With all of the burning and clearing happening in the Amazon rainforest, it was only going to be a short matter of time before a tipping point was reached and now a tipping point appears on the horizon. It would seem only a matter of 1 or 2 years before the Amazon is unable to sustain itself through rainfall. The link below is to an article reporting on the threat posed to the Amazon.
Last week’s United Nations climate summit may go down in history – but not for the reasons intended. It was not the tipping point for action on global warming that organisers hoped it would be. It will instead probably be remembered for the powerful address by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg, who castigated world leaders on behalf of the generation set to bear the brunt of inaction.
Young people are not sitting back and waiting for older generations to act on the climate crisis. Days before the summit, school students led a climate strike attended by millions around the world. And at the first ever UN youth climate summit, more than 500 young people from 60 countries, including myself, explored how to meet the commitments of the Paris Agreement.
This group of activists, innovators, entrepreneurs, and change-makers aged between 18 and 30 showcased potential solutions and put global political leaders on notice: they must fight off the climate crisis at the scale and pace required.
Youth aged 15 to 24 years represent 16% of the world population and will reach 1.3 billion people by 2030. Obviously the action (or otherwise) of today’s decision makers on climate change and other environmental threats will affect generations to come – a principle known as intergenerational equity.
Millions of young people around the world are already affected by climate change. Speaking at the youth summit, Fijian climate action advocate Komal Kumar said her nation was at the frontline of a crisis and worldwide, young people were “living in constant fear and climate anxiety … fearing the future”.
“Stop hindering the work [towards a sustainable future] for short term profits. Engage young people in the design of adaptation plans,” she said. “We will hold you accountable. And if you do not remember, we will mobilise to vote you out.”
UN Secretary-General António Guterres attended the event and his deputy Amina Mohammed took part in a “town hall” with the attendees, alongside senior representatives from government and civil society.
Technological solutions presented by youth summit participants included 3D printing using plastic waste, data storage in plant DNA, a weather app for farmers and an accountability platform for sustainable fashion.
Participants learnt how to amplify their voices using Instagram and how to create engaging videos with their mobile phones. An art workshop taught youth how creativity can help solve the climate emergency, and a networking session showed ways that youth leaders to stay connected and support each other.
Elsewhere, you don’t have to look far to see examples of young climate warriors, including in the developing world.
Programs funded by the UN development program include in Kazakhstan where youth are helping implement an energy efficiency project in schools, and in Namibia where young people are being trained as tour guides in national parks and nature reserves. In Nepal, young people cultivate wild Himalayan cherry trees as a natural solution to land degradation.
Kenyan environmental activist Wanjuhi Njoroge told the youth summit of her nation’s progress in restoring the country’s forest cover.
Nature-based solutions to the climate crisis – such as conserving and restoring forests, grasslands and wetlands – were a key focus at the summit. Efforts to meet the Paris climate goals often focus on cutting fossil fuel use. But nature has a huge ability to store carbon as plants grow. Avoiding deforestation keeps this carbon from entering the atmosphere.
Thunberg and British writer George Monbiot released a film ahead on the New York summit calling on world leaders protect, restore and fund natural climate solutions.
To date, such solutions have received little by way of investments and funding support. For example in 2015, agriculture, forestry and land-use received just 3% of global climate change finance.
Appearing at the youth summit, the global Youth4Nature network told how it mobilises young people to advocate for nature-based solutions. Their strategy has included collecting and sharing youth stories in natural resources management in more than 35 countries.
When it comes to climate change, young people have specific demands that must be acknowledged – and offer solutions that other generations cannot.
But globally there is a lack of youth representation in politics, and by extension, they are largely absent from climate change decision-making.
Some youth summit participants reportedly questioned whether it achieved its aims – including the value of some workshops, why celebrities were involved and whether anything tangible was produced.
Certainly, there was little evidence that world leaders at the climate summit were listening to the demands of young people. This was reflected in the failure of the world’s biggest-polluting countries to offer credible emissions reduction commitments.
But the youth summit went some way to granting young people space and visibility in the formal decision-making process.
Pressure from young people for climate action will not subside. Thunberg said it best when she warned world leaders that youth “will be watching you”.
“The eyes of all future generations are upon you,” she said. “If you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you”.
Since the mass production of plastic began, almost six billion tonnes of it – approximately 91% – has remained in our air, land and water. Plastic production and use is embedded in the global economy, and in our natural environment. This culture of waste is clearly perilous and unsustainable.
Our paper, published today in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, argues that only a global, market-driven intervention can stop the plastic tide.
It is backed by a commitment by the Minderoo Foundation, chaired by the lead author, of up to US$300 million (A$443 million) to help establish the scheme and ensure its integrity.
