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An estimated 50% of supermarket products – including make-up and hygiene products and household foods – contain palm oil. Environmentally-conscious consumers are frustrated by its seemingly inescapable presence. Where does it originate, why is palm oil deforestation an issue and what actions are being taken by governments, businesses and customers to reduce its detrimental impact?

Palm oil is famous for being a major driver of large-scale deforestation of some of the world’s largest forests, destroying the habitat of already endangered species like the Orangutan, pygmy elephant, and Sumatran rhino.

The palms from which this edible vegetable oil is obtained are native to Africa but were brought to South-East Asia just over a century ago as an ornamental tree crop. Here, they found an ideal habitat to take root in. Amongst the 42 producing countries, Indonesia and Malaysia currently make up over 85% of the global supply of palm oil.  

A Ubiquitous and Hidden Ingredient

This incredibly versatile oil has different properties and functions that make it an extremely popular product worldwide.

It is semi-solid at room temperature, which makes it easier to use it. It is also table at high temperatures, making it a great frying oil. Moreover, palm oil is resistant to oxidation and is thus added to several processed foods to ensure a longer shelf-life; it is also odourless and colourless, which means that it does not alter the look or smell of food products. In Asian and African countries, palm oil is used widely as cooking oil, just like sunflower or olive oil are widely used across European countries.

Nowadays, palm oil is in nearly everything. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), nearly 50% of the packaged products we find in supermarkets – from pizza, doughnuts and chocolate, to deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste and lipstick – contain this type of oil. In many parts of the world it is also used in animal feed and as a biofuel.

Given that palm oil is in about half of supermarket products, individuals may wonder why they do not see it listed as an ingredient on their shampoo or other everyday items. Palm oil has indeed become a “dirty word” that manufacturers avoid on their packaging; and it is often not a labelling requirement. Derivatives can appear under many names, disguising their presence in everyday off-the shelf products.

Take decyl glucoside, sodium lauryl sulfate and cetearyl alcohol, for example. Nothing in the chemical terminology gives away the fact that these widely-used compounds are all byproducts of palm oil. There are around 170 different names used to disguise palm oil on packaging.

You might also like: Certified Sustainable Palm Oil and Alternatives for the Future















A list of some of the many alternate names for palm oil. Source: Orangutan Foundation International

In a January 2019 report, The World Health Organisation warned that alternative names for palm oil and unclear labelling means that “consumers may be unaware of what they are eating or its safety”.

The palm oil industry is often compared to “Big Tobacco”, suggesting that it is deploying similar tactics to influence research into the health effects of its products.

“These tactics – like establishing lobbying structures in political and economic hubs, fighting regulations, attempting to undermine reliable sources of information and using poverty alleviation arguments – are similar to those pursued by the tobacco and alcohol industries” the report reads.  “However, the palm oil industry receives comparatively little scrutiny”.

The Malaysian Government has since asked the WHO to pull the report, which it described as biased. “We view the article as half-truths, un-scholarly, flawed and utterly biased against palm oil, with suspected intention of demonising the palm oil industry,” stated the Ministry of Primary Industries.

Palm fruits are the source of the world’s most popular edible oil. Photo by Nanang Sujana/CIFOR

The Issue of Palm Oil Deforestation

While the health benefits of pail oil have been disputed, one thing is certainly clear: palm oil plantations are a major driver of deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems, severely degrading the environment and affecting the carbon sinks of the world that leads to catastrophic impact on forests, endangered animals and climate change

Palm tree plantations have a life-cycle of 28-30 years. After this time, the trees reach a height of over 12 metres, making them uneconomical to harvest the fruits from which the oil is derived from. They are then cut and replaced by new trees.

Palm oil deforestation is a huge issue. It is estimated that up to 300 football fields forest globally are cleared every hour to make room for palm plantations, destroying the habitat of already critically endangered species like the orangutan, Sumatran tiger and rhino.

Forest loss, because of all the carbon contained in living organisms, coupled with conversion of carbon-rich peatlands, emits millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, further contributing to climate change.

NASA researchers say that accelerated slash and burn forest clearing in Borneo contributed to the largest single-year global increase in carbon emissions in two millenniums, which transformed Indonesia into the world’s fourth-largest source of carbon emissions.

A network of access roads on former orangutan habitat inside the PT Karya Makmur Abadi Estate II palm oil concession in East Kotawaringin district, Central Kalimantan; Borneo, Indonesia. Source: Greenpeace

You might also like: 10 Deforestation Facts You Should Know About

Ironically, palm oil was supposed to help save environment degradation. A decade ago, Western nations mandated the use of vegetable oil in biofuels, in an ambitious move to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and curb global warming.

Domestic pressure from rural constituencies played a role. America’s agricultural industry had been heavily lobbying to enter the energy sector to create a marketplace alternative to its natural food supply chain.

Then-President George W. Bush posited that biofuels, particularly corn-derived ethanol and biodiesel made from vegetable oil, would power our future mobility, increasing the country’s energy independence from foreign oil.

The Energy Policy Act passed in 2005 contained the first provisions for the Renewable Fuel Standards, requiring transportation fuel sold in the United States to contain a minimum volume of renewable fuel. But the legislation encouraging biofuels was drawn up based on an incomplete accounting of the true environmental costs, ignoring scientific warnings that the policies could have the opposite of their intended effect.

Biodiesel production in the US subsequently jumped from 250 million gallons to 1.5 billion gallons between 2006 and 2016. While domestic soy-bean production was diverted to meet the lucrative biofuel demand, the food industry replaced the increasingly expensive soy-based ingredients with a cheaper substitute: palm oil.

Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil flooded western markets, with a crippling effect on the tropical rainforests.

Emboldened by the unprecedented palm oil boom, large corporations cornered the market and started acquiring more land to expand production. It led to today’s ongoing industrial-scale deforestation – and a huge spike in carbon emissions.

Indonesia continues its environmental rollback, even though the country is seen as crucially important to the success of the Paris accord to cut global carbon emissions.

In December 2018, the government announced plans to build more than 100 coal-fired power plants, and expand the production of palm oil for local biofuel consumption.

“They are doing some good things, but it is not enough, said Teguh Surya, who works at a local environmental NGO, referring to Indonesia’s efforts to restore carbon-rich peatlands and a suspension on partial forest clearing. “Palm oil expansion is still in planning, on the ground we found some peat areas still open for plantation and there is still weaknesses in law enforcement.”

Power to the Consumer

Fortunately for eco-conscious consumers, a quick internet research and brand selectiveness can go a long way to steer clear of products that may contribute to unsustainable practices.

The Rainforest Foundation UK Palm Oil Guide provides a comprehensive list of sustainable companies and specific supermarket products for customers to shop more responsibly.

A handy consumer app, Buycott allows buyers across the world to scan the barcode of a product to find out its exact content and how sustainable it is.

Consumers can also look out for Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified products, as well as those containing organic palm oil.

In large numbers, more environmentally aware consumers can essentially force companies to clean up their act by boycotting corporations outed for unsustainable production– as in the cases of Nestle, Ferrero and Unilever.

To encourage change in the industry and mitigate the substance’s impact on the environment, “the solution is for big brands to only buy palm oil from responsible growers that protect rainforests”, says Diana Ruiz, senior palm oil campaigner for Greenpeace. “And it is available”.

You might also like: 12 Major Companies Responsible for Deforestation

So far, 2022 has been a year of tremendous climate extremes. Humanity is learning the extent of the existential threats posed by climate change and ecological destruction the hard way. In a year of such tremendous transformation, leaders and innovators continuously come up with solutions and new ways of thinking that make us reflect and hope. In Earth.Org’s best climate change books, we see a world that is ambitious about humanity’s prospects, but humble about our place in nature. Extremely hopeful for our future, while realistic about what we might have to endure.

So far, 2022 has been a whirlwind of a year. From a global health crisis that is still going to stalling economies and dysfunctional international supply chains, this year has taken us to extremes few thought imaginable, and climate is no exception. Devastating floods in South Asia, record-breaking heatwaves in Europe and India, and unprecedented wildfires across the planet made it truly incontrovertible that climate is everything, and the changes within it will impact every person, every sector, and every country.

In 2022, we at Earth.Org revamped and significantly expanded our book review series to include regular talks with authors and more in-depth coverage of their books. Aside from the award-winning writers, world-leading climate scientists and thought leaders paving the way towards humanity’s brighter future, these are our pick of the best books on climate change. 

