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How we unlock transformational change to save our Forests

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Back in May, the Tropical Forest Alliance (TFA) hosted its Annual Meeting in Bogotá, Colombia’s high-altitude capital, which brought together 300 leaders from the worlds of business, government and civil society. As well as having an acute awareness of the importance of forests in solving our global climate and biodiversity crises, they have a huge weight of collective influence.

The meeting was invigorating. It was upbeat. Yet it also zeroed-in on the considerable challenges we still face. And I think everyone left with a real sense of urgency and a determination to stop the ecocide.  

If you were there, I need to thank you, once again, for contributing. If not, I want to give you a quick update on the tenor of the discussions, and three commitments we made.

So, first, the meeting itself.

It was great to be in Bogotá, to be co-hosted by the Colombian Government, and to hear directly from the President about his determination to address deforestation. The country has committed to a US$20 million fund to promote low-carbon investment, and to eliminate deforestation from meat and dairy production. And, beyond halting deforestation, there is a strong intention to reverse the process – by restoring hundreds of thousands of acres of degraded land and planting 180 million trees.

A central theme was the promise of jurisdictional or landscape-based approaches, which address the economic viability of rural economies. And we heard from stakeholders from several regions that are making real progress, like Indonesia’s Siak district, and Colombia’s Department of Caqueta.

These jurisdictional approaches are not new. But they have emerged as an effective way to complement the type of supply chain initiatives that have traditionally been the focus of the TFA community. We are therefore convinced that the most effective thing we can do going forward is catalyse collective action in the world’s key production landscapes.  

A clear pace setter is the Mato Grosso region in Brazil and its Produce, Conserve, Include (PCI) platform and strategy. First launched in 2015, the PCI is helping the region’s vast but often impoverished agricultural economy to co-exist with the 60% of remaining forest cover.  And a new innovation, supported by several NGOs, is the PCI “Pitch Book” – a menu of readymade, plug-and-play solutions for businesses to actively engage in the landscapes from which they are sourcing.

Of course, it wasn’t all good news. The latest Global Forest Watch figures were shared, and the overall picture is not good. Although the 2018 rate of deforestation fell back from the 2016 and 2017 peaks, 12 million hectares of tree cover were lost, and the underlying three-year trend is still heading upwards, with some deeply worrying incursions into protected forest areas and indigenous lands.  However, a reason to be optimistic is the situation in Indonesia, where deforestation has all but stopped – demonstrating the success of its national and regional initiatives and providing inspiration to the wider forest community. 

China’s attitude to commodity supply chains and deforestation was another strong theme, and we were delighted to announce that the TFA is launching a programme of activity to support the Chinese Government ahead of the UN Biodiversity Conference in Kunming in 2020. Against this backdrop, we believe there is a clear rationale and opportunity for the Chinese state to engage in the forest debate and wield its considerable influence.

Accelerating into 2020 and beyond

We closed the meeting with three commitments:

-The consensus from Bogotá was the need for system-level change.  For example, there were clear calls for the creation of a Global Accord on Commodity Sourcing.  Brokering such an agreement falls outside of the TFA’s traditional remit, but we will explore what such an accord may look like and how it could be pursued.

-There was strong endorsement for the TFA to continue to catalyse collective action on jurisdictional initiatives. By complementing (but not substituting) supply chain actions, this promises to be transformational.   

-We all need to accelerate towards 2020, making what progress we can, whilst also framing a compelling post-2020 agenda. For example, we will consult across our membership to broker a consensus. We will also continue to highlight the effectiveness of jurisdictional leadership – aiming for the subject to be high on the agenda at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York this September.

Finally, we confirmed that the next TFA meeting will take place in Indonesia – a country that has done more than any in the last few years to reduce deforestation, although significant challenges do remain. 

A lot needs to happen in the intervening 12 months. Everyone in the forest community needs to be held to account, and we are only going to accelerate progress by working better together.  So let’s be humble about what we have achieved, let’s be frank about the challenges, and let’s agree on a compelling vision for a #ForestPositive future.

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The Inevitable Geopolitical Dilemma of Climate Change

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photo: UN Mozambique

“Go and explain to developing countries why they should continue living in poverty and not be like Sweden”, “No one has explained Greta that the modern world is complex and different and… people in Africa or in many Asian countries want to live at the same wealth level as in Sweden”. These are two of the several statements Russian president Vladimir Putin made in criticism of Greta Thunberg’s UN speech while he spoke during an energy conference last year. But why is the situation that the Russian president is referring to, so complex? And why is that the world leaders who are failing to tackle climate change are now trying to tell the world that it is not just about climate but also geopolitics? This piece tries to delve into the inevitable dilemma that is emerging in the sphere of climate change mitigation and the geopolitics that has always been the one of the topmost priorities for the nations around the globe.

