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Rooting for the environment in times of conflict and war

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Eighteen years ago, on 5 November 2001, the United Nations General Assembly declared 6 November the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict.

Despite the protection afforded by several legal instruments, the environment continues to be the silent victim of armed conflicts worldwide.

Public concern regarding the targeting and use of the environment during wartime first peaked during the Viet Nam War. The use of the toxic herbicide Agent Orange, and the resulting massive deforestation and chemical contamination it caused, sparked an international outcry leading to the creation of two new international legal instruments.

The Environmental Modification Convention was adopted in 1976 to prohibit the use of environmental modification techniques as a means of warfare. Protocol I, an amendment to the Geneva Conventions adopted in the following year, included two articles (35 and 55) prohibiting warfare that may cause “widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment”.

The adequacy of these two instruments, however, was called into question during the 1990–1991 Gulf War. The extensive pollution caused by the intentional destruction of over 600 oil wells in Kuwait by the retreating Iraqi army and the subsequent claims for US$85 billion in environmental damages led to further calls to strengthen legal protection of the environment during armed conflict.

And there have been other instances in which armed conflicts have continued to cause significant damage to the environment—directly, indirectly and as a result of a lack of governance and institutional collapse. For instance, dozens of industrial sites were bombed during the Kosovo conflict in 1999, leading to toxic chemical contamination at several hotspots, namely in Pančevo, Kragujevac, Novi Sad and Bor and raised alarm over potential pollution of the Danube River. In another example, an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 tonnes of fuel oil were released into the Mediterranean Sea following the bombing of the Jiyeh power station during the conflict between Israel and Lebanon in 2006.

More recently, armed conflict in Iraq which began in June 2014, and ended with the capture of the last ISIL-held areas and retreat of ISIS militants in 2017, left a deep environmental footprint in its wake. As the militants retreated, they set fire to oil wells triggering the release into the air of toxic mix of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, particulate matter and metals such as nickel, vanadium and lead.

However, despite these challenges, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has been working with various Member States and other partners to strengthen the protection of the environment before, during and after armed conflict.

“From early 2018, the Iraqi government and UNEP partnered to build a cross-ministry team capable of tackling pollution from the conflict. The initiative is also meant to strengthen the government’s capacity in responding to future environmental emergencies that may result from attacks against critical installations, particularly Iraq’s booming oil sector,” says Hassan Partow, UNEP’s Iraq Country Programme Manager.

In September 2019, UNEP in collaboration with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq organized a workshop on remediation of oil spills, and is assisting the Ministries of Oil and Environment trial cost-effective biological clean-up techniques.

Iraq is also among seven countries selected to participate in UNEP’s Special Programme, an initiative designed to help states meet their chemicals and waste management obligations under the Basel, Rotterdam, Minamata and Stockholm conventions and the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management. These countries will receive technical know-how and assistance with drafting hazardous waste management legislation. 

Recently, on 8 July 2019 the International Law Commission adopted 28 draft legal principles on first reading to enhance protection of the environment in conflict and war situations. The International Committee of the Red Cross is also set to release a revised version of the Guidelines for Military Manuals and Instructions on the Protection of the Environment in Times of Armed Conflict.

“Protecting the environment before, during and after armed conflict must rise to the same level of political importance as protecting human rights. A healthy environment is the foundation upon which ​peace and many human rights are realized,” says David Jensen, UNEP’s Head of Environmental Peacebuilding.

Since 1999, UNEP has conducted over twenty-five post-conflict assessments using state-of-the-art science to determine the environmental impacts of war. From Kosovo to Afghanistan, Sudan and the Gaza Strip, the organization has established that armed conflict causes significant harm to the environment and the communities that depend on natural resources. Increasingly, UNEP hopes to leverage big data, frontier technology and citizen science to improve the systematic monitoring and detection of environmental damage and risks caused by armed conflicts in order to improve the protection of human health, livelihoods and security. Building a digital ecosystem for the planet to map, monitor and mitigate environment, peace and security risks is one of the next priority investments.

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Environment

Kenyan students learn about environmental law

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photo: UN Environment

In our globalized world, environmental threats require effective responses that promote peace, justice, development and the fulfilment of environmental and human rights. This is the responsibility of everyone; and we all have the right to be involved. We are all the leadership that the planet needs.

That’s what a group of Kenyan students were told in October 2019 when they participated in a lecture at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) on international environmental law.

UNEP promotes a shared sense of environmental governance by building the capacity of those who affect the rules, policies and institutions that shape how humans interact with the environment.

UNEP experts spoke to students on basic governance and enforcement of international environmental law. International environmental law can involve many countries, as it does with the Paris Agreement, or a few countries, such as a regional environmental treaty. Sources of international environmental law can cover varied goals, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, or be specific to a certain issue, such as the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels. We need international environmental law because many environmental problems are transboundary, regional or global in scope, and solutions require international cooperation and the adoption of common standards.

