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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 Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement that aimed to manage and reduce carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases. The Protocol was adopted at a conference in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 and became international law on February 16, 2005. 

What is the Kyoto Protocol?

The Protocol operationalised the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 192 nations committed to reducing their emissions by an average of 5.2% by 2012, which would represent about 29% of the world’s total emissions. 

Countries that ratified the Kyoto Protocol were assigned maximum carbon emission levels for specific periods and participated in carbon credit trading. If a country emitted more than its assigned limit, then it would receive a lower emissions limit in the following period.

Key Facts of the Kyoto Protocol

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Signatories

kyoto protocol

Green- Annex B parties with binding targets in the second period; purple- Annex B parties with binding targets in the first period but not the second; blue- Non-Annex B parties without binding targets; yellow- Annex B parties with binding targets in the first period but which withdrew from the Protocol; orange- Signatories to the Protocol that have not ratified; red- Other UN member states and observers that are not party to the Protocol (Source:Wikipedia).

Developed vs Developing Nations

Recognising that developed countries are principally responsible for the current levels of GHG emissions as a result of more than 150 years of unmitigated industrial activity, the Protocol placed a heavier burden on them. 37 industrialised nations plus the EU were mandated to cut their GHG emissions, while developing countries were asked to voluntarily comply; more than 100 developing countries, including China and India, were exempted from the treaty.

The Protocol separated countries into two groups: Annex I contained developed nations, and Non-Annex I contained developing countries. Emission limits were placed on Annex I countries only. Non-Annex I countries could invest in projects to lower emissions in their countries. For these projects, developing countries earned carbon credits that they could trade or sell to developed countries, allowing the developing nations a higher level of maximum carbon emissions for that period. This effectively allowed developed countries to continue emitting GHGs.

The Protocol established a monitoring, review and verification system, as well as a compliance system to ensure transparency and hold parties accountable. All countries’ emissions had to be monitored and precise records of the trades kept through registry systems.

3 Kyoto Mechanisms

The Protocol established market mechanisms based on the trade of emissions permits. It allowed countries an additional means to meet their targets by way of three market-based mechanisms: International Emissions Trading, Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and Joint Implementation (JI). 

The mechanisms encouraged GHG mitigation in the most cost-effective ways, ie. in the developing world. The idea was that as long as pollution is removed from the atmosphere, it does not matter where it is reduced, which stimulated green investment in developing countries and included the private sector to develop cleaner infrastructure and systems over older, dirtier technology. 

An Adaptation Fund was established to finance adaptation projects and programmes in developing countries that are parties to the Protocol. In the first commitment period, the Fund was financed mainly with a share of proceeds from CDM project activities. For the second commitment period, international emissions trading and joint implementation would also provide the Fund with a 2% share of proceeds. 

The International Emissions Trading mechanism allows countries that have emission units to spare – emissions permitted them but not “used”- to sell this excess capacity to countries that are over their targets.

The Clean Development Mechanism allows a country with an emission-reduction or emission-limitation commitment under the Kyoto Protocol (Annex B Party) to implement an emission-reduction project in developing countries. Such projects can earn saleable certified emission reduction (CER) credits, each equivalent to one tonne of CO2, which can be counted towards meeting Kyoto targets.

Finally, the Joint Implementation mechanism allows a country with an emission reduction or limitation commitment under the Kyoto Protocol (Annex B Party) to earn emission reduction units (ERUs) from an emission-reduction or emission removal project in another Annex B Party, each equivalent to one tonne of CO2, which can be counted towards meeting its Kyoto target.

The Doha Amendment

After the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol ended in December 2012, parties to the Protocol met in Doha, Qatar, to discuss an amendment to the original Kyoto agreement. The Doha Amendment added new targets for the second commitment period, 2012-2020. While first commitment period aimed to reduce GHG by 5%, the second amendment committed to reduce GHG emissions by at least 18% below 1990 levels.

This was short-lived; in 2015, all UNFCCC participants signed another pact, the Paris Climate Agreement, which effectively replaced the Kyoto Protocol.

