Plastic-busting fungi may help tackle pollution, climate change: UN Environment
According to the first-ever State of the World’s Fungi report, Scientists at London’s Kew Botanical Gardens reported that these organisms have the potential to break down waste plastic – an important advance in a world where momentum is building to reverse the toxic tide of plastic that is killing marine life and polluting the ocean.
Every year, at least eight million metric tonnes of plastic end up in the sea, sometimes decomposing into tiny microplastics that make their way into our food chain.
Senior Kew Gardens Scientist Ilia Leitch, said that other fungi and microorganisms are also being explored for their potential to degenerate different types of plastic, explaining that “by understanding how the fungi break down these bonds and what the optimal conditions are, you can then increase the speed at which they do it.”
In the meantime, the Kew Gardens report showcases the kind of pioneering thought that will be at the heart of the fourth UN Environment Assembly next March, on “innovative solutions for environmental challenges and sustainable consumption and production.”
Noting that there may be as many as 3.8 million fungal species, with only 144,000 named, the authors – a team of some 100 scientists from 18 countries – argue that further research into these organisms could provide answers to some of humanity’s greatest challenges.
The report spells out that advances in their agricultural applications could translate into improved food security, environmental sustainability and increased production revenues.
In addition to recycling nutrients and helping crops to grow efficiently, fungi also provide compounds that produce antibiotics, immune-suppressants and statins that block cholesterol-producing liver enzyme action.
According to UN Environment (UNEP), there is mounting evidence that climate change is affecting the ranges of species and biodiversity in ways that are still not comprehendible. Fungi themselves are also under threat, particularly in high latitudes areas where average temperatures continue to rise, such as the Arctic. These changes are already affecting fungi reproduction, geographic distributions and activity, with possible knock-on effects for our ecosystems.
“Species react differently to climate change, which disrupts the delicate interaction between them,” says Niklas Hagelberg, a UNEP climate change and ecosystems expert.
“This further complicates conservation; we need to quickly add climate change to our ecosystem management effort.”
Ahead of next year’s assembly, UNEP is urging people to “think beyond and live within,” a motto that is aimed at tackling environmental challenges and assuring a prosperous future – that may include a role for fungi, that was unthinkable just a few years ago.
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Weekly migration of 1.4m to cities can contribute to ‘disasters’
In his message for World Cities Day, celebrated annually on 31 October, Mr. Guterres stressed that “hazards do not need to become disasters.”
“The answer is to build resilience – to storms, floods, earthquakes, fires, pandemics and economic crises,” he said.
Mr. Guterres explained that cities around the world are doing just that, forging new ways to increase resilience and sustainability.
The capital of Thailand, Bangkok has built vast underground water storage facilities to cope with increased flood risk and save water for drier periods.
In Quito, the capital of Ecuador in South America, local government has reclaimed or protected more than 200,000 hectares of land to boost flood protection, reduce erosion and safeguard the city’s freshwater supply and biodiversity.
The UN chief also indicated that the city of Johannesburg in South Africa “is involving residents in efforts to improve public spaces so they can be safely used for recreation, sports, community events and services such as free medical care.”
World Cities Day was established by the UN to promote the international community’s interest in global urbanization, push forward cooperation among countries in meeting opportunities and addressing challenges of urbanization, and contributing to sustainable urban development around the world.
Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat), flagged the importance of investing in resilience or face growing “economic, social, political and human” risks.
“It has been estimated that without action on climate change – which accounts for just one facet of resilience – some 77 million urban residents risk falling into poverty,” she warned, elaborating that human-made and environmental threats ranged from droughts, floods and fires to economic shocks, disease outbreaks, war and migration.
“Investing in resilience is a wise investment,” the UN Habitat chief said.
The theme of this year’s commemoration, Building Sustainable and Resilient Cities, focuses on the need to preserve human life and limit damage and destruction while continuing to provide infrastructure and services after a crisis.
A range of UN-backed international agreements, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the New Urban Agenda provide “a roadmap for a more sustainable and resilient world,” according to the UN Secretary-General.
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More than nine in ten children exposed to deadly air pollution
In a call for concrete policy pledges from governments across the world to tackle the problem, the UN health agency reports that more than nine in 10 youngsters breathe air that is so polluted, “it puts their health and development at serious risk”.
The WHO findings – launched on the eve of the agency’s first Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health in Geneva – include the estimate that 600,000 children died from acute lower respiratory infections caused by polluted air in 2016.
Polluted air is poisoning millions of children and ruining their lives – WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
“The enormous toll of disease and death revealed by these new data should result in an urgent call to action for the global community, and especially for those in the health sector,” the WHO report says, noting that the impact of air pollution both inside and outside the home is worst in low and middle-income countries.
Among the WHO report’s other findings are data indicating that pregnant women are more likely to give birth prematurely when they are exposed to dirty air.
Their babies are also prone to be underweight and small, according to WHO, which also highlights how air pollution can trigger asthma and childhood cancer, while also hampering neuro-development.
“Polluted air is poisoning millions of children and ruining their lives,” said WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Every child should be able to breathe clean air so they can grow and fulfil their full potential.”
One reason why children are especially vulnerable to polluted air is that they breathe more rapidly than adults, absorbing more toxins, WHO says.
Youngsters are also more exposed to pollutants that stay closer to the ground at a time when their bodies and brains are still developing, the UN agency report continues, adding that newborns and young children are more susceptible to household air pollution in homes that use polluting fuels for cooking, heating and lighting.
As part of its call for action from the international community, WHO is recommending a series of “straightforward” measures to reduce the health risk from ambient fine particulate matter, or PM2.5.
These include accelerating the switch to clean cooking and heating fuels and technologies, promoting the use of cleaner transport, energy-efficient housing and urban planning.
“Air pollution is stunting our children’s brains, affecting their health in more ways than we suspected,” said Dr Maria Neira, Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health at WHO. “But there are many straight-forward ways to reduce emissions of dangerous pollutants.”
WHO is also supporting low emission power generation, cleaner, safer industrial technologies and better municipal waste management” to reduce community air pollution, Dr Neira added.
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