Plastic polluting Scotland’s remotest islands and beaches

Marine scientists aboard Greenpeace’s vessel the Beluga II have documented extensive plastic pollution in some of the most remote parts of the UK.

The Beluga II  is due to dock in Edinburgh today after a 2-month survey and in-depth analysis will follow in the coming months.

Initial findings document extensive plastic pollution in remote locations of Scotland, including important feeding grounds for basking sharks, seals and whales and numerous seabird colonies.

This survey builds on the increasing body of scientific evidence that has highlighted the scale of the plastic pollution problem in the world’s oceans and the threat to marine life and human health.

recent Coastwatch report showed that 80 per cent of surveyed beaches in Ireland contained plastic litter.

Greenpeace will present a petition to the Scottish government calling for a deposit refund scheme for drinks containers to be introduced.

This follows the recent announcement of a bill by the Green Party that would implement a similar system here in Ireland.

Among the measures, the bill would implement a 10 cent refund to citizens returning plastic, glass or aluminium drinks containers.

Green Party leader, Eamon Ryan TD outlined the global context for this bill: “The issue of plastic pollution is a massive challenge. Every year, over 110 million tonnes of plastic is produced. Of this, up to 43% ends up in landfill.”

He also referenced the worrying estimates that 8 million tonnes of plastic leak into oceans each year and that at the current rate, we are on route to having more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.

Countries that use such schemes typically see greater than 90 per cent return rates.

The Environmental Pillar has long advocated for a drinks container deposit refund scheme and have just testified before the Joint Oireachtas Budget Committee asking for such a measure to be adopted.

Mindy O’Brien, of VOICE, which is a member organisation of the Environmental Pillar, said: “With the new government in place, and with Scotland taking similar steps, we call on Minister Naughten to join 23 other countries and support this initiative to combat our throw-away society and to promote the circular economy”.

A version of this article appeared in the Green News on June 27th, 2017.

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Legislation needed to protect European soil, new EU study finds

A new report published by the European Parliament’s committee responsible for scrutinising the European Commission’s agricultural policies has highlighted the threats facing soils across Europe.

The report – prepared by academic experts from Wageningen University, Aarhus University and the University of Cordoba – was presented to the European Parliament on 20th June and included a number of policy recommendations.

The experts emphasise the needs to reframe how we think about soil preservation to include the protection of ecosystem services provided by soils. These services include the provision of harvestable crops, clean fresh water and nutrients for plants and animals, conservation of biodiversity and maintenance of a stable climate.

Soils and soil ecosystem services in Europe are faced with numerous threats that limit their capacity to function and prospects to sustain into the future. Intensification of agriculture, urbanisation and land grabbing, and poor management practices have led to widespread reduction in soil fertility, nutrient content and biodiversity.

We are also seeing widespread destruction of soil due to erosion, compaction, salinisation and desertification.

Protection of organic-rich soils a priority

One of the primary threats identified in the report is the loss of soils with high organic carbon content. EU soils contain more than 70,000 million tonnes of carbon, dwarfing the 2,000 million tonnes of carbon emitted each year by Member States.

If we were to allow the release of even a fraction of this soil carbon to the atmosphere, we would easily undo all emissions reduction measures in other sectors.

Peatlands are the most efficient store of carbon in terrestrial ecosystems and Northern European peatlands represent almost 4 per cent of this global carbon reservoir.

Peatlands not only lock away carbon that will otherwise be emitted to the atmosphere but pristine peatlands also sequester 350 million tonnes of CO2 per year globally.

Many European peatlands have been degraded by drainage activities and associated spread of agriculture and other industries.

Agro-foresty and silvopastoral systems are highly productive agricultural lands and also have high carbon content. The loss of productive agricultural land to urbanisation and land sealing – trapping of soil beneath asphalt and concrete – is a major threat to these areas.

Given the projected substantial increases in global food demand, pressures on biodiversity and our continued commitment to reducing COemissions, the report states that we must preserve our most productive and carbon-rich soils.

Topsoil being washed away, subsoil under pressure

Twenty-two per cent of European land is affected by erosion from water and wind, a large proportion of which is directly related to conventional tillage activities. Transitioning to the use of no-tillage or minimal tillage practices would reduce the erosion of topsoil.

