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Who turned up the temperature? Climate change, heatwaves and wildfires

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The cautionary tale of the boiling frog describes how a frog that jumps into boiling water will save itself by jumping straight out, but the frog that sits in the water while it gradually gets hotter and hotter will boil to death. The global warming crisis surrounds us today and we must act now to protect ourselves.

On 15 January 2020, the World Meteorological Organization confirmed that 2019 was the second hottest year on record after 2016, according to the organization’s consolidated analysis of leading international datasets.

Average temperatures for the five-year (2015–2019) and ten-year (2010–2019) periods were the highest on record. Since the 1980s, every decade has been warmer than the previous one. This trend is expected to continue because of record levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that has caused our climate to change.

Averaged across the five data sets used in the consolidated analysis, the annual global temperature in 2019 was 1.1°C warmer than the average for 1850–1900, used to represent pre-industrial conditions. 2016 remains the warmest year on record because of the combination of a very strong El Niño event, which has a warming impact, and long-term climate change.

“The average global temperature has risen by about 1.1°C since the pre-industrial era and ocean heat content is at a record level,” said World Meteorological Organization’s Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.

Across 2019, Europe sweltered in its hottest-ever July since records began, causing multiple deaths, closed offices and disruptions to flights and vital services. Wildfires also broke out in the Arctic, with smoke-filled air swirling across a larger-than-ever area of Arctic wilderness.

The heat didn’t let up as the seasons changed across the hemispheres, and Australia’s hottest, driest year on record created dangerously flammable conditions, across wider areas and earlier in the wildfire season, with devastating consequences. Australia’s 2019–2020 bushfire season is already the worst on record, burning 18.3 million hectares by mid-January, causing loss of life, homes, livelihood and the reported death of a billion animals. There are still ten weeks to go before the end of the bushfire season.

“The reality is that this is the world we live in with 1.1°C of warming,” says Niklas Hagelberg, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) climate change expert. “These record temperatures, record heatwaves and record droughts are not anomalies but the wider trend of a changing climate. We can only expect worsening impacts as global temperatures rise further.”

As fires continue to smolder across the remains of Australia’s devasted communities, and threaten yet more new ones today, and as Australia, a well-resourced country used to seasonal bushfires, continues to receive international support to face the challenges of the weeks of the remaining bushfire season, it appears that we are woefully underprepared to face our future reality.

UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report 2019 reported that on the current path of carbon dioxide emissions, if we rely only on the current climate commitments of the Paris Agreement, and they are fully implemented, there is a 66 per cent chance that warming will rise to 3.2°C by the end of the century.

“Governments, companies, industry and the public in G20 countries, who are responsible for 78 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, must set targets and timelines for decarbonization,” says Hagelberg. “We must embrace the potential and opportunities of a world powered by renewable energy, efficiency technologies, smart food systems and zero-emission mobility and buildings.”

2020 is the year that governments will meet to take stock of and increase the ambition of their commitments to climate action. It is the year that global emissions must drop by 7.6 per cent and by 7.6 per cent again every subsequent year until 2030 in order to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C.

Before extreme weather events push more communities and ecosystems beyond their ability to cope, in 2020, as a global community we have the means and opportunity to prevent our planet from boiling but need to act now cannot be ignored.

UN Environment

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How food waste is trashing the planet

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18 June is Sustainable Gastronomy Day, an international celebration of local cuisine that is produced in ways that are both environmentally friendly and minimize waste. That last part is becoming increasingly important. A recent report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found the world is in the grip of an epidemic of food wastage. In 2019, consumers tossed away nearly a billion tonnes of food, or 17 per cent of all the fare they bought.

That is deeply problematic in a world where 690 million people were undernourished in 2019, a number expected to rise sharply with COVID-19. It’s also bad for the planet. Some 10 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions come from producing food that is ultimately thrown away.

UNEP recently sat down with two of the authors of the 2021 Food Waste Index Report: Clementine O’Connor, food systems expert with UNEP, and Tom Quested, an analyst with the non-profit organization WRAP. They talked about what the world can do to end the scourge of food waste.

UNEP: What are the main findings of the 2021 Food Waste Index Report?

Tom Quested: A staggering 17 per cent of all available food for human consumption is wasted. If you can picture 23 million fully-loaded 40-tonne trucks – bumper-to-bumper, enough to circle the Earth seven times – then that’s what we’re talking about. The report estimates that, in 2019, 61 per cent of food waste was generated by households, 26 per cent from food service and 13 per cent from retail.

