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Protection of seagrasses key to building resilience to climate change, disasters

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Seagrass meadows can be a powerful nature-based climate solution and help sustain communities hard-hit by stressors such as the COVID-19 pandemic, but these important ecosystems continue to decline. The importance of seagrasses is highlighted in a new report, Out of the Blue: The Value of Seagrasses to the Environment and to People, released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) together with GRID-Arendal  and the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC).

Seagrass meadows are among the most common coastal habitats on Earth, covering more than 300,000 km2 in at least 159 countries. They nurture fish populations, weaken storm surges, and provide numerous other services to coastal communities. Seagrass ecosystems are biologically rich and highly productive, providing valuable nursery habitats to more than 20 per cent of the world’s largest 25 fisheries. They can filter pathogens, bacteria, and pollution out of seawater, and are home to endangered and charismatic species such as dugongs, seahorses, and sea turtles.

But an estimated 7 per cent of seagrass habitat is being lost worldwide each year, and at least 22 of the world’s 72 seagrass species are in decline. Since the late 19th century, almost 30 per cent of known seagrass area across the globe has been lost. The main threats to seagrass meadows include urban, industrial, and agricultural run-off, coastal development, dredging, unregulated fishing and boating activities, and climate change.

The report, launched on World Oceans Day, finds that seagrass ecosystems play an outsized role in combatting the climate crisis. Though they cover only 0.1 per cent of the ocean floor, these meadows are highly efficient carbon sinks, storing up to 18 per cent of the world’s oceanic carbon. Countries aiming to do their part under the Paris Agreement can include seagrass protection and restoration in their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to help reduce the amount of heat-trapping carbon in our atmosphere.

“Maintaining the health of seagrass ecosystems – which provide food and livelihoods to hundreds of millions of people, support rich biodiversity, and constitute one of the planet’s most efficient stores of carbon – is important for healthy marine life and for healthy people around the world,” said Susan Gardner, Director of Ecosystems Division. “Seagrasses represent powerful nature-based solutions to the climate challenge and sustainable development.”

As the global community works to build back better and strengthen economies and societies in the wake of the devastation wrought by this pandemic, preserving and restoring seagrass ecosystems can be a highly effective way to protect food chains and create jobs in industries such as fishing and tourism.

The well-being of human communities all around the globe is closely tied to the health of seagrass meadows. In Tanzania, a decline in seagrass was found to have a negative impact on the livelihoods of women who collect invertebrates, such as clams, sea snails and sea urchins, from seagrass meadows. In the North Atlantic, seagrass provides critical habitat to juvenile Atlantic cod, a major commercial species that is fished by fleets from more than a dozen nations. Seagrasses are also part of the cultural fabric of many island communities. For example, in the Solomon Islands, fishers twist seagrass leaves together and shout to seagrass spirits for good luck.

“Seagrasses are the super ecosystems of our oceans, providing an incredible range of benefits to people around the world. Yet, while their flashier counterparts attract more attention, they remain among the most unheralded aquatic environments on Earth. The Out of the Blue report showcases the many ways that seagrasses help people thrive and sustain the healthy natural environment that we all depend on,” said Dr. Maria Potouroglou, seagrass scientist at GRID-Arendal and lead editor of the report.

Despite their importance, new data suggest that seagrasses are among the least protected coastal habitats. Only 26 per cent of recorded seagrass meadows fall within Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) compared with 40 per cent of coral reefs and 43 per cent of mangroves.

“Seagrasses can help us solve our biggest environmental challenges. They purify water, they protect us from storms, they provide food to hundreds of millions of people, they support rich biodiversity, and they efficiently store carbon. In light of everything seagrasses do for people and nature, protecting and restoring them is vital”, said Ronald Jumeau, Permanent Representative to the United Nations and Ambassador for Climate Change, Republic of Seychelles.

Conserving and restoring seagrass meadows can contribute to achieving as many as 10 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals as well as the goals of the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

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UNEA-5 ends with clear message: act now to tackle planetary crises

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The virtual Fifth Session of the UN Environment Assembly ended on Tuesday with a clear message: our fragile planet needs more and it needs it now. More action, more cooperation, more finance, more ambition and more sustained commitment to tackle environmental crises and rebuild societies ravaged by the global pandemic.

