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Towards a sustainable Blue economy: A Plan to restore the health of our oceans

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Samba Lahy recalls the time when, as a young man, he used to go fishing with his parents off the coast of Tampolove, one of the fishing villages dotting the southwestern coast of Madagascar. Every time his family returned from the sea, their long and narrow canoe would be filled to the brim with fish. But things have changed.

Mr. Lahy, now with a family of his own, has seen his catches dwindle. As a result, like others in Tampolove, he can no longer rely on fishing as his main source of income. His story sounds familiar to many, in scores of fishing villages around the world. 

Today, one third of the world’s fish stocks are overfished, up from 10 per cent in the mid-1970s. Another 60% of fish stocks have been exploited at their maximum sustainable limit. But overfishing is only one of many problems affecting the oceans. Over the past 30 to 40 years, the world has lost half of its coral reefs. Other problems include a rise in ocean temperatures and acidity, both a result of the climate crisis.

Despite a growing awareness of these challenges, progress in tackling them has been slow. This is due to many factors, not least the perception that protecting the environment is costly and will therefore hinder economic growth and socio-economic development. However, the quest for a healthy environment can be compatible with a prosperous economy and a global trading system.

The ingenuity of rural producers like Lahy offers inspiration and assurance that the two are not inherently incompatible. Faced with dwindling catches, Lahy and others in the community began experimenting with seaweed farming with the help from non-governmental organizations.  Soon this turned into a profitable economic activity, and the village soon started to sell their seaweed to foreign markets, where it is used to produce food, personal care products, cosmetics, paints, adhesives, dyes and gels.

Commercial ventures like seaweed farming can create new economic opportunities, particularly for women in rural communities, enhanced by the interconnectedness of the global economy. They can also be more environmentally friendly than other aquaculture activities. Part of the reason is that seaweed and other species of algae do not need fertilizers to grow—just sunlight, carbon dioxide and water. All these factors begin to show how economic prosperity, trade and the preservation of the environment can, in fact, reinforce each other.

In the context of the Paris Agreement, oceans-based economic diversification can enhance the nationally determined contributions of small island developing states, supporting the implementation of the agreement. This shows that trade can be an enabling factor in adaptation and in mainstreaming oceans-based economic activities, where domestic markets remain small and remoteness is an intractable hindering factor.

In other areas of the oceans economy, adapting trade policies can play a decisive role in making economic activities more sustainable. One example relates to fisheries subsidies, government support schemes for the fisheries sectors. “Despite the clear trend of declining fish populations, a majority of these subsidies further promote overfishing. Instead, support should be provided to improve the sustainability of the sector, or promote new sustainable economic activities.”

explains Steven Stone, Chief of Resources and Markets at UN Environment. “Currently, countries are negotiating on a new set of trade rules at the multilateral level, that can put an end to these harmful practises. Successfully concluding these negotiations in 2020, at the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference will be crucial to move towards sustainable fishing practises. It is also a crucial part and parcel of the 2030 Agenda.”

The oceans economy, climate and efforts to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies are all headline topics of the Third Oceans Forum, an event on the sidelines of the September 2019 UN Trade, SDGs and Climate  Forum in Geneva. The Oceans Forum is a unique global platform to take stock, exchange experiences and present options for the implementation of trade-related targets of Sustainable Development Goal 14 – Life below water – through the involvement of leading United Nations agencies, regional bodies, government institutions and civil society organizations.

This year’s forum is particularly important, as it precedes the 2020 deadline to deliver on several trade-related Sustainable Development Goal targets on healthy oceans. To support countries to deliver on these targets, UNCTAD, FAO, and UN Environment have come together to develop a draft Inter-agency Plan of Action (the so-called ‘IPoA’), on sustainable oceans and trade. Through this Plan of Action, the agencies are proposing a comprehensive instrument to support countries in their transition to sustainable ocean economies, and to align their trade policies with overall sustainable development considerations.

