Green water – the rainwater available to plants in the soil – is indispensable for life on and below the land. But in a new study, we found that widespread pressure on this resource has crossed a critical limit.
The planetary boundaries framework – a concept that scientists first discussed in 2009 – identified nine processes that have remained remarkably steady in the Earth system over the last 11,700 years. These include a relatively stable global climate and an intact biosphere that have allowed civilisations based on agriculture to thrive. Researchers proposed that each of these processes has a boundary that, once crossed, puts the Earth system, or substantial components of it, at risk of upset.
So far, it has been suggested that human use of freshwater is still within safe limits globally. But earlier assessments only considered the extraction of what is called blue water – that which flows in rivers and resides in underground aquifers. Even then, regional boundaries are likely to have been crossed in many river basins due to a sixfold increase in the extraction of blue water over the past century. Besides irrigating crops to sate growing demand from people and livestock, population growth and higher standards of living have raised global domestic and industrial water consumption, disrupting aquatic ecosystems and decimating the life within them.
By including green water in our assessment, we found that freshwater’s ability to sustain a stable Earth system is even more threatened than first reported.
Research shows that clearing forests reduces the flow of moisture to the atmosphere, dampening how efficiently the Earth system can circulate water and ultimately putting ecosystems like the Amazon at risk of collapse. Global heating and changes to how the land is used, especially deforestation, are among the biggest factors responsible for humanity’s transgression of this planetary boundary. Their combined influence indicates that the planetary boundaries interact and need to be treated as one networked system.
We found that since the industrial revolution, and especially since the 1950s, larger parts of the world are subject to significantly drier or wetter soil. This shift towards extreme conditions is an alarming development due to the indispensable role of water in maintaining resilient societies and ecosystems
Too much soil water is no good either. Water-saturated soils make floods more likely and suffocate plant growth. Abnormally large quantities of water evaporating from wet soils can delay the onset of monsoons in places like India, where the dry season has extended and disrupted farming. High humidity combined with high temperatures can also cause deadly heatwaves, as the human body quickly overheats when sweating becomes impossible in very moist air. Several regions, like South Asia, the coastal Middle East and the Gulf of California and Mexico, are experiencing this lethal combination much earlier than expected.
What can be done?
Growing scientific evidence suggests that the planet is both drier and wetter than at any point within the last 11,700 years. This threatens the ecological and climatic conditions that support life.
Our analysis shows that the sixth planetary boundary has been crossed. But ambitious efforts to slow climate change and halt deforestation could still prevent dangerous changes to the cycling of Earth’s green water. Along with other measures, switching farming practices to sustainable alternatives would prevent more soil being degraded and losing its moisture. Explicitly governing green water and its protection in policy and legal frameworks may also be necessary.
The above-featured image is about the ocean producing 50% of carbon dioxide produced by humans, buffering the impacts of global warming, and is the main source of protein for a billion people around the world. Credit: IPS
What if a patient unplugged the Oxygen Tube that Keeps them Alive
By Baher Kamal
MADRID, Jun 7 2022 (IPS) – Imagine a patient connected to a vital oxygen device to keep him or her breathing, thus alive. Then, imagine what would happen if this patient unplugged it. This is exactly what humans have been doing with the source of at least 50% of the whole Planet’s oxygen: the oceans.
But oceans do not only provide half of all the oxygen needed. They also absorb about 30% of carbon dioxide produced by humans, buffering the impacts of global warming while alleviating its consequences on human health and that of all natural resources.
The carbon — and heat– sink
The world’s oceans capture 90% of the additional heat generated from those emissions.
In short, they are not just ‘the lungs of the planet’ but also its largest carbon sink.
The ocean is the main source of protein for more than a billion people around the world.
And over three billion people rely on the ocean for their livelihoods, the vast majority in developing countries.
Oceans also serve as the foundation for much of the world’s economy, supporting sectors from tourism to fisheries to international shipping.
