Category Archives: Environment

Catholic groups call for rapid climate action as UN report warns window is closing fast

A coal power plant in Neurath, Germany, is seen reflected in a puddle of water Feb. 5, 2020. (CNS/Reuters/Wolfgang Rattay)

Many of the technologies and tactics to avert the worst impacts of climate change exist today. While still a major challenge, what’s missing mostly is the political and financial will to wield them at full force.

So says the latest major report from the world’s foremost scientific body on climate change. The report, focusing on mitigation efforts to limit rising temperatures, and with it the fallout from increasing heat, was issued Monday, April 4, by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The report reiterated that immediate, rapid and massive societal shifts this decade are required to meet the world’s goal under the Paris Agreement to limit average global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius — a threshold that climate scientists say will expose millions of people to increasing droughts, heatwaves and extreme storms, and with it, result in greater rates of poverty, migration and health issues, all consequences expected to harm already vulnerable communities the most.

The nearly 3,000-page IPCC report, compiled by 278 authors from 65 countries, is the third issued by the international scientific group in the past nine months as part of the sixth assessment. The first updated the physical science of climate change, and the second, issued in March, detailed how climate change is impacting our world and efforts to adapt. A final synthesis report will be released in the fall.

At current emissions rates, the world will burn through its remaining carbon budget to meet the 1.5 C target within approximately eight years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Catholic development groups operating across the world said the latest IPCC report was “a clarion call” and made clear that countries must focus on “transformative solutions” with no time to waste.

“Its message is crystal clear: we need climate action now in the form of deep and urgent emissions reductions, and well before 2030, to stay below 1.5°C,” said CIDSE, a network of Catholic international justice organizations, in a statement. “As Catholic Development agencies, we are inspired by Pope Francis to call for urgent action on the climate emergency.”

Salesian Fr. Joshtrom Kureethadam, coordinator of the ecology and creation sector of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, told EarthBeat that the IPCC report makes clear that the time to act is now, and the next few years are “crucial” in shaping a habitable world for people today and generations to come. He said it was encouraging that the report documented signs of a renewable energy transition, including renewable energy making up the vast majority of new energy sources in recent years.

“All this is doable if we are willing to change our behavior, if our political leadership is able to step in. But we don’t want to wait for others to lead. We think we should be leading our communities,” he said.

“We are at a crossroads. The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future,” Hoesung Lee, chair of the IPCC, said in a statement. “We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming.”

In a joint statement, U.N. climate chief Patricia Espinosa and Alok Sharma and Sameh Shoukry, the heads of the COP26 and upcoming COP27 U.N. climate conferences, respectively, said the latest IPCC report “makes it clearer than ever that the window of opportunity to achieve [the 1.5 C goal] is rapidly closing.”

“Despite the urgency of our task, there is hope. The window for action has not yet closed. … There is also clear evidence that — with timely and at scale cuts to emissions — countries can pursue a mitigation pathway consistent with limiting global warming” to 1.5 C, they said.

The new mitigation report concluded that the decade from 2010-2019 saw the highest average annual greenhouse gas emissions on record, and were 54% higher than 1990 levels. The carbon emissions released from 2010-2019 accounted for 17% of historical emissions since 1850. While overall emissions dropped slightly in 2020 at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, they rebounded by year’s end. And since 2010, global emissions have increased across all major sectors.

“Human-induced climate change is a consequence of more than a century of net GHG emissions from unsustainable energy use, land-use and land use change, lifestyle and patterns of consumption and production,” the IPCC report authors wrote. “Without urgent, effective and equitable mitigation actions, climate change increasingly threatens the health and livelihoods of people around the globe, ecosystem health and biodiversity.”

The report reinforced that the release of emissions is uneven. Developed countries are responsible for 57% of historical carbon emissions, compared to .4% from the world’s least developed nations, and the richest 10% of households account for between 36% and 45% of emissions.

“Richer countries must urgently kick their addiction to fossil fuels and mass consumption,” said Alistair Dutton, director of Scotland Catholic International Aid Fund. “This is the only way to stop the world overheating and leaving a planet that is habitable for future generations. If we don’t, our children and grandchildren will never forgive us.”

Global temperatures have risen an average of 1.1 C since the Industrial Revolution at the turn of the 18th century. Countries under the 2015 Paris accord agreed to work to hold temperature rise “well below” 2 C and to strive to limit it to 1.5 C.

So far, the national climate pledges countries issued ahead of COP26 in Glasgow, held in November, would result in 3.2 C warming, according to the IPCC, or well short of both Paris Agreement targets. At the end of COP26, countries agreed to reassess and submit new climate targets before COP27 later this year in Egypt.

The urgency of climate change has yet to be matched by an equivalent political response. For decades, the fossil fuel industry and its political allies have sowed doubt about the science and sought to delay attempts to phase out the use of coal, oil and gas. And recent global events, from Donald Trump’s election in the U.S. to the coronavirus pandemic to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have drained momentum and drawn political attention away from the global threat posed by climate change and the need to transition away from fossil fuels.

Despite that, the IPCC report stressed that a pathway to 1.5 still exists.

It pointed to positive signs, such as the rapidly declining costs of solar and wind energy, along with lithium-ion batteries, and the rapid expansion of solar energy and electric vehicles. As of 2020, more than 20% of global emissions fell under carbon taxes or emissions trading systems, and 56 countries representing 53% of emissions had passed climate laws to slash greenhouse gases.

But it’s also not enough.

The IPCC said that global emissions have to peak no later than 2025 to keep 1.5 C in range, and emissions need to be cut nearly in half by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050. Even then, the report estimates that average temperature rise will likely overshoot 1.5 C temporarily.

Limiting warming to 1.5 C or 2 C will “involve rapid and deep and in most cases immediate GHG emissions reductions in all sectors,” the report stated.

Models in the report achieving the 1.5 target show the world rapidly transitioning from fossil fuels to low- or zero-carbon energy sources. Nearly all electricity would need to come from such sources by midcentury, while the use of coal would fall to near zero, and oil and gas slashed dramatically, with up to $4 trillion in stranded fossil fuel infrastructure. Further rollout of energy efficiency, especially in buildings, and conservation efforts, through reforestation and ecosystem restoration, are also key facets to cutting emissions, as is designing cities in ways that encourage public transit, reduce energy demand and enhance access to green spaces.

The IPCC said that taking such steps can have co-benefits, including reducing exposure to pollution, improved health and less congestion, and that mitigation tactics are “a necessary part of development,” including meeting the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. It added that “individual behavioral change is insufficient for climate change mitigation unless embedded in structural and cultural change.”