The Paris Climate Agreement

The Paris Agreement was adopted by nearly every nation- 190 states and the EU- in 2015 to address the negative effects of the climate crisis. The agreement covers around 97% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Commitments were made from all major GHG-emitting countries to cut their emissions and strengthen these commitments over time. It was arguably the first time that most of the world agreed to pursue a common cause. 

A major directive of the agreement is to cut GHG emissions so as to limit global temperature rise in this century to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, while taking steps to limit this to 1.5 degrees. It also provides a way for developed nations to help developing nations and creates a framework for monitoring and reporting countries’ climate goals transparently. 

Unfortunately, countries are not on their way to achieving the Paris Agreement- a report by the UNFCCC indicated that nations must redouble their climate efforts if they are to reach the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise by 2C—ideally 1.5C—by 2100.

How Has the Kyoto Protocol Worked Out?

In 2005, many countries, including those in the EU, planned to meet or exceed their targets under the agreement by 2011. Others, such as the US and China- the world’s biggest emitters- produced enough GHGs to mitigate any of the progress made by countries who met their targets. In fact, there was an increase of about 40% in emissions globally between 1990 and 2009. 

Why Did the United States Not Sign the Kyoto Protocol?

The US dropped out of the agreement in 2001, calling the treaty unfair because it mandated only developed countries to reduce emissions, and felt that doing so would hinder the US economy. 

Talks have been marred by politics, money, lack of leadership and lack of consensus. GHG emissions are still rising, and countries are not addressing them quickly enough.

Important Dates of the Kyoto Protocol

December 1-11, 1997 The Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC is held in Kyoto, Japan. Nearly 200 nations attend and adopt the first international treaty on managing and reducing greenhouse gases.

November 2, 1998 – In Buenos Aires 160 nations meet to work out details of the protocol and create the “Buenos Aires Action Plan.”

July 23, 2001 – Negotiators from 178 countries meet in Germany and agree to adopt the protocol, without the participation of the US. 

November 10, 2001 – Representatives from 160 countries meet in Marrakech, Morocco, to work out details of the protocol.

November 18, 2004 – The Russian Federation ratifies the protocol.

February 16, 2005 – The Kyoto Protocol comes into effect.

December 12, 2011 – Canada renounces the Kyoto Protocol, saying its goals are unworkable because the US and China never agreed to it, and says that a new pact is needed to address emissions.

December 2012 – The Kyoto Protocol is extended to 2020 during a conference in Doha, Qatar. 

June 23, 2013 – Afghanistan adopts the Kyoto Protocol, becoming the 192nd signatory.

2015 – At the COP21 summit, held in Paris, all UNFCCC participants sign the Paris Agreement that effectively replaces the Kyoto Protocol. The parties agree to limit warming to ‘well below’ 2 degrees, and below 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels if possible.

Featured image by: flickr 

According to a recent analysis, 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 and they warn that this may be a tipping point for the collapse of civilisation. 

The analysis, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at data on 29,000 land vertebrate species compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species and BirdLife International. The scientists identified 515 species with populations below 1,000 and about half of these had fewer than 250 individuals remaining. 

What is a Mass Extinction Event?

A mass extinction is usually defined as a loss of about three quarters of all species in existence across the entire Earth over a “short” geological period of time. Given the vast amount of time since life first evolved on the planet, “short” is defined as anything less than 2.8 million years.

The Analysis

The land vertebrates on the brink of extinction, with fewer than 1,000 individuals left, include the Sumatran rhino, the Española giant tortoise and the harlequin frog. Historic data for 77 of these species shows that they had lost 94% of their populations in the last century. Further, more than 400 vertebrate species became extinct in the last century, extinctions that would have taken up to 10,000 years in the normal course of evolution, illustrating humanity’s profound effect on the planet and those that live on it. 

The analysis also showed that 388 species of land vertebrates had populations under 5,000 individuals and 84% lived in the same regions as the species with populations under 1,000, creating the conditions for a domino effect. The scientists warned that ‘extinction breeds extinction’, where close ecological interactions of species on the brink tend to move other species towards extinction, creating the domino effect. 