Best Climate Change Books To Read in 2022

1. The New Climate War, by Michael Mann

Michael Mann is arguably one of the closest things we have to a climate superhero. His story is certainly reminiscent of some cinematic superhero adventures. After hitting the climate science stage hard in 1999 when co-authoring the now-famous ‘hockey stick graph’ that demonstrates how human activity has contributed to average temperature rise, Michael Mann was lambasted, criticised and dismissed by a system perpetrated by our story’s villains, principally the fossil fuel industry and other actors with vested interests But our hero did not back down, and continued to push for the emerging field of climate science to be recognised.

In The New Climate War, Mann explains how the fossil fuel industry has adjusted its tactics, from outright climate denialism to obstruction and shifting the burden of responsibility to individuals, thereby delaying necessary action to push through systemic changes. The book is a fascinating untangling of the intricate web of misinformation, misdirection and deflection perpetuated by the fossil fuel industry since climate change became an incontrovertible reality. Cautiously optimistic, Mann argues that the fundamental challenges we still face today are not tied to a technological or intellectual inability to achieve systemic change, but in the lack of political will required to do so.

2. Post Growth: Life After Capitalism, by Tim Jackson

For the economics-inclined, Post Growth may be our pick for the most accessible and inspiring technical environmental books of 2021. Professor Tim Jackson, a highly influential ecological economist, first gained fame for his 2009 book, Prosperity Without Growth, a highly researched deep dive into the economics and models that can bring us into a more sustainable and prosperous future.

Jackson’s 2021 foray is a romantic, passionate and highly readable book that illuminates what a future after capitalism, competition and egregious self-interest really looks like, largely doing away with much of the jargon and economics’ parlance used in Prosperity. Grounded in a deep understanding of ecological economics, Post Growth presents one of the most compelling arguments yet that the economy is not at all separate from the natural world, but an intrinsically embedded subsidiary of it. Under this worldview, it becomes clear that constant economic growth is simply untenable.

Whether or not you agree with Jackson’s more fundamental assertions on the nature of capitalism and its role in a prosperous society, this is a book that sheds light on a version of the future where having outright winners does not necessarily translate to having outright losers, where prosperity is not only linked to material wealth but to wellbeing, health and safety for all members of society. Post Growth does not necessarily offer the solutions and technical means that Prosperity does, but it does provide a way of thinking about the future that is hopeful, bright and entirely achievable. 

3. The Good Ancestor, by Roman Krznaric

Possibly the most philosophical book on this list, Roman Krznaric’s The Good Ancestor delves into the ideas and merits behind long-termism, an ideology that is growing in support and popularity as it becomes clearer that our actions today will have long-lasting consequences on the generations of tomorrow.

“What does it mean to be a good ancestor?” Krznaric’s book largely revolves around this question, addressing the vastly interesting and under-explored topic of intergenerational ethics. Our governmental and economic frameworks incentivise short-term prizes over long-term rewards, but that does not mean that we have lost the ability to think long-term. In his immensely profound and impassioned book, Krznaric reminds us that our actions have long-lasting impacts on future generations and the planet. He provides readers with an empowering and eye-opening prescription for a new way to see the world and our place in it, one that recognises how small humans currently alive are relative to the immense breadth of our species’ past and, most importantly, our potentially limitless future.

4. Under A White Sky, by Elizabeth Kolbert

For the more scientifically and solutions-inclined, this is the book pick for you. On a world-hopping adventure from one solution to the next, journalist and author Elizabeth Kolbert guides readers through the sheer madness of ‘fixes’ that humans have attempted to dominate the natural world. The bottom line is this: we like to think of ourselves as ingenious problem solvers, and we certainly can be, but more often than not, our actions have unforeseen and reverberating effects on ecosystems and human populations.

Under A White Sky immensely readable, vividly describing everything from the flooding marshlands of Louisiana to the mind-bogglingly exciting developments in genetic engineering. In each new location, Kolbert dives into the latest technological fix that is being attempted, often to cover up the unintended consequences of the last techno-fix humans tried out. This is a hugely entertaining book that accurately describes some of the most cutting-edge and complex solutions to the environmental crisis that humans have come up with. But it is also a cautionary tale that puts into perspective just how far we’ve gone, and what that has already done to the world.

5. On Time and Water, by Andri Snær Magnason 

Andri Snær Magnason’s On Time and Water is a lyrical and emotionally moving experience of a book. At its core, this book is a poetic exploration of what processes like climate change, environmental loss and ecological shocks really mean. The book makes the example of ocean acidification, a combination of words that could realistically glean half-interested stares and vacant expressions from most people, and yet inspire visceral fear and dread in the hearts of marine and climate scientists. The same applies to atmospheric carbon buildup. Sure, we know it’s bad, but why? 

On Time and Water is a pensive and beautifully written meditation on how to connect our past, present and future, offering a hopeful vision of a world where we feel closer to each other, to our families and to the natural world that surrounds us. It gives us the tools we need to think closely about this future, the language we can use to describe it and the anchors we can turn towards to connect ourselves with it.

6. Being the Change: Live Well and Start a Climate Revolution by Peter Kalmus

The first on our list of books about climate change, alarmed by drastic changes occurring in the Earth’s environment, climate scientist and suburban father Peter Kalmus embarked on a journey to change his life and the world. He began by ditching the car and bicycling instead, growing his own food and making other simple, fulfilling changes. Kalmus slashed his climate impact to one tenth of the US average and became happier in the process.

Being the Change (2017) inspires individuals who want take climate action, but are unsure of where to start.

7. This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs The Climate by Naomi Klein

Rob Nixon from The New York Times called it “the most momentous and contentious environmental book since Silent Spring”. Hard-hitting journalist Naomi Klein uncovers the myths clouding the climate debate, unearthing how powerful and well-financed right wing think tanks and lobby groups are at the source of the climate change denial.

This Changes Everything (2014) challenges the current “free market” ideology, which Klein argues is unable to solve the climate change crisis.

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8. The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative by Florence Williams

From eucalyptus groves in California, forest trails in Korea, to islands in Finland, Florence Williams investigates the science behind nature’s positive effects on the brain. Delving into cutting-edge research, The Nature Fix (2017) exposes the powers of the natural world to improve health, strengthen our relationships and promote reflection and innovation.

9. Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming by Paul Hawken

Drawdown (2017) gathers the 100 most effective solutions to halt global warming from leading scientists and policymakers, which if adopted, could even reduce the overall greenhouse gasses currently present in the atmosphere . Already firmly anchored in the New York Times bestseller list, Hawken ranks optimal solutions – like moderating the use of air-conditioners and refrigerators, or adopting a plant-rich diet – by the amount of potential greenhouse gases they can avoid or remove.

10. Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life by Edward O. Wilson

Half Earth (2016), written by one of the world’s greatest naturalists and a double Pulitzer Prize winner, proposes an realistic plan to save our imperilled biosphere: devote half the surface of the Earth to nature. In order to stave off the mass extinction of species including our own, we must move swiftly to preserve the biodiversity of our planet, Wilson urges in one of his most impassioned books about climate change to date. 

11. Natural Capital: Valuing the Planet by Dieter Helm

The first real attempt to calibrate, measure and value natural capital from an economic perspective, Natural Capital (2015) shifts the parameters of the current environmental debate. Dieter Helm, Fellow of Economics at the University of Oxford, claims that refusing to place an economic value on nature risks an environmental meltdown. He proceeds to outline a new framework to couple economic growth with respect for our natural endowment without sacrificing the former.

12. Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution – and How It Can Renew America by Thomas Friedman

Given the recent buzz about the Green New Deal in American politics, we recommend this brilliant book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author who coined the term, Thomas L. Friedman. Hot, Flat and Crowded (2008) speaks to America’s urgent need to expand national renewables and how climate change presents a unique opportunity for the US – not only to transform its economy, but to lead the world in innovating toward cleaner energy.

13. Sustainable Nation: Urban Design Patterns for the Future by Douglas Farr

An essential resource for urban designers, planners and architects, Sustainable Nation (2018) is an urgent call to action and a guidebook for change. An architect and urban planner, Douglas Farr details how designing cities and buildings with sustainable criteria can mitigate the humanitarian, population and climate crises.

14. The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

If you need to quickly get up to speed with the sheer scale of the climate emergency, journalist David Wallace-Wells’s succinct but brutal portrait of our future lives on earth may be for you. In 200 pages, it unpacks the different dimensions of our forecast future, from heat death to unbreathable air. 

As Wallace-Wells puts it in the book’s first line, “it is worse, much worse, than you think.” Even for those who feel they are well-versed on the issue, the endless stream of disasters that have or could be caused by global warming effectively shakes the reader out of any complacency. 

