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Food systems account for over one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions

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More than one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity can be attributed to the way we produce, process and package food, a UN-backed study published on Tuesday has revealed. 

Food system emissions were estimated at 18 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2015, or 34 per cent, though down from 44 per cent in 1990, indicating gradual decline even as these emissions kept increasing. 

The report was co-authored by Francesco Tubiello, a senior statistician and climate change specialist at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in collaboration with researchers at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy. 

It presents a database, known as EDGAR FOOD, which can be used to assess how changes in consumer behaviour or technology, may impact food system-derived greenhouse gas emissions. 

EDGAR FOOD incorporates key land-use data for over 245 countries that has been compiled by FAO. The information goes back to 1990 and spans multiple sectors, which will enable tracking of ongoing and future trends.   

Food systems more energy intensive 

The report highlights how global food systems are becoming more energy intensive, reflecting trends in retail, packaging, transport and processing, whose emissions are growing rapidly in some developing countries. 

Roughly two-thirds of food system emissions come from agriculture, land use and changes in land use.  The figure is higher for developing countries, but is also declining significantly as deforestation decreases and food processing, refrigeration and other “downstream activities” increase. 

In terms of the share of all ‘anthropogenic’ emissions, caused by human activity, food systems in industrial nations are broadly stable at around 24 per cent.  In developing countries, the share has decreased from 68 per cent in 1990 to 39 per cent in 2015, partly due to very high increases in non-food emissions. 

China, Indonesia, the United States of America, Brazil, the European Union and India are the top emitters. 

Food production the leading contributor 

Production processes, which includes inputs such as fertilizers, are the leading contributor to overall food-system emissions, or 39 per cent of the total.  Land use accounts for 38 per cent and distribution contributes 29 per cent, which is expected to continue growing. 

Methane from livestock raising and rice cultivation accounts for 35 per cent of food system greenhouse gas emissions and is broadly the same in both developed and developing countries.  

Meanwhile in industrialized countries, emissions from fluorinated greenhouse gases, used in refrigeration, for example, have had a “turbocharged effect on global warming”, according to the authors. 

They said refrigeration is responsible for nearly half of the energy consumption by the retail and supermarket sector, whose emissions have grown more than fourfold in Europe since 1990. Globally, the figure is around five percent of global food-system emissions, but is expected to increase.  

Packaging also accounts for a similar share of the emissions, or some 5.4 per cent, which is more than transportation or other supply-chain factors. 

Towards sustainable food systems 

The authors believe the EDGAR FOOD database will assist towards developing effective mitigation and transformational pathways to sustainable food systems. 

It will also provide greater understanding and estimate of the climate effects of food production, distribution and consumption, ahead of the landmark UN Food Systems Summit later this year.

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Environment

New project to help 30 developing countries tackle marine litter scourge

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Litter is removed from a beach in Watamu in Kenya. UNEP/Duncan Moore

A UN-backed initiative aims to turn the tide on marine litter, in line with the global development goal on conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas and marine resources. 

The GloLitter Partnerships Project will support  30 developing countries in preventing and reducing marine litter from the maritime transport and fisheries sectors, which includes plastic litter such as lost or discarded fishing gear. 

The project was launched on Thursday by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO), with initial funding from Norway. 

Protecting oceans and livelihoods 

“Plastic litter has a devastating impact on marine life and human health”, said Manuel Barange, FAO’s Director of Fisheries and Aquaculture.  “This initiative is an important step in tackling the issue and will help protect the ocean ecosystem as well as the livelihoods of those who depend on it.” 

Protecting the marine environment is the objective of Sustainable Development Goal 14, part of the 2030 Agenda to create a more just and equitable future for all people and the planet. 

The GloLitter project will help countries apply best practices for the prevention and reduction of marine plastic litter, in an effort to safeguard the world’s coastal and marine resources. 

Actions will include encouraging fishing gear to be marked so that it can be traced if lost or discarded at sea. Another focus will be on the availability and adequacy of port reception facilities and their connection to national waste management systems.  

