1.6 Billion Disposable Masks Entered Our Oceans in 2020
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1.6 Billion Disposable Masks Entered Our Oceans in 2020

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The Briefing

  • 52 billion disposable face masks were produced in 2020 (this includes N95 respirators and surgical masks)
  • It’s estimated that 1.6 billion of these masks ended up in our oceans
  • This equates to roughly 5,500 tons of plastic pollution

Demand for Disposable Masks Skyrockets in 2020

Following the World Health Organization’s formal declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments around the world quickly mandated the use of face masks in public spaces.

This led to a massive demand shock, prompting factories to begin producing disposable masks at full capacity. The majority of these masks were produced in China, and in April 2020, the country reported a staggering daily production figure of 450 million masks.

Plastic Pollution: A Lesser Known Side Effect

In Ocean Asia’s 2020 report, Masks on the Beach, researchers developed a formula to provide reasonable estimates for the number of disposable masks entering the environment.

Given an annual production figure of 52 billion disposable masks and a loss rate of 3% (the percentage of masks that escape water management systems), the team concluded that nearly 1.6 billion face masks wound up in our oceans in 2020. This amounts to approximately 5,500 tons of plastic pollution.

These masks are commonly made of polypropylene, which easily breaks up into microplastics. While the effects of microplastics on human health are not yet determined, these fragments are incredibly common in our water supply—for example, 94% of U.S. tap water is deemed to be contaminated.

Disposable Doesn’t Mean They’re Gone

Despite their single-use nature, disposable masks are expected to take more than four centuries to decompose while in the ocean. Here’s how this compares to other items we use on a day-to-day basis.

ItemYears Needed to Biodegrade
Disposable masks450
Disposable diaper450
Plastic bottle450
Aluminum can200
Styrofoam cup50
Plastic grocery bag20
Cigarette butt10

The pandemic has extended well into 2021, and the number of disposable masks polluting our oceans is likely to continue growing.

With this in mind, various companies and organizations are beginning to search for a solution. One noteworthy example is Plaxtil, which is developing a method for recycling surgical masks so that the raw materials can be used for other products.

»Like this? Then you might enjoy this infographic on the flow of plastic waste.

Where does this data come from?

Source: Oceans Asia, Statista, Plastic Collectors

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The Benefits of Reducing Methane Emissions

Methane emissions contribute to over half of net global warming. Where do the greatest opportunities lie for methane abatement?

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The Briefing

  • Almost half of net global warming comes from methane emissions—but only 2% of all climate financing goes towards its reduction.
  • By 2030, 45% of anthropogenic methane emissions can be reduced with available, targeted solutions combined with additional measures that are aligned with development goals.

The Benefits of Reducing Methane Emissions

Methane is highly potent, capturing 84 times more heat than CO₂ in its first 20 years in the atmosphere.

In spite of these dangers, methane abatement receives a fraction of all climate financing. Based on an analysis from the Climate Policy Initiative, $110 billion in funding is needed annually, or about tenfold the amount spent today.

This infographic sponsored by Carbon Streaming Corporation looks at the benefits of mitigating methane emissions across key sectors.

The Benefits of Reducing Methane Emissions

The risk of methane emissions is substantial: it has contributed to nearly half of net global warming.

The good news is that future emissions can be cut significantly. Methane solutions that are currently available, combined with additional measures that target priority development goals, can cut 45% of human-caused methane emissions by 2030, equivalent to about 180 million tonnes per year (Mt/yr).

This translates into 0.28°C in avoided warming between 2040 and 2070 along with 255,000 premature deaths being avoided due to rising ozone concentrations.

SectorAvoided Warming
2040 - 2070
Avoided Premature Deaths
due to Ozone Per Year
Avoided Crop Losses
Agriculture0.04°C40,0004 Mt/yr
Waste0.05°C45,0005 Mt/yr
Fossil Fuels0.09°C80,0008 Mt/yr
Additional0.10°C90,0009 Mt/yr
Total0.28°C255,00026 Mt/yr

Source: UN Environment Programme

On top of this, 26 million tonnes of crop losses could be avoided each year—equal to about 10% of America’s total food production annually—by utilizing these combined reduction measures.

Methane Mitigation Potential by Sector

As a noxious greenhouse gas, methane is often found in livestock emissions, landfills, and natural gas. For these reasons, the agricultural, waste, and fossil fuel sectors produce the most methane emissions annually.

Where do the largest opportunities lie in mitigating emissions?

