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

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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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Environment

New UN financing initiative goes live to power climate action

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A new UN-led financing tool to strengthen weather and climate forecasting, improve life-saving early warning systems, safeguard jobs, and underpin climate adaptation for long-term resilience, officially opened for business on Thursday.

The Systematic Observations Financing Facility (SOFF) is a key building block for a new initiative spearheaded by UN Secretary-General General António Guterres to ensure that early warning services cover everyone on Earth, within the next five years.

SOFF seeks to address the long-standing problem of inadequate weather forecasting and climate services, especially in Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS).

In support of the Paris Agreement on climate change, it will strengthen the international response to keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, “by filling the data gaps that limit our understanding of the climate”, according to a press release issued by the World Meteorological Organization, WMO.

These gaps affect national agencies’ ability to predict and adapt to extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and heatwaves, all of which are on the rise, in line with the warming climate.

Heads of the three founding agencies, WMO, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and UN Environment Programme (UNEP), joined ministers from donor countries, LDC Group members, Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) representatives and development partners, at the first SOFF Steering Committee meeting in Helsinki on Thursday to get the facility up and running.

Boost ‘the power of prediction’

“As the climate crisis worsens, it is crucial that we boost the power of prediction for everyone so countries can reduce disaster risk”, said the UN chief.

“That is why we have launched an initiative to ensure that every person on Earth is protected by early warning systems within the next five years. SOFF is an essential tool to achieve this.  I thank all the countries that are providing initial funding to the SOFF UN Multi-Partner Trust Fund and urge others to do the same”.

“Early warning systems are built on the foundation of weather observation data, but this foundation is patchy to non-existent in many in LDCs and African countries,” stated Selwin Hart, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Climate Action and Just Transition.

Join the club

“I want to congratulate all the countries that have come forward and announce or soon will announce their financial contributions to the SOFF UN Multi Partner Trust Fund. I urge others to follow suit and help create a strong global data foundation upon which timely, accurate, people centered early warning systems can be built for   everyone. Our collective efforts are needed more than ever.”

WMO Secretary-General, Petteri Taalas, pointed out that today, less than 10 per cent of required basic weather and climate forecasting systems are available from SIDS and LDCs.

“The world urgently needs this data and this is why SOFF will be a partnership of equals where everyone has a role and responsibilities.”      

SOFF provides benefits not only to the most vulnerable countries, but to all countries across the globe, said WMO. The improved availability of weather and climate observations enabled by the SOFF are essential if the world community is to realize the 162 billion US dollars annually in socio-economic benefits of weather and climate prediction.

Best science, best data

Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director, emphasized that “now is the time to begin business by providing financial resources and technical capacity, by ensuring that from local to the global, all our actions can be informed by the best science and the best data. My deep thanks to the generous funders who will announce their firm pledges today. I encourage all to follow suit because now is the time to roll up our sleeves and get to work for people and for planet.”

UN Under-Secretary General and UNDP Associate Administrator Usha Rao-Monari followed, adding that “The United Nations Development Program is a proud co-founder of the SOFF UN Multi-Partner Trust Fund. Together with WMO and UNEP we are building upon the momentum generated over the past two years and I want to sincerely thank all stakeholders that contributed to the development of the SOFF. The specialized support provided by SOF is needed more than ever.”

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Making carbon dioxide into protein for innovative animal feed

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by Tom Cassauwers

Having a big idea may not be enough to change the world – innovation is a commercial process as well as scientific inspiration. Turning research into marketable products is partly a business challenge.

It’s common knowledge that proteins, a key component of human nutrition, are also essential for making animal feeds. Less well known is the uncomfortable fact that much of the protein we feed animals in Europe leads to deforestation and overfishing worldwide.

Biotechnology start-up Deep Branch have designed a biochemical transformation process that turns carbon dioxide (CO2) into a protein-rich powder for animals to eat.

The Deep Branch process converts carbon dioxide into a powder, called Proton, which has around 70% protein content. This is much higher than natural soy, which has around 40%.

