In My Hands Today…

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need – Bill Gates

In this urgent, authoritative book, Bill Gates sets out a wide-ranging, practical – and accessible – plan for how the world can get to zero greenhouse gas emissions in time to avoid a climate catastrophe.

Bill Gates has spent a decade investigating the causes and effects of climate change. With the help of experts in the fields of physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, political science, and finance, he has focused on what must be done in order to stop the planet’s slide toward certain environmental disasters. In this book, he not only explains why we need to work toward net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases, but also details what we need to do to achieve this profoundly important goal.

He gives us a clear-eyed description of the challenges we face. Drawing on his understanding of innovation and what it takes to get new ideas into the market, he describes the areas in which technology is already helping to reduce emissions, where and how the current technology can be made to function more effectively, where breakthrough technologies are needed, and who is working on these essential innovations. Finally, he lays out a concrete, practical plan for achieving the goal of zero emissions-suggesting not only policies that governments should adopt, but what we as individuals can do to keep our government, our employers, and ourselves accountable in this crucial enterprise.

As Bill Gates makes clear, achieving zero emissions will not be simple or easy to do, but if we follow the plan he sets out here, it is a goal firmly within our reach.

Plastic Waste and it’s Impact that will stay on for centuries

A couple of months back, there was a video from TED Talks in my inbox which intrigued me. This video, about plastic waste, made me want to read more about this very pervasive issue that will overwhelm us if we do not do something now.

Something that we touch and use hundreds or thousands of times in a day in myriad ways, plastics are a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic materials that use polymers as the main ingredient. Their plasticity makes it possible for plastics to be moulded, extruded, or pressed into solid objects of various shapes. This adaptability, plus a wide range of other properties, such as being lightweight, durable, flexible, and inexpensive to produce, has led to its widespread use.  Most modern plastics are derived from fossil fuel-based chemicals like natural gas or petroleum; however, recent industrial methods use variants made from renewable materials, such as corn or cotton derivatives.

It is estimated that 9.2 billion tonnes of plastic have been made between 1950 and 2017 and more than half of this has been produced since 2004. In 2020, 400 million tonnes of plastic were produced. If global trends in plastic demand continue, it is estimated that by 2050, the annual global plastic production will reach over 1,100 million tonnes. Plastic’s carbon footprint has doubled in less than 30 years, now accounting for nearly 5% of total annual greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for nearly 5% of total annual greenhouse gas emissions. If plastics were a country, titwould be the fifth largest emitter in the world.

Plastic is virtually irreplaceable because it is cheap, strong, lightweight, and resistant to corrosion. Plastic is incredibly useful in modern life, but its widespread use may impair human sustainability. The production and disposal of plastic generate greenhouse gases and hazardous waste. Plastic and the chemicals it emits are building up on land and in oceans, lakes, rivers, ice, and air, and the resulting damage to human and ecological health is currently poorly understood. Most plastic is not recyclable and the vast majority does not biodegrade. Further, plastic products often break down into very small fragments called microplastics that can pollute ecosystems and are harmful to organisms.

While the excessive use of plastic packaging is concerning, some form of packaging is often necessary to maintain the hygiene or freshness of food, or maintain the integrity of a product during freight. Small or travel-size toiletries and personal hygiene products are sometimes seen as wasteful but are vital in providing affordable sanitation options for some of our most vulnerable communities, such as the homeless or low-income families. With an estimated 70% of the world’s population living on less than US$10 a day, toiletries in single-serve sachets provide an affordable sanitation option in developing markets. Plastics are also the cleanest, most efficient way to keep medical supplies sterile.

Replacing plastic with other materials is neither simple nor straightforward, mainly due to the challenge of finding an alternative that combines all the most desirable plastic properties. Biodegradable alternatives—such as special plastics, paper, or cardboard—may well have a higher greenhouse footprint because of the amount of water or natural resources consumed in their production. A study conducted last year by the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore found that reusable plastic bags are more eco-friendly than paper and cotton alternatives, but only in cities and countries with a well-structured waste management system that prevents leakage.