While the book does not offer solutions, it does make it clear that we already have all the tools we need to avoid the worst effects. But ultimately The Uninhabitable Earth seeks to make clear the horror of the emergency of the consequences before us. Unless we accept the urgency, how can we expect to get ourselves out of this mess?

15. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

By 2050, the climate crisis will have driven the extinction of up to half the world’s species, according to this book that is written on the frontlines of environmental breakdown. We are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction event, which is set to be the fastest such event on record.

Kolbert outlines how humans have driven the extinction of biodiversity, or to the brink of extinction, from the Panamanian golden frog nearly completely wiped out in the wild by a fungal disease to the Maui, which is in peril due to deforestation. 

We are driving these species to extinction in many ways: some connected to the climate crisis through rising sea levels rising and deforestation, as well as by spreading disease-carrying species and poaching. By fundamentally altering earth’s delicately balanced ecosystems, we are risking our own future too. 

16. Losing Earth: The Decade We Could Have Stopped Climate Change by Nathaniel Rich

We have known about the perils of climate change for decades and yet very little to nothing was done about it. This book details the decade from 1979 to 1989 when we were starting to have a broad understanding of the causes and dangers of climate change. Focussing mainly on the US’s response to the crisis, the book follows the scientists and activists who tried to sound the alarm, and the Reaganite politicians and businesses who worked to make sure that no meaningful action was taken.

Rich says that the world came close to signing binding international treaties to mitigate the acceleration of global warming. However, by the start of the 90s, what was once regarded as a bipartisan issue came to be seen as a partisan one after the oil industry “descended and bared its fangs.”

Since then, more carbon has been emitted into the atmosphere than in all the preceding years of history of civilisation. Losing Earth is an essential cautionary tale for facing the climate battles ahead.

17. Net Zero: How We Stop Causing Climate Change by Dieter Helm

Another entry by Helm, Net Zero addresses the action we all need to take, whether personal, local, national or global, if we really want to stop climate change.

This book is a measured, balanced view of how we stop causing climate change by adopting a net zero strategy of reducing carbon emissions and increasing carbon absorption. It is a rational look at why the past 30 years’ efforts have failed and why and how the next 30 years can succeed. Like the other books on this list, it is a vital read for anyone who hears ecological activists fighting against climate change, but wonders what they can actually do.

You might also like: 10 Inspiring and Educational Environmental Books for Kids

18. Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency by Mark Lynas

This book delivers an account of the future of our earth, and our civilisation, if current rates of global warming persist.But how much worse could it get? Are we already past the point of no return? Cataloguing the very latest climate science, Lynas explores the course we have set for Earth over the next century and beyond. Degree by degree, he charts the likely impacts of global heating and the consequent climate catastrophe.  

At one degree – the world we are already living in – vast wildfires scorch California and Australia, while monster hurricanes devastate coastal cities. At two degrees the Arctic ice cap melts away, and coral reefs disappear from the tropics. At three, the world begins to run out of food, threatening millions with starvation. At four, large areas of the globe are too hot for human habitation, erasing entire nations and turning billions into climate refugees. At five, the planet is warmer than for 55 million years, while at six degrees a mass extinction of unparalleled proportions sweeps the planet, threatening to end all life on Earth. 

These escalating consequences can still be avoided, but time is running out. We must stop burning fossil fuels within a decade. If we fail, then we risk crossing tipping points that could push global climate chaos out of humanity’s control. 

19. On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal by Naomi Klein 

This book gathers more than a decade of Klein’s writing, pairing it with new material on the staggeringly high stakes of our immediate political and economic choices.

These long-form essays investigate the climate crisis not only as a political challenge but as a spiritual and imaginative one as well. With reports spanning from the ghostly Great Barrier Reef, the annual smoke-choked skies of the Pacific Northwest, post-hurricane Puerto Rico, to a Vatican attempting an unprecedented “ecological conversion,” Klein makes the case that we will rise to the existential challenge of climate change only if we are willing to transform the systems that produced this crisis.

An expansive, far-ranging exploration that sees the battle for a greener world as indistinguishable from the fight for our lives, On Fire captures the burning urgency of the climate crisis, as well as the fiery energy of a rising political movement demanding a catalytic Green New Deal.

20. Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet by Noam Chomsky & Robert Pollin

The last on our list of books about climate change, Noam Chomsky, the world’s leading public intellectual, and Robert Pollin, a renowned progressive economist, map out the catastrophic consequences of unchecked climate change and present a realistic blueprint for change: the Green New Deal.

Chomsky and Pollin show the forecasts for a hotter planet: vast stretches of the Earth will become uninhabitable, plagued by extreme weather, drought, rising seas, and crop failure. Arguing against the fear of economic disaster and unemployment arising from the transition to a green economy, they show how this unfounded concern encourages climate denialism.

The authors show how ceasing to burn fossil fuels within the next 30 years is entirely feasible. Climate change is an emergency that cannot be ignored. This book shows how it can be overcome both politically and economically.

21. Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea by Callum Roberts

Callum Roberts’ 2013 book, Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea, follows the fascinating relationship between man and water. A powerful warning to save our oceans before it is too late, this book does not hold back – it shows us just how much of an impact overfishing, pollution and climate change have had on marine life. 

Instead of speculating about what may happen in the future, Roberts sticks to proven facts and viable solutions. This makes his book stand out from other recent books on climate change and environmentalist works’ inability to offer solutions for the “doomsday scenarios” they present through their barrage of facts and statistics. The last quarter of Ocean of Life is packed with potential solutions that industries, companies, governments and ordinary people can adopt. 

22. All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis” edited by Ayana Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson

This book is a collection of essays and poetry by 60 leading women climate activists. It shows the power that women have in creating the solutions that we need to mitigate the climate crisis. 

23. Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid: How the Natural World is Adapting to Climate Change by Thor Hanson

While humans wrestle with net-zero targets and greenwashing, other species have had to adapt to the impacts of climate change.  According to American biologist Thor Hanson, plants and animals have “a great deal to teach us about what comes next, because for many of them, and also for many of us, that world is already here.”

These are just some of Earth.Org’s best climate change books in 2022 – we hope that you get some inspiration. As the issue of rising global temperatures imperils humanity further, it is crucial to consult a variety of impartial sources to get the most accurate information on the state of the planet. 

You might also like: 10 Must-Read Ecofeminism Books

Clothing retailers like Zara, Forever 21, and H&M make cheap and fashionable clothing to satisfy the needs of young consumers. Yet, fast fashion has a significant environmental impact. According to the UN Environment Programme, the industry is the second-biggest consumer of water and is responsible for 8-10% of global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Unfortunately, fast fashion problems are often overlooked by consumers.

What is Fast Fashion?

The term ‘fast fashion’ has become more prominent in conversations surrounding fashion, sustainability, and environmental consciousness. The term refers to ‘cheaply produced and priced garments that copy the latest catwalk styles and get pumped quickly through stores in order to maximise on current trends’.

The fast fashion model is so-called because it involves the rapid design, production, distribution, and marketing of clothing, which means that retailers are able to pull large quantities of greater product variety and allow consumers to get more fashion and product differentiation at a low price.

The term was first used at the beginning of the 1990s, when when Zara landed in New York. “Fast fashion” was coined by the New York Times to describe Zara’s mission to take only 15 days for a garment to go from the design stage to being sold in stores. The biggest players in the fast fashion world include Zara, UNIQLO, Forever 21 and H&M.

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Why is Fast Fashion Bad?

According to Business Insider, fashion production comprises 10% of total global carbon emissions, as much as the European Union. It dries up water sources and pollutes rivers and streams, while 85% of all textiles go to dumps each year. Even washing clothes releases 500 000 tons of microfibres into the ocean each year, the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles.

The Quantis International 2018 report found that the three main drivers of the industry’s global pollution impacts are dyeing and finishing (36%), yarn preparation (28%) and fibre production (15%). The report also established that fibre production has the largest impact on freshwater withdrawal (water diverted or withdrawn from a surface water or groundwater source) and ecosystem quality due to cotton cultivation, while the dyeing and finishing, yarn preparation and fibre production stages have the highest impacts on resource depletion, due to the energy-intensive processes based on fossil fuel energy.

According to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, emissions from textile manufacturing alone are projected to skyrocket by 60% by 2030.

The time it takes for a product to go through the supply chain, from design to purchase, is called a ‘lead time’. In 2012, Zara was able to design, produce and deliver a new garment in two weeks; Forever 21 in six weeks and H&M in eight weeks. This results in the fashion industry producing obscene amounts of waste.