Susan Gunn, director, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, said that each of those strategies are “essential for a global just transition” to a world powered by renewable and emissions-free energy.

One area the Catholic organizations disagreed with the report was on the use of carbon capture and storage technologies to pull emissions from the atmosphere, which the IPCC said would be necessary to offset emissions from hard-to-decarbonize sectors. The technology’s inclusion was part of debates that delayed the report’s release by several hours.

CIDSE and its members called carbon capture and other negative emissions technologies “false solutions.” They have joined environmental groups in saying fossil fuel companies will seek to use those technologies as a means to continue burning more coal, oil and gas. Instead, they have advocated expansive rollouts of renewable energy and agroecology, and for ending all government subsidies for fossil fuels.

“It is never a solution to rely on risky technologies that have not yet developed or proven effective, nor is it a solution to continue accepting more risks already posed to the environment and people because of following mitigation models that rely on such technologies,” CIDSE said in its statement.

Another major area for increased activity is investments. Currently, public and private investments for fossil fuels continue to outpace those for climate mitigation and adaptation measures. The report said that financing for clean energy will need to increase 3 to 6 times over current levels.

The good news, the IPCC report said, is that “there is sufficient global capital” to close the investment gaps. The bad news? There are barriers to doing so, such as inadequate assessments of climate-related risks and investment opportunities. The IPCC said that governments can help alleviate risk concerns through “clear signaling” they are aligning state funding with strong climate policies.

The IPCC report said that while the costs of addressing climate change appear high — roughly 2.6%-4.2% losses in global GDP, and in the electricity sector alone, an estimated $2.3 trillion annually between 2023 and 2052 — inaction will cost far more, both monetarily and the toll of human and other life. “The economic benefits on human health from air quality improvement arising from mitigation action can be of the same order of magnitude as mitigation costs, and potentially even larger,” the report said.

In its statement, CIDSE said it was encouraging that the IPCC report highlighted how investor-state dispute settlements can hinder more ambitious climate action by governments over fears that corporations or investors could sue over the impacts on their businesses.

Josianne Gauthier, CIDSE secretary general, said that “corporate power is hindering climate justice” and that a full response to climate change must involve addressing current economic systems.

“As Pope Francis has said, we cannot live within an economy based on insatiable and irresponsible growth. We are motivated to challenge the system based on the direct experiences of people at the forefront of climate change, who need mitigation urgently,” she said.

Kureethadam told EarthBeat it’s understandable if people find climate reports like the latest from the IPCC disturbing, because it’s from that point that they can become aware and mobilized to act. He said that people can also draw hope through the actions that are happening, including through the Vatican’s Laudato Si’ Action Platform that Francis has invited Catholics across the world to join as a way to embrace sustainability and an ecological conversion.

“People are coming together, so I see that as an element of hope. We don’t need to get discouraged,” Kureethadam said. “It’s urgent, so we cannot afford to postpone. That time is over. The report is so clear.”

Marquette University bars direct fossil fuel investments with its $929 million endowment

The Church of the Gesu can be seen on the Milwaukee campus of Marquette University in this winter 2020 photo. (CNS/Courtesy of Marquette University)

Student climate activists at Marquette University celebrated after the Jesuit school in Milwaukee moved last week to prohibit direct investments in fossil fuels through its $929 million endowment.

Marquette announced an update March 24 to its university investment policy that bars investments in public securities whose primary business involves the exploration and extraction of coal, oil and gas. The move was approved by its board of trustees.

In addition, the new policy formalizes measures the endowment office has been practicing for several years, including monitoring funds for indirect exposure to fossil fuels and moving to “wind down” other private investments in fossil fuel-related holdings “in accordance with the terms of the partnership agreements.” A spokeswoman told EarthBeat the university retains the ability to maintain fossil fuel exposure “on a case-by-case basis,” particularly with companies adapting their business models toward solutions to climate change.

In a statement, Marquette president Michael Lovell connected the new policy to Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” and the Society of Jesus’ four universal apostolic preferences, which also includes “care of our common home.”

“Our Catholic, Jesuit mission calls on us as an institution to invest in our students’ futures in ways that are positive for our world. By prohibiting direct investments in fossil fuels and following best practices in responsible investment, Marquette is heeding Pope Francis’ call to ‘reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals,’ ” Lovell said, adding “I am proud that Marquette University is taking this important stance.”

Maddie Kuehn, a junior and member of Fossil Free Marquette that pushed for divestment, told EarthBeat the move was “really exciting” and an “incredible first step.”

“I personally was really surprised. We had no idea that this was even on Marquette’s radar or something that they were even talking about,” she said.  

Marquette becomes the seventh U.S. Catholic university to publicly announce plans to eliminate holdings in the fossil fuel sector from its endowments and investment portfolios. The others are University of Dayton (2014), Seattle University (2018), Georgetown University (2020), Creighton University (2020), Loyola University Chicago (2021) and University of San Diego (2021). Of the seven, five of them are Jesuit schools.

In 2019, the Society of Jesus adopted four universal apostolic preferences for the next decade. On “caring for our common home,” the Jesuits called for ecological conversion in the face of today’s environmental crisis that particularly harms poor and vulnerable people, and they directed their educational institutions to raise awareness and identify ways to act.

The emissions released from the burning of coal, oil and gas are the primary driver of global climate change. Along with that, excavation of fossil fuels often destroys ecosystems and threatens the lives of communities and creatures native to the land.

A report from the International Energy Agency stated that for the world to meet the Paris Agreement goals of max 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature rise and net-zero emissions by 2050 there cannot be any new oil, gas and coal development.

“There is no need to invest in oil, gas or coal. The existing [power plants] are enough to meet the declining demand for these fossil fuels. There is no need for that,” Fatih Birol, IEA executive director, said in an August webinar hosted by the Laudato Si’ Movement.

In its press release, Marquette stated that its current investment portfolio is free of direct public investments in fossil fuels.

Roughly a year ago, the university told EarthBeat it estimated direct investments in oil and gas amounted to 1% to 2% of its total endowment, at the time roughly $693 million in market value.

In April 2021, students passed a nonbinding resolution with 87% of voters in support of the university implementing a five-year fossil fuel divestment plan. The vote came after a series of meetings between student group Fossil Free Marquette, Lovell and chief investment officer Sean Gissal.

Several months after the vote, Fossil Free Marquette presented a complaint letter in October to Lovell and the board of trustees alleging that the board was violating its fiduciary responsibility by investing in fossil fuels. The students pointed to Wisconsin law that stipulates nonprofit organizations must consider its “charitable purposes” in its investment decisions.

