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26 Jan 2021

Global risks

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

According to a global panel of experts we have had, “a year ravaged by a global pandemic, economic downturn, political turmoil and the ever-worsening climate crisis.” What next? First, a struggle to recover. The impacts of COVID-19 “…threaten to scale back years of progress on reducing global poverty and inequality and further damage social cohesion and global cooperation.” What else? The experts list emerging risks to human health, rising unemployment, widening digital divides, youth disillusionment, and geopolitical fragmentation. But the biggest long-threat to our well-being is the steady, seemingly inexorable march of climate change. While the change seems steady, the panel worries that climate change will not be slow and even but will involve sudden and dramatic changes called tipping points, such as the release of frozen methane that could cause a spurt in global warming and a dramatic rise in sea levels. “We are on the path to triggering climate tipping points that could create runaway and irreversible damage that will be an existential threat to future generations.”

The Global Risks Report 2021 is the 16th in a series of reports prepared every year for the World Economic Forum, an annual meeting of the world’s rich, powerful, famous, knowledgeable and influential, including leaders from government, business, civil society and the media. This week, instead of gathering in the exclusive Swiss ski resort town of Davos, they, like millions of others, are holding virtual meetings. The economic forum was created in 1971 to introduce the American business management approach to European firms. It has evolved into a meeting to discuss critical global issues, including their impacts on business.

Top Risks
By likelihood
Top Risks
By impact
Extreme weatherInfectious diseases
Climate action failureClimate action failure
Human environmental damageWeapons of mass destruction
Infectious diseasesBiodiversity loss
Biodiversity lossNatural resource crises
Digital power concentrationHuman environmental damage
Digital inequalityLivelihood crises
Interstate relations fractureExtreme weather
Cybersecurity failureDebt crises
Livelihood crisesIT infrastructure breakdown

Source: World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2021

The report says the pandemic caused by one of the deadliest viruses in history is seen as relatively short term. However, “…the global economy will be threatened by the knock-on effects of the coronavirus crisis, while geopolitical stability will be critically fragile over the next 5 to 10 years.” These effects “…threaten to scale back years of progress on reducing global poverty and inequality and further damage social cohesion and global cooperation.” Problems facing the world are the huge debt crisis caused by countries borrowing to keep people afloat, a deepening digital divide as poor struggle for access to modern technology. In addition, “youth face new barriers to social mobility, strains on mental health, uncertain economic prospects and the continued degradation of the planet.” The crisis has caused terrible unemployment, especially affecting working women. It has put great strain on many fragile health systems. It has slowed down or even stopped education for millions of young.

The report warns it will take a historic effort to recover and to rebuild economies that keep people safe, healthy and employed but to redirect development to green economies, not just more of the old, polluting and environmentally destructive ways.

7 Jan 2021

A new measure of how we are doing

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Which is really the most developed country in the world? For many years, economic output, measured as gross domestic product, has been used as a key measure of progress. Over the past three decades, the Human Development Index from the United Nations Development Programme [UNDP] has ranked the world’s nations based on composite of life expectancy, education, and per capita income. Using this scale, the top performers in the 2020 report are Norway, Ireland and Switzerland. They have long life expectancies [over 80 years], lots of education and high gross national income. But this year, the UNDP introduced a new experimental index on human progress that deducts points for countries’ environmental impacts: their carbon dioxide emissions and material footprint. With the new index, Norway dropped 15 places, Canada, which ranked 16th on the regular scale, dropped 40 places and the United States, which was 17th, dropped 45 places. All three countries are major fossil fuel producers.

This year’s Human Development Report, The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene, warns that the success of nations has been tied to high resource use and pollution. Achim Steiner, the UNDP administrator, writes “…no country in the world has yet achieved very high human development without putting immense strain on the planet.” If this development path continues, he warns, humanity’s progress will grind to a halt. The report says human impacts on the planet are so great that they are changing the earth. We have climate change, loss of species, acidification of the ocean, loss of tropical forests and many forms of pollution. As a result, we are “lurching from crisis to crisis.” Mr. Steiner says that to “survive and thrive in this new age, we must redesign a path to progress that respects the intertwined fate of people and planet and recognizes that the carbon and material footprint of the people who have more is choking the opportunities of the people who have less.” The report said many of the problems are rooted in inequalities within and between countries, with roots in colonialism and racism. The rich get more of the benefits of exploiting nature and export the costs to the poor who are less able to deal with the resulting problems.