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Fast Fashion and Its Environmental Impact

Water

The environmental impact of fast fashion comprises the depletion of non-renewable sources, emission of greenhouse gases and the use of massive amounts of water and energy. The fashion industry is the second largest consumer industry of water, requiring about 700 gallons to produce one cotton shirt and 2 000 gallons of water to produce a pair of jeans. Business Insider also cautions that textile dyeing is the world’s second-largest polluter of water, since the water leftover from the dyeing process is often dumped into ditches, streams or rivers.

Microplastics

Furthermore, brands use synthetic fibres like polyester, nylon and acrylic which take hundreds of years to biodegrade. A 2017 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that 35% of all microplastics – tiny pieces of non-biodegradable plastic – in the ocean come from the laundering of synthetic textiles like polyester.

According to the documentary released in 2015, The True Cost, the world consumes around 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year, 400% more than the consumption twenty years ago. The average American now generates 82 pounds of textile waste each year. The production of leather requires large amounts of feed, land, water and fossil fuels to raise livestock, while the tanning process is among the most toxic in all of the fashion supply chain because the chemicals used to tan leather- including mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives and various oils and dyes- is not biodegradable and contaminates water sources.

Energy

The production of making plastic fibres into textiles is an energy-intensive process that requires large amounts of petroleum and releases volatile particulate matter and acids like hydrogen chloride. Additionally, cotton, which is in a large amount of fast fashion products, is also not environmentally friendly to manufacture. Pesticides deemed necessary for the growth of cotton presents health risks to farmers.

To counter this waste caused by fast fashion, more sustainable fabrics that can be used in clothing include wild silk, organic cotton, linen, hemp and lyocell.

The Social Impacts of Fast Fashion

Fast fashion does not only have a huge environmental impact. In fact, the industry also poses societal problems, especially in developing economies. According to non-profit Remake, 80% of apparel is made by young women between the ages of 18 and 24. A 2018 US Department of Labor report found evidence of forced and child labour in the fashion industry in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey, Vietnam and others. Rapid production means that sales and profits supersede human welfare.

In 2013, an eight-floor factory building that housed several garment factories collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 1 134 workers and injuring more than 2 500. In her project, An Analysis of the Fast Fashion Industry, Annie Radner Linden suggests that ‘the garment industry has always been a low-capital and labour intensive industry’.

In her book, No Logo, Naomi Klein argues that developing nations are viable for garment industries due to ‘cheap labour, vast tax breaks, and lenient laws and regulations’. According to The True Cost, one in six people work in some part of the global fashion industry, making it the most labour-dependent industry. These developing nations also rarely follow environmental regulations; China, for example, is a major producer of fast fashion but is notorious for land degradation and air and water pollution.

Is Slow Fashion the Solution?

Slow fashion is the widespread reaction to fast fashion, the argument for hitting the brakes on excessive production, overcomplicated supply chains, and mindless consumption. It advocates for manufacturing that respects people, the environment and animals.

The World Resources Institute suggests that companies need to design, test and invest in business models that reuse clothes and maximise their useful life. The UN has launched the Alliance for Sustainable Fashion to address the damages caused by fast fashion. It is seeking to ‘halt the environmentally and socially destructive practices of fashion’.

One way that shoppers are reducing their consumption of fast fashion is by buying from secondhand sellers like ThredUp Inc. and Poshmark, both based in California, USA; shoppers send their unwanted clothes to these websites and people buy those clothes at a lower price than the original. Another solution is renting clothes, like the US-based Rent the Runway and Gwynnie Bee, the UK based Girl Meets Dress, and the Dutch firm Mud Jeans that leases organic jeans which can be kept, swapped or returned.

Other retailers like Adidas are experimenting with personalised gear to cut down on returns, increase customer satisfaction and reduce inventory. Ralph Lauren has announced that it will use 100% sustainably-sourced key materials by 2025.

Governments need to be more actively involved in the fashion industry’s damaging effects. UK ministers rejected a report by members of parliament to address the environmental effects of fast fashion. On the other hand, French president, Emmanuel Macron has made a pact with 150 brands to make the fashion industry more sustainable.

The best advice on reducing fast fashion comes from Patsy Perry, senior lecturer in fashion marketing at the University of Manchester, who says, “Less is always more.”

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Further reading:

Fashionopolis by Dana Thomas

The Conscious Closet by Elizabeth L. Cline

Renewable energy capacity is set to expand 50% between 2019 and 2024, led by solar energy. This is according to The International Energy Agency (IEA)’s ‘Renewable 2020’ report, which found that solar, wind and hydropower projects are rolling out at their fastest rate in four years, making for the argument that the future lies in using renewable energy. 

The Future of Renewable Energy: Growth Projections

Renewable energy resources make up 26% of the world’s electricity today, but according to the IEA its share is expected to reach 30% by 2024. The resurgence follows a global slowdown in 2019, due to falling technology costs and rising environmental concerns.

Renewable energy in the future is predicted that by 2024, solar capacity in the world will grow by 600 gigawatts (GW), almost double the installed total electricity capacity of Japan. Overall, renewable electricity is predicted to grow by 1 200 GW by 2024, the equivalent of the total electricity capacity of the US. 

The IEA is an autonomous inter-governmental organisation that was initially created after the wake of the 1973 oil crisis. It now acts as an energy policy advisor to 29 member countries and the European Commission to shape energy policies for a secure and sustainable future.

Solar Will Become 35% Cheaper By 2024

When the sun shines onto a solar panel, energy from the sunlight is absorbed by the PV cells in the panel. This energy creates electrical charges that move in response to an internal electrical field in the cell, causing electricity to flow.

Industry experts predict that the US will double its solar installations to four million by 2023. In 2018, the UK had over one million solar panel installations, up by 2% from the previous year and Australia reached two million solar installations in the same year. A big reason for this increased uptake is the fall in prices to install the panels.

The cost of solar PV-based power declined by 13% in 2018, while Carbon Tracker predicts that 72% of coal-based power will become globally unprofitable by 2040. The IEA report found that solar energy will account for 60% of the predicted renewable growth, primarily due to its accessibility. Compared with the previous six-year period, expansion of solar energy has more than doubled. The cost of solar power is expected to decline by 15% to 35% by 2024, spurring further growth over the second half of the decade.

Future Capacity of Solar Energy

Wind and hydropower often require users to live in specific locations, but solar offers more freedom; the sun rises and sets on a predictable schedule, and it’s not as variable as running water or wind. Residential solar power is expected to expand from 58 GW in 2018 to 142 GW by 2024, and annual capacity additions are expected to more than triple to over 20 GW by 2024. China is expected to register the largest installed residential solar capacity in the world by 2024, with the strongest per capita growth in Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria.

Solar facilities will continue reducing their variability rates by storing electricity during the day and running at night. However, advanced solar plants will operate on higher DC to AC ratios, meaning they’ll deliver more consistent service for longer durations.

Commercial and residential buildings will keep running at full capacity even in periods of low sunlight. Closing the gaps between sunlight collection and electricity generation will spur residents and corporations to join the solar movement. Therefore, it’s imperative for governments to implement incentive and remuneration schemes, as well as effective regulation policies. For example, California has mandated that after 2020, solar panels must be installed on new homes and buildings of up to three storeys.

Commercial and industrial solar energy capacity is forecast to constitute 377 GW in 2024, up from 150 GW in 2018, with China predicted to be the largest growth market. This market remains the largest growth segment because solar power is usually more inexpensive and has a relatively stable load profile during the day, which generally enables larger savings on electricity bills.

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Onshore Wind Energy Capacity Will Increase 57% By 2024

To generate electricity using wind, wind turns the propeller-like blades of a turbine around a rotor, which spins a generator, which creates electricity.

The adoption of wind power is becoming more prominent due to increased capacity.

Onshore wind capacity is expected to expand by 57% to 850 GW by 2024. Annual onshore wind additions will be led by the US and China, owing to a development rush and a policy transition to competitive auctions respectively. Expansion will accelerate in the EU as competitive auctions continue to keep costs relatively low. These auctions will mean that growth in Latin America, the MENA region, Eurasia and sub-Saharan Africa will remain stable over the forecast period. 

Offshore wind capacity is forecast to increase almost threefold to 65 GW by 2024, representing almost 10% of total world wind generation. While the EU accounts for half of global offshore wind capacity expansion over the forecast period, on a country basis, China leads deployment, with 12.5 GW in development. The first large US capacity additions are also expected during the forecast period. 

