The Earth is experiencing the warmest surface temperatures since modern climate measurements were implemented in 1880. This extreme global warming is the result of excessive concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Moreover, overwhelming scientific evidence has concluded that climate change has been caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and if these are not substantially reduced, the devastating effects that it will have for future centuries will be irreversible.
Although developed countries have released most of the greenhouse gases that have caused climate change, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has stated in its book entitled “Climate Change: Impacts, Vulnerabilities and Adaptation in Developing Countries” in 2007 that, over the next decades, “… billions of people, particularly those in developing counties, [will] face shortages of water and food and greater risks to health and life as a result of climate change”. Consequently, global action should be focused on providing developing countries, and especially their most disadvantageous poverty-stricken sections and minority groups, who are the most vulnerable social groups in them, the necessary resources to adapt to the new climatic conditions that will arise from climate change.
Vulnerabilities of these extremely poverty-stricken sections and minority groups in developing countries are aggravated by discrimination and social exclusion that prevent them from acquiring the necessary resources to cope with global warming on their own. Adaptation strategies that are implemented need to acknowledge the circumstances of these groups to the extent of their vulnerabilities to climate change.
Poverty and Climate Change
Even though developing countries have less responsibility than developed countries for causing anthropogenic climate change, they are the most vulnerable to its effects. In fact, 95% of fatalities from global natural disasters have been suffered by developing countries in the last 25 years, fiercely striking their poverty-stricken sections and minority groups, according to Peter Höppe in Global Economic Symposium 2011.
Of the developing countries in the world, the populations from Africa, South Asia and Latin America are the most threatened by the consequences of climate change, due to the extreme poverty, social inequality and discrimination that exist in them. According to the GINI coefficient (2013), a statistical index used to measure income inequality, of the 40 countries with the highest rate of inequality, 93% belong to Africa (43%) and Latin America (45.70) and in South Asia the extreme poverty was estimated at 15.1%. In consequence, though developing countries of Africa, Latin America and South Asia are mostly exposed to the extreme weather events and altered climatic conditions, they are the least prepared to handle them.
The region of Africa is highly exposed to the effects of climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007, “The population at risk of increased water stress in Africa is projected to be between 75-250 million and 350-600 million people by the 2020s and 2050s, respectively”. It is projected furthermore that temperatures in Africa will rise faster than the global average during the 21st Century. Meanwhile, the great ecosystem diversity in Latin America and the Caribbean is subject to a large variety of climate change vulnerabilities along the continent. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, “in 2010, 98 of the world’s most serious natural disasters occurred in Latin America, and 79 of these were climate-related. They caused more than 300,000 deaths and losses valued at 49.4 billion US dollars, and affected 13.8 million people.” All together, the destruction that flooding could wreak in South Asia’s low-lying and urban areas is cruelly complemented by the effects of drought and changes in seasonal rainfall. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report predicts that in forthcoming decades, “the impacts of climate change will influence flooding of settlements and infrastructure, heat-related deaths, and food and water shortages in South Asia”. Further, the extreme weather events and altered climatic conditions are exacerbating the poverty level in developing countries. According to the World Bank in 2015, “…as the impacts of climate change worsen, it will become harder to eliminate poverty. That leaves a narrow window for ending extreme poverty and putting in place the safety nets that can keep poverty at bay while countries also work to lower their emissions toward net zero.”
Climate Change Adaptation in Developing Countries
According to the UNFCCC, the effects of climate change are already unavoidable, notwithstanding the efforts taken by the international community to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere. To combat global warming, it is no longer enough to focus on the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions. Global warming will alter the patterns of weather and generate new climatic conditions that societies will have to adapt to. Action must therefore be centered on generating adaptation strategies for countries to adjust to climate change’s negative effects.
With the adoption of the Paris Agreement in December 2015 – a legally binding, landmark treaty on global warming, although is not yet in force, climate change adaptation has been given a greater relevance than ever before as one of the three main goals of the global action against climate change, and so, it is of paramount importance to understand how these adaptation strategies can be designed and implemented in order to help developing countries and their minority groups to manage global warming. Article 2(b) of the Agreement gives emphasis on increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience besides limiting global temperature and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, particularly those adaptation efforts of developing countries that are most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. The Agreement did identify the basic requirements of all adaptation strategies, namely, to structure them upon the specific circumstances of each country, guided by the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities, promoting the full participation of minority groups, and addressing the social and economic vulnerabilities that affect its population [Article 7(5)]. Addressing social inequalities and exclusions that aggravate poverty is crucial to any adaptation strategy, because they will not deliver results if the social groups that need them are illiterate, poor, hungry and diseased, and cannot use them; or if the aid does not reach them because of the corruption of their governments and the fragility of their institutions.
