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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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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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COVID-19 can act as a jump-start for environmental change

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Photo: IISD / 19 Feb 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic is drawing young people around the world into the fight against climate change, as witnessed this week during the Youth Environment Assembly.

The gathering, which is being held virtually, as part of the UN Environment Assembly, is the planet’s largest youth-led environmental event. It has zeroed in on climate change, which participants described as a dire threat to the planet.

This year’s Youth Environment Assembly saw the release of UNEP’s GEO-6 for Youth – a report targeted at 15-24-year-olds, written with the intention of translating high-level scientific messages into a language that is accessible and actionable. This age group makes up one-sixth of the world’s population and is crucial in the fight against climate change.

“(COVID-19) can act as a jump-start for environmental change,” said Rohan Bhargava, 27, a climate change expert and an author of the United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP)  Global Environment Outlook 6 for Youth report (GEO-6 for Youth). “We can’t ignore the challenges anymore.”

The last decade was the hottest in recorded history, the latest sign, say experts, that human-produced carbon dioxide emissions are quickly pushing the Earth’s climate to the breaking point.

But the global fight against COVID-19, and the trillions of dollars being devoted to pandemic recovery, is creating hope that the world can finally make progress on climate change.

“COVID-19 has shown how quickly we can implement change when we need to,” said Maria Jesus Iraola, 27, an environmental expert, researcher and also a coordinating lead author of the GEO-6 for Youth report. “We need to bring this same urgency to the environment.”

That message appears to be sinking in. The People’s Climate Vote, a United Nations Development Programme survey, showed that two-thirds of those polled thought the world now faced a “global emergency.” The poll is the largest environmental survey ever and involved 1.2 million people, many of them youth, across 50 countries.

Young activists, assemble

This year’s Youth Environment Assembly provided a barometer of what young people think about climate change and the message is undeniably clear: “We need to build back better, we need to be more innovative and we need to move quickly,” said Iraola.

“Meaningful youth engagement has to be mainstreamed across environmental governance,” said Christianne Zakour, a representative from UNEP’s Major Group for Children and Youth (MGCY),  “Children and youth are not just your social media retweets or ornaments to tick the box – it is a generation that needs to be empowered.”

GEO-6 for Youth was due to be released in March 2020 but was delayed due to the pandemic. Much of what was written has since been reinforced by COVID-19, said Iraola.

“We suggested working from home before COVID-19 as a way to cut emissions,” she said. “We didn’t change the core messages of the report, COVID-19 just highlighted and reinforced them. They are more relevant and relatable now.”

The authors of GEO-6 for Youth hope some of the lessons learnt during COVID-19 can be transplanted into the fight against climate change.

“COVID-19 has shown how quickly we can implement change when we need to, we need to bring this same urgency to the environment,” Iraola said.  

“The future is now. We, as youth, face these environmental problems daily,” said Bhargava.

“The talk used to be hypothetical, but now we can’t ignore the challenges, it’s no longer hypothetical but very real.”

Below are some insights from young people who participated in the event:

“As protectors of Planet Earth, we the youth call for safe spaces and enabling platforms where we can continue to play meaningful roles as advocates in shaping the future we want.” – John Aggrey, Ghana.

“Youth are playing a catalytic role at local to global level, driving for climate action. We call for youth-friendly and inclusive policies which better capture and nurture our roles as positive agents of change. We should be better recognized, promoted and supported.”  – Kudzanai Chimhanda, Zimbabwe.

“In regard to environmental stewardship, youth community organisers have done great work over the last several years. Youth are not just the leaders of tomorrow, but they are also the leaders of today.” Rohan Arora, United States.

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