Japan Expands Wind Energy

Japan is experimenting with the idea of installing offshore turbines to replace many of their nuclear reactors, a result of the country’s 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima. The company Marubeni recently signed a project agreement to build offshore farms in northern Japan, with each farm able to produce 140 MW of power.

Japanese lawmakers have created regulations to give developers more certainty in constructing sources of wind-based electricity; legislation outlining competitive bidding processes has been passed to ensure that building costs are reduced and developers consider potential capacity issues. The country’s Port and Harbour Law has also been revised to spur wind turbine construction in port-associated areas and other locations favourable to wind turbines. 

Grid integration, financing and social acceptance remain the key challenges to faster wind expansion globally. 

Hydroelectric Capacity Will Rise 9% By 2024

Hydropower plants capture the energy of falling water to generate electricity. A turbine converts the kinetic energy of falling water into mechanical energy. Then a generator converts the mechanical energy from the turbine into electrical energy.

According to the IEA, hydropower will remain the world’s primary source of renewable power in 2024. Capacity is set to increase 9% (121 GW) over the forecast period, led by China, India and Brazil. 25% of global growth is expected to come from just three megaprojects: two in China (the 16 GW Wudongde and 10 GW Baihetan projects) and one in Ethiopia (the 6.2 GW Grand Renaissance project).

However, there has been a slowdown in the two largest markets, China and Brazil; growth is challenged by rising investment costs due to limited remaining economical sites and extra expenditures in addressing social and environmental impacts.

Nevertheless, annual additions are expected to expand in sub-Saharan Africa and in the ASEAN region as untapped potential is used to meet rising power demand. 

Geothermal Capacity Will Increase 28% By 2024

To generate geothermal energy, hot water is pumped from deep underground through a well under high pressure. When the water reaches the surface, the pressure is dropped, which causes the water to turn into steam. The steam spins a turbine, which is connected to a generator that produces electricity. The steam cools off in a cooling tower and condenses back to water. The cooled water is pumped back into the Earth to begin the process again.

The US market for geothermal heat pumps will exceed $2 billion by 2024 as demand for efficient heating solutions increases. Transformed building codes will encourage a move to renewable heating and electricity systems in commercial and residential real estates. 

Geothermal capacity is anticipated to grow 28%, reaching 18 GW by 2024, with Asia responsible for one-third of global expansion, particularly Indonesia and the Philippines, followed by Kenya, whose geothermal capacity is set to overtake Iceland’s during the forecast period. 

The same research from Global Market Insights predicts the commercial market will experience the most considerable uptick; according to the Department of Energy, geothermal solutions will generate 8.5% of all electricity in the US by 2050. 

The Future Lies in Using Renewable Energy

Renewable energy will continue to rise in the upcoming decade, edging out fossil fuels and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

“This is a pivotal time for renewable energy,” said the IEA’s executive director, Fatih Birol. “Technologies such as solar and wind are at the heart of transformations taking place across the global energy system. Their increasing deployment is crucial for efforts to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, reduce air pollution, and expand energy access.”

The Paris Agreement is the world’s first comprehensive climate agreement adopted in 2015 by almost every nation on Earth that promotes a global consensus on addressing the climate crisis. But what does it actually propose, and five years on, how much progress has been made? 

What is the Paris Agreement?

Back in 2015, at COP21 in Paris, countries of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreed to accelerate and intensify the actions needed for a sustainable global future. The Agreement sets out a framework for limiting global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius or ‘well below 2 degrees’ above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. Global temperatures have already risen 1 degree and predictions for 2.7C warming or more would have catastrophic environmental, social and economic impacts. The Agreement also asks countries to become carbon neutral by no later than the second half of this century. 

Under the Agreement, each signatory country submits their own plan for emissions reductions, called a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), in line with the overall targets. These include committing to improve financial preparedness against impacts of the climate crisis alongside directing finance flows to projects which align with lower GHG emissions. In line with evidence that less developed countries that contribute minimally to global warming are likely to be the most severely affected by the climate crisis, the Paris Agreement makes recommendations for developed countries to assist developing nations develop climate adaptation and mitigation strategies, committing a combined US$100 billion a year.

The Paris Agreement opened for signature on 22 April 2016 and entered into force on 4th November 2016 after the threshold of 55 signatory countries accounting for 55% of emissions was met. As of 2020, all UNFCCC members have signed the Agreement, with 189 (representing around 90% of global emissions) gaining formal approval on their climate proposals. The United States withdrew from the Agreement in 2020 during the Trump Administration, but recommitted in 2021 under President Joe Biden. The only significant emitters which are not parties are Iran and Turkey, ranking 8th and 15th in the world respectively for GHG emissions. 

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The Paris Agreement Map

paris agreement

Figure 1: What percentage of the world’s emissions are covered by the Paris Agreement, and who has submitted what? (Source: The Carbon Brief)

The Paris climate agreement requires all parties to report on emissions and efforts towards climate change mitigation, with their NDCs being updated every five years. The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed this year’s COP 26 talks, where updated NDCs would have been announced and the Paris Agreement would officially come into effect, until 2021. Alok Sharma, COP 26 President and Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, summarises the UK’s aims for COP26: 

it is hoped that the postponement of the COP 26 talks will not dissuade countries from continuing to prioritise climate plans, given the imperative nature of tough climate plans. Marianne Karlsen, chair of UN Climate Change’s implementation body, argues the postponement ‘doesn’t take away the pressure’ for countries to submit increased NDCs by the end of this year. According to speakers on a recent OECD-WWF hosted webinar, the delay offers governments a crucial window to improve and ensure plans are better aligned with efforts for a green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

How Close are We to Meeting Any of These Commitments? 

The Climate Action Tracker (CAT) covers 80% of global emissions and assesses countries based on how likely their Paris commitments will achieve the 1.5 degrees target. “If all governments meet their Paris Agreement target, we calculate the world would still see 3C of warming, but that warming is likely to be even higher given most are not taking enough action to meet their targets”, says Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics, one of the CAT’s organisations. what is the paris agreement, climate action tracker

Figure 2: The Climate Action Tracker map (Source: Climate Action Tracker).

Morocco is one of only two countries with climate mitigation plans consistent with limiting warming to 1.5C. The country’s National Energy Strategy calls for generating 42% of its electricity from renewables by the end of 2020 (which they are on track to achieve) and 52% by 2030. 

At the other end of the scale is the US, with the CAT describing its Paris targets as ‘critically insufficient’. In 2020, President Trump withdrew the USA from the Paris Agreement. Despite the US re-joining again within months led by President Joe Biden,  the Trump administration rolled back many critical environmental protection policies and climate action during his four-year tenure – keep in mind that the the US remains to be the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide globally, the leading cause of global warming. It’s too early to tell the extent of which the Trump administration has damaged the country’s progress in combating global warming. 

Slightly more positive action comes from China, who have committed to levelling off their carbon emissions by 2030 at the very latest, whilst India has committed to generating 40% of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030. Part of India’s pledge also sees the creation of a carbon sink area of 2.5 to 3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent by 2030. This action is crucial, and cannot come with much delay- a worldwide failure to meet the current targets could reduce global GDP by more than 25% by 2100.  

In the IPCC Report published in August 2021, which is put together by an intergovernmental body dedicated to uncovering and understanding the purely scientific underpinnings of climate change, has found that global temperatures will very likely rise 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2040.

It’s clear that the Paris Agreement is more important than ever, and can be a powerful and influential force in the fight against the climate crisis. But signatory countries and other will need to take it up a notch and urgent action must be taken if we are to slow down the rapid rate of global warming and to meet the 1.5C target.

Water underpins a country’s development, and China- one of the fastest-growing economies- is of no exception. Water supports the country’s 1.43 billion population and its booming industries, but it is limited and unevenly distributed. In 2005, Former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao warned of the danger of water shortages which he said would threaten the ‘very survival of the Chinese nation’. Climate change is diminishing accessible water resources in China, triggering a severe water shortage crisis within the national boundary. Massive water projects are being constructed to deal with this shortage crisis, bringing a new range of environmental, social and geopolitical challenges.

Home to 20% of the global population, China has only 6% of the world’s total freshwater resources. 2014 statistics from the World Bank indicate that the total renewable water resources per inhabitant is only 2 018 cubic meters each year- 75% less than the global average. 

