depend on the actions of the world’s current leading emitters, including China, the US, the EU, India and Russia. While most of these countries have announced ambitious plans to reduce emissions and be carbon neutral by mid-century, a lack of tangible action and short-term targets may hinder their legitimacy.

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paris agreement 2020

Fig. 1: Compatibility of individual countries’ current emission rates with Paris Agreement targets in 2020; Nature.com, sourced from Climate Action Tracker.

Meeting Targets

Overall, few countries are making progress towards meeting the Paris Agreement’s more ambitious goal of keeping temperature rise below 1.5°C. However, some major actors have performed commendably well in adhering to the agreement’s general targets. India’s emissions, for instance, are rated by the CAT as being compatible with the 2°C goal, meaning that while India’s emissions continue to increase, they are diminishing at a rate in line with the goal. As the world’s fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, India’s climate-related actions carry significant weight.

India’s investments in renewable energy projects recently outpaced funding for fossil fuels. The country has been making rapid progress in expanding its renewable energy sector and could meet its 2030 target to rely on renewables for 40% of its energy mix early. Much will depend on whether India can decouple itself from fossil fuels in the short term and abandon plans to build new coal-powered plants.

Another entity that has performed reasonably well is the EU, whose financial capacity allows it to set ambitious targets. The bloc is not only on track to meeting its original Paris goals of a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030, but it has also recently announced an increased goal of a 55% reduction. This is an important development, as the EU’s original targets were widely seen as unambitious given its wealth. 

As the world’s third-largest CO2 emitter, the EU was always going to face difficulties in reducing its carbon intensity output. The EU as a whole, as well as many of its constituent countries, has invested extensively in developing a cross-sectoral green economy, notably addressing energy, transportation and agriculture.

A Promising Future for China

Meanwhile, China continues to position itself as a global leader in climate policy, showing tentative promise for a sustainable future. Prior to 2020, China’s Paris Agreement goals were widely seen as unambitious and inadequate. However, recent developments and announcements have changed the country’s outlook. The country exists as a unique case within the discussion on global emissions. It is the world’s highest emitter, and a distinct urban/rural divide, regional inequality and ongoing development in many areas of China mean that the country has yet to reach peak emissions and will continue to invest in coal power over the coming years. 

Despite these realities, China’s immense financial capacity and desire to be a leader in the tech world has driven the country to invest substantial sums to develop a greener economy. In 2018, more electric cars were purchased in China than in the rest of the world combined, and the country has heavily subsidised the growth of the electric vehicle industry. Despite being the largest consumer of coal, China is also the largest producer of renewable energy. If China is able to implement its national carbon trading scheme over the next five years, it would be home to the world’s single largest carbon trading market. China, which has traditionally been a controlled economy, has also shown increased willingness to ride the green wave of market forces to organically achieve decarbonisation.

China has announced or reiterated ambitious climate targets, including pledging to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 and to reach peak emissions by 2030. The bravado displayed by President Xi Jinping in his remarks is commendable, although China will need to continue taking decisive action to match its ambitious rhetoric. 

Insufficient Efforts

Conversely, some of the world’s largest emitters are doing woefully little to meet both individual and collective Paris Agreement targets. Russia, for instance, is the world’s fifth-largest emitter, and has expressed little to no interest in decoupling itself from fossil fuels and minimising its carbon footprint. The country is not on track to meet its unambitious Paris target to reduce emission rates by 25-30% by 2030, and has not announced any long-term strategy. Russia has notoriously dragged its feet on climate policy implementation, only ratifying the Paris Agreement in 2019. 

In addition to not being on track to meet its 2030 targets, Russia has expanded its reliance on fossil fuels, particularly natural gas, while actively limiting the growth of a renewable energy market. The country has also hindered international climate action policy, vehemently opposing the EU’s efforts to implement a carbon border tax. Despite witnessing first-hand the warming effects of climate change on the Arctic, Russia has opted to focus on the economic opportunities of these impacts by staking claims to newly-emerged navigational routes in the Arctic and expanding agricultural production further north. 

The country has announced tentative legislation that would allow for increased control over CO2 emissions and a carbon market, however any meaningful legislative action is unlikely to occur soon. Before next year’s convention, Russia will need to be pressured to update their intended contributions and establish higher targets. Unilateral action against Russia, such as the EU’s carbon border tax, could play an important role in motivating the country to decouple itself from fossil fuels.

Another serious offender that has delayed necessary implementation of ambitious climate policy is the US. As the world’s second-largest contributor to CO2 emissions, a strong climate policy on behalf of the US would be a significant step towards achieving net-zero emissions. The country’s original Paris goal was to reduce emissions by 26-28% by 2025. Despite only formally leaving the agreement in November 2020, the Trump administration has actively rolled back climate-related measures and has given firms liberties to operate free of environmental regulations. 

The CAT has rated the US’s performance as ‘critically insufficient.’ While President-elect Joe Biden is set to shift the landscape of climate policy substantially, ample damage has already been done over the past five years. The Biden administration plans to rejoin the Paris Agreement ‘on day one,’ and announce a new 2030 target and while a Biden presidency may be able to reverse some of the former administration’s actions, partisan resistance in the politically polarised country may present obstacles to realising more ambitious goals.

Changing Dynamics

2020 has proven to be a landmark year not only for new net-zero pledges, but also for investments in developing green economies to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Many nations have seen the pandemic as an opening to redirect government spending towards expanding their capacity for renewable energy and creating new low-carbon jobs. 

Around 30% of the EU’s $750 billion stimulus package directly addresses environmentally sustainable projects. France has developed its own stimulus plan, of which one third is to be allocated towards green measures, totalling around 30 billion. Germany has also negotiated a package worth €50 billion to transition towards a greener economy and continued research and development of new technologies. Meanwhile, South Korea has announced its own Green New Deal as part of its economic recovery plan, while New Zealand is expected to place climate change at the centre of its recovery plans. Many more countries are expected to ramp up green investments in the months ahead.