The increased use of catch crops and cover crops instead of traditional bare fallow approaches would also help reduce erosion. Over time, there would be the added benefit of increased nutrient, organic and water content of soils.

Policy measures that enforce adaption to these farming practices will be needed. The report also proposes the potential establishment of formal vulnerable zones.

About one-third of European soils, specifically the subsoil lying underneath topsoil, are badly impacted by compaction caused by heavy machinery. The continual pressure to increase labour productivity is driving this increased mechanization of agriculture.

The report calls for statutory maximum permissible limits to the wheel load carrying capacity for traffic on agricultural soils.

Moving towards agroecological practices

This reports adds to previously published research to conclude that we need to transition from conventional soil management practices to ecologically informed practices that improve soil quality. These include conservation agriculture and organic farming.

While many of the threats to soil traverse political borders, soil is undoubtedly more challenging to manage than water or air. This is due to the substantial geographic variation in soil parent material, climate, topography and historical management and usage.

The diverse nature of soil type and land usage across Europe necessitates that any policies must rank and implement measures based on local requirements.

The AGRI report recommends a ‘two-pronged’ approach – promotion and enforcement of local suitable practices at the farm level and the monitoring and evaluation at the catchment scale to test impacts of measures on ecosystem services.

The time for awareness and voluntary action has passed, the time for legislation long overdue

The AGRI report found – based on a survey of thousands of European farmers – that there is generally a high level of awareness among farmers about the importance of soils and the need for their protection.

The timescale of the proposed ‘no net land-take’ by 2050 – a target put forward in the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe (COM 571/2011) – was also called into question. It is simply too long given the scale of the threat facing soils across Europe.

The EU Seventh Environment Action Programme states that sustainable soil management, soil protection and remediation of contaminated sites should be underway by 2020.

The EU has also signed up for the Sustainable Development Goals, which include elements of sustainable agriculture and soil protection. However, none of these initiatives includes legally binding provisions.

The People4Soil campaign is a European Citizen’s Initiative calling on the Commission to provide for such a legally binding framework.

The ECI is the EU’s direct democracy platform, enabling citizens to participate in the development of EU polices by petitioning the European Commission to make a legislative proposal.

If a petition receives one million signatures from European citizens from a least 7 out of the 28 Member States , within one year, the Commission is obliged to meet with the organisers and hold a public hearing on the proposals before deciding whether or not to propose new legislation on the issue.

People4Soil is supported by more than 500 organisations across Europe and needs its 1 million signatures by September 2017. Please sign the petition by following this link and you can do your part to help protect soils across Europe.

A version of this article appears in the Green News on June 22nd, 2017.

Retailers face higher costs without HFC phase-out, says Environmental Investigation Agency

European retailers face severe financial repercussions if they do not transition to hydrofluorocarbon (HFC)-free cooling technology, the Environmental Investigation Agency warned today.

The EU F-Gas Regulation, brought into law in 2015, legislates for the rapid, stepped phasing out of the use HFCs, which are potent greenhouse gases.

From 2018 HFC supplies will be slashed by 48 per cent. This will make HFC technology far less attractive from a cost point of view and suppliers will be forced to increases prices sharply.

Prices already increased 62 per cent in the first quarter of 2017. The EIA is urging supermarkets and other retailers to speed up the transition.

Clare Perry, head of the EIA’s Climate Campaign, also warned that HFC shortages could drive illegal trade in HFCs in the EU. This black market trade is also a concern in the US.

In their latest Chilling Facts report, the EIA outlined the current retailers that are leading the transition, with Aldi Süd and Tesco topping the list.

Ms Perry said that while European retailers stand out as global leaders in the adoption of HFC-free commercial refrigeration “the uptake across Europe is much short of the pace needed”.

The report highlights that all new Aldi stores in Ireland will use HFC-free refrigeration. Tesco currently has 11 stores in Ireland that use CO2 instead of HFC as a coolant, the report states.

However, Musgraves – a leading grocery and wholesale supplier in Ireland – is lagging far behind and according to the EIA report relies heavily on HFC technology.

HFC use has soared since first introduced as a replacement for banned chlorofluorcarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs).

