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Transforming Sierra Leone’s capital

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Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr is a vocal supporter of the Global Green New Deal, which was launched at the C40 World Mayors Summit in Copenhagen in October as a solution to tackle inequality and the climate crisis together.

In January last year, Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr launched the Transform Freetown plan, a three-year vision for the development of the city. It aims to work with residents to address a range of issues from waste management and housing, to improving urban planning and tackling environmental degradation. In 2020, Freetown committed to planting 1 million trees to build resilience against flooding and absorb carbon dioxide. Freetown is a GEF-7 Sustainable Cities Impact Programme (SCIP) city; the programme supports cities pursuing integrated urban planning and implementation that delivers impactful sustainable development outcomes with global environmental benefits.

We are still dealing with the pandemic and cities are very much on the frontline. Can you tell us what kind of challenges you’re facing in Freetown?

Numbers are low here. We just have over 800 confirmed cases in the city, about half the numbers in the country. But the outbreak has meant that people have been nervous about using health facilities. It’s a risk because health conditions, which otherwise would not have been as challenging, are becoming problematic.

The other thing is the impact on the economy. Much of our economy is import-led, so restrictions on commerce mean not being able to get things in as supply chains are disrupted. There were anecdotes of trucks with fresh produce going rotten at inter-district border crossings when travel restrictions were put in place to limit the spread of the Coronavirus disease. This led to increases in prices of fresh produce in markets in Freetown.

We are trying to implement preventive measures in a city where there is a great informality, particularly informal housing; Freetown now has up to about 74 informal settlements. Where there are dense populations and overcrowded housing, it is very challenging to have social distancing. The Freetown City Council COVID-19 preparedness response plan was designed to address these challenges as best as we can.

Can you talk a little more about this response plan?

We are looking to make sure people take the virus and measures seriously. We also need to make it possible to follow measures like washing hands and wearing masks. We have put over 100 water tanks – some of which come with rainwater harvesting systems – in communities, in health clinics, and in marketplaces. We have distributed about 90,000 locally produced masks to the most vulnerable, with a target of 120,000. We are developing urban farming projects in informal settlements to improve food security and resilience amongst their residents.

Even though scientists warned a pandemic would come, the world wasn’t ready. What does the pandemic tell us about the need to prepare for climate change?

Climate change is on us, and a pandemic like this means that the impacts of climate change can translate into increased vulnerability of populations like people living in informal settlements, in inadequate housing and sanitation. There is a real need to ensure both climate change mitigation and investment in infrastructure, as well as reducing rural-urban migration happens now.

Informal settlements in Freetown have grown as a result of rural-urban migration. These informal settlements are created along the coast near mangroves, which is destroying the natural habitat, and along the hillside of Freetown, which results in massive deforestation with the result of denuded hill sides. With abnormal rainfall, this leads to flooding.

As part of our response to climate change, we have invested in sanitation and flood mitigation, as our city has been plagued with floods. As the rainy season starts, we do a massive clearance of gutters and waterways. We are also implementing the #FreetownTheTreeTown campaign, through which we aim to reduce erosion and run off, and increase vegetation cover in the city by planting one million trees.

You mentioned a need for infrastructure investment. How does the development of green infrastructure help? And what kind of things are you doing in Freetown beyond tree planting?

Investment in green infrastructure is absolutely necessary: from a biodiversity perspective, from a carbon sink perspective. It is also about how we create our cities so that they are more liveable; green infrastructure has benefits for quality of life.

Moving beyond green infrastructure, sanitation, waste management and the circular economy is key. I mentioned that one of our investment areas is urban farming. We have given tricycles to youth groups to collect household waste and create employment. With the urban farming element, you can separate waste and have compost brought back for urban farming at the community level. Investing in the circular green economy is where we’d like to go.

You joined the C40 demonstrating a great climate change effort and commitment. What exactly is your commitment and what exactly is your strategy apart from what you have already presented?

