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At a recent environmental forum in Beijing, the speakers were in full swing with relatively predictable insight into China’s environmental challenges, and more broadly, environmental challenges elsewhere.

Then came the question-and-answer period and again a couple of relatively innocuous questions before a Chinese man strode to the front of the auditorium and launched into a discussion of his own.

In angry tones and raised voice, he said the Chinese government was not doing enough to mitigate air, water and soil pollution and demanded immediate attention to related public health concerns.

No one flinched, people listened intently, respectfully, no one emerged from the shadows to haul him away. Several students in the audience also asked about lack of action on pollution and suggested that more should be done to clean the environment and protect citizen health.

I sat beside a Chinese friend who simply shrugged, saying she had seen the man speak out at two other recent environmental forums. She said that because of his stature as an energy expert, he was left unhindered to express his opinions publicly.

She pointed out that the students were also feeling free to criticize the government, whereas previously the unspoken line everyone knew not to cross was any sense of direct opposition to Beijing authorities.

My sense from the entire trip (my previous visit being only four months earlier) was that China is changing, and perhaps faster than we could have imagined.

For the first time, censors this year have allowed Chinese media to carry reports about the “cancer villages” in areas of high industrial pollution.

Environmental advocate Ma Jun told me with some amazement that he had felt free recently to criticize a recent Ministry of Environmental Protection decision not to release data about soil pollution, which it considered a “state secret”.

Ma Jun said this was irresponsible and put public health at risk, a comment that was unusually picked up by the People’s Daily and Xinhua, among other news sources that aren’t usually inclined to publish remarks critical of the government.

“Previously, these comments would have been removed by censors,” Ma Jun said. “Now these issues are allowed to be talked about, debated and discussed.”

This became particularly clear, as March brought the annual meetings of the legislative and consultative bodies of China where major policies traditionally are decided and key government officials appointed.

Concern for the environment was a constant throughout the session – and was the subject of one in ten of the 5,000 proposals submitted by delegates.

Social media was also alive with commentary on the environment throughout.

And talk about environmental protection wasn’t simply a side act to the main show. The National People’s Congress (NPC) at 2,987 members is the largest parliament in the world and gathers alongside the People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) whose members represent various groups of society. This year, the NPC confirmed the new leadership of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.

This once-in-a-decade leadership change emerged from November’s Communist Party congress with a strong reform mandate and promising a more sustainable China, balanced growth as well as more emphasis on environmental protection.

To be fair, this was not, however entirely a departure in direction from the previous Hu Jintao, Wen Jibao administration and it remains to be seen whether the result will be real change.

The 2011, 12th Five-Year Plan, which sets the direction for policy, of course emphasized balanced growth and set priority green industries. The mantra that emerged then was that economic growth should not come at the expense of resource depletion or pollution.

Wen Jibao, representing the departing Old Guard, opened the 12th National People’s Congress with a “Report of the Work of the Government” pointing to “steady progress in conserving energy, reducing emissions, and protecting the environment.

But levels of anger are rising, fueled by recent truly off-the-charts air pollution in Beijing as well as the repeated and increasingly public (because of the rapid spread of news on social media platforms) water pollution incidents nationwide. Rampant corruption among local officials that has allowed harmful practices to continue unhindered has also been a target of microbloggers.

This sense of disregard for public health coupled with an increasingly affluent and vocal middle class presents a problem for the Chinese government in terms of its own legitimacy.

Recognizing this, Xi Jinping said at the March proceedings that the government should play a stronger role in pushing reform and opening up.

“The new administration wants a new start,” Ma Jun said. “They want to make clear that the current environmental challenges are not their fault.”

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Photo: Alex Hofford

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We have spent the last few days contemplating with marine experts the real and terrifying challenges our oceans face and what we, as a philanthropic foundation, can do to stimulate urgent thought and action largely absent in Asia around the consumption and trade in fish.

While there is growing attention from governments (local, national and regional bodies), NGOs and philanthropic funders in the U.S., Europe, Australia and New Zealand, despite being an important consumer and producer, there has been little attention paid to the challenges in Asia, where an estimated 40 percent of major fish stocks are overexploited or collapsed.  At the same time, as a region where poor coastal populations are largely dependent on fisheries for their only source of protein and employment, the issues are particularly urgent.

It’s worth reminding ourselves of just how significant those challenges are and why we in Asia should particularly take note.

