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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

Green transformation will rival industrial revolution

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IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva and US Climate Envoy John Kerry discuss climate action on the CNN news channel. Image: IMF

The transition to a global economic model which will slow down climate change and create jobs will be the “biggest economic transformation since the industrial revolution” according to John Kerry, the US climate envoy.

Mr. Kerry expressed the view in a discussion with Kristalina Georgieva, the head of the International Monetary Fund as part of the 2021 Spring meetings of the IMF and World Bank.

They agreed that a “green and resilient recovery” from the COVID-19 pandemic is possible but economic growth globally is likely to be slow and uneven.

‘No bank will fund a new coal plant’

John Kerry: There are many ways that we can address the climate challenge in America. President Biden has put a $2 trillion plan on the table, which will result in 500,000 charging stations for electric vehicles being built in the country, thousands of electric buses, including school buses, and a target of 100 per cent carbon-free power, by 2035.

All these measures will generate actions in the private sector. The decisions of some of the largest financial institutions in the world are being driven by environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors, and trillions of dollars is going to be invested in this new sector to avoid sheer catastrophe. We’re way behind, but we believe that this is going to be the biggest economic transformation since the industrial revolution.

In Europe, no bank or financial institution or even private source will fund a coal-fired power plant, but we have to move away from coal faster. Many old coal-fired plants are operating at less than 50 per cent efficiency. They are losing money and are not even sending energy to the main grid. They could be phased out over a period of time. Gas will, to some degree, be a bridge fuel [to renewables].

The United States could help mobilize finance to reduce risk, and then bring more money to the table for a commercial investment in alternative fuel sources.

Kristalina Georgieva: At the IMF we have identified three pillars in the transition to a low-carbon economy. First of all, put a price on all carbon emissions. Today only 23 per cent of emissions are being priced. The average price is $2 per ton. By 2030, we need to be at $75 a ton.

Second, funding is needed for public investment in green infrastructure. The IMF can support countries in this regard. Five per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) invested now, would generate an additional 0.7 per cent growth every year. This means that the investment would pay for itself within 15 years and create at least 12 million net jobs.

The third, hugely important pillar, is to lessen the impact on those who are currently employed in the high carbon economy. For example, there must be a just transition for miners, so that they can have benefit from new job opportunities. If we raise revenues from carbon pricing, some of that money must be used to provide a buffer, to soften the pressure on those businesses that need to move away from carbon dependency. This is doable, and it must be done.

China and the US

John Kerry : Right now, China is saying that they are going to reach peak emissions by 2030, and that they may be able to reach that target earlier, maybe by 2025. The problem is that the current models shows China peaking but then basically staying at a plateau, rather than sufficiently lowering emissions.

Some 30 per cent of all the emissions on the planet are produced by China, so if we don’t see a reduction between 2020 and 2030, we lose the capacity to keep the global temperature to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, and we lose the capacity to hit net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Every nation must work together on this. If the United States went to zero emissions tomorrow, it wouldn’t make the kind of difference we need because we all have to reduce at the same time. That’s the struggle we’re facing.

China obviously has a need to continue to grow and to develop. We want that, and we’re not begrudging that. We want to work with China and other countries to make sure that they don’t make the mistakes that we made, and that we work together to develop new technologies such as hydrogen fuel, and biofuels for aircraft.

Doing nothing is too expensive

John Kerry: The United States is the number two emitter in the world. We need to do a better job at reducing emissions on an accelerated basis. President Biden is stepping up to do that.  He’s hosting a virtual climate summit in April, he has rejoined the Paris climate agreement, and he has put together a $2 trillion piece of infrastructure legislation.

Climate action means jobs, whether in the creation of new energy sources, or transitioning out of the existing ones, building new cars or retrofitting homes. Those are jobs for workers in all countries. We should embrace this.

The economists have warned us again and again: doing nothing is more expensive to our citizens, our taxpayers, than responding to the climate crisis. We spent $365 billion cleaning up after three storms a couple of years ago, but we haven’t invested the $100 billion in the Green Climate Fund that would have provided resilience and adaptation to climate change, and prevented some of that damage from being done. We’re just not making the right choices.

Kristalina Georgieva:  We’ve already started offering a helping hand, especially to countries devastated by natural disasters.  We have put measures in place to help countries to be in a better position when disaster hits. For example, we are discussing with our membership a provision that will make $650 billion available for countries to not only take the necessary measures to deal with the pandemic and its impact, but also to take on the investments necessary for transformation of their economy.