UN Environment

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The solution to marine plastic pollution is plural, and plastic offsetting is one of them

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Due to growing concerns around environmental protection, businesses, individuals and governments have been looking for solutions that can be largely implemented to close the tap on plastic pollution.

In the last five years, businesses have strengthened their Sustainability Approach to acknowledge the need to take responsibility for their plastic production and consumption.

If targets have been defined and strong policies followed them to ensure high recycling rates of plastic products, a problem remains. What is the solution for low-value non-recyclable plastics?

This is where plastic offsetting enters the scene. As a derivative of the Carbon Offsetting concept, where trees are planted or protected to capture CO2 emissions, Plastic offsetting also known as Plastic Neutralization, enables companies to take responsibility for their plastic footprint.

Put simply, neutralizing means funding the collection and treatment of plastic, equivalent to the plastic impact of the business. Therefore, giving it the opportunity to compensate for every ton of plastic it has produced by ensuring there is one ton less in the environment.

From linear to Circular Economy Itis also a breakthrough in our traditional model of production, the linear economy. By extending the producer responsibility (EPR), this concept allow to build the bridge that lead to the ideal model, the circular economy, where no waste remains.

This innovative solution brings with it diverse positive impact. To the environment, by protecting ecosystems from plastic pollution, reducing landfilling and CO2 emissions. A strong social impact, by local communities by empowering local communities with work and better incomes. But also businesses, by becoming more sustainable with the reduction of the plastic footprint and a strengthen corporate social responsibility.

TONTOTON, a Vietnamese company, based in Ho Chi Minh City has succeed to connect all stakeholders to create a new market for low-value non-recyclable post-consumer plastic, on the scheme of circular economy.

TONTOTON Plastic Neutralization Program

Following the idea that the informal sector achieve to collect and recycle large amount of plastic in poor waste management areas, Barak Ekshtein, director of TONTOTON decided to look closer to the problem. In fact, a study shows that ‘97% of plastic bottles were collected by informal waste pickers.

The problem therefore does not lie in the logistics but in the price. By giving a market price to non-recyclable plastic, it allows waste collectors to collect and treat waste and thus avoid plastic pollution.

TONTOTON currently works in Southern Vietnamese Islands, Hon Son and Phu Quoc, and has already few tons of low-value plastic waste. To do so, it collaborates with local waste-pickers and thus provide them better incomes. The program focuses on preventing ocean plastic by following the Ocean Bound Plastic Certification. Their activities are audited by a 3rd party control body, the internationally recognized company, Control Union.

To treat the waste, TONTOTON partners with a certified cement plant, through co-processing, to valorize waste as an alternative energy and raw material. “Our system can solve two issues. Plastic is made of fossil fuels and contains more energy than coal. Thus we can replace industrial coal consumption with non-recyclable plastic waste. The plastic will not end up in landfill or oceans, therefore reduce levels of coal consumption and thus also CO2 emissions.”, says Barak Ekshtein.

Businesses engaged in their program can claim plastic neutrality on the amount of plastic neutralized to share their sustainability efforts. Moreover, indicate it on their neutralized product by bearing the “Plastic Neutral Product” label.

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Climate Change in Vanuatu: Problems Ensue

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Authors: Harsh Mahaseth and Shubham Sharma*

Vanuatu announced its intention to seek legal action against corporations and governments who have benefited from products which had caused climate change. Minister Regebvanu, in the 2018 Climate Vulnerable Summit sought to explore legal actions against companies, financial institutions and governments liable for the damages caused to Vanuatu due to climate change, either by direct to indirect actions of the said parties. Vanuatu, like other small island nations, is seeking damage claims against carbon emitters who have contributed to climate change and benefited from it. Vanuatu seeks to claim reparations for damage caused by events related to climate change such as the 2015 cyclone which wiped out an estimated 64 per cent of Vanuatu’s GDP.