“As a Catholic and Jesuit institution, Marquette commits itself to upholding and promoting the Catholic Church’s teachings on and guidelines for care of the environment,” the student letter read. But despite repeated calls from Francis for the world to rapidly move away from fossil fuels, “the Trustees have remained steadfast in their support of an industry whose business model is based on environmental destruction and social injustice,” the letter stated.

Lynn Griffith, university spokesperson, told EarthBeat “there was zero attention given” to the allegations of violations of the board’s fiduciary duties, and that the updated policy “reflects investment practices that have been in place for several years.” That includes partnering with investment managers who follow the Principles of Responsible Investment and engage in impact investing.

While Fossil Free Marquette celebrated their school’s divestment decision, they hope to see more transparency about how the endowment is invested. That’s especially important, Kuehn said, for private schools where information about investments is not public and harder to access.

“We would like to see the university engage in discussions with students and have opportunities for them to ask questions about this issue, because I know that a lot of people care about it,” she said.

Campaigns to cut financial ties with the fossil fuel industry have been ongoing within faith communities for over a decade, and they represent the largest sector within the wider movement. While the vast majority of Catholic institutions have not divested, attention to the idea has gained traction in the wake of the release of Laudato Si’. The Vatican Bank has stated it does not hold investments in fossil fuels, and the Vatican, through messages, documents and initiatives, including the Laudato Si’ Action Platform, has increasingly recommended divestment as a viable option and “moral imperative” for Catholic institutions.

At their November meeting, the U.S. bishops approved new socially responsible investment guidelines. The revised guidelines, which many Catholic institutions in the country utilize, include an expanded section on environmental concerns, with more than a half-dozen citations of Pope Francis.

On divestment, the new guidelines say the U.S. bishops’ conference will consider that option with companies that consistently fail to initiate policies intended to achieve the Paris Agreement goals, and points to a footnote citing the Vatican’s 2020 Laudato Si’ implementation guidelines that recommend “evaluating progressive disinvestment from the fossil-fuel sector.”

Activist shareholders raise alarm about climate change in corporate filings

Activists protesting climate change and pushing for green jobs are seen near the White House in Washington June 4, 2021. (CNS/Reuters/Evelyn Hockstein)

For the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Aberdeen, South Dakota, the prairie has been home since 1880.

They were invited from Dublin by Bishop Martin Marty of St. Cloud, Minnesota, to what was then the Dakota Territory to teach the children of the Lakota people and French settlers.

Since those early days, the order has developed an “inner awareness that we depend on the land and we’re saved by the land,” Presentation Sister Pegge Boehm told Catholic News Service.

“We’re formed by the prairie. We know that the prairie land is fragile and we’ve come to know it’s a fragile ecosystem,” said Sister Boehm, socially responsible investment coordinator for the congregation.

That connection to the prairie is guiding an effort by the sisters to encourage one of the world’s largest corporations, Inc., to become more transparent in its lobbying efforts in regard to climate change and adherence to the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

The sisters have joined Seattle-based Newground Social Investment as lead filers of a shareholder resolution ahead of Amazon’s annual corporate general meeting that asks the firm to report if and how its lobbying aligns with the landmark 2015 accord’s goal of limiting average global warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels.

The filing was meant to help shareholders better understand how Amazon is in “right relationship or not in right relationship with the land and its people,” Sister Boehm explained.

“Once we identify maybe where there’s not a right ordering, we are to be the moral voice to bring to their awareness that somebody out there is watching them and make them accountable,” she said.

The resolution seeks more information than what Amazon already provides annually about its contributions of $10,000 or more to political candidates, trade associations, social welfare organizations and nonprofit groups.

“The report should address direct and indirect lobbying … and what actions Amazon has or will take to mitigate the risks associated with misalignments that may be found,” the resolution said.

A spokeswoman for Amazon declined to specifically address the Presentation sisters’ resolution.

She pointed, instead to “sustainability activities” that support the Paris agreement. Among them are investments in wind and solar farms and more efficient machinery; plans to power all operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025; a commitment to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040; and ordering more than 100,000 fully electric delivery vehicles.

Amazon is among dozens of companies at which Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility members have filed climate- and environment-related resolutions. ICCR said there were 103 such filings by Feb. 16.

Oblate Father Seamus Finn, director of the Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation for his order and former ICCR board chairman, said that shareholders in many companies see an urgent need for corporate leaders to more rapidly adopt practices that mitigate climate change, leading to more resolutions being filed this year.

Shareholders are learning from failed attempts in years past and now are fine-tuning resolutions to address specific, rather than broad, concerns, he explained.

It’s expected that some of the resolutions will be withdrawn as conversations begin between activist investors and corporate representatives, but many will be debated during the annual meetings in the weeks ahead.

ICCR reported during a webinar in February introducing its 2022 Proxy Resolutions and Voting Guide that a record 436 resolutions at 246 companies have been filed. In 2021, 244 shareholder resolutions were filed.

Last year also saw a record number of ICCR member resolutions — 23 — gaining majority support from shareholders. And in a move that sent shockwaves through corporate boardrooms, other activist investors elected three of their own to oil giant Exxon Mobil’s board of directors in the hope of quickening the pace of the company’s response to climate change.

That success has raised hope among investors such as religious congregations, labor unions and progressive asset management firms for more of the same this spring.

The South Dakota congregation’s resolution is just one of 17 filed with Amazon by ICCR members. Other resolutions address such concerns as employee rights, racial and gender pay gaps, surveillance technology and tax transparency.

Similar issues have been raised with other companies as shareholders seek greater accountability and actions that promote justice.

Still, concerns about climate change top the list this season. Overall, 20 resolutions have been filed on Paris-aligned climate lobbying. Other environment-related concerns include disclosure about greenhouse gas emissions and financing for fossil fuel development.

Mary Minette, director of shareholder advocacy at Mercy Investment Services, credited women religious for staying the course on the environment for years, long before many investors recognized the growing threats to people and creation.

“The sense of urgency is growing. We keep hearing reports and reports and reports and reports that our time is getting shorter to act,” Minette said.

The Benedictine Sisters of Boerne, Texas, were among the co-filers of a resolution with San Antonio-based Valero Energy Corp. seeking disclosure of near- and long-term greenhouse gas reduction targets. It said the company’s exposure to climate risks can endanger its business and thus negatively impact investors.

Benedictine Sister Susan Mika, director of the Benedictine Coalition for Responsible Investment, told CNS the resolution is the latest in a yearslong campaign to engage the company’s leaders about environmental issues.

“We are concerned about climate change and everything happening to Earth. These are some of the reasons we would be filing with any of the oil and gas companies and refineries,” Sister Mika said.

Conversations can get technical, especially when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in drilling operations, but Sister Mika said she and other shareholder institutions want to continue to engage with corporate officials to protect the planet.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” she said.

