Yesterday, climate activist Greta Thunberg joined 15 other children from around the world to submit a complaint – or “communication” – to the Committee on the Rights of the Child. They targeted Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Turkey.
Ranging from nine to 17 years old, and from twelve different nations, the group includes a young Sami reindeer herder, a member of the Indigenous Yupiaq tribe, and teenagers from the Marshall Islands who fear their island home will vanish under rising sea levels.
Their communication argues these countries are violating the standards set in the Convention of the Rights of the Child – which is run and monitored by the committee.
They allege these countries are:
recklessly causing and perpetuating life-threatening climate change [and] have failed to take necessary preventive and precautionary measures to respect, protect, and fulfill the petitioners’ rights.
In particular, the communication alleges the petitioners’ rights to life, health, and culture have been violated.
But whether or not the petitioners are successful, the mere act of filing the complaint has already brought the matter into the public eye.
So what role does the committee play? And can their claim actually change international climate policy?
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is an international human rights treaty that concerns the right to protection and the economic, social, cultural and political development of all children.
And it’s the job of the Committee on the Rights of the Child – a group of 18 independent experts – to monitor the worldwide implementation of the convention’s standards.
The convention came into force in 1990 and is “the most rapidly and widely ratified human rights treaty in history”. All the countries of the world bar one – the United States – have ratified the treaty.
The CRC establishes global standards with respect to human rights as they apply to children. In particular, article 3 of the CRC requires:
in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.
The CRC committee has two functions. First, it oversees the implementation of the convention by receiving reports every five years from participating countries outlining the steps taken to fulfil their obligations.
Information is also gathered from NGOs and other sources to identify areas of concern. For example, Australia’s last report to the committee was submitted in January 2018. It addressed issues such as the offshore detention of child refugees.
The Australian government appeared before the committee on September 9 and 10, and the committee’s recommendations will be received by the end of this week.
But the second, relatively new, function of the committee permits an individual, or group of individuals, submit a communication arguing their rights have been violated. This “Optional Protocol” – adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2011 – is what Greta Thunberg and the 15 other children are using.
Communications may only be made in respect of countries that have ratified the Optional Protocol and, to date, only 45 out of the 196 state parties have done so. Australia, the United States, Great Britain and China are among those countries that have not signed or ratified.
Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Turkey have ratified the Optional Protocol and have also ratified the substantive international legal obligations relating to climate change. As Greta recently tweeted, this is why these particular five countries were selected.
There are a number of procedural legal hurdles that must be cleared before the committee can address the substance of the issue.
First, it must be determined if the communication is actually admissible, which includes whether the petitioners have exhausted the legal options in their home countries for addressing their concerns.
But while Thunberg and her co-petitioners have not brought any actions in state or federal courts it may be the committee allows the matter to proceed anyway, since taking such action may have been “unreasonably prolonged or unlikely to bring effective relief”.
Second, the committee must rule on jurisdiction, as the obligations of the CRC only apply to each child within a country’s jurisdiction.
Some of the petitioners meet this requirement by virtue of their nationality or residence, but the communication makes a broader claim: any child is within the jurisdiction of a country when its polluting activity impacts the rights of children, within or outside that country’s territory.
This is a very significant claim: essentially, that carbon pollution leading to climate change violates the rights of children worldwide.
Only once these hurdles are cleared will the committee investigate the substance of the complaints, proceed to a hearing, and make recommendations to any country responsible for violation.
The success of the claims may seem a foregone conclusion, as the committee is one of five UN human rights treaty bodies to recently issue a joint declaration stating: “climate change poses significant risks to the enjoyment” of human rights. And that climate change is “a children’s rights crisis” seems an inevitable conclusion.
Still, the communication must clear all the legal hurdles set out above.
But even should the committee agree with Thunberg, the options for redress are limited. After the committee transmits its views and recommendations, they’ll follow up six months later to see if its recommendations have been implemented.
If they haven’t, there’s not much the committee can do to compel a country to take action.
But the committee’s conclusions are not without impact. Its views and recommendations are strong advocacy tools.
Alongside the school strikes, the communication is part of a broad campaign designed to focus political attention on the issue of urgent action on climate change.
