Saturday, 26 June 2010

On top of the World!

The attention of the world is focused, at time of writing, on 32 countries. Not necessarily those most powerful (though some are included) or the most disruptive (though one or two are there too). These are the footballing powers of the world, from Brazil to Honduras. I thought it might be fun to pit them against each other in an environmental context as well.

In January 2010 the Yale Centre of Environmental law and policy prepared a report for the World Economic Policy forum in Geneva. ( They used a whole raft of factors, from air and water pollution to polices on climate change and biodiversity (if they were actually implemented - see Greece below).

So, cut to the chase, who won?? Well, the overall winner was Iceland, but I'm excluding them since a) they aren't at the World Cup Finals, and b) their volcanoes disrupted the skies of most of Europe! So, step forward.....

Switzerland! Second place overall. And they beat Spain! Despite not making the 2nd round its still a good time to be Swiss.

One would expect wealthy countries to top the list, as they can afford the necessary infrastructure, and indeed the 2nd place goes to France (7th officially), England/ UK are 4th (14th) and Germany 7th (17th), but actually commitment and good governance are even more important. Yale place Costa Rica an excellent 2nd and Slovakia make 3rd place in our table (13) despite inheriting an aging and polluting heavy industry from the Soviet era. Chile are 6th (16th), and the South American leaders.

So who are the bad boys? Bottom of the pack is Nigeria, in a large part due to problems with the oil industry there. Nigeria is home to the Niger valley, the largest wetland in Africa, but plagued with oil spills due to very poorly maintained equipment. These devastate local ecosystems, and eventually fisheries, combined with poor environmental policies and over fishing. Another problem is the flaring of natural gas associated with oil drilling - equivalent to 25% of the UK's gas usage in 2001, or 40% of Africa's. Of course this releases massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere,as well as damaging local heath from air pollution.
Second to last are North Korea, though to be fair to Nigeria, information from this closed state is notoriously unreliable and their rating rather a guess.

The worst performer in Latin America was Honduras, with Uruguay slightly in front. Honduras has had some well publicised political problems and coups, as well as being one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and thus the major environmental problem, deforestation, has had little priority. One of the major problems in Uruguay is pollution of their river estuaries. This has led to bitter disputes with Argentina, which shares a common border on the river Uruguay, especially over the building of new paper mills which discharge pulp into the river.

Worst scoring in our list for Europe, and 71st in the official list, was Greece. Deforestation has not helped, but their low score is mainly due to failure to implement obligations from their signature of the Kyoto treaty. Given their financial impecunity due to a not-totally-dissimilar failure to implement obligations over Euro membership, it is hard to see how things will improve in the short term.

But let's end on a good note. Switzerland for the Cup!!

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Plastiki: The vessel of awareness

For the past few months, I’ve been following the progress of Plastiki, and given the extent of media coverage (especially CNN), it is likely that my readers too may have read about it. For those that haven’t, read on….

Providing an image/diagram is a good technique of deepening understanding of a concept; providing a demonstration would complete the picture. And this is exactly what Plastiki does.

The unique Plastiki
Plastiki is the innovative result of the impact which UNEP’s report, on Ecosystems and Biodiversity in Deep Waters and High Seas’ (which presented the threats faced by marine biodiversity due to pollution, particularly by plastic wastes), had on eco-adventurer David de Rothschild. After months and years of brainstorming, Plastiki emerged - the 60 ft/18 m catamaran with a difference- manufactured mainly with solar energy and composed of 12500 reclaimed plastic bottles (about the same number of plastic bottles consumed every 8.3 seconds in the US) filled with CO2 to make her solid and consistent (and the bottles provide 68% of the buoyancy); structure made out of easily recyclable self-reinforced polyethylene terephthalate (srPET) called Seretex; sails made out of recycled PET; and recycled waste products. The catamaran is self-sustaining, using renewable energy systems (solar panels, wind and sea turbines, and a biodiesel engine to be used only in emergencies), and a vacuum water evaporator (for desalination). A bicycle generator, the ‘Human Dynamo bike’, provides exercise for the crew and also provides energy for the boat’s electrical systems.

The journey and aims
After setting off from San Francisco on March 20th, 2010, the six-man crew (including expedition leader de Rothschild) have explored many ecologically/environmentally important sites in the Pacific Ocean so as to provide more awareness on issues such as global warming and sea level rise (which poses a terrible threat to island nations), ocean acidification and damaged coral reefs, and marine pollution (especially by plastics). As of June 17th, they are south of Tuvalu and are en route for the final and most challenging leg towards Sidney, where the approximately 11,000-nautical mile expedition will conclude. So far, they have travelled for 90 days/2160 hours and 5785 nautical miles (and Plastiki helpfully adds that during this duration, 5400 million plastic bottles were used in the US alone!).