These chlorinated organic compounds were largely responsible for the global atmospheric ozone depletion and were banned as part of the Montreal Protocol in 1987.

Montreal was a landmark agreement and put the ozone layer on a path to complete recovery by the middle of this century. This recovery will prevent harmful cancer-causing UV radiation from reaching the Earth’s surface.

While HFCs are far less damaging to ozone and have a much lower global warming potential (GWP) than CFCs, they still have a GWP thousands of times greater than CO2. In recognition of the dangers of HFCs, a global agreement was reached last year to amend the Montreal Protocol to include the phasing out of HFCs.

A version of this article appeared in the Green News on June 15th, 2017.

Green Party launch Waste Reduction Bill 2017

The Green Party today launched a Waste Reduction Bill to introduce a deposit refund scheme for glass and plastic bottles and a complete ban on single-use non-recyclable plastics, such as coffee cups and plastic cutlery.

Only 40 per cent of the 210,000 tonnes of plastic produced each year in Ireland is recycled and at least 52.5 per cent goes straight to landfill.

Evidence indicates that the best way to tackle plastic pollution is to stop it entering the environment in the first place. Deposit refund schemes are a tried and tested approach that work well in a number of other countries.

Green Party leader, Eamon Ryan TD outlined the global context for this bill: “The issue of plastic pollution is a massive challenge. Every year, over 110 million tonnes of plastic is produced. Of this, up to 43% ends up in landfill.”

He also referenced the worrying estimates that 8 million tonnes of plastic leak into oceans each year and that at the current rate, we are on route to having more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.

Green Party Deputy Leader and TD for Dublin Rathdown Catherine Martin said: “The purpose of our bill is quite simple – to reduce the amount of plastic consumed in Ireland every year, and encourage recycling”. She expressed confidence that all parties in the Dáil will support such a “common sense proposal.”

Much of this plastic also ends up in the environment. In a report released last week, Coastwatch Ireland found that 80 per cent of surveyed coastal sites contained litter, with plastic bottles being the major type of litter.

The Green Party also quoted results from a recent survey by Coastwatch Ireland that showed 89% of people would support a deposit refund scheme.

The Environmental Pillar has long advocated for a drinks container deposit refund scheme and have just testified before the Joint Oireachtas Budget Committee asking for such a measure to be adopted.

Mindy O’Brien, of VOICE, which is a member organisation of the Environmental Pillar, said: “With the new government in place, and with Scotland taking similar steps, we call on Minister Naughten to join 23 other countries and support this initiative to combat our throw-away society and to promote the circular economy”.

A version of this article appeared in the Green News on June 15th, 2017.

Trump’s climate decision dangerous for the US and the world

President Trump tweeted late on Wednesday evening that be will be announcing his decision on whether or not the US will withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement today at 8PM Irish time.

Unfortunately, and as expected, he announced his decision to withdraw the US from the Agreement which aims to limit global average temperature to within 2°C above pre-industrial levels and combat the unavoidable impacts on people and the Earth.

Under Obama, the US had committed to reducing carbon emissions by 26-28 per cent by 2025.  Now, the US will join only 2 other countries – Nicaragua and Syria – as non-participants in the global deal.

So from a procedural point of view how will the US’s withdrawal proceed? And more importantly, what are the most likely consequences for the US and the world?

Two withdrawal options

Article 28 of the Agreement allows countries to withdraw from the third year after the Agreement entered into force, which would be November 2019 for the US. The withdrawal would also not take effect for another year. So the earliest the US withdrawal would be effective is November 2020.

The other scenario is that the US withdraws from the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which necessarily means withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. This could be effective in one year.

Consequences of US withdrawal

One of the worse possible consequences of the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is that it could discourage other nations from taking further steps to limit their own emissions, thereby hindering efforts to reduce global emissions. The US withdrawal could also cause diplomatic strain and damage relationships with other countries.

Todd Stern, former US special envoy on climate change under Obama, puts it bluntly in a recent article in the Atlantic stating that “the President’s exit from Paris would be read as a kind of ‘drop dead’ to the rest of the world”.

Withdrawal could also result in the US being left behind in the low-carbon energy transformation. This transition is already underway and China and Europe would likely take primary roles.