The paper argues that the intervention – a voluntary financial contribution paid by global manufacturers of fossil fuel-based plastic – would drive a system-wide transition to recycled plastic. Our modelling shows that this would lead to a dramatic slowdown in the production of new plastic – creating huge benefits for marine life and human health.
Plastic takes so long to break down that every piece produced since its inception in 1856 still exists today, except the small share we’ve burned into poisonous gases.
Many strategies to address the plastic problem have been proposed to date, and efforts have been commendable. But we are bailing out a bathtub with a thimble – while the tap is running.
We have identified a simple solution: a voluntary industry contribution for new fossil fuel-based plastic production.
We believe this technical and financial initiative would level the playing field by making recycled plastic more competitively priced, establishing the right market conditions for a circular plastics economy.
We know from our discussions with industry that this would release technology, in particular chemical or ‘polymer-to-polymer’ recycling, that is proven today but cannot yet compete economically with new fossil fuel-derived plastic. Increased demand from recyclers would transform plastic waste into a commodity, driving plastic recovery and creating incentives for industry to invest and transition. This is already true for materials like aluminium cans, which are highly recycled because the metal has an inherent value.
By mobilising new technology to increase recycling rates, plastic flows to the ocean and the broader environment would slow, and hopefully cease altogether. A circular plastics economy would also significantly reduce carbon emissions created through new plastic production.
The vast majority of plastics produced to date are derived from fossil fuels. Plastics are made from polymers – long molecular chains comprising smaller carbon-based molecules. Oil and gas are the cheapest materials from which to produce raw polymer resin. This resin is then made into plastic by adding dyes, plasticizers and other chemicals.
Fossil fuel-based plastic has countless uses and is produced very cheaply. Plastic recycling has largely been overlooked because, in the developed world at least, our waste is carted away from our homes and often shipped overseas. This leaves little incentive to tackle our plastic addiction.
But our “out of sight, out of mind” mentality cannot persist.
In 2017, China banned imports of 24 types of solid waste, mainly plastics. This revealed the extent to which developed countries had been sending their waste problem elsewhere. In Australia this led to recyclables being stockpiled, landfilled or sent to countries ill-equipped to handle them.
Media coverage is also increasingly highlighting the environmental impact of our throwaway culture: plastic washed up on beaches, filling the guts of endangered marine animals and accumulating en masse in circular ocean currents.
This is an abhorrent market failure, which conservatively costs US$ 2.2 trillion (A$3.25 trillion) each year in environmental and socioeconomic damages not taken into account by business or the consumer.
We propose an initiative led by global manufacturers in which they make a voluntary financial contribution for each unit of new fossil fuel-based plastic produced. We have dubbed the initiative “Sea The Future”.
Placing a value on plastic both drives its collection and diverts new production away from fossil fuels. The contribution, estimated in our paper as averaging US$500 (A$738) per tonne, would be key to encouraging the small number of global resin producers to choose recycled plastic over fossil fuel as their raw material.
The cost would be passed onto consumers via trillions of individual plastic items. The impact would be negligible – say, a few cents on a cup of coffee – and so is likely to gain broad public acceptance.
Anticipating the concerns of regulators that such a move could be perceived as anti-competitive, the lead author has engaged with global law firms to ensure that the initiative is compatible with free market competition law in countries across the world.
The estimated US$20 billion (A$29.5 billion) per year raised through the initiative would be used to help establish recycling infrastructure, aid industry transition and remediate the environment. Increased demand and a higher price for recycled material also promises to significantly improve the livelihoods of waste pickers – hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people who currently carve meagre earnings from collecting plastic.
The small hands of Moroccan recycling
The funds would be administered by a self-regulated global industry body, independently audited to ensure performance, accountability and transparency. To address concerns over governance costs, the Minderoo Foundation has committed to underwrite up to five years’ worth of audit fees totalling US$260 million (A$384 million), plus cover US$40 million (A$59 million) in start-up costs, subject to appropriate conditions.
Public pressure is mounting for action on plastics – and what is bad for the planet is ultimately bad for business. The alternatives to an industry-led approach are less appealing. Plastic bans deny us a useful product upon which our economies rely; taxes typically go directly to general revenue and are unlikely to be applied to plastic waste management. So, tax-derived funds are seldom transferred between nations, ignoring the transboundary nature of plastic pollution.
Our global discussions with companies throughout the plastics supply chain have revealed that the vast majority recognise the need to move away from a linear plastics economy. They also understand that a global, market-based mechanism is the only path to achieving the system-wide transformation required.
Society discards over 250 million tonnes of valuable polymer, worth at least a US$ 1,000 per tonne recycled, in plastic waste each year. Soon, if we do nothing, that could grow to 500 million tonnes per annum. What industry would allow half a trillion US dollars of waste each year? Recovering it is simply good business for the environment.
