The year 2020 started with such optimism and hope for nature-based solutions and environmental sustainability.
Environmental, social and governance investments were high on the agenda at Davos; the World Economic Forum launched the 1 Trillion Trees campaign, backed by Salesforce; BlackRock’s CEO sent an open letter to industry leaders about the future of the planet and the tough but necessary choices ahead for investment; and calls for action from young people were gathering momentum.
The message was clear: if we don’t do something fast, our future does not look good.
Then, a few short weeks into the new decade, COVID-19 literally shut giant swaths of the world down. Planes stopped flying, factories closed, businesses had to adapt, and people stayed indoors. Many world leaders showed us that in times of crisis they can act fast.
Now what? Post COVID-19 recovery plans are a priority: the current loss of income and slowed economic growth are being compared by some to the Great Depression of the 1930s—and this time the situation may be affecting millions more people.
The climate, biodiversity and COVID-19-induced poverty crises require creative and innovative solutions.
In recent years there has been much technological development in terms of restoring degraded land—from big satellite data and complex carbon measuring systems, to tree tracking and tree-based currencies. Investments in land restoration can create much needed jobs and income in rural areas of developing countries.
What if we harnessed new technology by linking donors investing in trees to the actual planters themselves, where the planters are paid not only to plant the tree, but also to ensure their survival? Could we turn tree planters into tree growers through an incremental payment system that pays individual planters to maintain the life of a tree, especially during its first vulnerable years?
“The big result of this COVID crisis is there will be a lot of jobless people in many impoverished places, when in fact these people could… have jobs in carrying [out] restoration projects near their village, near their community,” says Robert Nasi, Director-General of the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in a recent Global Landscapes Forum panel discussion [minute 38]. “I think we should provide the capacity for these people… to do good work where they are after the crisis.”
Tim Christophersen, a nature and climate expert with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), says: “The pandemic requires vigorous physical distancing rules, but this need not affect tree-growing efforts. Imagine if one billion smallholder farmers around the world could keep working and supplement their income by planting trees. This could provide economic recovery funding to those who need it the most.”
According to the co-founder of Greenstand, Ezra Jay, “Tackling both climate change and poverty, Greenstand has created a technology stack to verify tree survival and enable planting organizations to pay individuals to grow trees and restore degraded land.”
The technology has been tested in several countries, and perhaps most effectively through a partnership with Fairtree.org, an organization that has developed a mobilization and engagement “pay-to-grow” framework and communications campaign to reach and pay these last mile planters.
Pay to Grow: Enabling a pan-African tree growing movement
As one of many contributing initiatives for a post COVID-19 economic recovery that, in turn, supports the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030 and the 1 Trillion Trees campaign, UNEP is exploring the expansion of the “pay to grow” model in East Africa with Greenstand and Fairtree.org.
“Fairtree.org, using Greenstand technology, is expanding its pay-to-grow model to the greater tree-planting movement so that together we can ensure measurable social and environmental impact and create more jobs on the front lines of the climate crisis,” says Jon Trimarco, co-founder of Fairtree.org.
“Fairtree’s ‘pay-to-grow’ model ensures that hundreds of thousands of prospective tree growers have the resources and know-how they need to lead restoration projects in their own communities,” Trimarco adds.
The model, which includes a communications strategy and content to educate, mobilize and inspire tree growing, fits well with many ongoing efforts, such as the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100) and TerrAfrica. The Pan-African Action Agenda on Ecosystem Restoration for Increased Resilience is the glue that binds all African restoration initiatives.
Trees provide ecosystems services, including protecting Africa’s soils, water and climate, and buffering disease, and are crucial to averting serious food crises.
Mobilizing millions of new tree champions along the last mile is imperative if we are to achieve the bold targets set out by the 1 Trillion Trees initiative and the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.
COVID-19 can act as a jump-start for environmental change
The COVID-19 pandemic is drawing young people around the world into the fight against climate change, as witnessed this week during the Youth Environment Assembly.
The gathering, which is being held virtually, as part of the UN Environment Assembly, is the planet’s largest youth-led environmental event. It has zeroed in on climate change, which participants described as a dire threat to the planet.
This year’s Youth Environment Assembly saw the release of UNEP’s GEO-6 for Youth – a report targeted at 15-24-year-olds, written with the intention of translating high-level scientific messages into a language that is accessible and actionable. This age group makes up one-sixth of the world’s population and is crucial in the fight against climate change.
“(COVID-19) can act as a jump-start for environmental change,” said Rohan Bhargava, 27, a climate change expert and an author of the United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP) Global Environment Outlook 6 for Youth report (GEO-6 for Youth). “We can’t ignore the challenges anymore.”
