Sharks were discovered in London’s formerly ‘dead’ River Thames, China and the US signed a surprise climate declaration, and genome sequencing offered hope for people with rare diseases, plus more positive news
More than half a century after it was declared “biologically dead”, the River Thames in London has seals, seahorses and even sharks living in it, a study revealed this week.
The State of the Thames report – compiled by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) – noted a significant improvement in water quality since the 1960s, when The Kinks sang about the “dirty old river” in Waterloo Sunset. It also reported an increase in the presence of birds, mammals and fish, including tope, starry smooth hound and spurdog sharks.
It is a remarkable turnaround for the waterway, which has been the subject of conservation efforts. However, the report was bittersweet. It found that climate change is increasing the water temperature by 0.2C annually, with likely consequences for marine life.
What’s more, pollution from sewage spills are also on the rise. London’s new ‘super sewer’ – due to come online in 2025 – should help fix that. Meanwhile, ZSL is creating seagrass and saltmarsh habitats to further boost biodiversity.
“These not only help to restore wildlife in the river, but also act as natural flood defences,” said ZSL’s Alison Debney.
It had been crawling through parliament for 1,056 days, but on Wednesday England’s long-awaited Environment Act finally passed into law. It’s the first such legislation in England since 1995.
“The act is a big milestone,” said Ruth Chambers of Greener UK, a coalition of NGOs that campaigned for the bill. “Its breadth is enormous.”
The act, among other things, provides a framework for legally binding targets to be set in four key areas: air quality, water quality, the state of nature and waste management. It has also created a new independent watchdog – the Office for Environmental Protection – to hold the government to account. That ministers determine the OEP’s board and budget is a notable flaw.
Nevertheless, the bill is a victory for the environmental movement, which lobbied hard to get it through parliament. Now comes the hard graft of enforcing it.
“The act gives a lot of levers to enable change to happen, but change is not guaranteed – its about how these powers are taken forward and enforced,” Chambers told Positive News. “The government must immediately turn its attention to delivery.”
Image: Joshua Cowan
People with rare diseases that are not easily detectable through traditional methods could get a speedy diagnosis thanks to whole genome sequencing, a study has found.
Whole genome sequencing (WGS) is the process of analysing the entire DNA sequence of a genome. It can identify inherited disorders and mutations that drive cancer, among other things.
For the study, the genes of 4,660 people were analysed, resulting in new diagnoses for 25 per cent of participants. Many had gone through years of appointments, without getting answers.
The study was led by led by Genomics England and Queen Mary University of London.
“This pilot study highlights the potential [WGS] has to transform healthcare,” said Chris Wigley, CEO of Genomics England. “It gives medical professionals the ability to transform the way patient care is delivered – in particular allowing them to make more accurate diagnoses and offer more personalised treatments.”
A diet rich in fruit, vegetables, beans and tea could help guard against dementia, a study has found.
Researchers from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens monitored around 1,000 people in their 70s, analysing their intake of foods believed to reduce inflammation in the body, such as vegetables.
They found that the volunteers who ate the most of these foods were three times less likely to develop dementia than those who ate the least. It may be that the participants who ate healthily also did other things to reduce their risk of dementia, such as exercise. More research is needed.
What went right at COP26
Most encouraging, perhaps, is the accord announced unexpectedly between the world’s two largest polluters – the US and China.
The Glasgow Declaration saw the rival superpowers agree to work together to keep the 1.5C temperature rise target within reach – seen as vital to staving off catastrophic climate change. They also urged other countries to commit to “ambitious action”.
It wasn’t so much what was said, but who was saying it. The two countries had been locked in a war of words in the weeks preceding COP26, and with President Xi declining to attend, hopes that China might take a lead role in international climate diplomacy were fading fast. By making such a public statement with its main rival, China is now tying its reputation to global climate progress.
Image: Shanghai. Credit: Edward He
Ten nations and sub-regions — including France, New Zealand, Greenland and Wales — have signed up to the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance.
Founded by Costa Rica and Denmark, it commit members to end new licensing rounds for oil and gas exploration.
Other, more economically significant states are expected to sign up shortly, sending a strong signal that the days of fossil fuels are numbered.
Image: Zbynek Burival
Nineteen maritime states – including Australia, Japan, the UK and US – have agreed to create a network of ‘green shipping corridors’ between their ports.
The ports would offer infrastructure for zero-emissions ships, including storage for hydrogen, ammonia and methanol – all of which are far greener than the ‘bunker fuel’ oil typically used for most ships.
Eventually, only zero-emissions vessels could be permitted to use the routes, providing an incentive for shipping companies to clean up their operations.
Image: Chris Pagan
It was announced this week that all HGV vehicles sold in the UK will have to be zero-emission by 2040, or 2035 in the case of those under 26 tonnes (which includes sizeable trucks).
This puts the UK in pole position when it comes to phasing out internal combustion engines from its vehicle fleets.
Meanwhile, several companies including Tesco have promised to have 100 per cent zero-emission delivery fleets by the end of the decade.
Image: Kyle Bushnell
Plans have been announced for a shark ‘superhighway’ in the Pacific Ocean. The Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor (CMAR), announced at COP26, will see Ecuador, Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica expand and join up their protected territorial waters, creating a 500,000 sq km sanctuary for marine life.
The CMAR will provide protection for sharks, whales and other species along an important migratory route, near to the Galapagos Islands. The region is popular with industrial fishing fleets, which will be prohibited from the CMAR.
Galapagos Conservancy, an environmental organisation, described the announcement as “a major victory for Galapagos and for our planet.”
Read the full story here.
Image: A whale shark. Credit: NOAA
Main image: Benjamin Davies