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sixth mass extinction

A graph showing the number of species with fewer than 1,000 individuals and number of species whose conservation status had been evaluated by the IUCN. These are the species most likely to be lost in the sixth mass extinction event (Source: PNAS).

Causes

The scientists say that the ongoing sixth mass extinction may be the most serious environmental threat to the persistence of civilisation, because it is irreversible. They say that it is caused by an ever-increasing population and consumption rates. Further, species are links in ecosystems and, as they disappear, the species they interact with are likely to disappear as well.

When a species dies out, the Earth’s ability to maintain ecosystem services is eroded to a degree. Humanity needs a relatively stable climate, flows of fresh water, agricultural pest and disease-vector control and pollination for crops, all services that will be impacted as the sixth mass extinction accelerates. 

Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University and one of the researchers of the analysis, says, “When humanity exterminates other creatures, it is sawing off the limb on which it is sitting, destroying working parts of our own life-support system. The conservation of endangered species should be elevated to a global emergency for governments and institutions, equal to the climate disruption to which it is linked.”

Consequences of the Sixth Mass Extinction

When the number of individuals in a population or species drops too low, its contributions to ecosystem functions and services become unimportant, its genetic variability and resilience is reduced and its contribution to human welfare may be lost. An example of this includes the overhunting of sea otters, the main predator of kelp-eating sea urchins. A population boom of urchins wreaked havoc on kelp forests in the Bering Sea, leading to the extinction of the kelp-eating Steller’s sea cow.

Another is the bison, which was a keystone species in North America. At one time, it was maintaining the entire ecosystem, supplying meat, robes and fertilisers to Native Americans, and later to Europeans. Is it estimated that 200 years ago, there were 30 to 60 million individuals, but overharvesting for meat and skins and land conversion for farming decimated most populations. By 1844, there were 325 individuals left. They have since recovered to 4,000 wild bison and 500,000 living in enclosures, but the species has not reclaimed its ecological role and its habitats- the prairies- have been mostly destroyed. 

Many endangered species are being affected by the wildlife trade, both legal and illegal, which poses a threat to human health, is a major cause of species extinction and is eroding the ecosystem services that are vital for our survival. The scientists note that the ban on wildlife trade imposed by the Chinese government could be a major conservation measure for many species on the verge of extinction if imposed properly. They propose including wild species for consumption as food as well as medicinal use and pets to curb the acceleration of the sixth mass extinction.

Previous Mass Extinction Events

There have been five mass extinction events during the last 450 million years, each destroying 70-95% of the species of plants, animals and microorganisms that existed previously. These events were caused by massive volcanic eruptions, depletion of ocean oxygen or collision with an asteroid. In each event, it took millions of years to regain the numbers of species comparable to those before the extinction event.

As such, an estimated 2% of the species that ever lived are alive today. Species extinction rates are today hundreds of thousands of times faster than the ‘normal’ rates occurring in the last tens of millions of years. The losses that we are seeing have mostly occurred since our ancestors developed agriculture 11 000 years ago. 

Can We Stop the Sixth Mass Extinction?

The scientists also propose classifying all species with less than 5 000 individuals as critically endangered on the IUCN list as well as implementing a global comprehensive binding agreement requiring parties to address the extinction crisis, especially through tackling the illegal and legal wildlife trade. 

Mark Wright, the director of science at WWF, says, “The numbers in this research are shocking. However, there is still hope. If we stop the land-grabbing and devastating deforestation in countries such as Brazil, we can start to bend the curve in biodiversity loss and climate change. But we need global ambition to do that.”

Humanity relies on biodiversity for its health and wellbeing. The recent COVID-19 pandemic is an example of the dangers of interfering with and damaging the natural world. The scientists urge that a booming human population, destruction of habitats, wildlife trade, pollution and the climate crises must all be urgently tackled. 

There is time to save species, but the window of opportunity is almost closed. We must save what we can, or lose the opportunity to do so forever. There will likely be more pandemics in the future if we continue destroying habitats and trading wildlife for consumption. The fate of humanity and most living species is at stake; it is therefore imperative that we act now. 

