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The growth we want is sustainable: Harnessing innovation for a circular economy for all

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With rapidly growing competition for resources and increasing waste and pollution, the need to move towards an inclusive circular economic system is growing.  A circular economy has the incentives and means to use existing resources in an efficient and sustainable fashion – relying on renewable energy sources, extracting more value from waste products, minimizing food waste, and increasing the quality of life for all segments of society. 

Perhaps most importantly, this transition poses tremendous opportunities. While, coupled with rapid technological change and increasing globalization, some existing jobs, economic sectors, and production processes will become obsolete, it will also nurture fertile ground for new and green jobs and new economic sectors. This is already happening: the rapidly growing sharing economy is one example of how we can not only use resources more efficiently, but also make them increasingly affordable.

But we are only getting started and have a long road ahead of us. The Circularity Gap Report presented at the 2019 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos estimates that only 9% of the global economy is circular today. That is not enough. We clearly have to move faster. The problem is that we cannot know in advance what will work and what will not. Instead, we have to try out different solutions and scale up what works. In other words, we need innovation. But innovation does not only mean scientific research and shiny new technologies: the ways we use them, the ways we set the rules of the game, and the ways we create the right incentives matter much more.

This was the central message that emerged from the discussion “The Growth we Want is Sustainable: Harnessing innovation for a circular economy for all”, organized by UNECE and UN Environment on 9 July as a side-event for the 2019 High-Level Political Forum. Speakers from governments, businesses, and civil society shared ideas and experiences from different parts of the UNECE region and beyond.

“The circular economy is a compulsory choice for a sustainable world” said UNECE Executive Secretary Olga Algayerova. Emphasizing the need for innovative solutions to re-shape linear economies, she highlighted the importance of exploring new channels to move forward: “We are in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution, which is changing the societies and economies in ways we have never imagined before. Therefore, what we need is to enable experimentation – with technologies, policies, governance arrangements, and business ides”.

UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador and solar aviation pioneer Bertrand Piccard warned that today’s model of quantitative growth is leading us to environmental chaos, climate change and depletion of natural resources. “Qualitative growth means that we can create jobs and make profit by replacing the old, outdated, inefficient and polluted infrastructures by new modern and efficient ones, ones that can protect the environment. This is the market of the century”, he urged, arguing that “this is the way to speak the language of the people we want to convince”.

Central to the resulting multi-stakeholder dialogue is innovation – the driving force of the transition towards inclusive and circular economic growth. Stakeholders, including representatives of UNECE member States Sweden, Germany, Georgia and Finland, as well the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), discussed challenges, opportunities and best practices of transforming the existing system of production and consumption patterns from a life-cycle perspective.

This mechanism involves applying frontier technologies, such as IT and artificial intelligence, business models that re-shape product life-cycles, and sharing platforms in different sectors which make way for more sustainable consumption. The high cost of experimentation calls for knowledge-based solutions to identify the right partnerships and sources of finance that will enable and promote innovative high-growth entrepreneurship within SMEs towards a new service-based economy. R&D partnerships with academia in less advanced economies will ensure the necessary digital transfer, while developing targeted skills and supporting life-long learning for the jobs of the future, and distributional aspects through bold social protection, will ensure that no-one is left behind.

Stakeholders further expressed their wish to continue the dialogue on inclusive circular economic growth and long-term sustainability, and to look into supporting policies, norms and standards, developed through multilateralism and partnership at the regional and global level, to reach the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda.

UNECE fosters cross-sectoral linkages to further accelerate these processes, bringing countries, civil society, and the private sector together towards the common goal of a systemic transition to more sustainable production and consumption practices. To this end, UNECE is pooling its multisectoral expertise through an integrated “nexus” approach to 2030 Agenda delivery. Examples of initiatives to support countries’ shift to the circular economy include a resource management framework that helps make use of valuable resources from mining and landfill, policy recommendations on recycling, the development of a blockchain-supported application to enable a circular approach along garment and footwear sector value chains, and an innovative and unique IT- supported food loss management system to repurpose and bring back into the supply chain food that would otherwise be lost. 

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Are Nature Based Solutions the key to Africa’s climate response?

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While the UN climate talks are celebrating their 25th year, carbon emissions around the world have continued to climb. For many, that is where natural solutions could play a key role in managing a dramatic climate transition.

Nature-based solutions or the process of working with and around natural ecosystems to deliver real-world benefits for climate resilience and sustainable development, took center stage on day 4 of COP25 in Madrid).

The African Development Bank has three main approaches to nature-based solutions; namely, restoring damaged ecosystems (land, forests and water bodies), conserving biodiversity, and integrated natural resources management.

