Let's talk about green issues in Singapore

Participants at Our SG Conversation discuss need for better public awareness, policy focus
Grace Chua Straits Times 20 Jan 13;

The first Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) dialogue for the environment community, held on a rainy Saturday morning at Singapore Polytechnic, raised both uniquely "green" issues as well as broader, shared ones.

Environment and animal-welfare activists, for instance, said Singapore actually has a wealth of land and marine animals and plants.

But many members of the public are not even aware of this, they lamented, so how should the word be spread and made relevant to people so that more will care about protecting them?

At the same time, like most other OSC sessions, participants also envisioned Singapore evolving into a more gracious society and one that is less focused on economics and more on happiness.

In all, 64 people took part, including activists and members of the public.

A total of 52 organisations were represented, ranging from the Centre for Sustainable Asian Cities think-tank, Energy Studies Institute and other academic institutions to the Keep Singapore Beautiful Movement, Nature Society, Cat Welfare Society and other non-government groups.

Issues raised in the three-hour conversation, led by Nominated Member of Parliament Faizah Jamal and sustainability consultant Eugene Tay, ranged from getting people to return their trays and not litter to shifting policymakers' focus from "brown" issues of waste and pollution to "green" issues of ecology and conservation.

Entrepreneur Allan Lim of social enterprise The Living! Project suggested getting more companies on board for such discussions, especially those in industries such as shipping and construction.

The comments will ultimately be sent to OSC committee members like Education Minister Heng Swee Keat and relevant policymakers like Senior Minister of State for National Development Tan Chuan-Jin, who is also Acting Manpower Minister.

"The conversation doesn't end here," Ms Faizah said.

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Our SG Conversation for the Green Community on facebook

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Malaysia: Attempt to smuggle protected birds foiled

Desiree Tresa Gasper The Star 20 Jan 13;

JOHOR BARU: Maritime enforcers thwarted an attempt to smuggle 10 endangered cockatoos into the country and arrested a 50-year-old Indonesian at Kota Tinggi, more than 40km from here.

The man, a permanent resident, is believed to have been paid by a third party to transport the birds from Kalimantan to Pasir Gudang, near here, said Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) Tanjung Sedili enforcement chief Capt Rozali Mohd Said.

“We intercepted his boat as it was entering our waters,” he said, adding that the man tried to speed off when the officers approached his vessel.

He said the maritime enforcers stopped the boat about four nautical miles off Tanjung Stapa in Pengerang at around 11.45am yesterday.

“We found the birds hidden in two cages wrapped in a sack,” Capt Rozali said.

He added that the birds, believed to be palm cockatoos and yellow crested cockatoos, were protected species and could be sold for between RM2,000 and RM5,000 each on the black market.

“We believe the man was on his way to Pasir Gudang to sell the birds,” said Capt Rozali, adding that it was the Indonesian's second attempt at animal smuggling.

The birds have been handed over to the Department of Wildlife and National Parks.

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Groundbreaking mercury treaty adopted by 140 countries

Nina Larson (AFP) Google News 19 Jan 13;

GENEVA — More than 140 countries agreed Saturday on a ground-breaking treaty to rein in the use and emission of health-hazardous mercury, the UN said, but environmental activists lamented it did not go far enough.

The world's first legally binding treaty on mercury was reached after a week of thorny talks and ends four years of heated discussions on how to cut global emission levels of the toxic heavy metal, which poses risks to human health and the environment.

"This was a herculean task .. but we have succeeded," Achim Steiner, UN under-secretary general and head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), told reporters in Geneva.

The treaty has been named the Minamata Convention on Mercury, in honour of the Japanese town where inhabitants for decades have suffered the consequences of serious mercury contamination.

It will be signed in Minamata in October and will take effect once ratified by 50 countries -- something organisers expect will take three to four years.

Mercury, also known as quicksilver, is found in products ranging from electrical switches, thermometers and light-bulbs, to amalgam dental fillings and even facial creams. Large amounts of the heavy metal are released from small-scale gold mining, coal-burning power plants, metal smelters and cement production.

"It is quite remarkable how much mercury in a sense has entered into use in our lives... We've been creating a terrible legacy," Steiner said.

"Mercury accumulates in the food chain through fish... It is released through coal fired power stations and it travels sometimes thousands of kilometres. It affects the Inuit in Canada just as it affects the small-scale artisanal gold miner somewhere in southern Africa," he said.

Serious mercury poisoning affects the body's immune system and development of the brain and nervous system, posing the greatest risk to foetuses and infants.