British-Dutch company Deep Branch is the brainchild of Peter Rowe, a PhD graduate in molecular biology of Nottingham University in the UK. For him, the idea to convert CO2 into protein just kept popping up. ‘We looked at the field and wondered “Why the hell isn’t anyone doing this?”’ said Rowe.

Fish meals

Raising livestock and fish farming requires foods with high protein densities. Around 80% of the world’s soy crop is used to raise beef and dairy, with demand for these products increasing with the growing population.

Aquaculture depends on fishmeal production, which is partly reliant on harvesting fish from the wild.

Soy agriculture drives deforestation, global warming and habitat loss while overfishing endangers ecosystems and affects the balance of life in the oceans. Overall, food production has a huge role to play in the climate and biodiversity crises.

There’s also the issue of food security. ‘Europe is almost completely reliant on South America for the protein we use to feed our animals,’ said Rowe. ‘There’s a high risk of extreme events, geopolitics or even weather, disrupting that.’

Proton powder

The carbon dioxide can come from many sources. In the pilot, Deep Branch used gas coming from a bioenergy plant that burns waste wood. ‘We culture these microbes in a bioreactor,’ said Rowe. ‘This is the same technology used to make enzymes in biotechnology, or even brew beer.’

The carbon dioxide is put into a fermentation tank as a gas, with hydrogen added to serve as an energy source. After the cellular process is complete, the protein is then dried into a powder to be used as an ingredient in a sustainable animal feed.

Real impact

It’s the type of idea that could make a circular, sustainable economy grow. Deep Branch emerged with Rowe’s biotech qualification. However, he wasn’t necessarily interested in a career in academics.

‘I never saw myself as a career academic, but a PhD is a good choice for a career in biotechnology,’ he said. On the other hand, ‘I like the idea that my research has real, short-term impacts in the world,’ he said.

According to Rowe, speculative research is always necessary, and universities are ideal places to pursue that. But bridging the gap from academia to the private sector presents its own challenges.

‘Some technologies would never have been invented in the private sector,’ said Rowe. ‘Sometimes you need fundamental scientific breakthroughs. But afterwards there needs to be a transition to the market.’

Risk takers

Universities will need to improve their policies around spin-off businesses for this process to work better, argues Rowe. As it stands, when technology is developed at an institution, universities and even individual academics take a share of the value in a spin-off company.

The problem is, sometimes this share becomes too high. When this happens it potentially impacts the further growth of the company by disincentivising private investment.  

‘The university or academic who gets the equity doesn’t get any risk,’ said Rowe. ‘The PhD-students or postdocs who founded the company take all the risk.’

By taking an equity stake that is too large, institutions could potentially affect the development of the business. ‘We need to ensure that young researchers can go out and take risks,’ said Rowe.

In the meantime, Deep Branch seems to be a good example of how the transition from academia to private industry can work well. With a growing team, the business is seeking further investment to develop their next facility.

‘We’re keeping busy’, said Rowe, smiling.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.  

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Sustainable blue economy vital for small countries and coastal populations

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The coastline of Alor Island in Indonesia. Ocean Image Bank/Erik Lukas

With the livelihoods of about 40 per cent of the world’s population living at or near a coast, the second day of the UN Ocean Conference under way in Lisbon focused on strengthening sustainable ocean-based economies, managing coastal ecosystems.

The world’s coastal populations contribute significantly to the global economy – an estimated $1.5 trillion per year – with expectations pointing to some $3 trillion by 2030.

Ensuring ocean ecosystem health, supporting livelihoods and driving economic growth requires targeted support for key sectors, including fisheries and aquaculture, tourism, energy, shipping and port activities, and seabed mining, as well as innovative areas such as renewable energy and marine biotechnology.

Marine resources ‘essential’

This is particularly important to small island developing states (SIDS), for whom marine resources are critical assets, providing them with food security, nutrition, employment, foreign exchange, and recreation.

Further, through evidence-based policy interventions, these assets can also make enhanced and sustained contributions to the economic growth, and prosperity of SIDS and least developed countries (LDCs).

