The world is figuring out how to move forward in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic by finding newer ways to support economic development, animal and human well being, and ecosystem integrity. As the priority in many parts of the world is to stay home, safe and healthy, work continues to address the ongoing crisis of nature loss which also threatens long-term health and prosperity. In fact, nature, now more than ever, is sending warning signals calling for our attention.
One such warning is from the Great Barrier Reef along Australia’s northeast coast. In March 2020, the area suffered a third mass coral bleaching event in five years due to increasingly warmer temperatures recorded in February 2020.
There have also been reports that widespread bleaching in the first quarter of the year has also occurred in East Africa.
Coral reef scientists predict that bleaching events will be more frequent, more widespread and more severe. For instance, the 2017 Coral Bleaching Futures report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) predicted, “Increasingly coral bleaching would be among the greatest threats to coral reefs due to climate change.” Annual Severe Bleaching (ASB) is projected to occur within this century for 99 per cent of the world’s coral reefs. The average projected year of ASB is 2043, the report adds.
A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published in October 2018 warns that, even if we collectively manage to stabilize global surface temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, 70 to 90 per cent of coral reefs will be lost by the middle of this century.
Leticia Carvalho, Head of UNEP’s Marine and Fresh Water Branch says: “Scientists have been telling us for a while that coral bleaching events would become more frequent with anthropogenic climate change and warming oceans. Unfortunately, their worst predictions have come to pass. Mass coral bleaching events are like nature’s fire alarm, a stark reminder that climate change is happening and is already impacting our societies and global ecosystem”.
To date the Great Barrier Reef—a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known for its vast mosaic patterns of reefs, islands and coral cays visible from space—has suffered six mass bleaching events due to warmer than normal ocean temperatures: in 1998, 2002, 2006, 2016, 2017 and now 2020. A statement by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority shows climate change remains the single greatest challenge to the Reef. It is home to the world’s largest collection of coral reefs, with 400 species of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusk.
Bleaching occurs when coral—tiny animals that secrete calcium carbonate for protection—become stressed by factors such as warm water or pollution. As a result of the stress, they expel the microscopic symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae, which reside within their tissues. The corals then turn ghostly white; they become ‘bleached’ (watch these coral bleaching explainer videos). The zooxanthellae are the primary food source for corals. If the algae do not return to the corals as soon as possible (or if temperatures get warmer), the corals can die as it happened in the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 and 2017.
Corals have been observed to glow in luminescent colours—blue, yellow and purple— to protect themselves, like a sunscreen, during extreme ocean heat waves before they die. The phenomenon has sparked the Glowing Gone Campaign in which UNEP has partnered with The Ocean Agency, among other leading ocean conservation organizations.
“It is important to remember bleached corals are not dead corals — on mildly or moderately bleached reefs there is a good chance most bleached corals will recover and survive this event. Equally, on severely bleached reefs, there will be higher mortality of corals,” adds the statement from the lead management agency for the Reef. However, some pockets of the Reef remain unaffected.
Coral reefs, like underwater cities, support a quarter of all marine life – potentially up to 1 million species. They provide at least half a billion people with food security and livelihoods. They also protect coastlines from increasing damage by buffering shorelines against waves, storms and floods, preventing loss of life, property damage and erosion.
“Understanding the different responses of coral reefs to bleaching events is critical for managing coral reefs in a changing climate. Coral reefs are naturally resilient ecosystems, and have been observed to recover well after mortality events if they are given the chance to and other stressors are reduced. This means better water quality, reduced pollution, and sustainable fishing,” says Ms Carvalho.
Supporting coral reefs to be resilient entails reducing coral reef vulnerability to climate change and other stressors.
The bleaching event comes at a time when this year’s World Environment Day, celebrated on June 5, is focused on biodiversity. The day calls for increased awareness and understanding of what biodiversity is and how it provides the vital services that sustain all life on earth. Coral have the highest biodiversity of any ecosystem on the planet—even more than a tropical rainforest.
Further, coral protection speaks to the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030) geared towards the restoration of degraded and destroyed ecosystems to fight the climate crisis and enhance food security, water supply and biodiversity.
Can financial institutions invest in ocean health?
New, pivotal guidance published today by the UN Environment Programme Finance Initiative (UNEP FI) provides a market-first, practical toolkit for financial institutions to take immediate action on their lending, investment and underwriting activities which negatively impact ocean health.
The ocean covers 70% of the earth’s surface, holding 97% of all water and 80% of all life forms. Major ocean sectors such as tourism, shipping, fishing, aquaculture and marine renewable energy collectively contribute to a ‘blue’ economy, estimated at a global gross value added of USD 1.5trn in 2010. This is projected to double in size to USD 3trn by 2030, with some ocean industries set to grow faster than the global economy (OECD, 2016).
