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The transformers: UN Champions who dared to reimagine their worlds

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A corporate titan with an unconventional agenda; the food specialists who looked outside the (takeaway) box; the ocean explorer whose name has become synonymous with conservation: these are just some of the environmental heroes who have dedicated their lives to bringing their audacious visions of a better world to life.

These pioneers are all previous winners of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Champions of the Earth award—the world’s flagship environmental honour—and their actions have inspired others to join them in their fight for a cleaner, fairer and more sustainable world.

As the countdown begins to the announcement of this year’s Champions of the Earth, and ahead of a pivotal Climate Action Summit in New York on 23 September 2019, the energy and vision demonstrated by previous Champions are needed more than ever as the world races to decisively cut carbon emissions before the worst effects of global warming become inevitable.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres wants world leaders, businesses and civil society to come to the Summit with concrete plans to cut emissions by 45 per cent in the next decade and achieve net zero emissions by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and the Sustainable Development Goals.

What is required is nothing less than a complete transformation of economies and societies. In short, it’s a job for heroes.

Thankfully, we already have model citizens to lead us forward. The Champions of the Earth have shown year after year that real change is possible if individuals commit to overhaul the way they live so that we safeguard the planet’s resources and ensure our own survival.

Here we look at five Champions of the Earth who transformed their own worlds.

The trailblazing tycoon: Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever

2015 laureate for entrepreneurial vision

During more than a decade as Chief Executive Officer of consumer goods giant Unilever, Paul Polman always dared to do things differently. Long before “sustainability” became a buzzword, he sought to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation and increase Unilever’s positive social impact.

Since stepping down last year, Polman has continued his work to put sustainability at the heart of global business. He is chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce and recently co-founded the Imagine foundation to help eradicate poverty and stem climate change by helping companies pursue the Sustainable Development Goals. He announced the news on Twitter, quoting the lyrics of the John Lennon song: “You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one.”

Polman would like to see “heroic Chief Executive Officers” drive a shift to a low-carbon, more inclusive way of doing business. This call chimes perfectly with one of the six priorities laid out by Guterres for the Climate Action Summit—mobilizing public and private sources of finance to drive decarbonization of all priority sectors and advance resilience.

The Summit’s ambitious agenda finds an echo in Polman’s heart: tweeting out Guterres’ call for urgent action at the meeting, he wrote: “With extreme heat getting worse, nature is telling us what we already know: there’s no time to waste against climate change.”

The food mavericks: Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods

2018 laureates for science and innovation

The role of agriculture in the production of greenhouse gases has led to mounting calls for people to move towards a more plant-based diet. But how can you get hungry, red meat-loving consumers to shift?

The entrepreneurial founders of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, who won the Champions of the Earth award for creating sustainable alternatives to beef burgers, took up that challenge with gusto.

Beyond Meat worked with top scientists to strip down the core components of meat and extract them from plants instead, using ingredients like peas, beetroot, coconut oil and potato starch.

Impossible Foods took a slightly different tack to arrive at a similar result. Chief Executive Officer Patrick O. Brown’s team discovered an iron-containing molecule that occurs naturally in every cell of every animal and plant and that is responsible for the unique flavours and aromas of meat. They used this knowledge to produce a meatless burger.

The two companies have tapped into a growing demand, especially among younger consumers, for products that are good for both planet and people, proving that it makes good business sense to harness this hunger for products that don’t cost the earth.

Their can-do attitude is exactly what’s needed on a global scale to tackle our climate crisis.

As Patrick O. Brown says: “There are huge global problems, but they are solvable and we’re going to solve them. Just wait.”

The Son of the Desert: Wang Wenbiao, Chairman of Elion Resources Group

2017 laureate for lifetime achievement

When Wang Wenbiao bought the Hangjinqi Saltworks in the middle of the Kubuqi desert in Inner Mongolia in 1988, he embarked on an adventure that would see him rise to the top of the country’s largest private green industries enterprise, Elion Resources Group.

His journey began, as most interesting journeys do, with a problem—how to make the saltworks profitable when the creeping desert was swallowing the salt lake, damaging equipment and making it difficult to transport the salt to market?

Wang, who grew up in Kubuqi, partnered with local communities and the Beijing government to fight the advancing sands and give hope to some of the 70,000 people who had been struggling to survive. In doing so, he showed how private industry could contribute to the fight against climate change and environmental degradation, while still turning a profit.

Wang set up a special fund to pay for afforestation and assigned a third of his staff to plant trees around the lake. He also encouraged local people to grow licorice, a hardy plant that grows well in deserts and is widely used in traditional Chinese medicine. Elion provided locals with seeds, training and other support, and also bought the harvest at a fair price.

