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Beating the big smoke

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Londoners are used to inhaling poison. In Victorian Britain, the sickly brown smog that blanketed the capital was known as a “pea-souper”, so thick that on bad days it was impossible to read a book. But it wasn’t until the Great Killer Fog of 1952, which lasted a week and killed as many as 12,000 people, that the government finally decided to tackle the miasma that had immiserated Londoners for centuries and earned the city its nickname, “The Big Smoke”. 

London has struggled to shake off this “badge of dishonour”. While air pollution may be less visible today, it is no less deadly. Each day, more than eight million Londoners breathe air that is considered unsafe by the World Health Organization. This means that thousands of the city’s residents die prematurely every year because of the nasty cocktail of toxins that have fouled the city’s air. 

This won’t make for pleasant reading, but the reality is that these noxious gases and tiny particles of poison penetrate deep inside our lungs, permanently damaging our bodies. From Ealing to the East End, babies across London are being born earlier than normal, children are growing up with weaker lungs and adults are more likely to die prematurely from heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer and other lung diseases as they age. Studies show that air pollution steals an average of two years from the lives of every child born in London in 2010. This terrible blight, which seeps insidiously into our schools and homes, must be stopped. 

Once again, London is in the throes of a major pollution emergency. This time there is a plan to tackle its root causes. We already know what needs to be done to clean up the capital’s dirty air. Vehicles cause roughly 50 per cent of the city’s air pollution. To improve the health of Londoners, the capital must transform its transport system, removing from its roads the vehicles that are spewing out the most damaging fumes. 

This is exactly what London has started to do with its new toxicity charge on the most polluting vehicles comes. As the previous congestion charge has already proved, this should dramatically cut the number of big polluting vehicles and their harmful fumes. 

However, this is just the beginning. The mayor has doubled the amount of money the city will spend on tackling smog. He also plans to retrofit 5,000 of London’s older buses and introduce new hybrid and electric buses to further cut emissions. The mayor aims to phase out diesel taxis and invest in electric charging ports across the city as part of plans to introduce an ultra-low-emission zone in central London. 

These are bold steps that will help London hit its most ambitious target: achieving the WHO’s Air Quality Guideline Goals by 2030 – the “gold standard” for air quality. London is the first capital city in the world to commit to this target as part of its pledge to the BreatheLife Campaign, launched by WHO, UN Environment and the Climate and Clean Air coalition. This places it at the vanguard of a growing coalition of cities seeking to combat the devastating impact that air pollution has on our health, our economies and our environment. 

Over the last year, more than 100 cities, including Manchester, Washington DC, Medellin and Tshwane, have joined the BreatheLife campaign with public commitments to reduce air pollution, which kills about 6.5 million people around the world every year. The campaign gives cities the tools that are needed to clean the dirty air that plagues their citizens. But we urgently need more cities to join the coalition. This is a global epidemic – and many of the same pollutants that harm our health are also driving climate change. 

Never has it been more important for cities to unite to fight the smog. By investing in cleaner forms of transport, improving the way cities are built and switching to greener forms of power, we not only boost the health of our people. We also slow down global warming by reducing “short-lived climate emissions” of black carbon from vehicle emissions and methane from sources like waste dumps. By tackling the key sources of urban air pollution we also reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which persist for centuries and threaten the long-term health of our planet. If the world is to keep warming below the levels set out in the Paris Climate Agreement, then it is vital that cities follow London’s lead and immediately move to tackle the pollution in their air. 

London’s history teaches us that in crisis there is huge opportunity for change –provided we act together. In 1854, British physician John Snow improved the health of millions around the world when he discovered that a single well pump had triggered a cholera outbreak in the city. Now renowned as the father of epidemiology, Snow’s findings dramatically improved water quality in London and, as cities began to follow suit, the world. Today, we already know where to find the sources of air pollution and we already know how to tackle them. It is again time for cities to follow London’s example to defeat this menace. The need to do so is as clear as the air that all of us deserve to breathe. 

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Green Planet

Reducing Carbon Emissions, Let Soil and Trees Do the Dirty Work

MD Staff

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By now, most of us are familiar with the role forests play in absorbing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are accelerating climate change around the world. But forests are just one part of a broader landscape that often includes water resources and farming that can also play an important role in climate change mitigation.