Poverty and Climate Finance
Responding to the climate challenge requires collective action from all countries. Although developing country Parties, especially those that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, have made efforts to adapt to the new climatic conditions on their own, their efforts will not be sufficient if they do not receive financial and technological support from the international community because they do not have the financial and technological resources, nor the necessary infrastructure and institutions to adapt to the global change.
Climate finance has been a central element of the international climate change agreements from the beginning. The UNFCCC, agreed in 1992, stated that developed countries shall provide “new and additional financial resources” to developing countries. The Convention and the Protocol therefore foresee financial assistance from Parties with more resources to those less endowed and more vulnerable.This commitment was further reinforced in the Cancun Agreements in 2010 where the Green Climate Fund (GCF) was established to act as a key mechanism to deliver large scale financial resources to developing countries.
Most recently in the Paris Agreement in 2015 the issue of climate finance was further postulated. Article 9 of the Agreement ascertains developed countries responsibilities in climate change adoption including financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation in continuation of their existing obligations under the Convention, to take the lead in mobilizing climate finance from a wide variety of sources, instruments and channels. Article 2(c) sets a goal of the Agreement to make finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate resilient development. Article 7(2)of the Agreement recognizes a contribution to the long-term global response to climate change to protect people, livelihoods and ecosystems, taking into account the urgent and immediate needs of those developing country Parties that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. Article 7(6) recognizes the importance of support for and international cooperation on adaptation efforts and the importance of taking into account the needs of developing country Parties, especially those that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.
The GCF, together with the Global Environment Facility (GEF), under Article 11 of the Paris Agreement, was given an important role in serving the Agreement as operating entities of the Financial Mechanism and as such represent the main channels through which future sources of international climate finance are expected to flow in the years to come. The Financial Mechanism was established with a view to reinforcing and streamlining efforts to provide concessional financial resources to developing country Parties.
It is widely claimed that the objective of the GCF is to raise $100 billion per year in climate financing by 2020. This is not an official figure, however, and disputes remain as to whether the funding target will be based on public sources, or whether leveraged private finance will be counted towards the total. As of July 2017, the GCF has raised USD 10.3 billion equivalent in pledges from 43 state governments, according to GCF’s resource mobilization statistics. A major new report from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate calls on governments and finance institutions to scale up and shift investment for sustainable infrastructure since the report estimates investments totaling about US$90 trillion will be needed in infrastructure over the next 15 years as a fundamental strategy to spur growth. The model of “micro-scrutiny” of paperwork used by the GCF has been argued as ineffective and inappropriate since this process slowed the GCF’s project allocations.
While the broad agreement on the international climate finance to be provided to developing country Parties has been reached, the debate is now focused on the fine detail of how to deliver this. In particular, how this figure should be raised, what financing should classify, and how should it be distributed.
Discrimination of Minority Groups in Developing Countries and Climate Change
Among the social groups that inhabit developing countries, minorities like indigenous people and ethnic communities are the most vulnerable victims of global warming, not just because of the exposed ecosystems they inhabit and the close relationship they maintain with nature but their vulnerabilities to the consequences of climate change are clearly rooted in their conditions of poverty, discrimination and social exclusion. As a result, climate change adaption strategies that are being designed and implemented are not taking minorities in consideration, and are in effect leaving them on their own to survive (or not) global warming.
Any climate change adaptation strategy that is designed and implemented in developing countries has to contemplate transversal measures that address the social exclusions and inequalities of their minorities, because they are the ones with the fewest resources to cope with global warming and the most likely to suffer its effects in a life-threatening way. To protect minority groups and guarantee their existence, it is important that the social inequalities in which they live be addressed, because adaptation strategies have to be aimed at providing these vulnerable groups with the necessary resources for them to cope with climate change on their own.
