Sunday environmental round up.

Nov 28, 2021
According to the BBC, “the UK has given Australia pretty much everything it wanted in terms of access to the UK agricultural market.” (Image: Unsplash)

On land and sea, humans need to do a better job protecting the environment … and our rights to enjoy healthy environments.

Nitrogen fertilisers doing more harm than good. UN recognises the right to a healthy sustainable environment. Iceland starts capturing CO2 from the air. Alberta’s tar sands make a real mess.

BigAg’s seeds and chemicals killing farming

The “green revolution”, which began around 1960 and is widely credited with feeding the world’s growing population, has been vigorously supported by the World Bank, governments, wealthy donors and massive agribusiness organisations (“BigAg”). Replacement of traditional crops with fewer varieties of staples (grown for export rather than subsistence in developing countries), the liberal application of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and complete dependence on BigAg for supplying the seeds (not even the barley that goes into our beer is safe) and chemicals has underpinned the revolution. Although problems soon emerged — for example, pesticide resistance and decreasing crop yields after the initial burst (see graph below) — governments and companies have continued to promote the model strongly.

Crop production (tonnes) per unit of synthetic N fertiliser applied

Synthetic nitrogen (N) fertilisers present a particularly serious problem. Their use has increased eight-fold since 1960, and sales are now worth $US90 billion per year. But when the whole life cycle of N fertilisers is considered (production, distribution, application and decay), they now account for 2.4 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. The major part of this is the release of nitrous oxide which is 260 times more potent in causing global warming than CO2. However, 40 per cent is attributable to the burning of fossil fuels during fertiliser production and distribution. Remarkably only about a quarter of the N fertiliser applied to the fields ends up in the crops; the rest runs off into rivers, lakes and the oceans causing algal blooms and “dead zones”. As with many environmental problems, the answer is obvious but not popular in the world’s cabinet offices and board rooms: reduce farmer dependence on BigAg’s seeds and chemicals; replace industrial farming of both crops and livestock with agroecological farming that uses organic fertilisers and builds soil fertility and carbon; abandon feedlot rearing of livestock; and reintegrate animals with crops on farms, so that the animals can naturally fertilise the crops.

The right to a healthy sustainable environment

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has endorsed the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment — explicit recognition that a healthy environment is fundamental to the enjoyment of human rights and encouragement for states to adopt domestic policies that guarantee enjoyment of that right. The UNHRC’s resolution has three components: substantive rights to life, health, food, water, housing and culture; procedural rights to information, participation in decision making and justice; and protection of the rights of vulnerable populations such as Indigenous peoples, women and children. Evidence from the hundred or so countries that have already recognised the right to a healthy environment in their legislation shows that following adoption of the right, environmental laws are better enforced, ecosystems are healthier, and people have cleaner air, safer drinking water and less exposure to toxic substances.

Although we tend to think of Australia as a healthy place to live, many people experience sickness from living in an unhealthy environment, for instance from not having access to clean water and effective sanitation, and from extreme weather events associated with climate change. The right to a healthy environment is not included in any national, state or territory laws and Australia does not have a national bill of rights. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the right to a healthy sustainable environment is gaining momentum internationally and it’s inevitable that Australia will at some time follow suit, as we’ve done before. Some countries abolished capital punishment around the turn of the 19/20th century and the pace picked up after World War II. Except for Queensland (1922), Australia was slow off the mark but we got there eventually, with NSW last to see the light in 1985.

Orca begins sucking up CO2

Climate scientists broadly agree that to keep warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius we need to not only cut our greenhouse gas emissions dramatically over the next two decades but also start sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere, a process known as Direct Air Capture (DAC). Unfortunately, the technology to achieve this at anything like the necessary scale is nowhere on the horizon. Welcome Orca, the world’s biggest commercial DAC device that began operating near Reykjavik in September. Four shipping container-sized units suck in air and fix the CO2 to a filter. The filter is later heated to release the CO2 so it can be mixed with water and injected several hundred metres underground where it reacts with and is permanently fixed to basalt. Orca can extract 4000 metric tons of CO2 per year, three seconds worth of our annual emissions. I might be tempted to sneer but the world’s first commercial wind farm in 1980 had an output of 600,000 watts. Global wind capacity now is one and quarter million times larger. Similar upscaling for DAC would remove 5 billion metric tons of CO2 in 2060, but even that’s only one-eighth of humanity’s current annual emissions. Still, if we have achieved genuine net zero emissions by then, it would be a start to reducing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.

But, as well described in an article in the USA’s version of The Conversation, achieving upscaling of such magnitude has multiple severe problems associated with: the immense energy requirements, transportation and long term storage of the captured CO2, risks of pipeline rupture and contamination of groundwater, enormous cost (most likely needing to be met by governments), and hence poor value for money compared with generating energy from renewable sources and CO2 sequestration by nature. The authors point out that the fossil fuel industry has shifted from delaying climate action by fostering climate change denial and doubt to presenting itself as a “carbon management industry”, a source of solutions. DAC, and its cousin Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), are part of this charade.

Oceans protect humans

As did the French government before the 2015 COP meeting in Paris, the British government worked hard before the Glasgow COP to educate the general public about the issues to be discussed and cobble together international agreements that were later announced during the meeting. A nice example of the education function is this four-minute video produced by the UK Climate Presidency about the benefits oceans provide to humans, the threats posed by climate change to the world’s oceans and what needs to be done to tackle them. The video finishes with five actions: 1) secure net zero emissions by 2050 and keep 1.5C within reach (we’ve all heard a lot about those goals recently), 2) protect and restore marine habitats not only for the benefit of the flora and fauna but also provide climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience, 3) protect at least 30 per cent of the global ocean by 2030, 4) mobilise more resources for marine nature-based solutions to climate change, 5) collaborate through the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) for a clean, healthy, resilient, productive, safe, accessible, inspiring and engaging ocean.

Talking about oceans, there has been wide media coverage this week of those estranged siblings El Niño and La Niña, and also the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) which can nurture only one of her offspring at a time. ENSO describes fluctuations in the ocean surface temperature and the pressure of air above it in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. When the independent fluctuations of the temperature and pressure are just right, either El Niño or La Niña forms, but we can’t have both weather patterns at the same time. Sometimes we have neither. El Niño tends to create warm, dry conditions in Australia, while La Niña makes it wetter than usual in places. That’s the simple story. If you’d like to learn a little more, and how the two trouble-makers affect not just Australia but also the USA, Africa and Asia, click on the hyperlink above to The New York Times.

Tar sands are not a pretty picture

The pictures below are from Alberta’s tar sands region where companies such as ExxonMobil and Imperial Oil have been extracting large quantities of oil for the last 20 years. The images provide some indication of the industry’s destruction of boreal forests and creation waste ponds covering 300 square kilometres that leach heavy metals into groundwater. There are also processing plants that belch toxic gases into the atmosphere. What pictures can’t show is the erosion of Indigenous people’s rights and cultural heritage that has also occurred.

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