Everyone’s climate change commitment reflects their climate change impact. With us, we have two sectors that are high greenhouse gas emitters: waste management and transport. When I came in as Mayor, we had 21 per cent of solid waste and 6 per cent of liquid waste being collected. Our ambition is to increase both to at least 60 per cent by 2022. We are finalizing the design of a sanitary landfill park. We are working on a cable car system to carry an estimated number of 6000 people per hour, with a target date of 2022 to reduce reliance on the current informal low-occupancy public transport system.

How are you working with the private sector? Are you seeing more awareness and money coming in from businesses?

The cable car investment is a clear example, as there is a business interest in running mass transit. Then there is the flood mitigation project: this year it is paid for with the support of development partners, but before we had support from private sector players. We are launching a new green space, which used to be a big roundabout which was in disrepair, in partnership with a bank. These are examples of collaboration. Even with the sanitation, there will be private sector players and they are private suppliers in every element.

How engaged are local communities? Are people getting the impacts of climate change and changing their behaviour?

We had a very large mudslide in 2017 that killed over 1,000 people; that has really focused minds. I think people understand the issue of flooding and their causes on a large scale. When it rains now, we put posts on Facebook and on WhatsApp to explain our flood mitigation work. People can see that what we are clearing away from the gutters is soil coming from the hills because of deforestation. But a person who cuts down trees to build a home or make charcoal to feed their family needs an alternative. That’s where we have to come in with solutions. This is where the investment is needed and that is why subnational government need access to resources.

I would say 90 per cent of what I described has been paid with development funding, but that is not the story we want, that is not the resilience experience as it is not sustainable. How do we build investment into jobs – green and circular jobs – so that we have a cycle that will enable residents to pay their local taxes and property rates and in turn enable the city to make these investments without external funding?

Let’s talk about how the plan “Transform Freetown” promotes integration across sectors. What sectors are you prioritizing to achieve cross-cutting results?

Our three-year plan for the city is called Transform Freetown. It is four clusters and 11 priority sectors, with the clusters being: resilience, human development, a healthy city and urban mobility. Everything ties into resilience, climate change adaptation and mitigation. It’s recognizing that to deal with these issues you’ve got to look at water, housing, sanitation, job creation and skills development amongst other things. The 11 priority sectors are our commitment to integration and building a sustainable city.

What message do you have for international organizations in terms of how they can support your and other cities to become sustainable?

When you look at climate change action and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), I believe that implementation happens locally, on the ground. To save our climate and world, we need operational action to be taken, as well, of course, as policies at the national level. The point that is made repeatedly by the mayors I talk to is that city governments need access to financial resources, from the private sector as well as institutional development partners. It is so important for subnational governments to have access to development partner funding directly.

UN Environment

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Environment

‘No time to lose’ curbing greenhouse gases

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Last year, heat-trapping greenhouse gases reached a new record, surging above the planet’s 2011-2020 average, and has continued in 2021, according to a new report published on Monday by the UN weather agency.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Greenhouse Gas Bulletin contains a “stark, scientific message” for climate change negotiations at the upcoming UN climate conference, known as COP26, in Glasgow, said Petteri Taalas, head of the UN agency.

“At the current rate of increase in greenhouse gas concentrations, we will see a temperature increase by the end of this century far in excess of the Paris Agreement targets of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels”, he explained. “We are way off track.”

Emissions rising

Concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2020 was 149 per cent above the pre-industrial level; methane, 262 per cent; and nitrous oxide, 123 per cent, compared to the point when human activitity began to be a destabilizing factor.

And although the coronavirus-driven economic slowdown sparked a temporary decline in new emissions, it has had no discernible impact on the atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases or their growth rates.

As emissions continue, so too will rising global temperatures, the report maintained.

Moreover, given the long life of CO2, the current temperature level will persist for decades, even if emissions are rapidly reduced to net zero.

From intense heat and rainfall to sea-level rise and ocean acidification, rising temperatures will be accompanied by more weather extremes – all with far-reaching socioeconomic impacts.

“The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was three to five million years ago, when the temperature was 2-3°C warmer and sea level was 10-20 meters higher than now”, stated the WMO chief. “But there weren’t 7.8 billion people then”, he reminded.

