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May 2020: Monthly Environmental News Roundup

1- US ranks 24th on environmental performance worldwide

 The US is far behind the environmental performance of other industrialized nations and now ranks 24th in the world. Denmark came first and Luxembourg and Switzerland followed. Great Britain placed fourth. For developed nations, the US is close to the back of the pack. China, plagued by poor air quality, has invested in helping it climbs to 120th place, ahead of India’s 168th-place ranking. The US finished the fifteenth on climate and is also the second-biggest contributor to the climate crisis, after China. It’s put more heat-trapping gasses into the atmosphere over time than any other country. The US did better in terms of air quality, ranking 16th, but the authors warned that those rankings could fall as Trump officials rescinded or declined protections based on new research to tighten them.

2- Atmospheric CO2 levels rise sharply despite lockdowns by Covid-19

 Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen sharply this year to a new peak, despite the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the world. The atmospheric CO2 concentration reached 417.2 parts per million in May, 2.4 ppm higher than the 2019 peak of 414.8 ppm. However, as lockdowns are relaxed, the year-wide reduction in emissions is expected to be only between 4% and 7% compared to 2019. This will not make any significant difference to the ability of the world to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals and keep global heating below the 2C threshold that scientists say is needed to stave off catastrophic effects. The rise this year is marginally lower than it was last year but matches the average annual increase over the past decade. The amount of carbon fluctuates based on different factors including the effects of the Pacific El Niño weather system.

 3- ‘Promiscuous nature treatment’ will result in more pandemics-scientists

Humanity’s “promiscuous nature care” needs to change or more deadly pandemics like Covid-19 will occur, scientists who have studied the connection between viruses, wildlife, and habitat destruction say. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three-quarters of new or emerging diseases that affect humans originate in animals but it is human behaviors that multiplies the risks of contagion. Wild animals live in ever smaller territories or migrate to anthropogenic areas, such as houses, sheds, and barns, as natural habitats diminish. This is particularly true for bats, which feed on a large number of insects in orchards that are drawn to lamplight or fruit. Scientists predicted two years ago that a new coronavirus will emerge from bats in Asia, partially due to this being the region most impacted by deforestation and other environmental pressures.

4- Climate change in deep oceans could be seven times faster

By the second half of this century, climate change rates in the world’s ocean depths could be seven times higher than current levels, even if greenhouse gas emissions were dramatically cut. Currently, the world’s heating was already forcing animals to migrate from the surface to more than 4 km down in all layers of the ocean but at different speeds. Isaac Brito-Morales, the lead author of the study and a researcher at the University of Queensland, said: “Since the deep ocean temperature is more constant, any slight change would impact organisms – they are more at risk than those on the surface.” Marine Park areas intended to protect different species or ecosystems may be damaged by transferring species from protected areas to unregulated areas.

5- Micro plastics found to blow off shore in sea breezes

Every year, hundreds of thousands of tons of waste could blow on the ocean breeze in 2018, about 359 m tons of plastic were produced worldwide, and some studies suggest that as much as 10 percent of it ends up in the sea each year. Steve Allen, a Strathclyde Ph.D. candidate who co-lead the study, said: “Sea breeze has historically been considered ‘clean air,’ but this research reveals alarming quantities of the micro plastic particles it brings. Some plastic particles, along with sea salt, bacteria, viruses, and algae, might seem to leave the sea and enter the atmosphere. Plastic waste, such as plastic bags and bottles, breaks down into tiny, often eye-invisible, micro plastic at sea. The sea spray micro plastics ranged about five micrometers and lengths of up to 140 micrometers. The researchers calculated that each year, up to 136,000 tons of micro plastic could be blown by sea spray onshore.

6-Coal industry will never recover after pandemic coronavirus

The global coal industry will “never recover” from the Covid-19 pandemic, industry observers predict, because renewable energy is cheaper for consumers and a safer bet for investors as the crisis has proved. Even before the pandemic, due to increased climate change, divestment drives, and inexpensive alternatives, the industry had been under pressure. The lockdown has exposed its frailties even further, whipping billions from the world’s largest coal miners’ market valuations. Covid-19 made it quite clear that China and India built more than they needed.