The students and UNEP experts deliberated over the weaknesses and strengths of international environmental laws and discussed how students could get more involved in tackling the issues. Students described the lecture as very useful and said that they were challenged to think of new and different aspects of environmental law.

Topics discussed included the divergent responsibilities of various groups regarding environmental governance and biotechnology, the principle of common but differentiated responsibility, and plastic pollution and lessons from the plastic ban in Kenya.

To ensure that this learning continues outside the lecture theatre, the UNEP team shared learning resources with the students.

James Nyaro, a lecturer at the Kenyatta University, said on behalf of the institution: “You let us ask you questions… and responded to them comprehensively… and we cannot thank you enough.”

What should I know about international environmental law?

When states work together to create and implement international environmental law, great things can be achieved. The ozone layer is currently on track to heal completely in our lifetime and this will save two million people each year by 2030 from skin cancer. This success is due to international environmental law through the Montreal Protocol: an environmental treaty.

As everyone has the right to be involved in environmental management, we should all have a basic understanding of the laws that govern us. Countries are individually responsible for deciding and applying international environmental laws, yet the average citizen can be far removed from the processes involved in their development and implementation. As citizens, we should influence the progression and enforcement of international environmental law to ensure that it effectively tackles the issues we face. UNEP encourages everyone to learn what international environmental laws apply to their states through InforMEA. Knowledge is the first step towards creating environmental laws that work for us.

On 23 October 2019, postgraduate students from the School of Security, Diplomacy and Peace Studies at Kenyatta University were introduced to international environmental law by UNEP experts.

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Climate change: Scientists warn over impact on food security and oceans

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UN climate scientists presented MEPs with new evidence on how climate change is affecting food production and oceans.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change. In August, it presented a report on climate change and land and in September one on the oceans and cryosphere in a changing climate. The reports are the latest scientific input for the UN climate summit COP25 to be held in Madrid in December.

The scientists behind the reports presented their findings to Parliament’s environment, development and fisheries committees on Wednesday 6 November.

Food production and climate change a two-way street

Professor Jim Skea told MEPs climate change was exacerbating land degradation, such as erosion and pollution, which in turn affects infrastructure and people’s livelihoods. Better land management can help tackle climate change but it must be complemented by other action, he added.

Dr Jean-François Soussana noted that the food system accounts for between a fifth and a third of all greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans. At the same time, climate change affects food security through declining crops of wheat and maize. He warned that in future the stability of our food supply would decrease further as the magnitude and frequency of extreme weather events increases.

Melting ice, rising seas

According to scientists, the rise in sea level is accelerating, mainly due to the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets melting faster.

Professor Hans-Otto Pörtner warned that in a business as usual scenario the sea level is estimated to rise about five metres by 2300. In addition, in warming oceans marine life has access to less oxygen and nutrients, putting food security at risk for communities dependent on seafood.

Pörtner added: “To minimise the severity of the impact of climate change, every bit of warming matters, each year matters, each choice matters, and most importantly, political and societal will matters.”

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Trade and Development Bank, UNEP to collaborate on climate finance

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In a pledge to continue stepping-up its commitment to climate change mitigation and adaptation action, the Eastern and Southern African Trade and Development Bank (TDB) signed a Memorandum of Understanding today with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

The MOU effectively establishes a framework of cooperation through which the two institutions can collaborate in a number of areas critical to the global environmental agenda.

In the field of clean energy finance, TDB and UNEP will work to enhance investment opportunities for both public and private finance to support the dissemination of clean energy technologies. This will include supporting the early stage development and project finance of renewable energy projects, as well as the development of financing mechanisms to allow access to smaller-scale sustainable energy and energy-efficient appliances for household and productive use.

Additionally, the two institutions will cooperate on supporting eligible TDB Member States to access Green Climate Fund resources to enable them to adapt to the changing climate and develop along a low-emission pathway.

“As a member of the International Development Finance Club, a leading global group of development financiers advancing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and climate finance, TDB works closely with its partners to implement the 2030 SDG Agenda as well as the Paris Climate Agreement. With global partners such as UNEP, we expect to more seriously realize the international commitment to support Africa to grow and develop sustainably,” said Admassu Tadesse, TDB President and Chief Executive.

Michael Awori, TDB Chief Operating Officer, added that “our commitment is evidenced by the fact that 70% of our power sector portfolio is in renewable energy. With this track record, we are the right partner with whom to co-finance and support more sustainable growth and development projects across various sectors.”

“While Eastern and Southern African economic growth continues to be strong, there is great potential to harness clean energy in the region. UNEP and TDB are partnering to support wide dissemination of clean energy technologies and unlock the financial resources needed to meet the challenges of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” said Joyce Msuya, Deputy Executive Director of UNEP.

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