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To combat climate change and nature loss, multilateralism is key: Nordic countries

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The 2020 consultations between the five Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden – and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) generated substantial and frank discussions on issues like climate change, nature and sustainable development, say participants.

“We’ve had excellent discussions with our Nordic partners on the importance of multilateralism in an increasingly complex world, and the global role of UNEP in tackling unsustainable consumption and production to address the three planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP.

During the late-October talks, participants also discussed the opportunities presented by UN Development System reforms for strengthening the environmental dimension of sustainable development and UNEP’s role in it, including in supporting its Member States to achieve their environmental commitments. The sustainability of food systems was also on the agenda, as was the relationship between UNEP and various multilateral environmental agreements. Looking ahead towards 2022, the discussion included how to make the best use of the Stockholm+50 Conference, the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of UNEP, also known as UNEP@50, and the upcoming fifth UN Environment Assembly.

In the Nordic countries, the environment and climate are prioritized at the highest political level. Last year, the prime ministers of the Nordic countries committed to working towards carbon neutrality with the Declaration on Nordic Carbon Neutrality. The Nordic Council of Ministers also signed up to a new vision to become the world’s most sustainable and integrated region by 2030, working together to promote a green, competitive and socially sustainable Nordic region. When it comes to the health of our oceans, the Nordic countries have been strong supporters of ensuring a solid global response to marine litter and microplastics under the auspices of UNEP.

The Nordic countries share UNEP’s concern on the critical state of the environment, especially as it relates to biodiversity loss, climate change and pollution, including waste and the unsafe handling of chemicals. While these are all important challenges in themselves, they are also interrelated, posing a serious threat to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including the elimination of poverty and inequalities.

They agreed that UNEP and multilateral environmental agreements play a key role in this context and they supported the approach taken by UNEP in its proposed Medium-Term Strategy (2022-2025). That strategy is underpinned by the foundational work UNEP is doing in providing solid science for evidence-based policy-making, and in supporting the development and uptake of environmental governance.  

Henrik Studsgaard, the Danish Permanent Secretary from the Ministry of Environment and Food, said, “UNEP and the Nordic countries are close and longstanding partners, and together we can give a push on action on a number of important environment-related issues that will be on the international agenda for the coming years.”

The discussions emphasized the linkages between Sustainable Development Goal 12 (SDG 12), which covers sustainable consumption and production, and environmental challenges. As worldwide consumption and production — driving forces of the global economy — currently rest on increasing the use of the natural environment and resources, they continue to have a destructive impact on the planet. Should the global population reach 9.6 billion by 2050, without a transformation of the global economy, the equivalent of almost three planets could be required to provide the natural resources needed to sustain current lifestyles. A thorough shared focus on approaches to reduce material footprint and enhance circularity in the economy was welcomed.

“Our consultations here today take place in a time when COVID-19 is still very present in our societies,” said Studsgaard. “One thing we have experienced is that we are able to adjust our societies very quickly when we need to. We must use this experience as an opportunity to rethink the way we do things and build back better and greener.”

The Nordic countries and UNEP share the view that the pandemic offers countries an opportunity to decide on recovery plans that will reverse current trends and change our consumption and production patterns towards a more sustainable future where green investments and climate-smart solutions are at the centre.

Eva Svedling, the Swedish State Secretary to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Environment and Climate, underlined that. “As Nordic countries, we are supportive of UNEP’s role as custodian of the SDG 12 on sustainable consumption and production and welcome that this issue is integrated into the coming Medium-Term Strategy for UNEP. We see close connections to the conference in Stockholm in 2022.”

The Stockholm+50 Conference is planned to mark a milestone: it has been 50 years since the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, which took place in Stockholm in 1972. It was the first world conference to make the environment a major issue, and it also initiated the establishment of UNEP later that year.

Sweden has offered to host the conference and the other Nordic countries see it as an opportunity to increase the focus on the environment, accelerate action and strengthen efforts for the UN Decade of Action to deliver on the SDGs.  The connection to the UN75 declaration, which underlines the interconnected nature of our challenges – and the importance of multilateralism in building back better and greener, is also important. The conference would seek to have a strong focus on sustainable consumption and production. The Nordic countries said they continue to count on UNEP’s active support on the path towards Stockholm+50 and beyond.