7- Millions of Americans have no access to quality parks

Multiple studies have shown that spending time in green spaces decreases tension and increases both adults and children’s physical and psychological health. Even in cities, access to green spaces – such as access to healthy food, health care, and good schools – is also unfair, with low-income households and colorful people less likely to live near parks with basic amenities such as bathrooms, playgrounds, and basketball courts. A survey by the National Recreation and Park Association of 300 park commissioners in mid-April found that for the current fiscal year about half had already been instructed to slash budgets by 10 percent to 20 percent. The unprecedented crisis could increase park awareness – and inspire a wave of local activism to fight for equal access.

8- Nature crisis: Moths have ‘secret role’ as pollinators 

The study says the transport networks for moths are larger and more complex than those for daytime pollinators such as bees. Public concern over the past decade about the position of our pollinators has centered squarely on bees. Dr. Walton and colleagues monitored moth activity around ponds in Norfolk ‘s agricultural areas to find out how vital a part the moths play. They found that 45 percent of the moths that they studied bore pollen originating from 47 different species of plants, including some that were seldom visited by bees, hoverflies, and butterflies. As they have experienced steep declines in numbers since the 1970s, the crucial role played by the moths has come under growing pressure. This is primarily due to changes in land use and rising pesticide use. Helping the moths would allow less pesticide to be used which will promote a wider plant variety in the countryside.

9-Pavan Sukhdev wins the Tyler Environmental Achievement Prize 2020

Sukhdev’s seminal 2008 study “The Environmental and Biodiversity Economics” (TEEB) is hosted by UNEP and has been the pillar of the Green Economy movement. His work, especially with UNEP’s TEEB and the Green Economy Initiative, has brought extraordinary improvements to our understanding of ecosystem economics and biodiversity. The Tyler Environmental Achievement Prize is one of the oldest international environmental prizes, honoring individuals who have contributed to scientific awareness and public policy in an exceptional way to protect and improve the global environment. The remarkable contribution of Sukhdev to a global understanding of environmental and ecological importance would characterize our approach to conservation for generations to come.

10- The number of insects decreased by 25% since 1990

The study combined 166 long-term surveys from nearly 1,700 locations and found some species bucking the downward trend overall. In particular, after-action to clean up polluted rivers and lakes, freshwater insects grew by 11 percent every decade.  This group, however, represents only about 10 percent of species of insects and does not pollinate crops. Researchers said insects in many regions remained critically understudied, with little or no data coming from South America, South Asia, and Africa. Rapid destruction of wild habitats for farming and urbanization in those places is likely to significantly reduce insect populations, they said. Insect deaths are caused by the degradation of ecosystems, pesticides, and light pollution. We definitely have a lot to worry about but I don’t think it’s too late. The increase in freshwater species at least makes us hope that if we put in place the right legislation we can reverse those trends.

11-Oil spill in Arctic Circle prompts Putin to declare emergency

The spill came when a fuel tank collapsed last Friday at a power plant near the Siberian town of Norilsk. Manager of the power plant Vyacheslav Starostin was taken into custody until July 31 but has not yet been charged. The Russian Investigation Committee (SK) has opened a criminal pollution case and suspected negligence, as Moscow authorities have only been informed of the spill by a two-day delay. Upon learning officials only heard of the incident on Sunday, President Putin expressed anger. The leaked oil drifted about 12 km (7.5 miles) from the site of the accident, turning long stretches of crimson red on the Ambarnaya river. The spill has contaminated a surface area of 350 sq km (135 sq m), state media report.

12- May recorded in the UK as the sunniest calendar month

In May, the UK enjoyed 266 hours of sunshine. Meteorologists say they’re stunned by the sudden switch from extreme wet to extreme dry-it’s not “British” weather. On average between March and the end of May, the UK gets 436 hours of sunshine. Scientists say the UK’s recent weather was unprecedented and astonishing. Some scientists believe that the Arctic’s rapid man-made heating, which has resulted in Siberia recording temperatures and wildfires may affect the jet stream, although this is not proven. The reality remains that ambitious early steps to cut emissions will still reduce the greater risks of climate change in the UK and around the world.

13- Largest solar power plant in the UK approved

The government has approved the contentious system that will provide electricity to 91,000 households. The project could cover one of the largest energy storage systems in the world. Environmentalists urge developers to give free solar panels on the rooftop to local people protesting against the solar farm – and particularly against the giant energy storage facility, which they believe may be a risk of explosions. The facility will use a total land area of 25 hectares and the rural charity CPRE says the proposed system for storing batteries has caused fires and explosions around the world. The government controversially announced in 2015 that it would phase out subsidies from solar power to the industry’s howl of protest. Yet since 2010 solar panel prices have been tumbling by two thirds.