Australia’s water rats, or Rakali, are one of Australia’s beautiful but lesser-known native rodents. And these intelligent, semi-aquatic rats have revealed another talent: they are one of the only Australian mammals to safely eat toxic cane toads.
Our research, published today in Australian Mammalogy, found water rats in Western Australia adapted to hunt the highly poisonous toads less than two years after the toads moved into the rats’ territory.
The rats, which can grow to over 1kg, are the only mammal found to specifically target large toads, neatly dissecting the toads to eat their hearts and livers while avoiding the poisonous skin and glands.
Water rats are nocturnal and specially adapted to live in waterways, with webbed feet and soft water-resistant fur. Their fur is so impressive there was once a thriving water rat fur industry in Australia.
They can be found in lakes, rivers and estuaries, often living alongside people, in New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia, far north and southwest Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and Victoria, where they can even be seen along St Kilda Pier.
Water rats are also highly intelligent, as shown by their rapid adaptation to hunting and eating one of Australia’s most toxic introduced species – the invasive cane toad.
Cane toads were introduced to Australia in 1935 in an ill-fated attempt to control the cane beetle. They have spread across the north of the country at up to 60km per year, leaving devastation in their wake. Many native species, such as northern quolls, yellow-spotted monitors, and crocodiles, have suffered widespread declines, and in some cases local extinctions, as a result of eating cane toads.
The toads secrete a toxin in their parotoid glands (on the back, neck and shoulders) that can be fatal even in very small doses.
Cane toads arrived at our field site in the Kimberley, Western Australia, in 2011-12, leading to a crash in the populations of predators including numerous lizards and northern quolls.
However, in 2014 we found a creek dotted with the bodies of cane toads that had clearly been attacked. Every morning we discovered up to five new dead toads with small, near-identical incisions down their chest in just a five-metre stretch of creek. What was using almost surgical precision to attack these toads?
Post-mortem analysis showed that in larger toads the heart and liver had been removed, and the gall bladder (which contains toxic bile salts) neatly moved outside the chest cavity. In medium-sized toads, besides the removal of the heart and liver, one or both back legs had been stripped of their toxic skin and the muscle also eaten.
The finding intrigued us enough to dissect waterlogged and rotting toad bodies in 40℃ heat. Using remote infrared camera footage and analysis of the bites left on the muscle, we found our clever attacker – the native water rat!
While there have been anecdotal reports of water rats eating toads in Queensland and the Northern Territory, there were no published reports of this in Western Australia, where the toad was a more recent arrival.
We also didn’t know whether rats could tolerate the toad toxins, or were targeting non-toxic parts of the body. And we wanted to find out whether the rats were targeting small (and less toxic) toads, as some other rodent species do, or were deliberately going after larger toads which are a better source of food.
During our study we captured and measured more than 1,800 cane toads in just 15 days in the vicinity of the water rats’ creek. The vast majority, 94%, were medium-sized; 3.5% were small (less than 4cm long); and just 2.5% were large (greater than 10cm long).
But despite medium toads being far more common, three quarters of the dead toads we found were large, and the remainder were medium. No small toad bodies were found or observed being attacked.
While some species, such as keelback snakes and several birds (including black and whistling kites, and crows) can eat cane toads, there has been less evidence of mammals hunting this new type of prey and living to tell the tale.
Some rodents can eat small juvenile toads, but no rodents have been documented specifically targeting large toads. In our case, water rats preferred to eat large toads, despite medium-sized toads outnumbering them by 27 to 1.
We’re not sure whether water rats have very rapidly learned how to safely attack and eat cane toads, or if they are adapting a similar long-term hunting strategy that they may use to eat toxic native frogs.
Water rats are very well placed to pass on hunting strategies, as they care for their offspring for at least four weeks after they finish producing milk. This could help spread the knowledge of toad hunting across streams and creeks over time.
While this behaviour seems to be confined to local populations, if these tactics spread, water rats may be able to suppress toad populations when they reach water bodies – another small line of defence against this toxic killer.
