Report Warns that Plastics Will Soon Outweigh Fish in World’s Oceans

Published on Tuesday, January 19, 2016 by Common Dreams

The weight of plastic waste clogging the world’s oceans threatens to exceed all fish by 2050 if the world’s seemingly insatiable appetite for the material continues at the current explosive rate, warned a new report presented on Tuesday.

In fact, according to the study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation along with the World Economic Forum, “plastics production has surged over the past 50 years, from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes in 2014, and is expected to double again over the next 20 years.”

The study—The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics (pdf)—introduced at the opening day of the WEF’s annual summit in Davos, Switzerland is the first of its kind to comprehensively assess global plastic packaging flows. The report makes an economic case for what it calls the “New Plastics Economy,” described as “a new approach based on creating effective after-use pathways for plastics; drastically reducing leakage of plastics into natural systems, in particular oceans; and decoupling plastics from fossil feedstocks.”

Among the findings, which are based on interviews with over 180 experts and on analysis of over 200 reports, the study estimates that roughly 8 million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean each year—”which is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute.” This amount is expected to double by 2030.

“In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain 1 tonne of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish (by weight),” the report continues.

What’s more, the report estimates that only 14 percent of plastic packaging is collected for recycling and even less for plastics in general. After sorting, only 5 percent is ultimately retained for subsequent use, which is far below global recycling rates for paper (58 percent) and iron and steel (70–90 percent).

Further, the report examines the carbon impact of plastics production, given that over 90 percent are derived from “virgin fossil feedstocks.” Plastics production represents roughly 6 percent of global oil consumption and “If the current strong growth of plastics usage continues as expected, the plastics sector will account for 20% of total oil consumption and 15% of the global annual carbon budget by 2050.”

The report argues that single-use plastics, and plastic packaging specifically, represents a net loss for the economy, as its limited value is outweighed by these negative impacts. It states:

After a short first-use cycle, 95% of plastic packaging material value, or USD 80–120 billion annually, is lost to the economy. A staggering 32% of plastic packaging escapes collection systems, generating significant economic costs by reducing the productivity of vital natural systems such as the ocean and clogging urban infrastructure. The cost of such after-use externalities for plastic packaging, plus the cost associated with greenhouse gas emissions from its production, is conservatively estimated at USD 40 billion annually – exceeding the plastic packaging industry’s profit pool.

“Linear models of production and consumption are increasingly challenged by the context within which they operate, and this is particularly true for high-volume, low-value materials such as plastic packaging,” said Ellen MacArthur, an accomplished British yachtswoman turned foundation chair.

The researchers conclude that in order to get closer to the goal of a “circular economy”—where “consumption happens only in effective bio-cycles; elsewhere use replaces consumption”—both the public and private sector must work towards the goal of creating plastics that can be both recycled and composted.




Russia Restakes Claim as Race for Arctic Resources Continues

Published on Wednesday, August 05, 2015 by Common Dreams

The rush for claims to the resource-rich Arctic continued on Tuesday when Russia submitted to the United Nations a renewed bid for territories, sparking environmental fears.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the “application covers an underwater space covering an area of about 1.2 million sq km at a distance of over 350 nautical miles from the coast.”

Agence France-Presse reports that the Arctic shelf area it hopes to claim “would include the North Pole and potentially give Russia access to an estimated 4.9 billion tonnes of hydrocarbons, according to government estimates.”

A 2008 U.S. Geological Survey assessment estimated the Arctic to hold about 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its undiscovered natural gas.

Because its 2002 application for the area was rejected because of lack of evidence, Russia said its new claim is based on “extensive scientific data collected during many years of Arctic research.”

Environmental group Greenpeace cautioned against exploiting the region for fossil fuel riches.

“The melting of the Arctic ice is uncovering a new and vulnerable sea, but countries like Russia and Norway want to turn it into the next Saudi Arabia,” Greenpeace Russia Arctic campaigner Vladimir Chuprov said in a statement. “Unless we act together, this region could be dotted with oil wells and fishing fleets within our lifetimes.”

“Today’s news feel ominous, but it need not be,” Chuprov stated. “The protection of the Arctic is a defining issue for our times and it can help bring countries together.”

Canadian environmental activist David Suzuki has previously written that looking to mine Arctic fossil fuels in the face of its risks is “incomprehensible,” and that the only sensible approach is to heed climate activists’ advice and leave the fossil fuels in the ground.

“Responding to climate change and vanishing Arctic ice by gearing up to drill for the stuff at the root of the problem is insane. Unfortunately, many fossil fuel companies and governments are engaged in a mad rush to get as much oil and gas out of the ground — no matter how difficult — while there’s still a market,” Suzuki continued.




World’s Ocean Could Rise Higher, Sooner, Faster Than Most Thought Possible

Published on Tuesday, July 21, 2015 by Common Dreams

by Jon Queally, staff writer

If a new scientific paper is proven accurate, the international target of limiting global temperatures to a 2°C rise this century will not be nearly enough to prevent catastrophic melting of ice sheets that would raise sea levels much higher and much faster than previously thought possible.

“Parts of [our coastal cities] would still be sticking above the water, but you couldn’t live there.”
—Dr. James Hansen

According to the new study—which has not yet been peer-reviewed, but was written by former NASA scientist James Hansen and 16 other prominent climate researchers—current predictions about the catastrophic impacts of global warming, the melting of vast ice sheets, and sea level rise do not take into account the feedback loop implications of what will occur if large sections of Greenland and the Antarctic are consumed by the world’s oceans.