However, ocean health is under existential threat. Faced with the triple crises of pollution, nature loss and climate change, two-thirds of our oceans have been negatively altered by human activity; leaving industries, businesses and livelihoods exposed. With existing financing still largely directed towards unsustainable sectors and activities, it is critical that all sectors of the blue economy are rapidly transitioned towards sustainable pathways.
Banks, insurers and investors have a major role to play in financing this transition to a sustainable blue economy, helping to rebuild ocean prosperity and restore biodiversity to the ocean. Through their activities, and client relationships, financial institutions have a major impact on ocean health and hold the power to accelerate and mainstream the sustainable transformation of ocean-linked industries. They thereby play essential roles in wider ocean governance, engaging in public-private partnerships, and propelling local-to-global actions for sustainability.
“Momentum is building as more banks, insurers and investors wake up to the realisation that their financial activities can have a sizeable impact on ocean health, creating a negative feedback loop for key ocean industries such as shipping, fishing, tourism and marine renewables” said Eric Usher, Head of UN Environment Programme Finance Initiative (UNEP FI).
“A new sustainable pathway for the blue economy is thus both an environmental and economic necessity. This critical new guidance provides a practical toolkit for financial institutions to understand their impact and discover how a new sustainable finance approach can help them identify key risks and opportunities in ocean-linked sectors” he added.
Leveraging best practice based on input from more than 50 pioneering institutions and experts, this guidance sets out pathways to sustainable growth across five key ocean sectors, chosen for their established connection to private finance. It presents a detailed breakdown of which activities to seek out as best practice, which activities to challenge, and which activities to avoid financing completely due to their damaging nature.
“Decades of unsustainable consumption and production is leading to environmental risks and losses in natural capital, eroding the ocean’s resource base. Without engagement by financial institutions, we will not be able to change the course to sustain a healthy ocean and unlock its enormous potential. 1$ of sustainable ocean investments can yield 5x higher global benefits” said Leticia Carvalho, Head of the Marine and Freshwater Branch, UN Environment Programme.
“This new guidance can help financial institutions invest in good ocean governance at local, regional and global levels. In a nutshell, making sustainable blue economy opportunities too hard to resist” she added.
This guidance provides decision-makers across banking, insurance and investment with a science-based and actionable toolkit, giving easy-to-follow recommendations on how to approach financial activity related to:
- Seafood, including both fisheries and aquaculture as well as their supply chains;
- Maritime transportation;
- Marine renewable energy, notably offshore wind; and
- Coastal and marine tourism, including cruising.
It builds on the foundation of the Sustainable Blue Economy Finance Principles – a keystone for financing activities in the blue economy, supported by a community of over 50 institutions worldwide with a collective total asset size of over USD 6trn.
Duck conservation takes flight in Jamaica
On January 20, 2021, the day of the inauguration of American president Joe Biden, two ducks named “Joe” and “Kamala” took flight from a remote wetland near Negril, Jamaica. And, like their namesakes, the fowl will be the focus of international attention.
That’s because Joe and Kamala are West Indian whistling ducks, the rarest duck species in the Americas, with fewer than 20,000 remaining, found only in the northern Caribbean. Conservationists released the pair, which were outfitted with GPS trackers, into the wild on 20 January, kicking off a study to learn more about their species and, researchers hope, ensure their survival.
BirdsCaribbean is a partner of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The whistling duck study is supported by UNEP’s Integrating Water, Land and Ecosystems Management in Caribbean Small Island Developing States (IWEco) project.
With one million species are at risk of extinction, biodiversity is a key priority of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). Ecosystems are fundamental to human health and prosperity, availing food and water, regulating temperature, stimulating economic growth, putting roofs over heads and clothing on backs. As ecosystems degrade, so do human lives.
As the world faces the stark reality that none of the Aichi targets were met and prepares for a new, ambitious post-2020 framework, the issue is more urgent than ever. In fact, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse are ranked among the top five threats to humanity in the coming decade.
Whistling ducks’ long-term survival has been threatened by the destruction of their wetland habitats, as well as climate change, pollution, poaching and predators. Little is known about the large waterbird that is between the size of a large duck and a goose, has a long neck, and is mostly brown in colour, but may have black-and-white patches on its neck and flanks. The duck’s characteristic features is its distinctive whistling call.
“We are thrilled with the launch of this exciting project,” said Lisa Sorenson, the Executive Director of BirdsCaribbean. “I expect it will lead to major improvements in our knowledge of the ducks’ movements and habitat use.”
The trackers attached to Joe and Kamala are expected to plot their positions every hour to within a few metres and will help the scientists to know about the species, their migration patterns, nesting sites, feeding zones and roosting locales. Researchers are aiming to use the information gathered through the initiative to plan for the species’ recovery.
Led by UNEP with the backing of the Global Environment Facility, IWEco is helping 10 Caribbean countries manage their water and land resources while safeguarding biodiversity. A key part of the project has been the protection and monitoring of endemic species, like West Indian whistling ducks.
