More than 9 in 10 people breathe unhealthy air, WHO study says

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The New York Times reports: The World Health Organization said on Tuesday that 92 percent of people breathe what it classifies as unhealthy air, in another sign that atmospheric pollution is a significant threat to global public health.

A new report, the W.H.O.’s most comprehensive analysis so far of outdoor air quality worldwide, also said that about three million deaths a year — mostly from cardiovascular, pulmonary and other noncommunicable diseases — were linked to outdoor air pollution. Nearly two-thirds of those deaths are in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific region, compared with 333,000 in Europe and the Americas, the report said.

“When you look out through the windows in your house or apartment, you don’t see the tiny little particles that are suspended in the air, so the usual perception is that the air is clean,” Rajasekhar Balasubramanian, an air quality expert at the National University of Singapore who was not involved in the study, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

“But the W.H.O. report is a clear indication that even in the absence of air pollution episodes, the concentrations of particles suspended in the air do exceed what’s considered to be acceptable from a health viewpoint,” he said. [Continue reading…]

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Why the International Criminal Court is right to focus on the environment

By Tara Smith, Bangor University

The International Criminal Court is not known for prosecuting people responsible for huge oil slicks, chopping down protected rainforests or contaminating pristine land. But these people may now one day find themselves on trial in The Hague.

The move was announced by chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda in a recent policy document that contains a new and welcome focus on the prosecution of individuals for human atrocities that are committed by destroying the environment in which we live and on which we depend.

The document doesn’t change the law applied by the court. There is no new crime of ecocide for instance. Instead, it sets out the types of cases that the court will now select and prioritise for prosecution. These will include the illegal exploitation of natural resources, cases of environmental destruction, and “land grabbing”, where investors buy up vast areas of poor countries.

The International Criminal Court, or ICC, has already shown a willingness to apply its laws to situations involving environmental destruction. Between 2009 and 2010, then-prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo successfully obtained arrest warrants from the court against the president of Sudan, Omar Al-Bashir, for acts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Among other acts, these alleged crimes involved the contamination of wells and water pumps in Darfur to target and destroy certain groups of people. Al-Bashir’s trial has not yet commenced as he continues to evade arrest.

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Regenerating soil by turning our backs on industrial farming holds the key to tackling climate change

Jason Hickel writes: Soil is the second biggest reservoir of carbon on the planet, next to the oceans. It holds four times more carbon than all the plants and trees in the world. But human activity like deforestation and industrial farming – with its intensive ploughing, monoculture and heavy use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides – is ruining our soils at breakneck speed, killing the organic materials that they contain. Now 40% of agricultural soil is classed as “degraded” or “seriously degraded”. In fact, industrial farming has so damaged our soils that a third of the world’s farmland has been destroyed in the past four decades.

As our soils degrade, they are losing their ability to hold carbon, releasing enormous plumes of CO2 [pdf] into the atmosphere.

There is, however, a solution. Scientists and farmers around the world are pointing out that we can regenerate degraded soils by switching from intensive industrial farming to more ecological methods – not just organic fertiliser, but also no-tillage, composting, and crop rotation. Here’s the brilliant part: as the soils recover, they not only regain their capacity to hold CO2, they begin to actively pull additional CO2 out of the atmosphere. [Continue reading…]

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1.5 billion birds missing from North American skies, ‘alarming’ report finds

The Canadian Press reports: North American skies have grown quieter over the last decades by the absent songs of 1.5 billion birds, says the latest summary of bird populations.

The survey by dozens of government, university and environmental agencies across North America has also listed 86 species of birds — including once-common and much-loved songbirds such as the evening grosbeak and Canada warbler — that are threatened by plummeting populations, habitat destruction and climate change.

“The information on urgency is quite alarming,” said Partners In Flight co-author Judith Kennedy of Environment Canada. “We’re really getting down to the dregs of some of these populations.”

The report is the most complete survey of land bird numbers to date and attempts to assess the health of populations on a continental basis. It concludes that, while there are still a lot of birds in the sky, there aren’t anywhere near as many as there used to be. [Continue reading…]

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Humanity driving ‘unprecedented’ marine extinction

The Guardian reports: Humanity is driving an unprecedented extinction of sealife unlike any in the fossil record, hunting and killing larger species in a way that will disrupt ocean ecosystems for millions of years, scientists have found.