Despite being the life source that supports humanity’s sustenance and that of every other organism on Earth, oceans are facing unprecedented real threats as a result of human activity.
While providing the above facts, this year’s World Oceans Day (8 June) warns about some of the major damages caused by human activities, which devastate this source of life and livelihood.
This report is also based on data from several specialised organisations, such as the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), among others, as well as a number of global conservation bodies, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Too many causes. And a major one
Oceans as dumping sites: There are several major threats leading to suffocating the world’s lungs.
Such is the case –for example, of overfishing, illegal fishing and ghost fishing–, human activities have been transforming world’s oceans into a giant dumping site: untreated wastewater; poisonous chemicals; electronic waste; oil spills, petrol leaks, oil refineries near rivers and coastal areas, ballast waters, invasive species, and a very long etcetera.
Credit: Albert Oppong-Ansah/IPS
Of all these, plastic appears as one of the major sources of harm to oceans. See the following data:
Unless the world changes the way how to produce, use and dispose of plastic, the amount of plastic waste entering aquatic ecosystems could nearly triple from 9-14 million tonnes per year in 2016 to a projected 23-37 million tonnes per year by 2040.
How does it get there? A lot of it comes from the world’s rivers, which serve as direct conduits of trash into lakes and the ocean.
In fact, around 1.000 rivers are accountable for nearly 80% of global annual riverine plastic emissions into the ocean, which range between 0.8 and 2.7 million tons per year, with small urban rivers amongst the most polluting.
Plastic everywhere: Wherever you look and whatever you see, buy and use, there is plastic: food wrappers, plastic bottles, plastic bottle caps, plastic grocery bags, plastic straws, stirrers, cosmetics, lunch boxes, ballpoints, and thousands of other products.
Cigarette butts: Then you have the case of cigarette butts, whose filters contain tiny plastic fibres, being the most common type of plastic waste found in the environment.
Today, the world produces about 400 million tons of plastic waste … every year.
Plastic addiction: Such human dependence on plastic has been steadily increasing. Since the 1970s, the rate of plastic production has grown faster than that of any other material. If historic growth trends continue, global production of primary plastic is forecasted to reach 1.100 million tonnes by 2050.
“Our seas are choking with plastic waste, which can be found from the remotest atolls to the deepest ocean trenches,” reminds the United Nations chief António Guterres.
Fossil fuel: As importantly, some 98% of single-use plastic products are produced from fossil fuel, or “virgin” feedstock. The level of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, use and disposal of conventional fossil fuel-based plastics is forecast to grow to 19% of the global carbon budget by 2040.
In fact, the annual plastic leakage is estimated at 229.000 tons, 94% of which consist of macroplastics. Plastics constitute around 95% of waste in the open sea, both on the seabed and on beaches across the Mediterranean.
COVID-19: The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) February 2022 publication: Global Plastics Outlook reports that the increase in the use of protective personal equipment and single-use plastics has exacerbated plastic littering on land and in marine environments, with negative environmental consequences.
Rivers: The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reports that, flowing through America’s heartland, the Mississippi River drains 40% of the continental United States – creating a conduit for litter to reach the Gulf of Mexico, and ultimately, the ocean.
Electronic waste: should all this not be enough, please also know that the world produces 50 million tons of e-waste, a portion of it ends up in the ocean.
According to an October 2020 report released by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and authored by Alexander Nicolas, more than 12 million tons of plastic end up in the world’s seas every year.
Fishing gear accounts for roughly 10% of that debris: between 500.000 to 1 million tons of fishing gear are discarded or lost in the ocean every year. Discarded nets, lines, and ropes now make up about 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Alexander Nicolas explains.
This marine plastic has a name: ghost fishing gear.
“Ghost fishing gear includes any abandoned, lost, or otherwise discarded fishing gear, much of which often goes unseen.
“Ghost fishing gear is the deadliest form of marine plastic as it un-selectively catches wildlife, entangling marine mammals, seabirds, sea turtles, and sharks, subjecting them to a slow and painful death through exhaustion and suffocation. Ghost fishing gear also damages critical marine habitats such as coral reefs.”