Waste

The waste sector presents an opportunity to reduce 29-36 million tonnes of methane emissions annually. The vast majority—80% of landfill emissions and 70% of wastewater methane emissions—can potentially be mitigated by 2030 with technologies that are technically feasible today.

Agriculture

By 2030, 30 million tonnes of methane emissions have the potential to be removed each year in the agricultural sector. In fact, 30% of livestock emissions can be potentially eliminated in a technically feasible way over this time period.

Fossil Fuels

The highest potential is found in fossil fuels, with up to 57 million tonnes of methane emissions from the oil and gas sector and up to 25 million tonnes from the coal sector having the potential to be mitigated each year by 2030. Research shows that up to 80% of targeted measures in the oil and gas sector and up to 98% of coal measures could be implemented at negative or low cost.

In particular, methane leak detection and repair in the oil and gas industry represent a significant opportunity. For instance, between 2019 and 2021, over 2,400 large methane leaks took place.

Significant Potential

Today, technologies to fight methane emissions are readily available, with the potential for immediate benefits.

Consider how 0.1°C in warming could be prevented by 2050 using methane abatement technologies in the oil and gas sector. This is equivalent to eliminating the entire emissions of road vehicles—from cars to two-wheelers—globally.

Given the grave threat methane emissions pose to the planet and society, methane abatement solutions present significant opportunities using current technologies.

Carbon Streaming supports mitigating methane emissions with its carbon credit streams on projects in Canada and India.

Where does this data come from?

Source: UN Environment Programme, ‘Global Methane Assessment: Benefits and Costs of Mitigating Methane Emissions’ (May 2021)

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Visualizing the Five Drivers of Forest Loss

Approximately 15 billion trees are cut down annually across the world. Here’s a look at the five major drivers of forest loss. (Sponsored)

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The Briefing

  • On average, the world loses more than 20 million hectares of forests annually.
  • Agriculture and commodity-driven deforestation each account for approximately a quarter of annual forest loss.

Visualizing the Five Drivers of Forest Loss

The world has lost one-third of its forests since the ice age, and today, approximately 15 billion trees are cut down annually.

Forests are wellsprings of biodiversity and an essential buffer against climate change, absorbing billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions every year. Yet, forest loss continues to grow.

The above infographic sponsored by Carbon Streaming Corporation highlights the five primary drivers behind forest loss.

Deforestation vs. Degradation

‘Forest loss’ is a broad term that captures the impacts of both permanent deforestation and forest degradation. There is an important distinction between the two:

  • Permanent deforestation: Refers to the complete removal of trees or conversion of forests to another land use (like buildings), where forests cannot regrow.
  • Forest degradation: Refers to a reduction in the density of trees in the area without a change in land use. Forests are expected to regrow.

Forest degradation accounts for over 70% or 15 million hectares of annual forest loss. The other 30% of lost forests are permanently deforested.

Driving factorCategoryAverage annual forest loss (2001-2015, million hectares)
Commodity-driven deforestationPermanent deforestation5.7
UrbanizationPermanent deforestation0.1
Forestry productsForest degradation5.4
Shifting agricultureForest degradation5
WildfiresForest degradation4.8
TotalN/A21

Commodity-driven deforestation, which includes removal of forests for farming and mining, is the largest driver of forest loss. Agriculture alone accounts for three-fourths of all commodity-driven deforestation, where forests are often converted into land for cattle ranches and plantations.

The harvesting of forestry products like timber, paper, pulp, and rubber accounts for the largest share of forest loss from degradation. This process is often managed and planned so that forests can regrow after the harvest.

Shifting agriculture and wildfires each account for around 5 million hectares or one-fourth of annual forest loss. In both cases, forests can replenish if the land is left unused.

Urbanization—the conversion of forests into land for cities and infrastructure—is by far the smallest contributor, accounting for less than 1% of annual forest loss.

How Much Carbon Do Forests Absorb?

The world’s forests absorbed nearly twice as much carbon dioxide (CO2) as they emitted between 2001 and 2019, according to research published in Nature.

On a net basis, forests sequester 7.6 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) annually, which equates to around 15% of global CO2e emissions. As the impacts of climate change intensify, protecting forests from deforestation and degradation is increasingly critical.

Carbon Streaming Corporation accelerates climate action through carbon credit streams on REDD+ projects that protect the Earth’s forests. Click here to learn more now.

Where does this data come from?

Source: Our World in Data

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