Causes of the Water Shortage Crisis in China

Climate change plays a key role in the water shortage crisis in China. For thousands of years, civilisations along the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers fed on the glacial meltwater from the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau – also known as ‘The Third Pole’. Once a stable source of river flow, the ice mass is now less capable of supplying glacial melt with fresh snow and ice, since global warming has raised the temperature of the glacial region by 3- 3.5 degrees Celsius over the past half-century. A study by Greenpeace in 2018 revealed that 82% of China’s glaciers have retreated and more than one-fifth of the ice cover has disappeared since the 1950s. Consequently, glacial run-off into the Yangtze alone has been reduced by 13.9% since the 1990s, lessening freshwater availability. Greenpeace anticipates the shortage will become ‘dramatically’ acute when the glaciers reach their ‘peak water’- when the rate of water consumption surpasses water supply- which could happen as early as 2030.

Meanwhile, increasing temperatures have also changed atmospheric circulation. It has become more difficult for humid summer monsoons to reach northern and inland areas, resulting in more unreliable rainfall patterns. This abnormally dry weather has been experienced by Beijing in recent years: between October 2017 and February 2018, no precipitation, including rain and snow, was recorded in the metropolis. The 116-day drought is unprecedented in the country’s record. 

The country’s uneven resource distribution further exacerbates the scarcity problem: 80% of water is concentrated in South China, but the North is the core of national development. For instance, President Xi Jingping’s JingJinJi Project initiated in 2014 integrates three heavily industrialised Northern provinces- Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei- as a single megalopolis to compete with other world-class economic regions such as the New York Tri-State Area. The estimated population of the regions combined is 130 million, whereas the water available for consumption annually per person in the three provinces stands below 184 cubic meters (Hubei is below 100) as illustrated by the China Statistical Yearbook (CSY), far below the 500 cubic meter standard of water scarcity. Water is insufficient in the North and intense development is only putting more pressure on water demand. 

The combination of inefficient water management and widespread water pollution has rendered China unable to effectively supply enough consumable water in some provinces; this is not taking into consideration the demand for water in future urbanisation. 

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Earth.org tackling China's water shortage crisis

A graph illustrating that renewable water resources in China have been steadily declining since the 1960s (Source: Knoema). 

The Solutions to the China Water Shortage Crisis

The pressing water shortage crisis has forced China to develop various water schemes to boost water availability in dry regions; the South-North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP) is arguably the most well-known. With its conceptualisation traced back to the 1950s, the project is the largest and most expensive engineering work in the country; it is expected to cost $62 billion by completion in 2050, almost double the Three Gorges Dam Project. 

The SNWTP aims to alleviate the water shortage problem in northern China by moving water from the Yangtze River in the South through 1 500 kilometre-long canals. The East and Middle routes- each taking 10 years to build- have been in service since 2013 and 2014 respectively and are capable of transferring 20.9 billion cubic meters of water each year. The West Route is expected to be completed by 2050. 

However, the project opens the door to environmental, social and geopolitical challenges. 

New Environment Problems

As construction advances across the country, natural landscapes are harmed, leading to biodiversity loss. All three routes will change natural hydrology on an unprecedentedly large scale; the East Route rises the water level of the four lakes it passes through. A study in 2009 estimated that aquatic plants will decline by up to 0.25 million tons in Dongping Lake surrounding the construction of the East Route. Freshwater clams, whitebaits and algae are among those species that will be affected. 

It is not the first time China’s water schemes have led to the disappearance of local species. In the last decade, the construction of the Three Gorges Dam has permanently changed the Yangtze’s landscape, damaging the habit of the already-endangered baiji dolphin and rendering them ‘functionally extinct’ at the end of 2006. 

The same study also warns of the potential of southern aquatic species invading northern waters; increasing global temperatures are making waters at higher latitudes habitable for southern species, threatening the biodiversity of the water-receiving regions. Research in 2017 warned of the invasion potential of three southern aquatic plants, namely alligator weed, water hyacinth and water lettuce; alligator weed has already invaded Shandong Province in Northern China. The water diversion project is further facilitating this invasion. 

The project may change hydrology and microclimate in the region; a 10-year study analysing the potential climatic impacts of the Middle Route predicts that the sudden influx of water may alter local evaporation and precipitation rates by bringing more frequent convection (short and intense rain) to the area. Because rain patterns affect temperature, the researchers predict regional microclimate will be modified as the project progresses. 

Social Conflict and Political Instability

The project diverts natural resources to one mega-region at the expense of another, adversely impacting the social well-being of the southern water-supplying region and challenging China’s domestic stability in the long term. 

China’s provincial water disputes provoked the ‘blocking dam’ incident of 2001. Industries in the upstream Jiangsu province had been degrading the shared water of the Zhejiang province since the 1990s. A decline in usable water triggered Zhejiang residents to protest by sinking boats in the waterway to block the polluted water, revealing the provincial governments’ ineffective cooperation on resource management. If there is any public discontentment due to the SNWTP, it will not be merely provincial but regional, which could compromise the country’s national governance. 

The project forces about 330 000 people to relocate to allow for the expansion of the Danjiangkou reservoir on the Middle Route. Insufficient compensation and lack of employment opportunities have created difficult lives for the displaced population, igniting a number of revolts including violence against immigration officials and obstruction of main roads, as reported by China Daily. Coercive displacement is typical of command economies in communist countries like China, North Korea, and in the past, the Soviet Union, whereby the distribution of natural and human resources is manipulated by the central government to maximise national interests, while sacrificing individual rights. Forced evictions occur with most infrastructure projects in China, and is a constant source of mass protests. 

The water supply of the Yangtze Basin in Southern China relies on natural precipitation and glacial melt. As climate change accelerates Himalayan glacial retreat and brings abnormal weather, Southern China may become equally vulnerable to water insecurity; already, south-west China experienced a severe drought in 2011, which impacted the drinking and irrigation water of more than 60 million people. The SNWTP takes water from the Yangtze River and reduces its river discharge; a decline in groundwater may result in seawater flowing inland in dry seasons, contaminating the freshwater aquifers of the Yangtze Delta.

Military Implications and International Relations 

China’s South-East Asian neighbours are equally concerned by China’s response towards its water issues. Chinese territory hosts the headwaters of many important regional rivers. For example, the Mekong originates from the Tibetan Plateau and flows through Western China before reaching Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar. The  Brahmaputra also flows across the boundary of China, Bangladesh and India. Therefore, China’s changes upstream can significantly impact the water of downstream countries. 

China is often feared to control regional water resources, shown in its reluctance to sign international agreements on cross-border water management. The country can seize water sources without any military force; because the rivers originate within its territory, they are seen as China’s natural assets. The SNWTP reinforces this impression- despite the inclusion of transboundary rivers such as the Mekong, the Nu River and the Brahmaputra in the West Route, China keeps the project unilateral without seeking input from the affected countries. As a study has analysed, any physical resistance by these countries would be deemed as military aggression, forcing them to comply so as not to compromise regional peace and water sovereignty. 

While the West Route is currently in its planning stage, there is already tension and mistrust by residents. In late 2017, the ‘Red Flag River Project’- a proposal by Chinese scientists and engineers to divert Himalayan glacial water to China’s arid West- created panic among India’s media, since Himalayan glacier melt is an important source of water for two of India’s most important rivers. Although the project was found to be fraudulent, India’s response illustrated its mistrust of China’s use of the region’s water resources.

Territorial issues have existed since the Sino-Indian War in 1962, exacerbated in recent times by China’s mining operations in India’s Lhunze county and rapid military buildup in Ladakh. By August 2019, the two countries had held 21 rounds of Special Representative talks concerning boundary conflicts. The large-scale water diversion project, which involves shared natural resources, may stoke future disputes. 

China’s SNWTP is at best a short-term solution, preventing the government from correcting man-made problems and creating new challenges in the intra- and international community. Experts suggest alternative solutions, such as proper utilisation of local water resources through raising the water price and improving water management bodies. 

Featured image by: Boris Kasimov

Coral reefs are facing events of severe bleaching and physical destruction due to human coastal development, as well as the effects of unmanaged tourism, including anchoring, fish feeding, marine litter and diver contact. Their resilience depends on effective management. In celebration of World Oceans Day on June 8 2021, we are looking at how resilience-based management is being adopted in major reef regions around the world to secure the foundations for sustainable development and adapt to global warming.

The Importance of Coral Reefs 

Coral reefs are among the most valuable ecosystems on the planet. Besides containing one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on earth, coral reefs protect coastlines from the damaging effects of wave action and tropical storms, are a source of nitrogen and other nutrients for marine food chains, assist in nitrogen and carbon fixing and are a source of income for millions of people around the world. They also play an important role in generating the sand and rubble that maintain islands and cays. 

