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Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Winter 2005 > Around the World

Around the World

Local News from All Over

 

AFRICA

Toyotarization in North Africa
At the International Geographical Congress 2004 in Glasgow, Scotland on August 19, desert expert Andrew Goudie presented new research that shows an alarming increase in dust production from the use of four-wheel drive vehicles. Dubbed “Toyotarization,” this effect of the growing number of off-road vehicles that disturb the earth’s surface could have severe consequences for global environmental health. “The number of four-wheel-drives now in the Southwestern US and the Middle East is staggering,” said Goudie. “They destabilize the desert surface; you can still see tracks from Second World War vehicles in the Libyan desert.”
With a tenfold rise in dust production in parts of North Africa over the past 50 years, the growing frequency of dust storms gives rise to a plethora of environmental consequences. Yearly, 2,000 to 3,000 million tons of dust are released into the air; according to Goudie, 20 to 30 million tons of that dust are then dispersed during an average dust storm, carrying dust around the world. “Dust is one of the least understood components of the earth’s atmosphere,” said Goudie, “but one which may have a greater importance than has been realized up until now for climate change.”
— Scottish Press Association, 8/19

South Africa must limit coal use
In September, speaking at the opening of a sustainable development conference in Johannesburg, South Africa’s Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk declared that his country must address its apparent addiction to coal if it is to live up to its commitment to protect the environment.
South Africa is one of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide in the world, generating about 95 percent of its power by burning coal.
“In the context of climate change and the Kyoto Protocol we know that this is unsustainable,” van Schalkwyk said.
Outside the Johannesburg+2 conference on Sustainable Development, members of Earthlife Africa, Environmental Justice Network, and the Anti-Privatization Forum protested what they called lags in renewable technology development.
Inside the Convention Centre, van Schalkwyk acknowledged the protestors' concerns, saying he supported integration of South Africa’s environmental, economic, and social priorities.
— Jo’burg Business Day, 9/2

ANTARCTICA

Even the weariest glacier
Some glaciers in Antarctica are flowing more quickly to the sea, with ominous potential implications for worldwide sea levels. A paper in the online edition of the journal Science said glaciers flowing into the Amundsen Sea were thinning twice as quickly as they were in the 1990s.
Satellite and aircraft imaging studies released in September show that while parts of the polar continent are getting colder, Antarctica’s coasts are warming up. Historically, gigantic floating ice shelves have acted as dams to keep continental ice sheets on land. But as those ice shelves melt, the continental ice is freed to flow out into the ocean, where it will certainly melt.
Floating ice sheets do not raise sea levels when they melt, as floating ice already displaces water. But melting of on-shore ice does pose the prospect of sea level increase, with estimates ranging from a conservative two feet this century – enough to doom low-lying places such as the Bengali and Mississippi deltas – to 20 feet if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet melts.
— New York Times, 9/24

ASIA

Mining Asia’s water
Farmers’ wells are threatening to suck Asia’s aquifers dry. “This little-heralded crisis is repeating itself across Asia and could cause widespread famine in the decades to come,” says the British science magazine New Scientist, in a report on a Swedish water conference.
The problem is most severe in India, where traditional shallow wells no longer function. Farmers must now rely on wells hundreds of meters deep, drilled using oil extraction technology. India’s thirsty rice, sugar cane, and alfalfa farms are spurring the development of a million new wells each year.
Tushaar Shah, head of the International Water Management Institute's groundwater station in Gujarat, says that Indian farmers are taking 200 cubic kilometers of water out of the earth per year, much more than the monsoons can replace.
“The same revolution is being replicated across Asia, with millions of tube wells pumping up precious underground water reserves in water-stressed countries like Pakistan, Vietnam, and in northern China,” Fred Pearce wrote in New Scientist.
In China, 30 cubic kilometers more water is pumped to the surface each year than is replaced by rain. Officials have said water shortages will soon make China dependent on grain imports. Vietnam has over a million tube wells – up from 250,000 in 1994 – and water tables are plunging in Punjab, which produces 90 percent of Pakistan's food.
— New Scientist, 8/28

