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40 years. That is the estimated time window we have left to turn the boat around and solve the great global challenges like climate change, loss of biodiversity and ocean acidification according to researchers from Helsinki University. If we keep doing business as usual, Earth as we know it will dramatically change. There will be floods and other extreme weather phenomena, conflicts due to massive amounts of climate refugees and mass extinctions of plants and animals. All of this during our lifetime! It is fair to say that the Earth is now at a tipping point.
The greatest concerns of scientist can be summarised into four categories:
1) The melting of the Arctic summer ice and Greenland, causing more land to be exposed and thereby reinforcing the warming due to more absorbed sunlight. This would destroy the arctic ecosystems, have severe geopolitical consequences (=conflicts) as well as cause a rise in the sea level. It is estimated that the melting of Greenland alone could cause a sea level rise of up to 7 meters.
2) Extreme weather events become more frequent. Since the world oceans absorb 90 % of the heat trapped by the greenhouse gases, the ocean dynamics that control El Niño events are altered. This in turn would lead to even more frequent extreme droughts, flooding and hurricanes than today.
3) The Amazon rain forests turn into savannah grasslands. This is something that can happen rapidly once initiated and researchers estimate that the transformation can take place with just a 10 percent decrease in the forest cover. The reason is that water is lost from the system when trees disappear, and the system then enters a "bad loop". The Amazon hosts at least 10 % of the world´s biodiversity.
4) The destruction of boreal forests. The altered climate in the northern hemisphere is likely to take its toll on our forests. Boreal forests store large amounts of carbon in the soil which could be set free if the permafrost melts, resulting in feedback loops between climate and forest. Climate change will also affect fire frequency and severity in the boreal areas.
The good news is we can still do something about this. Here are some things:
1. Cut the methane emissions. Methane is a short lived, more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. This problem could be solved almost immediately by switching to a plant based diet since livestock production (cattle) accounts for about 35 percent of the total anthropogenic methane emissions.
2. Cut the carbon footprint. This is especially true for the biggest emitters China, USA and Europe (not looking to good for the US with Trump retreating from the Paris agreement though). Fly less, switch to non-fossil energy and have less children.
3. Stop cutting down forests. Rainforest nations should be awarded for preserving their forest. It is certainly in the interest of everyone that forest have a higher value alive than dead since global deforestation accounts for about 15 percent of the world’s carbon emissions.
40 years people, 40 years. If you can do something, I suggest you do it starting from today.
The rise of the plastic era was seen only a few decades ago. As a matter of fact, all plastics that has ever existed was made only within the past 13 years as revealed by a recent study! Along with climate change, plastic pollution is one the most severe problems facing our oceans today. The only difference is that the plastic problem is much more visible than climate change since the plastic garbage tends to pop up on our beaches, in the stomaches of wales and even on our seafood platters.
The problem has not gone unnoticed by political actors. Several countries have already placed bans on plastic bags, cutlery and other plastic items. However, there is one specific actor which should also rapidly be coming up with a new, environmentally friendly strategy and that is the manufacturer of drinking bottles.
Bottles and other plastic garbage on the island of Raya Yai, Thailand 2016.
The soft drink industry is responsible for selling over a million plastic bottles every minute. And they have no intention what so ever of reducing the use of these bottles, instead, a big increase is expected. Polyethylene terephthalate, commonly abbreviated PET, the material of drinking bottles, was one of the most common materials of microplastics found on the Thai beaches in our study last winter. Greenpeace has recently put pressure on the giant Coca Cola to step up to this problem and we should all do the same.
So what would the solution be? Although a funny idea, it is utopistic to think that the edible water bubbles would replace PET as a material and up to date, there is no durable, biodegradable material to replace liquid containers with. Should we then go back in time and use glass, made out of sand again? Unfortunately, also glass bottles end up in the oceans. European countries have solved the problem with highly effective recycling, and this is probably where the money should be targeted.
In Southeast Asia where a large portion of the plastic pollution comes from, it is not economically beneficial to recycle plastics. I suggest that the large soft drink sellers like Coca Cola started campaigning for plastic recycling worldwide and maybe even established plastic bottle recycling plants in poor economy countries. Now THAT would be stepping up.
Should the companies be responsible for getting their junk out of the waters?
The contributors to this blog are the marine biologists Maria Koivisto (left) and Anu Riihimäki (right).