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The future is circular: What biodiversity really means

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Subtle shifts aren’t good enough, says Doreen Robinson, Chief of Wildlife at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). It’s time for a system-wide transformation. On the day of the UN Summit on Biodiversity, Robinson explains where we’ve gone wrong and how we can do better.

Why are we talking about biodiversity now – in the midst of a global disease pandemic, with economies stretched to their limits and a looming climate crisis?

As we speak, more species are threatened with extinction than ever before. Extreme weather events – and consequently, fires, floods and droughts – are happening more frequently and with greater intensity; and zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 now account for the majority of infectious diseases emerging in humans.

These are symptoms of a systemic problem, and this requires a systemic solution. We need to completely recalibrate our relationship to nature – and we need to do so, urgently.   Biodiversity is the foundation for all life on earth.

How does biodiversity affect the actual experiences of people in their everyday lives?

Biodiversity affects just about every aspect of human life, from job security and basic health to saving the planet for future generations.

More than half of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) is dependent on nature. Three-quarters of all food crop types – including fruits and vegetables and some of the most important cash crops, like coffee and almonds – require animal pollination. About half of the global population relies mainly on natural medicines and most of the drugs used to treat cancer are either natural or modelled after nature. So there is a direct and relationship between biodiversity and some very basic aspects of survival. 

There is also an important long-term, preventive aspect – which we are experiencing very acutely today.  Where native biodiversity is high, for example, the infection rate for some zoonotic diseases is lower.  So protecting natural habitats and wildlife is also a way to help protect ourselves.  Biodiversity is the basis for healthy ecosystems as well, and healthy ecosystems capture and store greenhouse gases and mitigate climate change, whereas damaged ecosystems release carbons and add to it.

When we work with nature, it works with us. And when we work against nature, we dismantle the very system that supports and protects us.

What exactly do you mean when you say “recalibrate our relationship to nature”?

Human actions have typically been shaped by a paradigm in which a “good life” means material consumption and perpetual economic growth. For decades, we have extracted natural resources, destroyed critical habitats, and generated pollution.  Our relationship with nature is unbalanced: humans are continuously taking and discarding, and nature is continuously giving.  This one-way relationship is unsustainable.

So we need to reset the balance: not just hoarding benefits, but investing as much back into nature as we extract from it. It’s time to develop a new paradigm that recognizes the value of nature and understands that life quality is not purely a matter of GDP. Instead of a linear approach in which things are used and discarded, we need to apply circular thinking in which life is sustained and things are continuously repurposed.  We need to think about these things in all the choices we make, from how we select and deliver the food we grow and eat to how we build our cities and provide water and electricity for our growing human population.

In the context of global challenges we now face, and with so many jobs and industries dependent on traditional economic models, is this kind of dramatic change possible?

Not only is it possible, but it is also our only hope.

Aside from the unprecedented global challenges we are experiencing, biodiversity loss is making it difficult to ensure even the most basic human rights – nutritious food, clean water and affordable energy. It is undermining progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals. And without a fundamental shift in our approach, we are unlikely to keep global warming within safe limits – a failure that would only magnify the challenges we face in the future.

It might seem counter-intuitive but, actually, now is the time to get serious about – precisely because of the challenges on our doorstep.  In times of uncertainty, biodiversity is a form of insurance, availing options and protecting us from shocks.

It also creates opportunities for new jobs, innovations – and better, healthier lives. And by prioritizing resource-intensive sectors in the shift toward sustainable consumption and production, we have the potential to achieve very significant gains over a relatively short period.

What does this mean in a practical sense: what specific actions need to be taken?

This means translating good intentions into concrete action.

As countries around the world launch various post-crisis initiatives and stimulus packages, we must include nature as part of those recovery packages.  That means natural capital must be included in decision making.  It means investing in green jobs including in areas of ecosystem protection and restoration.  Now is the time to establish new,nature-positive standards for production and consumption. And we need to invest in the environment dimensions of integrated One Health approaches to avoid future pandemics and other human health crises.  We can build back better – but only if we match words with deeds.

At the same time, we cannot afford to lessen our commitments to securing a new, ambitious and accountable Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that all of society can support.   