Overfishing is yet another major damage caused to the world’s oceans threatening the stability of fish stocks; nutrient pollution is contributing to the creation of “dead zones.”
Currently, 90% of big fish populations have been depleted, as humans are taking more from the ocean than can be replenished.
Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing: A fugitive activity that further adds to the abusive overfishing, causing the depletion of 11–26 million tons of fish… each year.
IPS article The Big Theft of the Fish provides extensive information about these two major activities that deplete the oceans vital natural resources.
Untreated wastewater is another example of the damage made by humans to the oceans.
It has been reported that around 80% of the world’s wastewater is discharged without treatment, a big portion of it ends up in the oceans.
The oceans in a conference
All the above facts –and many more– are on the agenda of the United Nations Ocean Conference 2022 (27 June- 1 July), organised in Lisbon and co-hosted by the Governments of Kenya and Portugal.
According to its organisers, the Conference seeks to propel much needed science-based innovative solutions aimed at starting a new chapter of global ocean action. Cross your fingers!
The Middle East has a severe climate problem. According to a recent International Monetary Fund report, the average temperature in the region has risen by 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1990, which is more than twice the global average. On top of that, countries there and in Central Asia account for nearly half of the fifty countries most prone to “extreme heat events” (periods of excessive temperatures and humidity). Further temperature increases are expected, with adverse economic, environmental, and societal consequences for the region.
For example, in 2019, the United Nations sounded the alarm of a coming era of “climate apartheid,” wherein extreme temperatures and prolonged heatwaves threaten to “‘undo the last 50 years’ of development, global health and poverty reduction” and impoverish millions. This new reality will be particularly consequential for the Middle East, which has already been struggling to address electricity shortages, economic inequality, and human harm intensified by lengthy heatwaves with record temperatures. These pains are likely to have a pronounced economic effect: as the IMF reports, “Even in a moderate emission scenario (RCP 4.5) that limits global warming to 2-3 [degrees Celsius] by 2100, mortality-related costs [the cost of deaths and adaptations on society] … could reach an average of 1.6 percent of GDP per year during 2040-59.” And the situation is even grimmer for the region’s hottest countries—such as Bahrain, Djibouti, Mauritania, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. The IMF says that these nations could see an “immediate decline in per capita economic growth of around 2 percentage points” for every “temperature increase of 1 degree Celsius.”
Of course, it is not just rising temperatures but also declining precipitation rates that are exacerbating the region’s challenges. Indeed, decreasing annual precipitation rates are aggravating the Middle East’s water crisis, which is one of the world’s worst due to the region’s arid climate and years of state governments mismanaging their water resources and subsidizing water-intensive agriculture and animal husbandry. Adapting to the coming climate emergency will greatly burden the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), a region that uses, on average, more than four times of its available freshwater resources and is home to twelve of the seventeen most water-stressed countries in the world.
Image courtesy of the International Monetary Fund’s report, “Feeling the Heat: Adapting to Climate Change in the Middle East and Central Asia,” where MENAP represents the Middle East and North Africa plus Afghanistan and Pakistan.
This Sustainability article by Tom Swallow on the commemoration of Earth Day. Accordingly, the author proposes that it is an initiative to raise sustainability awareness.
April 22, 2022
Earth Day is an initiative to raise sustainability awareness
Organisations are putting forward their sustainability sentiments as they highlight their ESG commitments in light of the April 2022 Earth Day initiative
While sustainability is a global issue that is recognised 24/7, 365 days a year, by businesses and non-governmental organisations alike, on the 22nd of April each year, the world comes together for Earth Day. The day recognises the significance of positive environmental impact and the economic and political intervention required to provoke necessary change.
Organisations across the globe are highlighting their commitments to sustainable development on this day as many of them set their sights on the net-zero emissions goal. The event sees more than one billion people mobilised as they take various non-profit actions to clean up beaches in more than 190 countries—a tradition that began in 1970.