Resilience-based management plans focus on the processes that are essential to the ability of coral to survive the impacts of global warming. Key strategies to include in these plans include identifying and protecting reef areas that are naturally resistant to climate change impacts, reducing sources of pollution that increase sensitivity of corals or increase their susceptibility to disease, preventing damage to reefs through poor boating practices or destructive fishing, preventing overfishing of herbivorous fish and restoring places of ecological priority following stress events. 

The Threats to Coral Reefs

Macroalgae and herbivorous fish populations should also be closely monitored. Macroalgae, such as seaweed, is known to poison corals and reduce or halt the settlement and survival of juvenile corals. Herbivorous fish, such as parrotfish and surgeonfish, reduce or eliminate macroalgae from coral reefs and facilitate the growth of reef corals. Increasing the diversity of herbivorous fish and other functional groups of fish can therefore indirectly drive coral reef recovery. 

Studying the trajectory of algal growth over time allows researchers to determine the success or failure of strategies to manage herbivory or other factors that contribute to algal growth and the success of reef corals. 

While coral animals are incredibly fragile (just one knock from the fin of a careless diver or snorkeller could cause coral breakage that takes many months, or even years, to recover from), they have proven to be resilient; healthy coral that is free from stress has a better chance of recovery, whereas coral that experiences stress will recover slowly, if at all. 

For example, while coral cover in Bonaire, an island in the Caribbean, suffered extensive damage following a hurricane and a coral bleaching event, corals have recovered to pre-bleaching levels less than a decade later due to effective resilience management.

Sustainable Management of Coral Reefs

Several factors contributed to its management success. The island developed its diving and hotel industries early and they have become Bonaire’s economic engine, above industries such as fishing. Additionally, the most economically valued fishing targeted fish other than coral reef dwelling fish. These factors mean that relatively few people in Bonaire depend on reef fish for food, allowing the fish to thrive. 

While addressing global threats poses a huge challenge, there are many things that can be done on a grassroots level. Therefore, focusing on reducing these direct threats- which can make corals more vulnerable to larger-scale stressors- is key. 

The Reef-World Foundation is a conservation NGO aiming to do just that by improving environmental practices across the marine tourism industry. The charity coordinates the Green Fins initiative globally in partnership with the UN Environment Programme. Green Fins focuses on helping diving and snorkelling businesses, as well as individual tourists, reduce their negative impact on coral reefs and other marine environments and provides the only internationally recognised environmental standards for diving and snorkelling.

Green Fins works to measurably reduce direct threats to coral reefs such as diver contact, anchoring, fish feeding, marine litter and chemical discharge, amongst others. Not only does this type of well-managed tourism protect coral reefs- leaving them healthier, more resilient to climate change impacts and more effective at their ecosystem services- but also presents an economic opportunity, creating food and sustainable employment for millions of people around the world. 

Sam Craven, Programmes Manager at Reef-World, has been involved in the implementation of the initiative for many years. Achieving conservation impact, for Sam and her team, is all about collaboration; whether that be with governments, marine tourism operators or individual dive guides and tourists. She explains: “More often than not, marine conservation is less about ‘saving the sea’ and more about managing people’s impact on the sea.” She continues: “Science alone doesn’t change the world; it’s how you use it that counts.” 

Climate change-related coral mortality is unavoidable, but local management actions can improve conditions for regrowth and rehabilitation. Yet, while management schemes should be seen as essential components of mitigating coral reef mortality, major reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions is vital for securing a sustainable future for coral reefs and those who depend on them. 

 

This is Part One of “Improving the Resilience of Coral Reefs.” Read Part Two here.

The ocean is at the front line of mitigating the climate crisis. Making up over 70% of the Earth’s surface, the ocean plays a crucial role in controlling the global climate system through, among other processes, absorbing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In the run-up to World Oceans Day on June 8, we’re looking at how as well as polluting the planet and killing animals, plastic waste is also reducing the ability of phytoplankton to absorb atmospheric carbon.

Phytoplankton and Oxygen

Such processes are made possible by microscopic single-celled aquatic creatures called phytoplankton. These tiny organisms, dubbed the ‘ocean’s invisible forests’, generate about half of the atmosphere’s oxygen and sequester as much carbon dioxide per year as all land plants. 

Similar to land plants, phytoplankton soak up sunlight and capture carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, producing oxygen. Just as trees store carbon in their trunks, leaves, stems and roots, phytoplankton store carbon in their bodies. When they die and sink to the seafloor, the trapped carbon in their bodies also sinks deep into the ocean’s waters. 

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The Importance of Phytoplankton

Phytoplankton are at the base of the marine food web, meaning that they provide marine creatures- from the tiny animal-like zooplankton to whales- with food. When phytoplankton and zooplankton are eaten by other larger sea creatures, the carbon in their bodies is transferred to these animals. This carbon will then settle into marine sediments on the ocean floor in fecal pellets and animal carcasses.

The process of carbon removal from the atmosphere and its absorption into seafloor sediments is called the biological pump. Through this process, the ocean regulates the Earth’s climate.

However, the plastic waste crisis will have a detrimental impact on the climate. Every year, 8 million tons of plastic enter the world’s oceans, which are categorised into micro- and  nanoplastics. Scientists continue to examine the effects of plastic debris on the biological pump process. Further, about four-fifths of all trash in the ocean comes from land-based activity, like poor waste management, litter and construction.

Microplastics and Phytoplankton

A recent study published in the journal, Marine Pollution Bulletin found that plastic pollution in the ocean may negatively affect the ocean’s role in removing atmospheric carbon dioxide, which will eventually disturb the global carbon cycle.

Microplastics in the ocean can negatively impact the growth of phytoplankton. Moreover, the abundance of microplasticslike those of the plastic garbage patches comprising thousands of tons of floating microplasticsforms a layer on the surface of the ocean, affecting light transmission and disturbing the efficiency of phytoplankton photosynthesis. Marine microplastics also affect the development and reproduction of phytoplankton and thus interfere with the process of oceanic carbon storage.

Additionally, the study highlighted how microplastics negatively affect zooplankton. Zooplankton, which feeds on phytoplankton, is one of the intermediaries between phytoplankton and other larger aquatic animals. 

Zooplankton-eating phytoplankton ensures the prevention of the stored carbon from re-entering the water and atmosphere. However, the plastic waste crisis disrupts this process. According to a 2015 study on a member of zooplankton known as copepods, microplastics can reduce copepod’s uptake and consumption of carbon; after eating microplastics, their carbon biomass intake was reduced by 40%. 

Microplastics, the study reported, may also alter the sinking rates of zooplankton’s fecal pellets. The pellets contaminated with microplastics sink slower than uncontaminated pellets. The study, however, points out that further research on the effects of microplastics on fecal pellets is still needed, noting that there are only a few studies conducted on the topic.

Because microplastics sink to the ocean floor in these fecal pellets, it may also affect ocean carbon stock, affecting the circulation of organic matter and nutrients in deep ocean water. 

Troublingly, the study notes that the potential impact of microplastics in the ocean’s deepest points remains, to a large extent, unclear. More studies are needed to establish a firmer link between marine plastic pollution and the biological pump.

However, what is clear is that the marine plastic crisis may make our climate worse; in fact, a study conducted in 2014 estimated that nearly 99% of the ocean’s plastic was unaccounted for, suggesting that creatures such as phytoplankton and other larger creatures are eating plastic, affecting their ability to absorb and store carbon. 

What Can Be Done?

Governments need to develop and implement measures to mitigate the plastic crisis. Developed countries must work collaboratively with developing countries, many of which have been named among the worst marine polluters– for example Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam- who are struggling to build adequate recycling infrastructure.

Potential measures to be taken by governments include improving waste management facilities to prevent more plastic waste from entering the oceans and doing more research on how plastic waste affects the oceans. These solutions should be entrenched in government policy to ensure that efforts are effectively implemented and regulated, punishing those corporations and individuals that breach these policies.

Humanity needs to look beyond trees as a solution to mitigate the climate crisis; phytoplankton is one such solution. Further, marine plastic pollution is not just affecting the aesthetics of the ocean; it is affecting the planet’s climate, further exacerbating the crisis and allowing for the creation of climatic conditions that humanity is scarcely prepared for. 

Featured image by: Hani Amir

With sustainable and plant-based diets becoming more normalised, attention has been given to food waste and how to reduce its impact on the environment; the handling of food and its associated greenhouse gas emissions are not far behind those of the energy and transportation industries. 