Lingering CO2

Roughly half of today’s human-emitted CO2 remains in the atmosphere and the other half is absorbed by oceans and land ecosystems, the Bulletin flagged.

At the same time, the capacity of land ecosystems and oceans to absorb emissions may become a less effective buffer against temperature increases in the future.

Meanwhile, many countries are currently setting carbon neutral targets amidst the hope that COP26 will see a dramatic increase in commitments.

“We need to transform our commitment into action that will have an impact of the gases that drive climate change. We need to revisit our industrial, energy and transport systems and whole way of life”, said the WMO official. 

The needed changes are economically affordable and technically possible“, he assured. “There is no time to lose”.

Battling emissions

CO2 is the single most important greenhouse gas and has “major negative repercussions for our daily lives and well-being, for the state of our planet and for the future of our children and grandchildren”, argued the WMO chief.

Carbon sinks are vital regulators of climate change because they remove one-quarter of the CO2 that humans release into the atmosphere.

Nitrous Oxide is both a powerful greenhouse gas and ozone depleting chemical that is emitted into the atmosphere from both natural and anthropogenic sources, including oceans, soils, biomass burning, fertilizer use and various industrial processes.

Multiple co-benefits of reducing methane, whose gas remains in the atmosphere for about a decade, could support the Paris Agreement and help to reach many Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), said the Bulletin.

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Landmark decision gives legal teeth to protect environmental defenders

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A 46-strong group of countries across the wider European region has agreed to establish a new legally binding mechanism that would protect environmental defenders, the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) said on Friday.

“I remain deeply concerned by the targeting of environmental activists”, said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, welcoming the rapid response mechanism as “an important contribution to help advance my Call to Action for Human Rights”. 

The agreement will delegate setting up the new mechanism to the United Nations, or another international body.

As the first ever internationally-agreed tool to safeguard environmental defenders, it marks an important step in upholding the universal right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment – as recognized by the Human Rights Council earlier this month

“Twenty years ago, the Aarhus Convention entered into force, bridging the gap between human and environmental rights.

Today, as the devastating effects of climate change continue to ravage the world, the Convention’s core purpose – of allowing people to protect their wellbeing and that of future generations – has never been more critical”, spelled out the UN chief. 

A protective eye

The agreement to establish the mechanism was adopted on Thursday by the Meeting of the Parties to the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, known as the Aarhus Convention. 

“This landmark decision is a clear signal to environmental defenders that they will not be left unprotected”, said UNECE chief Olga Algayerova.

“It demonstrates a new level of commitment to upholding the public’s rights under the Aarhus Convention, as well as Parties’ willingness to respond effectively to grave and real-time challenges seen in the Convention’s implementation on the ground”.   

Vital defence

Whether it is groups protesting the construction of a dangerous dam or individuals speaking out against harmful agricultural practices in their local community, these activists are vital to environmental preservation across the globe, said the UNECE.

The Aarhus Convention ensures that those exercising their rights in conformity with the provisions of the Convention shall not be penalized, persecuted or harassed in any way for their involvement.

As such, the mechanism will establish a Special Rapporteur – or independent rights expert – who will quickly respond to alleged violations and take measures to protect those experiencing or under imminent threat of penalization, persecution, or harassment for seeking to exercise their rights under the Convention.  

As time is of the essence to buttress the safety of environmental defenders, any member of the public, secretariat or Party to the Aarhus Convention, will be able to submit a confidential complaint to the Special Rapporteur, even before other legal remedies have been exhausted.   

Defenders targeted

Although it is crucial for environmental defenders to confidently exercise their rights, cases have been reported in which instead, they face being fired, heavy fines, criminalization, detention, violence, and even death. 

Moreover, incidents of harassment and violence against environmental defenders are far from uncommon

A report to the Human Rights Council by Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, found that one-in-two human rights defenders who were killed in 2019 had been working with communities around issues of land, environment, impacts of business activities, poverty and rights of indigenous peoples, Afrodescendants and other minorities.  

