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“Earth School” launches to keep students connected to nature in the time of COVID-19

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In response to the COVID-19 crisis, an unprecedented coalition has come together to launch “Earth School,” which provides free, high-quality educational content to help students, parents and teachers around the world who are currently at home. Initiated by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and TED-Ed, Earth School takes students on a 30-day “Adventure” through the natural world.

The curated Earth School content features videos, reading materials and activities — which will be translated into 10 languages — to help students gain an understanding of the environment while considering their role within it. This is the biggest online learning initiative in UNEP’s history and is available for free on TED-Ed’s website.

According to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), more than 1.5 billion learners are affected by COVID-19 school closures. The pandemic has caused a health, economic, and education crisis; in the age of physical and social constraints, there is a strong need for global science literacy.

That is why UNEP and TED-Ed — in coordination with 30 collaborators, including National Geographic, WWF and UNESCO — came together to launch Earth School in just over two weeks. Built for children and youth ages 5-18, it spans 30 school days that run between Earth Day and World Environment Day on June 5, which this year will take place under the banner of Time for Nature.

TED-Ed creates free, video-based lessons on everything from animals and climate change to underwater farms. It is the educational arm of TED, whose library of thousands of interactive lessons — built by a network of 500,000 educators from across the world — spans all ages and subjects.

Each Adventure has been carefully selected by a panel of expert practitioners and caters to different age groups. Each consists of a hands-on experiment and nature discovery. In addition to TED-Ed’s own content, Earth School will feature videos from notable media organizations including National Geographic, PBS LearningMedia and the BBC with the goal of empowering participating students to be caretakers of our planet.

“Billions of children are currently out of school because of COVID-19. But learning cannot stop. COVID-19 has revealed how deeply interconnected all life on this planet is,” said UNEP’s Executive Director, Inger Andersen. “I am delighted that UNEP, along with TED-Ed and other collaborators, are launching Earth School. Learning about the natural world will be critical to building a better and sustainable future for all.”

“These unprecedented times highlight just how important it is for young people to connect with the natural world and understand science,” said Vicki Phillips, executive vice president and chief education officer at the National Geographic Society. “We’re thrilled to join forces with trusted organizations like UNEP and TED-Ed to cultivate a spirit of exploration and build empathy for the Earth, no matter where students are the world — even if it’s from inside their homes, from a window, or on a short walk in the neighborhood.”

“Despite being confined to their homes, this project shows that students, parents and teachers throughout the world can still engage in science-based learning and adventures together. Earth School is a collaboration between so many talented educators and incredible partners from around the world, which is why we’re proud and thrilled to see the initiative feeding the global curiosity of home-bound students, all of whom are the future environmental stewards of our planet. This platform is a gateway to some of the most inspiring lessons on nature and the environment, and each lesson comes with practical and fun activities that students can engage with and share,” said Logan Smalley, founding director of TED’s youth and education initiative, TED-Ed.

The lessons were curated by a team of environmental education experts including Kathleen Usher Ph.D, Jessie Oliver and Juliane Voss, who worked with over 100 contributors in creating Earth School. The initiative is in support of SDG 4.7 and the Decade of Delivery and will contribute towards the Global Education Coalition launched by UNESCO last month to convene governments, technology partners and leaders in the education field to keep pupils learning. As part of this coalition, UNEP will be exploring how this content can be adapted and shared with children who aren’t able to access the Internet.

Collaborators who have agreed to support this initiative include: BBC Ideas, Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Conservation International, CEE, Earth Day Network, Earth Challenge 2020, Environment Online (ENO), GeSI, International Olympic Committee, IUCN, Institute for Planetary Security, Junior Achievement, Learning in Nature, Littlescribe, Minecraft, National Geographic Society, Ocean Wise, Only One, Royal Geographic Society, SciStarter, Sitra, TAT, TED-Ed, The Nature Conservancy, UN Convention on Biodiversity, UN SDSN / TRENDS, UN Technology Innovation Lab, UNCCD, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, UNFCCC, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, University of Pennsylvania, Vult Labs, World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS), World Organization of the Scout Movement (WOSM), Wild Immersion and WWF.

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2020, one of three warmest years on record

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The COVID-19 pandemic was not the only long-term crisis the world will remember from 2020. In terms of climate change, the year was also one of the three warmest on record, and rivalled 2016 for the top spot, the UN weather agency said on Wednesday. 

“The confirmation by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) that 2020 was one of the warmest years on record is yet another stark reminder of the relentless pace of climate change, which is destroying lives and livelihoods across our planet”, said Secretary-General António Guterres

He pointed out that at 1.2 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels, the world is already witnessing unprecedented weather extremes in every region and on every continent.  