Permafrost is a ground layer under the Earth’s surface that has been frozen for a minimum of two years and as many as hundreds of thousands of years. However, warming temperatures under climate change is causing this permafrost to melt. Unfortunately, this is leading to an acceleration of climate change as the thawing soil releases greenhouse gases (GHGs), particularly methane, a gas with more potency than carbon dioxide. 

Permafrost is predominantly found in the northern hemisphere, constituting 25% of the ground type found there. Key areas for permafrost are the Arctic regions of Siberia, Canada, Greenland and Alaska. In the southern hemisphere, there is far less permafrost extent, however, some is found in the mountainous areas of the Andes, New Zealand’s Southern Alps and Antarctica. 

permafrost

Modelled permafrost extent (2000-2016) from Obu et al. (2019)

As global temperatures rise due to global warming, there are a range of temperature predictions for future global average temperature increase depending on our emission pathway scenarios. However, as this is a global average, it doesn’t accurately represent how some areas will warm more than others. The Arctic is predicted to warm more drastically than any other area on the planet. This is evidenced not only by climate models predicting the future, but by observations over the last 30 years: the Arctic has warmed at roughly twice the rate of the rest of the globe, in a process known as Arctic amplification. This phenomena is caused by the retreat of sea ice as open water reflects less incoming radiation than the white sea ice, and by atmospheric heat transport from the equator.

While this phenomena presents a myriad of environmental issues, such as sea ice retreat and sea level rise, increasing temperatures are also resulting in a rapid thawing of permafrost. Permafrost contains a high content of frozen organic material. If this material thaws, it will begin to decompose, which releases GHGs, such as carbon dioxide and methane. Permafrost is one of the planet’s carbon sinks, storing around 1 400 Gt of carbon dioxide. Since 2018 humans have been pumping about 30-35Gt of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per year, (down from 36.15Gt in 2017), and the planet is experiencing unprecedented warming. It is predicted that 3°C of warming by the end of the century will put about 280Gt of carbon dioxide and 3Gt of methane into the atmosphere from melting permafrost, with the warming effect of methane being 10-20 times greater than carbon dioxide. The additional GHGs in the atmosphere are accelerating climate change and the warming of the planet, which accelerates permafrost thaw further. This is known as a positive feedback mechanism. 

permafrost

Infographic from NOAA Climate.gov and permafrost map by National Snow and Ice Data Centre, showing how permafrost works as a positive feedback mechanism

Permafrost thaw is an international issue that is accelerating each year. However, the urgency of the issue is prompting some solutions. For example, engineering-based solutions in the form of methane capture and transformation into energy is one idea, but due to the economic and logistical challenges, it is an idea in its infancy. 

However, there are some nature-based solutions that may be able to have local impact. For example, through habitat restoration. Sergey Zimov, a geophysicist and specialist in subarctic ecology, began working on Pleistocene Park, a scientific research station and nature reserve, assessing the benefits of ecosystem restoration on permafrost preservation, carbon sequestration and the albedo effect. Founded in 1996, Zimov ceded the project to his son and fellow scientist, Nikita Zimov, who focuses more on climate change prevention than Pleistocene ecology, saying that “there is only one theoretical chance to prevent that [permafrost thaw] from happening. We must restore the Ice Age ecosystem.” The pair believe returning grazing animals, similar to those found in the Pleistocene era to replace herds of bison, musk ox, reindeer, moose and woolly mammoths, would compact the snow during winter months. In theory, the increase in grazing animals in arctic regions would increase the compaction of the thin layer of snow, increasing the layer’s density, allowing for deeper freezing of the soil underneath, essentially protecting and strengthening the permafrost layer. However, this type of project proposes a multitude of unknown risks that accompany species reintroductions and rewilding projects

Similarly, researchers at the University of Edinburgh have investigated the novel approach of using plants to control the temperature of soils. By planting communities of trees, shrubs and mosses over permafrost layers, the plants can shade soil, lowering temperatures, and also extract water through their roots, which dries the soil allowing it to act as a better insulator. However, the research is in very early stages and requires a deeper understanding of how these different plant types interact with permafrost.