Since January 2017, among the Parties to the Aarhus Convention, incidents of persecution, penalization and harassment of environmental defenders have been reported in 16 countries

In contrast to current existing initiatives, which mainly rely on applying political pressure through the media, the Aarhus Convention’s rapid response mechanism will be built on a binding legal framework, giving it much greater powers to act.

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Plastic pollution on course to double by 2030

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Plastic pollution in oceans and other bodies of water continues to grow sharply and could more than double by 2030, according to an assessment released on Thursday by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). 

The report highlights dire consequences for health, the economy, biodiversity and the climate. It also says a drastic reduction in unnecessary, avoidable and problematic plastic, is crucial to addressing the global pollution crisis overall.  

To help reduce plastic waste at the needed scale, it proposes an accelerated transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies, the removal of subsidies and a shift towards more circular approaches towards reduction. 

Titled From Pollution to Solution: a global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution, the report shows that there is a growing threat, across all ecosystems, from source to sea. 

Solutions to hand 

But it also shows that there is the know-how to reverse the mounting crisis, provided the political will is there, and urgent action is taken. 

The document is being released 10 days ahead of the start of the crucial UN Climate Conference, COP26, stressing that plastics are a climate problem as well.  

For example, in 2015, greenhouse gas emissions from plastics were 1.7 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent; by 2050, they’re projected to increase to approximately 6.5 gigatonnes. That number represents 15 per cent of the whole global carbon budget – the​​ amount of greenhouse gas that can be emitted, while still keeping warming within the Paris Agreement goals. 

Recycling not enough 

Addressing solutions to the problem, the authors pour cold water on the chances of recycling our way out of the plastic pollution crisis. 

They also warn against damaging alternatives, such as bio-based or biodegradable plastics, which currently pose a threat similar to conventional plastics. 

The report looks at critical market failures, such as the low price of virgin fossil fuel feedstocks (any renewable biological material that can be used directly as a fuel) compared to recycled materials, disjointed efforts in informal and formal plastic waste management, and the lack of consensus on global solutions. 

Instead, the assessment calls for the immediate reduction in plastic production and consumption, and encourages a transformation across the whole value chain. 

It also asks for investments in far more robust and effective monitoring systems to identify the sources, scale and fate of plastic. Ultimately, a shift to circular approaches and more alternatives are necessary.  

Making the case for change 

For the Executive Director of UNEP, Inger Andersen, this assessment “provides the strongest scientific argument to date for the urgency to act, and for collective action to protect and restore our oceans, from source to sea.” 

She said that a major concern is what happens with breakdown products, such as microplastics and chemical additives, which are known to be toxic and hazardous to human and wildlife health and ecosystems. 

“The speed at which ocean plastic pollution is capturing public attention is encouraging. It is vital that we use this momentum to focus on the opportunities for a clean, healthy and resilient ocean”, Ms. Andersen argued.  

Growing problem 

Currently, plastic accounts for 85 per cent of all marine litter. 

By 2040, it will nearly triple, adding 23-37 million metric tons of waste into the ocean per year. This means about 50kg of plastic per meter of coastline. 

Because of this, all marine life, from plankton and shellfish; to birds, turtles and mammals; faces the grave risk of toxification, behavioral disorder, starvation and suffocation. 

The human body is similarly vulnerable. Plastics are ingested through seafood, drinks and even common salt. They also penetrate the skin and are inhaled when suspended in the air. 

In water sources, this type of pollution can cause hormonal changes, developmental disorders, reproductive abnormalities and even cancer. 

Economy 

According to the report, there are also significant consequences for the global economy. 

Globally, when accounting for impacts on tourism, fisheries and aquaculture, together with the price of projects such as clean-ups, the costs were estimated to be six to 19 billion dollars per year, during 2018. 

By 2040, there could be a $100 billion annual financial risk for businesses if governments require them to cover waste management costs. It can also lead to a rise in illegal domestic and international waste disposal. 

The report will inform discussions at the UN Environment Assembly in 2022, where countries will come together to decide a way forward for more global cooperation. 

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