UNEP: Why does food waste matter?

Clementine O’Connor: Even before COVID-19, some 690 million people in the world were undernourished. Three billion people are unable to afford a healthy diet. Uneaten food is a sheer waste of energy and resources that could be put to better use. Reducing food waste at the retail, food service and household levels can provide multi-faceted benefits for people and the planet. Up to now, the opportunities provided by food waste reductions have remained largely untapped and under-exploited.

UNEP: Is this a rich-world problem, or is it more widespread?

O’Connor: An important finding of the study is that household per capita food waste is broadly similar across country income groups (as defined by the World Bank), suggesting that action on food waste is equally relevant in high and middle-income countries. This breaks significantly with the narrative of the previous decade that household food waste is a rich country problem – and underlines the need for middle-income countries to measure baselines and develop national food waste prevention strategies. Providing technical support to help countries get started, UNEP is now launching Regional Food Waste Working Groups in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, West Asia, and Asia-Pacific.

UNEP: What are the key data gaps?

Quested: Most governments around the world have not collected sufficiently robust data to make the case for action. Even fewer have the data to track trends in food waste over time. However, there have been a growing number of national estimates of food waste in recent years. Areas with higher data coverage include Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. In contrast, North Africa, Central Asia, Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia and the Caribbean have no available estimates.  Data in the retail and food service sectors is also much more limited than for households. As measurement is an important early step to taking action on this important issue, much more measurement is needed.

UNEP: What’s the difference between food waste and food loss?

O’Connor: Food loss occurs along the food supply chain from harvest up to, but not including, the retail level. Food waste occurs at the retail, food service and consumption levels.

UNEP: How does food waste undermine sustainable development?

Quested: Food waste generates all the environmental impacts of food production (intensive use and pollution of land and water resources, exacerbation of biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions) without any of the benefits of feeding people. Food waste, therefore, undermines sustainable development. Sustainable Development Goal 12, Target 12.3, aims at halving per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reducing food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses by 2030.

UNEP: Why should I reduce my food waste? How can I get started?

O’Connor: Reducing food waste at home is one of the easiest ways to reduce your personal climate impact. You eat – and make food decisions – at least three times a day. Some easy ways to get started:

Buy only as much as you need: check your fridge before you buy groceries (or add to your online shopping cart as you notice something is missing) to avoid impulse purchases. If you can, buy fresh food regularly and top-up when needed, rather than trying to get accurate quantities in one bulk shop.

Use what you buy: get portion sizes right by using a cup measure for rice, couscous or pasta. Cook creatively with leftovers: many recipes are flexible enough to absorb any wilting vegetables at the bottom of your fridge. Most leftovers will go into a taco, a sandwich, a curry, a frittata or a pasta sauce, and will be transformed with a sauce or relish. Chefs are increasingly keeping food waste prevention in mind when they share new recipes. Make good use of your freezer: food can be frozen until its expiry date or if it still looks tasty, if it doesn’t have a date. When you get back into a restaurant, you’re on the right side of history when you ask for a smaller portion or a doggy bag, so don’t hesitate to do so.

How will you be tracking progress?

O’Connor: Food waste data in relation to SDG 12.3 will be collected using the United Nations Statistics Division/UNEP Questionnaire on Environment Statistics. The questionnaire is sent out every two years to National Statistical Offices and Ministries of Environment, which will nominate a single food waste focal point in the country to coordinate data collection and reporting. The data will be made publicly available in the SDG Global Database and in UNEP’s Food Waste Index Report, which will be published at regular intervals up to 2030. The next questionnaire will be sent to Member States in September 2022, and results will be reported to the SDG Global Database by February 2023.

UN Environment

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A beginner’s guide to sustainable farming

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Industrialized farming has been a reliable way to produce lots of food at a relatively low cost. But it’s not the bargain it was once believed to be. Unsustainable agriculture can pollute water, air and soil; is a source of greenhouse gases, and destroys wildlife. All told that costs economies about $3 trillion every year. And to top it all off, some farming practices have been linked to the emergence of zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19.

18 June is Sustainable Gastronomy Day, which celebrates local cuisine that is produced in ways that are both environmentally friendly and minimize waste. To mark the occasion, we take a closer look at how to make agriculture more sustainable and what that would mean for the economy, the environment and human health.

What exactly is sustainable agriculture?