A new analysis of the five mass extinction events millions of years ago discovered there was either no pattern to which marine species were lost, or smaller species were the ones that disappeared.

But today’s “sixth extinction” is unique in the way that the largest species, such as great white sharks, blue whales and southern bluefin tuna, are being pushed to the brink, due to humans’ tendency to fish for larger species more often than smaller ones.

The consequences, according to a study published in the journal Science on Wednesday, are devastating for the ecology of the world’s oceans.

“If this pattern goes unchecked, the future oceans would lack many of the largest species in today’s oceans,” said Jonathan Payne, associate professor and chair of geological sciences at Stanford University. “Many large species play critical roles in ecosystems and so their extinctions could lead to ecological cascades that would influence the structure and function of future ecosystems beyond the simple fact of losing those species.”

The danger is disproportionate to the percentage of threatened species, with the authors warning the loss of giants would “disrupt ecosystems for millions of years even at levels of taxonomic loss far below those of previous mass extinctions”. [Continue reading…]

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Nature is being renamed ‘natural capital’ – but is it really the planet that will profit?

By Sian Sullivan, Bath Spa University

The four-yearly World Conservation Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has just taken place in Hawai’i. The congress is the largest global meeting on nature’s conservation. This year a controversial motion was debated regarding incorporating the language and mechanisms of “natural capital” into IUCN policy.

But what is “natural capital”? And why use it to refer to “nature”?

Motion 63 on “Natural Capital”, adopted at the congress, proposes the development of a “natural capital charter” as a framework “for the application of natural capital approaches and mechanisms”. In “noting that concepts and language of natural capital are becoming widespread within conservation circles and IUCN”, the motion reflects IUCN’s adoption of “a substantial policy position” on natural capital. Eleven programmed sessions scheduled for the congress included “natural capital” in the title. Many are associated with the recent launch of the global Natural Capital Protocol, which brings together business leaders to create a world where business both enhances and conserves nature.

At least one congress session discussed possible “unforeseen impacts of natural capital on broader issues of equitability, ethics, values, rights and social justice”. This draws on widespread concerns around the metaphor that nature-is-as-capital-is. Critics worry about the emphasis on economic, as opposed to ecological, language and models, and a corresponding marginalisation of non-economic values that elicit care for the natural world.

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How Costa Rica has become a world leader in renewable energy

 

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Right to repair: The fight against manufacturers who make unfixable products

NBC News reports: With electronics becoming ever harder to fix because of design and legal restrictions, a loose coalition of repair professionals and environmentalists is putting the screws to manufacturers that they claim are fattening their bottom lines by deliberately engineering disposability into their products.

Loosely known as the “right to repair” movement, its advocates say the ability to tinker with products you own is a basic property right and necessary to create a healthy sustainable market. Many efforts by manufacturers to block repairs, they maintain, are intended to force consumers to buy new products or expensive warranties — not protect their intellectual property.

“We’ve been getting picked at little by little over 20 years,” Gay Gordon-Byrne, the founder and director of the Repair Association, said of the erosion of repairability in a host of consumer products, especially electronics.

The Repair Association — a coalition of service, security and environmental organizations founded in 2013 — is fighting restrictive repair policies and legal protections that prevent non-authorized repairs on many products that contain software — a quickly growing class of objects known as the “Internet of Things” if they also connect to the web. [Continue reading…]

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Oklahoma earthquake felt in several U.S. states, as oil wells draw scrutiny

The Wall Street Journal reports: A 5.6-magnitude earthquake rattled Oklahoma on Saturday, damaging buildings and tying for the strongest temblor ever recorded in the state, which has experienced a rash of earthquake activity in the past decade that U.S. seismologists have tied to the underground disposal of wastewater from oil and gas drilling.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said via Twitter on Saturday afternoon that state regulators were contacting operators of 37 disposal wells in a 500-square-mile area and asking them to shut down following the quake.

The shutdown order is the latest action the commission has taken against the oil and gas industry since 2013, when it asked some wastewater-well owners to reduce disposal volumes, he said. Since then, the commission has taken action against around 700 Arbuckle wells. There are about 4,000 wastewater wells across the state, he said.