A case of action against global polluters isn’t novel. Climate Change litigation has its precedence, with over 1300 cases having been filed across 28 countries, where various public and private entities have petitioned the Courts for environmental action or relief. The source of the litigation comes for various multilateral treaties, such as the Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment, Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and others treaties combating pollution.

For Vanuatu, one of the major obstacle, other than the likely opposition from powerful States, includes finding a suitable forum; identifying relevant substantive obligations and various challenges relating to attribution, causation and evidence before they are able to make successful climate litigation before an international body such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ), scholars have argued that a path for successful litigation exists through Article 36, paragraph 2 of the ICJ Statute, where by accepting compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJa case for prevention obligations under the lex special is of the UNFCCC, human rights law or customary international law.

Strategic Public Climate Litigation, an injunctive relief solution where the aim is to influence public policy or policy decisions primarily through the attainment of injunctive relief by asserting governmental failure to account for GHG emissions associated with public projects and cases of judicial review of public regulatory action (or inaction) on climate change, has already achieved some degree of success. An example would be the Australian Conservation Foundation et al. v. Minister for Planning where there were concerns with regards to GHG emissions of a new coal mine which lead a tribunal to determine the lasting significant environmental effects of the coal mine in the future would be against the objective of the act which is to “maintenance of ecological processes” and the “future interest of all Victorians.” Another example is that of the State of the Netherlands v. Urgenda Foundation, where an injunction was sought to compel the Dutch government to reduce GHG emissions, the supreme court of appeals, upheld this view and ordered the Dutch government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent by the end of 2020, compared with 1990 level.

The second option for Vanuatu is to cast a wide net of a variety of legal theories, such as domestic tort law against carbon majors similar to the petition brought before the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines, which investigate the responsibility of 47 investor-owned carbon majors for human rights violations due to climate change. For this approach, the initial challenge Vanuatu faces is the lack of a national human rights institution who can bring rights violations caused by climate change. However, the lack of a human rights institution can be mitigated by Vanuatu’s independent judicial system, as it is competent to address claims for damage caused by climate change by the polluters. The major hurdle Vanuatu faces is establishing the causation between the defendants’ conduct and its result, which is to say whether the action of the defendant lead to or contributed to the disaster, and secondly, the ability to certain specific damage sorted by Vanuatu on the other, especially in cases of non-economic loss and damage.

The recent surge in climate change litigation bodes well for Vanuatu, as the establishing precedence only strengthens their claim for damages. However, Vanuatu still faces major obstacles. Firstly, a lack of an international body to address the issue. Even if a case is brought before the ICJ, it can only be against a Member State. Thus, action against private entities cannot be brought before the ICJ. Secondly, identifying the rights violated and then assessing and assigning the damage liability to individuals, entities and governments. Thirdly, if Vanuatu pursues action in domestic courts, there are issues relating to the appearance of the party to the summons and the ability of Vanuatu to enforce the judgment. As the primary means of compliance for offenders in the international area are sanctions, Vanuatu without support from larger nations wouldn’t be able to handout sanctions to force compliance. There are many problems that Vanuatu faces but they cannot sit still now, and it is time to act and make the polluters liable.

* Shubham Sharma is a graduate from NALSAR University of Law. He has worked on several research projects relating to human rights, juvenile justice, and climate change.

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Five years on, the Paris Climate Accord needs political will more than ever

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December 12, 2020 marked five years since the signing of the historic Paris Climate Agreement, or the Paris Accord. A total of 196 countries agreed on a coordinated plan of action to tackle global heating at the 21st annual meeting of Conference of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held in Paris in 2015. It entered into force on 4 November 2016.

What is to be achieved by this Accord?

The Paris Accord is a ‘legally binding’ international treaty and a watershed moment in multilateral diplomacy, considering that a truly global response to the looming climate crisis was agreed upon for the first time bringing almost all nations together specifically for this cause.