Vanessa Ushie, Manager of the Policy Analysis Division at the Bank’s African Natural Resource Centre, briefed delegates at COP 25 about the Centre’s work during a panel discussion on Tuesday.

“Nature-based solutions are easy to use, and very effective in improving community livelihoods and resilience to climate change. The AfDB is scaling up the use of nature-based solutions to address climate impacts on critical ecosystems and biodiversity in Africa,” Ushie said.

UN biodiversity expert Valerie Kapos described a range of natural solutions being implemented across Africa, and around the world. These included protecting rivers, forests, and marine solutions, to benefit local economies.

“We need to be applying that argument to whichever solutions we are choosing,” said Kapos, Head of Climate Change and Biodiversity at the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC).

This is definitely true for the Seychelles, which has been appointed by the African Union to be the champion of the blue or ocean economy across the continent. While the continent is known for its deserts and jungles, a blue economic transition will be essential for the 48 coastal states that collectively make up the world’s longest coastline.

“We have protected 47% of our land, and are moving toward 50%. But our ocean territory is 3,000 times bigger than our land territory, and we are on track to protect 30% of that area,” said Ronald Jumeau, Permanent Representative of the Seychelles at the UN.

This was made possible by one of the world’s biggest debt-swap programs. The debt-for-nature deal was made possible through The Nature Conservancy, which bought the island nation’s $400 million sovereign debt at a discount. That money will be re-invested in nature conservation programmes.

“Through this program we have funded mangrove restoration and climate education programmes,” said Angelique Pouponneau, who runs a Seychelles-based trust fund focusing on climate adaptation and conservation.

Ushie from the African Development Bank pointed out that “one thing we are looking at is changing the way in which lending is being channeled to Africa, and how nature can be integrated in the measurement of national wealth and sovereign credit ratings for African countries.”

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World’s governments plan to produce 120% more fossil fuels by 2030 than can be burned under 1.5°C warming

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The world is on track to produce far more coal, oil and gas than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C or 2°C, creating a “production gap” that makes climate goals much harder to reach, according to the first report to assess countries’ plans and projections for fossil fuel production.

The Production Gap Report complements the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Emissions Gap Report, which shows that country pledges fall short of the emission reductions needed to meet global temperature limits.

Countries are planning to produce fossil fuels far in excess of the levels needed to fulfil their climate pledges under the Paris Agreement, which themselves are far from adequate. This overinvestment in coal, oil, and gas supply locks in fossil fuel infrastructure that will make emissions reductions harder to achieve.

“Over the past decade, the climate conversation has shifted. There’s greater recognition of the role that the unfettered expansion of fossil fuel production plays in undermining climate progress,” said Michael Lazarus, a lead author on the report and the director of Stockholm Environment Institute’s US Center. “This report shows, for the first time, just how big the disconnect is between Paris temperature goals and countries’ plans and policies for coal, oil, and gas production. It also shares solutions, suggesting ways to help close this gap through domestic policies and international cooperation.”

The report was produced by leading research organizations, including the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), International Institute for Sustainable Development, Overseas Development Institute, CICERO Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research, Climate Analytics, and UNEP. Over fifty researchers contributed to the analysis and review, spanning numerous universities and additional research organizations.

In the report preface, UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen notes that carbon emissions have remained exactly at the levels projected a decade ago, under the business-as-usual scenarios used in Emissions Gap Reports.

“This calls for a sharpened, and long overdue, focus on fossil fuels,” she writes. “The world’s energy supply remains dominated by coal, oil and gas, driving emission levels that are inconsistent with climate goals. To that end, this report introduces the fossil fuel production gap, a new metric that clearly shows the gap between increasing fossil fuel production and the decline needed to limit global warming.”

The report’s main findings include:

  • The world is on track to produce about 50% more fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 2°C and 120% more than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C.
  • This production gap is largest for coal. Countries plan to produce 150% more coal in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 2°C, and 280% more than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C.
  • Oil and gas are also on track to exceed carbon budgets, with continued investment and infrastructure locking in use of these fuels, until countries are producing between 40% and 50% more oil and gas by 2040 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 2°C.
  • National projections suggest that countries are planning on 17% more coal, 10% more oil and 5% more gas production in 2030 than consistent with NDC implementation (which itself is not enough to limit warming to 1.5°C or 2°C).

Countries have numerous options for closing the production gap, including limiting exploration and extraction, removing subsidies, and aligning future production plans with climate goals. The report details these options, as well as those available through international cooperation under the Paris Agreement.

The authors also emphasize the importance of a just transition away from fossil fuels.

“There is a pressing need to ensure that those affected by social and economic change are not left behind,” said report author and SEI Research Fellow Cleo Verkuijl. “At the same time, transition planning can build consensus for more ambitious climate policy.”