Some countries remain statically opposed to green initiatives within the context of recovery plans. India seems to be inviting private investments to support the country’s coal industry, despite the falling costs of renewables. Russia remains unyielding to renewable energy and low-carbon alternatives in its own recovery plans, preferring to support the fossil fuel industry. In the US, it is unclear how much ambitious legislation the incoming administration will be able to push through a potentially divided legislative branch, despite President-elect Biden’s economic recovery plan calling for significant investments into green initiatives.

Given the drop in CO2 emissions in 2020 due to the pandemic, global investments towards developing green economies and numerous net-zero pledges, it is possible that greenhouse gas emissions have already reached their peak. While past predictions placed peak global emissions in the mid-2020s, current trends indicate that overall, emissions may never return to 2019 levels even as economies begin to recover.

paris agreement 2020

Fig. 2: Historical, CO2 base and CO2 allowing for COVID-19 carbon intensity trends with uncertainty range; The Breakthrough Institute; 2020.

Best-case scenarios accounting for current trends indicate that the Paris Agreement’s goal to keep warming at 2°C by 2100 may be achievable, if just barely. However, it appears that the opportunity to meet the ambitious target of keeping temperature rise below 1.5°C has passed. This failure will have its consequences, particularly on developing countries. The Paris Agreement appears to have provided the necessary momentum to shift nations’ focus towards low-carbon alternatives, although the lack of a functional policing mechanism may have doomed the more ambitious targets from the start. 

The mid-century net-zero pledges coming from many countries this year are commendable, although countries will need to be held accountable for their actions over the short term. More ambitious and actionable 2025-2030 targets need to be set and announced over the next year. 

Much will become clearer over the next few months. The delayed climate conference gives major emitters such as the US and China more time to clarify their climate policy. As countries worldwide continue to evaluate how to implement green initiatives in recovery plans, it is probable that more ambitious targets for emission reductions could be made by or at COP26 next November. 

The US officially withdrew from the Paris Agreement on November 4 2020, completing a years-long process started in 2017. The US is the only big country (besides Iran and Turkey) not signed on to the agreement. Now that Joe Biden has been officially declared the winner of the US election by the Electoral College after a series of lawsuits put forward by Trump to nullify the results, how can the US rejoin the Paris Agreement, as Biden has promised to do?

Trump has criticised the agreement, calling it economically detrimental and saying that it could cost the country 2.5 million jobs by 2025. He also claimed that it gave other major emitters, like China, a “free pass.” However, if the US found the goals it set for itself in 2015 to be too ambitious, it could have simply changed them, rather than withdraw from the agreement altogether. 

Going Forward

By the time Biden could rejoin, the US would be in arrears on its previous promise to reduce emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025 (in 2019, US emissions were down 12%). The country has also not kept its commitment to double funding for innovation and clean energy research development by 2021. 

Additionally, it would have to quickly put together a new goal, as all members of the agreement will meet in Glasgow next November to unveil their new, upgraded commitments for 2030. Even though these goals aren’t legally binding, they are an important part of the “name-and-shame” system used for countries to watch each other’s carbon pollution levels. 

However, in their commitments, countries also need to show that they have a plan to achieve them, something that the US doesn’t have much to speak of. When President Obama signed the agreement in 2016, he wasn’t able to pass any meaningful climate legislation through Congress because Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate. He promised to shift the US electricity grid toward renewables and away from fossil fuels with what was called the “Clean Power Plan.” The plan got held up in courts and was never implemented. In 2019, Trump repealed it entirely. 

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The US’ poor record in this sense means that Biden will have to show proof that the US has started taking action in Glasgow. According to Grist, this may mean that Biden will have to pass a stimulus bill that prioritises clean energy. He has already pledged to put USD$2 trillion towards climate action efforts, and the plan is actually favoured by a majority of American voters. 

However, to do this, Democrats will have to win back the Senate and get any legislation past the filibuster. However, with any luck, the Paris Agreement will push slow-moving countries- like the US- to take action. 

In 2009, Obama assisted in negotiations at the Copenhagen summit that paved the way for a joint commitment by the US and China to make joint announcement on their intent to take solid action on climate change in 2014. These actions eventually led to the creation of the Paris Agreement. When leading emitters set ambitious goals, it raises the bar for all other countries.

Doing so is critical for the planet. This is the most critical decade for Earth, and already methane levels are at their highest ever recorded. While an analysis found that global emissions may have peaked last year, carbon emissions nevertheless need to be cut urgently and drastically. Some countries and blocs have pledged significant climate action, such as the EU, Japan and South Korea- who have pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050- and China- who has vowed to go carbon-free by 2060. If the US- the second-largest emitter- wants to catch up, it will have to act fast.

Featured image by: Flickr

In September, China made the surprise announcement that it would aim to become carbon neutral by 2060, and that its emissions would peak by 2030. The news came as a surprise to many who weren’t expecting such a bold target. Theories abound as to how the country, currently the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, will achieve such a target, but researchers have suggested that China will first need to generate most of its electricity from zero-emission sources and then expand this clean energy wherever possible. It will also need to explore carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. 

Renewable Energy

To achieve its target, electricity production would need to more than double, to 15 034 terawatt hours by 2060, largely from clean sources. This is according to Zhang Xiliang, a climate modeller at Tsinghua University in Beijing, whose model is the primary one to support government policymaking.  

This growth would need to be driven by a massive increase in renewable electricity generation to replace fossil fuels, including a 16-fold increase in solar power and a 9-fold increase in wind power. Nuclear power would need to increase sixfold and hydroelectricity would need to double. 