At this unprecedented virtual session153 countries registered and connected online along with civil society and other stakeholders, showing the commitment of stakeholders to tackle pressing issues of environmental degradation even during the COVID-19 crisis.

Participants were left in no doubt that 2021 marks a critical turning point if the world wants to secure a future where people and planet can thrive together.

UNEP’s Executive Director Inger Andersen described the cost of inaction in remarks to Tuesday’s Leadership Dialogue.

“Unless we take action, future generations stand to inherit a hothouse planet with more carbon in the atmosphere than in 800,000 years. Unless we take action, future generations will live in sinking cities. From Basra to Lagos. From Mumbai to Houston. Unless we take action, future generations will be lucky if they can spot a black rhino. And unless we take action, future generations will have to live with our toxic waste – which every year is enough to fill 125,000 Olympic size swimming pools,” she said.

Indian environmental activist Afroz Shah, who has been honoured by UNEP as a Champion of the Earth, told the delegates that the time for talking was over and that collaboration was needed to redress the planetary balance.

“The problem is our rights are weighing too heavy on the rights of the other species. This delicate balance will have to tilt in the favour of other species and that is the key,” he said.

During two days of online meetings and presentations, many Member States expressed profound concern at the triple planetary crises of climate change, nature loss and pollution, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated existing problems and threatened efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

“We will face recurring risks of pandemics in the future if we maintain our current unsustainable patterns in our interactions with nature,” said Sveinung Rotevatn, President of UNEA-5. “I believe we have discovered during this time of crisis just how much our health and wellbeing depends upon nature and the solutions that nature provides.”

President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, which hosts UNEP’s headquarters in Nairobi, also spoke of the need to act swiftly.

“It is increasingly evident that environmental crises are part of the journey ahead. Wildfires, hurricanes, high temperature records, unprecedented winter chills, plagues of locusts, floods and droughts, have become so commonplace that they do not always make the headlines,” he told the Assembly.

“These increasing adverse weather and climatic occurrences sound a warning bell that calls on us to attend to the three planetary crises that threaten our collective future: the climate crisis, the biodiversity and nature crisis, and the pollution and waste crisis.”

The situation is dire but there are reasons to hope. Member States expressed support for a green post-pandemic recovery that leaves no one behind and also protects and renews the fragile natural world, with many noting that the health of nature and human health are inextricably linked, with the nature crisis also tied to the climate and pollution crises.

The green recovery should put the world on a pathway towards a low carbon, resilient and inclusive post-pandemic world. It should invest in the transition to a circular economy to achieve sustainable consumption and production and make full use of the role that nature-based solutions can offer to address climate change, nature loss and pollution. 

Over two days, UNEA-5 saw a global effort on resource efficiency and the circular economy; a recognition of the importance of financing and emissions reductions; and an exploration of big data as a tool for changeAhead of the Assembly, science and business leaders also gathered virtually for the UN Science-Policy-Business Forum to discuss the role of business in addressing the triple planetary crises.

Member States committed to work together and also outlined actions already taken nationally, such as efforts to protect mangroves, peatlands and forests or to tackle pollution and waste, including single use plastics. Representatives from youth groups addressed delegates, demanding action and a voice at the table.

The Assembly endorsed a final statement warning that “more than ever that human health and wellbeing are dependent upon nature and the solutions it provides, and we are aware that we shall face recurring risks of future pandemics if we maintain our current unsustainable patterns in our interactions with nature.”

Despite the gravity of the challenges facing humanity and the planet, the meeting also heard messages of inspiration.

“We have gathered here as ambassadors of hope and architects of a new paradigm and our work together and in harmony with nature will ensure our ultimate victory,” Ghanaian musician and UNEP Regional Goodwill Ambassador Rocky Dawuni told delegates.

