Sun | Oct 21, 2018

Martin Henry | World Environment Day and G7 Summit

Published:Sunday | June 10, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry

In the middle of Environment Week, Prime Minister Andrew Holness was off to Canada to address the G7 Summit.

Mr Holness was specially invited to attend the meeting of this exclusive club of the world's most developed countries by the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. How the tables have turned! In the heyday of Justin's father, Pierre, as prime minister of Canada, the prime ministerial friendship was with Michael Manley on the left of Jamaica, politics in the 1970s when Justin, born on Christmas Day in 1971, was just a little tyke. This must be about Jamaica, a significant player on the world stage from the get-go, and not so much about the cross-national affinity of political parties, or 'solidarity', as they used to say.

There are some 200 countries in the world. This invitation to Andrew Holness will make him the first Jamaican prime minister to speak at a G7 Summit - signal honour for a 'small-fry' country. What did they want to hear from Jamaica, and what did our prime minister tell them? The Jamaica Information Service news release didn't bother to say, and I am writing ahead of the release of the prime minister's speech and any news reporting on it.

The annual summit provides G7 leaders opportunity to discuss, seek consensus and take decisions on some of the most challenging global issues. One would expect that the looming prospect of a trade war that may be triggered by the United States' imposition of tariffs on aluminium and steel to counter China would be high on the agenda. Canada and the European Union (EU) are the two top suppliers of steel to the United States.

We would expect on the agenda the new round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the transfer of the US Embassy to Israel's declared new capital, Jerusalem, which, with the conflict in Syria, is returning the Middle East to its normal state of geopolitical instability. The unfolding Brexit drama for both the United Kingdom and the EU, accounting for four of the seven members of the club, might well also be a subject of deliberations. As would the US-North Korea meeting that President Trump will be heading into right after the G7 Summit.

 

FOCUS ON ENVIRONMENT

 

The news release says the summit would be focusing on issues such as building resilient coasts and communities, sustainable oceans and fisheries, and how best to address pressing global challenges such as plastics in the oceans and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Environmental issues leading the agenda.

And Jamaica, a leader among small island developing states (SIDS), should fit right in and have some important environmental messages to deliver to some of the world's most powerful countries from the underdogs.

The G7 leaders are not alone in putting environmental issues at the top of the agenda. In this year's World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Risks Report, five of the top eight risks identified by business leaders around the world as most impactful and most likely to happen are environmental. These are extreme weather events, failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation, man-made environmental disasters, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, and natural disasters. Another of the top risks, water crises, is labelled by the WEF as a societal risk, but it can also be considered an environmental risk.

Over the last 10 years, humans have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century, with 50 per cent used just once and then thrown away. Enough plastic is thrown away each year to circle the earth four times, accounting for 10 per cent of the global waste generated, with only a five per cent recovery. It takes 500 to 1,000 years for plastic to degrade.

Virtually every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists in some shape or form, with the exception of the small amount that has been incinerated.

Billions of pounds of plastic can be found in swirling convergences in the oceans making up about 40 per cent of the world's ocean surfaces. Plastic constitutes approximately 90 per cent of all trash floating on the ocean's surface, with 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile.

Chemicals from plastics can be absorbed by the body, and 93 per cent of Americans aged six or older test positive for BPA, a plastic chemical. Some of these compounds in plastic have been found to alter hormones or have other effects on human health. And plastics are quite literally beginning to choke the oceans.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for example, is a 618,000-square-mile (twice the size of Texas) accumulation of an estimated 79,000 metric tons of plastic by ocean currents in the North Pacific and is growing exponentially every year. There are other plastic patches out there.

There are moves around the world to ban plastic bags. Chile did so on May 30, just in time for World Environment Day. And our sister CARICOM country Antigua & Barbuda did so two years ago in 2016. Plastic-bag bans are now in place in nearly 100 countries.

Plastic is cheap and convenient, easy to make, easy to use, and easy to throw away after one use. But like the use of comparatively low-cost fossil fuels on which an entire global economy has been built, alternatives to plastics will raise their own environmental and economic challenges.

There has been a move in Jamaica with government senator Matthew Samuda out front for the banning of styrofoam. I have heard Styrofoam distributor William Mahfood, chairman of Wisynco, making the case that available alternatives to the cheap styrofoam lunch boxes can cost up to five times as much, changing the whole dynamics of the affordable-to-the poor $100 box food downtown for both the poor supplier and the poor consumer. This side of the story can't be safely left unheard and unresponded to in dealing with the environmental challenges. Balancing the economic and the environmental is one of the supreme challenges of our times.

President Trump has dragged the United States out of the Paris Accord on climate change and has encouraged an expansion of the use of fossil fuels in the US economy, largely on economic grounds. The US has been developing massive shale oil output, making it a net exporter of petroleum. Locally, we have had the hot debates about the use of the Goat Islands, and now, using land for necessary urban expansion versus agriculture.

 

NATIONAL CRISIS

 

Environment is under the prime minister's wings in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, precisely where this balancing act between environment and economy has to be wrestled with in government. In his World Environment Day message, the sub-minister, Daryl Vaz, told us: "The country is facing a national crisis with the improper management of wastes ... . The issue of the improper disposal of plastics ... remains a major challenge to the country."

The country uses and disposes of nearly one billion PET bottles each year, at 350 bottles per person, with only 10 per cent recycled. There is no count of the styrofoam boxes and the scandal bags. "The fundamental issue for the country," the minister says, "is the lack of an integrated approach to waste management and, more specifically, plastic waste as a major source of marine litter."

We'll see how far the G7 Summit, a meeting of squabbling, powerful friends, has advanced this pressing matter and what our prime minister, as guest, told them about it.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.