Channel long-term financing and investment toward nature and climate health.  Currently, governments around the world spend more than US$500 billion every year in ways that harm biodiversity, primarily to support industries like fossil fuels, agriculture and fisheries.  These funds could be repurposed to incentivise regenerative agriculture, sustainable food systems, clean technology and nature-positive innovations.

UN Environment

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Environment

Discrimination in the air

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Nine out of 10 people globally breathe polluted air, causing about 7 million premature deaths every year. On 7 September 2020, the United Nations observed the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies. This article is part of UNEP’s continuing coverage of air pollution and its impact globally.

Over 40 per cent of the U.S. population – about 134 million people – face health risks resulting from air pollution, -according to the American Lung Association. The burden is far from evenly shared. Studies show that in the United States, people of color and low-income communities face a significantly higher risk of environmental health effects, highlighting that the impacts of air pollution are experienced unequally throughout the country.

People of color are more likely to live in areas affected by pollution and high road traffic density, increasing risks to their health. As prominent American environmental justice activist and leader Robert D. Bullard emphasizes, race and place matter.

For example, along the Mississippi River in the southern United States, there is an area with some of the worst air pollution in the country. In the stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge Louisiana, many people live right next to several high-polluting industrial plants. Residents, who are predominately Black, have seen significant cancer clusters, with cancer risks in the area reaching up to 50% more than the national average. In St. John the Baptist parish alone, an area of about 2 square miles, the cancer rate is about 800 times higher than the American average.

Similarly, New York City neighborhood Mott Haven, home to mainly LatinX and Black families, has a very high level of air pollution from traffic, warehouses, and industry.  Residents in Mott Haven face some of the highest rates of asthma cases and asthma-related hospitalizations in the country, especially among children.

Often, communities experiencing high levels of air pollution are among the most vulnerable, facing poor access to health services, limited economic opportunity, more polluted work environments and racial injustices.  Comprehensive policies are needed to address these interrelated challenges.

“There is a strong correlation between socioeconomic factors and risk of air pollution,” said Dr. Barbara Hendrie, Regional Director for UN Environment Programme North America. “Recognizing this, and the disproportionate impacts of air pollution throughout the United States is a critical part of developing effective solutions.”

On the first-ever International Day of Clean Air for blue skies in September, the UN Environment Programme called upon governments, corporations, to civil society and individuals, to take action to reduce air pollution and bring about transformative change.

Air pollution does not have to be a part of our collective future. We have the solutions and must take the necessary actions to address this environmental menace and provide #CleanAirForAll.

UN Environment

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New strains of rice could address climate change

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Rice is a staple for more than 3.5 billion people, including most of the world’s poor. But it can be a problematic crop to farm. It requires massive amounts of water and the paddies in which it grows emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

To tackle such issues, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has been working with the Shanghai Agrobiological Gene Center to develop strains of rice that are drought resistant and don’t need to be planted in paddies. The research, say, experts, could help bolster food security at a time when COVID-19 is threatening to propel more people into hunger.

The study, which runs from 2017 to 2021, is funded by the Government of China and falls under the China-Africa South-South Cooperation arrangement.

“China has lots of experience growing rice and this collaboration with China is a first,” says UNEP ecosystems expert Levis Kavagi, who has been closely involved with the project.

Researchers have developed and tested over 50 varieties of rice in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda. They evaluated how the grains grow at different elevations and, importantly, how they taste.

WDR 73 also doesn’t need to be planted in a flooded paddy. That’s important for several reasons.

Transporting seedlings into flooded fields is a laborious process. Paddies are breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Water shortages, sparked by climate change, are expected to make filling paddies a challenge in many countries. And paddies themselves vent massive amounts of methane –  up to 20 per cent of human-related emissions of the greenhouse gas, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  

Growing rice on relatively dry land also reduces the ever-growing quest to open up wetlands, havens for birds and other animals, to farming.

“Usually the most suitable land for growing rice also tends to be next to, or in, wetlands or flood plains,” says Kavagi. “Expanding agricultural land involves draining the wetlands. This leads to loss of biodiversity, and reduced water purification and climate regulation services provided by wetlands.”