Participating in the main interactive dialogue of the second-day of the Conference, former President of Seychelles, Danny Faure, explained to UN News that it is “extremely important that small States have a place at the table, to ensure that they can put forward their aspirations and move in the right direction”.

Acknowledging that climate change continues to affect his own country, and several SIDS, Mr. Faure called on the international community to continue to support countries like Seychelles.

“The blue economy is essential for the livelihoods of our people and nations. I see [investment] coming very slowly and I believe it is very important that, internationally, we continue to maintain the focus, so we can build partnerships between civil society and private sector,” he stated.

What does a truly sustainable blue economy mean?

Despite of the lack of a universally accepted definition of the term blue economy, the World Bank defines it as “the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of the ocean ecosystem.

A blue economy prioritizes all three pillars of sustainability: environmental, economic, and social. When talking about sustainable development, it is important to understand the difference between a blue economy and an ocean economy. The term implies that the initiative is environmentally sustainable, inclusive and climate resilient.

In addition to providing goods and services measurable in monetary terms, coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass meadows and wetlands deliver critical ecosystem services such as coastal protection and carbon sequestration.

Action now

Small island developing states control 30 per cent of all oceans and seas. But how can SIDS and the private sector build equitable and accountable partnerships for sustainable ocean?

Calling for the implementation of the promises set out in the SIDS Accelerated Modalities of Action, known by the shorthand SAMOA Pathway and the ambitions of Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG14), on conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, experts on the second day of the Conference reiterated the importance of harnessing private sector collaboration to make it possible.

Impacts of climate change

Speaking to UN News, the Secretary to Government of Tuvalu, Tapugao Falefou, said that his country was “not just beginning to understand what climate change is and how impacts [the world] but also physically understanding how it impacts [us].”

Describing major coastal erosion, drought and inland inundated by seawater, Mr. Falefou said “that didn’t happen 20 years back. These are the impacts of climate change that I can attest to, that larger countries may not experience.”

The path of multilateralism

With millions employed worldwide in fishing and fish farming, most in developing countries, healthy and resilient marine and coastal ecosystems are fundamental to sustainable development.

Other sectors that are critical to the resilience of developing countries include the coastal tourism sector, which contributes up to 40 per cent or more of the global gross domestic product (GDP) in some SIDS, and the marine fisheries sector, which provides nearly 20 per cent of the average intake of animal protein consumed by 3.2 billion people, and more than 50 per cent of the average intake in some least developed countries.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, World Trade Organization (WTO) Director-General, added that without multilateralism, no one can solve the problem of the Ocean.

“SIDS have the potential to be large ocean economies (…) if we do so sustainably, we can unlock development prospects”, she added, emphasizing the blue economy path.

Women and the ocean

Focusing on the interlinkage between the SDG14 and SDG 5 (gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls) a panel of experts advocated for increasing women’s participation and leadership at all levels.

With women critically under-represented in the field of ocean actions, particularly in decision-making roles in ocean science, policy-making, and blue economy, the panel called for more action and a radical change in society.

“We have an enormous responsibility to do whatever we can to ensure the sustainability of our planet, and an event like this [Conference] is probably one of the most important in terms of the future of life,” said Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, President of the World Maritime University, based in Sweden.

Reiterating the importance of looking into women’s working conditions and pay-gap in fisheries, Ms. Doumbia-Henry added: “We need to focus on some of these questions, and what I am tired of is the lip service, we need to make the changes, and implement, to take it forward.”

Mainstream women’s participation

For Maria Damanaki, founder of Leading Women for the Ocean, concrete action plan is needed, along with legislation.

“We need to see women as part of the blue economy, we need to see them everywhere, to mainstream their participation, because without their leadership, humanity as a whole is going to lose a lot,” Ms. Damanaki said.

With the expected participation of over 12 thousand ocean advocates, including world leaders, entrepreneurs, youth, influencers, and scientists, the Conference will continue to ignite fresh impetus for advancing SDG14, at the heart of global action to protect life under water. Concrete measures will be adopted to build ocean resilience and more sustainable communities, underpinned by a new wave of commitments to restore the ocean’s health.

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