The Present State

Historically, the industries and the global economy has been reliant on fossil fuels, resulting in the anthropogenic climate changes that we are witnessing today. At present, geopolitics is at the center of the struggle for mitigation of the climate change phenomenon. This has led to a variety of responses from different nations. Some are trying to postpone the responsibility, some are trying to deny, and some are trying to spearhead the fight against the problem. However, the issue of climate change is not one that can be solved by one or a subset of nations working in isolation. It remains to be seen how the results of climate change as well as the struggle for mitigation will impact the ground reality for the populations, as it is widely expected that the effects on different nations will be to different extents. Some are set to be hit harder than others, and some are going to be hit even if they have not done anything to contribute to the problem. In this background, many of the concerns about the technological manipulation of nature, environmental destruction, North-South relations, sustainable development, conflict and resource wars have returned to prominence in recent years in the increasingly intense debate about climate change. In this piece we a look at some of the major themes in the geopolitical landscape today related to climate change and climate change mitigation activities.

Russia and Saudi Arabia are two of the several examples of nations which depend on energy commodities export for most part of their revenue. They are also the best examples of nations with vastly established fossil fuel production and processing infrastructure. Accordingly, they face different geopolitical challenges than others in terms of their climate mitigation policy adoptions. Nations like Russia and Saudi Arabia, as well as Qatar, Iran, Venezuela, and UAE depend on exports of oil and gas to developing and emerging economies like China and India. However, an increasing emphasis in these developing economies for a transition towards renewable energy sources has been creating unrest in the oil, gas as well as coal export dependent nations. In case of Russia, another issue, in form of permafrost thawing has been emerging since the last few years as a big worry threatening its infrastructural facilities in Far East region as well as the Siberian region. Last year Russia witnessed several oil spills due to weakening infrastructure in its facilities. However, this issue is dwarfed due to the fact that infrastructure can be upgraded, but if the demand for oil and gas reduces in the global markets due to a renewable energy transition, then the vast infrastructures will become loss generating assets.

                In Gulf countries, the narratives of collapse and chaos in a post-oil world has taken over most policy makers’ imagination. According to some predictions, over the next 50 years, these countries could be facing a twin issue of increasing strain on societies and economies due to climate change on one hand and increasing shortage of funds on the other, either due to the decreasing exports and demand, or due to simply less production due to waning stores of energy. Moreover, emergence on alternative sources like shale oil in US and oil and gas in Central Asian region can also lead to increased strain in these countries. This has led to new geopolitical conditions becoming possible for the Gulf region which has for long been dependent on a US hegemony in the region for overall security framework. A receding US interest can witness an increasing interest of other powers like China and Russia.  

Moving to the developing world, economies like India, Brazil and even China have at various times expressed an unwillingness to concede mitigation of emissions of greenhouse gases and pointed towards their right to economic and industrial development, world equity and issues. This stance has attracted criticism from the developed world who see this struggle against climate change as a journey in which every nation needs to stand in unity. However, on one hand where concepts like ‘Common but Differentiated Responsibilities’ has emerged in climate action frameworks, countries like India have showed that they are ready to lead in the action for climate change mitigation by implementing policies to work towards a transition to renewable energy. This stance although is also influenced by the fact that India is forced to import most of its fossil fuel needs from other countries which exists as a big burden to its economy. By decreasing its reliance on energy imports, India can look towards following a more independent course in the geopolitical order. As seen in the collapse of Iran-US relations which led to India being forced to abandon its oil imports from Iran, a situation where India is not dependent on oil itself, stands to be a big win. Further, initiatives like the International Solar Alliance have helped India to cultivate India’s image as a responsible global actor, at par with other like the European Union who has been using climate change activism as an element of its foreign policy to retain command over the global climate change policy agenda and thus assert not only regional, but global influence.