Why is plastic pollution a problem? Plastic is everywhere, from bags and single-use bottles and packages to car parts, pipes, and siding and so plastic waste is ubiquitous. It has been found, for example, in Arctic sea ice, beer, farm soil, trout and other wild freshwater fish, shrimp and other shellfish, songbirds and seabirds, human placentas, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, midoceanic atolls, sea caves, the air and rain, and national parks and wilderness areas. While the impact of plastic pollution on sea life is well documented, scientists are just beginning to measure plastic’s effects on humans and human fertility, land ecosystems, crops and other plants.

Plastic pollution is most visible in developing Asian and African nations, where garbage collection systems are often inefficient or nonexistent. But the developed world, especially in countries with low recycling rates, also has trouble properly collecting discarded plastics. Plastic trash has become so ubiquitous it has prompted efforts to write a global treaty negotiated by the United Nations.

Researchers estimate that nearly 7,000 million tons of virgin plastic have been manufactured around the world as of 2015. Of that, 9% may have been recycled, 12% has been incinerated, and the rest is in landfills, still in use, or in our environment. Globally, about one-fourth of plastic waste is never collected. In less wealthy countries, waste plastic is sometimes burned in the open, releasing toxic chemicals into the air.

Half of all plastics ever manufactured have been made in the last 15 years. Production increased exponentially, from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons by 2015. Production is expected to double by 2050. Every year, about 8 million tons of plastic waste escapes into the oceans from coastal nations. That’s the equivalent of setting five garbage bags full of trash on every foot of coastline around the world. Plastics often contain additives making them stronger, more flexible, and durable. But many of these additives can extend the life of products if they become litter, with some estimates ranging to at least 400 years to break down. Most of the plastic trash in the oceans, Earth’s last sink, flows from land. Trash is also carried to sea by major rivers, which act as conveyor belts, picking up more and more trash as they move downstream. Once at sea, much of the plastic trash remains in coastal waters. But once caught up in ocean currents, it can be transported around the world. On Henderson Island, an uninhabited atoll in the Pitcairn Group isolated halfway between Chile and New Zealand, scientists found plastic items from Russia, the United States, Europe, South America, Japan, and China. They were carried to the South Pacific by the South Pacific gyre, a circular ocean current. Once at sea, sunlight, wind, and wave action break down plastic waste into small particles, often less than one-fifth of an inch across. These so-called microplastics are spread throughout the water column and have been found in every corner of the globe, from Mount Everest, the highest peak, to the Mariana Trench, the deepest trough.

Microplastics are breaking down further into smaller and smaller pieces. Plastic microfibers, meanwhile, have been found in municipal drinking water systems and drifting through the air. While plastic is durable, this also means plastic waste can be trapped in our environment for centuries, if not managed well. While plastics deteriorate into fragments easily through wear and tear, their polymer chains only break down into other smaller components at very high temperatures, such as during some chemical recycling processes. However, today only 15% of plastic waste is recycled.

Millions of animals are killed by plastics every year, from birds to fish to other marine organisms. Nearly 700 species, including endangered ones, are known to have been affected by plastics. Nearly every species of seabird eats plastics. Most of the deaths to animals are caused by entanglement or starvation. Seals, whales, turtles, and other animals are strangled by abandoned fishing gear or discarded six-pack rings. Microplastics have been found in more than 100 aquatic species, including fish, shrimp, and mussels destined for our dinner plates. In many cases, these tiny bits pass through the digestive system and are expelled without consequence. But plastics have also been found to have blocked digestive tracts or pierced organs, causing death. Stomachs so packed with plastics reduce the urge to eat, causing starvation. Plastics have been consumed by land-based animals, including elephants, hyenas, zebras, tigers, camels, cattle, and other large mammals, in some cases causing death. Tests have also confirmed liver and cell damage and disruptions to reproductive systems, prompting some species, such as oysters, to produce fewer eggs. New research shows that larval fish are eating nanofibers in the first days of life, raising new questions about the effects of plastics on fish populations. Once in the ocean, it is difficult—if not impossible—to retrieve plastic waste. Mechanical systems can be effective at picking up large pieces of plastic, such as foam cups and food containers, from inland waters. But once plastics break down into microplastics and drift throughout the water column in the open ocean, they are virtually impossible to recover.

The world still largely operates on the linear economy model, sometimes known as the take-make-discard model, where raw materials are used to manufacture products, only to be disposed of at the end of their short lifetimes.