The urgency to act is evident, and vivid: over the last six months, 10 million people were displaced by floods and other forms of natural disasters. Fast-forward to a world in which there are more climate-related disasters, and more migration.
We have a chance to take advantage of a transformation for growth and for jobs. But we are also under tremendous pressure to prevent a future that would be bleak for those we love the most: our children and grandchildren.

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Environmental rights, here and now: working for change in 2021

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COVID-19 hasn’t only raised concern for health. It has also stimulated thought and debate around issues of human rights – including those related to the environment. After all, the emergence of the zoonotic disease has demonstrated that the health of people and planet are one and the same.

All people have the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment – pollution-free air and water, land and soil, seas and oceans – and a life free from chemicals.

Pollution claims millions of lives every year. But unlike COVID-19, which has drawn rapid and dramatic attention, pollution is widely dismissed as unavoidable; as a consequence of development and daily life, beyond anyone’s control.

“Environmental rights empower individuals, people, and peoples, and help humanity in addressing the triple planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution,” said Arnold Kreilhuber, Acting Director of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) Law Division. “Global recognition of the right to a healthy environment is a unique opportunity to address these pertinent environmental challenges, and to elevate the position of rights-holders in order to ensure that the exercise of these vital rights is available to all.”

This could mean using the law to hold governments and decision-makers to account, or using our purchasing power to influence production trends and business owners. The air we breathe, the water we drink and the world in which we live can mean the difference between life and death. Now is the time to claim the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

Says Ben Schachter, Environment and Climate Change Focal Point at the UN Human Rights Office, “States have an obligation to respect, protect and fulfill human rights for all including the rights to participation, access to information and access to justice in environmental matters. These and other human rights empower all people to play an active role in efforts to preserve the environment for present and future generations. We can change the world by exercising our rights and working together to promote informed decision-making about the environment.”  

It has become clear in this time of global pandemic that quality information matters and can inform decisions with the power to change the world swiftly and dramatically. And on the other hand, misinformation can do great harm.

Transformational change begins with education – building a knowledge base and sharing accurate, science-based information. On 15 April (3pmUTC/4pmCEST), the UNEP Law Division, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Wikimedia Foundation will host an online event, exploring the human right to a healthy environment.

The event will launch the 2021 #WikiForHumanRights campaign – a call for volunteers to improve the content on Wikipedia, relating to human rights, environmental health, and the range of communities impacted by the convergent environmental crises of climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss. The campaign will see communities all over the world populate, strengthen, and translate articles on Wikipedia relating to the right to a healthy environment.

The 90-minute launch event will consider the connection between environmental issues and human rights, how communities are affected by environmental harm and ways for individual and collaborative efforts to create positive change, with live translation available in English, French, Arabic, Spanish and Chinese.

UNEP

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Muscovites Apply for 700 Trees to be Planted in Honor of Their Newborn Children

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moscow plant trees

The Our Tree project launched two years ago by Moscow’s Department of Information Technology and Department of Nature Management and Environmental Protection has quickly become very popular among Muscovites. Thanks to this annual campaign, city residents can now celebrate the happiest event in their family life – the birth of a child – by giving their baby a unique gift – their own personal tree.

Any parent who is permanently resident in Moscow can apply for a tree within three years of the birth of their child. To do so, they need only have an account on the mos.ru website. On average, 700 Muscovites apply for a tree to be planted in honor of their newborn child each month.

In two months, young parents have submitted more than 1,500 online applications to participate in the Our Tree project and plant seedlings in honor of their newborn kids in the autumn. That’s twice as many as during the same period in spring. Acceptance of applications began on January 16 and will continue until June 15.

Last autumn, more than 5,000 trees were planted as part of the project, with linden, Norway maple, pine, white willow and rowan trees being the most popular choices. Spring planting of personal saplings will soon begin.

Eduard Lysenko, Minister of the Moscow Government and Head of the Department of Information Technology, noted that interest in the Our Tree project among young parents is growing every year: in 2019, more than 2,300 trees were applied for and planted, while in 2020 the number increased to 5,000. More than 4,500 saplings will appear in Moscow’s parks this spring thanks to the project participants.

“A set of online services has been created for families with children on the mos.ru portal. The Our Tree project is another opportunity for young parents to celebrate the important milestone of the birth of their child and to contribute to the city’s ecology. Taking part in the project is very simple – just submit an online application on the portal. Some information is filled in automatically from users’ personal accounts, which makes everything even more convenient. On average, Muscovites order more than 700 seedlings to plant as family trees in their favorite park each month,” said Lysenko.

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