ICCR was buoyed for greater success this year, especially after the Securities and Exchange Commission March 21 proposed a rule to enhance climate-related disclosures to investors.

The landmark rule, which will go out for public comment in the coming weeks, would require companies to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions and the risks they face from climate change.

In a statement, Christina Herman, program director for climate and environmental justice at ICCR, welcomed the rule, which will standardize for the first time how companies report emissions.

The proposal “will be critical in setting a floor to ensure that investors of all sizes will have access to data about corporate and portfolio-level climate risk, vital to making investment decisions as the economy pivots to a clean energy future,” Herman said.

The rule, which is not expected to take effect until December once it is finalized, does not affect this year’s shareholder actions, but it will go a long way to address investors’ environment-related concerns into the future.

Can the tide of plastic pollution be turned by a new global pact?

From drinks bottles to straws and cotton buds, the amount of plastic waste that flows into the world’s oceans and marine areas is expected to nearly triple by 2040, adding up to 37 million tonnes each year, the U.N. Environment Programme says.

Just 9% of all the plastic waste ever produced has been recycled, while about 12% has been incinerated. The remainder has finished up in landfills, dumps or the environment, according to the U.N. agency (UNEP).

In a bid to tackle the growing plastic waste crisis, government officials from around the world agreed on Wednesday to start talks toward a historic global plastic pollution treaty at the U.N. Environment Assembly conference in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

It is unclear whether the planned pact will include measures to curb the production of single-use plastic items and packaging, or focus simply on waste management.

U.N. officials said the adoption of the resolution to create a legally binding plastic pollution treaty, due to be finalised by 2024, was the most significant environmental deal since the 2015 Paris climate accord.

Here’s why a global treaty – which will also involve businesses and civil society – is seen as vital to protect the environment, human health and the global economy:

Why is plastic waste such a problem, and who’s behind it?

The United States is the biggest per-capita producer of plastic waste, but in many developing nations a combination of fast-growing economies and populations and long coastlines have filled local seas with plastic rubbish.

Refuse collection and recycling services have largely failed to keep pace with economic development and increased plastic use over the last four decades, particularly in developing countries.

China – once the world’s biggest importer of plastic waste – halted imports in 2018, prompting many wealthy countries to divert their garbage to other developing nations.

Soon after, containers full of unsorted trash – often mislabelled as plastics for recycling – were shipped to various developing countries, causing diplomatic tension.

Faced with growing stockpiles, some countries ramped up the burning of plastics to produce energy or sent the waste to landfill. Both have a severely damaging impact on the environment, green groups have warned.

Much of the rest is discarded in the environment and finds its way into the sea, mainly via the world’s rivers, which serve as direct conduits of trash.

“Almost all the plastic eventually ends up in the ocean. … You can be a non-plastic nation and can still get it onto your shores, into your fish, your blood and into your water system. We are one planet,” Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s climate minister and president of the Nairobi conference, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Why is a global treaty needed?

From the 1980s on, the world quickly became dependent on single-use or disposable plastic, with half of all plastic produced designed to be used only once and then thrown away – from shampoo bottles to shopping bags.

In the early 2000s, the amount of plastic waste rose more in a single decade than it did in the previous 40 years, according to UNEP, with annual plastic waste now totalling about 300 million tonnes.

Globally, 1 million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute, while 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used every year, the U.N. agency added.

The use of disposable plastic, made from oil and gas, supports the fossil fuel industry – fuelling climate change – and hurts the tourism, fishing and shipping industries, according to green groups and economists.

“All evidence suggests that plastic contamination of the ocean is irreversible,” Heike Vesper, director of the marine programme at WWF Germany said in a statement. “Once distributed in the ocean, plastic waste is almost impossible to retrieve.”

The coronavirus pandemic has presented an additional challenge, as single-use plastic consumption has increased during the crisis.

About 75% of plastic generated by the COVID-19 pandemic – such as medical waste and packaging from home deliveries – will likely end up in landfills or the sea, according to U.N. estimates.

What are countries doing to tackle the problem?

Many nations and cities have introduced bans on single-use plastic items, and improved waste collection and recycling.

Public awareness campaigns have also had an impact on consumer behaviour – such as not using single-use drinking straws, or opting for reusable water bottles and coffee cups – along with incentives for recycling.

Communities living near or in coastal areas have teamed up with businesses to form voluntary groups that collect rubbish that washes up on their shores, hoping to protect nature and vital tourism industries.

Meanwhile, new technologies – like mobile apps and GPS – are also being used to help with urban waste collection and management, often using informal garbage collectors.

Facing increased consumer pressure, big brands have pledged to cut plastic waste, with the likes of Coca Cola and PepsiCo among more than 70 signatories to call for a global pact to combat plastic pollution.

What is a circular economy and how can it help?

In a circular economy, waste materials – such as metals, minerals and plastic – are recycled back into new raw materials for a next round of production, reducing rubbish and pollution.

“You need to design products for being circulated – you actually need to collect them, you need to actually recycle them and you need to prioritise recycled products in the end,” said Eide, who is presiding over the negotiations in Nairobi.

About 70% of planet-heating emissions are related to the production and use of products – from the buildings we live in and the transport we use, to the food we eat and the clothes we wear, according to a January report from Amsterdam-based social enterprise Circle Economy.

These emissions are generated by resource extraction, processing and manufacturing of goods, it added.

The report’s authors said nations are missing an opportunity to slash emissions by adopting circular economy policies that reduce demand for resources and could help meet the Paris accord target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Among their suggestions is for countries to use recycled metal and plastics to make vehicles and recycle vehicles.

“Our insatiable demand for resources and throwaway economy is threatening the planet’s future and driving us down the road to climate breakdown,” Martijn Lopes Cardozo, Circle Economy’s chief executive, said in a statement.

New UN report ‘rings the latest alarm bell’ about climate change effects on nature and people

A man collects water from the Athi River near Yathui, Kenya, Oct. 27, 2021. He will use the water to irrigate crops on dry farmland. Erratic climate patterns across the African continent, including droughts and typhoons, are disrupting people’s lives, especially the poor and most vulnerable. (CNS/Fredrick Nzwili)

The picture emerging from this week’s major scientific report on climate change reaffirmed what Catholic development agencies have observed across the globe for years and they say supports their calls for transformational measures to reverse course and limit the suffering.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, on Feb. 28 issued a sweeping report on the present and future impacts of climate change, which it said “has caused widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people, beyond natural climate variability.” Those impacts have disproportionately impacted the world’s most vulnerable people and systems, it added, and has pushed some beyond their ability to adapt.