“Marine litter is a scourge on the oceans and on the planet”, said Jose Matheickal, Head of the IMO’s Department for Partnerships and Projects. “I am delighted that we have more than 30 countries committed to this initiative and working with IMO and FAO to address this issue.” 

Five regions represented 

The nations taking part in the GloLitter project are in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific. 

They will also receive technical assistance and training, as well as guidance documents and other tools to help enforce existing regulations. 

The project will promote compliance with relevant international instruments, including the Voluntary Guidelines for the Marking of Fishing Gear, and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), which contains regulations against discharging plastics into the sea.

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Paris goals still ‘long way off’

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The world is “a long way off” from meeting the goals of the landmark Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the President of the crucial upcoming UN climate conference, COP26, said on Thursday.

British politician Alok Sharma was speaking during a global discussion on the ‘green’ transition in sectors such as energy, transport and food systems, held as part of the 2021 Spring Meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). 

“Oceans are warming, storms are intensifying, and yet we are a long way off meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement”, he told the virtual meeting.  “Unless we act now, the human, economic and environmental cost will dwarf anything that humanity has seen before.”  

John Kerry: Last chance to get serious 

COP26, which will be held this November in Glasgow, Scotland, aims to accelerate action towards the Paris treaty goals, which centre around limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels by curbing greenhouse gas emissions.   

John Kerry, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, called the conference “the last best opportunity we have to get real and serious.” He particularly urged developed countries to step up efforts to reduce emissions. 

“It is essential we raise ambition; we make Glasgow the next step in defining not what we’re willing to do but what we really need to do in order to be able to get the job done.” 

Prince William: Invest in nature 

For Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, COP26 represents an opportunity to put nature at the heart of the climate fight.  He called for banks to invest in nature, noting that spending so far has been minimal.  

“We cannot recover sustainably from coronavirus, eradicate global poverty, achieve net-zero emissions, or adapt to climate change, without investing in nature”, he said. 

UN envoy on energy for all 

Energy access must also be part of the green transition, according to Damilola Ogunbiyi, Chief Executive Officer at Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL), a UN partner.   

Globally, nearly 800 million people do not have access to electricity, while 2.8 billion lack access to clean cooking sources, she said, which is equivalent to the populations of Africa, Europe and China combined. 

To change their lives, she recommended that governments focus on policies in the areas of promoting renewable and sustainable energy, and on ease of doing business and regulations. Again, financing here is needed, together with commitment. 

“We all see that globally, when we come together, just the amazing work we can do, and the COVID vaccine is a perfect example”, said Ms. Ogunbiyi, who is also the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All. 

“We literally have to have a COVID vaccine response to help a lot of developing countries because it’s not that they don’t want to transition, or they don’t want to do the right thing. It’s a fact that if you do need to transition, there is a lot of funding that is needed.

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New UN resolution reinforces link between human rights and the environment

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In late March, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution that calls for a human-rights-based approach to conserving and restoring natural spaces. We speak with the Acting Director of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) Law Division, Arnold Kreilhuber, to find out how the resolution will help safeguard the environment and contribute to sustainable development. 

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP): The Human Rights Council adopted its first resolution on human rights and the environment in 2011. What has changed since then and how is this resolution different?

Arnold Kreilhuber (AK): Since 2011 we have seen important developments regarding the undeniable link between human rights and the environment, which are reflected in this resolution (46/L.6.Rev1). 

First, the human rights obligations on states relating to the environment have become clearer and more accepted.  More than 155 states have now recognized some form of a right to a healthy environment in international agreements or their national constitutions, legislation, or policies. 

Second, the resolution notes and advances the need for a human-rights-based approach in the context of conserving, restoring and sustainably using biodiversity, particularly in the context of the ongoing post-2020 biodiversity framework negotiations and the One Health initiative. Third, all the resolutions adopted by the Human Rights Council on human rights and the environment over the last decade have, step-by-step, paved the way for the possible global recognition of the right to a healthy environment. The last decade of action on this topic resulted in a statement by states in which they commit to proceeding with negotiations towards adopting a resolution proclaiming the right by the UN.