The 2022 Earth Day theme is ‘Invest in our Planet’ and will host a live stream of the Earth Day Climate Action Summit featuring insights to promote prosperity among viewers and—similar to other events like the COP series—provoke positive change.
Organisations recognise ESG on Earth Day
The message behind ‘Earth’ Day is not only to promote sustainability in terms of the climate but to recognise that environmental, social and governance (ESG) topics are all important in ensuring a well-rounded approach. Consideration for all three areas of ESG is universal, not just for the organisations with direct impacts on the plant. As an example, Zai Lab Limited, an innovative global biopharmaceutical firm, is working with a global charity to plant more trees and reduce its carbon footprint while regenerating the environment.
Its partnership with One Tree Planted will see that one tree is planted for each of Zai Lab’s employees, which made up a total workforce of almost 2,000 personnel. Chief Sustainability Officer at Zai lab, Jim Massey says that “as a young, vibrant and growing healthcare company, Zai Lab commits to ‘Grow Green’ which means we are laying the groundwork for the sustainability of our business and our planet.” The firm is recognised as a preferred partner, thanks to its commitment to ESG throughout the business.
Partnerships are crucial for sustainable action
It’s no news that partnership can open up unseen opportunities for businesses—particularly those that operate and expand globally. Larger organisations are partnering with small-to-medium enterprises to support small initiatives that can make huge impacts on the planet. Beyond its partnership in electric vehicle charging, Bolt is also taking regenerative action by supporting Seedballs Kenya, an initiative that is regenerating land with a key bio-energy resource, charcoal—a commonly used form of energy production in Nairobi.
Seedballs Kenya is a prime example of a localised circular economy as it uses biochar, produced from charcoal dust, as a protective layer for its seeds in areas that are seemingly difficult to regenerate. This forms the Seedball.
Supporting initiatives like this one is driving innovation in the direction of a circular economy and more organisations are committed to achieving carbon neutrality by investing in regenerative horticulture and agriculture.
Teddy Kinyanjui, a Co-Founder of Seedballs, emphasises the importance of initiatives like these.
“In Kenya, like many other countries, the forests and grasslands are under great pressure. One of the many challenges of landscape-scale restoration is that indigenous seeds are often food for different types of animals like mice and birds,” Kinyanjui says.
“That’s where we come in. The Seedballs programme overcomes this challenge by coating native seeds in waste charcoal dust which prevents the seeds from being eaten. This means that the native grass and tree seeds can be planted year-round rather than waiting for the rainy season. When it rains enough, the charcoal dust dissolves and the seed sinks into the ground back to its natural state, ready to grow.”
“Bolt is built on a culture of operating in the most efficient way possible and we apply those values in how we mitigate our own environmental impact,” says Gutiérrez.
“We have handpicked a select number of projects where we collaborate closely with NGOs and other partners on local initiatives that we are confident will maximise the positive impact we can have on the environment. We are proud to announce Seedballs Kenya as the first project of this kind we are investing in and look forward to seeing the difference it will make in areas of Kenya where reforestation was unlikely to occur naturally.”
Every business can become more sustainable
There are many avenues that companies can follow as their path towards sustainability. This will most certainly look different for every organisation, which is why Earth Day brings together many of the new ideas and initiatives that shape their ESG strategies and address concerns around waste management, energy consumption and sourcing, greenhouse gas emissions, social justice and governance.
In the ever-growing food delivery market, changes have happened at an unprecedented rate—partly due to COVID-19 as consumer sentiments accelerate towards more sustainable products and services. In particular, food waste is a challenge that businesses in this space are concerned about. According to the UN Environment Programme’s Food Waste Index, more than 900 million tonnes of food is wasted every year and consumers have made positive changes to the way they consume food.
67% of respondents to a survey said they keep leftovers and use them for another meal
51% of consumers are frustrated by food waste
73% prefer to have accurate portion sizes to avoid food waste
68% feel that takeaway restaurants should have better precautions in place to reduce food waste
What makes a good sustainability initiative?