Still, the report emphasized that humanity has the ability to change course, and that greater efforts to adapt to rising temperatures can blunt suffering. Each degree of warming avoided can lower the loss of lives and economic and social costs.

“Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all,” the report authors said.

Prepared by 270 authors, the 3,600-page report reviewed thousands of scientific studies on climate impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. It is the second issued by the IPCC in the past six months; the first focused on the physical science of climate change. A third report, on climate mitigation, will be released in April. All three are part of the IPCC’s sixth assessment report, prepared to guide governments in their responses to climate change.

The report found that nearly every part of the globe and every facet of society has been impacted by climate change. It estimated more than 3 billion people live in areas highly vulnerable to climate change, and millions now face food insecurity due to rising temperatures.

In a statement, the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns said the report “rings the latest alarm bell” for urgent action to curb global warming but also respond to mounting loss and damages.

“With a report like this, world leaders cannot say they didn’t know a deadly future is at hand,” said Chloe Noel, the faith, economy and ecology project coordinator for Maryknoll. She added it “exposes what the world can no longer deny — the incalculable loss of life, culture, livelihoods and biodiversity from the climate crisis.”

“How many crystal-clear red alerts on the climate crisis do we need before we take the urgent and meaningful action?” Neil Thorns, director of advocacy for CAFOD, the overseas development agency for the bishops in England and Wales, said in a statement.

Already, the planet has heated roughly 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Government plans to reduce emissions project to hold average temperature rise to 2.7 C — well above the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement to limit global warming, which are “well below” 2 C and ideally 1.5 C. Some parts of the globe have already seen temperatures exceed the 1.5 C threshold.

Regions especially vulnerable to climate impacts — such as vast parts of Africa, South Asia, Central and South America, and island nations — are often parts of the world facing development constraints and where poverty, governance challenges and limited access to resources are prevalent, the report said.

The authors added that actions in the next two decades to hold temperature rise to 1.5 C “would substantially reduce projected losses and damages related to climate change in human systems and ecosystems” though not fully eliminate them. For instance, the difference between 1.5 C and 2 C could be 65 million fewer people exposed to extreme heat events every five years.

While effective adaptation is occurring, it’s often uneven, the report said, and more often efforts have prioritized reducing immediate risks over more transformational changes necessary to bend the curve in greenhouse gas emissions downward.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the report “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.”

CAFOD and other Catholic development agencies said the report reinforces the need to meet the 1.5 C goal in the Paris Agreement, and also for governments to prioritize adaptation measures and financial compensation for loss and damages that have occurred.

“Climate change is real for us,” said Bishop Peter Kihara Kariuki of Marsabit, Kenya, in a press release from CAFOD.

Parts of his north Kenyan region face severe drought, he said, and some people walk miles to the nearest water source.

“Suffering from the impacts of climate change, they are now dependent on aid from the church, the government, and NGOs for the basics of life: to be able to eat and drink clean water,” Kariuki said.

The IPCC report stated that Africa, while responsible for just 3% of global greenhouse emissions, faces disproportionate risks, including more than half of excess deaths from climate-related illnesses and far greater exposure to extreme heat compared to other continents.

More erratic climate patterns across the African continent, including droughts and typhoons, are “creating so much havoc on many people’s lives, especially the poor and most vulnerable,” Fr. Germain Rajoelison of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar said in a press release issued by CIDSE, a network of mostly European-based Catholic development agencies.

“Many of them are reaching the limits of adaptation,” he added.

CIDSE called on governments to adopt “urgent and transformative measures” to combat climate change, including greater use of agroecology techniques, increased climate finance and for nations to submit new climate pledges in line with the 1.5 C target.

Noel of Maryknoll said that the U.S., as the largest historical emitter and richest nation, has particular responsibility to lead not just in mitigating climate change by rapidly transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy but also by helping communities and countries that are facing increasing droughts, flooding and extreme weather now.

She added that remaining dependent on burning fossil fuels for energy — the primary driver of climate change — not only puts the 1.5 C target further out of reach but “will continue to fuel violent conflicts, as we are seeing play out around the world today.”

The Laudato Si’ Movement said the IPCC report shows that addressing climate change must go hand in hand with efforts to safeguard biodiversity. The coalition of nearly 800 Catholic organizations encouraged Catholics to sign onto its Healthy Planet, Healthy People petition, a copy of which was delivered to world leaders at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow and which will also be shared at the upcoming COP15 U.N. biodiversity conference scheduled for the spring in Kunming, China.

The IPCC report noted that less than 15% of land, 21% of freshwater and 8% of oceans are considered protected areas, and even in those locations, “there is insufficient stewardship to contribute to reducing damage from, or increasing resilience to, climate change.”

The report found that between 3% and 14% of species face “very high risk of extinction” under a 1.5 C scenario, with more at risk as temperatures rise. The authors wrote that “safeguarding biodiversity and ecosystems is fundamental to climate resilient development, in light of the threats climate change poses to them and their roles in adaptation and mitigation.”

In a press release issued by Laudato Si’ Movement, Salesian Fr. Joshtrom Kureethadam, coordinator of the ecology and creation sector for the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said the IPCC report “makes painfully clear that the cry of the Earth is at its highest pitch yet.”

“God’s creation is groaning for our help, and God’s creation is ready to help us, but only if we are able to look beyond ourselves and care for our common home as Pope Francis calls us to do in Laudato Si’,” he said.

UN wants faith groups to help work against plastic pollution

A woman uses a net to sort recyclable plastic materials from a dumping site in Nairobi, Kenya, Feb. 1, 2022. (CNS/Reuters/Thomas Mukoya)

NAIROBI, Kenya — A senior U.N. official urged religious groups to help reach a global agreement to curb plastic pollution, amid experts warning that single-use or disposable plastics were choking the planet.

Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme, spoke during the interfaith online dialogue sessions on religion and ecology organized by the U.N. body.

The sessions, known as Faith for Earth Dialogue, run Feb. 21–March 5. They are being held alongside the fifth session of the U.N. Environment Assembly in Nairobi. The assembly also will mark the 50th anniversary of the environment program.

“We have a suggested resolution before the member states, for starting a global agreement to end plastic pollution — to reduce the use of plastic from source to sea. We hope UNEA will be that historical milestone as the Paris Agreement was for the climate. And we hope and trust and pray with your strong engagement, you will help get us there,” said Andersen.

According to the UNEP, 1 million plastic drinking water bottles are purchased every minute, while 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide every year. Half of the plastics are designed to be used once and thrown away.

Andersen, a Danish economist and environmentalist, said when the faith community is mobilized to act on science, the world shifts.