Oklahoma has a history of seismic activity, and earthquakes in the state aren’t unheard of. But it has stepped up regulation of the wastewater injection wells after seeing a dramatic increase in seismic activity over the past decade. In 2015 the USGS recorded 2,500 quakes with a magnitude of 2.5 or higher in the state, up from just three in 2005. [Continue reading…]

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Climate change will mean the end of national parks as we know them

Oliver Milman writes: After a century of shooing away hunters, tending to trails and helping visitors enjoy the wonder of the natural world, the guardians of America’s most treasured places have been handed an almost unimaginable new job – slowing the all-out assault climate change is waging against national parks across the nation.

As the National Parks Service (NPS) has charted the loss of glaciers, sea level rise and increase in wildfires spurred by rising temperatures in recent years, the scale of the threat to US heritage across the 412 national parks and monuments has become starkly apparent.

As the National Parks Service turns 100 this week, their efforts to chart and stem the threat to the country’s history faces a daunting task. America’s grand symbols and painstakingly preserved archaeological sites are at risk of being winnowed away by the crashing waves, wildfires and erosion triggered by warming temperatures.

The Statue of Liberty is at “high exposure” risk from increasingly punishing storms. A national monument dedicated to abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who will be enshrined on a new $20 note, could be eaten away by rising tides in Maryland. The land once walked by Pocahontas and Captain John Smith in Jamestown, the first English settlement in the US, is surrounded by waters rising at twice the global average and may be beyond rescue.

These threats are the latest in a pile of identified calamities to befall national parks and monuments due to climate change. Receding ice, extreme heat and acidifying oceans are morphing America’s landscapes and coasts at a faster pace than at any time in human history. [Continue reading…]

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Green beans: Why pulses are the eco-friendly option for feeding – and saving – the world

By Caroline Wood, University of Sheffield and Wayne Martindale, Sheffield Hallam University

We all know the score: current trends predict there will be 9.7 billion mouths to feed by 2050. Producing enough food without using more land, exacerbating climate change or putting more pressure on water, soil and energy reserves will be challenging.

In the past, food security researchers have focused on production with less attention paid to consumer demand and how food is ultimately used in meals. However as developing nations aspire towards the “Western diet”, demand for meat and animal products is rapidly climbing.

This is bad news for the planet. Meat is a luxury item and comes at a huge environmental cost. Shuttling crops through animals to make protein is highly inefficient: in US beef, just 5% of the original protein survives the journey from animal feed to meat on the plate. Even milk, which has the best conversion efficiency, has just 40% of the original protein.

Consequently, livestock farming requires huge amounts of water and land for grazing and feed production, taking up an estimated 70% of all agricultural land and 27% of the human water footprint. Much of this land is becoming steadily degraded through overgrazing and erosion, prompting farmers to expand into new areas; 70% of cleared forest in the Amazon, for instance, is now pastureland. Livestock production is also one of the greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, including 65% of man-made nitrous oxide emissions (which have a global warming potential 296 times greater than CO₂).

Nevertheless, millions of people in developing countries still suffer from protein malnutrition. The burden, therefore, must fall on people in richer nations to reduce their meat consumption and embrace other sources of protein.

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The countries leading the world in happiness and sustainability are not the economically wealthiest

Anna Bruce-Lockhart writes: Is life on this planet getting better? When it comes to the progress of nations, how do you measure what matters most? There’s wealth, there’s health, there’s basic human freedoms. These criteria, and others, make regular appearances in a variety of international rankings, from the Better Life Index to the Sustainable Economic Development Assessment and the World Happiness Report.

But a new study takes a different approach. The Happy Planet Index, which has just published its 2016 edition, measures health and happiness not in isolation but against a crucial new gold standard for success: sustainability.

The formula goes something like this: take the well-being and longevity of a population, measure how equally both are distributed, then set the result against each country’s ecological footprint.

In this calculation, the most successful countries are those where people live long and happy lives at little cost to the environment.

So which countries are they?

They’re not the wealthy Western countries you’d expect to see, or even the progressive Nordic ones that normally bag the lifestyle laurels. Instead, a list of the top 10 (the index ranks 140 countries overall) shows that when it comes to people’s ability to live good lives within sustainable limits, Latin American and Asia Pacific countries are ahead of the crowd. [Continue reading…]

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