The Production Gap Report comes as more than 60 countries have already committed to updating their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), which set out their new emission reduction plans and climate pledges under the Paris Agreement, by 2020.

“Countries can use this opportunity to integrate strategies to manage fossil fuel production into their NDCs – which in turn will help them reach emission reduction goals,” said Niklas Hagelberg, UNEP’s climate change coordinator.

“Despite more than two decades of climate policy making, fossil fuel production levels are higher than ever,” said SEI’s Executive Director, Måns Nilsson. “This report shows that governments’ continued support for coal, oil and gas extraction is a big part of the problem. We’re in a deep hole – and we need to stop digging.”

About the UN Environment Programme

UNEP is the leading global voice on the environment. It provides leadership and encourages partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations.

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Greening the blue: championing coastal climate solutions

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They call them ‘blue forests’—and they are among the most productive and valuable habitats on Earth.

Mangroves might not look like much to some, but these humble salt-loving species are vital to coastal ecosystems and communities the world over. They are a crucial breeding habitat for aquatic wildlife—with some 75 per cent of commercially fished species either spending part of their life cycle in mangrove ecosystems or depending on the habitat for food. They also protect the coasts themselves, with their dense root systems acting as natural buffers against storm surges.

However, it’s their potential in the fight against climate change that is making mangroves the new superstars of coastal conservation efforts.

“Mangroves and other ‘blue carbon’ ecosystems like sea grasses and salt marshes are incredibly efficient at storing carbon,” UN Environment Programme (UNEP) international waters expert Isabelle Vanderbeck says.

“They can absorb and store as much as 10 times as much carbon as terrestrial ecosystems—so it goes without saying that they are a critical part of efforts to overcome climate change.”

But despite their value to the environment and coastal economies alike, globally mangroves are being lost at an alarming rate — three to five times faster than other forests.

“Over one third of the world’s mangroves have been lost over the last 100 years,” Vanderbeck says. “It’s a trend that has to stop now if the species and communities that depend on them are to survive.”

Nature-based climate solutions

However, growing recognition of mangroves’ role in both mitigating and adapting to climate change, combined with a growing global market for carbon offsets, is providing a lifeline for mangrove ecosystems the world over.

With backing from the Global Environment Facility, the Blue Forests Project—a collaboration between UNEP and GRID-Arendal—is working with partners across eight countries to test ‘blue carbon’ and other nature-based climate solutions, setting the stage for countries to help countries fulfil the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement by upscaling these approaches globally.

“Through the Blue Forests Project, we are exploring how coastal carbon and ecosystem services can be harnessed to fight climate change, boost conservation and provide sustainable livelihoods,” Steven Lutz, project coordinator at GRID-Arendal, says.

“Blue Forests builds on ‘blue carbon’ market success.” Lutz says. “Our partner site in Gazi Bay, Kenya is the world’s first working blue carbon’ market project, where carbon finance has been supporting communities to conserve and restore mangrove forests for the past few years. Profit from the Gazi Bay project also supports community development activities such as the building of freshwater wells.”

Blue carbon goes global

Just last month, the project celebrated its latest milestone, with the launch of the world’s largest community-based mangrove carbon finance conservation initiative in Madagascar in partnership with Blue Ventures.

Under the project—dubbed ‘Tairy Honko’, or ‘preserving mangroves’ in the local Vezo dialect—communities across the Velondriake Locally Managed Marine Area in Madagascar’s remote southwest are uniting to restore and conserve over 1,200 hectares of mangroves.

Together with blue carbon sales in Vanga Bay and Gazi Bay in Kenya, achieved in partnership with the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, the Madagascar project represents an expansion of the market for blue carbon offsets by an order of magnitude, with Blue Forests having brought a total 1,500 hectares of mangrove forests to the voluntary carbon market.

“Over 1,500 hectares of mangrove forests are now available on the voluntary carbon market, Lutz says. “With support from the Global Environment Facility and partners, the Blue Forests Project has been able to expand the carbon market for blue carbon offsets by over an order of magnitude.”

The Tahiry Honko initiative is set to offset global emissions, with verified ‘blue carbon’ credit sales providing the funds needed to support local management of the marine protected area and finance community development, including infrastructure, healthcare and education.

“We inherited these mangroves from our ancestors, providing materials we need to survive,” Velondriake Locally Managed Marine Area Association member Joel François says. “I want to ensure we can pass these forests on to our children.”

“Through the Blue Forests Project, we have been able to demonstrate that the carbon market can work to achieve goals in sustainable development and the mitigation of climate change”, Isabelle Vanderbeck says. “Next steps include supporting countries to include blue carbon solutions in national pledges to fulfil the Paris Climate Agreement.”

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