But the global fight against COVID-19, and the trillions of dollars being devoted to pandemic recovery, is creating hope that the world can finally make progress on climate change.
“COVID-19 has shown how quickly we can implement change when we need to,” said Maria Jesus Iraola, 27, an environmental expert, researcher and also a coordinating lead author of the GEO-6 for Youth report. “We need to bring this same urgency to the environment.”
That message appears to be sinking in. The People’s Climate Vote, a United Nations Development Programme survey, showed that two-thirds of those polled thought the world now faced a “global emergency.” The poll is the largest environmental survey ever and involved 1.2 million people, many of them youth, across 50 countries.
Young activists, assemble
This year’s Youth Environment Assembly provided a barometer of what young people think about climate change and the message is undeniably clear: “We need to build back better, we need to be more innovative and we need to move quickly,” said Iraola.
“Meaningful youth engagement has to be mainstreamed across environmental governance,” said Christianne Zakour, a representative from UNEP’s Major Group for Children and Youth (MGCY), “Children and youth are not just your social media retweets or ornaments to tick the box – it is a generation that needs to be empowered.”
GEO-6 for Youth was due to be released in March 2020 but was delayed due to the pandemic. Much of what was written has since been reinforced by COVID-19, said Iraola.
“We suggested working from home before COVID-19 as a way to cut emissions,” she said. “We didn’t change the core messages of the report, COVID-19 just highlighted and reinforced them. They are more relevant and relatable now.”
The authors of GEO-6 for Youth hope some of the lessons learnt during COVID-19 can be transplanted into the fight against climate change.
“COVID-19 has shown how quickly we can implement change when we need to, we need to bring this same urgency to the environment,” Iraola said.
“The future is now. We, as youth, face these environmental problems daily,” said Bhargava.
“The talk used to be hypothetical, but now we can’t ignore the challenges, it’s no longer hypothetical but very real.”
Below are some insights from young people who participated in the event:
“As protectors of Planet Earth, we the youth call for safe spaces and enabling platforms where we can continue to play meaningful roles as advocates in shaping the future we want.” – John Aggrey, Ghana.
“Youth are playing a catalytic role at local to global level, driving for climate action. We call for youth-friendly and inclusive policies which better capture and nurture our roles as positive agents of change. We should be better recognized, promoted and supported.” – Kudzanai Chimhanda, Zimbabwe.
“In regard to environmental stewardship, youth community organisers have done great work over the last several years. Youth are not just the leaders of tomorrow, but they are also the leaders of today.” Rohan Arora, United States.
In the textile industry, old is increasingly becoming new
A clothing company in the Philippines that uses scrap material to make shoes. A technology startup in Ireland that allows strangers to swap little-used clothes. And a fashion house in Brazil that produces zero waste and repurposes old clothes into new ones.
These are three of a growing number of companies that are bucking an environmentally destructive trend towards fast fashion.
The textile industry, say observers, has long been primed for a circular makeover.
Amid rapacious demand for cheap, on-trend clothing, it has become a major driver of climate change: some sources say that the textile sector accounts for about 8 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Producing one kilogram of textiles also uses over half a kilogram of chemicals, and consumes huge quantities of fresh water.
“The fashion industry has long been criticized for the impact it has on the environment,” said Elisa Tonda, Head of Consumption and Production Unit at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “Much of that criticism is justified. But at the same time, there is a lot of innovation happening right now that bodes well for the future.”
Tonda made the comments ahead of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), where some discussions focused on what’s known as the circular economy, that prizes reusing things – from beverage bottles to camisoles – instead of throwing them away.
UNEA will also see the launch of a Global Alliance on Circular Economy and Resource Efficiency, established by UNEP, the European Commission and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). The alliance builds on existing regional initiatives (such as the African Circular Economy Alliance) to speed up transition to a global circular economy through more efficient, equitable use of resources. It also promotes sustainable consumption, production and industrialization.
A good time for change
The economic recovery from COVID-19 offers a rare opportunity to dramatically shift the trajectory of many industries, including textiles.
“Tying financial stimulus packages to actions that align with the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement will lock in long-term resource efficiency and decouple economic growth from environmental degradation,” said Archana Datta, a Project Coordinator for India, at the SWITCH-Asia initiative, which promotes sustainable production and consumption.
Circularity and sustainability also make economic sense for businesses, data suggests. Even before Covid-19, just 60 per cent of garments were sold at full price, creating billions of dollars of lost revenues. Smart product design has the potential to eliminate production waste and reduce pollution across the processing phase, helping businesses save money.
Circularity would also be good for the climate. Switching to more circular business models, including fashion rentals, re-commerce, repair and refurbishment, could help the industry cut around 143 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2030.