Where there is no single formula for sustainable business, Earth Day will surely outline some successful initiatives that can be replicated, adapted, and shared with other businesses. Whether it involves being more transparent of sustainability credentials, taking on new projects to improve emissions and waste management with an organisation, or supporting partners in their efforts to regenerate land, Earth Day 2022 hopes to inspire every individual, group and organisation to ‘Invest in our Planet’.
Preeti Kapuria and Debosmita Sarkar in their assertion in the ORF of today, that climate vulnerabilities, food security, and resilient development have some sort of cause to affect relationships elaborated on this article that is worth meditating on. Here it is:
Climate vulnerabilities, food security, and resilient development
Both climate risks and non-climatic drivers need to be factored in to curb food and water shortages induced by climate change in vulnerable regions of the world.
The Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the IPCC has estimated an average increase of the order of 1.09°C in global surface temperature over the last decade from the 1850–1900 levels. The AR6 Working Group II (WGII) makes an assessment of climate change impacts and risks as well as adaptations necessary in the context of non-climatic global concerns like biodiversity loss, natural resource extraction, ecosystem degradation, unbridled urbanisation and demographic shifts, rising inequalities, and the most recent COVID-19 pandemic.
Recognising the interactions of coupled social, climate, and ecological systems, AR6 draws from the natural, ecological, and social sciences in a way to understand the risks emerging from interactions amongst these coupled systems and offer reasonable solutions for the future—hedging against the risks emanating from such interactions. In WGII, impacts are assessed with respect to exposure, vulnerability, and adaptation including assessments of sustainable development models and the plausibility of climate-resilient development. Adopting climate-resilient development requires transitioning to states that reduce the impacts of climate risks, strengthen adaptation and mitigation actions, and, most importantly, conserve and restore these coupled systems. Accordingly, the report focuses on transformation and system transitions in energy; ecosystems conservation; urban and rural infrastructure; and industry and society.
Adopting climate-resilient development requires transitioning to states that reduce the impacts of climate risks, strengthen adaptation and mitigation actions, and, most importantly, conserve and restore these coupled systems.
A multitude of risks can arise from exposure to climate-related hazards, that have significantly varying impacts across regions, sectors, communities depending upon the vulnerability of the affected human and ecological systems. It can also arise from climate change mitigation or adaptation strategies—a new aspect considered under the risk concept of AR6. Climate change has already induced substantial and increasingly irreversible losses spanning across socio-economic-ecological systems. Frequent high-intensity climate and weather extremes have pushed millions of vulnerable people across regions below the poverty line, confronted with acute food and nutritional insecurity, water scarcity, employment vulnerability and loss of basic livelihoods. Besides, it has also led to higher incidences of food-borne, water-borne, or vector-borne diseases as well as humanitarian crises driven by widespread displacement (forced migration). Most of these impacts have been concentrated in the countries of the Global South and the Arctic region.
As per the estimates of the report around 3.3 to 3.6 billion people, globally, are highly vulnerable to the risks associated with climate change. The global hotspots of human vulnerability are particularly concentrated in the Global South, the Small Island Developing States and the Arctic—regions with extreme poverty, governance challenges, and limited access to resources, violent conflict, and higher engagement rates with climate-sensitive livelihoods.
Major challenges: Food insecurity and water scarcity
Increased exposure to climate-induced risks have undermined the possibility of achieving food and nutritional security, especially in vulnerable regions of the world. Frequent, high intensity and severe droughts, floods and heatwaves, accompanied by substantial sea-level rise continue to increase such risks, especially for regions with lower adaptive capacity. Higher global warming pathways in the medium-term pose even higher risks to food and nutritional security. Consequently, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Central and South America, and the Small Islands will remain considerably vulnerable to such risks. With global warming progressively weakening soil health and altering natural processes, a substantial reduction in marine animal biomass and changes in food productivity on land and in the ocean are expected. Reduced water availability and streamflow change in many regions, predominantly in parts of North and South America, the Mediterranean region, and South Asia present some additional challenges to food security.