Because fossil fuels would still account for 16% of energy consumed, CCS technologies would need to be used as well, or emissions could be offset by planting forests. 

However, this shift away from fossil fuels in such a short amount of time would be extremely expensive; coal-fired power currently accounts for almost 65% of China’s electricity generation, with more than 200 new coal-fired power plants planned or under construction. Those industries that rely on fossil fuels will be extremely unhappy with this proposal.

Another significant cost would be the energy storage required to integrate wind and solar, however battery storage has become cheaper over the past decade, a trend which will hopefully continue. If current trends of renewable costs continue, China could generate more than 60% of its electricity from non-fossil fuels by 2030. Additionally, ensuring stable operation of the electricity grid with renewable energy will be another challenge.

Nuclear Energy

The Energy Research Institute, National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) in Beijing has also created a model which would see emissions in China peak in 2022, followed by a steep drop to net zero emissions by 2050. 

To achieve this target, electricity production would double up to 14 800 terawatt hours by 2050. This would be generated mostly by nuclear power (28%), followed by wind (21%), solar (17%), hydropower (14%) and biomass (8%). The other 12% would be made up by coal and gas. 

Following this plan, China’s nuclear capacity would need to increase fivefold to 554 gigawatts by 2050. While nuclear energy is able to provide a more consistent base load than solar and power, and latest nuclear plant designs produce minimal radioactive waste, cost and time requirements have increased significantly over the years and perhaps more importantly, previous notable nuclear plant meltdowns have made building nuclear plants unacceptable to much of the public. 

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Carbon Capture and Storage Technologies

Other models include the use of CCS technologies to reach the carbon neutrality target. However, this would require significant investment, because China currently has only one large CCS facility in operation, while seven more are being planned or built. 

While CCS would allow for the use of coal in the long-term, it is very expensive to deploy. 

Coal

Many existing coal plants will reach the end of their life before the neutrality deadline, according to Kaare Sandholt, an energy systems modeller at the NDRC’s China National Renewable Energy Centre, who is based in Copenhagen. For this reason, China should stop building new coal-fired power plants, or risk having stranded assets. 

However, China must also be mindful of the 3.5 million workers in the coal mining and power industry, as well as the people who rely on cheap electricity and heating. Will the government provide training for the workers and re-deploy them in renewable power plants? As of yet, this is unclear, but it is certainly a salient concern.

While much of China’s path to carbon neutrality remains unclear, officials are in the process of drafting the country’s latest five-year plan for social and economic development, which will be released in March and is likely to include policies to achieve neutrality. Further, like all nations that have signed the 2015 Paris Agreement, China is obliged to submit increased emissions-reduction targets before the end of the year. 

Meanwhile, according to energy consultancy firm Wood Mackenzie, China ’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2060 will require investments of more than USD$5 trillion.

Nevertheless, this news could encourage other countries to act faster to decarbonise than they otherwise would have. 

Featured image by: Flickr 

A report has found that from 1990 to 2015, the carbon emissions of the richest 1% of the world were more than double those of the poorest 50%. The report shines a light on the climate inequality that exists between developed and developing countries and how developing countries are being disproportionately affected by the climate crisis. 

The report, Confronting Carbon Inequality, is based on research conducted by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute and is released as world leaders prepare to meet at the UN General Assembly to discuss challenges including the climate crisis. 

The report assesses the consumption emissions of different income groups during the 25-year period during which time the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doubled. Among other things, it found that the richest 10% accounted for 52% of the CO2 emissions. The richest 1% accounted for 15% of emissions-more than twice that of the poorest 50% of humanity- 7%. Additionally, the richest 1% increased its emissions by more than three times that of the poorest 50%. Finally, the team found that the richest 10% accounted for one-third of the carbon emissions that scientists estimate will cause the planet to warm more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, while the poorest half emitted just 4%. 

The richest 10% are those with incomes above about USD$35 000 a year, while the richest 1% are those earning more than about $100 000.

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Danny Sriskandarajah, Oxfam GB Chief Executive, says, “The over-consumption of a wealthy minority is fuelling the climate crisis and putting the planet in peril. No one is immune from the impact but the world’s poorest are paying the heaviest price despite contributing least emissions as they battle floods, famines and cyclones.”

He continues, “Carbon emissions risk rapidly rebounding as governments ease Covid-related lockdowns. If emissions do not keep falling year on year and carbon inequality is left unchecked, by 2030 the world could reach the tipping point of 1.5C warming. Carbon inequality is so stark the emissions of just the richest 10% would trigger catastrophic climate change by 2033 even if all other emissions were cut to zero.”

The report warns that overconsumption and the rich world’s propensity to use high-carbon transportation are exhausting the world’s carbon budget. 

Tim Gore, head of policy, advocacy and research at Oxfam, says,“The global carbon budget has been squandered to expand the consumption of the already rich, rather than to improve humanity. A finite amount of carbon can be added to the atmosphere if we want to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis. We need to ensure that carbon is used for the best.”

Oxfam has called for an increase in wealth taxes and new carbon taxes on luxury items such as private jets, super yachts and SUVs, with the revenue from these to be invested in low-carbon jobs such as in the social care sector and in green public transport as well as to help poor communities around the world adapt to the changing climate.

Sriskandarajah said: “Extreme carbon inequality is a direct consequence of the decades-long pursuit by governments and businesses of grossly unequal and carbon intensive economic growth whatever the cost. As leaders make decisions about what a post-COVID recovery looks like, they should seize this opportunity to reshape our economy, encourage low carbon living and create a better future for all.