A green recovery
A UNEP study recently found that in order to make the fashion industry more sustainable, there needs to be stronger “governance” of the sector, more financing for planet-friendly innovations and a concerted effort to change the consumption habits of consumers.
Several promising initiatives are already helping with the latter. Through a smartphone app, Ireland-based Nuw allows users to swap rarely worn clothes instead of tossing them away. In the Philippines, apparel company Phinix collects waste textiles and transforms them into footwear and bags. Their products have just 10 per cent of the carbon footprint of regular apparel. Finally, by upcycling and avoiding plastic packaging, among other things, Brazil fashion house Refazenda has eliminated its solid waste.
UNEP is creating a roadmap to help other textile companies follow the lead of those businesses. Set to be released in June 2021, it will showcase concrete actions that textile companies can adopt to green their business.
Kenya emerges as leader on plastic pollution
Kenya is emerging as a leader in the fight against plastic pollution and is among the first countries in East Africa to limit single-use plastics and sign the Clean Seas initiative to rid waterways of plastic waste.
Juliette Biao, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Regional Director for Africa lauded the country for banning plastic bottles, cups and cutlery in its national parks last year, a move that followed a country-wide prohibition on plastic bags. She also called the country’s efforts to stem the flow of plastic into its waterways an important step in reducing marine litter.
“Kenya has invested heavily in both policies and law enforcement to win the fight against plastic pollution. The result of this investment is today boosting Kenya’s environmental stewardship in Africa and the world,” said Biao.
Her comments came during the virtual convening of the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly, the planet’s top environmental decision-making body. Every two years, the assembly unites the UN’s 193 Member States, policy-makers, civil society, scientists and the private sector to take action on urgent environmental issues. The virtual session in February 2021 will be followed by an in-person meeting in Nairobi in 2022.
Like many countries, Kenya has long struggled with plastic waste, which dots its Indian Ocean coast and often abounds in its lakes. In Mombasa, the country’s second-largest city with some 2 million residents, 3.7 kilos of plastic per capita leach into bodies of water annually.
Turning the tide
Working closely with communities and in partnership with the private sector as well as UNEP, Kenya’s national and devolved county-level governments are establishing a plastic waste management programme – one that could be scaled and replicated across the East African community and beyond.
Kenya grabbed headlines in 2017 when it banned single-use plastic bags. That was preceded by the country’s decision to sign on to the Clean Seas initiative, making it one of the first African nations to commit to limiting plastic in its waterways.
And, as of June 2020, visitors to Kenya’s national parks, beaches, forests and conservation areas are no longer able to carry plastic water bottles, cups, disposable plates, cutlery, or straws into protected areas.
It’s not just its fight against plastic that makes Kenya a green pioneer: the country was also an early adopter of the Green University Initiative. For over a decade, universities around the country have focused on greening their campuses, while enhancing student engagement and learning. Higher education offerings in environmental science, management and policy are also available at both public and private institutions.
The green dividend
By expanding its efforts to green its economy, Kenya could use sustainability to power economic growth, create jobs and lift people out of poverty.
“Since the commencement of our engagement with polythene bags and PET bottles, Kenya has witnessed increased investment in plastic recycling and several new players have come onboard. We have upscaled environmental awareness on plastic pollution together with our partners and are proud of initiatives such as the FlipFlopi, which has demonstrated successful recycling of plastics,” said Chris Kiptoo, Principal Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forestry, Kenya at the UN Environment Assembly.
Two of the country’s largest industries – agriculture and tourism – could also provide sources of environmental innovation and job creation.
Sea of economic opportunity
Such ambition extends beyond the country’s shores and back into the waters, as the upcoming second expedition by the recycled plastic lumber dhow the Flipflopi aims to demonstrate. Kenya also has an opportunity to drive growth by creating a sustainable blue economy, using its maritime resources to create jobs and spur economic growth while ensuring the health of the ocean ecosystem.
Addressing Africa’s first Sustainable Blue Economy conference in Nairobi in 2018, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta committed to putting in place policies that harness the economic potential of Kenya’s oceans and coastline. He called for strong action to reduce the waste and plastic pollution that threaten food security, public health, and marine life.
According to a 2018 policy brief published by the United Nations Development Programme, the Western Indian Ocean, covering the Kenyan coastline and most shorelines of East Africa, generates more than US$22 billion annually in goods and services, including fisheries, maritime transport, trade, tourism and waste management. Kenya’s economic share was estimated at $4.4 billion annually.
With the right policies, especially those that invest in sustainable infrastructure and protecting ecosystems along its maritime territory (which stretches nearly 230,000 square kilometres); Kenya could boost the value of its blue economy.
“As we prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the UN Environment Programme, I encourage Kenya as host of the global leading environmental authority to continue showing the world that environmental stewardship should be demonstrated through actions and not words,” said Biao.
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