Three die of bird flu in Vietnam
Another outbreak of bird flu in Vietnam in early August killed three people. Two of the three, both children, lived in Ha Tay province, about 30 miles west of Hanoi; the third victim lived in Southern Hau Giang province in the Mekong Delta. Hans Troedsson, head of the World Health Organization (WHO), said it is imperative that the entire country take precautions. Troedsson also said that he believes Vietnam is better prepared to handle this situation than it was last year when the bird flu swept through Asia, forcing the slaughter of millions of chickens and ducks. Since Vietnam declared itself free of the bird flu in March, it has struggled to crush small outbreaks. “Whenever there’s bird flu in the poultry population,” said WHO Beijing spokesman Roy Wadia, “there are concerns it will be in humans as well.” More than 50,000 domestic fowl were slaughtered between March and August this year.
— Kansas City Star, 8/12

AUSTRALIA

Climate change “greater threat than terrorism”
Mike Rann, premier of the state of South Australia, has stated that climate change poses a greater threat to Australia than does terrorism and is exhorting his counterparts in other states and territories, and within the federal government, to take action to counter the threat.
What we're asking for,” Rann said, “is the same kind of resolve that we had when state and federal and territory ministers, Prime Minister and premiers met over terrorism after [the bombing in] Bali… I'm simply asking for the same kind of national cooperation to tackle the threat of greenhouse and global warming.”
— AAP Newsfeed, 8/27

EUROPE

Russia and Kyoto
Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin may be preparing to put the Kyoto Protocol to a vote in his country’s parliament. The protocol, in which signatories agree to reduce greenhouse gases to 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, will not take effect unless Russia signs it.
Putin directed his Cabinet ministers to sign draft ratification documents for the accord “as soon as possible,” a necessary step toward a decision on the protocol in the parliament.
Kyoto is controversial within the Russian government, with some such as economic advisor Andrei Illiaronov echoing the US’s position that the accord would weaken economic growth. Russia’s Natural Resources Ministry has signed off on the draft documents, but the Economic Development and Trade Ministry expressed reluctance to sign without “further study” of the economic consequences.
Russia’s ratification of the protocol is by no means certain at press time. The draft documents must be approved by all Ministries and the final agreement approved by the parliament and signed by Putin before ratification becomes official – a process that opposition could obstruct at several different points. Still Putin’s move signals that he has dropped his earlier reluctance to push for ratification, which observers take as a welcome bit of good news for the agreement’s chances in the parliament.
— LA Times, 9/24

Bush’s Blair-weather friend
Often considered George W. Bush’s best friend on the international stage, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been taking positions on climate change that are 180 degrees opposed to those of his transatlantic pal – going so far as to urge the US to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, despite Bush’s steadfast opposition to the climate change agreement.
Blair, who will chair both the G8 and the European Union next year, minced no words when he spoke of the priorities he will set during his tenure in both positions.
Pointing to the past year’s extreme weather event, from Europe’s killer heat wave, and the deadly droughts in the world’s arid regions, to this summer’s unprecedented string of hurricanes in the Caribbean Basin, Blair pooh-poohed the so-called climate change “skeptics” who claim the scientific jury is still out.
“If there were even a 50 percent chance that the scientific evidence is right, the bias in favor of action would be clear,” Blair said. “But of course it is far more than 50 percent.”
There's already enough evidence, he said, to make clear that the danger of climate change is “so far-reaching in its impact and irreversible in its destructive power, that it alters radically human existence.”
Lord Whitty, the Labour Party's former general secretary, says that Blair's chairmanship will press for an EU emissions trading scheme.
— The Guardian, 8/24

Europe’s climate changing faster...
The European Environmental Agency (EEA) warned on August 18 that climate change is going to hit Europe hard, and soon. In a 107-page report, the EEA said that climate change “will considerably affect our societies and environments for decades and centuries to come.” Rising temperatures could eliminate three-quarters of the Alpine glaciers by 2050 and precipitate mammoth flooding. The report also predicts that sea levels along the European coast will rise significantly, and that Europe will suffer another heat wave like the one that burned up crops and killed 26,000 people last year. Cold winters could disappear by 2080, and hot summers, droughts, and heavy rainstorms could become more frequent. The forecast also includes extinction of mountain plant species.
It’s not news that the climate is changing, but according to Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of EEA, the speed of the change is astonishing. “It takes a long time to see these changes in the glaciers. Now that we see them changing direction, then it means that there are warning signals in too many parts of our life.”
The report was released just as flashfloods, heavy rains, and landslides tore through parts of Europe, emphasizing the seriousness of accelerated climate change.
— AP, 8/19; Reuters, 8/20