The Nordic countries welcomed the efforts undertaken by UNEP to play an active role in UN Development System reform and supported the Executive Director’s approach to mainstream and integrate environmental awareness across other UN agencies. They encouraged UNEP to continue to draw on the established presence of other UN agencies on the ground, including the United Nations Development Programme, and work in close collaboration with UN resident coordinators. UNEP@50 is seen as a good opportunity to further strengthen these efforts, according to the Nordic states. Andersen welcomed the support from the Nordic countries for UNEP, including in its role to “be the green thread that weaves through the UN system.

“I would like to thank the Nordic countries for their stalwart leadership on the environment, and for their firm commitments to UNEP – both in good times and in more challenging times. Your support has been very valuable to us through these nearly 50 years of our existence.”

The next step for moving the global environmental agenda is the fifth UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), which is likely to be held in two parts in 2021 and 2022 under the presidency of Norway. The first part will be virtual while the second part is planned as a full and substantial UNEA.

Juhani Damski, Permanent Secretary from the Ministry of Environment of Finland, highlighted the central role of UNEP and UNEA in coordinating the global environmental agenda. “During these difficult times of the COVID-19 pandemic, Finland has appreciated how UNEP has been able to keep up their active work and demonstrate the importance of the environment and biodiversity as key solution providers for a healthy and sustainable future,” said Damski.

Echoing his Finnish colleague, the Norwegian State Secretary for International Development, Aksel Jakobsen, underlined the important role of UNEP in tackling threats to the planet. “We need urgent and meaningful change. International cooperation is a prerequisite to solving complex transboundary and interconnected environmental challenges,” said Jakobsen. 

Studsgaard also stressed the role of UNEP in relation to the UN 2021 Food Systems Summit. “Food systems are key to societies, including to fight hunger, but as they function today, they have many negative side effects on the environment. UNEP has a key role in raising awareness of the need for sustainable food systems – systems that are resource-efficient and which minimize negative effects on the environment,” said Studsgaard.

Andersen, the Executive Director of UNEP, has been appointed by the UN Secretary-General as the chair of a system-wide UN task force, which will ensure that the entire UN system can deliver on this agenda beyond the summit. UNEP further pointed out that under-consumption and over-consumption of food demonstrate the interconnected nature of different challenges.  

In addition to being champions for action on climate, nature and pollution themselves, and providing political support to UNEP, the Nordic countries are also important financial supporters of UNEP. They all believe in providing unrestricted funding to the Environment Fund, UNEP’s core source of flexible funds that supports the bedrock of its work worldwide, rather than specifying to which projects funding should go. While only constituting five countries (or 2.6 per cent) out of UNEP’s 193 Member States, the Nordic countries together provided over 18 per cent of the funding to the Environment Fund from 2015 to 2020, amounting to US$ 77.5 million. In addition, they contributed over US$ 205 million in earmarked funding for thematic areas during the same period.

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2021 joins top 7 warmest years on record

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Last year joined the list of the seven warmest years on record, the UN weather agency said on Wednesday, and was also the seventh consecutive year when the global temperature has been more than 1°C above pre-industrial levels; edging closer to the limit laid out under the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Although average global temperatures were temporarily cooled by the 2020-2022 La Niña events, 2021 was still one of the seven warmest years on record, according to six leading international datasets consolidated by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

Global warming and other long-term climate change trends are expected to continue as a result of record levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the agency said.

The average global temperature in 2021 was about 1.11 (± 0.13) °C above the pre-industrial era levels. The Paris Agreement calls for all countries to strive towards a limit of 1.5°C of global warming through concerted climate action and realistic Nationally Determined Contributions – the individual country plans that need to become a reality to slow down the rate of heating.

WMO said that it uses six international datasets “to ensure the most comprehensive, authoritative temperature assessment”, and the same data are used in its authoritative annual State of the Climate reports.

Since the 1980s, each decade has been warmer than the previous one, said WMO and “this is expected to continue.”

The warmest seven years have all been since 2015; the top three being 2016, 2019 and 2020. An exceptionally strong El Niño event occurred in 2016, which contributed to record global average warming.

“Back-to-back La Niña events mean that 2021 warming was relatively less pronounced compared to recent years. Even so, 2021 was still warmer than previous years influenced by La Niña”, said WMO Secretary-General, Prof. Petteri Taalas.

