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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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Biodiversity ‘fundamental’ for global food systems, at “heart’ of development

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Because the production of everything we eat transforms the environment, the United Nations agriculture chief told a high-level UN meeting on biodiversity that careful discussions are needed to decide on the scale of acceptable transformations. 

Qu Dongyu, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), told negotiators on Monday that as agriculture and food systems are “at the heart of the concept of sustainable development”, they are central to deliberations regarding the Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework, which is expected to be adopted at the UN Biodiversity Conference in October. 

“Biodiversity is fundamental for ecosystems, for human beings, and is the basis of food diversity,” said Mr. Qu, opening the second meeting of the Open-ended Working Group established by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which FAO is hosting. 

He spoke about the enormous challenge of feeding more than nine billion people in 2050 – in ways that assure healthy diets while not overexploiting natural resources. 

“I know that the world is eagerly waiting out there for demonstrable progress towards a clear, actionable and transformative global framework on biodiversity,” said the Acting Executive Secretary of the CBD, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema. 

The FAO chief signaled his hope for a “robust” outcome at the UN Biodiversity Conference that will be held in Kunming, China. The framework decided there will set the course for the next 10 years and beyond. 

Leading the call 

Mr. Qu noted that FAO has shepherded “many milestones” of UN efforts to achieve biodiversity conservation. 

He highlighted the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture as well as knowledge products, such as last year’s The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture

He also pointed out that FAO provides keystone functional services, such as data collection and dissemination, standard-setting, policy consultation and capacity building – all useful in protecting biological diversity. 

The FAO Director-General concluded by urging the delegations to ensure that biodiversity is an integral part of the issues discussed at the 2021 World Food Systems Summit, which will be hosted by the UN Secretary General and aims to maximize the co-benefits of a food systems approach across the entire 2030 Agenda and meet the challenges of climate change. 

The CBD, which entered into force in December 1993 and currently has 196 Parties, aims to promote the conservation of biodiversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources. 

 This is a ‘super year’ for the environment – a make or break year in which key international meetings, including on the Ocean (Lisbon) and a proposed ‘Nature’ summit in New York this coming September, will set the tone and agenda for environmental action in the decade ahead. 

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Towards advancing green business and circular economy in Africa

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Policy makers and stakeholders across Africa are meeting to chart green economy opportunities in the agriculture sector under the lead of the Switch Africa Green programme. The forum – under the theme Advancing Green Business and Circular Economy in Africa – is organized by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and Uganda’s Ministry of Water and Environment.

A regional framework on advancing green business and circular economy is a pathway to the achievement of a green economy, ensuring replication and scaling-up of green business in Africa. It is against this backdrop that the meeting – taking place on 24 and 25 February in Kampala, Uganda – will discuss the avenues and approaches to implementing a circular economy and scaling the continent’s green businesses.

“The Switch Africa Green Programme already promotes circular approaches, including the promotion of biogas technology; E-waste management; promoting organic agriculture, green manufacturing and eco-industrial parks, and through standards and labelling in the hotel industry, among others,” said Frank Turyatunga, Deputy Director of UNEP’s Africa Office. “It is important that the lessons learnt and knowledge shared among countries result in regional harmonization of policies and ensure maximum impact and effective implementation at the national level.”

The forum brings officials from the SWITCH Africa Green partner countries of Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, South Africa and Uganda and other stakeholders involved in promoting an inclusive green economy such as policy makers, business associations, the private sector, financial institutions, regional economic communities, development organisations and civil society organisations.

“Tackling emerging environmental challenges may require seizing opportunities like an inclusive green economy that are core to sustainable development and have multiple benefits such as environmental protection, and notably create growth and jobs creation. Key enablers for the transition, include access to green financing, enabling policies and standards, awareness, networking and green businesses with innovative solutions,” said Dr. Tom Okurut, the Executive Director of Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority.