A summarized draft of the full report was released to journalists on Monday, with the shocking warning that such glacial melting will “likely” occur this century and could cause as much as a ten foot sea-level rise in as little as fifty years. Such a prediction is much more severe than current estimates contained in reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—the UN-sponsored body that represents the official global consensus of the scientific community.

“If the ocean continues to accumulate heat and increase melting of marine-terminating ice shelves of Antarctica and Greenland, a point will be reached at which it is impossible to avoid large scale ice sheet disintegration with sea level rise of at least several meters,” the paper states.

Separately, the researchers conclude that “continued high emissions will make multi-meter sea level rise practically unavoidable and likely to occur this century. Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.”

The Daily Beast‘s Mark Hertsgaard, who attended a press call with Dr. Hansen on Monday,reports that the work presented by the researchers is

warning that humanity could confront “sea level rise of several meters” before the end of the century unless greenhouse gas emissions are slashed much faster than currently contemplated.

This roughly 10 feet of sea level rise—well beyond previous estimates—would render coastal cities such as New York, London, and Shanghai uninhabitable.  “Parts of [our coastal cities] would still be sticking above the water,” Hansen said, “but you couldn’t live there.”

This apocalyptic scenario illustrates why the goal of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius is not the safe “guardrail” most politicians and media coverage imply it is, argue Hansen and 16 colleagues in a blockbuster study they are publishing this week in the peer-reviewed journal Atmospheric Physics and Chemistry. On the contrary, a 2C future would be “highly dangerous.”

If Hansen is right—and he has been right, sooner, about the big issues in climate science longer than anyone—the implications are vast and profound.

In the call with reporters, Hansen explained that time is of the essence, given the upcomingclimate talks in Paris this year and the grave consequences the world faces if bold, collective action is not taken immediately. “We have a global crisis that calls for international cooperation to reduce emissions as rapidly as practical,” the paper states.

Hansen said he has long believed that many of the existing models were under-estimating the potential impacts of ice sheet melting, and told the Daily Beast: “Now we have evidence to make that statement based on much more than suspicion.”

Though he acknowledged the publication of the paper was unorthodox, Hansen told reporters that the research itself is “substantially more persuasive than anything previously published.”

For his part, Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist who writes about weather and climate for Slate, said the “bombshell” findings are both credible and terrifying. Holthaus writes:

To come to their findings, the authors used a mixture of paleoclimate records, computer models, and observations of current rates of sea level rise, but “the real world is moving somewhat faster than the model,” Hansen says.

[…] The implications are mindboggling: In the study’s likely scenario, New York City—and every other coastal city on the planet—may only have a few more decades of habitability left. That dire prediction, in Hansen’s view, requires “emergency cooperation among nations.”

In response to the paper, climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton Universityaffirmed: “If we cook the planet long enough at about two degrees warming, there is likely to be a staggering amount of sea level rise. Key questions are when would greenhouse-gas emissions lock in this sea level rise and how fast would it happen? The latter point is critical to understanding whether and how we would be able to deal with such a threat.”

The new research, Oppenheimer added, “takes a stab at answering the ‘how soon?’ question but we remain largely in the dark.  Giving the state of uncertainty and the high risk, humanity better get its collective foot off the accelerator.”

And as the Daily Beast‘s Hertsgaard notes, Hansen’s track record on making climate predictions should command respect from people around the world. The larger question, however, is whether humanity has the capacity to act.

“The climate challenge has long amounted to a race between the imperatives of science and the contingencies of politics,” Hertsgaard concludes. “With Hansen’s paper, the science has gotten harsher, even as the Nature Climate Change study affirms that humanity can still choose life, if it will. The question now is how the politics will respond—now, at Paris in December, and beyond.”




As Planet Warms, Oceans Face Threatening Changes Unseen in 3 Million Years

Published on Tuesday, June 02, 2015 by Common Dreams by Lauren McCauley, staff writer

Continued warming of the world’s oceans may trigger disruptions to marine life not seen in 3 million years, according to a new study published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The study, put forth by scientists from the University of Science and Technology in Lille, France, and other institutions, aims to put the anticipated ecological crisis in historic perspective.

Among the foreseen changes are extinction of some of the ocean’s keystone species as well as the widespread influx of invasive plants and animals particularly in “temperate and polar biomes.”

“Climate change may rapidly reorganize marine diversity over large oceanic regions,” states the report. “The intensity of this reorganization will depend, unsurprisingly, on the magnitude of warming.”

According to the report, a “moderate warming” scenario, with projected global warming ranging from 0.9 to 2.6º C, “will increase by threefold the changes already observed over the past 50 years.”

However, of most concern is that severe warming, with a projected increase of 0.8 to 4.8°C, “will affect marine biodiversity to a greater extent than temperature changes that took place between either the Last Glacial Maximum or the mid-Pliocene and today,” impacting as much as 70 percent of the world’s oceans.

The effects of both the moderate and severe scenarios will ultimately impact humans, saidco-author Richard Kirby, with Britain’s University of Plymouth, as the global ecosystem will inevitably be altered.

“When the temperature of the environment changes, animals and plants change in abundance locally or may move to new locations if the habitat is suitable,” Kirby said. “These movements ultimately affect the food web and ecology, and if they are rapid, the food web may become uncoupled.”

The study, Kirby continued, highlights “the changes in the Earth’s biology that may lie ahead if we do not address global warming.”