To protect people from the impact of climate change and bring about transformation, we need educational institutions to train a new breed of policymakers, managers and scientists who can ‘steer this planet towards less emissions and less waste, while creating new jobs and reducing poverty’, says Dr Rolph Payet, United Nations executive secretary for the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Convention.
Growing up in the Seychelles, one would not miss the fact that while we are physically isolated and surrounded by immense natural beauty, hundreds of tons of plastic has been washing up on our shores since the early 80s. This is what we see and can observe. And what about the invisible chemicals being irresponsibly dumped in many corners of our planet, ending up in its oceans and atmosphere?
Climate change, ozone depletion in our atmosphere and persistent organic pollutants in many fish species are all evidence that our planetary footprint far exceeds our doorstep. Let’s take the waste we generate at home – we place it in the bin, park it by the roadside, someone picks it up and we forget about it. Did you know that only nine per cent of all the plastics we generate at home is recycled? It is estimated that by 2030, emissions into our atmosphere as a result of plastic use will be equivalent to 295 new 500 megawatt coal-fired plants.
While our planet absorbs about 25 per cent of our carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, deforestation, marine pollution and growing fossil fuel energy are further increasing CO2 in our atmosphere. In 1982, our atmosphere had 320 parts per million (ppm) of CO2, and in 2017 we measured 405 ppm. The last time our planet had 400 ppm CO2 was several million years ago, with no megacities or millions of people living on the coast. Irrespective of your views on climate change, the bottom line is that all of our human activities are closely linked and affecting the planet, even remote islands like the Seychelles.
Empowering people through education
The root cause is clearly grounded in human and industry behaviour linked to relentless production, irresponsible consumption and unsound disposal, whether it be energy, products or services. Are there business or economic cases for sustainable development? Indeed, there are, and our schools and universities should embrace those, not only as separate subjects but rather as part of all subjects or fields of study.
At a recent EU conference on future chemicals policy, it was clear that sustainable chemistry or green chemistry is not on the curriculum of aspiring chemists. We will not be able to solve the present if we do not empower the future generation. In designing the environmental science degree courses at the University of Seychelles, I was keen to introduce key concepts of sustainable development, natural science economics and global planetary cycles in year one of the undergraduate degree.
This is a reflection of my academic journey and the understanding of the policy-science interface, especially how we can reconcile human needs with the needs for existence and planetary stability. While we need something as basic as wood, we also need forests for cleaner air and water, among other needs. It is not rocket science, but we need to empower people through better awareness and education, so they can make sound consumer decisions.
Cleaning the planet
Sadly, there are also many who are either marginalised and displaced by poor governance, war or failed states, leading to abject poverty with catastrophic consequences to the environment and our planet. A recent study estimated that 16 per cent of all deaths worldwide are caused by pollution, with 90 per cent occurring in low- and middle-income countries. Arguing for better healthcare without addressing the cost of pollution to health is like paying twice for the water we drink.
Decoupling economic growth from natural resources and sustainable development is vital to arrive at a solution for climate change and pollution. While we explore asteroids for more resources, we also need to focus on cleaning our planet. By cleaning, I mean, cleaner air for our cities, cleaner water and healthier foods. Poor municipal waste management is one of the main causes of plastic clogging our rivers and oceans.
How we can build robust tracking systems for our waste was a matter for discussion at the recent conference of the parties to the Basel Convention. While we have touted for recycling and the circular economy as a sustainable approach to managing our wastes, there is evidence of wastes destined for recycling being dumped in many corners or the world, in particular in Africa and South East Asia. What many consumers pay for in terms of waste management is actually being dumped irresponsibly at huge planetary cost.
Transforming consumer behaviour
Addressing the challenges of waste calls for the transformation of our production and consumer behaviours. It is as daunting as addressing climate change, and both challenges require not only annual negotiations by countries but concrete actions on the ground. Reductions of emissions and waste generated can be achieved through individual actions, as well as measurable actions by governments and industry.
A UK company recently estimated that about 570 million tons of CO2 emissions were reduced in 2017 as a result of increased adoption of LED bulbs. High-speed trains is another example which can reduce emissions from the transport sector. Of the 42,000 km of high-speed rails built so far, it is estimated that the emissions savings per passenger can be up to 90 per cent when compared to aviation emissions. Indeed, the same applies to the waste sector, where one study showed that the cost of diverting a ton of waste from a landfill has approximately twice the economic benefit in terms of job creation and new goods and services, with a concomitant reduction in CO2 and methane emissions from landfills.
A new breed of policymakers
While many of the figures I have quoted here are merely estimates, they do show that our planet and our health are under serious threat. But there are significant opportunities that can be explored today to clean up our planet. While there is clearly a need for better technologies and practices, there are many that have been tried and tested.
Furthermore, political expediency based upon renewed access to fossil fuel deposits and other minerals leading to destruction of key planetary habitats is not only irresponsible but robs people of their right to a clean and safe environment against the promise of more jobs and poverty reduction.
We need a new breed of policymakers, managers and scientists who can steer this planet towards less emissions and less waste, while creating new jobs and reducing poverty. I am betting on our esteemed educational institutions to bring about this transformation!
Dr Rolph Payet, an alumnus and honorary graduate of the University of London, has served on numerous global forums including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Global Forum on Oceans, Coasts and Islands. He is also founding member of a number of conservation-oriented foundations such as the Global Island Partnership, the Sea Level Rise Foundation, the Seychelles University Foundation, the Seychelles Centre for Marine Research and Technology, the Island Conservation Society and the Silhouette Foundation.
This article is also available in WC1E, the University of London’s alumni magazine.