14- Air pollution in China could rise to pre-Covid levels and Europe could follow

Air pollution causes at least 8 m of early deaths a year and cleaner skies have been seen as one of Covid-19’s few silver linings. The Wood Mackenzie energy consulting group expects China’s oil demand in the second quarter of 2020 should rebound to near-normal levels. NO2 levels are now just 14 percent lower than last year in Wuhan, the city at the center of the epidemic, having dropped briefly by nearly half. In Shanghai, the current rates are 9 percent higher than last year. It is complex to distinguish the changes in pollution caused by the lockdowns and their subsequent relaxation from other factors, such as weather and pollutant chemical interactions. Air pollution has been associated with heart and lung damage, and many other conditions including diabetes and intelligence injury. Virtually every organ in the body is likely to get affected.

15- Cleaner air during UK lockout boon for asthma patients

A charity survey of 14,000 people with lung conditions found one in six had noticed health improvements. The figure was higher among children, with one in five parents claiming their child’s condition had been alleviated. Specifically, asthma sufferers reported benefits, with relief noted one in four. According to data from Public Health England, the number of visits to hospital emergency departments for asthma in England has also dropped by half during the lockdown. But how much of the decline is due to a drop in symptoms, or the unwillingness of people to attend hospital during the Covid-19 pandemic, is unknown. There is growing evidence from around the world that correlates increased Covid-19 infections and deaths with exposure to air pollution. Air pollution is causing tens of thousands of early deaths in the UK every year. More than a third of England’s local authorities have fine particulate pollution levels above the WHO’s limit. In 80 percent of urban areas, nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant mostly created by diesel vehicles, is at illegal levels.

16- The EU Green Recovery Kit sets a regional marker

With its green recovery package, the European Commission has laid down a marker for the world. It sets a high standard for other nations, using the rebuilding of devastated coronavirus economies to address, at least in theory, the much greater challenge of climate emergency. The US is cutting green rights under Donald Trump, while the biggest polluter, China, is sending mixed signals as part of its recovery by funding coal power stations. The UK, the host of the upcoming critical UN summit, was all but silent. At least one million green jobs will be created, with workers helped into new roles in polluting industries, a critical part of the plan. The EU program may also have a direct effect on the rest of the planet, with a carbon-intensive manufacturing import border tax from other nations possibly rising to €14 billion.

17-The first ‘green’ Indian village adapts to life without tourists

Tourism in Khonoma has come to a halt for the first time since the establishment in 1998 of the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary (KNCTS). The small 700-year-old village in Nagaland, the Indian state, near the Indo-Myanmar border, received over 4,000 visitors in 2019. Consisting of thick subtropical and temperate broadleaf forests, the 20 sq km (7.7 sq mile) sanctuary is India’s first officially protected urban sanctuary. Dismissing concerns during the lockdown overhunting in the sanctuary, Meyase adds: “As long as there is no free movement of people, the sanctuary is secure. A steep fine of 20,000 rupees (£210) for any person caught in KNCTS hunting, as well as the long history of Khonoma as a village of fierce warriors, serve as a deterrent to any potential poachers. To ensure the men did not return to hunting, they were recruited for three years as forest wardens and paid a salary through a grant from the Gerald Durrell Memorial Fund. Women who have traditionally forged fruit and vegetables for sale at the sanctuary were forbidden to do so.

18-Climate crisis makes forests worldwide shorter and younger 

Scientists say the trend is expected to continue with worrying consequences for forests’ ability to store carbon and mitigate the climate emergency, and for endangered wildlife that is dependent on rich, ancient forests. Rising temperatures caused by global heating also cut growth and increases tree deaths by limiting photosynthesis and causing stress. In addition, high temperatures, drought, high storm winds, and pests, and disease have a greater effect on older trees and are all rising. The research, published in the journal Science and including satellite data analysis on land-use change, estimated that human tree felling had reduced total forest area by 12 percent since 1900. In that time, the proportion of old forest production, more than 140 years old, dropped from 89 percent to 66 percent. Lack of data meant the researchers couldn’t make a precise estimation of how much shorter the forest had become.

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