...And faster still if the air is cleaner
According to Professor Meinrat Andreae of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, air pollution may hide the magnitude of the threat posed by global warming. Andreae, speaking at a London conference on pollution, said that global warming may proceed more quickly than expected if aerosol particlulate “cooling” has masked the true extent of global climate change.
Aerosols help cool the earth by reflecting sunlight back into space. Because of pollution control, in conjunction with the relatively short “lifespan” such particles have before settling out of the atmosphere, this “climate protection” will diminish in the future. At the London conference, Andreae said, “These arguments suggest that there is a considerable chance that climate change in the 21st century will follow the upper extremes of current estimates, and may even exceed them.”
The solution? According to Andreae, the only way to address the ever-increasing threat of climate change is “to do as much as possible, as fast as possible, to cut emissions of greenhouse gases.”
— The Scotsman, 8/24

Polar bears on borrowed time
In the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, there are equal numbers of people and polar bears. However, experts fear that balance is about to shift as the bears slide steadily toward extinction.
Theoretically a protected species, the polar bear is rapidly losing habitat and succumbing to other man-made perils. Besides DDT and PCBs, brominated flame retardants have begun to pose a serious threat to the bears. “The source of toxins and environmental waste is basically in the south, in the industrial zones like North America, Russia, and Europe,” said Bjarne Otnes, a local Svalbard government representative. “The substances tend to evaporate and settle in the Arctic.”
While the direct effects of these toxins is largely unclear, researchers suspect that they damage the bears’ immune systems and threaten their ability to reproduce. Topping the Arctic food chain, polar bears store nutrients and poisons, consumed by their prey.
Global warming is also imperiling the polar bears, as their hunting ground melts under their feet. The Hadley Centre, a British climate research institute, predicts the ice cap will melt by 2080, leaving the bears land-locked; hunting seals from the summer ice provides about 95 percent of their food intake.
And as if that weren’t enough for the bears to contend with, climate change may also deprive them of their chief hunting strategy: camouflage. “Animals that have adapted by turning white during the winter... may not have enough time to adapt to a world in which winters are no longer white,” said Samantha Smith, director of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s Arctic program.
— Terra Wire, 7/28

NORTH AMERICA

Bush blinks on climate change
The Bush administration is almost admitting that warmer temperatures in North America may indeed be caused by human activity. The administration backed a government-sponsored report sent to Congress in late August asserting that warmer weather in North America since 1950 has probably been caused by human pollution. The report has had no effect on the Bush administration’s environmental policy.
In an interview with the New York Times, when Bush was asked why his administration had changed its position on climate change, he replied: “Ah, did we? I don’t think so.” Later, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the study sent to Congress did not change the president’s position because more research was needed. “The president’s policy is the same…we need to fill in the knowledge and the scientific gaps,” Duffy said.
Earlier in his presidency, Bush withdrew the US from the Kyoto Protocol, claiming that the American economy would suffer too much from such restrictions. Instead, the White House promotes a voluntary program for US power plants, oil refineries, and other industries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions.
— MSNBC, Reuters, 8/27

Kicking the herbicide habit
A $541,050 federal grant will enable researchers at The Rodale Institute (TRI) to demonstrate how a new spin on old technology could reduce the need for toxic herbicides in American agriculture.
“Our new ‘no-till’ technology could eliminate the use of 30 million pounds of herbicides every year in the US,” said David Ward, vice president of program development for TRI, which has developed a new tractor implement to reduce herbicide use in major crops such as soy, corn, and cotton.
According to the USDA Economic Research Service, 52.5 million acres – or 17.5 percent of all US planted cropland – were in no-till management in 2000.
No-till systems plant seeds without ripping the soil apart, preventing soil erosion. But standard no-till relies on application of herbicides to kill weeds. TRI’s modified no-till technology adds mechanical rollers, which kill weeds by running over them.
— TRI press release, 9/22