Climate-smart approaches to reducing emissions from forestry, agriculture and energy, among other sectors, have the greatest potential to improve sustainable livelihoods while limiting the impacts of climate change. The challenge, however, is how to systematically measure emission reductions across a landscape, in order to unlock results-based payments. And how can this be done in a straightforward way?

That’s where the BioCarbon Fund’s Initiative for Sustainable Forest Landscapes (ISFL) comes in. In addition to the country programs it supports, the Initiative has pioneered a way to report and account for emission reductions across a diverse landscape. ISFL’s Emission Reductions Program Requirements show countries what they must have in place to receive payments from the ISFL for emission reductions generated by a range of sustainable activities across a landscape. The requirements are part of the BioCarbon Fund’s broader support to countries rewarding them for smarter land use planning, policies and practices.

In recent years, tropical forest countries have significantly improved their reporting and accounting methods for measuring emission reductions in the forestry sector, but many countries find it difficult to accurately report emissions data in other sectors. To respond to this challenge, ISFL built into its requirements a phased approach to emission reductions accounting. This approach allows a country to begin accounting, and receiving payments, for emission reductions from a limited set of land use categories that meet ISFL requirements. Countries can then add data from other sectors into their ISFL accounting, and receive payments for emission reductions from these sectors, as they become available.

These ISFL requirements are a significant new tool not only for countries, but also for the broader climate change community, as they will help test approaches to comprehensive landscape emissions reporting and accounting that could be expected of future emission reductions programs. It is hoped they will form the basis for countries to pilot innovative approaches to emissions accounting at the landscape level, and foster programs that change the trajectory of land use across jurisdictions over the long term. More than 100 countries included forests and land use in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which spell out how they commit to reducing their emissions.

World Bank

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Green Planet

Building a Climate-Resilient South Asia

MD Staff

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Ms. Aisha Khan, Executive Director for Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change (CSCCC) and CEO of Mountain and Glacier Organization (MGPO) in Pakistan, Mr. Anand Patwardhan, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, USA, Ms. Idah Pswarayi-Riddihough, Country Director for Sri Lanka and the Maldives in the South Asia Region, World Bank Group

Last summer’s monsoon hit South Asia particularly hard and left nearly 1,400 people dead and displaced millions of others.

In the last sixty years, such weather extremes have become more common in the subcontinent and, without urgent action to limit carbon emissions, their impact on communities will likely get worse.

In addition to these extremes, average weather patterns are also changing with each year turning out to be warmer than the previous year and monsoon rainfall patterns are getting more and more erratic.

Eight hundred million South Asians to be exact – or half the region’s population—are at risk to see their standards of living and incomes decline as rising temperatures and more erratic rainfalls will cut down crop yields, make water more scare, and push more people away from their homes to seek safer places.

This worst-case scenario and relevant adaptation strategies underpin the upcoming report South Asia’s Hotspots, whose main findings were presented yesterday at a panel on building climate change resilience in South Asia at the World Bank Spring Meetings.

Its main author, World Bank Lead Economist Muthukumara Mani detailed how specific geographic areas across South Asia or “hotspots” which –until now—were relatively immune to climate change threats could be badly affected by 2050.

Most hotspots, Mani remarked, are located inland, already poor, have fewer roads and are isolated from main economic centers. And with many residents subsisting on farming, higher incidences of droughts or floods combined with extreme heat could further drive down their fragile wellbeing and force more people into poverty.

And while other manifestations of climate change such as sea level rise or natural disasters and their impact on economies have been well documented, less is known of the long-term effects of higher temperatures and unpredictable rainfalls on local communities.

It’s urgent to develop this understanding as most countries in South Asia have already passed their optimal temperature tipping points, beyond which standards of living and consumption are only expected to drop irreversibly.

To build resilience, the report recommends that South Asian countries better prioritize their financial resources where they’re most needed and target the most vulnerable individuals and families.

Mani noted that diversifying jobs beyond agriculture, investing in education and skills, and improving access to electricity can ease the expected decline in living standards caused by long-term climate impacts. Such actions, he argued, must be tailored to address the specific climate impacts and local conditions found in South Asia’s hotspots.

In the end, the cost of inaction—that is, if carbon emissions continue unabated—could be huge as countries with severe hotspots, Mani concluded, would see income in these areas drop by 14.4 percent in Bangladesh, 9.8 percent in India, and 10 percent in Sri Lanka by 2050.