Today, around two thirds of the desert has been greened and Wang, who is known as the Son of the Desert, says he is in it for the long haul.

“Greening the deserts is like a marathon, as long as there is a desert, my marathon will not come to an end,” he said.

The Dutch dreamer: Boyan Slat

2014 laureate for inspiration and action

Dutch inventor Boyan Slat was only 19 when he won the Champion of the Earth award for inspiration and action but he was already a young man on a mission: to clean the seas of plastic waste using a revolutionary floating boom.

Since then, Slat has brought his vision to life with The Ocean Cleanup project and although his team was forced to bring the first prototype back to port, they have now returned to sea, hoping to scoop up some of the trillions of pieces of plastic that are choking our fish, killing marine wildlife, damaging coral reefs and turning beaches into rubbish dumps.

Slat’s ongoing passion for the project reflects growing public concern. In 2017, the UN Environment Programme launched its Clean Seas campaign to inspire governments, businesses and people to take action, including cleaning beaches, cutting plastic use and investing more in recycling facilities.

Slat’s original System 001—a 600-metre-long U-shaped floater with a tapered three-metre-deep skirt attached below to trap the plastic—was launched in September 2018 and towed to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gigantic swell of rubbish twice the size of France.

But The Ocean Cleanup team found that the floater was failing to hold onto the plastic. They tried to modify the design at sea, but were eventually forced to tow the system back to port after it suffered a fatigue fracture.

More tests and modifications were needed but in August, Slat said System 001/B had arrived at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

“We move forward cautiously knowing we may be presented with more unscheduled learning opportunities… Yet it is safe to say that we are closer than ever to having a tool capable of cleaning up these garbage patches for good,” he wrote on The Ocean Cleanup website.

Her Deepness: Sylvia Earle

2014 laureate for lifetime leadership

A renowned pioneer of deep sea exploration and a distinguished marine biologist, Sylvia Earle has dedicated her life to exploring and protecting the oceans. Her philosophy is simple: “We need to respect the oceans and take care of them as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.”

Earle, 83, has logged more than 7,000 hours underwater across over 100 expeditions—including leading the first team of women aquanauts and setting a record for solo diving to a depth of 1,000-metres. Her list of laudatory titles is impressive: she has been called Her Deepness, a Living Legend, a Hero for the Planet, and the Face of Marine Biology.

Earle was the first woman to serve as the Chief Scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and, since 1998, she has been Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society.

She is also the founder of Deep Ocean Exploration and Research Inc and the Sylvia Earle Alliance as well as being the leader of the National Geographic Society Sustainable Seas Expeditions.

In 2009, she founded Mission Blue, a global alliance to ignite public support for the protection of a network of Hope Spots—special places that are vital to the health of the ocean. The alliance aims to bring about a significant increase in ocean protection by 2020.

In 2014, she was awarded the Champions of the Earth prize for lifetime leadership. And that works goes on. Earle is still travelling the world, seeking to inspire others with her passion to preserve our seas.

UN Environment

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Climate Change Problem: an Emerging Threat to Global Security

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Climate Change is one of the greatest challenges faced by humanity. The Greenhouse–gas emissions and over-exploitation of natural resources result in a rise in temperature which brings floods, droughts, a rise in sea level, and other destructive events. The problem is that climate change is a global bad, and it requires collective efforts and cooperation to limit its effects. One state cannot control Climate change alone because it does not take it into borders. Formally, the climate change issue was a matter of low politics, but the inception of the 21st century brought an understanding that it poses greater threats than traditional ones. The Covid-19 plays a major role in the realization of steps taken towards climate cooperation. States often make climate promises but cannot fulfill these promises because of the fascination with development and ignore climate change. But now world leaders have realized that the lessons of COVID-19 can tackle global climate change problems otherwise it will make this world difficult to live in.