1 Dec 2020

Cleaner energy is coming

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

As the world starts taking climate change more seriously, business is betting on an electric future. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, 73 countries, 398 cities, 768 businesses and 16 investors are working to achieve net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. Since fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal – account for 84 per cent of primary energy, there is a gigantic shift ahead. Hydroelectricity at 6.4 per cent is still the largest non-fossil source but there are limited places for it to expand. Nuclear power is at 4.3 per cent but its growth is limited by costs and safety concerns. Other renewables are where the action is. An article in Bloomberg Green proclaims “The New Energy Giants are Renewable Companies.” It says a handful of companies that have invested heavily in solar and wind energy are overtaking the big oil companies in terms of their market value. Renewables are already cheaper than fossil fuel power in many parts of the world, leading to a shift in investments. The cost of solar power has dropped by as much as 90 per cent in a decade and big investments will keep driving down the cost of renewables. The question is can we make the shift fast enough to bring down greenhouse gas emissions before the cause catastrophic climate change. It’s not certain. Many countries are still subsidizing the production and transport of fossil fuels more than they are investing in renewable energy. The United Nations says the world should be cutting production of oil, coal and natural gas by 6 per cent each year by 2030 to keep global temperatures from rising too high. Instead, countries are projecting annual increases of 2 per cent in fossil fuel production.

18 Nov 2020

Citizen voices on tough choices

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Over the past 50 years, I watched and written about governments struggling to deal with environmental problems, often caught between the interests of polluting companies and evidence of serious environmental damage and threats to human health. Over time governments brought in laws and regulations to control pollution and limit the overuse of natural resources. When it comes to the really big issues of our times, such as climate change, governments are facing unprecedented challenges. To deal with climate change they must curtail pollution from virtually every citizen. Many governments have promised to make dramatic cuts in greenhouse gases but are hesitating to bring in controls that will be unpopular with many. The use of “citizen assemblies” is an attempt to give permission to politicians to make tough choices. An article in Science, the journal of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, looks at the U.K. Climate Assembly. It was created by the British House of Commons and made up of 110 people randomly selected to reflect the age, education level, wealth and gender makeup of the general population. The group was given the task of identifying policies to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. They made a series of recommendations, including an early shift to electric vehicles and improvement of public transport, and higher taxes on frequent flyers. The question is how closely will the British government listen to the advice.

17 Nov 2020

Risk of pandemics

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Denmark’s decision to kill its 15 million farmed mink because of COVID-19 infections is just the latest signal of how the way we deal with nature is putting our own health at risk. Earlier this month Denmark said a mutated form of the coronavirus had sickened 11 people. The origin of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China is believed to be from a wild animal market. Earlier this month, 22 experts with the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services warned, “Future pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, do more damage to the world economy and kill more people than COVID-19 unless there is a transformative change in the global approach to dealing with infectious diseases.” The group said that pandemics are triggered by the way humans push into wild areas and use wildlife, exposing us to previously unknown viruses. Pandemic risk can be significantly lowered by reducing the human activities that drive the loss of biodiversity, by greater conservation of protected areas, and through measures that reduce unsustainable exploitation of high biodiversity regions. This will reduce wildlife-livestock-human contact and help prevent the spillover of new diseases, says the report.

25 Oct 2020

Choosing health and sustainability

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

A global public opinion survey found people want to live more healthy lives and reduce their environmental impact but find it too difficult and expensive. The June survey of 27,000 people in 26 countries by GlobeScan wanted to find out what enables them or prevents people from living in a healthier and more sustainable way. It found people worried about COVID-19, the spread of diseases, climate change and the depletion of natural resources. More than 80 per cent are trying to improve their own health and well-being, and three-quarters want to reduce their impact on the environment and nature “by a large amount.” However, most are not ready to make the kind of changes experts say are needed to achieve sustainability. While half said they wanted to move to a more environmentally friendly lifestyle only 25 per cent they had made major changes to do so in the past year. People want change to be easy and less expensive. Younger people were more eager to make a significant effort to become healthier, more environmentally friendly, and more helpful to others.

13 Oct 2020

A step toward a circular economy

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Last week the Canadian government took a run at slowing the flood of plastic garbage in the environment when it announced a ban on a number of plastics by the end of next year. They include single-use items such as plastic checkout bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery, and food ware made from hard-to-recycle plastics. It is step toward a national goal of zero plastic waste by 2030, and is part of a push for industry to stop creating so much waste. This follows years of stories of a world flooded with plastic garbage, some of which breaks down into tiny particles that end up in our food, water and bodies. Every year, Canadians throw away 3 million tonnes of plastic waste. Only 9 per cent is recycled while the vast majority ends up in landfills. In 2019, Canada was publicly embarrassed when the Philippines and Malaysia shipped contaminated plastic waste back to Canada, saying it was unfit for recycling. This came a year after China banned importation of most foreign plastics for recycling.