Transitioning to a more sustainable model is not rocket science if one can remember the 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle—in that specific order of priority. Reducing our overall consumption is about respecting our natural resources, only using what we need, and refusing unnecessary excess. Reuse is key to increasing the lifespan of the things we use which includes repairing or upcycling our items to give them a new lease on life. And finally recycling the waste we eventually generate is key to closing the loop in a circular economic model.

Many consumer plastic products are imprinted with triangular recyclable symbols. But only two kinds of plastic commonly end up recycled: The first is PET or polyethylene terephthalate, and the other is HDPE or high-density polyethylene, and within those, usually only bottles, tubs, and jugs and not salad containers, berry boxes, or clamshell packages. Together, these account for a small fraction of all plastic waste. Recyclable plastics are typically downcycled rather than fully recycled. This means that they are washed, ground into a powder, melted, and then extruded into pellets ready for reheating and remoulding and turned into products of lesser value that often cannot be recycled again. This process is known as mechanical recycling. When plastic waste is turned into a more valuable product, such as clothing or shoes, that is called upcycling. Recycling results in a product of equivalent value that can be recycled multiple times. However, the number of times plastic can be effectively recycled is currently limited. Other hard-to-recycle plastics such as LDPE, polyethylene film, or contaminated plastics like unwashed food containers can sometimes be recycled by using chemical recycling. This is a process where the polymer structure of the plastic is changed and converted into a feedstock that can replace virgin materials used in the production of plastics.

Southeast Asia has emerged as a hot spot for plastic pollution because of rapid urbanization and a rising middle class, whose consumption of plastic products and packaging is growing due to their convenience and versatility. But local waste management infrastructure has not kept pace, resulting in large quantities of mismanaged waste. COVID-19 has exacerbated the situation due to increased consumption of masks, sanitiser bottles, and online delivery packaging.

In Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia, more than 75% of the material value of recyclable plastic is lost, – the equivalent of $6 billion a year when single-use plastic is discarded rather than recovered and recycled, according to a series of landmark studies by the World Bank Group. With only 18 to 28% of recyclable plastic recovered and recycled in these countries, most plastic packaging waste is not only left to pollute the environment, littering beaches and roadsides but its value to these economies is also lost.

The world is beginning to accept that it is time to tackle the plastic waste problem. Currently, more than 30% of the world does not have access to proper collection and disposal of waste. There is no silver bullet solution. It’s not about swapping from one single-use lifestyle to another, but instead about changing our behaviour to balance convenience and sustainability, and asking industry and governments to work together to drive the best environmental solutions.

Climate Change: Happening Here, Happening Now

Over the past few months, the heat in Singapore has been crazy. And it’s not just Singapore, I have been hearing about weird climatic conditions from many parts of the world and the newspapers were full of unprecedented weather conditions and climate change and its effects on mankind. So I decided to read up more about what this is all about so I am better prepared to deal with it.

The United Nations defines climate change as the long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns. These shifts may be natural, such as through variations in the solar cycle. But since the 1800s, human activities have been the main driver of climate change, primarily due to burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas.

Climate change destabilises the Earth’s temperature equilibrium and has far-reaching effects on human beings and the environment. A distinction is made between the direct and indirect effects of climate change. During global warming, the energy balance and thus the temperature of the earth change, due to the increased concentration of greenhouse gases, which has a significant impact on humans and the environment.

Burning fossil fuels generates greenhouse gas emissions that act like a blanket wrapped around the Earth, trapping the sun’s heat and raising temperatures. Examples of greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change include carbon dioxide and methane. These come from using gasoline for driving a car or coal for heating a building, for example. Clearing land and forests can also release carbon dioxide. Landfills for garbage are a major source of methane emissions. Energy, industry, transport, buildings, agriculture and land use are among the main emitters. Greenhouse gas concentrations are at their highest levels in two million years. And emissions continue to rise. As a result, the Earth is now about 1.1°C warmer than it was in the late 1800s. The last decade between 2011 and 2020 was the warmest on record.