Andrew Forrest, PhD Candidate, University of Western Australia; David Tickler, PhD Candidate in Marine Ecology, University of Western Australia, and Jessica Meeuwig, Professor & Director, Marine Futures Lab, University of Western Australia
Michelle Ward, The University of Queensland; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Hugh Possingham, The University of Queensland; James Watson, The University of Queensland; Jeremy Simmonds, The University of Queensland; Jonathan Rhodes, The University of Queensland, and Martin Taylor, The University of Queensland
Threatened species habitat larger than the size of Tasmania has been destroyed since Australia’s environment laws were enacted, and 93% of this habitat loss was not referred to the federal government for scrutiny, our new research shows.
The research, published today in Conservation Science and Practice, shows that 7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat has been destroyed in the 20 years since the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 came into force.
Some 85% of land-based threatened species experienced habitat loss. The iconic koala was among the worst affected. More than 90% of habitat loss was not referred or submitted for assessment, despite a requirement to do so under Commonwealth environment laws.
Our research indicates the legislation has comprehensively failed to safeguard Australia’s globally significant natural values, and must urgently be reformed and enforced.
The EPBC Act was enacted in 1999 to protect the diversity of Australia’s unique, and increasingly threatened, flora and fauna. It was considered a giant step forward for biodiversity conservation and was expected to become an important legacy of the Howard Coalition government.
The law aims to conserve so-called “protected matters” such as threatened species, migratory species, and threatened ecosystems.
Clearing and land use change is regarded by ecologists as the primary threat to Australia’s biodiversity. In Queensland, land clearing to create pasture is the greatest pressure on threatened flora and fauna.
Any action which could have a significant impact on protected matters, including habitat destruction through land clearing, must be referred to the federal government for assessment.
We examined federal government forest and woodland maps derived from satellite imagery. The analysis showed that 7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat has been cleared or destroyed since the legislation was enacted.
Of this area, 93% was not referred to the federal government and so was neither assessed nor approved.
It is unclear why people or companies are not referring habitat destruction on such a large scale. People may be self-assessing their activities and concluding they will not have a significant impact.
Others may be seeking to avoid the expense of a referral, which costs A$6,577 for people or companies with a turnover of more than A$10 million a year.
The failure to refer may also indicate a lack of awareness of, or disregard for, the EPBC Act.
Our research found that 1,390 (85%) of terrestrial threatened species experienced habitat loss within their range since the EPBC Act was introduced.
Among the top ten species to lose the most area were the red goshawk, the ghost bat, and the koala, losing 3 million, 2.9 million, and 1 million hectares, respectively.
In less than two decades, many other imperilled species have lost large chunks of their potential habitat. They include the Mount Cooper striped skink (25%), the Keighery’s macarthuria (23%) and the Southern black-throated finch (10%).
We found that almost all referrals to the federal government for habitat loss were made by urban developers, mining companies and commercial developers. A tiny 1.3% of referrals were made by agricultural developers – despite clear evidence that land clearing for pasture development is the primary driver of habitat destruction.
Alarmingly, even when companies or people did refer proposed actions, 99% were allowed to proceed (sometimes with conditions).
The high approval rates may be derived, in part, from inconsistent application of the “significance” test under the federal laws.
For example, in a successful prosecution in 2015, Powercor Australia and Vemco] were fined A$200,000 for failing to refer clearing of a tiny 0.5 hectares of a critically endangered ecosystem. In contrast, much larger tracts of habitat have been destroyed without referral or approval, and without any such enforcement action being taken.
Clearer criteria for determining whether an impact is significant would reduce inconsistency in decisions, and provide more certainty for stakeholders.
If the habitat loss trend continues, two things are certain: more species will become threatened with extinction, and more species will become extinct.
The Act must, as a matter of urgency, be properly enforced to curtail the mass non-referral of actions that our analysis has revealed.
If nothing else, this will help Australia meet its commitment under the Convention on Biological Diversity to prevent extinction of known threatened species and improve their conservation status by 2020.
Mapping the critical habitat essential to the survival of every threatened species is also an important step. The Act should also be reformed to ensure critical habitat is identified and protected, as happens in the United States.
Australia is already a world leader in modern-day extinctions. Without a fundamental change in how environmental law is written, used, and enforced, the crisis will only get worse.
Michelle Ward, PhD Student, The University of Queensland; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Hugh Possingham, Professor, The University of Queensland; James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland; Jeremy Simmonds, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Jonathan Rhodes, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland, and Martin Taylor, Adjunct senior lecturer, The University of Queensland
Recycling in Australia used to be fairly simple. Our older readers may remember bottle drives, paper and cardboard collections, and the trip to the scrap metal merchant to sell metals.