Featured image by: Flickr 

In February 2018, a panel of experts presented to the World Health Organization (WHO) a list of diseases that posed public health risks but for which there were no countermeasures. On the list were Ebola, SARS, Zika, Rift Valley Fever and “Disease X.” This disease would be caused by a pathogen never seen in humans before and would originate from animals somewhere in the world where people had invaded wildlife habitats. It would be deadlier than seasonal influenza but would spread just as easily between people. It would be the world’s next pandemic. That prediction has been realised less than two years later; beginning in Wuhan, China late last year, “Disease X,” or COVID-19, has now infected nearly 30 million people and killed nearly 1 million people. As humans encroach on wildlife more as the population grows, zoonotic diseases will emerge more often. Can we predict and spot viruses that have the potential to become pandemics early, and stop them before it happens? The Global Virome project is looking to do just that. 

Dennis Carroll is the former US director for pandemic influenza and emerging threats; under Barack Obama, Carroll ran the US government’s PREDICT programme, that aimed to be an early warning system for future outbreaks of pandemics. By the time Donald Trump shut it down in 2019, PREDICT had collected more than two million mucus and saliva samples from thousands of bird and mammal species from virus hunters, universities, conservationists and natural history museums around the world. It has identified 949 novel viruses, created a database of known viruses in wildlife and trained nearly 7 000 scientists, lab technicians and field workers in 30 countries to look out for emerging diseases. 

However, this is a fraction of what’s out there. Dr Carroll and his team made a statistical estimate that the world’s mammals and birds are host to between 700 000 and 2.6 million as-yet unknown species from families of viruses that have shown the potential to cause zoonotic disease in humans. Of these, between 350 000 and 1.3 million could have zoonotic potential

Carroll now chairs the Global Virome project, a 10-year plan to build on the work of PREDICT and discover and genetically record all of the world’s unknown viral threats- a tall order. It has been described as “the beginning of the end of the pandemic era,” and “a change from responding to threats to proactively preparing for them strike.” 

The search itself will help reduce the risk of pathogen spillover by identifying zoonosis hotspots, most of which occur in less developed, tropical countries, and enhancing monitoring capabilities in these areas. 

The costs of cataloging what Carroll calls “biological dark matter” will be about USD$3.7 billion over the next 10 years, but this, he says, is “trivial compared to the cost of just this latest pandemic.” He says that a scaled back version- one that focuses on the highest-risk countries, the groups of people most vulnerable to outbreaks within those countries and the species most likely to be sources of spillover- might get 70% of the data for a quarter of the money. 

The goal of the project is to have an open repository of the genetic makeup of all the world’s most dangerous viruses to better predict and prepare for outbreaks of pandemics and allow drug companies to develop drugs and vaccines in advance. Until now, zoonotic disease prediction has relied on surveillance and preparedness. Carroll says, “Surveillance has primarily focused on identifying early cases of a virus, identifying the first case and then responding. But any virus that poses a future threat already exists. So why wait for it?” 

“We need to understand viruses and their ecosystems better, gain a better understanding of hotpots. Compare weather forecasting: 50 years ago it was very limited, we could forecast a hurricane two days out. Now we can forecast them on an annual basis, pick them up off the coast of west Africa, and make pretty precise predictions.”

He carries on, “We’re at the stage now with viruses where weather forecasting was 50 years ago. We have some data but we need much more and we need to run it through models like meteorologists do. We want to move the world of virology on from being a Mom-and-Pop operation. There are 4 500 coronaviruses alone. Why can’t we document them in their entirety? PREDICT showed us we could do it.”

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Why is This Project Needed?

As seen at the WHO in 2018, scientists have been warning of a zoonotic pandemic for decades. The UN warns that more of them will emerge. There are a few reasons for this: as the global human population grows, more people are infiltrating and destroying wild ecosystems, where they encounter new animal infections; there are poor systems in place for early diseases detection and containment; a lack of vaccines and drugs, and research and development for “emerging” diseases. 

Six out of 10 infectious diseases that affect us come from animals. This includes HIV/AIDS, Ebola, MERS, SARS and COVID-19. There is clearly a need to stem the emergence and spread of zoonotic diseases. 

The world’s response to COVID-19 has been similar to SARS in 2002 and the H5N1 avian influenza in 2005: move to a costly panic mode intended to slow the spread of the disease while scientists work to develop a vaccine. This, Peter Daszak, director of the EcoHealth Alliance, says, “is not a plan.” 

The cost of sequencing the DNA and RNA in which viruses store their genes has, since the second half of the 2000s, fallen exponentially, which has made virus hunting possible on a previously unimaginable scale. This should quell any concerns that projects to predict pandemics, like the Global Virome, would be financially unfeasible. 

How Can We Prevent Pandemics?

Richard Osfeld of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, says that the best way to predict zoonotic diseases may be to narrow research to where humans are disturbing natural environments the most. The great zoonotic threats are not in wild nature, he says, but where natural areas have been converted to cropland, pastures and urban areas. 

Research also shows that large animal farms create the conditions conducive to bacteria and other pathogens spreading between animals and humans. Sam Sheppard, who conducted the research, says that the consumption of fresh meat- which has quadrupled since 1961- has increased the chance of animal diseases infecting humans. He says, “The overuse of antibiotics, crowded conditions, unnatural diets and genetic similarity make factory farms hotbeds for pathogens to spread among animals and potentially to emerge and infect humans.”

Other ways to predict pandemics could lie in more precise tracking of which pathogens are actually infecting humans. Some researchers say that too often, clinicians tend to diagnose many human infections as colds or diarrhea instead of identifying the pathogen. 

Further, the 2005 revision of the WHO’s International Health Regulations required countries to inform one another of outbreaks with the potential to spread. The treaty also required rich countries to help poor countries conduct their own disease monitoring, but rich countries have neglected it. 