Food Waste Statistics

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), if food waste were a country, it would be the 3rd-largest contributor of carbon emissions, after the US and China. In terms of area, food waste would be as big as India and Canada combined. These figures are staggering considering that 11% of the global population is undernourished. 

The UN estimates that 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted every year, a third of the world’s total production. According to the IPCC, the loss and waste of food was responsible for 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions between 2010 and 2016. Food waste also leads to a waste of the resources (water, energy, labour, capital and land) used to grow, transport and package the food. The FAO estimates that food loss and waste costs developed nations USD $680 billion and developing nations $310 billion annually. 

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Earth.org food waste by region

A graph showing the waste per person per year in kgs by region (Source: FAO)

While developed and developing countries waste similar quantities of food (650 million tonnes per year), in developing countries, 40% of the losses occur at the post-harvest and processing stages, while in developed countries, 40% of the losses occur at the retail and consumer levels. Solutions depend on the stage these losses occur at; for example, developed countries need to focus on better retail practices and changing consumer behaviour, while developing countries need to focus on improving storage and distribution infrastructure as well as providing financial and technical support for better harvesting techniques. 

Food Waste Solutions

A number of innovative solutions already exist for countries looking to tackle food waste. In a joint collaboration with the company Too Good To Go, Unilever, Arla Foods and Carlsberg have added a new packaging label, ‘often good after’ directly after the ‘best-before date’ on certain foods to inform consumers about expiry dates versus best-before dates. The latter is meant to be an indicative measure requiring consumers to judge whether food is expired based on sight and smell. This new practice is being launched in the Nordics and will expand to other markets provided legislation allows it.

Technology in Papua New Guinea is being used to help local farmers’ livestock meet internationally-recognised standards. A digital tracking system helps verify important information about pigs like pedigree and what food and medicines they have been fed, giving importers and consumers greater purchasing confidence and reducing the risk of food being rejected and disposed of. This digital system was designed by the FAO and the International Telecommunications Unit (ITU); the broadband network is being improved locally so that farmers can update records easily on their subsidised phones.

Insignia Technologies has colour-changing tags that can be applied to products at the point of manufacture. The time-temperature indicators change the colour of the label according to the shelf life of the product, allowing restaurants to prioritise products that are about to get spoilt, thus reducing waste. 

UK academics are developing paper-based, smartphone-linked spoilage sensors for meat and fish packaging. They cost less than £0.02 each and are non-toxic and biodegradable, helping to detect spoilage and reduce food waste for supermarkets and consumers.

Global food waste initiative Winnow has developed software that tracks food being thrown away in kitchens. By using this software, businesses can record what’s being thrown away, assess the cost of the discarded food and get a detailed breakdown of each day’s waste to better manage their menus and reduce waste. 

Government interventions to reduce food loss and waste could include providing incentives or financial aid to smaller farmers and producers so that they can adopt more efficient techniques and practices. Organisations like the World Food Program help small farmers connect to people in need and also provide the necessary technologies for more efficient storage and distribution to prevent spoilage.

Local governments can support the set up of organisations like the Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP) in the UK that develops actions and milestones to help UK retailers and brands halve food waste by 2030. It provides guidance on labelling, packaging and storage and conducts and publishes surveys of businesses on their progress.

Updating legislation around labelling requirements so that the best-before and use-by dates are clearer to consumers, as well as ensuring solutions like the ‘often good after’ concept is brought in to markets, will also help.

Governments should also educate consumers on reducing food waste. The highest carbon footprint of wastage occurs at the consumption phase (37% of total), whereas consumption accounts for 22% of total food wastage; one kilogram of food that is wasted further along the supply chain will have a higher carbon intensity than at earlier stages.

Earth.org contribution of commodities to carbon footprint

A graph showing the contribution of commodities to carbon footprint and food waste (Source: FAO).

Cereals, vegetables and meats have intense carbon footprints and contribute heavily to food waste. It is vital to, in the case of meat, minimise consumption, while for cereals and vegetables, optimise how they are managed and consumed to reduce wastage.   

Project Drawdown, a global research organisation that identifies, reviews and analyses the most viable solutions to the climate crisis, ranked solutions to global warming and found that cutting down on food waste could have a similar impact on reducing emissions over the next three decades as onshore wind turbines. If small and large businesses, governments and consumers work together, about 70 billion tons of greenhouse gases can be prevented from being released into the atmosphere.

Other things that consumers can do to reduce their food waste is to simply buy less food- plan your meals to ensure that you only buy what you need. Be sure to store food correctly; some tips include keeping the refrigerator below 5°C, storing cooked foods on shelves above raw foods and storing food in sealed containers. Finally, freeze your leftovers so that they last a bit longer.

Whilst only occupying 0.1% of the Earth’s surface, seagrass is a vital weapon in the fight against the escalating climate crisis. Worryingly, it is estimated that each year, 7% of seagrass meadows are lost from anthropogenic activities. With greenhouse gas emissions escalating, the role of nature-based solutions is paramount in tackling the crisis head on, and one which requires greater levels of attention and funding if it is to be effective.

Seagrass meadows fall under the term ‘Blue Carbon’, which incorporates different ocean and coastal ecosystems which sequester organic carbon. Other examples of blue carbon ecosystems include mangroves and tidal marshes. 

Thought to be responsible for storing 23-78% of the organic carbon buried in coastal vegetated ecosystems, seagrass is estimated to sequester CO2 twice as quickly as terrestrial forest ecosystems. It is therefore clear that seagrass plays a vital role in sequestering CO2, which in turn helps to reduce atmospheric CO2 emissions.

Researchers have found that globally, seagrass meadows have decreased by 29% since the beginning of the 20th century.  

Seagrass losses have occurred because of a variety of human activities, including coastal developments like dredging and the construction of storm infrastructure, whereby seagrasses and their soils are physically removed, resulting in the exposure of organic carbon in the soil, leaving it vulnerable to oxic conditions, potentially leading to the remineralization of this organic matter into CO2

As well as these direct losses of seagrass, other indirect impacts such as eutrophication and heatwaves can threaten the seagrass canopy, causing the organic carbon stocks in the soil to be exposed which can then be released into the atmosphere as CO2.

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Australia is particularly significant in the conversation around seagrass and blue carbon ecosystems since around 5% to 11% of the world’s blue carbon ecosystems are situated along the country’s extensive coastline. Whilst this makes Australia a key player in helping to tackle the climate crisis via natural mechanisms, and potentially a leader in its ability to protect blue carbon ecosystems, it also makes carbon stocks stored here vulnerable. For instance, the 2010-11 heatwave that gripped Western Australia resulted in 22% of seagrass meadows from Shark Bay being lost, releasing close to 10 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere. 

There is currently a real lack of understanding surrounding the effects of disturbances, such as eutrophication, on organic carbon stocks within seagrass soils and since significant amounts of seagrass are lost due to these disturbances, there is a pressing need to fully understand them to effectively manage these vegetated coastal ecosystems and implement seagrass carbon strategies. 

In a recent study carried out by researchers at Edith Cowan University in Australia, they discovered that over the last four decades, organic carbon stocks from seagrass soils were lost at a greater extent in areas characterised by bare soil exposure. These findings suggest that conservation efforts should be focussed on coastal areas where both organic carbon stocks and erosion are high. 

The UK has lost up to 92% of its seagrass meadows which once thrived along the country’s coastline. Human activity such as anchor damage and port building has played a key role in their demise. However, a primary driver of seagrass loss along the British coastline is nutrient pollution from sewage and livestock waste which causes epiphytes, a microscopic algae, to form which coats the seagrass leaves and prevents them from capturing light. 

In a recent bid to restore seagrass meadows around the British coastline, The Seagrass Ocean Rescue Project has been launched with a 20 000 square metre seagrass meadow being planted off the Pembrokeshire coast. The £400 000 initiative hopes to become the first-ever full scale seagrass restoration project in the UK. 

Seagrass restoration projects are one of a number of nature-based solutions being used to tackle the climate crisis. Research has shown that such solutions could account for a third of the reduction of greenhouse gases required by 2030. However, up until now, only 2.5% of funding for reducing emissions has been given to projects working to restore natural habitats. 

Seagrass meadows pose an opportunity to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and store carbon for millennia. However, for this to be a successful strategy, more funding needs to be invested into conservation and restoration efforts. If dealt with effectively, seagrass meadows are a powerful tool in the ongoing challenge to tackle the climate crisis, but this will only happen if their value is realised and widespread, global action is taken. 

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