               Talking about the global powers, US and China are undoubtedly the two biggest players in the world today when it comes to geopolitics, as well as emissions. In US, about half of electricity is generated through coal power plants as the nation has abundant coal deposits. The last four years under President Trump witnessed US detaching itself from major climate change action frameworks like the Paris Agreement based on the reasoning that any policies which have a chance to curb economy growth will have a disastrous effect on the lives of American citizens as well as national security. On the other hand, China, which has for some time now been the biggest greenhouse gas emitter, has now been working towards becoming the leader in sphere of sustainable energy. Chinese president Xi Jinping at the last year’s United Nations General Assembly made the promise that China will become carbon neutral by 2060. According to scholars of the field, through this stance, China not only wants to enhance its geopolitical position as a main partner to EU for future, but also wants to take away attention from its human rights abuses, and aggressive behavior. This phenomenon needs to be understood in the light of the fact that today almost all mining, production and processing of rare earth elements, which are essential for the production of renewable energy infrastructure like solar panels, takes place in China. Thus, providing not only an upper hand to China as an economic power but also as a great geopolitical power in sustainable energy.

               Not all countries however face the dilemma of effects of slowing economy in case they go for transition to renewable energy or adopt policies that mitigate emissions. The poorest of the countries stand to go bankrupt and loose relevance due to geopolitics of climate action in case the world decides to transition fast to renewable energy. These are the poor countries of Africa which have recently started establishing their oil production and now almost completely depend on it. As mentioned by Russian president Putin, these are the economies which look towards economic development based on their energy stores. They however have massive potential for renewable energy extraction too. But this potential need massive amounts of investment in infrastructure to realize, an element that these economies do not possess. Further, as the oil produced by these satisfy the needs of the developing and emerging economies, most of their buyer nations will see no benefit in trying to aid the African economies to substantially create their supplier’s renewable energy sector.

               Similar is the case of the Central Asia region where the nations depend on extractive industries of oil, coal, and gas. Both climate impact as well as climate change mitigation and adaptation in this region is projected to heighten geopolitical tension.  Not only are the foreign direct investments in the region low at present, but the existing investments do also not prioritize resilient and sustainable development and is related mostly in sector of non-renewable energy resource extraction. The geopolitics of this region is connected in more than one way with the issue of climate change. The region is prone to water and energy shortages. Whereas carbon rich Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan extract and use oil, gas and coal for their energy production, other nations in the region- Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which have lower GDP per capita uses clean hydro energy. Thus an inequality exist as the downstream nations are those which are more reliant on fossil fuels and the upstream nations, although not energy rich, possess ample hydroelectric potential. This inequality is estimated by the scholars to create strains in the region which can spill over in the rest of Asia.

The Dilemma

               It might seem like the fossil-fuels based energy export reliant nations are set to lose the most in the coming future as the world starts looking for ways to transition towards clean fuel and energy in the coming years. However, the oil and gas industry might not be ending anytime soon.

               For instance, Nord Stream 2, a planned pipeline through the Baltic Sea, which is expected to transport natural gas over from Siberia to consumers in Europe is being looked upon as a secure and reliable as well as cleaner source of energy for the coming decades. It indeed will replace the coal powered sectors in Europe and help reducing carbon emissions, however, this is also expected to provide Russia a sort of geopolitical push that it has not witnessed in many years now in terms of its relations with Europe, especially since the conflict with Ukraine in 2014. Although, this has changed in recent times as tensions arose with Georgia and the political chaos around Alexei Navalny’s poisoning, who was being seen as a political competitor to President Putin by some in Russia.  However, this is not to say that Russia has not been working towards climate change mitigation agenda. In November last year, Russian President Putin signed a decree ordering the Russian government to work towards meeting the 2015 Paris agreement to fight climate change, but stressed that any action must be balanced with the need to ensure strong economic development.   This in geopolitical terms can be seen as an attempt to align Russia with the change in presidency in US, where the new president  Joe Biden is supposed to be an avid supporter for climate activism and is expected to work towards making US carbon neutral with a long-term plan, in stark contrast to the previous president Donald Trump.

               Another geopolitical battle is emerging in the Arctic, where several nations like the US, China and Russia are no vying for dominance. In Arctic, with melting snow, shipping is all set to witness an increase. According to some estimates, if shipping along the Arctic becomes fully accessible, Bering Sea can become an area of contention for US and Russia, as well as China, thus reducing the importance of other choke points and the nations controlling them, like Egypt and Southeast Asia. This phenomenon also exists in line with the argument that if oil ceases to be a central driver of the global economy, many regions like Gulf are set to see their long-standing relations with the western nations like US change.