Rocky Mountain low
The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a 22-year-old energy-efficiency NGO in Colorado, will quantify its greenhouse gas emissions each year, then buy an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide credits through the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) market to offset its emissions. RMI will then retire the purchased credits, mitigating the Institute's impact on global climate change.
RMI contributes to emissions of greenhouse gases through business-related travel, heating fuel purchases, and some electricity purchases.
— RMI, 6/26

Mexican gas
The Mexican Secretariat for Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) has launched the Mexico GHG Pilot Program, a voluntary national program to measure and report business greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The project is the first government-led climate initiative of its kind.
“This program will provide tools and training to Mexican businesses, helping them to apply accounting approaches to quantify GHG emissions, identify GHG reduction opportunities, and attract new technologies and investments,” said Alberto Cárdenas Jiménez, secretary of SEMARNAT.
The program will help Mexican businesses gain financial benefits through participation in carbon trading, reducing local air pollutants, and mitigating global warming.
“While many industries throughout the world have implemented the GHG Protocol, Mexico is the first country to adopt it,” said Jonathan Lash, World Resources Institute president. “In the absence of international leadership in tackling climate change, Mexico has taken the lead in showing what can be done to mitigate global warming.”
— Peter Denton, WRI

Canadian vapor
A refinery in Canada failed to inform the proper officials after it released five tons of sulphur trioxide (SO3) that passed over downtown Montreal. The federal agency Environment Canada said it wasn’t expeditiously notified when the sulphur gas leaked from the Noranda zinc refinery in Valleyfield, Quebec, 50 kilometers west of Montreal.
A family living just east of the plant called an ambulance after experiencing throat irritation. The call, placed 45 minutes after the leak, was the first indication that something had gone wrong, said an Environment Canada representative, who spoke with typical Canadian élan. “We’re not very pleased this happened,” said Claude Rivet, Environment Canada’s Quebec emergency coordinator.
Rivet said his department could launch court action against the plant once it determines exactly what happened. An inspector will also be sent to Valleyfield to speak with plant officials.
— Toronto Star, 8/11

Hot pursuit
In July, eight states filed a complaint in federal district court in New York claiming that global warming is damaging crops, tourism, beaches, citizens’ health, forests, and fish, and threatening coastal communities as sea levels rise. The states filing the complaint are Wisconsin, Vermont, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Iowa, Connecticut, and California.
Targeting the nation’s five largest public utilities, the suit claims that these companies are major contributors to global warming, generating more than 650 million tons of carbon dioxide annually as they burn coal to produce electricity. The states are not demanding a financial settlement, but they want the power companies to cap their CO2 emissions.
In order to win this courtroom battle, the states have to demonstrate, with a greater than 50 percent certainty, that the companies are responsible for the damages. This is a difficult task, given current politics, but most scientists now agree the planet is indeed warming and that carbon dioxide is the main villain.
— Christian Science Monitor, 8/19

SOUTH AMERICA

Chilean indigenes face trial
Eighteen Mapuche Indian leaders are scheduled to go on trial in Chile soon. Accused under a statute that prohibits “generating fear among sectors of the population,” leaders of Chile’s indigenous people currently face charges for a series of incidents in the past seven years in which groups of Mapuche destroyed tree farming equipment, burned commercial forests, and set fire to farmhouses, serious crimes against property. The Chilean government seeks to blunt the indigenous land-rights movement by invoking an antiterrorist law dating from the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, 1973 to 1990.
“These are crimes, not against human life or liberty, but basically against property,” said Sebastian Brett, a representative of Human Rights Watch in Chile. “They stem from a wide sense of grievance among the Mapuches that they have illegally been deprived of their lands.”
After the Mapuche were forcibly removed from their lands and put onto reservations in the late 19th century, policies changed; the Mapuche lost title to all but a tiny fragment of their ancestral lands in the 1920s, through procedures now considered illegal. Much of that land is now covered in tree farms, with Monterey pines and eucalyptus planted on hundreds of thousands of acres. The non-native trees require large amounts of water and fertilizer.
According to Rodrigo Lillo, a lawyer who has defended Mapuche leaders in military tribunals, the Mapuche have lost Chilean public support. “By using the terrorist law, the government has not only succeeded in [disenfranchising] Mapuche groups, it has also robbed them of the moral prestige and sympathy they once enjoyed.”
— New York Times, 8/11

   

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