Frequent, high intensity and severe droughts, floods and heat waves, accompanied by substantial sea-level rise continue to increase such risks, especially for regions with lower adaptive capacity.
As per AR6, around 4 billion out of 7.8 billion people experience severe water shortages for at least one month per year due to interactions of climatic and non-climatic factors. The rising population pressure in the developing countries of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East continues to exacerbate the crisis associated with poor water quality, low availability, limited accessibility, and poor water governance. These regions are, therefore, likely to experience even higher rates of depletion of groundwater resources. In the absence of irrigation and varying rainfall patterns, yields of major crops in semi-arid regions, mainly in the Mediterranean, sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Australia, are already experiencing negative growth.
As for the urban areas, over this decade, almost three-quarters of the urban land across South and Southeast Asian countries is expected to experience high-frequency floods while some parts of Africa may experience severe droughts of similar magnitude. Without adaptation, these water-related impacts of climate change, not only present severe implications for food security but, is likely to contribute to a 0.49 percent in decline in global GDP by 2050, with significant regional variations. Estimates suggest declines to the tune of 14 percent in the Middle East, 11.7 percent in the Sahel, 10.7 percent in Central Asia, and 7 percent in East Asia. Even across countries at different income levels within a region, such water-related impacts are projected to have a differential impact on overall economic growth.
Making the choice: Adopting a climate-resilient development
It is evidently clear that the exposure and vulnerability to climate change-induced risks are strongly influenced by the development trajectories pursued by communities and nations, their patterns of consumption and production, the nature and extent of demographic pressures, and unsustainable use and management of ecosystems and related services. Going forward, meeting food security targets will have to cope with climate risks and non-climatic drivers that continue to cause forest cover degradation (including biodiversity loss), land degradation, desertification, and its submergence (mainly in coastal areas), and unsustainable agricultural expansion, land-use change, and water scarcity.
Almost three-quarters of the urban land across South and Southeast Asian countries is expected to experience high-frequency floods while some parts of Africa may experience severe droughts of similar magnitude.
Greater emphasis will have to be placed on adaptation planning and implementation at a system level that cuts across sectors. In this context, amidst growing public awareness and political cognisance, the WGII AR6 nudges policymakers and communities to adopt a climate-resilient development pathway, while cautioning against its limits and the plausible impacts of maladaptation. To cite an example from the report, in the context of water-related climate change-associated risks, a complimentary design of non-structural measures like early warning systems; structural measures like levees, enhanced natural water retention through wetlands and rivers restoration; land use planning and forest management; on-farm water storage and management; and, soil conservation and irrigation can be effective in ensuring economic, institutional, and ecological benefits of water. Promoting sustainable food systems and ensuring nutritional security will require community-based adoption of sustainable farming practices, agro-forestry, and ecological restoration and supportive public policies to make it a reality.
Interestingly, AR6 highlights effective and feasible adaptation solutions based on climate justice, entailing distributive and procedural justice complemented by recognition of diverse cultural and social perspectives. Integrated and inclusive system-oriented solutions that are based on equity and justice can reduce risks and enable climate-resilient development. Inclusive processes that strengthen the ability of the nations to contribute to effective adaptation outcomes can enable climate-resilient development.
 This article is based on a technical summary of the Working Group II’s contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report, titled “Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change”, released on 28th February 2022, announced until 1st October 2021.
Debosmita Sarkar is Research Assistant with the Economy and Growth Programme at ORF Kolkata. Her research interests include macroeconomic policy, international finance and development economics.
Preeti Kapuria is currently a Fellow at ORF Kolkata with research interests in the area of environment, development and agriculture. The approach is to understand the linkages between biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and ecosystem services and to examine how environmental governance, participatory economics and the commons, and the workings of social-ecological systems influence these linkages.
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