“The power of faith communities is enormous. It’s worth reckoning with. The power of the faith communities in economic reach is not to be underestimated,” she said.

Recently, religions have joined the efforts to protect the planet, highlighting more strongly the negative impacts of climate change and for the conservation of the environment and ecology. From divesting from fossil fuel to challenging massive oil and gas projects, faith-based groups have led in tree planting and promoted better farming methods to conserve the environment. They also are key educators in environmental protection and conservation.

Officials say this is the largest-ever interfaith dialogue on religion and ecology, with 180 speakers and 20 sessions. It was organized by 94 faith-based organizations representing more than 50 religions from 74 countries. Christian denominations — including several Catholic organizations and networks — Islamic and Hindu faith groups are participating in the discussion.

Cardinal Peter Turkson, former prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said the conversations in the online conference underlined Pope Francis’ urgent call to religious leaders and people of goodwill in his 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Si’” to care for the planet before it’s too late.

“He (Pope Francis) said I urgently appeal for a new dialogue about how we shape our planet. That’s what we are doing now,” said Cardinal Turkson. He had outlined how the dicastery had developed principles to put the encyclical into practice.

“The dicastery decided to move ‘Laudato Si’‘ to concrete applications and we formulated … the Laudato Si’ Platform,” to encourage the connectivity of all peoples of the world, he said.

The cardinal said the method includes identifying seven actors, then formulating seven goals and establishing in seven years ways to implement the demands of “Laudato Si’.” Some of the actors can include families, parishes and dioceses. Mosques, synagogues, religious places of worship, educational institutions and schools also are invited.

Cardinal Turkson said adoption of new lifestyles is something within everyone’s reach: avoiding single use plastics, avoiding meat consumption, greater use of public transport.

“We know what our Scriptures encourage us to do. The ecology is sensitive, but it’s the time we move from all motivational talks to concrete and measurable programs and actions,” said the cardinal.

The Faith for Earth Dialogue is seeking to demonstrate the power and potential of faith-based organizations and faith leaders in shaping discussions at the UNEA as well as engaging in dialogue with other stakeholders, including governments, organizations, cities and businesses.

“Religions must — this our responsibility to respective religions and traditions — care for God’s creation. There is a critical fundamental obligation,” said Rabbi David Rosen, the international director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee.

Climate change to make world sicker, poorer: UN report

The report warns if warming exceeds a few more tenths of a degree, it could lead to some areas becoming uninhabitable [Mahmud Hossain Opu/AP]

Climate change is likely going to make the world sicker, hungrier, poorer and way more dangerous by 2040 with an “unavoidable” increase in risks, a new United Nations science report has said, warning that there remained only “a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all”.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) study on Monday said if human-caused global warming was not limited to just another couple tenths of a degree, an Earth now struck regularly by deadly heat, fires, floods and drought in future decades will degrade in 127 ways – with some being “potentially irreversible”.

Delaying cuts in heat-trapping carbon emissions and waiting on adapting to warming’s impacts, it warns, “will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all”.

Children today who may still be alive in the year 2100 are going to experience four times more climate extremes than they do now even with only a few more tenths of a degree of warming over today’s heat. But if temperatures increase nearly two more degrees Celsius from now (3.4 degrees Fahrenheit), they would feel five times the floods, storms, drought and heatwaves, according to the collection of scientists at the IPCC.

Already, at least 3.3 billion people’s daily lives “are highly vulnerable to climate change” and 15 times more likely to die from extreme weather, the report said.

Large numbers of people are being displaced by worsening weather extremes. And the world’s poor are being hit by far the hardest, it said. More people are going to die each year from heatwaves, diseases, extreme weather, air pollution and starvation because of global warming, the report added.

How many people die depends on how much heat-trapping gas from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas gets spewed into the air and how the world adapts to an ever-hotter world, the scientists said.

“Climate change is killing people,” said co-author Helen Adams of King’s College London. “Yes, things are bad, but actually the future depends on us, not the climate.”

By 2050, a billion people will face coastal flooding risk from rising seas, the report said. More people will be forced out of their homes from weather disasters, especially flooding, sea level rise and tropical cyclones.

If warming exceeds a few more tenths of a degree, it could lead to some areas becoming uninhabitable, including some small islands, said report co-author Adelle Thomas of the University of Bahamas and Climate Analytics.

And eventually in some places it will become too hot for people to work outdoors, which will be a problem for raising crops, said report co-author Rachel Bezner Kerr of Cornell University.

Following the release of the report, UN chief Antonio Guterres blasted world powers for a “criminal” abdication of leadership.

“Nearly half of humanity is living in the danger zone – now. Many ecosystems are at the point of no return – now,” said Guterres.

“This abdication of leadership is criminal. The world’s biggest polluters are guilty of arson of our only home.”

Activists demand stop to Japan-funded coal plant in climate-vulnerable Bangladesh

MUMBAI,- Japan should stop funding the construction of a coal-fired power plant in Bangladesh as the emissions it produces will accelerate global warming and put the low-lying country at greater risk of climate-change impacts, youth activists said on Friday.

Japanese trading house Sumitomo Corp, along with Toshiba and IHI Corporation, is building the Matarbari power plant in Maheshkhali near the southeastern coastal town of Cox’s Bazar, funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

Climate campaigners said the project contradicts Japan’s commitment, made with other wealthy G7 nations last May, to end funding for “unabated” coal power overseas by the end of 2021.

Coal is considered unabated when it is burned for power or heat without using technology to capture the resulting emissions, a system not yet widely used in power generation.

The power plant under construction at Cox’s Bazar, along the world’s longest beach, puts the lives and livelihoods of locals at risk and will add to broader climate woes, activists said.

Bangladeshi officials said all possible measures were being taken to reduce the negative consequences of the fossil-fuel power plant.

Kentaro Yamamoto, an activist with student movement Fridays for Future Japan, said international support for such energy infrastructure was being offered to Asian countries as “development assistance” but was “destroying the environment”.

Launching a campaign to demand that Sumitomo and JICA stop work on the project, activists and environmental scientists from the region said Japan should stop investing in dirty energy, in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius in line with internationally agreed climate goals.

“This project is hurting the people of Bangladesh and this planet. About 20,000 people have lost land, homes and jobs, flooding will get worse and about 14,000 people could lose their lives due to the toxic waste,” Yamamoto told an online event.

The Bangladesh power plant is at odds with global efforts to curb climate change, and Sumitomo’s own commitment to become carbon neutral by 2050, activists said.

“Achieving net-zero targets by 2050 does not mean burning coal until the last minute. It is far too late to construct new coal power plants now,” said Roger Smith, Japan project manager at Mighty Earth, an advocacy organisation.

