Climate explained: does a delay in COP26 climate talks hit our efforts to reduce carbon emissions?



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Chris Turney, UNSW


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Will the delay of the COP26 UN climate negotiations impact international action to decarbonise? Would catch-up talks help? Could the talks collapse because countries stopped paying their dues?

The 26th Conference of the Parties — better known as COP26 — is the United Nations climate change conference that was scheduled to be held in Glasgow, UK, during the first two weeks of November 2020.

But in April this year the COVID-19 pandemic led to the event being postponed, then later rescheduled to November 2021.

That’s a 12-month delay on a meeting of representatives from nearly 200 countries, including New Zealand, charged with monitoring and implementing the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).




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It will be crucial to make progress towards the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to limit average global warming to 1.5-2℃ this century, relative to the 1890s (the so-called “preindustrial period”).

Preventing ‘Hothouse Earth’

The temperature target agreed in Paris was carefully chosen. Numerous scientific studies show an increase beyond 2℃ would activate self-reinforcing feedbacks in the climate system (such as a weakening of ocean and land carbon sinks). This would tip our planet into an extreme “Hothouse Earth” that could persist for millennia, regardless of what happens with future emissions.

To avoid this scenario, the legally binding UN agreement encourages all participating nations to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases as soon as possible.

As part of the Paris Agreement, developed countries agreed to provide, from 2020, US$100 billion to support developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Unfortunately, the current trajectory of global emissions is on track to increase global average temperatures by more than 2℃ and possibly as much as 4℃, far exceeding the target set in Paris.

One recent study put the economic costs of failing to meet the Paris goals up to an eye-watering US$600 trillion by 2100, effectively keeping the planet in permanent recession.

National representatives are expected to arrive in Glasgow next year with substantially strengthened plans to reduce emissions and meet their commitments to support developing countries.

The pandemic and emissions

There is no doubt the gathering of 30,000 delegates in Glasgow will come at a time of ongoing uncertainty about COVID-19 and the largest shock to the global economy since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The pandemic is a game changer but it’s not yet clear whether this is good or bad for reducing emissions.

Many of us have made substantial cuts to our travel and embraced remote work and online video chat, particularly at the height of the pandemic. Google and Apple data suggest more than half of the world’s population reduced their travel by more than half in April.

Unfortunately, greenhouse gas emissions have remained stubbornly high. Daily global carbon dioxide emissions fell by as much as 17% in early April. But as the world’s economy started to recover, emissions bounced back, according to the UN, with 2020 likely experiencing only a 4-7% decline in carbon dioxide relative to 2019.

To meet the Paris target and limit warming to 1.5℃, the world needs to achieve cuts of 7.6% year-on-year for the next decade, and effectively reach zero emissions by 2050.

More work to do

The sobering reality is nations have a lot more work to do to decarbonise their economies. But for many national governments, the thorny question is how to achieve more ambitious emission targets while at the same time rebuilding economies battered by COVID-19.

Although the UN has a large financial shortfall of US$711 million (at the end of 2019) due to some nations failing to pay their annual dues — with the US, Brazil and Saudi Arabia the worst offenders — there is no suggestion of cancelling the COP26 meeting next year.

Catch-up talks have indeed been mooted but so far nothing has been publicly announced. That’s not to say there aren’t intensive negotiations and commitments being made in advance of the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. And there are some positive signs.

A pandemic recovery

As the world moves towards an economic recovery after the pandemic, some major economies are tilting towards a green stimulus and public commitments to reduce fossil fuel investments.

For example, China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide and took the opportunity at the UN General Assembly 75th anniversary last month to announce it will reach peak carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.




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Arguably more ambitious is the proposed European Green Deal announced in late 2019. It aims to slash greenhouse gas emissions by half over the next decade and make Europe the first carbon-neutral continent.

To help achieve this, a carbon tax is proposed for imports into the European Union. This threatens to have far-reaching implications for European trading partners such as New Zealand and Australia.




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In parallel to these government announcements, industry is also making commitments to decarbonise. The multi-trillion-dollar financial sector is adding pressure by focusing on companies at risk from climate change and identifying so-called “stranded assets”.

These pronouncements will help boost the negotiations for more stringent cuts to emissions as delegates prepare for the COP26 meeting in Glasgow next year. This can only put more pressure on all nations to be more ambitious.

Attention will inevitably focus on the world’s largest historic emitter, the US, which is formally leaving the Paris Agreement on November 4 this year, the day after the 2020 presidential election.

So the COP26 won’t collapse, but the year’s delay to the meeting may give the world the breathing space it so desperately needs to realise the ambition of the Paris Agreement and avoid the worst of climate change.The Conversation

Chris Turney, Professor of Earth Science and Climate Change, Director of Chronos 14Carbon-Cycle Facility, Director of PANGEA Research Centre, and UNSW Node Director of ARC Centre for Excellence in Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Millions of face masks are being thrown away during COVID-19. Here’s how to choose the best one for the planet



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Mayuri Wijayasundara, Deakin University

Face masks are part of our daily lives during the pandemic. Many are made from plastics and designed to be used just once, which means thousands of tonnes of extra waste going to landfill.

