Some Environmental news

Here is a report from marine scientist and Lamlash resident Sally Campbell, with some recent news on various environmental issues…

COP26: a new date is set for Glasgow November 2021, delayed from November 2020. For the first time, the UK will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) at the Scottish Event Campus (SEC) in Glasgow on 1 – 12 November 2021. The climate talks will be the biggest international summit the UK has ever hosted; bringing together over 30,000 delegates including heads of state, climate experts and campaigners to agree coordinated action to tackle climate change.

OIL INDUSTRY: The effects of Covid-19 have been felt in the oil industry. In America green energy is beating coal for the first time. As recently as 2015 coal was the number one source of electricity. After being overtaken by natural gas, it now accounts for less than renewables, this in spite of Donald Trump’s efforts to revive the coal industry. Fossil fuels have been hit hardest by COVID energy spending crunch. It was expected to expand by 2% this year. Then the world was seized by coronavirus, and the world’s foremost energy think-tank says spending will shrink by 20% – the largest amount on record. The International Energy Agency said fossil fuels will be particularly badly hit, with a 30% fall in oil spending and 15% for coal vs a 10% drop for renewables, but the agency warned that CO2 emissions will likely spike after the crisis subsides and cash returns. But it is good news, as many have seen cleaner air, blue skies and heard bird song replacing traffic noise. The woes of the oil industry just keep going, as independent US shale groups reported $26bn worth of losses in the first quarter of this year. Analysts predict that 250 companies could go bankrupt before the end of next year if oil prices do not start rising significantly. Shale oil is dirty and environmentally disastrous so less of that and more renewables is good news!

Green recovery? The UK has risen to sixth place in accounting giant Ernst & Young’s (EY) renewable energy ‘attractiveness index’, from eighth place this time last year. The reason? The government’s decision to end the ban on onshore wind projects.

The Coalition for the Energy Efficiency of Buildings (CEEB) produced a Financing Retrofit Report recently, and with the EU’s green recovery plan also launched, there is hope that more practical, deliverable and impactful results may follow, to scale up the retrofit supply chain and promote the construction of low carbon buildings and actively contributing towards the nation’s net-zero emissions target,

International Biodiversity Day 22 May. The United Nations stated it is important that we all recognise that the world’s nature crisis is as urgent as the climate crisis, as in many places we are losing the web of life. As the global community is called to re-examine its relationship to the natural world, one thing is certain: despite all our technological advances we are completely dependent on healthy and vibrant ecosystems for our health, water, food, medicines, clothes, fuel, shelter and energy, just to name a few. The slogan for 2020 “Our solutions are in nature” emphasises hope, solidarity and the importance of working together at all levels to build a future of life in harmony with nature.

So, 2020 is a year of reflection, opportunity and solutions. This is expected, from each of us, that we will “Build Back Better” by using this time to increase the resilience of nations and communities as we recover from this pandemic. 2020 is the year when, more than ever, the world can signal a strong will for a global framework that will “bend the curve” on biodiversity loss for the benefit of humans and all life on Earth.

The European Union released its biodiversity strategy for 2030, with highlights including a commitment to protecting 30% of the EU’s high biodiversity land and oceans, reducing chemical pesticide use by 50% and planting 3 billion trees. While the plan has been acknowledged as ambitious, there is also concern that a lack of concrete steps to ‘enable the necessary transformative change’ will mean a weaker enforcement of the Biodiversity Strategy. It is a regret the UK will not be part of this as we see the new UK Environment Bill makes no commitment to meeting even the present environmental standards in agriculture and the marine environment.

Bad news about Microplastics: microplastic pollution and its impact on marine life could be greater than previously estimated. Two recent studies indicate this. Research by the Plymouth Marine Laboratory showed that there may be far more microplastics in coastal waters than previously estimated. The study used finer-mesh nets to sample waters on the eastern seaboard of the US, and the western English Channel, and found 2.5-10 times more microplastics than previously estimated, depending on net sizes. Further inland Cardiff University and the Greenpeace Research Laboratories at the University of Exeter have found first evidence that riverside aquatic birds are ingesting microplastics found in the bodies of river insects, and feeding their nesting chicks the pollutants. Both studies have raised concerns that the extent of harm caused by microplastics to marine life, and land animals that rely on marine life, could be far greater than previously understood.