Many people think climate change mainly means warmer temperatures. But temperature rise is only the beginning of the story. Because the Earth is a system, where everything is connected, changes in one area can influence changes in all others. The consequences of climate change now include, among others, intense droughts, water scarcity, severe fires, rising sea levels, flooding, melting polar ice, catastrophic storms and declining biodiversity. Climate change can affect our health, ability to grow food, housing, safety and work. Some of us are already more vulnerable to climate impacts, such as people living in small island nations and other developing countries. Conditions like sea-level rise and saltwater intrusion have advanced to the point where whole communities have had to relocate, and protracted droughts are putting people at risk of famine. In the future, the number of climate refugees is expected to rise.

The effects of climate change and global warming which we see today are irreversible for our generation and it will only worsen in the decades to come. The effects are already here and today we can see glaciers shrinking, ice on rivers and lakes breaking up earlier, trees flowering sooner, unseasonal weather and the shifting of plant and animal ranges. Effects that scientists had predicted in the past would result from global climate change are now occurring like the loss of sea ice, accelerated sea-level rising and longer, more intense heat waves.

According to a study published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the range of published evidence indicates that the net damage costs of climate change are likely to be significant and to increase over time.  Scientists have high confidence that global temperatures will continue to rise for decades to come, largely due to greenhouse gases produced by human activities and forecast a temperature rise of 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century. The extent of climate change effects on individual regions will vary over time and with the ability of different societal and environmental systems to mitigate or adapt to change.

The direct consequences of man-made climate change include rising maximum temperatures, rising minimum temperatures, rising sea levels, higher ocean temperatures, an increase in heavy precipitation including heavy rain and hail, an increase in the proportion of violent tropical cyclones, an increase in aridity and drought, a decline in Arctic sea ice and snow cover, glacier recession and retreat and thawing permafrost.

The indirect consequences of climate change, which directly affect us humans and our environment, include an increase in hunger and water crises, especially in developing countries, threats to livelihoods from floods and forest fires, health risks due to an increase in frequency and intensity of heat extremes, economic implications of dealing with secondary damage related to climate change, the increasing spread of pests and pathogens, the loss of biodiversity due to limited adaptability and adaptability speed of flora and fauna, ocean acidification due to increased bicarbonate concentrations in the water as a consequence of increased carbon concentrations and the need for adaptation in all areas including agriculture, forestry, energy, infrastructure and tourism. Many changes, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level, due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions over centuries to millennia, are irreversible. Sea levels will continue to rise and are expected to increase by one to eight feet by 2100 and the Arctic Ocean is expected to become essentially ice-free in summer before mid-century.

This sounds so dire and leaves a very uncertain world for future generations, but what can be done? Transformation in nearly all facets of our economies is necessary. The longer we wait to implement it, the more radical and impossible it will appear. The good news is that low-carbon energy sources are more affordable than ever. Transitioning the energy sector to clean, renewable systems is often the same price, or cheaper, than sustaining the existing carbon-intensive systems, especially when we consider the damage they are doing to the planet that will also cost billions to recover from or adapt to. Transforming the way we feed the planet is crucial, too. Unsustainable agriculture is a primary driver of deforestation, which in turn destroys wildlife habitats, increases carbon emissions, erodes income sources for local communities, and increases our risk of pandemics. Moving agriculture to sustainable practices can benefit food security and biodiversity, all while slashing emissions. It would be a win-win for people and nature. Restoring and expanding ecosystems like mangroves can not only help absorb and store carbon, but also protect from extreme weather, economically sustain communities, and preserve some of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems.

Finally, across all sectors one of the biggest lacking pieces is finance. Today’s investments are currently three to six times lower than they need to be by 2030 for climate solutions to be at scale with the magnitude of the crisis. As economies are recovering from COVID-19, governments have a prime opportunity to inject funds into transformative climate action and international cooperation for a brighter future.

Collective power has extraordinary strength. Combining our voices to call for transformational climate action can influence political leaders, industries, and businesses that are the top decision-makers on whom cutting carbon emissions depends. We must cut emissions and enact a just transition to a clean, renewables-powered economy. We must take advantage of existing climate solutions by putting more money behind them. Developed countries must take accountability for their far-outsized contributions to the climate crisis and lead this transformation. Let’s not wait any longer, but act now, there is still time – for people, for the planet, and a brighter future.