Masks may help stop the spread of the coronavirus. But according to one estimate, if everyone in the United Kingdom used a single-use mask each day for a year, it would create 66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 57,000 tonnes of plastic packaging.

Evidence also suggests masks may be a source of harmful microplastic fibres on land and in waterways and litter.

So let’s look at how face masks might be designed to cause minimal harm to the environment, while still doing their job – and which type is best for you.

A woman holding and wearing an N95 mask
N95 masks are used in hospital settings.
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Circular thinking

China is the world’s biggest face mask manufacturer. Its daily output of face masks reportedly reached 116 million units in February this year. That creates a big waste management problem around the world.

One way to address this is to adopt “circular design” principles. This thinking seeks to reduce waste and pollution through product design, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems.




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Which face mask should I wear?


When it comes to face masks, the three common types are cloth, surgical and N-95. N-95 masks offer the highest level of protection, blocking about 95% of airborne particles. Cloth masks are designed to be used more than once, while surgical and N-95 masks are usually intended for single use.

Face masks may consist of one or more layers, each with different functions:

  • an outermost layer, designed to repel liquids such as water
  • the innermost layer, which absorbs moisture and allows comfort and breathability
  • a non-absorbent middle layer, to filter particles.
Two people watching a sports match wearing masks
Surgical masks are generally intended as single-use items.
BrendanThorne/AAP

Each type of mask is made of different materials and used in varying settings:

– N-95 masks: These are designed to protect the wearer from 95% of airborne particles and are largely worn by health workers. N-95 masks are designed to fit closely to the face and are usually worn only once. N-95 masks comprise:

  • a strap (polyisoprene)
  • staples (steel)
  • nose foam (polyurethane)
  • nose clip (aluminum)
  • filter (polypropylene)
  • valve diaphragm (polyisoprene).

– Surgical masks: These are designed to protect sterile environments from the wearer, acting as barrier to droplets or aerosols. Generally intended as single-use items, they comprise mostly polypropylene between two layers of non-woven fabric.

– Cloth masks: These types of masks are worn by the general public. Some are homemade from fabric scraps or old clothing. They may be wholly reusable, or partially reusable with replaceable filters that must be disposed of.

These masks typically comprise an outer layer of polyester or polypropylene (or in some cases, cotton), and an inner layer designed for breathability and comfort – usually cotton or a cotton-polyester blend.

Research suggests cloth masks are less effective at filtering particles than medical masks, but may may give some protection if well-fitted and properly designed. Health advice is available to help guide their use.

Cloth masks
Many cloth masks are handmade, and can be reused.
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Designing for a healthier environment

It’s important to note that any attempt to redesign face masks must ensure they offer adequate protection to the wearer. Where masks are used in a medical setting, design changes must also meet official standards such as barrier efficiency, breathing capacity and fire resistance.

With this in mind, reducing the environmental harm caused by masks could be done in several ways:

– Design with more reusable parts

Evidence suggests reusable cloth masks perform almost as well as single-use masks, but without the associated waste. One life cycle assessment conducted in the UK found masks that could be washed and reused were the best option for the environment. Reusable masks with replaceable filters were the second-best option.

The study also found having a higher number of masks in rotation to allow for machine washing was better for the environment than manual washing.

– Make masks easier to dispose of or recyle

In high-risk settings such as hospitals and clinics, the reuse of masks may not be possible or desirable, meaning they must be disposed of. In medical settings, there are systems in place for disposal of such protective gear, which usually involves segregation and incineration.

But the general public must dispose of masks themselves. Because masks usually comprise different materials, this can be complicated. For example, recovering the components of a N-95 mask for recycling would involve putting the straps, nose foam, filter and valve in one bin and the metal staples and nose clip in another. And some recyclers may see mask recycling as a health risk. These difficulties mean masks often end up in landfill.

Masks would be easier to recycle if the were made of fewer materials and were easy to disassemble.

– Use biodegradable materials

For single-use items, placing synthetics with biodegradable materials would be a first step in circular design thinking.

The abaca plant, a relative of the banana tree, offers one potential option. Its leaf fibre reportedly repels water better than traditional face masks, is as strong as polymer and decomposes within two months. Most abaca is currently produced in the Philippines.

Face mask on the ground in front of bins
Recycling of face masks can be complicated.
Shutterstock

Which mask should you choose?

From a purely environmental perspective, research suggests owning multiple reusable face masks, and machine-washing them together, is the best option. Using filters with reusable face masks is a second-best option.

But when choosing a mask, consider where you will wear it. Unless cloth masks are shown to be as effective as other masks, health-care workers should not use them. But they may be suitable in low-risk everyday settings.

In the longer term, governments and manufacturers must make every effort to design masks that will not harm the planet – and consumers should demand this. Face masks will probably be ubiquitous on our streets for months to come. But once the pandemic is over, the environmental legacy may last for decades, if not centuries.




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The Conversation


Mayuri Wijayasundara, Lecturer, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.