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‘Tipping point’ for climate action: Time’s running out to avoid catastrophic heating

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The temporary reduction in carbon emissions caused by global COVID-19 lockdowns did not slow the relentless advance of climate change. Greenhouse gas concentrations are at record levels, and the planet is on path towards dangerous overheating, a multi-agency climate report published on Thursday warns. 

According to the landmark United in Science 2021, there “is no sign of growing back greener”, as carbon dioxide emissions are rapidly accelerating, after a temporary blip in 2020 due to COVID, and nowhere close to the targets set by the Paris Agreement.

 “We have reached a tipping point on the need for climate action. The disruption to our climate and our planet is already worse than we thought, and it is moving faster than predicted”, UN Secretary General António Guterres underscored in a video message. “This report shows just how far off course we are”, he added.

A world in danger

According to scientists, the rising global temperatures are already fueling devastating extreme weather events around the world, with escalating impacts on economies and societies. For example, billions of working hours have been lost due to excessive heat.

“We now have five times the number of recorded weather disasters than we had in 1970 and they are seven times more costly. Even the most developed countries have become vulnerable”, said the UN chief.

Mr. Guterres cited how Hurricane Ida recently cut power to over a million people in New Orleans, and New York City was paralysed by record-breaking rain that killed at least 50 people in the region.

“These events would have been impossible without human-caused climate change. Costly fires, floods and extreme weather events are increasing everywhere. These changes are just the beginning of worse to come”, he warned.

A bleak future

The report echoes some of the data and warnings from experts in the last year: the average global temperature for the past five years was among the highest on record, and there is an increasing likelihood that temperatures will temporarily breach the threshold of 1.5° Celsius above the pre-industrial era, in the next five years.

The picture painted by United in Science is bleak: even with ambitious action to slow greenhouse gas emissions, sea levels will continue to rise and threaten low-lying islands and coastal populations throughout the world.

“We really are out of time. We must act now to prevent further irreversible damage. COP26 this November must mark that turning point. By then we need all countries to commit to achieve net zero emissions by the middle of this century and to present clear, credible long-term strategies to get there”, urged the UN chief.

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, is scheduled to be held in the city of Glasgow, Scotland between 31 October and 12 November 2021. The pivotal meeting is expected to set the course of climate action for the next decade.

We must urgently secure a breakthrough on adaptation and resilience, so that vulnerable communities can manage these growing (climate) risks…I expect all these issues to be addressed and resolved at COP26. Our future is at stake”, Mr. Guterres emphasized.

“We are not yet on track towards the Paris 1.5 to 2 degrees’ limit, although positive things have started to happen and the political interest to mitigate climate change is clearly growing but to be successful in this effort, we have to start acting now. We cannot wait for decades to act, we have to start acting already in this decade”, added Prof. Petteri Taalas, World Meteorological Organization’s secretary general.

The report also cites the conclusions of the most recent IPCC report: the scale of recent changes across the climate system are unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years, and it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.

Notable findings

Concentrations of the major greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2 O) continued to increase in 2020 and the first half of 2021.

According to WMO, reducing atmospheric methane (CH4) in the short term, could support the pledges of 193 Member States made in Paris. This measure does not reduce the need for strong, rapid and sustained reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

Meanwhile, the UN Environment Program (UNEP), warns that five years after the adoption of the Paris Agreement, the emissions gap (the difference between where emissions are heading and where science indicate they should be in 2030) is as large as ever.

Although the increasing number of countries committing to net-zero emission goals is encouraging, to remain feasible and credible, these goals urgently need to be reflected in near-term policy and in significantly more ambitious actions, the agency highlights.

“Last year, we estimated that there was 5.6 per cent drop in emissions and since the lifetime of carbon dioxide is so long, this one year anomaly in emissions doesn’t change the big picture. We saw some improvements in air quality, these short-lived gases, which are affecting air quality. We saw positive evolution there. But now we have returned more or less back to the 2019 emission levels”, further explained the WMO chief.