Climate in 2020: The storm season has resulted in community destruction in various parts of the world. Recovery has already begun after cyclone Amphen hit eastern India and parts of Bangladesh, resulting in many deaths and the loss of thousands of homes. There are predictions of a ‘hyperactive’ hurricane season, worsened by continued climate change. In East Africa there is the triple threat of locusts, flooding and Covid-19. The climate emergency is with us, and needs action to stem and reverse this ongoing crisis.

And finally a really interesting and good news story with a clear message about the future:

Humpback Whales
Many humpback whale populations, previously devasted by commercial whaling, are making a comeback. A recent study https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.190368  on humpbacks that breed off the coast of Brazil and call Antarctic waters home during the summer has shown that these whales can now be found in the sort of numbers seen before the days of whaling. Records suggest that in the 1830s there were around 27,000 whales but, after heavy hunting, by the mid-1950s only 450 remained.

It is reassuring to see what happens when we leave nature to follow its course. The ban of commercial whaling in 1986 led to a strong recovery and now this population is thought to be around 93% of its original size. By taking away the threat of hunting, and having safe spaces to survive and thrive, humpback numbers in many areas have recovered. This is great news for the whales, of course, but also for the climate. Keeping carbon out of the atmosphere is key to tackling the climate crisis and the contribution that a single whale can make is something we need to take seriously. On average a single whale stores around 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2). If we consider only the Antarctic humpback whales that breed in Brazil, protecting this population alone has resulted in 813,780 tonnes of CO2 being stored in the deep sea. That is around twice the yearly CO2 emissions of a small country like Bermuda or Belize, according to 2018 emissions data. That is because when a whale dies naturally, it exports carbon stored in its gigantic body to the deep sea, keeping it locked up for centuries.

Greenpeace’s year-long pole to pole voyage to highlighted environmental concerns in the oceans and also saw these flourishing whales in Antarctica waters in the summer season. Humpbacks are probably the world’s most recognisable whale and they perform the longest whale migration of any mammal. And each one is utterly unique: the pattern of white and black blotches on the underside of their tail fluke is as individual as a human fingerprint. Greenpeace crew compared their images with a global database of humpbacks, so were able to identify 49 humpback whales whilst on the Greenpeace expedition. One, which the crew nicknamed Mir, was first identified in 2012 off the Pacific Coast of Panama, and has been photographed returning to Antarctic waters in three subsequent summers, providing direct evidence of how these whales cover extensive areas of the oceans. These data can help us understand just how far these magnificent creatures travel and how much ocean they depend on.

The humpback recovery in Antarctic waters is also an example of what can happen when governments come together to protect our global oceans. The moratorium on whaling was followed by the creation of “whale sanctuaries” and regulation on trade in endangered species. We have the tools and the science. All we are missing is the political will to create the spaces to allow wildlife to recover. We know the oceans can be restored. Right now we are at an important crossroads for making that happen: it is a grand challenge for everyone of us but we all stand to lose so much if we ignore it. A recent review in the journal Nature suggests that if the oceans are protected, marine life can rebound within our lifetime. Whales are one example, others include turtles, sea otters, seals and, critically for humans, fisheries. Protection means a well-connected, well-managed network of marine protected areas, in the form of a global network of marine reserve areas that cover 30% of the oceans by 2030 and allow marine life to flourish. The importance of sustainability of resourcing from the marine environment and the importance of our oceans, particularly coastal waters in providing food for the future rather than unsustainable exploitation and destruction of resources that is happening now. The science is clear: this can happen and it will work. It is up to us to make politicians listen and exert political will to achieve this!

Thanks to Greenpeace

See 30×30 A blueprint for ocean protection report (PDF)

References:
Alexandre N. Zerbini, Grant Adams, John Best, Phillip J. Clapham, Jennifer A. Jackson and Andre E. Punt (2019) Assessing the recovery of an Antarctic predator from historical exploitation. Royal Society Open Science vol.6 Issue10.
Carlos M. Duarte et.al (1 April 2020) Rebuilding Marine Life. Nature 580, 39-51
Greenpeace (2019) 30×30 A blueprint for Ocean Protection. How we can protect 30% of our oceans by 2030

Sally Campbell, May 2020

Featured image: Humpback whales swim in the waters off Half Mood Island, Antarctica, Jan. 15, 2020. Abbie Trayler-Smith—Greenpeace