UNEP: How will the resolution affect the work of UNEP and how could it contribute to the achievement of global environmental and human rights goals?

AK: The resolution is a strong vote of confidence in UNEP’s work on environmental rights.  It welcomes UNEP’s work, particularly in the implementation of the UN Secretary General’s Call to Action for Human Rights. It will help advance our ongoing partnership on environmental rights with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and other key partners.

The resolution explicitly recalls the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly in February 2021, where Member States endorsed UNEP’s Medium-Term Strategy.  This is an important acknowledgement of UNEP’s commitment to work on advancing human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. 

UNEP: The resolution calls on states to take a rights-based approach to biodiversity-related matters.  What does this mean in a practical sense?

AK: This is a very important and timely call as the world is preparing to adopt a new Global Biodiversity Framework in 2021. The integration of environmental and human rights would be key to ensuring a healthy, biologically diverse and sustainable planet for present and future generations and in supporting the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

To assist states and other stakeholders in taking a rights-based approach, UNEP and OHCHR published key messages on biodiversity and human rights. The messages set out ways of incorporating a rights-based approach to biodiversity-related matters, which include practices related to participation in land and resource governance, accountability, cooperation at all levels, education, and the protection of indigenous peoples and environmental human rights defenders engaged in biodiversity-related protection activities.

UNEP: States also signed a joint statement, expressing their intent to proceed with discussions for a resolution on the right to a healthy environment. What is the significance of this statement and what issues will be discussed? 

AK: This is a remarkable outcome. The joint statement, signed by 69 states, represents an unprecedented level of support for the global recognition of the right to a healthy environment and a commitment to proceed with the process of formalising this recognition. A number of states in the past have expressed their support for the global recognition of the right but an explicit, strong intent signed by 69 states has never before been accomplished.

Such a statement helps to accelerate the momentum built around the recognition of the right to a healthy environment. This has the support of the UN Secretary-General, heads of UN agencies, including the Executive Director of UNEP, 15 UN entities as well as over 1,100 civil society and indigenous organizations who signed a pledge calling for the recognition of that right. 

The next steps will depend on states as it will be an inter-governmental negotiation with the participation of other stakeholders. We expect that states will discuss procedural aspects of the resolution and substantive aspects of the right, including the scope and content of the resolution. UNEP is fully committed to supporting states in achieving this goal.

UNEP: What are the benefits of the global recognition?

AK: UNEP sees several benefits of the recognition of the right to a healthy environment. Among others, UNEP expects that the global recognition of the right to a healthy environment will serve as a catalyst in addressing a triple planetary crisis: climate change, loss of biodiversity and pollution.

Evidence shows that the recognition of the right to a healthy environment has contributed to stronger environmental laws and policies, improved implementation and enforcement of those laws and policies, increased levels of public participation in environmental decision-making and has enhanced access to information and access to justice. In short, it has contributed to improved environmental outcomes. 

The recognition of the right to a healthy environment at the global level will support efforts to address environmental crises in a more coordinated, effective and non-discriminatory manner, help achieve the SDGs, provide stronger protection of rights and of the people defending the environment, and help create a world where people can live in harmony with nature.

UNEP: Do UN resolutions make a difference? Is there any evidence of that from the past?

AK: Studies show that UN resolutions have made a difference.  An example can be drawn from the process of the formal recognition of the right to water and sanitation as an independent human right by the UN General Assembly Resolution (64/292) in July 2010.  The recognition spurred the inclusion of the right to water and sanitation in national constitutions, laws and policies and resulted in positive effects on global water governance and outcomes.  Since the adoption of the resolution, countless people have gained access to safe drinking water and sanitation, creating a transformative change in their lives. We expect the UN resolution on the right to a healthy environment would have an important and positive impact on the lives of people on the ground.

UN Environment

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