Reducing Social Inequalities as a Climate Change Adaptation Strategy
According to the Paris Agreement, the essential goal of climate change adaptation is the protection of people and their livelihoods and ecosystems, especially the vulnerable groups, like minorities, that inhabit developing countries (Article 2). Adaptation techniques implemented in developing countries that are focused in protecting economic sectors are not enough because they do not address the social inequalities that are the essence of their climate change vulnerabilities. In consequence, transversal adaptation strategies that combine technology and financial transfer with structural reforms in the social fabric of the society can be more effective in managing global warming in the long-term. In addition, it is important that the adaptation strategies include mechanisms that enable vulnerable social groups to participate in their elaboration, implementation and accountability. By doing this, the strategies will be benefited from the unique local knowledge of the inhabitants of the ecosystems, and the vulnerable social groups will feel part of the action plans, collaborate proactively and benefit from them.
On the other hand, if communities are not involved in the elaboration and implementation of adaptation strategies, they will perceive them as an intervention from the government, and will not contribute proactively to them.
The magnitude of the consequences that climate change will have on the world is still relatively unknown. Nevertheless, it has already altered global climatic conditions and caused devastating effects on all countries and their populations, particularly those that are most vulnerable to such effects. The promotion of climate change adaptation is, thus, an urgent matter. For such promotion to lead to effective action, governments have to acknowledge the fact that only by addressing socially, economically and politically enabling policy framework that combines climate actions and the needs of vulnerable social groups their populations will be capable of successfully managing climate change and adapting to it. Adaptation strategies can be sectoral – aimed at specific affected areas, multi-sectoral – when the affected natural resources cover different areas and transversal – with the objective of introducing structural changes to the existing social fabric for it to be better capable of coping with global warming. The international community needs to broaden their view of the problem and possible solutions. If this does not happen, climate change will continue to accentuate the already disproportionate vulnerabilities of poverty-stricken people and minority groups in developing countries, and its consequences will be catastrophic to humanity.
Thwarting Trump on Climate Change Denial
We now have the remarkable convenience of the internal combustion engine, and also its noise and chaos and emissions to energize climate change. Burning fossil fuels has put us on planet Titanic …
The doomsday clock remains at a critical two minutes to midnight, the ‘new abnormal,’ spelling future disaster, and we will continue to be like the “Titanic, ignoring the iceberg ahead, enjoying the fine food and music,” to quote former California governor Jerry Brown. He is now the executive chairman of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the organization behind the clock. This year climate change is cited as a major cause; it was the principal reason in 2012 and 2014.
The U.S. ‘National Climate Assessment’ last November did not mince words when it noted, “The evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming … the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country.” The report mandated by Congress and affirmed by science agencies of the government was repudiated by President Trump: “I do not believe it,” was his blunt response. Mr. Trump religiously opposes climate change, believing it to be a natural phenomenon that will reverse itself also naturally. About the current administration, one prominent scientist, the president of the Woods Hole Research Center, was quoted in Science as saying, “They’re in la-la-land.” Science has labeled the inaction, the policy breakdown of the year.
Sadly this la-la-land is not harmless as tell-tale signs of the exacerbation of weather events are already here: Hurricanes intensify quickly, then move slowly shedding unprecedented amounts of rain. It happened with Harvey over Houston in 2017, and with Florence over North Carolina in 2018. That overall temperature in the oceans is breaking new records is one good reason.
The 1.5C report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has given us, on the safe side, a 12-year window in which to start reducing emissions, to try to achieve neutral balance by mid-century, or eventually a self-reinforcing feedback loop will lead to uncontrollable warming and a “Hothouse Earth.” If we cannot expect any policy initiatives from this administration, can changes in individual behaviors help? Apparently yes, and it is within our power to address two major CO2 sources:
Carbon capture from the atmosphere is difficult and expensive. A better alternative might be to remove it at the source. That means at power stations and factories, and there are new processes offering hope. However, most carbon emission comes from transportation, and it points to a future of electric cars using electricity from CO2 scrubbed power stations. The choice of car is clearly up to us.
Another avenue of individual involvement is dietary change for a sustainable future — in itself clearly at odds with the zealous consumption of meat in rich countries. Ruminants release methane through belching as food passes through their several stomachs. Over their agricultural cycle, cattle alone emit 270,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas per tonne of protein, many times more than poultry. As Bill Gates has observed if cows were a country, they would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions.