 The newly elected President of the United States (US) Joe Biden inaugurated a virtual climate change summit with 42 world leaders. It includes leaders from Russia, China, Turkey, Israel, India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Setting aside all the differences, he invited leaders from those countries that are a major contributor to Greenhouse gas emission and those who are most vulnerable to climate change risk. In this summit, the Biden administration asked the world leaders to take actions to combat climate change collectively as the climate is a global good and requires collective efforts to tackle climate change. Biden has announced an aggressive new goal policy for greenhouse gas emissions. 2030 committed the US administration to reduce its greenhouse gas emission to 50-53%. The National Intelligence Director of President Avril Haines told world leaders that the climate change issue is no longer remains a peripheral issue but at the center of foreign policy. Other states such as France and Russia also promised to limit their greenhouse gas emission to 42-46% by 2030. It also committed China to play its role in the summit by announcing its willingness towards coal reduction. India reiterated its target of 450 GW of non-renewable energy by 2030 and announced to launch the “US-India 2030 Climate and Clean energy Agenda 2030 Partnership”. The Brazilian Environment Minister argued they need funds to enforce their plan to eliminate deforestation and carbon emission from their country. Vice president Harris argued that climate actions are necessary to tackle climate crises and to promote job opportunities. . Now, the US has put climate change at the center of its security and foreign policy because climate change is not only changing the pattern of the environment but it speeds up the geopolitical competition, undermine security and provoking ethnic conflicts. The climate change results in cyclones, floods, the rising temperature that disrupts social and economic conditions that threaten food security and human security.

By exploring the climate solution, the virtual summit announced the need to increase the public finance for mitigation and adaptation in developing countries. Biden emphasized the importance of investment in the public and private sectors to achieve the collective goal of net zero-emission. Further, climate actions require cooperation at the national and sub-national governments to speed up efforts to transform communities in line with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Another change that needs to be highlighted at the national level is that the government must not subsidize renewable energy industries and keep their prices high to contain their over-exploitation.  It is easy to make promises as states do, but the problems emerge in its implementation. For decades, climate change has raised concern but states often prioritize development over the environment. This is real-time for states to limit their emission and comply with the promises they have made in the summit otherwise it will lead to never-ended consequences.

COVID-19, a super-fast placed event that emerged from one part of the world and quickly spread throughout the entire world. By its speed of diffusion, it reduced all the emissions at an expensive cost, thus halting the global economy. So still we have time to think about other efficient means of emission reductions to prevent countries from the intolerable burden of Climate Change. But the challenge is how to keep that emission reduction after the pandemic. Second, just an as sharp and instant change of behavior is possible with COVID-19 so to deal with climate change a behavior change is also possible, thus shifting to the low carbon emission all depends on seriousness and credibility to the mortal threat. Third, a key implication of COVID-19 to climate change is that how to reorganize the economy so, in the post-pandemic world, it is the human interaction that would determine the organization of the economy. Thus future will determine whether a low contact economy with a clean environment would be a lower carbon emission economy or not. Further, states must focus on how to open up the economy in the Green Revolution. Another major issue which the world leaders failed to address is the global problem of Covid-19. Despite the technological advancement and huge development, zoom diplomacy began with a distorted voice from the most advanced countries of the world. There is a need to cooperate on a matter of Covid-19 so that states think on the wider notion of climate actions. Thus we have to use all these lessons in the context of climate change to make this world a better place to live in.

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Rails, Roads And Emissions

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It is common knowledge that emissions affecting climate are least for rail travel in comparison with airplanes or road vehicles.  Consequently the $80 billion allocated to rail in an otherwise laudable budget appears paltry. 

Why is the US not investing in rail?  The usual reason given is that distances are so vast that it’s a no-brainer for business travellers to rely on commercial airlines.  But the way the technology is advancing, and as Europeans (and the Chinese) have demonstrated, a network of high-speed rail can offer a greener alternative. 

Trains are getting faster and new innovations like tilting trains lower the cost of replacement tracks.  If 200 mph is being breached more often, then 250 mph should be in our sights.  And Elon Musk has proposed vacuum tubes to remove wind resistance and reach even higher speeds. 

Yet a 250 mph rail network with average speeds in excess of 200 mph would revolutionize the concept of travel.  New York to Chicago in five hours and east to west coast overnight with the possibility of visiting neglected areas out of reach with expressways and airplanes would bring new growth and dynamism where it is needed. 

A point to note is prevailing interest rates.  They are so low historically that railroad bonds at a competitive interest rate would be snapped up  especially if they were guaranteed by the government. 

While one can agree with the aims and compassion clearly evident in the president’s proposals, the process to achieve them is less clear.  In particular on climate change the goal of net zero emissions within a decade is laudable.  But a speedy switchover to electric vehicles raises questions: Simply, how?

The system is geared to internal combustion engines.  Mechanics train for years to become proficient.  Aside from that, has anyone wondered what happens to all those large electric car batteries when they have to be replaced?  Since lithium used in them is a finite resource, it would have to be recovered or the 80 million tons estimated to be the world’s store would eventually be depleted.  

