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Amid COVID-19, these 10 countries are aiming to kickstart their economies by repairing nature

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In 1933, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order allocating US$ 10 million for emergency conservation efforts under the New Deal, putting unemployed Americans to work. When South Korea was struggling with famine and a refugee crisis in the 1950s, the government restored forests and farmland, creating hundreds of thousands of rural jobs.

Fast forward to the COVID-19 crisis, and some states are once again using restoration as an engine of employment, especially in rural areas where jobs are badly needed. That strategy not only has the potential to kickstart economic growth, it’s also key in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss. Reviving nature is at the core of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a global push to repair lands lost to development that is set to begin in 2021.

“A green recovery is one that tackles the climate, biodiversity and pollution crises at the same time,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme. “Some countries are already designing stimulus packages that include actions for forests, wetlands, soils and green cities. At the UN Biodiversity Summit, we saw a remarkable groundswell of political commitment to nature. But now we must step up on a massive-scale, actions to restore our degraded ecosystems.”

Here are 10 states that have included restoration commitments in their pandemic recovery plans.

Pakistan

Pakistan has hired tens of thousands of people who lost their jobs during COVID-19 lockdowns to plant saplings, including mulberry and acacia trees. The government, which launched the 10 Billion Tree Tsunami programme in 2018, exempted the initiative from some lockdown restrictions.

France

About one-third of France’s €100 billion (US$ 120 billion) recovery package is devoted to accelerating the greening of the economy. Alongside investments in clean buildings, industry and transport, are new resources for the “agro-ecological transition” of agriculture. The initiative includes advice, training and tax credits for organic farmers, replanting and restoring hundreds of kilometres of hedges along field boundaries, and support for locally based food systems and urban farming.

New Zealand

New Zealand has earmarked NZ$ 1.1 billion (US$ 750 million) in recovery funds to create up to 11,000 “environmental jobs” in areas like wetland restoration, the revegetation of conservation areas and the protection of riparian zones. There is also funding for efforts to control introduced predators, including rats and stoats, which have decimated native birds, and invasive species of conifer trees.

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

The United Kingdom plans to invest up to  £40 million (US$ 52 million) in a so-called Green Recovery Challenge Fund. It will help environmental groups and public authorities create or safeguard up to 5,000 jobs in nature conservation and restoration, with a focus on tree planting and the rehabilitation of peatlands. The United Kingdom is also developing a system to assess its natural capital to improve its understanding of habitats and provide better guidance for decision making.

Ethiopia

Ethiopia is aiming to plant 5 billion seedlings this year, part of an effort to double its forest cover by 2030. Together with the Economic Commission for Africa, the country has focused on forest restoration as a way to create green jobs, improve the health of its citizens and spur a recovery from COVID-19. In 2019, Ethiopia set a new world record when over 350 million trees were planted in one day as part of President Abiy Ahmed’s Green Legacy Initiative.

Finland

Finland’s recovery efforts include a proposal to spend €53 million (US$ 63 million) on recreation areas, water services and forest conservation. An additional €13.1 million (US$ 15.5 million) will be channelled to the rehabilitation of natural habitats, including forests, and the development of nature tourism. These funds are earmarked for state-owned enterprises charged with capturing carbon and protecting biodiversity.

Colombia

Restoration efforts in Colombia’s recovery plan include reforestation and support for sustainable agriculture. To reverse deforestation and combat climate change, the government aims to plant 180 million trees, some 50 million of which should be in the ground before the end of 2020. The package includes funds to promote agroforestry and agropastoralism, farming techniques that can restore soils and ecosystems. The government also plans to tighten mining regulations to protect the environment.

Iceland

As part of its stimulus package, Iceland has allocated ISK 200 million (US$1.5 million) for natural carbon sequestration projects, including the expansion of native birch forests and the restoration of wetlands. Iceland is also pushing ahead with plans to ban the sale of single-use plastics, such as cutlery and food containers, to combat the pollution of marine ecosystems.

Kenya

The country’s capital, Nairobi, has hired once-destitute families to clean up its parks and waterways, helping many to earn income and get off the streets. City officials are already seeing environmental benefits: 1,200 tons of garbage have been removed and fish are returning to Nairobi River.

Ireland

Ireland has announced an extra €15 million (US$18 million) to accelerate a programme to rehabilitate 33,000 hectares of peatlands degraded by development. The programme is designed to increase the area of wetlands for endangered species, such as the grey partridge and marsh fritillary butterfly, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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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.

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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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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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