There is another way to look at it. One can translate a kilo of different food sources into the number of car miles driven. Lamb is definitely the worst at 91 miles followed by beef at 63. Bad news for vegetarians, cheese comes in at 31 miles. It is followed by pork (28), turkey (25), chicken (16), nuts (5) and lentils (2). Imagine if dietary habits changed from beef to lentils, even once a week would make an enormous difference. Also chicken, turkey and pork are reasonable substitutes as cutting out beef and lamb is clearly critical. By the way, Indian food has delicious lentil recipes.
Scientists may soon have other intriguing possibilities, including lab-grown meat, that is if the current Beyond Burger type bean substitutes do not quite make the taste test. Then there are crickets! They happen to be an excellent source of protein offering more per pound than beef, and their production leaves a tiny ecological footprint in comparison. Ground up into powder, this protein can be added to flour or other foods, and it is available. Kernza is a perennial grain and a substitute for wheat and corn but without their annual tilling which robs the soil of nutrients and also causes erosion. There is also a new oil made from algae. Sourced originally from the sap of a German chestnut tree, it has been developed further to yield more oil, and is being sold under the name Thrive. With a neutral taste and high smoke point, it makes an excellent substitute for the environmentally destructive palm oil, where plantations have ravaged forests in Indonesia and imperiled orangutans.
Personal choices can make a huge difference, including walking whenever possible for short distances instead of driving — mostly it’s just habit. Bicycles, tricycles and push scooters are all out there, including some with electrical power assist.
Yes, there are options available to cut back our contributions to climate change; they require changes in habits and tastes, perhaps difficult, but we will have to eventually if we are not to leave behind a raging planet for future generations. Meanwhile, the young in Europe have been marching in their tens of thousands to draw attention to the issue, and it cannot hurt to do likewise.
Eye in the sky: Using satellites to better manage natural resources
Looking up towards the stars at night, the sky can give the impression of being empty and infinite. In reality, space is getting more and more crowded every day.
According to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, there are currently 4,857 satellites orbiting the planet. Among them are two Sentinel-2 satellites, part of a space-borne mission provided by the Copernicus European Earth Observation programme. The two satellites visit the same spot on Earth every two to five days, depending on the location.
Their sensors acquire multispectral images with spatial resolution varying between 10, 20, or 60 metres, depending on the spectral band. The data produced by Sentinel satellites is freely available to the public and the volumes of data are staggering. Between Sentinel 1, 2 and 3, over 10 petabyte of new data are made available for download every year. With a single petabyte equalling 500 billion pages of standard typed text, this is Big Data worthy of its name.
The satellites are providing ever more detailed information about the state of our planet, and businesses have long ago figured out how to use this data. The European Commission estimates that the cumulative benefits of the Copernicus programme by 2020 range between US$11.4 to US$15 billion (10 to 13 billion euros). So how can we translate this wealth of information into tangible benefits for the environment at the local level?
“In Colombia, small-scale, mechanized illegal gold mining is creating environmental challenges on an unprecedented scale,” says Inga Petersen, Senior Extractives Adviser within UN Environment’s Crisis Management Branch. “Excavators and dredgers used to dig up river beds for alluvial gold mining are contributing to wide-ranging deforestation and the loss of natural wetlands. Highly toxic mercury used in processing contaminates air and water and has accumulated in the food chain, posing significant threats to human health and ecosystems,” she adds.
However, mining areas are often hard to reach and keeping track of new or abandoned operations can be a challenge to local government agencies.
To support the mapping of new and abandoned sites and identify opportunities for restoration, UN Environment is collaborating with the University of Liège, in Belgium, to leverage Sentinel-2 data for local-level decision-making and early warning.
Funded by the European Commission (DG Grow) and EIT RawMaterials, the RawMatCop CopX project (Geospatial mining transparency through Copernicus and MapX) is analysing changes on land and water bodies, focusing specifically on mining ponds created on riverbeds. These ponds offer clues regarding the status of the mining activities.
Detecting and analysing these clues with the use of Earth Observation requires machine learning and image processing techniques in challenging, highly clouded areas. These techniques are key to understanding the dynamics in the mining area and to potentially automate the search to cover larger areas and track changes over time.