There is also the need to plug any gaps between scientific warnings and government action. For example, in 2005, hundreds of bat viruses similar to SARS-CoV were discovered, and in 2013, it was found that some were already able to infect humans. This should have pushed governments to focus on developing coronavirus vaccines and drugs, but this did not transpire.  

Arguably most importantly, we must address the aspects of modern life that exacerbate the spread of unknown pathogens, like deforestation and consumption of wildlife. Until this happens, zoonotic diseases will continue to emerge and spread.  

Peter Daszak says, “We are in the age of pandemics. We treat pandemics as a disaster-response issue. We wait for them to happen and hope a vaccine or drug can be developed quickly in their aftermath. But there still is no vaccine available for the SARS virus of 2002–03, nor for HIV/AIDS or Zika, or a host of emerging pathogens. We need to start working on prevention in addition to responses.”

He and his team came up with a three-layered defence to predict and stop future pandemics. First, a worldwide effort is needed to find and track the hundreds of thousands of as-yet unknown pathogens that could threaten us. Second, monitoring of blood samples and other indicators from people living in places where new diseases are most likely to emerge is needed and third, a programme to employ all the data collected is needed that will get a head-start in the development of drugs and vaccines.

“Pandemics are like terrorist attacks,” he says. “We know roughly where they originate and what’s responsible for them, but we don’t know exactly when the next one will happen. They need to be handled the same way – by identifying all possible sources and dismantling those before the next pandemic strikes.”

A big chunk of ice has broken away from the Greenland ice sheet and the Arctic’s largest remaining ice shelf- called 79N, or Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden- in north-east Greenland. 

The piece that has broken off covers about 110 sq km. The Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden is roughly 1 600 sq km and is the floating front end of the northeast Greenland Ice Sheet, where it flows into the ocean. The glacier splits into two pieces, with a small offshoot to the north; it is this offshoot, called Spalte Glacier, that has disintegrated. 

The loss is further evidence of the advancing climate crisis and the changes happening in the region and to the Greenland Ice Sheet. According to Dr Jenny Turton, the atmosphere in the region has warmed by about 3 degrees Celsius since 1980. 

Satellite images show that these higher air temperatures in the region can be seen in the number of melt ponds that sit on top of the shelf ice. This water is problematic for ice platforms because if it fills crevasses, it can help to open them up. The water will push down on the fissures, moving them to the base of the shelf in a process known as hydrofracturing, which weakens the ice shelf. Warmer sea temperatures in the region mean that ice is probably being melted from beneath as well. 

greenland ice sheet n79

Professor Jason Box from the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, says, “79N became the ‘largest remaining Arctic ice shelf’ only fairly recently, after the Petermann Glacier in northwest Greenland lost a lot of area in 2010 and 2012. What makes 79N so important is the way it’s attached to the interior ice sheet, and that means that one day- if the climate warms as we expect- this region will probably become one of the major centres of action for the deglaciation of Greenland.” He believes that 79N will likely disintegrate from the middle, but says that this could happen in anywhere from 10 to 20 years. 

July saw another large ice shelf structure in the Arctic lose a large amount of area; the last fully intact ice shelf in Canada in the Arctic collapsed, losing about 40% of its area over a two-day period. The ice shelf is now 106 sq km in size, after 80 sq km broke off from the Milne Ice Shelf. The Milne was the largest intact remnant from a wider shelf feature that covered 8 600 sq km at the start of the 20th century.

Further, the Greenland ice sheet lost a record amount of ice in 2019: an average of a million tons per minute throughout the year.

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The climate crisis is heating the Arctic region at double the rate than at lower latitudes, and the Greenland ice sheet will be one of the biggest contributors to sea level rise, which is already affecting coastline cities around the world.

Featured image by: Flickr

While the climate crisis has many factors that play a role in the exacerbation of the environment, there are some that warrant more attention than others. Here are some of the biggest environmental problems of our lifetime, from deforestation and biodiversity loss to food waste and fast fashion.

1. Global Warming From Fossil Fuels

At time of publication, CO2 PPM (parts per million) is at 418 and the global temperature rise is 1.1 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. 

The last time carbon dioxide levels on our planet were as high as today was more than 4 million years ago. Increased emissions of greenhouse gases have led to a rapid and steady increase in global temperatures, which in turn is causing catastrophic events all over the world – from Australia and the US experiencing some of the most devastating bushfire seasons ever recorded, locusts swarming across parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, decimating crops, and a heatwave in Antarctica that saw temperatures rise above 20 degrees for the first time. Scientists are constantly warning that the planet has crossed a series of tipping points that could have catastrophic consequences, such as advancing permafrost melt in Arctic regions, the Greenland ice sheet melting at an unprecedented rate, accelerating sixth mass extinction, and increasing deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, just to name a few.

The climate crisis is causing tropical storms and other weather events such as hurricanes, heatwaves and flooding to be more intense and frequent than seen before. However, even if all greenhouse gas emissions were halted immediately, global temperatures would continue to rise in the coming years. That is why it is absolutely imperative that we start now to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, invest in renewable energy sources, and phase our fossil fuels as fast as possible.

2. Poor Governance

According to economists like Nicholas Stern, the climate crisis is a result of multiple market failures.

Economists and environmentalists have urged policymakers for years to increase the price of activities that emit greenhouse gases (one of our biggest environmental problems), the lack of which constitutes the largest market failure, for example through carbon taxes, which will stimulate innovations in low-carbon technologies.

To cut emissions quickly and effectively enough, governments must not only massively increase funding for green innovation to bring down the costs of low-carbon energy sources, but they also need to adopt a range of other policies that address each of the other market failures. 