SWITCH Africa Green aims to turn environmental challenges into opportunities based on the understanding that an inclusive green economy is at the core of sustainable development and has multiple benefits next to environmental protection, notably growth and jobs creation, poverty reduction, economic diversification, and income generation. The programme focuses on key enablers for the transition, including access to green financing, enabling policies and standards, circular practices, awareness and skills on eco-entrepreneurship and innovative solutions. 

“The New European Consensus on Development – essentially the EU’s response to the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – seeks to accelerate transformation by placing an emphasis on cross-cutting elements of development policy such as sustainable energy and climate action, along with investment and trade, employment, gender equality, youth, good governance, democracy, rule of law and human rights, migration and mobility,” said Pavlos Evangelidis, head of cooperation, European Union Delegation in Uganda.

Launched in 2014, Switch Africa Green has been steering seven African countries towards sustainable consumption and productions patterns, while also generating economic growth. In the past four years, the programme has achieved widespread success by providing 3,000 Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) with training, pilot demonstrations and skills-development on sustainable consumption and production practices.

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Afghan youth are helping shape the country’s first national environmental policy

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Photo: UN Environment

Over 40 years of conflict and insecurity have taken their toll on Afghanistan in countless ways. Amongst the casualties, nature. For example, interminable conflict has increased deforestation across the country, exacerbating the risk of landslides, flooding and other disasters. Wildlife has also been punished by the continuous warfare, with rampant poaching and denuded habitats causing a significant degradation of biodiversity and ecosystem health in many parts of the country.

Over the course of time, the complexity of social and security challenges in Afghanistan has often pushed these environmental issues to the backburner.

And now, climate change is impeding the country’s ability to address social and security challenges. Impacts from a hotter planet are accelerating environmental problems that have long been neglected, leading to worsening water insecurity, land degradation and desertification.

Environmental issues have become impossible to ignore. That’s why the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has been supporting Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency to develop its first National Environmental Policy.

But just as Afghanistan’s environment has suffered from conflict, so too has its young population, with a significant population of its citizens under the age of 15.

For the youth of Afghanistan, development cannot ignore a healthy environment. As Mustafa Sarwar, a student at Kabul University, explained, “My dream for Afghanistan’s environment is to live in a city without waste, noise, water and air pollution.”

Bringing Afghanistan’s young people into the conversation has been an important part of the development of the National Environmental Policy. Late in 2019, UNEP facilitated several workshops with youth from Kabul, Kandahar, Balkh and Herat provinces to give them a voice in shaping the future of the country’s environmental policies. The project engaged 120 university students, putting an emphasis on gender representation.

Lisa Guppy, UNEP’s Regional Coordinator for Disasters and Conflicts in Asia and the Pacific, said, “Environmental challenges are becoming increasingly crucial to the overall development of Afghanistan. We have been humbled by the input we’ve received from young people in the development of the National Environmental Policy. There’s a great awareness that this policy can improve their well-being and the country’s success down the line.”

Participants in the workshops shared their perspectives on environmental priorities, risks and solutions, with many raising concerns that they are the ones who must face the reality of climate change in their lifetime.

Students from Balkh University expressed concerns regarding the increasing impact of climate change and population growth on the water supply. They noted that over the last few years extensive drought has been the most serious and impactful environmental change.

Students from Kabul University, meanwhile, emphasised the impact of air pollution. Due to the cost of energy, many residents of Kabul turn to burning plastic, cloths, rubber and other cheap alternatives. Air pollution has gotten so bad in Kabul recently that 17 died from hazardous air conditions in the last week of 2019 alone.

Participants were also asked questions around which concepts can best enable a National Environmental Policy given Afghanistan’s challenging context. This included determining practical ways to engage local stakeholders in the policymaking process and how they believe the environmental agenda could be raised as a higher priority. Participants across the board underlined that diversity in religion and traditions should be considered in developing environmental policy. Communities must also be central, they said.

In January 2020, the collected views were presented at the first inter-Ministerial National Environment Policy planning event, led by the National Environment Protection Agency of Afghanistan.

“As we move forward with developing an innovative, climate-smart National Environmental Policy for Afghanistan, the participation and views of these young people are indispensable,” said Guppy. “It’s their future. They must have a say in it.”

UN Environment

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