It is farming that meets the needs of existing and future generations, while also ensuring profitability, environmental health and social and economic equity. It favours techniques that emulate nature–to preserve soil fertility, prevent water pollution and protect biodiversity. It is also a way to support the achievement of global objectives, like the Sustainable Development Goals and Zero Hunger.

Does sustainable agriculture really make a difference to the environment?

Yes. It uses up to 56 per cent less energy per unit of crops produced, creates 64 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions per hectare and supports greater levels of biodiversity than conventional farming.

Why does sustainably produced food seem more expensive?

It may be more costly because it is more labour-intensive. It is often certified in a way that requires it to be separated from conventional foods during processing and transport. The costs associated with marketing and distribution of relatively small volumes of product are often comparatively high. And, sometimes, the supply of certain sustainably produced foods is limited.

Why are some foods so much more affordable–even when they require processing and packaging?

The heavy use of chemicals, medicines and genetic modification allows some foods to be produced cheaply and in reliably high volumes, so the retail price tag may be lower. But this is deceiving because it does not reflect the costs of environmental damage or the price of healthcare that is required to treat diet-related diseases. Ultra-processed foods are often high in energy and low in nutrients and may contribute to the development of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some forms of cancer. This is particularly concerning amid the COVID-19 pandemic; the disease is especially risky for those with pre-existing health problems.

Do we all have to be vegan?

No. But most of us should eat less animal protein. Livestock production is a major cause of climate change and in most parts of the world, people already consume more animal-sourced food than is healthy. But even small dietary shifts can have a positive impact. The average person consumes 100 grams of meat daily. Reducing that by 10 grams could improve human health while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

Is sustainable agriculture possible in developing countries?

Yes. Because sustainably produced food is typically more labour-intensive than conventionally made food, it has the potential to create 30 per cent more jobs. And because it can command higher prices, it can also generate more money for farmers.

Is it possible to make sustainably produced food that is affordable for everyone?

Yes. As demand for certain foods increases, the costs associated with production, processing, distribution and marketing will drop, which should make them less expensive for consumers.  Policymakers can also play a role, facilitating market access and leveling the financial and regulatory playing field.

If it is so important, why hasn’t sustainable farming been adopted as a global standard?

There is a lack of understanding of the way that agriculture, the environment and human health intersect. Policymakers do not typically consider nature as a form of capital, so legislation is not designed to prevent pollution and other kinds of environmental degradation. And consumers may not realize how their dietary choices affect the environment or even their own health. In the absence of either legal obligations or consumer demand, there is little incentive for producers to change their approach.

What are some ways to consume food more sustainably?

Diversify your diet and cook more meals at home. Eat more plant-based foods; enjoy pulses, peas, beans and chickpeas as sources of protein. Eat local, seasonal foods. Purchase sustainably produced foods and learn more about farming practices and labeling. Avoid excessive packaging, which is likely to end up as landfill. Don’t waste food: eliminating food waste could reduce global carbon emissions by 8-10 per cent. Cultivate your own garden, even if it is a small one in your kitchen. Support organizations, policies and projects that promote sustainable food systems. And discuss the importance of healthy and sustainable foods with producers, vendors, policymakers, friends and family.

UN Environment

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Environment

CEOs to G7 and World Leaders: Support “Bold” Net-Zero Commitments

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Over 70 CEOs said they stand ready to work with public sector leaders around the world to reduce emissions. Members of the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders signed an Open Letter championing public-private cooperation ahead of the G7 summit in order to supercharge net-zero commitments, polices and actions.

The signatories are looking for governments to accelerate the transition to net-zero before COP26 in order to accelerate even more action from the private sector. The letter emphasizes public-private collaboration as vital and welcomes transformative policy change.

“It is an important and significant move for this many CEOs to put their names forward for deeper collective collaboration,” said Dominic Waughray, Managing Director, World Economic Forum. “It sends a clear signal to policy-makers that many global business leaders are ready to make the transition to a net-zero future. As we move towards COP26, public-private collaboration will be key to unlocking investment, setting more ambitious targets to reduce emissions, and turning this ambition into action.”

The Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders is the only CEO-led community open to all companies worldwide that want to make clear commitments and work to transition to net-zero. Members believe the private sector has a responsibility to actively engage in global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to help lead the global transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. The World Economic Forum hosts the alliance.

The full text of the Open Letter and the list of signatories can be found here on the here on the Forum’s Agenda news site.

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