Undeniable trend

“The overall long-term warming as a result of greenhouse gas increases, is now far larger than the year-to-year variability in global average temperatures caused by naturally occurring climate drivers”.

The year 2021 will be remembered for a record-shattering temperature of nearly 50°C in Canada, comparable to the values reported in the hot Saharan Desert of Algeria, exceptional rainfall, and deadly flooding in Asia and Europe as well as drought in parts of Africa and South America”, the WMO chief added.

Climate change impacts and weather-related hazards had life-changing and devastating impacts on communities on every single continent”, Mr. Taalas underscored.

Others key indicators of global heating include greenhouse gas concentrations, ocean heat content, ocean pH levels (levels of acidity), global mean sea level, glacial mass and the extent of sea ice.

WMO uses datasets – which are based on monthly climatological data from observing sites and ships and buoys in global marine networks – developed and maintained by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (NASA GISS), the United Kingdom’s Met Office Hadley Centre, and the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (HadCRUT); and the Berkeley Earth group.

WMO also uses reanalysis datasets from the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts and its Copernicus Climate Change Service, and the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA).

WMO said that the temperature figures will be incorporated into its final report on the State of the Climate in 2021, which will be issued in April this year.

This will reference all key climate indicators and selected climate impacts, and updates a provisional report issued in October 2021 ahead of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

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In Jamaica, farmers struggle to contend with a changing climate

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Althea Spencer harvests her tomato crop. Dwindling rainfall in central Jamaica has made farming a challenge. Photo: UNEP / Thomas Gordon-Martin

It’s 9 am and the rural district of Mount Airy in central Jamaica is already sweltering. As cars trundle along the region’s unpaved roads, chocolate-brown dust clouds burst from behind their back wheels. 

It is here, 50km west of Kingston and 500 meters above sea level, that the Mount Airy Farmers group are having a morning meeting. There are around two dozen people and they all say the same thing; they’re struggling to keep their plots productive amid dwindling rainfall, a byproduct of climate change.

“The weather here’s a lot drier for longer these days,” says Althea Spencer, the treasurer of the Mount Airy Farmers group, which is based in Northern Clarendon. “If  you don’t have water, it makes no sense to plant seeds because they will just die.”

The farmers though, have recently gotten some help in their search for water.

Just meters from where they are gathered stands a two-storey shed with a drainpipe on the roof that funnels rainwater into a tall, black tank. It’s one of more than two dozen reservoirs dotted across these mountains. They are part of a project backed by six United Nations (UN) bodies to help Mount Airy’s farmers adapt to climate change.

“This partnership among the UN and with communities is exactly the type of activity needed to address the day-to-day and practical impacts of climate change,” says Vincent Sweeney, Head of the Caribbean Sub-Regional Office at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “As we look beyond the Glasgow Climate Change Conference, it is vital that we… adapt to the new realities of a warmer planet in order to protect lives and livelihoods in Jamaica and the Caribbean.”

The challenge is not unique to the region. Droughts, floods, and the spread of pests, the byproducts of climate change, are threatening agricultural production around the globe, says the Food and Agriculture Organization. That is potentially disastrous in a world where almost 700 million people go hungry each year.

Small-hold farmers, who work more than 80 per cent of the world‘s farms, in particular, will need support to remain resilient in the face of climate change, say experts.

A country at risk

Farmers in Jamaica, an island nation of 3 million, are especially vulnerable. In 2020, Jamaica became the first Caribbean country to submit a tougher climate action plan to the UN because the country was at risk from rising sea levels, drought and more intense hurricanes, its government said.

In 2018, the Mount Airy farmers enrolled in the United Nations-backed programme that helps build the resilience of communities to threats such as climate change, poverty and water insecurity. It is regarded as the first joint programme of the United Nations  in Jamaica, combining the resources of six agencies, including UNEP.

In Mount Airy, the UN programme has invested in 30 new water harvesting systems. The large, black tanks, which appear across the hilltops like turrets, catch and store rainfall, allowing the farmers to use it evenly via a drip irrigation system. This reduces the emerging threat of longer and more intense dry spells.

The new irrigation system also frees farmers from watering their crops by hand. “Before we got the new system, you had to predict rainfall to put seedlings in,” says Spencer, a rollerball pen tucked neatly into her hair and her feet shifting on the sunbaked earth. “It feels pretty good. It allows me more time to do housework, keep up with my farm records, and I have time to go down to the market.” 