Following the presentation, government, civil society, and academia elaborated on concrete climate actions and adaptation strategies to build a more resilient South Asia.

The panel included Ms. Mahmuda Begum, additional Secretary in World Bank Wing at Economic Relations Division at the Bangladesh’s Ministry of Finance, Ms. Aisha Khan, Executive Director for Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change (CSCCC) and CEO of Mountain and Glacier Organization (MGPO) in Pakistan, Mr. Anand Patwardhan,  Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, USA, and Ms. Jaime Madrigano associate policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, USA. Ms. Idah Pswarayi-Riddihough, Country Director for Sri Lanka and the Maldives in the South Asia Region, World Bank Group moderated the discussion.

Noting that Pakistan’s soaring population coupled with shrinking arable lands present a challenge to the country’s environment sustainability and food security, Aisha Khan emphasized that building climate resilience should go hand in hand with better –that is, more open and inclusive—governance. Involving civil society, including women-run organizations, will bring greater accountability to climate change policies that will later impact the entire population. And that sense of co-ownership and shared responsibility, Khan added, is critical to civil society.

Such collaborations are key to building strategic climate resilience and, to be successful in the long term, should extend to partnership between countries. Water presents such an opportunity. “We in South Asia are the third pole…with the densest glaciers outside polar regions in the world,” she said. “Water being a common problem for all of us, we need to do more work together.”

When it was his turn to speak, Anand Patwardhan noted that the conversation about climate resilience would have to go beyond risks and be reframed around opportunities to further advance the development agenda. In India, large national programs such as Smart Cities or Swachh Bharat projects are two examples of how climate action can help achieve greater development outcomes. In South Asia, Patwardhan later remarked, a lot of infrastructure still needs to be put into place. There lies an opportunity to invest in natural infrastructure [that benefits both the economy and the environment] and ecosystem adaptation to advance resilience across the region.

World Bank

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Green Planet

New Satellite Animations of Earth Show How Quickly Humans Are Changing the Planet

MD Staff

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A new website that combines dramatic images from space with expert analysis of how humans are changing the planet will launch on World Earth Day (22 April).

EarthTime ties together diverse data layers to show the patterns and connections behind some of the major social and political trends of the past two decades – and how they are inscribed into fast-changing landscapes.

The platform has already been used in public outreach in schools and museums, and to inform world leaders at World Economic Forum events of major environmental and geoeconomic shifts, from air pollution to inequality. It uses images captured by NASA satellites since 1984.

The vision, and long-term goal, is to better inform everyone – including individuals, business heads and policy-makers – about the lives we lead, the decisions we make and the impact we have on the planet.

Nine expert analyses on global challenges will be launched on World Earth Day (22 April): deforestation, city growth, coral bleaching, fires at night, glaciers, renewables, sea-level rise, surface-water gain and loss and urban fragility. Other layers will be added in the months and years ahead. You can see them at www.earthtime.org.

EarthTime was developed by CREATE Lab (the Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab) at Carnegie Mellon University, in partnership with the World Economic Forum. It draws on the Forum’s network of experts to give analyses and to tell stories. Users will soon be able to create their own stories.

EarthTime uses more than 300 free, open-source, geospatial datasets – an unprecedented number for visualizations of this kind. Expert opinions make sense of the data and the connections between them allowing a layering of narratives (e.g., how did rise in the global demand for meat trigger deforestation, a major contributor to climate change?). These stories are combined with images from space captured by NASA satellites between 1984 and 2016.

Current datasets come from the World Bank, the UNHCR, NASA, Berkeley Earth, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Climate Central, S&P Global, Kudelski, the International Renewable Energy Agency and WWF, to name a few. New data providers are being added constantly.

“EarthTime tries to build the common ground that we believe is essential to the discourse that we all must have as stewards of our planet and our joint future,” said Illah Nourbakhsh, Professor of Robotics, Carnegie Mellon University, and Director, CREATE Lab.

“The Earth is changing dramatically. No single discipline can make sense of all that is now happening and no citizen is free from the consequences of what we all do next. We all must be involved in understanding Earth’s changes and how we can work together to bring about our desired sustainable future into reality.”

Nourbakhsh also serves as a Global Future Council member at the World Economic Forum. His research focuses on human-robot collaboration.

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