A roadmap to a better, more sustainable future was provided by UNEP’s Making Peace with Nature report, which was launched by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last week. It shows clearly that the earth’s environmental emergencies must be addressed together to achieve sustainability. This means tackling the red thread that binds these emergencies together – unsustainable consumption and production. The report suggests concrete actions for different sectors – from governments to civil society to businesses – to address the planetary crisis.

UNEP will drive the radical change to an era of action. Delegates to UNEA-5 approved its Medium-Term Strategy 2022-25, programme of work and budget, enabling it to work harder for an end to unsustainable consumption and production.

“The strategy is about transforming how UNEP operates and engages with Member States, UN agencies, the private sector, civil society and youth groups, so we can go harder, faster, stronger,” said UNEP‘s Andersen. “This strategy is about providing science and know-how to governments. The strategy is also about collective, whole-of-society action – moving us outside ministries of environment to drive action.”

UNEA-5 also marked the start of a period of reflection and celebration to mark the creation of UNEP 50 years ago.

The second part of UNEA-5 is scheduled to take place in February 2022 with hopes that delegates will be able to meet in person with a richer and fuller agenda.

Between now and then, the world needs to see enhanced ambitions on cutting greenhouse gases, a strong post-2020 framework for protecting our precious biodiversity and a commitment to managing chemicals and tackling plastic pollution.

This Assembly marked the start of a year of critical meetings on all these issues, with Member States gathering later this year, notably at UN Biodiversity Conference in Kunming, China, where nations will address species and ecosystem loss, and then at the UN Climate Conference, known as COP26, in Glasgow when countries are expected to come forward with more ambitious commitments on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

As the UN Secretary-General said in his speech to UNEA-5: “To a large degree, the viability of humanity on this planet depends on your efforts. With leadership, determination and commitment to future generations, I am convinced we can provide a healthy planet for all humanity to not just survive, but to thrive.”

At the end of the Assembly, UNEP’s Inger Andersen said UNEA 5.1 was extremely successful.

“The science is clear. We have to change our ways and we have to be sure that 2021 is that turning point,” she said. “UNEA 5.1, in spite of the pandemic and meeting virtually, managed to be the first step of that journey.”

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Georgia’s Blue Economy Can Be a Vehicle for Accelerating Climate Change Adaptation

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Greening the Coast and Blueing the Sea for a Resilient Georgiaa virtual event on climate change and marine pollution – was held today with the cooperation of the World Bank, the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) andthe Government of Georgia.

The event was focused on the findings and recommendations of two recent World Bank reports: Impacts of Climate Change on Georgia’s Coastal Zone: Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Options and The Cost of Coastal Zone Degradation in Georgia: A Tool for the Coastal Zone Adaptation and the Nationally Determined Contributions.

The reports identify key climate risks and vulnerabilities and the costs of environmental degradation of the coastal zone due to pollution, flooding, coastal erosion, and agricultural soil and forest degradation. Climate adaptation through resilient use of water resources and bringing back tourism to coastal areas after the COVID-19 pandemic are among the recommended priority coastal adaptation interventions.

“Georgia is committed to making its coastal and marine spaces and tourism more resilient, and our Black Sea less polluted,” said Nino Tandilashvili, Deputy Minister of Environmental Protection and Agriculture of Georgia.

With the World Bank’s global knowledge and support, Georgia is well positioned to enter a new frontier with its climate pledges under the 2015 Paris Agreement. In addition to climate adaptation measures in its coastal zone, transition to a more sustainable Blue Economy can become a public policy goal that can support Georgia’s EU integration agenda and its national development objectives, while preventing environmental degradation and ecological imbalances in the use of coastal and marine resources.

“While the reports seek to raise the level of urgency needed to reduce the impact of climate change on the coastal zone and the escalating cost of inaction, it is not too late for action to ensure that the coastline of the Black Sea of Georgia adapts to climate change. Overall, the blue economy is vital for the social-economic development of Georgia and other countries across the region,” said Sebastian Molineus, World Bank Regional Director for the South Caucasus.