The Paris Accord sets an ambitious long-term goal to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, preferably to 1.5, compared to pre-industrial levels, taking into account the rising levels of global heating that threatens lives and livelihoods by causing extreme weather events such as melting of icebergs, submerging of low-lying areas, frequent floods, bushfires, and cyclones in various parts of the globe.

Support for the needy countries

Although the climate issue is global in scale, some countries are more vulnerable than the other where the people fear loss of lives and livelihoods and in some cases even creating a new category of ‘climate refugees’, mostly developing and under-developed countries.

As per the UN Refugee Agency, year 2017 recorded about 18.8 million new disaster-related internal displacements, and among them many are climate-induced. All countries aren’t capable enough to deal with this looming threat. Therefore, the developed countries, particularly in the West, were stipulated by a framework to provide financial and technological assistance to countries that are mostly in need of it.

What all have changed in the past five years?

A lot of events have occurred in these five years since the signing of the agreement in 2015. In the fight against climate crisis, the actions of individual countries do matter as important as multilateralism alone and domestic politico-economic factors of these countries play a significant role in their national responses.

The world needs leaders who believe in climate science and cooperate with each other to build a collective response, particularly with regard to powerful and industrialized countries or power blocs such as the United States and the European Union.

The Trump challenge and the hope of a Biden presidency

The conduct of the US leadership under the outgoing US President Donald Trump was disappointing, given the tremendous influence and power it yields in the global stage.

Trump’s unilateral acts such as pulling the United States out of the Accord, just 18 months after signing it, was so unbecoming of a country of that stature.

Trump stated that it puts a huge financial burden on developed countries such as the US, the world’s second largest carbon emitter, and is favourable to the interests of other countries.

But, hope is still on as the US awaits a leadership transition next year, as President-elect Joe Biden promised to rejoin the Accord as soon as he assumes office.

Many countries reassured their commitments to the climate cause by setting deadlines for net carbon neutrality, meaning to strike a balance between emitting carbon and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.

How other countries responded

The UK became the first country in the world to declare a ‘climate emergency’ in 2019, followed by Ireland, Canada and France the same year. Many countries and subnational entities have followed the move in the later months and in this year, with New Zealand being the latest in the league. More countries are expected to follow soon enough.

Being the largest carbon emitter on the planet owing to its enormously large levels of domestic manufacturing activity, China is by far the largest emitter of greenhouse gases causing global heating and has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.

Japan, South Korea, and the European Union have also set deadlines for net zero emissions or carbon neutrality.

Meanwhile, theper capita emissions of another key nation, India, were 60% lower than the global average. But, emissions grew slightly in 2019, but still much lower than it’s per annum average over the last decade.

At the recently concluded Climate Ambition Summit this month, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on world leaders to declare a state of ‘climate emergency’ in their respective nations.

Role of people and non-state actors

Apart from national governments and international organisations, more and more people and non-state actors are becoming aware of the climate crisis as each day passes, particularly with the rising popularity of movements such as ‘Global Climate Strike’ and ‘Fridays For Future’ led by activists such as Greta Thunberg who keeps on pushing for global action on the climate crisis. They are evolving a powerful force to persuade timely policy action.

The way ahead

The Paris Accord envisages a step-by-step ‘climate action’ based on a five-year cycle wherein greenhouse gas emissions are significantly reduced, thereby achieving a climate neutral world by 2050.

Accordingly, as the first step, countries that are parties to the Accord were directed to submit their national plans for climate action known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs) by this year.

The pandemic has caused disruptions, but most of the countries still remain wholeheartedly committed to what they’ve agreed five years back. But, the developed countries should not shy away from supporting low-income countries to achieve their respective NDCs.

The Accord’s journey so far, therefore, throws light on the need to have a resolute and well-informed political will, both at domestic and multilateral levels, to realise the goals set for a co-ordinated climate action, rooted in science and mutual cooperation.

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