Oceans cover 70 percent of our planet and are indispensable to life. They generate 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe, absorb warming greenhouse gases, help regulate our climate and are a critical source of food for us all, but most importantly the 1 billion of our world’s poorest for whom fish is their only source of animal protein.

Yet as we have written about here and here, we are depleting, polluting and warming our oceans at unprecedented rates. We are not caring for our greatest resource in the rush to take more and produce more. While population growth has averaged 1.7 percent each year over the past 50 years, with greater global affluence, rates of fish consumption are increasing at an annual rate of 3.2 percent, according to the FAO’s 2012 State of the World’s Fisheries and Aquaculture. How will it be when our current population of 7 billion reaches an expected 9 billion by 2050?

Over the past 50 years we have consumed an estimated 90 percent of the ocean’s big fish, encouraged by $27 billion each year in misguided government subsidies for fuel or boat construction offered to the industrial-scale fishing fleets that have led the devastating global scramble to harvest, according to a Pew Environment Group report. Estimates are that about half the world’s wild capture production comes from the smaller coastal fisheries that can be just as destructive, usually are unregulated and yet are a vital source of employment and protein.

The total number of fishing vessels in the world in 2010 is estimated at about 4.36 million and again it’s worth noting that Asia has the largest fleet, accounting for 73 percent of the world total, according to the FAO.

World per capita food fish supply increased from an average of 9.9 kg in the 1960s to 18.4 kg in 2009, and likely 18.6 kg in 2010 when all the numbers are in. Of the 126 million tonnes available for human consumption in 2009, Asia accounted for two-thirds of which 42.8 million tonnes was consumed outside China (15.4 kg per capita).

China, which is expected to pull an additional 300 million people out of rural poverty and into relative urban affluence over the next two decades, has a long way to go. Already over the past 50 years, that country’s share in world fish production rose from 7 percent to 35 percent in 2010, largely fueled by growth in aquaculture there, while fish consumption per capita rose to 31.9 kg in 2009, with an average annual rate of growth of 6 percent between 1990-2009. China is also the world’s largest single exporter, responsible for 12 percent of world trade by volume.

China now produces more than 60 percent of the world’s aquaculture by volume, while Asia as a whole accounts for 89 percent of global volume.  This is not, however, taking pressure off our oceans as many people seem to believe. fishmeal itself contains fish and for the more expensive fish the conversion rates are not good. World aquaculture production reached an all-time high in 2010 of 60 million tons, meaning we now farm about half our global consumption.

This massive and growing consumption has meant that most of the stocks of the top ten species, which account for about 30 percent of world marine capture fisheries production, are fully exploited and have no potential for increases in production. Our fishing capacity, meanwhile, is estimated to be as much as two to four  times that needed to harvest the sustainable yield catch from the world’s fisheries.

Meanwhile, not only are we emptying our oceans of life, by overfishing, we are killing what’s left with our bad terrestrial habits.

Acidification and the accompanying ocean warming are continuing apace as our marine life absorbs carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted by our factories, power plants and transport sector. This has been devastating to our coral reefs, the habitat for 25 percent of our marine species.

Humans are also responsible for a wide assortment of pollutants from oil spills to plastic waste to industrial and municipal effluent, to agricultural runoff from fertilizers that has created whole coastal dead zones.

And I could go on about Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing, which is an industry unto its own and about which not enough is known but its links to human trafficking, drugs, and terrorism finance have been sporadically documented. With lack of attention to fisheries in Asia and close to zero regulation, this is a particular challenge in terms of even beginning to think about how to stimulate action.

Still, it’s not all gloom and doom – at least in Europe, the U.S., Australia and new Zealand, where NGO pressure and governments (both local and national, as well as regional bodies) have started to focus on the myriad challenges.

According to the FAO report, good progress is being made in reducing exploitation rates and restoring overexploited fish stocks and marine ecosystems through effective management. In the United States of America, 67 percent of all stocks are now being sustainably harvested, while only 17 percent are still overexploited. In New Zealand, 69 percent of stocks are above management targets, reflecting mandatory rebuilding plans for all fisheries that are still below target thresholds. Similarly, Australia reports overfishing for only 12 percent of stocks in 2009. There is also growing EU and USA action around IUU fishing.

But where is Asia in this equation – China, southeast Asia, Japan and India, which together consumed two-thirds of the world’s fish, farm more than 80 percent and export a large chunk to the rest of the world. On marine issues, both governments and NGOs are largely silent, with the exception of the creation of marine protected areas which in concept are important but reality need to be better conceived with proper fisheries management, governance, linkages and adequate funding for monitoring and enforcement.