Another issue is the electricity used to charge the batteries.  If it comes from a coal-fired plant, are we back to square one?  Currently about a quarter of the electricity generated in the US comes from coal. Of course dealing with pollution at the source (like a coal plant) is easier. 

The number of Americans living paycheck to paycheck (roughly half) is just one more reason the changeover to electric vehicles might take a while; they just don’t have the funds.  Add to these numbers the elderly living on fixed incomes or the ranks of the unemployed and one can understand the scale of the problem.  

One can laud the US president’s goals but we need to see some action (even proposals) to facilitate them. 

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Global Environmental Governance and Biden’s Administration

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Being the largest emitter of greenhouse gas in the world, it is the responsibility of U.S to contribute expeditiously to manage the environmental issues at domestic and international level but the previous government, under the leadership of Trump, took back seat and reversed all the decisions of Ex-president Barack Obama to combat the climate change. Unlike this, New Elected President, Joe Biden, who is very enthusiastic and firm to fulfill all the promises regarding climate change which were done during the general election’s campaign. Moreover, he views climate change a thwart to national security. One of the biggest achievements associated with Biden’ administration regarding environmental issues is to bring U.S back into Paris Climate Accord and brought executive order’’ Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring science to tackle the climate crisis’’ on the surface.

A flurry of changes to U.S environment policy is going to play a constructive role in global environmental governance under Biden administration. Even before elections, climate change was one of the top priorities and aimed to put the U.S on a path which leads towards ‘’ Zero Net’’ greenhouse gas emission. In the very early of His office days, He is very committed to deal with the climate change as they hosted ‘’ Climate Day’’ to introduce government climate centric approach to emphasize on the climate change.  Biden administration also ordered to revoke a permanent issued for Keystone XL oil pipeline which trump issued for extraction of oil and energy which is dangerous to national ecosystem. In addition to this, they are also very active to promote US role to tackle the climate change at domestic and abroad. At domestic level, Biden’s actions are speaking louder than the words as he has ascribed the climate crisis with a national emergency. At the time of his inauguration, Biden said: ‘’ A cry for survival comes from the planet itself, a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any clearer’’. He also directed his cabinet to work on the policy of ‘’ social carbon cost’’ to measure the cost of actions and how costs will impact the climate change. He endeavors to control the climate change by keeping a strict eye on the big project’s reviewing process before working under the National Environmental Policy Act which calculates the social costs of greenhouse gas emissions.

On international level, Biden has been striving to improve the spoil image shaped by the previous government regarding global environmental governance as he has declared to rejoin the Paris Climate accord which would help to reduce the greenhouse gas emission. In the result of this action, Biden was welcomed by the General Secretary of the United Nations and French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron by saying ‘’ Welcome Back to the Paris Agreement’’. Moreover, Biden Administration is very determined to convene a global climate summit on the earth day to encourage leaders to align themselves with scientist to alleviate the impacts of climate change. On international forums, US need to cooperate and compel the economic trade partner to take actions to combat with climate crisis. One of the essential steps taken by the Biden administration is to manage the climate refugees which aim to make strategies to compensate the climate affected migrants.

The thin majority of democratic in the senate does not only limit the possibility for Biden to achieve climate change reforms along strong anti-climate lobbyist business group who are inimical to the reforms particularly relevant to vehicle, power plants and oil and gas drilling industries. Without new climate legislation from congress, it would be not an easy task to implement the climate agenda across the borders. The vocal resistance comes from the coal production sectors which result in burning of fossil fuels and caused of greenhouse gas emissions. Whereas, few sectors are opposing the agenda there are also companies specially electrical vehicles are exclusively offering assistance to Biden for the sustainable development. Undoubtedly, environmental organizations and scientists community applauded the Biden decisions but few business groups have also filed a lawsuit against Biden to not stop the new permit for oil and gas drilling. There are also concerned raised by the community that climate actions will delete many jobs and cause of upsurge in unemployment percentage across the federation.

It is very evident from the ambitions of Biden’s action regarding climate crisis that he is very interesting to mitigate and curb the climate change but it will require highly comprehensive strategy aims to manage the reforms in laws while taking congressmen in confidence because most of them are not in favor of climate actions due to clash of interests. On the other hand, there is need to work on renewable energy resources at domestic and international level and for this US should compensate the companies to compete with the old capitalized firms which do not want safe and peaceful planet. Moreover, there is need to bring reforms in existing environmental treaties and their compliance process which should be strictly followed by the harsh actions against the violators. The process of financing the agendas which are very environment friendly and transforming the resources to the periphery states should be done swiftly to improve the environment across the globe. The aims of achieving sustainable development should be promoted and supported by the US across the world.

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