Overall, a simple way to reduce global warming is to reduce global GHG emissions in order to reduce the greenhouse effect. However, there are many political, social, economic and technological barriers that are preventing us from moving to a carbon neutral society. The challenge is not impossible and is the most feasible way to limit the loss of permafrost, and therefore, acceleration of climate change. 

National air pollution action plans devised by China have seen significant reductions in pollution levels and associated health risks.

China has lifted millions out of poverty like no other country on the planet. The price of that economic progress is demonstrated in the air pollution that has caused a public health crisis, killing more than 1.1 million people every year. It has also proved costly for the nation as the economy suffers an annual loss of $37 billion due to pollution-induced crop failure. 

China Air Pollution Solutions

After Beijing’s ‘airpocalypse’ sparked a mass outpouring of anger and frustration among citizens, China set out to clean up the air quality of its cities. The government prohibited new coal-fired power plants and shut down a number of old plants in the most polluted regions including city clusters of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and the Pearl and Yangtze Deltas. Large cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou restricted the number of cars on the road and started introducing all-electric bus fleets. The country reduced its iron-and steel-making capacity and shut down coal mines.  

The government also introduced aggressive afforestation and reforestation programmes like the Great Green Wall and planted more than 35 billion trees across 12 provinces. With investments of over $100 billion in such programmes, China’s forestry expenditure per hectare exceeded that of the US and Europe and became three times higher than the global average.

The Air Pollution Action Plan released in September 2013 became China’s most influential environmental policy. It helped the nation to make significant improvements in its air quality between 2013 and 2017, reducing PM2.5 levels (atmospheric particulate matter) by 33% in Beijing and 15% in the Pearl River Delta. In Beijing, this meant reducing PM2.5 levels from 89.5µg/m³ (micrograms per cubic metre) down to 60. The city achieved an annual average PM2.5 level of 58µg/m³– a drop of 35%.

But even so, no cities reached the World Health Organization’s recommended annual average PM2.5 level of 10µg/m³. And as of the end of 2017, only 107 of China’s 338 cities of prefectural level or higher had reached the WHO’s interim standard of 35µg/m³.

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China air pollution
China declared war on smog and launched a five-year national air quality action plan in 2013.

As part of the second phase of its battle against air pollution, in 2018, China introduced its Three-year Action Plan for Winning the Blue Sky War.

While the 2013 Action Plan only set PM2.5 level targets for the city clusters of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and the Pearl and Yangtze Deltas, the new three-year Action Plan applies to all the cities in China. It mandates at least an 18% reduction in PM2.5 levels on a 2015 baseline in as many as 231 cities that have not yet reached the government standard- an average of 35µg/m³.

The previous plan had not addressed a primary pollutant that made the air deadly in many cities: ground-level ozone- highly irritating gas created by volatile organic compounds (VOCs) reacting with nitrogen oxides released from vehicles. Although ozone in the upper atmosphere protects the Earth by blocking solar radiation, it is extremely toxic in the troposphere and could cause asthma and respiratory tract infections among residents. The new action plan focuses more on ozone pollution as it adds targets for both VOCs and nitrogen oxides: emissions reductions of 10% and 15%, respectively, by 2020. 

The air quality over major Chinese cities has improved as of the beginning of 2020, a byproduct of the Covid-19 pandemic that originated in Wuhan in the Hubei Province that saw the nation embark on the largest lockdown measures in the world. A drop in industrial and economic activities resulted in reduced greenhouse gas emissions and improved air quality in Wuhan over the Chinese New Year, as well as Beijing, Shanghai and the Yangtze River Delta region. However, emissions will no doubt rise again once the pandemic subsides.

Air pollution levels in major cities in China at the turn of this century were almost exactly at the level of London at the height of the Industrial Revolution in 1890. But China cleaned up its air twice as fast as the United Kingdom did after the Great Smog of postwar London killed 8 000 people.

Recent research suggests that China’s fight against air pollution has laid the foundations for extraordinary gains in the country’s life expectancy. The average citizen can now expect to live 2.4 years longer on average if the declines in air pollution persist.

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.

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