Marissa Parrott, Reproductive Biologist, Wildlife Conservation & Science, Zoos Victoria, and Honorary Research Associate, BioSciences, University of Melbourne; Sean Doody, Conjoint Fellow, University of Newcastle, and Simon Clulow, MQ Research Fellow, Macquarie University
Reducing emissions from deforestation and farming is an urgent global priority if we want to control climate change. However, like many climate change problems, the solution is complicated. Cutting down forests to plant edible crops feeds some of the world’s hungriest people.
More than 820 million people suffer from hunger, and about 2 billion people face moderate food insecurity – meaning they do not always know when their next meal will come.
But villagers in the Himalayas are turning to a traditional practice that can slow land clearing and feed people: growing and collecting food from the forests.
My research in the Himalayan region, where high population density means farmland is very scarce, investigated how people used their forests as a food source.
An “edible forest” is one in which people have planted trees and crops that can produce food in the forest, as well as harvesting what naturally grows. In fact, this is a traditional practice in the Himalayan region. A farmer I interviewed in Siding village, at the base of Mardi Himal – one of the peaks in Annapurna Himalayan range – told me:
I go to [the] forest when food is scarce at home. I collect vegetables, fruits, nuts, medicinal herbs, spices, roots and tubers. Sometimes I also collect wild honey, bamboo shoots and mushroom, which is consumed at home and also sold in the market. Occasionally, we also get wild meat.
Traditionally, these villagers see forest and farms as an extension of each other rather than distinct categories, and manage them so they support each other.
Generally, people plant trees useful for households – for their wood, for example, or fruit – in the forest close to the villages, and preserve those grown naturally.
The community itself protects the forest, in the past even pooling grains and cash to hire a guard if needed.
This forest food is supplementary, becoming more important in scarce times and as a buffer during famine. Taking wood for fuel or timber is strictly regulated, but there are no restrictions on gathering food, to the great benefit of the poorest.
Collecting food is mainly the work of women, who gather a few things whenever they go into the forest for firewood or animal fodder. They have a great deal of knowledge about edible plants. Men take part by hunting for honey and wild animals. Children, too, go to the forest in their free time to gather berries and tubers.
Sometimes villagers collect these foods to sell in nearby markets as a seasonal source of cash.
The centralised forest management and curtailment of traditional rights of the communities that came with modern forest bureaucracy in the Himalayan region distanced people from the forest. This also led to rapid deforestation between the mid-1960s to 1980s.
This trend was reversed in the early 1990s, when community rights came to the forefront and communally managed forestry gained a strong foothold. This helped reduce poverty. Yet it is still hard for locals to grow food in the forests as they once did. One farmer told me,
We do not destroy forest when collecting these things, but conservation regulation is making this collection difficult.
We need power to move from centralised governments to local stewardship and local knowledge. Government oversight would still be required to protect the local interests, but any new mechanism needs to be developed in consultation with local communities. Research institutions could play a role in finding better ways to meet the interest of local communities when they manage their forest.
Edible forests are a departure from standard schemes to reduce emissions from deforestation and land degradation, in which developed countries pay less developed countries to preserve or replant their forests.
If people are actively planting and harvesting in a forest, it may not qualify as protected or conserved land. Conversely, if a local community depends on their forest for food, they may hesitate to register for a formal scheme, for fear they will lose a valuable resource.
If reforestation schemes can be expanded to take into account planting that doesn’t compromise tree coverage, we can encourage rapid growth of edible forests and speed up our response to climate change. It will help meet goals like food security, mitigation and adaptation to climate change, and reducing desertification and land degradation that the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has recommended for sustainable land management in the light of climate change.
Climate change and food insecurity are the main drivers of migration away from rural areas in developing countries, which brings its own challenges for sustainable land management.
Wages sent home by those who move away is a huge part of food security and reducing poverty for many people. In 2018 about US$530 billion was transferred to low- and middle-income countries between family members, compared with US$162 billion in development aid.
This flow of money means families with marginal land – like farmland on hill slopes in Nepal’s case – can afford to slowly convert it to plantations or forests. Migration and remittances – which contribute some 28% of Nepal’s gross domestic product – helps increase forest coverage, especially in marginal lands vulnerable to erosion and landslides.
There is an opportunity to increase planting in these lands, which have been abandoned for farming. If official reforestation policies can acknowledge and support edible forests, we could see the Himalayan region lead the pack on a new way of thinking about forests and food.