Plastiki’s mission is to raise awareness of environmental issues and the damage caused by ‘one-use culture’, and to enthuse individuals, communities, and businesses to find solutions to use waste as a valuable resource. Plastiki herself is an excellent example of how the discarded plastic bottles (usually meant to be a single use item, which we all use, and perhaps discard, everyday) can be utilised efficiently.

The plastic menace
Plastic is a huge menace (you may refer to my short summary on plastics and my longer essay on the effect of plastics in marine fauna in Our Gossamer Planet) since most are not biodegradable and takes a long time to degrade. Even then, these disintegrated minute pieces of plastic cause problems, most notably by leaching chemicals into the environment. It is estimated that out of approximately 100 million tonnes of plastic produced per annum, 10% ends up in the oceans- hardly surprising since 60-80% of total marine pollution is due to plastics (the UN had estimated that every square mile of the world’s ocean has approximately 46,000 minute floating pieces of plastic). But, the devastating effects of plastics in the ocean are no different from what happens on land: hundreds of thousands of marine fauna (including fishes, birds, turtles, and mammals) tends to mistakenly ingest these or gets entangled, resulting in death or poisoning. This, in turn, affects the biodiversity and the entire system.

Plastiki’s insights
Plastiki has also shed more light on the ‘garbage patch’, a subsurface sea of waste with mass of 3 ½ tonnes and about five times the size of the UK, floating in the North Pacific gyre between California and Hawaii. de Rothschild related of how Plastiki’s hull was covered with a fine, extra layer of plastic fragments. But more interestingly, the crew states that they have seen more plastic than fish during their journey so far, having caught three fishes and haven’t seen any sharks- a far cry from the Kon-Tiki expedition of Thor Heyerdahl, 40 years ago, when the crew caught fresh fish every day and could not enter the water fearing sharks.

Plastiki’s website is definitely worth visiting- with lots of interesting facts, photos, blogs, and videos, apart from live tracking and up-to-date information. MyPlastiki also allows visitors to make a pledge to better our oceans and planet by not using plastic bottles, bags, and styrene foams. The number of pledges, however, is quite disappointing - plastic bottles (1698 pledges), plastic bags (1589 pledges), styrene foams (1413 pledges), and all three (1143 pledges).

What we can do
But may be there is no need to be disappointed- each individual’s wholehearted actions can make a great effect, more so if the same is communicated to their peers and communities. Humans can exist by reducing or replacing (with ecofriendly alternatives) their usage of plastic bottles, plastic bags, and styrene foams (particularly the single use disposable types). One good method for an ecofriendly living is to follow the 4Rs- Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rethink, and ultimately 2Rs- Replace and Refuse.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Paper of the Week : A Whale of the waste matter The way by which living organisms in our planet are intricately connected is beautiful beyond comprehension. Like pieces in a puzzle they all fit together with the activities of each organism however trivial it may appear to be, affecting the existance of others. We will never fully understand this marvel, but a noteworthy example is the elegant finding by Lavery et al published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society (Biological Sciences)- Iron defecation by sperm whales stimulates carbon export in the Southern Ocean

The authors provide compelling evidence on the role that sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) in the Southern ocean play in promoting nutrient cycling and their function as carbon sinks. Lavery et al show that the whales consume prey at the depths of the ocean but expel the waste about 50 tonnes of iron iron-rich liquid buoyant faecal matter each year into the photic zone near ocean surface. The researchers estimate that if three quarters of this iron persisted there, 36 tonnes of iron to the photic zone per year are contributed by the activities of the Southern Ocean sperm whale alone. Iron is a nutrient essential for the growth of phytoplanton which live in the photic zone. Consequentially, iron enrichment causes phytoplankton blooms resulting in carbon export during photosythesis. Additionally, phytoplankton are consumed by zooplankton. The zooplankton are consumed by squids that form the food of the whales, thereby creating a positive feedback loop. Thus this toilette behaviour of the whale benefits it as well! The researchers estimate that sperm whales stimulated the export of 4 × 105 tonnes of carbon per year to the deep ocean whilst respiring 2 × 105 tonnes of carbon per year thereby mopping up carbon. This paper also highlights the issue as to how industrial whaling leading to large scale depletion of sperm whales might have impeded the ability of the Southern Ocean to act as a carbon sink.

Lavery, T., Roudnew, B., Gill, P., Seymour, J., Seuront, L., Johnson, G., Mitchell, J., & Smetacek, V. (2010). Iron defecation by sperm whales stimulates carbon export in the Southern Ocean Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2010.0863


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