A spokesman for Sumitomo, which began building Matarbari in 2017, said the plant would be operated by the Bangladesh government and was not at odds with Sumitomo’s own net-zero goal as the Japanese firm will end all coal-fired generation business in the late 2040s.


About 8% of Bangladesh’s electricity supply comes from coal.

Last year it cancelled 10 out of 18 coal-fired plants it had planned to set up, amid rising costs for the polluting fuel and growing calls from activists to source more of the nation’s power from renewable energy sources.

Mohammad Hossain, head of Power Cell, a technical arm of the Bangladesh energy ministry, said the government had not received a petition from climate activists to stop the Matarbari project.

“We have already cancelled power plants with an intention to cut down emissions but this is an ongoing project and there is no question to cancel it,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The state-run plant – which is expected to be operational by 2024 – would use new technologies to limit emissions, minimise water intake and reduce fly ash to avoid environmental harm, he added.

“Our country is growing fast – its energy demand is growing. This project has been taken up looking at the demands of 2030,” Hossain said.

Activists said funding fossil fuel use put economic concerns ahead of people’s safety in a country whose low elevation, high population density and weak infrastructure make it highly vulnerable to climate change.

“We have the capacity to transition to renewable energy and (we) need the support of Japan to make this transition but not for a coal power plant that is aimed at their profit,” said Farzana Faruk Jhumu of the Bangladesh arm of Fridays for Future.

JICA said that, as a government agency, it was following national policy and aimed to promote international cooperation.

Philippine bishops urge church finances to disconnect from fossil fuels

Residents walk through mud in Manila, Philippines, Nov. 14, 2020, after flooding caused by Typhoon Vamco. (CNS/Reuters/Eloisa Lopez)
Residents walk through mud in Manila, Philippines, Nov. 14, 2020, after flooding caused by Typhoon Vamco. (CNS/Reuters/Eloisa Lopez

In one of the strongest declarations on climate change to date from the Catholic Church, the bishops of the Philippines have called for the local church to decline any donations with ties to the fossil fuel and extractive industries as part of a full-scale effort to disconnect church finances from the production of coal, oil and gas.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines delivered the directive, along with calling for church institutions to press their banks to phase out fossil fuel holdings, in a pastoral statement issued Jan. 28, the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Titled “A Call for Unity and Action amid a Climate Emergency and Planetary Crisis,” the statement also outlines a plan for a national program to implement Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” — including participation in the Vatican’s Laudato Si’ Action Platform — and places church support behind a legislative proposal to recognize the legal rights of nature.

“The cries of the earth and the poor have only grown louder in recent years due to the economic, environmental, and social losses and damages inflicted by both crises” of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, “which were created from exploitative human activities,” the Philippine bishops said in a press release.

Signed by conference president Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan, the pastoral statement laments that even as the pandemic has upended life, killed more than 5.6 million people globally and paused much economic activity, many past polluting practices have restarted.

“This is concerning as, while suffering from the impact of the pandemic, climate-vulnerable nations have also experienced intensifying calamities due to the instability of our biosphere,” the bishops wrote, a reference to multiple deadly tropical storms, including Super Typhoon Rai in December, that have battered the island nation in the past decade.

Home to nearly 110 million people, the Philippines is one of the countries most at risk to the impacts of climate change, including more severe storms and storm surges, rising sea levels and ocean acidification that affects fishing. The capital of Manila is one of the fastest-sinking cities in the world.

That vulnerability, the bishops’ conference said, places upon the country “the moral imperative of pursuing the most sustainable development pathway possible for the sake of current and future generations,” particularly through its national elections in May.

While early on it appeared the pandemic may mark a turning point on global warming, the years 2020 and 2021 rank as the second and fifth hottest years on record, respectively. And after a small decline in 2020, global emissions rebounded nearly 5% to pre-pandemic levels in the past year.

The Philippine bishops said that despite Francis’ encyclical and their earlier ecological pastoral letter, in 2019, “we continue to suffer an increasingly warming world and ailing biosphere triggered by exploitative practices that benefit the wealthy few but cause poverty and hunger to many.”

In that 2019 pastoral letter, the Philippine bishops directed Catholic institutions to cease investments in coal-fired power plants, mining companies and other extractive projects, becoming one of at least a half dozen national bishops’ conferences so far to join the fossil fuel divestment movement.

Their latest pastoral statement pushes further.

In it, the bishops reaffirmed their support of the Paris Agreement goal of holding average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and to achieve that by achieving deep and rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. They urged the Philippines to peak its own emissions “much earlier,” and said key to that will be rechanneling finances to “disable the coal industry” as well as ending “fossil gas,” an alternative term some environmental activists use for natural gas.

In that vein, the bishops urged parishes and church organizations to review their banks’ activities for social and environmental issues, and where there’s financial exposure to fossil fuels, to press for the phase out of such investments. Absent a divestment policy, the bishops directed Catholic institutions to withdraw their finances from those banking centers no later than 2025.

“We are now all the more aware that many of the financial institutions in whom we place our trust have been instrumental in the rise of fossil fuels, as well as other destructive and exploitative industries like mining and logging. It is unacceptable that finances so graciously provided to us are used for such industries. Financial resources must be used solely for the Common Good, Integrity of Creation, and the Glory of our Creator,” they said.

Instead, the bishops said that finances should be steered toward investments in renewable energy and ecological restoration and protection projects, and church groups should “lead by example” by adopting renewable energy and other sustainability systems in their own facilities and communities. They also encouraged the development of education campaigns to promote divestment within congregations, schools and communities.

The bishops also asked that church organizations adopt a “non-acceptance” policy regarding donations of any kind from owners, operators and representatives of extractive industries, listing specifically coal, natural gas, mining, quarrying and logging.

In a statement, Fr. Antonio Labiao, executive secretary of Caritas Philippines, said that with the financial guidance “the Catholic Church has drawn the line. We will ensure that our due-diligence policies are in place. It is not anymore business as usual.”

Christina Leaño, associate director of Laudato Si’ Movement, told EarthBeat that the document’s specifics make clear that the church intends “to pull the moral license from the fossil fuel industry.”

She added that the bishops’ proposal to deny donations from owners and operators of fossil fuel and extractive companies is a “pretty drastic” statement, especially in a country that is the most dangerous in Asia for environmental defenders that has only increased during President Rodrigo Duterte’s time in office.

While other bishops’ conferences have encouraged divestment, as did the bishops’ final document from the 2019 Amazon synod, Leano said that none have been as explicit as what the Philippine bishops’ conference has now put forward.

“They’re taking it to the next level. And they’re being very specific as opposed to kind of a broad statement,” she said.