The reality exists that none of the Asian nations have adequate fisheries management plans, import or export regulations or reliable stock assessments, to their own detriment. IUU fishing is rampant. Yet, fisheries are a vital source of employment and food for the region. Food security and potentially even social stability are at stake.

The question we have been asking ourselves – beyond those provoked by the challenges above – is: What role should a significant global trader such as Hong Kong play in this equation?

Once a fishing village with a booming fishing industry that sustained our appetite for highly commercial species such as snapper and grouper producing 90 percent of the fish we consumed, Hong Kong now imports 90 percent of what it consumes from 140 nations globally. The lack of fish in our oceans caused the government to buy out the once substantial trawling fleets and close Hong Kong waters to commercial fishing.

Despite the declining productivity of our own seas, our appetite for fish, particularly endangered luxury species, has only increased with our greater affluence. In 2009, an average of 71.6 kgs of seafood was consumed per person. That’s 3.9 times higher than the global average and up from 9.9 kg in the 1960s.

So the question remains: should not Hong Kong, a significant consumer of seafood and as such a contributor to global ocean challenges not act now to help save our seas? The key to keep our oceans from emptying completely will be for governments to adopt policies that encourage sustainable consumption and to regulate the fishing and seafood-related industry more carefully.

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The following post was written by Uma Subramanian,  ADMCF’s India program manager, in response to the brutal gang rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi. Her blog can be read here: http://umasubramanian.wordpress.com

We Indian women have been groped, fondled, touched, pushed, teased, pinched and raped. Some of us raped literally and some raped through eyes, comments and gestures. Each one of us has faced this since puberty, some were unlucky to face it even before, some in their homes, some in schools and most of us on the streets.

Since my teenage years, my parents, like most parents in India, told me, “The outside world is bad, so be careful.” We were told to hold our bags to cover our breasts, we were not allowed to wear sleeveless shirts, or short skirts that might attract the attention of men, no fitted tops and no make up. The world around us was BAD, we were told.

And their fear was justified: In India a woman is raped every 4 seconds. Whenever we read about a rape case the implication was that the woman had been careless: She wore a tight skirt, she went out too late, she was with a man and therefore must be a prostitute. Never was the rapist blamed. This is part of our consciousness and learning since childhood and part of the reason the terrible problem persists.

Instead, we have taught our girls to protect themselves with martial arts, told them to carry chili powder to throw in the eyes of an attacker. We have covered them in multiple layers of clothes and taught them to use an umbrella for protection. Never have we thought to look at this issue from another perspective, we, each one of us, have blindly accepted that the world around us is BAD.

But our collective failure to speak out, to act against men who rape, has led once again to tragedy, this time in Delhi. There, in mid-December, a 23-year-old medical student was brutally raped on a chartered bus over many hours and then discarded  on the streets of the national capital. Six psychotic men raped her, beat her and threw her away thinking they could do so with impunity. Nothing protected her – her multiple layers of clothes, the lessons from her parents, the six police check points which she passed as she was being raped, or her male friend – everything failed this woman.

As terrible as this was, hundreds of women are raped in India every day, some in marriages, some on the streets, but this tragedy has finally sparked the consciousness of our nation of 1 billion. Finally, we speak in one voice – WE NEED TO RESPECT WOMEN IN INDIA. Delhi students and angry women have braved tear gas, water cannons and lathi to protest against the men who thought they could use the young woman for their pleasure, to demand their punishment.

But I wonder, would the sense of national tragedy, the reaction, be the same if the girl, were wearing a short dress when she was picked up by the bus joyriders, if her male companion were a boyfriend, or if they were returning from a nightclub?

I believe this case has grabbed national attention because the girl was SPOTLESS according to the huge moral brigade of India. She was a medical student, wearing Indian dress, it was 9:30 pm (not so late), she went to a movie with a friend and she was returning home. She ticked all the boxes of the ideal Indian woman.

But would the brutality have been any less if this girl were a model or a dancer, wearing a short skirt? We need to use this moment also to analyze our own prejudices when it comes to rape. Don’t we all have biases against women who are MODERN in India? We ignore women who are raped in villages. We turn a blind eye to the thousands of Dalit women who raped by upper caste men.