A national carbon tax is currently implemented in 27 countries around the world, including various countries in the EU, Canada, Singapore, Japan, Ukraine and Argentina. However, according to the 2019 OECD Tax Energy Use report, current tax structures are not adequately aligned with the pollution profile of energy sources. For example, the OECD suggests that carbon taxes are not harsh enough on coal production, although it has proved to be effective for the electricity industry. A carbon tax has been effectively implemented in Sweden; the carbon tax is USD $127 per tonne and has reduced emissions by 25% since 1995, while its economy has expanded 75% in the same time period. 

Further, organisations such as the United Nations are not fit to deal with the climate crisis: it was assembled to prevent another world war and is not fit for purpose. Anyway, members of the UN are not mandated to comply with any suggestions or recommendations made by the organisation. For example, the Paris Agreement, an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, says that countries need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly so that global temperature rise is below 2 degrees Celsius by 2100, and ideally under 1.5 degrees. But signing on to it is voluntary, and there are no real repercussions for non-compliance. Further, the issue of equity remains a contentious issue whereby developing countries are allowed to emit more in order to develop to the point where they can develop technologies to emit less, and it allows some countries, such as China, to exploit this. 

3. Food Waste

A third of the food intended for human consumption – around 1.3 billion tons – is wasted or lost. This is enough to feed 3 billion people. Food waste and loss account for a third of greenhouse gas emissions annually; if it was a country, food waste would be the third highest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind China and the US. 

Food waste and loss occurs at different stages in developing and developed countries; in developing countries, 40% of food waste occurs at the post-harvest and processing levels, while in developed countries, 40% of food waste occurs at the retail and consumer levels. 

At the retail level, a shocking amount of food is wasted because of aesthetic reasons; in fact, in the US, more than 50% of all produce thrown away in the US is done so because it is deemed to be “too ugly” to be sold to consumers- this amounts to about 60 million tons of fruits and vegetables. This leads to food insecurity, another one of the biggest environmental problems on the list. 

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4. Biodiversity Loss

The past 50 years have seen a rapid growth of human consumption, population, global trade and urbanisation, resulting in humanity using more of the Earth’s resources than it can replenish naturally. 

A recent WWF report found that the population sizes of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians have experienced a decline of an average of 68% between 1970 and 2016. The report attributes this biodiversity loss to a variety of factors, but mainly land-use change, particularly the conversion of habitats, like forests, grasslands and mangroves, into agricultural systems. Animals such as pangolins, sharks and seahorses are significantly affected by the illegal wildlife trade, and pangolins are critically endangered because of it. 

More broadly, a recent analysis has found that the sixth mass extinction of wildlife on Earth is accelerating. More than 500 species of land animals are on the brink of extinction and are likely to be lost within 20 years; the same number were lost over the whole of the last century. The scientists say that without the human destruction of nature, this rate of loss would have taken thousands of years. 

plastic pollution, vincent kneefelImage by: EO Photographer Vincent Kneefel

5. Plastic Pollution

In 1950, the world produced more than 2 million tons of plastic per year. By 2015, this annual production swelled to 419 million tons and exacerbating plastic waste in the environment. 

A report by science journal, Nature, determined that currently, roughly 14 million tons of plastic make their way into the oceans every year, harming wildlife habitats and the animals that live in them. The research found that if no action is taken, the plastic crisis will grow to 29 million metric tons per year by 2040. If we include microplastics into this, the cumulative amount of plastic in the ocean could reach 600 million tons by 2040.

Shockingly, National Geographic found that 91% of all plastic that has ever been made is not recycled, representing not only one of the biggest environmental problems of our lifetime, but another massive market failure. Considering that plastic takes 400 years to decompose, it will be many generations until it ceases to exist. There’s no telling what the irreversible effects of plastic pollution will have on the environment in the long run. deforestation

6. Deforestation

Every hour, forests the size of 300 football fields are cut down. By the year 2030, the planet might have only 10% of its forests; if deforestation isn’t stopped, they could all be gone in less than 100 years. 

Agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, another one of the biggest environmental problems appearing on this list. Land is cleared to raise livestock or to plant other crops that are sold, such as sugar cane and palm oil. Besides for carbon sequestration, forests help to prevent soil erosion, because the tree roots bind the soil and prevent it from washing away, which also prevents landslides. 

The three countries experiencing the highest levels of deforestation are Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia, however Indonesia is tackling deforestation, now seeing the lowest rates since the beginning of the century. 

7. Air Pollution 

One of the biggest environmental problems today is outdoor air pollution. Research from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that an estimated 4.2 to 7 million people die from air pollution worldwide every year and that nine out of 10 people breathe air that contains high levels of pollutants. In Africa, 258,000 people died as a result of outdoor air pollution in 2017, up from 164,000 in 1990, according to UNICEF. Causes of air pollution mostly comes from industrial sources and motor vehicles, as well as emissions from burning biomass and poor air quality due to dust storms. 

In Europe, a recent report from the EU’s environment agency showed that air pollution contributed to 400 000 annual deaths in the EU in 2012 (the last year for which data was available). 

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, attention has been put on the role that air pollution gases has in transporting the virus molecules. Preliminary studies have identified a positive correlation between COVID-19-related mortalities and air pollution and there is also a plausible association of airborne particles assisting the viral spread. This could have contributed to the high death toll in China, where air quality is notoriously poor, although more definitive studies must be conducted before such a conclusion can be drawn.

8. Melting Ice Caps and Sea Level Rise

The climate crisis is warming the Arctic more than twice as fast as anywhere else on the planet. Today, sea levels are rising more than twice as quickly as they did for most of the 20th century as a result of increasing temperatures on Earth. Seas are now rising an average of 3.2 mm per year globally and they will continue to grow up to about 0.7 metres by the end of this century. In the Arctic, the Greenland Ice Sheet poses the greatest risk for sea levels because melting land ice is the main cause of rising sea levels.