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Electric cars, trains, trams and boats already exist. That logically leads to the question: why are we not seeing large electric aircraft? And will we see them any time soon?
Why do we have electric cars and trains, but few electric planes? The main reason is that it’s much simpler to radically modify a car or train, even if they look very similar to traditional fossil-fuel vehicles on the outside.
Land vehicles can easily cope with the extra mass from electricity storage or electrical propulsion systems, but aircraft are much more sensitive.
For instance, increasing the mass of a car by 35% leads to an increase in energy use of 13-20%. But for a plane, energy use is directly proportional to mass: increasing its mass by 35% means it needs 35% more energy (all other things being equal).
But that is only part of the story. Aircraft also travel much further than ground vehicles, which means a flight requires far more energy than an average road trip. Aircraft must store onboard all the energy needed to move its mass for each flight (unlike a train connected to an electrical grid). Using a heavy energy source thus means more energy is needed for a flight, which leads to extra mass, and so on and on.
For an aircraft, mass is crucial, which is why airlines fastidiously weigh luggage. Electric planes need batteries with enough energy per kilogram of battery, or the mass penalty means they simply can’t fly long distances.
Despite this, electric aircraft are on the horizon – but you won’t be seeing electric 747s any time soon.
Today’s best available lithium ion battery packs provide around 200 watt-hours (Wh) per kilogram, about 60 times less than current aircraft fuel. This type of battery can power small electric air taxis with up to four passengers over a distance of around 100km. For longer trips, more energy-dense cells are needed.
Short-range electric commuter aircraft that carry up to 30 people for less than 800km, for instance, specifically require between 750 and 2,000Wh/kg, which is some 6-17% of kerosene-based jet fuel’s energy content. Even larger aircraft require increasingly lighter batteries. For example, a plane carrying 140 passengers for 1,500km consumes about 30kg of kerosene per passenger. With current battery technology, almost 1,000kg of batteries is needed per passenger.
To make regional commuter aircraft fully electric requires a four- to tenfold reduction in battery weight. The long-term historical rate of improvement in battery energy has been around 3-4% per year, doubling roughly every two decades. Based on a continuation of this historical trend, the fourfold improvement needed for a fully electric commuter aircraft could potentially be reached around mid-century.
While this may seem an incredibly long wait, this is consistent with the timescale of change in the aviation industry for both the infrastructure and aircraft design lifecycles. A new aircraft takes around 5-10 years to design, and will then remain in service for two to three decades. Some aircraft are still flying 50 years after their first flight.
Does this mean long-distance flying will always rely on fossil fuels? Not necessarily.
While fully electric large aircraft require a major, yet-to-be-invented shift in energy storage, there are other ways to reduce the environmental impact of flying.
Hybrid-electric aircraft combine fuels with electric propulsion. This class of aircraft includes design without batteries, where the electric propulsion system serves to improve the thrust efficiency, reducing the amount of fuel needed.
Hybrid-electric aircraft with batteries are also in development, where the batteries may provide extra power in specific circumstances. Batteries can then, for instance, provide clean take-off and landing to reduce emissions near airports.
Electric planes are also not the only way to reduce the direct carbon footprint of flying. Alternative fuels, such as biofuels and hydrogen, are also being investigated.
Biofuels, which are fuels derived from plants or algae, were first used on a commercial flight in 2008 and several airlines have performed trials with them. While not widely adopted, significant research is currently investigating sustainable biofuels that do not impact freshwater sources or food production.
Explainer: what are biofuels?
While biofuels do still produce CO₂, they don’t require significant changes to existing aircraft or airport infrastructure. Hydrogen, on the other hand, requires a complete redesign of the fuelling infrastructure of the airport and also has a significant impact on the design of the aircraft itself.
While hydrogen is very light – hydrogen contains three times more energy per kilogram than kerosene – its density is very low, even when stored as a liquid at -250℃. This means that fuel can no longer be stored in the wing but needs to be moved to relatively heavy and bulky tanks inside the fuselage. Despite these drawbacks, hydrogen-fuelled long-distance flights can consume up to 12% less energy than kerosene.
This article is part of The Covering Climate Now series
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