Rising bottled water use signals threat to UN water goal, and other environment stories you need to read this week

Top climate crisis and environment stories: Rising bottled water use signals threat to UN water goal; California hit by floods and snow; and more.
Top climate crisis and environment stories: Rising bottled water use signals threat to UN water goal; California hit by floods and snow; and more.
Image: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
  • This weekly round-up brings you key climate stories from the past week.
  • Top climate crisis and environment stories: Rising bottled water use signals threat to UN water goal; California hit by floods and snow; Seabirds getting diseases from ingesting plastic waste.

1. Rising bottled water use signals safe drinking water goal is under threat, says UN think tank

Surging global bottled water consumption reflects the failure by governments to improve public water supplies, which is putting the UN sustainable development goal of safe drinking water by 2030 under threat, a UN academic think tank says.

The bottled water market grew by 73% from 2010 to 2020, and consumption is on track to increase from around 350 billion litres in 2021 to 460 billion litres by 2030, according to the UN University's Institute for Water, Environment and Health. The industry produced 600 billion plastic bottles in 2021, with 85% of these likely to end up in landfill.

The UN estimates that 2.2 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water, with the number of people who had access growing by only 4% between 2016 and 2020. Developing nations depend on bottled water to make up this shortfall.

As well as concerns over poor access to clean drinking water, there are fears that rising bottled water consumption threatens the environment because of issues including plastic pollution. New research shows that the amount of plastics entering the ocean could nearly triple by 2040 if left unchecked.

"It is a human right to have access to free and clean water, but it's also a right to live in a world free from plastic pollution," said Marcus Eriksen, director of plastic pollution non-profit 5 Gyres Institute.

2. California flooded with rain, New York buried under snow

An “atmospheric river” has dumped more torrential rain on California, forcing evacuations, power outages and road closures, while the remnants of a powerful blizzard have buried much of upstate New York and New England under snow.

An atmospheric river describes airborne currents of dense, tropical moisture, which are coming in from the Pacific. It is leading to the US West Coast getting pounded by an usually wet season following two decades of drought, creating havoc on roads and endangering homes in some areas.

"It's been fire to ice and no warm bath in between," said California Governor Gavin Newsom, referring to the state's pivot from wildfires just a few months ago to one of the snowiest winters on record.

He has declared a state of emergency in 43 of California's 58 counties. More than 130,000 homes and businesses remained without power on 15 March, according to PowerOutage.us. Officials are warning of potential flooding and mudslides from heavy rain, melting snowpack, saturated soils and swollen streams.

Flooding tends to occur when there is extremely high rainfall in the space of hours or days. The US has experienced rising amounts of extreme rainfall in recent decades, as the chart below shows.

A chart showing the frequency of extreme rainfall events in the US since 1910.
Extreme rainfall events in the US have been increasing over recent decades.
Image: Our World in Data

Meanwhile, in the Northeast US, a late-winter blizzard has dumped about 2 feet (60 centimetres) of snow in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts and northwestern Connecticut, and a foot or more in parts of New York's Hudson Valley.

3. News in brief: Top environment stories this week

A new disease caused by seabirds ingesting plastic waste has been discovered by scientists at the Natural History Museum in London. The birds develop scars on their digestive tracts from eating food containing plastic waste, and this can lead to the breakdown of tubular glands, leaving them more susceptible to infections and parasites, UK newspaper The Guardian reports.

Earth Hour 2023 takes place on 25 March. The annual event aims to raise awareness of the need to protect the planet. This year’s Earth Hour is expected to be the biggest yet, with hundreds of events planned around the world, and millions of houses, offices and iconic buildings due to switch off their lights to mark the occasion.

Nature and Climate

How is the World Economic Forum fighting the climate crisis?

The World Economic Forum’s Centre for Nature and Climate accelerates action on climate change and environmental sustainability, food systems, the circular economy and value chains, and the future of international development.

  • Through the Global Plastic Action Partnership, the Forum is bringing together government, business and civil society to shape a more sustainable world by eradicating plastic pollution.
  • Global companies are collaborating through the Forum’s 1t.org initiative to support 1 trillion trees by 2030, with over 30 companies having already committed to conserve, restore and grow more than 3.6 billion trees in over 60 countries.
  • Through a partnership with the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and over 50 global businesses, the Forum is encouraging companies to join the First Movers Coalition and invest in innovative green technologies to enable net-zero emissions by 2050.
  • The Forum is bringing global leaders together to reduce the environmental impact of value chains and make the $4.5 trillion circular economy opportunity a reality. The African Circular Economy Alliance is funding circular economy entrepreneurs and circular economy activities in Rwanda, Nigeria and South Africa, while the Circular Electronics in China project is helping companies reduce and recycle 50% of e-waste by 2025.
  • Since launching in 2020, the Forum’s open innovation platform UpLink has welcomed over 40,000 users who are working on more than 30 challenges crowdsourcing solutions to the climate crisis.
  • More than 1000 partners from the private sector, government and civil society are working together through the 2030 Water Resources Group to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030. The group has facilitated close to $1 billion of financing for water-related programmes.

Contact us for more information on how to get involved.

Untimely rains and hailstorms could damage India's key winter-sown crops such as wheat, rapeseed and chickpeas. Winter-sown crops have already come under stress because of temperatures reaching up to 39°C earlier this month, nearly 7°C above normal.

Farming and tourism are under threat in southwest France as a winter drought dries up Lake Montbel. The landscape has largely turned into a muddy wasteland, as France's driest winter in 64 years has prevented the lake from filling up.

Albania’s government has designated Europe's last “wild river” as a national park, marking a victory for environmentalists who have successfully fought plans to build a hydropower plant along the waterway. The campaigners say the Vjosa River is home to around 1,000 species, including the critically endangered European eel and endangered endemic plant species.

4. More on climate and nature on Agenda

The United States and the European Union are implementing their own green subsidy schemes to boost investments in renewable technologies. Green subsidy schemes encourage private-sector climate action, but they could risk leaving developing and emerging economies behind.

Global food waste produces roughly the same amount of CO2 as the total combined emissions of the US and the EU, according to a new study of 164 countries and regions. The research explores ways to reduce emissions from food waste, including halving meat consumption and opting for composting instead of using landfill.

Mussels serve as “ecosystem engineers”, driving habitat construction and controlling the availability of resources to other organisms, a new study says. They help to keep streams and rivers clean by absorbing heavy metals, and are important additions to marine ecosystems as sea levels continue to rise.

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