China currently accounts for almost 50% of the world’s new solar energy capacity and the US risks falling behind and losing valuable US jobs in the wind and solar energy sectors. The economic importance of committing to the Paris Agreement is recognised by many US industries and companies.

Sixty-nine of 500 US Fortune 500 companies, including Walmart, ExxonMobil, and Chevron, have stated their support for the Paris Agreement. Over 1000 US companies have signed the Business Backs Low-Carbon USA statement urging the US to stay in the Agreement.  Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, has said he will withdraw for White House advisory councils if President Trumps withdraws.

In an interview in Business Insider UK John Sterman, professor at MIT Sloan School of Management and senior advisor at Climate Interactive said that it is “not far-fetched to imagine a scenario where China…implements a carbon tax on all goods exported from the US”.

Further down the road, the US government could also leave itself open to expensive lawsuits taken by victims of climate change, on the basis that the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement causes damage and requires compensation.

Carry on Regardless

Many US States and the some of the largest US cities will continue to tackle climate change and transform their energy portfolio regardless of what President Trump decides.

In December 2016, I attended the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco – the largest meeting on Earth and space sciences in the world. The Governor of California, Jerry Brown, gave a keynote speech and in it he responded to Trumps threat to stop satellite collection of climate data by saying “California will launch its own damn satellites”.

Many US states have invested heavily in clean energy technologies and are proceeding with their energy transformation. Wind and solar energy made up two-thirds of new electric energy capacity in the US last year.

Twelve US cities, representing 25 per cent of the US population, are part of the global C40 Climate Leadership Group.

Will the pressure change Trump’s mind?

With pressure piling from global leaders, environmental charities, scientists, Big Business, Democrats, Republicans and even family members, will Trump rethink his decision to enact one of his pre-election promises?

Ultimately, whether the US are in or out of the Paris Agreement, the new US administration will likely continue making damaging changes to US science, environmental and natural heritage policy.

A version of this article appeared in the Green News on June 1st 2017.

Scientists warn increasing ocean temperatures could destroy world’s coral reefs within decades

New research published in the journal PeerJ, reports that strict conservation and protection measures has failed to halt the destruction of coral reefs in the Hawaiin Islands, with 90% of Hawaiian coral reefs suffering bleaching in 2014 and 2015.

Widespread bleaching of coral reefs, whereby corals expel crucial algae living symbiotically within their tissues, is a stress response to increasing ocean temperatures resulting from global climate change.

Coral reefs are the most diverse marine ecosystems on Earth and provide ecosystem services for millions of people.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is also reported to be in “terminal condition” as back-to-back coral bleaching along its 2250-kilometre length in 2016 and 2017 has impacted 70% of the Reef.

Many corals need years to recover and increasing ocean temperatures and back-to-back bleaching events could spell the end for coral reefs within decades. The International Society for Reef Studies predicts that 90% of coral reefs will be at risk of destruction by 2050.

In a recent interview with the Guardian Dr Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at Georgia Tech, said: “the idea that we will sustain reefs in the US 100 years from now is pure imagination. At the current rate, it will be 20 or 30 years, it’s just a question of time”.

This view is mirrored in an article published today in the journal Nature in which Professor Terry Hughes, of the James Cook University in Australia, states that “returning reefs to past configurations is no longer an option”.

The article highlights the need for maintaining and preserving what we have through “radical changes in the science, management and governance of coral reefs”.

A version of this article appeared in the Green News on 2nd June 2017.

Land and soil mismanagement in Ireland: Problems and Solutions

Soil is a dynamic living substance vital for life on Earth. It is also one of our most diverse ecosystems, with numerous studies showing how thousands of different microbial species can live in one single gram of soil.

Soil is also the most fundamental requirement for agriculture and has been feeding global populations since the dawn of agricultural practices about 10,000 years ago. Soil takes thousands of years to form, yet it can be degraded in an instant due to gross mismanagement by humankind.

There is ample historical evidence that civilisations mismanaging their soils collapsed as a result. It is also clear that we are also currently facing a global soil crisis and urgent action is needed if we wish to avoid disaster in the near future.