The ultimate goal of the project is to get a national certification of WDR 73, allowing it to be broadly disseminated to farmers. The project is part of a larger effort by China, African countries and UNEP to develop better rice varieties, improve livelihoods and bolster food security.

“The project shows that with new rice varieties it is possible to achieve the multiple objectives of food security, biodiversity and nature conservation – and fight against climate change,” says Kavagi.

Technical details of rice trials in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda

In Kenya, trials were conducted over three growing seasons in Mwea (central Kenya), Busia (western), and Mtwapa (coastal area). Rice variety WDR 73 performed well compared with the local Basmati varieties. The growth duration varied from 125 days in Mtwapa, to 150 days in Mwea and Busia, where the altitude is over 1,000m. Average grain yield was 5.1 to 9.0 tonnes per hectare. Plant height was 100-110 cm, which shows that this variety is tolerant to rice blast disease and displays good drought-resistant qualities compared to Basmati varieties.

In Uganda, WDR73 cultivation experiments were conducted in Lukaya, Luweero and Arua. In well-managed farms, grain yield increased from 4.35 to more than 6.0 tons per hectare. In Arua, in 2019 the rain-fed crop was direct sowed from 25-30 August and harvested from 30 November to 5 December. The growth duration was 90-95 days and yielded 4.35 tonnes per hectare. Direct seeded WDR 73 grain yield in Luweero in 2019 varied from 6 tonnes per hectare in rain-fed conditions to 8 tonnes per hectare in irrigated paddy fields.

In Bolgatanga, a drought-prone area in northern Ghana, WDR 73 growth duration was 105 days and plant height 110-120 cm, while the grain yield was 6.0 tonnes per hectare.

UN Environment

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Environment

Vietnam Signs Landmark Deal with World Bank to Cut Carbon Emissions

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Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development signed a landmark agreement today with the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF), unlocking up to US$51.5 million for Vietnam’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation between now and 2025. With this Emission Reductions Payment Agreement (ERPA) in place, Vietnam is expected to reduce 10.3 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions from six North Central Region provinces of Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Thua Thien Hue to receive $51.5 million from the FCPF.

Vietnam has shown tremendous leadership in developing robust programs to deliver forest emission reductions at scale,” saidCarolyn Turk, World Bank Country Director for Vietnam. “This agreement marks the beginning of a new chapter for Vietnam, where new and significant incentives for forest protection and improved management are now in place to help the country meet its ambitious climate targets.”

Vietnam’s Emission Reductions Program is designed to address the underlying causes of forest loss in the country’s North Central Region and by so doing reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. The program will also support forest restoration. The region was chosen for its critical biodiversity importance and socio-economic status. The program area covers 5.1 million hectares of land (16 percent of the land area of the country), of which 3.1 million hectares are currently forested, and includes five internationally recognized conservation corridors. It is home to approximately 10.5 million people, nearly one third of whom live below the national poverty line.

“Vietnam’s program follows a preparation phase that built our readiness to engage in an emission reduction payment agreement of this kind and is a step towards full implementation of forest carbon services in Vietnam. This agreement highlights the collaboration between Vietnam, FCPF and the World Bank to meet international climate targets laid out in the Paris Agreement,” said Ha Cong Tuan, Standing Vice Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. “Our program will mobilize important additional financing to invest in our forests and reduce forest degradation while generating income for forest owners and improving sustainable development in the North Central Region.”

Vietnam is the first country in Asia-Pacific and fifth globally to reach such a milestone agreement with the FCPF. ERPAs are innovative instruments that incentivize sustainable land management at scale and help to connect countries with other sources of climate financing. The resources from the FCPF provide new opportunities to conserve and regenerate forest landscapes and biodiversity while simultaneously supporting sustainable economic growth, which is critical for Vietnam’s development going forward.

The Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) is a global partnership of governments, businesses, civil society, and Indigenous Peoples’ organizations focused on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, forest carbon stock conservation, the sustainable management of forests, and the enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries, activities commonly referred to as REDD+. Launched in 2008, the FCPF has worked with 47 developing countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean, along with 17 donors that have made contributions and commitments totaling US$1.3 billion.

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