Australia Is Burning. Jakarta Is Drowning. Welcome to 2020.
By Jeff Turrentine
At first glance, the images seem more like nightmares than real life. Blood-red skies that appear to have seeped into the earth below, staining it hellishly. Cyclone-like whirls with columns of flame at their centers. People and animals huddled close together on a beach, ready to jump into the ocean should the encroaching fires reach their makeshift camp and leave them with no choice.
New years are supposed to augur new beginnings: the chance for all of us to reconsider our priorities, refresh our spirits, and recommit to goals yet unreached. But the images coming out of Australia — where bushfires have destroyed more than 12 million acres, killing at least 26 people and perhaps as many as a billion animals — make it difficult to greet 2020, or the new decade, with optimism about the fight against climate change. The personal accounts of those who have endured the fires, which were exacerbated by drought and record-high summer temperatures, use words like "apocalyptic," "dystopian," and "Armageddon" — language that connotes not only devastating loss but also a stark finality.
Occurring simultaneously with the Australian bushfires but receiving far less coverage is the massive flooding in and around the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, which as of this writing has already displaced hundreds of thousands of people and killed at least 66. In a normal world, where an entire continent wasn't burning so violently that the smoke was visible from outer space, Indonesia's floods would easily count as the biggest climate change story of the new year. But we've now reached the point where there are bound to be multiple climate-related disasters happening around the world at the same time. Paradoxically, the more frequent these events are, the less likely any individual one of them is to command our full attention — even though the very fact of this increased frequency is undoubtedly the most important story of our lifetimes.
Australians and Indonesians are suffering almost unimaginably right now. But in addition to pain, there's fury. And in that fury, there's hope that the people of the world will demand more from their leaders. Visiting the fire-ravaged New South Wales town of Cobargo last week, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison was met with open hostility by residents, angered by what they saw as the government's lackadaisical response to a disaster that began back in September and is expected to go on for several more months. (He also did himself few favors by jetting off to Hawaii with his family at the height of the crisis.) But for many Australians, Morrison's greatest transgression has been his stubborn refusal to connect the protracted length and deadly intensity of Australia's fire season to climate change — a topic he would rather avoid, given his close relationship with his country's fossil fuel industry. In 2017, while serving as Australia's treasurer, he addressed Parliament while holding a lump of coal, proudly showing it off to the lawmakers and urging them to not be "afraid" of it. Morrison isn't a climate denier, exactly; when asked about it, he'll acknowledge that climate change exists. He's more of a climate hypocrite: someone who's willing to concede the point, rhetorically, all so that he can deflect attention from the dirty energy policies that are demonstrably contributing to his country's current miseries. In fact, Australia has earned the dishonor of being ranked dead last out of 57 countries recently evaluated for how well they're fighting climate change at the policy level.
Meanwhile, Indonesians are directing their fury at their government's inability to respond quickly and forcefully enough to a single, inescapable truth: Jakarta is sinking. According to the World Bank, the city could well be at 16 feet below sea level in just five more years. Last August, in a move that stunned the world, Indonesia's leaders revealed that they would be transferring the nation's capital to Borneo. While many government workers may have been relieved to hear the news, the announcement did little to quell the fears of the other nine million or so people who live in and around Jakarta and who lack the resources to pack up and leave. Wealth inequality is rampant in Indonesia; climate change is showing us what it looks like. One photograph on Twitter taken during the recent flooding distills the magnitude of this problem simply and breathtakingly. The aerial image shows both an upscale, resort-style hotel and the much poorer residential neighborhood separated from it by the resort's security fence. The hotel appears untouched by the flooding; the adjacent neighborhood, however, is almost completely underwater. The reason: The hotel — like most new developments that cater to tourists and elites — is elevated several feet above street level. The tweeter's terse caption: "If you think [the] gap isn't real, think again."
If you think gap isn't real, think again. https://t.co/I8qM0sdSyg— Sakinah Ummu Haniy (@Sakinah Ummu Haniy)1577851030.0
If 2019 was the year that climate consciousness hit its tipping point, thanks in large part to the efforts of Greta Thunberg and the youth climate strikers, then 2020 is already shaping up to be the year that we fully absorb the message these activists have been struggling to impart: Policies matter. The people of Australia and Indonesia need immediate disaster relief. (Learn more about how you can help them here and here.) But once they've gotten it, they need something else: governments that will work to prevent future disasters by enacting climate policies that cut carbon emissions, hasten the end of coal and other dirty fossil fuels, preserve and improve infrastructure, encourage cities to adapt to a new slate of inevitable challenges, and ensure that the negative effects of climate change aren't borne disproportionately by the poor and politically marginalized.
The images coming out of Australia and Indonesia right now are hard to look at. But we can't afford to look away.
By nearly every credible account, 2020 is the last year we have to get things right. The horror we're witnessing in just these first weeks is a reminder that there's no time to waste — and definitely no time to indulge governmental hypocrisy or lassitude. This is the year that the people hold their leaders to account. It has to be.
Reposted with permission from onEarth.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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