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.
Georgia’s Blue Economy Can Be a Vehicle for Accelerating Climate Change Adaptation
Greening the Coast and Blueing the Sea for a Resilient Georgia – a 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.
Public-private partnerships could play key role in combatting deforestation
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.
COVID-19 can act as a jump-start for environmental change
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.”
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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