Although the young woman’s horror represents a terrible loss for her family and the nation, let us hope that her life is not wasted, that our national mourning has finally brought gender inequality and gender-based violence to the forefront. For the first time, there is conversation about teaching boys to respect women, to control their urges.  People are advocating for stringent and swift punishment for rapists. The blame is finally shifting from the victims to the offenders.

This incident has also given hope to the thousands of women who are still struggling for justice after being raped. The not-so-popular Women’s Movement in India has stepped forward.

Hopefully, the national introspection will help diminish the stigma around rape and reporting rape. Bollywood, the media and our repressive society have exaggerated the social stigma attached to reporting an attack and this also needs to change.

Time has come for us as a country to think deeply about the way we see girls and the way we treat them. We worship women as goddesses but label them as whores if they dress differently. We kill girls in the womb, preferring boys, and rape them once they are born.

We need collectively to work to change both the legal and cultural frameworks of this country simultaneously and justice needs to be delivered to victims in a timely manner.

Lets not forget that men are also victims of our socialization. Lets educate our younger generation about sex and sexuality; let’s not teach them what our parents taught us.

We must sensitize our police, politicians, judiciary and media. In our Bollywood films, lets stop portraying women as objects and glorifying men who tease women.

The 23-year-old young girl died of multiple organ failure, from the failure of her country and all of us to protect her. Each one of us is responsible for not speaking out.

The only way we can pay tribute to her terrible sacrifice is to ensure that no other women experience the same, to speak out against violence, to act against violence.

The time has come for us to make this country a safe place for women.

 

 

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An unbelievable and disturbing sight photographed Jan. 2nd in Kennedy Town, Hong Kong by Alex Hofford and Paul Hilton. An estimated 18,000 fins were found drying in the beautiful early January sunshine.

About 50 percent of the global shark fin trade passes through Hong Kong, largely to feed Asian appetites for shark fin soup and other shark-related product. Estimates are that possibly as many as 73 million shark are harvested annually in a lucrative trade estimated in value from US$540 million to US$1.2 billion.

A third of all fins imported to Hong Kong come from Europe, with Spain as the largest supplier, providing between 2,000 and 5,000 metric tons a year. Norway supplies 39 metric tonnes. Britain, France, Portugal and Italy are also major suppliers. Bags of fin labeled from Brazil were found on the Hong Kong rooftop.

As affluence has grown in Asia, particularly China, so too has demand for shark fin soup, which is eaten largely as an expensive delicacy at wedding and other banquets.

One-third of sharks species are threatened or near-threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN Red List.

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Always the challenge for an organization working with marginalized children in Asia is how to really alter an existing imbalance – for example to provide education or skills to working children otherwise deprived of learning and a childhood in a way that will make a meaningful difference to their futures.

It is not so complicated to establish an educational program or direct children into government schools – when these exist or there are places. There is real desire among those for whom education is not a given, to live the dream and to learn.

But even when education can be made a reality, it is often not enough to just put children in school, or sit them in front of a blackboard and teacher for a few hours a day. There are so many factors that act against the instinct to learn: lack of food or safe drinking water, cold weather when children don’t have enough clothing, hot weather when they must learn outside or in rooms without windows, absence of sanitation and healthcare, little support from parents, and family pressure to work, among them.

In India, where, along with support from a UK-based partner, ADMCF has been working with a local organization to encourage children out of what is often hazardous work and back to school, the challenges for learners are myriad.

The NGO works with marginalized urban populations in the worst conditions imaginable. The problem remains: can it offer education without thinking about nutrition, healthcare, encouraging family support (not financial) and expect permanent results in the children’s lives? Can we expect, particularly in the most challenging communities that access to education alone will lead to a better future?

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This has been particularly true in the wake of India’s well-intentioned Right to Education Act, which determined in August 2009 much as the name suggests that all Indian children should be in school from 6-14.

This meant that our partner organization, which had established drop-in centres as way stations between work and school, was forced to rethink how it worked with children who had never attended school or had dropped out years previously.

Instead, after a brief transition, all children had to be quickly enrolled in government school, whether they were ready or not. They no longer had the luxury of longer preparation in a safer environment ahead of enrollment.

This was tricky enough in major urban areas, where there were schools and places and children could be supported in after-school programs in the same centres. But in the poorest urban slums in India that are home to significant Dalit or untouchable populations (many migrants from rural areas), there are often no government school options – despite the fact that according to official statistics, 96.6 per cent of children in India ages 6 to 14 are now enrolled.