Alongside the tanks sit drums which mix fertilizer with water and spread it evenly among the crops, saving the farmers valuable time. The dissolvable fertilizer is also cheaper than standard fertilizers.

On top of that, the irrigation system improves yields. Spencer now grows and sells more sweet potatoes, peppers and tomatoes than ever before.  

Coupled with the water tanks, the programme has also prioritized education. Seminars are run by the Rural Agricultural Development Authority, a government agency, which aims to broaden the farmer’s knowledge and skills. 

Although it is not unusual for women to farm these lands, Spencer speaks about how the trainings have helped to empower the female members of the group by coming together. “To me, the learnings and the trainings bond us ladies together,” she says. 

A life in the mountains

Back at the gathering of the Mount Airy farmers, the assembled say some prayers and repeat their mantra aloud two times: “We are the Mount Airy Farmers Group our motto is: All grow in fear and failure bearing fruits of confidence and success.”

Spencer, who is in her 40s, is a vocal participant at the meeting and obviously well-liked. She was born in Mount Airy and has been farming these fields most of her life. She has vivid memories of working on her father’s farm as a child. Unable to afford to pay anyone else, he often pulled her out of school to sow and reap the fields.

That’s a common refrain among many who grew up in Mount Airy – and one the new UN programme is aiming to change. 

“If my father had this harvesting system, would I have gone to school more?” Spencer asks herself. “Yes, probably. But even then, he was always working us. So I’m sure he’d find something for us to do,” she says laughing. 

Spencer welcomes the introduction of the water tanks. However, she says current rainfall patterns mean water sometimes still runs out. “If you don’t manage your water properly, one will run out before you get anywhere,” she says ominously.

Her story may be one of success today, but it shows that living with climate change will require adaptation and continued investment for years to come. UNEP’s 2021 Adaptation Gap Report called for an urgent increase in financing for climate adaptation. It found that adaptation costs in developing countries are five to ten times greater than current public adaptation finance flows, and the adaptation finance gap is widening.

UNEP

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Climate change: For 25th year in a row, Greenland ice sheet shrinks

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2021 marked the 25th year in a row in which the key Greenland ice sheet lost more mass during the melting season, than it gained during the winter, according to a new UN-endorsed report issued on Friday. 

The data from the Danish Arctic monitoring service Polar Portal – which forms part of the UN weather agency WMO’s annual State of the Climate report – shows that early summer was cold and wet, with unusually heavy and late snowfall in June, which delayed the onset of the melting season. 

After that, however, a heatwave at the end of July, led to a considerable loss of ice. 

In terms of “total mass balance” (the sum of surface melting and loss of ice chunks from icebergs, in addition to the melting of glacier “tongues” in contact with seawater), the ice sheet lost around 166 billion tonnes during the 12-month period ending in August 2021. 

Climate change 

These numbers mean the ice sheet ended the season with a net surface mass balance of approximately 396 billion tonnes, making it the 28th lowest level recorded, in the 41-year time series.  

This could be considered an average year, but Polar Report notes how perspectives have changed, due to rapidly advancing climate change. 

At the end of the 1990s, for example, these same figures would have been regarded as a year with a very low surface mass balance. 

The report also notes that the cause of the early summer chill, could be due to conditions over southwest Canada and the northwest United States. 

In these territories, an enormous “blocking” high pressure system was formed, shaped like the Greek capital letter Omega (Ω). 

This flow pattern occurs regularly in the troposphere, and not just over North America, but it had never been observed with such strength before. 

According to the report, an analysis by World Weather Attribution demonstrated that it could only be explained as a result of atmospheric warming caused by human activity. 

Notable year 

According to the report, 2021 was notable for several reasons. 

It was the year in which precipitation at Summit Station, which is located at the top of the ice sheet at an altitude of 3,200 metres above sea level, was registered in the form of rain. 

The year also saw an acceleration of the loss of ice at the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, where the rate of loss had otherwise been stagnant for several years. 

Winter snowfall was also close to average for the period between 1981 and 2010, which was good news, because a combination of low winter snowfall and a warm summer can result in very large losses of ice, as was the case in 2019. 

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