The treaty sets a phase-out date of 2020 for a long line of products including mercury thermometers, blood pressure measuring devices, most batteries, switches, some kinds of fluorescent lamps and soaps and cosmetics.

It makes exceptions, however, for some large medical measuring devices where no mercury-free alternatives exist.

In a controversial move, it also excluded vaccines that use mercury as a preservative.

The risk from these vaccines is considered low and for many developing nations, removing them would entail losing access to vaccines altogether, Tim Kasten, head of UNEP's chemicals division explained.

Amid pressure from dentist groups, the treaty also did not provide a cut-off date for the use of dental fillings using mercury amalgam, but did agree that the product should be phased down.

The text gives governments 15 years to end all mercury mining.

While welcoming the treaty, a number of non-governmental groups said they were disappointed it did not go further.

The text, many said, fell short in addressing the greatest sources of mercury in the environment: artisanal small-scale gold mining, which directly threatens the health of the some 10-15 million people working in this field and contaminates water and air, as well as emissions from coal-burning power plants.

"We're disappointed... The two biggest sources of mercury have only weak controls on them," Joe DiGangi, a science advisor with the IPEN advocacy group, told AFP.

For coal-fired power plants, the treaty calls only for control and reduction of mercury emissions "where feasible", which is "vague and very discretional," he said.

As for small gold mining activities, using mercury will still be allowed, meaning imports and exports of the metal for this process will be legal, and governments will only be required to control the activity if they deem it "more than insignificant -- whatever that means," DiGangi said.

Richard Gutierrez, the head of Ban Toxics!, agreed.

"With the current text, it seems the mercury use in (small-scale gold mining) may go on indefinitely," he said in a statement.

Steiner acknowledged the criticism but stressed the treaty "is a dynamic instrument" and would evolve over time to address all concerns.

Switzerland and Norway, which initiated the process a decade ago, with Japan pledged an initial $3.0 million (2.2 million euros) to get things started.

Once up and running, the treaty will provide funds to ease the transition away from mercury through the UN's existing Global Environment Facility (GEF), and probably also a second mechanism, organisers said.

Nations agree on legally binding mercury rules
Mark Kinver BBC News 19 Jan 13;

More than 140 countries have agreed on a set of legally binding measures to curb mercury pollution, at UN talks.

Delegates in Geneva approved measures to control the use of the highly toxic metal in order to reduce the amount of mercury released into the environment.

Mercury can produce a range of adverse human health effects, including permanent damage to the nervous system.

The UN recently published data that showed mercury emissions were rising in a number of developing nations.

The deal was agreed after all-night talks.

UN Environment Programme (Unep) spokesman Nick Nuttall told Reuters: "A treaty to start to begin to rid the world of a notorious health-hazardous metal was agreed in the morning of Jan 19."

The rules, known as the Minamata Convention and named after the Japanese town that experienced one of the world's worst cases of mercury poisoning, will open for nations to sign at a diplomatic conference later this year.

The convention will regulate a range of areas, including:

the supply of and trade in mercury;
the use of mercury in products and industrial processes;
the measures to be taken to reduce emissions from artisanal and small-scale gold mining;
the measures to be taken to reduce emissions from power plants and metals production facilities.

Ahead of the five-day meeting, the UN Environment Programme (Unep) published a report warning that developing nations were facing growing health and environmental risks from increased exposure to mercury.

It said a growth in small-scale mining and coal burning were the main reasons for the rise in emissions.

As a result of rapid industrialisation, South-East Asia was the largest regional emitter and accounted for almost half of the element's annual global emissions.

Lasting effects

Mercury - a heavy, silvery white metal - is a liquid at room temperature and can evaporate easily. Within the environment, it is found in cinnabar deposits. It is also found in natural forms in a range of other rocks, including limestone and coal.

Mercury can be released into the environment through a number of industrial processes including mining, metal and cement production, and the burning of fossil fuels.

Once emitted, it persists in the environment for a long time - circulating through air, water, soil and living organisms - and can be dispersed over vast distances.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says: "Mercury is highly toxic to human health, posing a particular threat to the development of the (unborn) child and early in life.

"The inhalation of mercury vapour can produce harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys, and may be fatal.

"The inorganic salts of mercury are corrosive to the skin, eyes and gastrointestinal tract, and may induce kidney toxicity if ingested."

The Unep assessment said the concentration of mercury in the top 100m of the world's oceans had doubled over the past century, and estimated that 260 tonnes of the toxic metal had made their way from soil into rivers and lakes.

Another characteristic, it added, was that mercury became more concentrated as it moved up the food chain, reaching its highest levels in predator fish that could be consumed by humans.

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