World Wetlands Day

Today is the World Wetlands Day. Dating back to 1971, World Wetlands Day is an environmentally-related celebration that reaffirms the protection and love for wetlands, which are the small environments of plant life and organisms found within water bodies that bring about ecological health in abundance to not only water bodies but environments as a whole. First celebrated in 1997, World Wetlands Day serves to recognise the influence and positive production that Wetlands have had on the world and in terms brings communities together for the benefit of Mother Nature. This day also raises global awareness because wetlands play a significant role in people and on the planet. The day was formally acknowledged by the United Nations on 30 August 2021as World Wetlands Day. 2 February each year is World Wetlands Day to raise global awareness about the vital role of wetlands for people and our planet. This day also marks the date of the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands on 2 February 1971, in the Iranian city of Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

A patch of land that develops pools of water after a rainstorm would not necessarily be considered a wetland, even though the land is wet. Wetlands have unique characteristics: they are generally distinguished from other water bodies or landforms based on their water level and on the types of plants that live within them. Specifically, wetlands are characterised as having a water table that stands at or near the land surface for a long enough period each year to support aquatic plants. A wetland is a distinct ecosystem that is flooded by water, either permanently or seasonally. Flooding results in oxygen-free or anoxic processes prevailing, especially in the soils. Wetlands are considered among the most biologically diverse of all ecosystems, serving as home to a wide range of unique plant and animal species and occur naturally on every continent, except for Antarctica. The water in wetlands is either freshwater, brackish or salt water and the main wetland types are classified based on the dominant plants and/or the source of the water. Wetlands contribute several functions that benefit people and are called ecosystem services and include water purification, groundwater replenishment, stabilization of shorelines and storm protection, water storage and flood control, processing of carbon including carbon fixation, decomposition and sequestration, other nutrients and pollutants, and support of plants and animals. Wetlands also place a role in climate change mitigation and adaptation. The world’s largest wetlands include the Amazon River basin, the West Siberian Plain, the Pantanal in South America, and the Sundarbans in the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta. According to the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, wetlands are more affected by environmental degradation than any other ecosystem on Earth.

Over time, human construction has led to various ecological problems affecting wetlands. Overpopulation and construction have led to a decrease in environmental conservation and total has brought issues to these lands. Many wetlands are being lost and ecologists claim that humans should recognise this dilemma before the loss of a natural filter and conserver of the world.

The theme for the 2022 World Wetlands Day is Wetlands Action for People & Nature and today the Convention on Wetlands and its Contracting Parties will launch the next World Wetlands Day campaign to scale wetlands conservation actions for people and planetary health.

In My Hands Today…

The World Without Us- Alan Weisman

In The World Without Us, Alan Weisman offers an utterly original approach to questions of humanity’s impact on the planet: he asks us to envision our Earth, without us. In this far-reaching narrative, Weisman explains how our massive infrastructure would collapse and finally vanish without human presence; which everyday items may become immortalized as fossils; how copper pipes and wiring would be crushed into mere seams of reddish rock; why some of our earliest buildings might be the last architecture left; and how plastic, bronze sculpture, radio waves, and some man-made molecules may be our most lasting gifts to the universe.

The World Without Us reveals how, just days after humans disappear, floods in New York’s subways would start eroding the city’s foundations, and how, as the world’s cities crumble, asphalt jungles would give way to real ones. It describes the distinct ways that organic and chemically treated farms would revert to wild, how billions more birds would flourish, and how cockroaches in unheated cities would perish without us. Drawing on the expertise of engineers, atmospheric scientists, art conservators, zoologists, oil refiners, marine biologists, astrophysicists, religious leaders from rabbis to the Dalai Lama, and paleontologists—who describe a prehuman world inhabited by megafauna like giant sloths that stood taller than mammoths—Weisman illustrates what the planet might be like today, if not for us.

From places already devoid of humans (a last fragment of primaeval European forest; the Korean DMZ; Chernobyl), Weisman reveals Earth’s tremendous capacity for self-healing. As he shows which human devastations are indelible, and which examples of our highest art and culture would endure longest, Weisman’s narrative ultimately drives toward a radical but persuasive solution that needn’t depend on our demise. It is narrative nonfiction at its finest, and in posing an irresistible concept with both gravity and a highly readable touch, it looks deeply at our effects on the planet in a way that no other book has.