Explaining their directives on finances, the Philippine bishops cited the Laudato Si’ implementation guidelines released by the Vatican in June 2020, which recommended fossil fuel divestment and reinvestment in renewable energy and sustainability initiatives.

Since Laudato Si’ was issued, the Catholic Church in the Philippines has been a leader in responding to the pope’s call in that papal document to “protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.”

Beyond finances, the new pastoral statement builds upon that work by expanding its National Laudato Si’ Program, which grew out of the 2019 pastoral letter.

The bishops’ conference recommitted to creating an ecology desk within each of its 78 dioceses and archdioceses, with 15 already established, and directed bishops and religious superiors to prioritize support in their budgets for their work.

The conference also said it will institutionalize annual celebrations of the Season of Creation, in September, and Laudato Si’ Week “to nourish our spirituality and awaken our identity as members of a single, sacred-Earth community called to care for our Common Home and all life in it.”

The bishops’ conference also lent their support to a rights of nature campaign around legislation currently in both houses of Congress. In addition, they called for government departments to involve local and Indigenous communities in all decisions around ecologically and socially hazardous projects, and for increased protections for environmental defenders and the lands they seek to protect.

The rights of nature bill, the bishops said, “can push forward a Philippine society where mining, fossil fuels, development aggression, and other forms of ecological destruction are cast away.”

Leano said that for the bishops to include such language around biodiversity “and even to recognize that non-human [creatures] have rights is a huge thing.”

She told EarthBeat the pastoral statement reinforces the Philippines as a leader on climate and ecological justice, and represents a call to action to the rest of the church, including in the United States.

“It’s really a call to go inward and say, how are we going to respond? How are we going to respond to the climate crisis? How are we going to respond to what our brothers and sisters in the Philippines are doing?”

Thai farmers fear loss of land to mega industrial zone

Ubon Chansoi and her daughter Sunee Thongwong stand in their kitchen where they make traditional Thai sweets for sale in eastern Chachoengsao province, Thailand. December 17, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rina Chandran

BAN PHO, Thailand, – U bon Chansoi has lived in a modest wooden home in rural Thailand for about 60 years, farming and rearing fish for a living that is now threatened by an ambitious plan to turn agricultural land in her village in Chachoengsao province into an industrial zone.

Chachoengsao is one of three provinces covered by the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) project that includes several industries, a high-speed railway line, an airport and upgrades to two deep-sea ports in an area of about 1.3 million hectares.

The $45 billion EEC project is a centrepiece of the Thai government’s efforts to boost economic growth and encourage investment with speedier approvals, tax breaks and special visas for investors, as well as land leases for up to 99 years.

But for tens of thousands of villagers who have lived in the three EEC provinces of Chachoengsao, Chon Buri and Rayong for generations, there are few benefits, and many will lose their land and homes, activists warn.

“The government only cares about business – it is giving away our land to big companies,” said Ubon, 73, gesturing to the trees and the ponds teeming with tilapia and catfish.

“For us, this is our life and our livelihood, and it will be very difficult to adjust to a new place and a new life if we have to leave,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Thailand’s tourism-reliant economy, Southeast Asia’s second largest, suffered its deepest slump in over two decades last year due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and authorities are keen to lure back local and foreign investors.

The EEC is a key part of the plan, with authorities expecting at least $10 billion in investments this year.

But residents say authorities did not consult with them on the plans, and that the project will damage the environment and livelihoods that rely largely on farming and fishing.

“There were some public hearings, but many were held far away, or were online, or we were not informed. Some had a lot of police, making it difficult for us to voice our concerns,” said Sarayut Sonraksa, 40, a farmer in Ban Pho village in Chachoengsao.

“We are already seeing more flooding, more coastal erosion, and waste being dumped, and we are worried it will get worse and affect the land and water even more,” said Sarayut, who has taken the lead in campaigning against the EEC in his village.

More than 40 public hearings were held to seek residents’ opinions, said Tasanee Kiatpatraporn, a deputy secretary general in the Eastern Economic Corridor Policy Committee (EECPC), a state agency.

Further, forested areas and “good agricultural land” are being maintained, and the EEC promotes industries engaged in “activities which employ advanced and modern technologies, innovations, and are environmentally friendly,” she added.


Across Asia, governments have embraced so-called special economic zones (SEZs) to spur growth and generate jobs. These are generally governed by special laws related to land use and environmental clearances, and offer tax incentives.

Many SEZs have, however, fallen short of targets on investment, revenue and jobs, and have instead caused mass displacements, as well as social and environmental impacts, according to researchers.

Thai SEZs date back to the 1970s, and the country has more than 50 large industrial estates, with a majority located in the eastern region, including local and foreign auto manufacturers, petrochemical and electronic companies.

The military-led government that took charge after a coup in 2014 has made SEZs key to its economic policy, even as protests over evictions from farms and forests have risen.

The Eastern Economic Corridor bill was passed in 2018, with provisions to allow industrial development on agricultural land, and with less rigorous environmental-impact assessments and waste management rules, according to activists.

“The project has a top-down approach that minimised public participation and engagement of local people, who do not get any benefits from the project,” said Somnuck Jongmeewasin, research director at EEC Watch, an advocacy group.

“EEC projects are being developed without respect for community rights and are leaving local communities, especially poor people, behind,” he said, adding that people who live in the EEC zone are “downgraded to being second-class citizens, alienated in their own homeland.”

An administrative court last year ordered officials to follow local town planning and zoning regulations.

But authorities have continued to ignore public participation requirements in meetings on town planning and re-zoning, Somnuck said.


In the three provinces of the EEC, land prices have surged as agricultural land is designated for industry, and the project is promoted as a key part of the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s massive global infrastructure push.

Some residents have sold their land and moved away as it becomes harder to farm and rear fish. Villagers on leased land risk becoming landless and being left without any compensation.

Ubon, who has leased her land for several decades, says her landlord is supportive of her, but she cannot be sure for how long. Her daughter has set up a small business making traditional Thai sweets as a backup plan.

“I’m already old; I won’t live very long. But what about the younger generation – where will they go if we lose our land?” said Ubon.

Ubon and others are encouraged by a victory earlier this month for campaigners against an industrial zone in Thailand’s southern province of Songkhla.

Authorities agreed to put the project on hold to do a strategic environmental assessment, and set up a new panel to look into concerns after protests.

“What they have achieved is remarkable – the entire community came together, and never gave up. We have a lot to learn from them,” said Sarayut.

Sarayut has received death threats for his opposition, and a village headman was killed some years ago. A lawsuit against the EEC is being heard in court.

“It is our last option,” said Sarayut.

“It’s not that we don’t want development, but we want it to be done in a way that does not hurt us or the environment.”