“We are headed for a catastrophic temperature rise of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius this century”, he warned. “Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top priority for everyone, everywhere.”  

Powerful force 

La Niña, which began in late last year, is expected to continue into the early-middle part of 2021.   

“The exceptional heat of 2020 is despite a La Niña event, which has a temporary cooling effect”, said WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas.  

La Niña and El Niño effects on average global temperatures are typically strongest in the second year of the event. 

“It is remarkable that temperatures in 2020 were virtually on a par with 2016, when we saw one of the strongest El Niño warming events on record”, he added. “This is a clear indication that the global signal from human-induced climate change is now as powerful as the force of nature”.  

The extent to which the continued cooling effects of La Niña this year may temporarily diminish the overall long-term warming trend remains to be seen.  

Following atypical patterns  

WMO pointed to sustained heat and wildfires in Siberia, diminishing Arctic sea ice and record-breaking hurricanes in the Atlantic as being among the climate events that most stood out in 2020.  

The UN weather agency also reminded that temperature is just one climate change indicator. Greenhouse gas concentrations, ocean heat content, global mean sea level, sea ice extent and extreme events are also factors. 

Backed by science 

WMO’s consolidated global temperature update incorporates information from five leading international sets of data.  

It also uses datasets that combine millions of meteorological and marine observations, including from satellites, with models to produce a complete reanalysis of the atmosphere.  

“The combination of observations with models makes it possible to estimate temperatures at any time and in any place across the globe, even in data-sparse areas such as the polar regions”, according to WMO.  

Looking to the future  

The Paris Agreement aims to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C degrees, compared to pre-industrial levels. 

However, the global average temperature in 2020 had already approached the lower limit of the temperature increase that the Agreement seeks to avert.  

Moreover, there is at least a one-in-five chance that the average global temperature will temporarily exceed 1.5 °C by 2024, according to WMO’s Global Annual to Decadal Climate Update, led by the United Kingdom’s Met Office. 

The 2021 Met Office annual global temperature forecast also suggests that next year will again be one of the earth’s hottest years.  

Updating its provisional December report, WMO will issue its final publication in March, which will incorporate temperature figures, information on all leading climate indicators and selected climate impacts. 

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Step up action and adapt to ‘new climate reality’-Report

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Though countries have made progress in planning for climate change adaptation, there are significant financing shortfalls in getting them to the stage where they provide real protection against droughts, floods and rising sea levels, a new UN environment report has found. 

According to the 2020 Adaptation Gap Report, released on Thursday by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), as temperatures rise and climate change impacts intensify, nations must urgently step up action to adapt to the new climate reality or face serious costs, damages and losses. 

“The hard truth is that climate change is upon us,” Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director, said in a news release announcing the findings. 

“Its impacts will intensify and hit vulnerable countries and communities the hardest, even if we meet the Paris Agreement goals of holding global warming this century to well below 2 degrees Celsius and pursuing 1.5 degree Celsius.” 

Global commitment needed 

Annual adaptation costs in developing countries are estimated at $70 billion, but the figure could reach up to $300 billion in 2030, and $500 billion in 2050. Almost three-quarters of nations have some adaptation plans in place, but financing and implementation fall “far short” of what is needed, according to the UNEP report. 

Stepping up public and private finance for adaptation is, therefore, urgently needed. 

“As the Secretary-General has said, we need a global commitment to put half of all global climate finance towards adaptation in the next year … this will allow a huge step up in adaptation, in everything from early warning systems to resilient water resources to nature-based solutions,” Ms. Andersen added. 

Adaptation is a key pillar of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. It aims to reduce countries’ and communities’ vulnerability to climate change by increasing their ability to absorb impacts.  

Nature-based solutions 

The UNEP report also underscored the importance of nature-based solutions as low-cost options that reduce climate risks, restore and protect biodiversity, and bring benefits for communities and economies. 

Its analysis of four major climate and development funds: the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the Adaptation Fund, and the International Climate Initiative (IKI), suggested that support for green initiatives with some element of nature-based solutions has risen over the last two decades.  

Cumulative investment for climate change mitigation and adaptation projects under the four funds stands at $94 billion. However, only $12 billion was spent on nature-based solutions, a tiny fraction of total adaptation and conservation finance, it added. 