Testing this innovative underlying methodology started in 2018 in the Bajo Cauca region in the Antioquia department. The project is being implemented in close cooperation with the Government of Colombia, including the Ministry of Mines and Energy, the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development as well as other UN agencies and strategic partners. Once established, CopX aims for the analysis to be applied at a larger scale and even offer the potential to establish an early warning system which can be adopted by the government to tackle illegal gold mining and monitor the implementation of restoration strategies.
However, translating big data into actionable insights is only a part of the solution. Making this data available to the relevant policymakers at the local and national level in a format which is accessible to non-experts is a critical step to enable evidence-based decision-making.
With this in mind, the project will use MapX, an online, open-source geospatial platform backed by the neutrality of the United Nations, to make the results available in easy-to-understand maps. The platform uses summary story maps, such as this one, to outline the interlinkages between the environment, conflict and natural resources.
“Whilst MapX can host sensitive datasets in private projects, MapX’s mission is to increase global environmental transparency by making the best available data widely accessible. Access to information is especially important in places like Colombia, where the environment features prominently in the 2016 peace agreement,” says Petersen.
In addition to featuring the outcomes of the project, MapX provides a comprehensive data catalogue, including data on the environment, the socio-economic context and conflict interlinkages. Combined with a suite of analytical and visualization tools, platform users can easily analyse, contextualize and visualize interactions between different data layers to increase awareness and inform decisions. Data, maps, narrative and multimedia files can then be summarized in interactive story maps to help tell the story hidden in the data.
Air pollution is choking Bangkok, but a solution is in reach
A recent spell of especially soupy air has Bangkok scrambling to disperse dangerous pollutants and protect residents against dire health impacts.
The government has reacted quickly, clamping down on heavily polluting vehicles, deploying police and military to inspect factories and incinerators, shutting schools to protect children, and even deploying cloud-seeding planes to force rain and clear the air.
According to Kakuko Nagatani-Yoshida, UN Environment’s Regional Coordinator for Chemicals, Waste, and Air Quality, it’s a good start.
“The government has to take decisive action to enforce pollution regulations, and they are on the right track so far, deploying efforts such as strict enforcement of emission controls. We know they are also looking at more urgent measures and UN Environment is working closely with the government on longer-term solutions,” she said.
“While solutions like cloud seeding may provide temporary relief for larger particulates, it does not, however, help reduce PM2.5,” she warns. “After these interim measures, the next logical step is to shut down the most polluting factory. That may mean accepting some economic damage in the short term, but protecting public health must be the utmost priority. Beyond factories, the government can move urgently to replace soot-spewing public buses and boats running on diesel fuel with versions that are less polluting.”
Air pollution in Bangkok arises from a mix of factors. Traffic, construction and factory emissions are the main reasons, but at this time of the year, burning of waste and crop residues is also a major source. There isn’t just one culprit for the recent bout of air pollution, but it has been exacerbated by weather conditions that have not allowed the pollutants to disperse.
Bangkok and other areas in Thailand already experience regular air pollution. The prolonged period of unhealthy air in Bangkok is not unique to the city nor the country: 92 per cent of Asia and the Pacific’s population—some 4 billion people—are exposed to levels of air pollution that pose a significant risk to their health.
The current countermeasures are a short-term solution to this problem because, as Nagatani-Yoshida points out, “Factories can’t be closed forever. People need to get around. Ultimately, if people want to breathe clean air, numerous measures must be taken to tackle pollution.”
UN Environment recently published guidance on reducing air pollution. Some 25 measures could reduce premature mortality in the region by one third and see one billion people living in Asia breathing clean air.
“We hope country, provincial and city governments across the region, including Bangkok, look at these recommendations and implement them urgently,” said Nagatani-Yoshida.
UN Environment and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition are already working with the Thailand Pollution Control Department, the Department of Alternative Energy Development and Efficiency, and other agencies to implement some of these clean air measures and substantially reduce PM2.5 levels.
In particular, UN Environment is collaborating with the Pollution Control Department to leapfrog from Euro IV vehicle emission standards to Euro VI, which are currently the strictest standards in place.
Collaboration will also focus on helping shift 2–3 wheelers in Bangkok from gasoline to electric and retrofitting the numerous boats and ferries used for public transportation in the canal-connected city.
There is no time to waste. The faster the government moves to clamp down on emitters and back clean alternatives, the sooner Bangkok and the rest of the country can start to breathe again.
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