               Climate change related migration, which can result out of several reasons like submergence of islands, droughts due to varying rainfall patterns, stronger hurricanes or storms, or massive flooding of rivers due to higher rate of melting of glaciers that feed them with water, is also becoming a geopolitical contention that the nations are staring at today. The world has witnessed in 2015 refugee crisis in Europe, the extent of chaos, heightened populism, and nationalism, as well as lack of trust in multilateralism and established institutions that can be caused. Even though in this case, the result was not due to underlying climate change related challenges directly, similar effects due to influx of refugees and similar migration patterns can be expected from the regions of changing patterns of rainfall. This leads us to think where the current situation leaves us today for the future.   

What does the Future Hold?

               For many economies, initial investment cost for renewable energy systems is usually high, resulting unaffordability for many, especially in developing countries. Some others on the other hand, like Malaysia, with some of the highest level of subsidies on fossil fuels result in renewable energy market to remain economically weak and uncompetitive. Similarly, for Australia’s economy, which has for long been reliant on  fossil fuel industries to ensure the economic prosperity across the country, it is now becoming an issue of contention which it will need to resolve in order to ensure not its own, but also its neighborhood’s sustainability lying in the Indo-Pacific region as low lying islands which are at the risk of submergence due to climate change related effects.  

               In today’s world, not only can conflicts related to renewable energy infrastructure lead to stress as seen in case of Central Asian region, but also strain over issues like transfer of technology between developed and developing countries can turn into bigger forms of geopolitical conflicts. It also remains to be seen if the resources like rare-earth metals, which are needed for expansion of cleaner energy platforms will be available according to need of a nation or be made available to the highest buyer and turned into a business. The global order as it stands today between the oil producers and the oil consumers is also set to change as the climate change mitigation policies are adopted resulting from increasingly severe negative effects emerging from the anthropogenic climate change.           

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How Climate Change Has Been Politicized?

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We are living in a world where the political side of individuals is ruling over the highly sensitive issues like Climate Change even. It is evident that political ambitions of individuals and states have overruled the threatening issue of global climate change and the fact that it is highly politicized. Looking at the discourse that surround the topic of climate change or global warming entails terms like cap and trade, emission intensity, policies, measures etc. but what is still missing is the realization of the impact of human behavior that without any doubt is adding more to the threatening issue.

Scrutinizing the roots of issue from the past, it shot up when industrialization and the race among states to gain more technology, industries, economy and military might have caught everyone’s attention. After that there was a slight wave of realization majorly in the second half of twentieth century, as a result of which mass media started to emphasize on climate change narrative and there were discourses spread through print media to create awareness. As the awareness seemed to have increased the concerns of public regarding the issue also rose ultimately leading to the birth of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. A legacy followed after IPCC and climate change for the first time was coined as an environmental or green issue. There were NGOs like Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and The Environmental Defense Fund that took the voices for Climate Change as their prime priority.

Parallel to this there was a prominent backlash to these efforts too. In late 1980s there was emergence of coalition among many industrial companies of oil and cars that were the highest voices for business at the international level whose prime focus was to make business and turning a blind eye towards the threatening Climate Change. Moreover, the Convention that was considered to be a highly effective one, aimed at reducing global emissions of Carbon and greenhouse gases was framed. But even Kyoto Protocol turned out to be a battle among states whose ambitions were their national interests. In the pursuit of their offensive power and politics the quota allotted to all the member states of the convention was overruled. The richer states started to buy carbon quotas from the poorer states and both were in pursuit of what they needed the most; richer countries emitting carbon and poorer ones getting money. Hence the aim of the convention was severely affected. Adding more to the issue in 2001, the then US President George W. Bush called the Kyoto agreement as fatally flawed and the concern of climate change was no more considered to be a Green issue.

From that day till now, the issue has witnessed lesser ups and major downs in its magnitude and modern times have witnessed degradation of environment due to limitless cycle of consumption and production. As a matter of fact, 2015 to 2018 were recorded as the four hottest years ever. Two major evidences that depict how the issue of severe attention has been politicized for material gains are US withdrawal from Paris Climate Agreement and Kyoto Protocol that went in vain merely because of states only wanting to pursue their material interests and ambitions.

It now turns out to be easily understandable how and why the enigma between soft issue like Climate and hard core politics have led to severe degradation of nature and still the world is not realizing that the future of humanity has been put at risk. Unfortunately, the pursuit of leaders still depict that the humanity would continue to be at risk as long as they are not willing to shift their focus towards the need of the day that is climate change.