This global soil crisis has resulted from radical land use change and poor agricultural practices and the consequences are widespread – soil erosion, desertification, accumulation of salinity, nutrient loss and pollution.

Soil degradation has now affected about one-third of global land area. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that about one per cent of the global land area is degraded each year.

In total, it is estimated that 33 per cent of arable land has been lost to soil erosion or pollution. At this rate, and with current practices and population growth, the world’s topsoil could be gone withing decades.

Why is soil organic carbon important?

Organic molecules are the building blocks of life. Generally, the most important factor that determines healthy or good quality soil is organic matter.

The word ‘organic’ here describes the molecules of carbon that bond together, often containing hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. In soil, the majority of organic matter is composed of an insoluble residue from plants and microorganism exudates – a fluid discharged from cells – and their decaying remains. Or as it is more commonly known – humus.

Despite normally making up less than 5 per cent of soil by weight, soil organic carbon supplies essential nutrients for agricultural and biological productivity and helps maintain soil structure and water content.

Loss of soil organic carbon has been caused by desertification, deforestation, soil erosion and intensive crop production. Globally it is estimated that between 50 and 70 per cent of the world’s cultivated soils have now lost their original carbon stock.

The consequences of this include substantial decreases in soil quality and biodiversity and changes to the physical properties of soil. While excessive amounts of soil organic carbon are being eroded, leached or respired to the atmosphere, they are not being replaced by sufficient amounts of new organic carbon.

Carbon Cycle

Soil is also one of the largest pools of carbon on Earth and a major component of the global carbon cycle. There is three times more carbon in the soil than in the atmosphere, and over four times more than in all land plants combined.

Substantial land use change across the globe, together with historical and modern day agricultural practices, has caused widespread loss of soil carbon to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. This is second only to fossil fuels as a source of carbon dioxide fueling anthropogenic climate change.

Therefore, strategies to minimise soil degradation and restore soil health will have a double impact, both reducing carbon dioxide loss and increasing carbon dioxide uptake and sequestration in plants and soil. But are we doing enough to lessen our impact on our soil?

Land and soil mismanagement in Ireland

While lauded for our lush green landscape, we have witnessed and been responsible for large scale impacts on our soil dating back hundreds of years. For example, both deforestation in the 18th century and famine and depopulation in the 19th century brought about wholesale changes on our island.

More recently, increases in pastoral grassland and the spread of urban areas have had major impacts on our soil. Arguably the most critical issue in Ireland relates to the loss of peatlands.

Globally, peatlands only cover only around two or three per cent of land surface but store up to 30 per cent of total soil carbon making peatlands vitally important carbon sinks. They also support unique biodiversity.

Peatlands are an important wetland ecosystem, accounting for 15 per cent of Ireland’s land area. We, in fact, hold eight per cent of the world’s blanket bogs on our small island.

Unfortunately, only about 21 per cent of our peatlands is in relatively intact conditions, with turf-cutting, industrial peat extraction, commercial afforestation and urban development taking its toll on our bogs.

In addition to stresses faced by peatlands in northern temperate locations such as Ireland, tropical peatlands are also being destroyed by the likes of the spread of palm oil plantations.

Stop Treating Soil like Dirt

It is clear that maintaining our soils is fundamentally tied to protecting our economy, food, health, biodiversity and climate. So what can we do to protect and restore our soil?

There are a number of sustainable management strategies that can be used to restore the organic content of soil, including manuring, no-tillage, conservation tillage, rotating crops, cover cropping and agroforestry.

Numerous studies have shown that sustainable agriculture can match or exceed productivity and profit and increase soil organic carbon, while also reducing environmental impacts. Unfortunately, only a fraction of global agriculture uses sustainable techniques at present.

Currently, we have EU legislation to protect water and air, but, despite its importance and the recognised global crisis we have on our hands, we do not have an EU Directive dedicated to protecting our soils. Without legislation, we have little chance of addressing soil degradation.

People4Soil is a campaign run by the Environmental Pillar that aims to change this by using a European Citizen’s Initiative petition to call on the European Commission to pass a dedicated Soil Directive.

Read about the People4Soil campaign and sign the petition here.

A version of this article appeared in the Green News on May 27th 2017.