Today’s event also initiated consultations on Blueing the Black Sea, a World Bank and BSEC supported new regional initiative to tackle marine pollution and catalyze Blue Economy investments in the Black Sea region. Recognizing the critical importance that environmental rehabilitation of the Black Sea has for the entire region, the World Bank supports Georgia, as well as other countries of the region, in their collaboration for effective pollution prevention, reduction, and control in the Black Sea.

“Transboundary pollution challenges require regional solutions,” noted Steven Schonberger, World Bank Sustainable Development Regional Director. “However, the regional goals have to translate into national investments that promote economic growth. Any country tackling pollution alone cannot guarantee a desirable quality of the sea water in a closed ecosystem such as the Black Sea. Considering this common ecosystem, collaboration at the regional level is essential.”

The Blueing the Black Sea consultations contribute to strengthened national and regional dialogue to address marine pollution and provide Georgia with a valuable opportunity to integrate the Black Sea into the country’s strategies for climate adaptation and mitigation.

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Public-private partnerships could play key role in combatting deforestation

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As environmental leaders and change makers meet virtually for the Fifth Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA)  in February 2021, the issue of deforestation has been central to their discussions.

“There can be no conversation on climate change without including forests and deforestation,” said Gabriel Labbate, a forestry expert with the United Nations Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD).   “It is fundamental in the fight against the environmental emergency that faces us.”

Forests and woodlands are important stores of planet-warming carbon dioxide, soaking up 30 per cent of emissions from industry and fossil fuels. Their role in capturing and storing carbon is critical to mitigating the risks that climate change poses to the world’s food systems.

But every year, the world loses 7 million hectares of forests, an area the size of Portugal. Globally, primary forest area has fallen by over 80 million hectares since 1990, found the hallmark State of the World’s Forests report, produced by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Today, forest fires, pests, diseases, invasive species, drought and extreme weather events put at least another 100 million hectares at risk.

At the UN Environment Assembly, experts discussed the Green Gigaton Challenge, an ambitious public-private partnership backed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). It aims to catalyse funds for initiatives to combat deforestation, with the target of reducing 1 gigaton (or 1 billion metric tonnes) of emissions by 2025.

The challenge channels public and private sector finance into efforts led by national and subnational governments to halt deforestation, while helping companies support their internal emissions reductions with the purchase of carbon credits. It advocates using nature-based solutions, such as replanting and restoring tropical forests, to reduce emissions. As well as cutting emissions, forests increase biodiversity and regulate water, offering a rounded environmental solution.

“Reducing emissions by 1 gigaton is the same as taking 80 per cent of all cars off the roads in the United States. It has a huge impact and the potential to deliver lasting environmental change. As countries look to rebuild their economies in the wake of COVID-19, 2021 can be the year we make a quantum shift in scale, funding and results,” said Niklas Hagelberg, Coordinator of UNEP’s climate change programme.

At the Green Gigaton Challenge event, participants – who included Ministers of the Environment from various countries – discussed how private sector funding can jump-start forest-based solutions to climate change. Key to this is getting large corporations to understand how reforesting can help them meet their emissions reduction targets in a cost-effective way.

“We see private sector commitment growing and this is crucial in reducing emissions,” said Tim Christophersen, a UNEP ecosystems expert. “2021 provides a unique opportunity to make forests a real pillar of climate mitigation efforts. We will need to send clear and consistent policy signals to ensure this emerging market will be useful and can grow.”

The Green Gigaton Challenge is measurable, and financing can be results-based, meaning funds are released as targets are met. This results in more resources allocated as it gives donors, both private and public, peace of mind that they are getting what they pay for.

Initiatives like this are a step towards reducing global warming. The past decade was the hottest in human history and experts say the planet is on pace for in excess of 3°C of warming, a figure that could have catastrophic consequences.

UNEP is at the forefront of efforts to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement, namely keeping the global temperature rise to well below 2°C, and preferably to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels.

To this end, UNEP has developed a Six-Sector Solution to cutting emissions. The solution provides a roadmap to how emissions can be reduced across sectors in order to meet the annual 29-32 gigaton reduction needed to limit temperature rise. The six sectors identified are agriculture and food; forests and land use; buildings and cities; transport; energy; and cities.  

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