This is called, in recycling parlance, sorting the “streams”. It creates very clean recycling that requires little sorting at a plant.
But recycling got more complicated. As councils organised kerbside collection, it made less economic sense to sort at the kerb. Instead, trucks collected mixed recycling and took it to centralised sorting facilities.
The materials also changed, with glass often replaced by plastics. Plastics like the PET in drink bottles and HDPE in milk bottles were easy to separate and had a ready recycling market.
Then, when developing countries like China opened the floodgates to paper and plastics, there was no need to separate the seven categories of plastics. It was cheaper and easier for Australian companies to bundle it all up and send it to China for “recycling” – in 2017, some 600,000 tonnes.
When China found they were the world’s dumping ground they shut the door and demanded only clean, separated plastics – and then only the ones that had a secondary market in China.
Suddenly Australia was expected to separate more carefully – and this cost money. Now the federal government has pledged A$20 million to boost Australia’s recycling industry.
But what is Australia’s recycling industry?
Right now, there are 193 material recovery facilities in Australia. Most are hand-sorted; nine are semi-automated, and nine are fully automated. These are nowhere near sufficient to sort Australia’s annual recycling.
There are two basic ways to sort recycling: mechanical-biological treatment plants, which sort mixed waste into low-grade recycling, and material recovery facilities, which have a stronger focus on extracting reusable stuff.
Here’s how they work.
MBT plants are in various stages of development in Perth, Melbourne, and Sydney. These plants take the rubbish we generate every day and inject it into a rotary drum (a bioreactor) that spins and is heated to 60–70℃.
The process shreds the waste and the organic wastes are stabilised and homogenised. Most of the water evaporates through a fermentation process in which microorganisms break down the organic material and release heat – much like a composting system.
Why can’t all plastic waste be recycled?
The material then leaves the reactor and passes over a screen that separates the organic waste. The organic waste then fermented and composted, then separated again using a smaller mesh screen. The smallest particles are sent back to the bioreactor drum to provide the microorganisms.
Meanwhile, the larger material from the first screening is sent to a wind separator where the lightweight material, like plastics, are blown the furthest, medium-weight materials, such as textiles, fall in the middle and the heaviest, like metal, glass and stone, fall immediately. The heaviest fraction is sent along a conveyor and metals are separated by a magnetic separator.
The remaining material is sent to another wind separator, along with any remaining material from the other fractions that cannot be separated, which separates combustibles and debris.
The debris (about 10% of the original waste) goes to landfill, and combustibles are sent to a facility that compresses the material into blocks for industrial fuel.
We can’t recycle our way to ‘zero waste’
Material recovery facilities accept mixed recycling. The first step is putting recyclables on a conveyor belt where they are carried up to a sorting line.
In the more mechanical processes, people line up along the belt and rip open bags and remove contaminants such as non-recyclable plastic, used nappies and other rubbish, which then goes to landfill.
In the more automated systems, ripping open the bags can be done by machines and the sorting is done in the next stage.
The material then goes onto a scalping screen that sorts out the small foreign objects before passing over a screen in which flat materials such as cardboard pass over and the others drop down. The paper and cardboard go off to storage. Meanwhile, the material that has dropped through hits another screen that breaks any glass, which drops through the screen and is taken by conveyor belt to a recovery bin.
The leftover material goes to fibre quality-control stations where the fibre materials (such as paper) pass by operators who pick off any contaminants before the paper goes into another bin for baling and recycling.
This leaves the cans and plastic containers. Passing this stream over a magnet means any steel cans will be removed from the stream and collected.
Next, any fibre that has made it through the process is removed manually and the plastics are then sorted manually into individual types. The bottles are perforated mechanically so they do not explode when compressed.
With the plastic containers removed, the next step is to divert the aluminium. Powerful magnetic fields created by an eddy current separator throws non-iron metals, like aluminium, forward from the belt into a product bin and non-metals fall off the belt into a separate bin. Finally most of the materials are compressed and baled for efficient transport.
The nine more modern facilities in Australia use optical sorting systems to take out the manual and mechanical sorting. The optical sorters detect anywhere between three and eight varieties of material.
A new facility in New South Wales can detect eight different types of material: aluminium, cardboard, glass, HDPE plastic, mixed paper, newspaper, PET plastic, and steel. The combined stream passes through a light beam which then instructs a set of high pressure air jets to direct the material to one of eight collection bins.
As worldwide demand for high quality, clean recycling material increases, Australia must upgrade its technology. Incentives and financial help for recycling companies may be necessary to see Australia develop a viable domestic recycling industry.