IMG_5184If there are schools, there are no places. If there are places, the classes are massively overcrowded or there is discrimination against Dalits. If there is no discrimination, the teachers don’t show up for class. In any case, for the poorest children, there frequently is little learning to be had in official schools.

Enter our partner NGO, which provides that stepping stone to education but faces the many questions above. They now must mainstream their primary and secondary school children into schools that don’t exist, or where they don’t learn. Their own centres must not be schools. So what is the learning path?

For a child with enough money there is a proliferation of private schools stepping into the lacunae created by failing government education. But how does an education NGO step in to provide support to ALL marginalized children, not just the brightest, how does it make sure that all children it contacts receive the education to which they are entitled under Indian law yet can’t access?

Then, at the same time, how does an organization in a country as vast as India, where marginalized children are easily discarded by law and society, provide the conditions for learning given limited resources and India’s education act?

Clearly, there should be more provisions made to support education for India’s poorest children, particularly in a country that traditionally has placed such value on learning.

 

This first appeared as an Op-ed in the October 25 opinion pages of the SCMP.

We might finally have an administration that cares about cleaning our filthy air. Indications are that the new administration led by C.Y.Leung will act to finally stem the choking smog that represents Hong Kong’s No 1 public health crisis and is a major impediment to the city’s competitiveness.

Last week, in his first address to the reconvened Legislative Council, the chief executive said improving air quality was among his top objectives. In a move that already stirred optimism about the government’s determination to protect public health, Leung last month named environmentalist Christine Loh Kung-wai undersecretary for the environment.

It was also encouraging to see, a day after Leung’s address, Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing calling roadside pollution the city’s greatest problem, and that a basket of initiatives to improve the city’s air quality would be introduced next year. These, he said, would aim to comply with World Health Organisation standards rather than the outdated air quality measures still in use.

Among the initiatives being considered are “carrot and stick” policies that include removing some 60,000 heavily polluting diesel vehicles from our roads.

Such measures are urgently needed. Some older vehicles have been on the road for as long as 20 years and should be refused registration if they don’t comply with vehicle emission standards.

While atmospheric pollution might have improved somewhat – due mainly to lower emissions from the city’s power stations – the concentration of roadside emissions remains unacceptably high, and it is these emissions that affect us the most.

Wong has said that 80 per cent of roadside pollutants come from outdated commercial diesel vehicles.

Retiring obsolete commercial diesel vehicles will improve our air and our health. It’s also worth remembering that research from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology showed that, 53 per cent of the time, pollution that affects us most comes not from across the border, but from our own roads and ships on the harbour.

Indeed, the recent flurry of positive announcements from the government came amid a string of bad air days and public health warnings to moderate outdoor activity.

According to Hong Kong University’s Hedley Environmental Index, which measures the cost of pollution, yesterday was a “clear day” (one that complies with WHO air quality guidelines) in Hong Kong. The last such day was September 22, which means that our air stayed bad for more than a month.

According to the index, there have been only 59 clear days so far this year. The polluted days represent a cumulative HK$33 million in health-related and other costs.

Beyond the direct cost to our economy, surveys of business executives regularly point to our smoggy air as a real obstacle in recruiting and retaining workers – whether foreign or local. Patience is wearing thin.

By now we have heard from doctors and scientists that our dangerously high level of pollutants raises the risk of such conditions as bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia, headaches, lung cancer, stroke and heart attack.

So we should applaud the suggestion of phasing out outdated commercial diesel vehicles, despite what I imagine will be heavy lobbying from the transport sector.

As Wong pointed out, mainland China is phasing out diesel vehicles more than 15 years old, so why should we be any different? The government’s carrot will include subsidies to soften the blow of replacing vehicle fleets.

It is encouraging that the administration has also spoken about retrofitting Euro II and III franchised buses with selective catalytic reduction devices to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions and might even tighten emission standards for LPG and petrol vehicles as well.

Here’s hoping that our new government will finally act to protect our health.

 

Eating Asia’s Forests

Lisa Genasci —  October 20, 2012 — 4 Comments

View of palm oil plantation in Cigudeg, Bogor

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Most of us don’t realize that many of the products we use, the foods we eat are causing deforestation on a massive scale in Southeast Asia and are devastating to our planet’s biodiversity.

The culprit is palm oil, which is a key ingredient in many common foods, shampoos, soap and pet products, lubricants, pesticides and paints.  It even helps fuel our cars.