Representing arguably the biggest of the environmental problems, this is made all the more concerning considering that last year’s summer triggered the loss of 60 billion tons of ice from Greenland, enough to raise global sea levels by 2.2mm in just two months. According to satellite data, the Greenland ice sheet lost a record amount of ice in 2019: an average of a million tons per minute throughout the year, one of the biggest environmental problems that has cascading effects.

If the entire Greenland ice sheet melts, sea level would rise by six metres.

Meanwhile, the Antarctic continent contributes about 1 millimetre per year to sea level rise, which is a third of the annual global increase. Additionally, the last fully intact ice shelf in Canada in the Arctic recently collapsed, having lost about 80 square kilometres – or 40% – of its area over a two-day period in late July, according to the Canadian Ice Service. 

The sea level rise will have a devastating impact on those living in coastal regions: according to research and advocacy group Climate Central, sea level rise this century could flood coastal areas that are now home to 340 million to 480 million people, forcing them to migrate to safer areas and contributing to overpopulation and strain of resources in the areas they migrate to. 

Take Shanghai’s megalopolis for example, which is built around the low-lying Yangtze river delta. As the fourth most populous city in the world, the flood risk in the area is high due to its geographical position. Any flooding caused by a higher rainfall can potentially be catastrophic in relation to evacuation, water management and property damage. 

shanghai sea level rise

9. Ocean Acidification

Global temperature rise has not only affected the surface, but it is the main cause of ocean acidification. Our oceans absorb about 30% of carbon dioxide that is released into the Earth’s atmosphere. As higher concentrations of carbon emissions are released thanks to human activities such as burning fossil fuels as well as effects of global climate change such as increased rates of wildfires, so do the amount of carbon dioxide that is absorbed back into the sea. 

The smallest change in the pH scale can have a significant impact on the acidity of the ocean. Ocean acidification can have a ripple effect across marine ecosystems and species, its food webs, and provoke irreversible changes in habitat quality. Once pH levels reach too low, marine organisms such as oysters, their shells and skeleton could even start to dissolve. 

However, one of the biggest environmental problems from ocean acidification is coral bleaching and subsequent coral reef loss. This is a phenomenon that occurs when rising ocean temperatures disrupt the symbiotic relationship between the reefs and algae that lives within it, driving away the algae and causing coral reefs to lose their natural vibrant colours. Some scientists have estimated coral reefs are at risk of being completely wiped by 2050. Higher acidity in the ocean would obstruct coral reef systems’ ability to rebuild their exoskeletons and recover from these coral bleaching events. 

Some studies have also found that ocean acidification can be linked as one of the effects of plastic pollution in the ocean. The accumulating bacteria and microorganisms derived from plastic garbage dumped in the ocean to damage marine ecosystems and contribute towards coral bleaching.

10. Agriculture 

Studies have shown that the global food system is responsible for up to one third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, of which 30% comes from livestock and fisheries. Crop production releases greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide through the use of fertilisers

60% of the world’s agricultural area is dedicated to cattle ranching, although it only makes up 24% of global meat consumption. 

Agriculture not only covers a vast amount of land, but it also consumes a vast amount of freshwater, another one of the biggest environmental problems on this list. While arable lands and grazing pastures cover one-third of Earth’s land surfaces, they consume three-quarters of the world’s limited freshwater resources.

Scientists and environmentalists have continuously warned that we need to rethink our current food system; switching to a more plant-based diet would dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of the conventional agriculture industry. 

11. Food and Water Insecurity

Rising temperatures and unsustainable farming practices has resulted in the increasing threat of water and food insecurity and taking the mantle as one of the biggest environmental problems today. 

Globally, more than 68 billion tonnes of top-soil is eroded every year at a rate 100 times faster than it can naturally be replenished. Laden with biocides and fertiliser, the soil ends up in waterways where it contaminates drinking water and protected areas downstream. 

Furthermore, exposed and lifeless soil is more vulnerable to wind and water erosion due to lack of root and mycelium systems that hold it together. A key contributor to soil erosion is over-tilling: although it increases productivity in the short-term by mixing in surface nutrients (e.g. fertiliser), tilling is physically destructive to the soil’s structure and in the long-term leads to soil compaction, loss of fertility and surface crust formation that worsens topsoil erosion.

With the global population expected to reach 9 billion people by mid-century, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) projects that global food demand may increase by 70% by 2050. Around the world, more than 820 million people do not get enough to eat. 

The UN secretary-general António Guterres says, “Unless immediate action is taken, it is increasingly clear that there is an impending global food security emergency that could have long term impacts on hundreds of millions of adults and children.” He urged for countries to rethink their food systems and encouraged more sustainable farming practices. 

In terms of water security, only 3% of the world’s water is fresh water, and two-thirds of that is tucked away in frozen glaciers or otherwise unavailable for our use.

As a result, some 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to water, and a total of 2.7 billion find water scarce for at least one month of the year. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages. 

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12. Fast Fashion and Textile Waste

The global demand for fashion and clothing has risen at an unprecedented rate that the fashion industry now accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions, becoming one of the biggest environmental problems of our time. Fashion alone produces more greenhouse gas emissions than both the aviation and shipping sectors combined, and nearly 20% of global wastewater, or around 93 billion cubic metres from textile dyeing, according to the UN Environment Programme.

What’s more, the world at least generated an estimated 92 million tonnes of textiles waste every year and that number is expected to soar up to 134 million tonnes a year by 2030. Discarded clothing and textile waste ends up in landfills, most of which is non-biodegradable, while microplastics from clothing materials such as polyester, nylon, polyamide, acrylic and other synthetic materials, is leeched into soil and nearby water sources. Monumental amounts of clothing textile are also dumped in less developed countries as seen with Chile’s Atacama, the driest desert in the world, where at least 39,000 tonnes of textile waste from other nations are left there to rot.