Last week’s announcement draws from the Canada-wide strategy on zero plastic waste, an agreement among the federal, provincial and territorial governments. It seeks to reduce plastic waste and move used plastics into a circular economy. According to the Recycling Council of Alberta, “the current economy is linear, which means that things are made with raw materials, used and then disposed. In contrast, a circular economy keeps products and materials circulating within the economy at their highest value for as long as possible, through reuse, recycling, remanufacturing, sharing and delivering products as services.” Circular systems minimize input of raw resources and creation of waste by keeping materials in use rather than throwing them away.

Unwanted plastic.
Credit: Laura Sullivan, NPR

The problem is that many plastics are hard to recycle. In the 1980s and 1990s plastics manufacturers were under fire for the amount of plastic garbage in the environment. Companies funded a number of plastic recycling operations. According to a story by Nation Public Radio in the United States, these were often a financial failure, but gave people the impression that something was being done even though much of the plastic went from recycling containers into garbage landfills. There a number of reasons. Sometimes the plastic is too contaminated with food waste or other materials to be worth cleaning to recycle. There are hundreds of types of plastic, and sometimes several are combined in one product, meaning waste materials have to be sorted before being melted down for a new use. Plastics will also degrade to lower quality when recycled, limiting their use. With low oil prices, it’s often cheaper to make new plastic.

Governments are putting more onus on industry to make changes at the design, collection and recovery stages of plastics. It may mean less stuff thrown into recycling bins and less confusion for people trying to figure out what they can and cannot recycle.

9 Oct 2020

What do people want?

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

The United Nations was born in a time of crisis, in the aftermath of the Second World War, which killed tens of millions. The organization marks its 75th anniversary during the COVID-19 crisis. It chose this time to conduct a survey of more than 1 million people around the world. It asked about their hopes and fears for the future, priorities for international cooperation and thoughts about the United Nations. The immediate priority of most respondents was improved access to health care, safe water and sanitation, and education. People also wanted greater international solidarity and increased support to those hardest hit by the pandemic. This includes tackling poverty, inequalities and unemployment. Looking ahead, most people worried about our inability to stop the climate crisis and the destruction of the environment. They also worried about poverty, corruption and violent conflicts     .

UN logo

9 Oct 2020

The Earthshot prize

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Fifty ways to save the planet. If you have one, you could win more than $1 million. It’s called the Earthshot Prize, announced this week by Prince William and David Attenborough, one of the world’s greatest environmental broadcasters. The first five prizes will focus on protecting and restoring nature, clean air, reviving oceans, building a waste-free world and fixing the climate. The goal is to draw ideas from people around the world over the next decade. Earthshot was inspired by U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s 1961 plan to put a human on the moon before the end of the decade, called a moonshot. It led to a host of inventions. Prince William said an Earthshot prize could go to a new technology, a new way of doing things or a new policy. There are 50 prizes of 1 million pounds to be awarded over the next decade, funded by a group of individuals, businesses and organizations. Prince William’s project echoes the work of his father, Prince Charles, a long-time environmentalist, and grandfather, the Duke of Edinburgh, who once president of the World Wildlife Fund.

Earthrise. Credit: NASA

8 Oct 2020

Plastics ban and a circular economy

Posted by Michael Keating. 1 Comment

Canada took a step closer to a circular economy on October 7 with a ban on some plastics and a plan is to encourage recycling of plastic by requiring recycled content in products and packaging. By the end of 2021 the federal government will join some its provinces and cities and a number of other countries with a crackdown on plastics that too often end up as garbage. The ban includes plastic checkout bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery, and food ware made from hard-to-recycle plastics. The move is part of a national goal of zero plastic waste by 2030. It will make producers and sellers of plastic products responsible for collecting them. One goal is to drive investment in recycling infrastructure and spur innovation in technology and product design to extend the life of plastic materials. Every year, Canadians throw away 3 million tonnes of plastic waste. Only 9 per cent is recycled while the vast majority goes into landfills. An estimated 29,000 tonnes ends up litter on fields and shorelines, chokes wildlife and breaks down into minute particles that end up in our food, water and our bodies. According to the Recycling Council of Alberta a circular economy, “keeps products and materials circulating within the economy at their highest value for as long as possible, through reuse, recycling, remanufacturing, sharing and delivering products and services.”

Credit: Troy Mayne