Palm oil has become a silent part of our everyday lives and accounts for 30 percent of world vegetable oil. And that’s how it’s usually identified on the list of ingredients – as vegetable oil so we often don’t even know what we are using.

Our consumption of the versatile lipid is soaring.  Demand is predicted to more than double by 2030 and to triple by 2050. China is the biggest consumer of palm oil, importing 18 per cent of global supply.

In Indonesia and Malaysia, forests are being cleared at an alarming rate, estimated at 2 million hectares a year, wiping out endangered species such as the orangutan, the black sun bear, the Sumatran tiger and many others.  The two countries produce 90 percent of the world’s palm oil.

A new study by Stanford and Yale researchers estimates that 75 percent of deforestation in Indonesia was directly attributable to land use changes, from forestry to plantation. The study was released this month and published in the journal Nature Climate Change

Indonesia already has 8 million hectares of oil palm plantations, but has plans for another four million by 2015 dedicated to biofuel production alone. In total, the country produced more than 23 million tonnes of biofuels last year and is setting aside 18 million hectares to produce much more.

Malaysia in 2011 produced 18.9 million tonnes of palm oil on nearly 5 million hectares and was the second largest producer of palm oil.

Beyond feeding our snack habit, another challenge for forests is that governments are pushing to increase the use of biofuel, which ironically is seen as a quick fix to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In the EU By 2020, 10 per cent of fuel will be biofuel, while China expects 15 per cent of its fuel to be grown in fields.

But in both Indonesia and Malaysia, in order to plant palm oil, often carbon-rich peatlands are being drained and then burned, releasing stored C02 into atmosphere already clogged with greenhouse gases from razing dry land forests. This represents possibly more carbon emissions than burning fossil fuels.

English: Deforestation and forest burning for ...

And not infrequently palm oil plantations are just an excuse for clearing forest because the profits associated with sales of tropical timber are substantial. In this case, companies seek concessions and access to land that is forested but don’t ever bother to plant palm oil.

We might think that forest and peat swamp loss in Southeast Asia sounds bad but it’s far away so why do we care?

We care for many reasons.  But if we are thinking purely about self-interest, the effects of forest loss can be seen globally in changing climate patterns and erratic weather.

Forest cutting is responsible for 17 per cent of global carbon emissions, meaning this is the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and equal to emissions for the entire global transport sector. It is also comparable to the total annual CO2 emissions of the US or China, according to the UK Eliasch Review, “Climate Change, Financing Global Forests”.

If the international community does nothing to reduce deforestation, modeling for the Eliasch Review estimates that the global economic cost of climate change alone caused by deforestation could reach $1 trillion a year by 2100.

Beyond the effects of climate change from deforestation, we look to forests as sources of vital biodiversity.

Estimates are that nearly half of the world’s species of plants, animals and microorganisms will be destroyed or severely threatened over the next 25 years because of rainforest deforestation. As rainforest species disappear, so do many possible cures for disease.

At least 120 prescription drugs sold worldwide come from plant-derived sources. While 25% of Western pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest ingredients, less than 1% of tropical trees and plants have been tested by scientists. We just don’t know enough about the significance of forests to sit back while they disappear.

Locally, the consequences of deforestation on such massive scale are even more immediate.  Forests help regulate regional rainfall, offer defense from floods, maintain soils and their moisture, and generally offer ecosystem services crucial for maintaining life and livelihoods. Globally, an estimated 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their welfare and livelihoods to one degree or another.

So is it worth it to eat that biscuit, that chocolate, choose a shampoo that contains palm oil and how do we know if it’s not even labeled?

The rule is that if the label shows the saturated fat content is close to 50%, there is a good chance that the vegetable oil will in fact be palm oil. Among those items that should be immediately suspect are biscuits, processed foods, chocolates and snacks.

Other key tip-offs that a food item might contain palm oil listed among ingredients are cocoa butter equivalent (CBE), cocoa butter substitute (CBS), palm olein and palm stearine.

When looking at ingredients in non-food products such as soaps and detergents, those that contain palm oil include: elaeis guineensis, sodium lauryl sulphate, cetyl alcohol, stearic acid, isopropyl and other palmitates, steareth-2, steareth-20 and fatty alcohol sulphates.

Next time you reach for a snack, paint a wall or fill up your car, do your best to make sure palm oil isn’t an ingredient or at least that the brand claims to use oil from sustainable sources.

There are many issues around what makes palm oil sustainable as well as the industry body, the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) itself, but this is at least a step in the right direction.