This rapidly growing issue is only exacerbated by the ever-expanding fast fashion business model, in which companies relies on cheap and speedy production of low quality clothing to meet the latest and newest trends. While the United Nations Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action sees signatory fashion and textile companies to commit to achieving net zero emission by 2050, a majority of businesses around the world have yet to address their roles in climate change.

While these are some of the biggest environmental problems plaguing our planet, there are many more that have not been mentioned, including overfishing, urban sprawl, toxic superfund sites and land use changes. While there are many facets that need to be considered in formulating a response to the crisis, they must be coordinated, practical and far-reaching enough to make enough of a difference. 

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13. Overfishing

Over three billion people around the world rely on fish as their primary source of protein. About 12% of the world relies upon fisheries in some form or another, with 90% of these being small-scale fishermen – think a small crew in a boat, not a ship, using small nets or even rods and reels and lures not too different from the kind you probably use. Of the 18.9 million fishermen in the world, 90% of them fall under the latter category.

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Most people consume approximately twice as much food as they did 50 years ago and there are four times as many people on earth as there were at the close of the 1960s. This is one driver of the 30% of commercially fished waters being classified as being ‘overfished’. This means that the stock of available fishing waters is being depleted faster than it can be replaced.

Overfishing comes with detrimental effects on the environment, including increased algae in the water, destruction of fishing communities, ocean littering as well as extremely high rates of biodiversity loss.

As part of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 14), the UN and FAO are working towards maintaining the proportion of fish stocks within biologically sustainable levels. This, however, requires much stricter regulations of the world’s oceans than the ones already in place. In July 2022, the WTO banned fishing subsidies to reduce global overfishing in a historic deal. Indeed, subsidies for fuel, fishing gear, and building new vessels, only incentivise overfishing and represent thus a huge problem. 

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Featured image by: EO Photographer Roy Mangersnes

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has picked Senator Kamala Harris of California to be his running mate. Harris beat out a long list of qualified women for the spot — Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, former national security adviser Susan Rice, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, and others were in the running. Biden’s decision to pick a woman of color sends the signal that the former vice president is serious about issues of racial and gender inequity … and about energizing voters who care deeply about representation. What does his decision mean for climate and environmental policy in a Biden administration?

Harris — formerly the district attorney for the city of San Francisco and the attorney general of California — has been known to be somewhat of a political chameleon. Her once-promising presidential campaign failed in part because of Harris’s inability to nail down her political ideology. But, over time, the Democrat has become increasingly firm in her commitment to one particular issue: environmental justice.

Kamala Harris and the Green New Deal

When Kamala Harris was running for president in 2019, she released a climate plan that put environmental justice front and center. Last July, she and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York unveiled a plan to introduce climate legislation in Congress that would ensure new environmental regulations and legislation get evaluated through an environmental justice lens before becoming law. Last week, the two Democrats made good on that plan by formally introducing legislation called the Climate Equity Act. The act would set up a new Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability within the Office of Management and Budget.

A week prior to that announcement, Harris introduced another piece of climate legislation in the Senate: a companion bill to the Environmental Justice for All Act introduced earlier this year in the House of Representatives by Democrats A. Donald McEachin of Virginia and Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona. In an email interview with Grist ahead of the introduction of that bill, the senator explained why environmental justice is so important to her. “Our country is in the midst of multiple crises,” Harris told Grist:

“First, there’s the public health crisis caused by the coronavirus that has killed over 148,000 people. It disproportionately affects Black and brown people in part due to the high frequency of pre-existing conditions like asthma and high blood pressure. These can stem from decades of toxic pollution being dumped in communities of color and which place people at higher risk of complications. Meanwhile, there is the continuing crisis of systemic racism in America that people of color have known and experienced for generations. All of these things intersect, and we must center the fight for environmental justice in the broader conversation.”

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Harris’ commitment to this kind of work dates back to her days as a district attorney. In 2005, she created a mini version of the Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability she’s proposing now within the San Francisco district attorney’s office. “Crimes against the environment are crimes against communities, people who are often poor and disenfranchised,” she said at the time.

In short, she’s got a good record on justice that’s getting better and better. That could serve Biden well as he continues to hash out his climate plans in the months leading up to the election. He’s already introduced a more comprehensive and equitable version of his initial climate plan and sought input from an array of formal and informal climate advisors from many different corners of the climate movement, including environmental justice advocates. Kamala Harris will no doubt continue to steer his campaign in a justice-friendly direction. She also supports abolishing the filibuster, a step that will likely be necessary to get any climate or environmental policy through Congress in a Biden administration.

Harris isn’t quite a climate activist’s dream. She was one of the last Democrats running for president to release a climate plan last year, lagging far behind other candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Jay Inslee. Her plan did not include a full ban on fracking unlike some of her competitors’ plans, and she has taken donations from the fossil fuel industry in the past, though she did take a vow not to accept donations from fossil fuel companies this election cycle.

But Harris’s proximity to rising temperatures may be another indication that the senator would take climate change seriously as vice president. Kamala Harris is the first person from a state west of Texas to appear on a Democratic presidential ticket, and she has come up against the effects of climate change firsthand in California, where wildfires, rising sea levels, and drought are near-constant sources of concern. As a result, her state has become a leader of the charge to tackle rising emissions in the United States. Let’s hope Harris brings a little bit of that urgency to the ticket.

Featured image by: Gage Skidmore

This story originally appeared in Grist, written by Zoya Teirstein, and is republished here as a part of Earth.Org’s partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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