Immediate realization is necessitated that the short time political gains of the world is threatening the future of generations to come and the world cannot afford to lose another decade of dismay because decisions and actions done in this decade is going to impact the century to come. If only the world realizes the need of immediate measures, actions and strict compliance and the need of spreading the awareness of the demanding issue through mass media and discourses, then the world would be able to cope the issue and endeavor to save the future of generations to come.

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World Ocean Day And Economic Potential Of Oceans

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The World Ocean Day is celebrated internationally on 8 June every year since 2008, with an aim to advance awareness of the vital importance of oceans, the role they play in sustaining a healthy planet, and to foster public interest in their protection, and the sustainable management of their resources. This year’s theme is “The Ocean: Life and Livelihoods”.

The oceans cover over 70% of the planet. It is our life source, supporting humanity’s sustenance and that of every other organism on earth. These produce at least 50% of the planet’s oxygen. It is home to most of earth’s biodiversity, and is the main source of protein for more than a billion people around the world. The oceans are key to our economy with an estimated 40 million people being employed by ocean-based industries. The mode of transportation through the sea is the cheapest as compared to rail, road, and air. There are around 56,000 merchant ships trading internationally.  Some 11 billion tons of goods are transported through seas.

The oceans offer many organisms including dried sponges, corals & jellyfish, shells of crabs, oysters, conch and other mollusks, pearls and cuttlefish ‘bones’, sea cucumbers, sea horses and many other marine animals to prepare medicines such as antibiotics, powders, ointments and decoctions. Oceans are also a big source of energy in the form of oil and gas. An average 28% of world energy source is from off shore. The coral reefs which are found closer to the coast provide an important ecosystem for life underwater. Thousands of species can be found living on one reef. The reefs protect coastal areas by reducing the power of waves hitting the coast, and provide a crucial source of income for millions of people.

Another importance aspect is Deep Seabed Mining (DSM) to collect metal-rich resources from the deep seafloor, like seafloor massive sulphides, cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts, and polymetallic nodules. Oceans are also a big source of entertainment and sports. As of December 2018, there are 314 cruise ships operating worldwide. This has become a major part of the tourism industry, with an estimated market of $29.4 billion per year, and over 19 million passengers carried worldwide annually. Numerous type of water sport is provided by the seas such as surfing, sailing, swimming, water skiing, scuba diving, canoeing, fishing, and snorkeling etc. It is pertinent to mention that in the Holy Quran, the sea (Albehar) is mentioned 41 times in the verses giving its importance to mankind.  One is quoted here, “It is He who has subjected the sea on to you, that ye may eat fish thereof that is fresh and tender, and extract there-from ornaments to wear, and thou seest the ships therein that plough the waves that ye may seek to enrich yourself of the bounty of Allah and that ye may be grateful (16:14)”.

The oceans need special attention from the mankind to keep these clean especially from various forms of pollutants. The developing and underdeveloped countries usually discharge industrial waste and sewerage into the seas and harbors without proper treatment which pollute the beaches and the harbors. Ships cruising through the oceans sometimes discharge their sludge to clean bilges and sewerage tanks. This unwanted waste virtually reaches to the beaches. It is also injurious to marine life. Although IMO laws exist not to pollute the oceans but some dhows and other small vessels do not follow in letter and spirit. Mangroves are special plants which grow in the salt water in the swampy areas. These are breeding ground for the marine life and provide valuable ecosystem services by protecting the coastline. These plants need special attention for preservation as well as regular forestation.

Pakistan is blessed with about 1002 km long coast. The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extends up to 200 Nautical Miles (370 KM) and extended continental shelf 350 NM (648 km), total area 290,000 square km. Pakistan has not been able to utilize its vast area except for carrying out fishing and means of transportation. Pakistan needs to utilize this huge area by employing latest technological developments in the maritime field to derive maximum economic benefits. Mangroves along the coast are usually used by the poor residents because of no alternate source of energy. The supply of LPG at subsidized cost may be considered. The enforcement of laws regarding industrial waste and sewerage going to sea without proper treatment may be ensured by the concerned authorities.  Pakistan needs to focus on a ‘Sustainable Ocean-led Development Paradigm’ to ‘improve the policy and governance of the marine ecosystem.’ Citizens should be made aware of the importance and potential of this sector for the economy and for job creation. Regular TV talk shows may be conducted for the awareness of the masses. Maritime-related subjects should be included in the curriculum of the universities.

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