Cutting emissions will reduce costs 

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions will reduce the impacts and costs associated with climate change, according to the report. Achieving the 2 degrees Celsius target of the Paris Agreement could limit losses in annual growth to up to 1.6 per cent, compared to 2.2 per cent for the 3 degrees Celsius trajectory. 

UNEP urged all nations to pursue the efforts outlined in its December 2020 Emissions Gap Report, which called for a green pandemic recovery and updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that include new net-zero commitments.  

“However, the world must also plan for, finance and implement climate change adaptation to support those nations least responsible for climate change but most at risk,” the UN agency added. 

“While the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to hit the ability of countries to adapt to climate change, investing in adaptation is a sound economic decision,” it said. 

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Guterres: COVID-19 recovery offers ‘chance to change course’

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The process of recovery from the coronavirus pandemic offers the chance to change course, and put humanity on a path on which it is not in conflict with nature, the United Nations Secretary-General said on Monday, urging greater efforts by everyone to protect biodiversity and step up climate action. 

Addressing world leaders at the One Planet Summit, Secretary-General António Guterres outlined the consequences of abusing Earth and its resources. 

“We have been poisoning air, land and water – and filling oceans with plastics. Now, nature is striking back: temperatures are reaching record highs, biodiversity is collapsing, deserts are spreading, [and] fires, floods and hurricanes are more frequent and extreme,” he said. 

“We are extremely fragile”, Mr. Guterres warned. 

Combined with the devastating effects of COVID-19 and its socio-economic fallout, the UN chief reminded everyone that “as we rebuild, we cannot revert to the old normal.”  

“Pandemic recovery is our chance to change course. With smart policies and the right investments, we can chart a path that brings health to all, revives economies and builds resilience and rescues biodiversity”, he highlighted. 

‘Everyone must do much more’ 

The Secretary-General noted that innovations and nature-based solutions are especially promising, and that preserving biodiversity also creates jobs. According to the World Economic Forum, emerging business opportunities across nature could create 191 million jobs by 2030, he added. 

At the same time, with a financing gap of $711 billion per year until 2030 to meet global biodiversity targets, increased and sustained financing will be crucial to transition away from polluting sectors, Mr. Guterres said. 

“The time has come to…align public and private financial flows with the Paris Agreement commitments and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and integrate the goal of carbon neutrality into all economic and fiscal decisions.” 

The UN chief also urged support for the most vulnerable, who are already suffering the effects of climate change, such as the least developed countries and small island developing States. 

‘The sign of hope’ 

“Everyone must do much more … We begin a new year under the sign of hope. Together, let us seize the opportunity to build a safer, fairer and more sustainable world,” he added. 

Organized by the French Government in partnership with the United Nations and the World Bank, the One Planet Summit brought together world leaders to commit action to protect and restore bio-diversity. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the event was largely virtual.  

Opening the Summit, French President Emmanuel Macron, declared that protecting and restoring biodiversity is “in our interest”. 

Alongside creating millions of jobs between now and 2030, the natural world offers many benefits, he said, adding that intact forests and ocean ecosystems can help meet climate targets by acting as carbon sinks. 

‘Nature offers solutions’ 

“Nature offers solutions for developing sustainable agriculture, for economic and financial services, helping us to preserve our heritages and cultures”, said the French President.  

Mr. Macron outlined four key priorities for action: protecting terrestrial and maritime ecosystems, to allow nature to regenerate; promoting agro ecology to safeguard environment, strengthen food-security and reduce inequalities; mobilizing public and private financing, which would support both climate action and protect biodiversity; and reducing deforestation, especially tropical forests, to protect species and human health. 

African greening initiative receives $14 billion 

Also on Monday, the Great Green Wall for the Sahel and Sahara, an initiative to combat desertification in the vast region, received a pledge of more than $14.2 billion in new funding over the next 10 years, to restore degrading land, protect biodiversity and strengthen resilience. 

According to the UN Convention on Combating Desertification Secretariat (UNCCD), overall, about $33 billion needed by the initiative to achieve its ambitious targets to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land, the soil capture of around 250 million tons of atmospheric carbon, and creation of some 10 million green jobs for communities, by 2030. 

Mohamed Cheikh El-Ghazouani, President of Mauritania and the Chair of Conference of Heads of State and Government of the Pan African Agency for the Green Great Wall, welcomed the announcement.  

“The mobilization of this additional funding through an innovative approach will certainly contribute to the achievement of the Great Green Wall goals”, he said. 

Since its inception in 2007, the country-led Great Green Wall programme has planted billions of trees and supported tens of thousands of local households. Its path snakes along the southern margin of Africa’s Sahara Desert running from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea. 

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