As one of the three founding Global Environment Facility partners, UNEP has been working on conservation projects supported by the facility for almost 30 years.
“Together, UNEP and the Global Environment Facility have successfully worked to address global transboundary issues since 1992, and we look forward to further strengthening and implementing actions for nature,” said Sinikinesh Beyene Jimma head of UNEP’s GEF International Waters Unit.
And while biodiversity targets have not been met, evidence indicates that efforts have produced results. Where action was taken, habitat loss was controlled and decades of degradation were reversed.
After steep drop in 2020, global carbon dioxide emissions have rebounded strongly
The Covid-19 crisis in 2020 triggered the largest annual drop in global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions since the Second World War, according to IEA data released today, but the overall decline of about 6% masks wide variations depending on the region and the time of year.
After hitting a low in April, global emissions rebounded strongly and rose above 2019 levels in December. The latest data show that global emissions were 2%, or 60 million tonnes, higher in December 2020 than they were in the same month a year earlier. Major economies led the resurgence as a pick-up in economic activity pushed energy demand higher and significant policies measures to boost clean energy were lacking. Many economies are now seeing emissions climbing above pre-crisis levels.
“The rebound in global carbon emissions toward the end of last year is a stark warning that not enough is being done to accelerate clean energy transitions worldwide. If governments don’t move quickly with the right energy policies, this could put at risk the world’s historic opportunity to make 2019 the definitive peak in global emissions,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director. “In March 2020, the IEA urged governments to put clean energy at the heart of their economic stimulus plans to ensure a sustainable recovery. But our numbers show we are returning to carbon-intensive business-as-usual. This year is pivotal for international climate action – and it began with high hopes – but these latest numbers are a sharp reminder of the immense challenge we face in rapidly transforming the global energy system.”
The 2020 trends underscore the challenge of curbing emissions while ensuring economic growth and energy security. Amid a growing number of pledges by countries and companies to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century, the rebound in emissions shows what is likely to happen if those ambitions are not met with rapid and tangible action.
Emissions in China for the whole of 2020 increased by 0.8%, or 75 million tonnes, from 2019 levels driven by China’s economic recovery over the course of the year. China was the first major economy to emerge from the pandemic and lift restrictions, prompting its economic activity and emissions to rebound from April onward. China was the only major economy that grew in 2020.
In India, emissions rose above 2019 levels from September as economic activity improved and restrictions were relaxed. In Brazil, the rebound of road transport activity after the April low drove a recovery in oil demand, while increases in gas demand in the later months of 2020 pushed emissions above 2019 levels throughout the final quarter.
Emissions in the United States fell by 10% in 2020. But on a monthly basis, after hitting their lowest levels in the spring, they started to bounce back. In December, US emissions were approaching the level seen in the same month in 2019. This was the result of accelerating economic activity as well as the combination of higher natural gas prices and colder weather favouring an increase in coal use.
“If current expectations for a global economic rebound this year are confirmed – and in the absence of major policy changes in the world’s largest economies – global emissions are likely to increase in 2021,” Dr Birol said. “Nonetheless, there are still reasons for optimism. China has set an ambitious carbon-neutrality target; the new US administration has rejoined the Paris Agreement and is putting climate at the heart of its policy-making; the European Union is pushing ahead with its Green Deal and sustainable recovery plans; India’s stunning success with renewables could transform its energy future; and the United Kingdom is building global momentum toward stronger climate action at COP26 in November.”
Global emissions plunged by almost 2 billion tonnes in 2020, the largest absolute decline in history. Most of this – around 1 billion tonnes, which is more than the annual emissions of Japan – was due to lower use of oil for road transport and aviation. As travel and economic activities pick up around the world, oil consumption and its emissions are rising again. The record increase in sales of electric vehicles is insufficient to offset the growth in emissions caused by the uptick in road traffic around the world.
Global emissions from the electricity sector dropped by 450 million tonnes in 2020. This resulted partly from lower electricity demand but also from increases in electricity generation by solar PV and wind. For the world to achieve the climate goals of the Paris Agreement, notably of limiting global warming to well below 2 °C, a decline in electricity sector emissions of around 500 million tonnes would need to occur every single year. Even greater annual drops in emissions from electricity generation would be required to put the world on a path in line with warming of 1.5 °C.
In order to show a sustainable path forward, the IEA will publish on 18 May the world’s first comprehensive roadmap for the energy sector to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. As part of its focus on leading clean energy transitions worldwide, the IEA is working with the United Kingdom’s COP26 Presidency to bring together heads of government and ministers at the IEA-COP26 Net Zero Summit on 31 March to step up international efforts to turn net zero pledges into concrete energy policies and actions.
In April, the IEA will release its Global Energy Review 2021, which will examine this year’s emerging trends in global energy demand and CO2 emissions.
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