A warmer future

The report explains that the annual global average temperature is likely to be at least 1 °C warmer than pre-industrial levels (defined as the 1850–1900 average) in each of the coming five years and is very likely to be within the range of 0.9 °C to 1.8 °C.

There is also a 40% chance that the average temperature in one of the next five years, will be at least 1.5 °C warmer than pre-industrial levels. However, it is very unlikely that the 5-year average temperature for 2021–2025 will pass the 1.5 °C threshold.

High latitude regions, and the Sahel, are likely to be wetter in the next five years, the report also warns.

Sea level rise is inevitable

“We don’t know what’s going to happen to the Antarctic glacier, where we have the biggest mass of ice worldwide and in the worst case, we could see up to two meters of sea level rise by the end of this century if the melting of the Antarctic glacier happens in a speedier manner”, cautioned Prof. Taalas.

Global sea levels rose 20 cm from 1900 to 2018, and at an accelerated rate from 2006 to 2018.

Even if emissions are reduced to limit warming to well below 2 °C, the global average sea level would likely rise by 0.3–0.6 m by 2100 and could rise 0.3–3.1 m by 2300.

Adaptation to the rise will be essential, especially along low-lying coasts, small islands, deltas and coastal cities, explains WMO.

World’s health also at risk

The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that rising temperatures are linked to increased heat-related mortality and work impairment, with an excess of 103 billion potential work hours lost globally in 2019 compared with those lost in 2000.

Moreover, COVID-19 infections and climate hazards such as heatwaves, wildfires and poor air quality, combine to threaten human health worldwide, putting vulnerable populations at particular risk.

According to the UN health agency, the COVID-19 recovery efforts should be aligned with national climate change and air quality strategies to reduce risks from cascading climate hazards, and gain health co-benefits.

“We had this temperature anomaly in western Canada and the United States, where we were up to 15 degrees warmer temperatures than normally. And that led to a record breaking, forest fires and major health problems, especially amongst elderly people”, highlighted WMO Secretary General.

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Act Urgently to Preserve Biodiversity for Sustainable Future — ADB President

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The world must act urgently to preserve ecosystems and biodiversity for the sake of a sustainable future and prosperity, Asian Development Bank (ADB) President Masatsugu Asakawa said at the opening of a global event on biodiversity here today.

“The world is at a critical turning point. If we are to reverse the alarming decline in nature, we must respond with urgency and coordinated action,” Mr. Asakawa said. “These efforts are needed to ensure the survival of our ecosystems, and for the sake of our shared future and prosperity.”  

Asia and the Pacific is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world—home to 17 of the 36 global biodiversity hotspots, 7 of the 17 megadiverse countries, and the greatest marine diversity. “If restored and well-managed, these natural capital assets can help to mitigate global climate change and biodiversity loss in a cost-effective and impactful manner,” Mr. Asakawa said in his opening remarks at the Ecological Civilization Forum at the 15th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) in Kunming, the People’s Republic of China (PRC).  

The event is cohosted by the PRC’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, Yunnan provincial government, and the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Participants include high-level representatives from governments, the private sector, development agencies including ADB, and civil society. 

ADB is committed to helping accelerate and increase nature-positive investments in Asia and the Pacific. “Through our ADB Nature-Positive Investment Roadmap, we are working with partners to scale up finance, develop knowledge of natural capital, and generate financially sustainable projects that deliver on biodiversity and healthy ecosystems,” Mr. Asakawa said.

At COP15, ADB is launching a new publication, Greening Development in the People’s Republic of China, which outlines how ADB and the PRC have successfully partnered to promote green development and ecological restoration in a way that complements economic and social priorities. 

In partnership with the Chinese Academy of Science and Stanford University, ADB is sharing progress on its new Natural Capital Lab due for launch in 2022. This will be a digital platform for sharing methods for valuing biodiversity and ecosystems, and for building knowledge, capacities, and alliances across the region.  

In addition, ADB with partners will be launching the Regional Flyway Initiative that will conserve ecosystem services that support people and critical habitats for more than 50 million migratory waterbirds.

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Greenpeace Africa reacts to DRC President’s decision to suspend illegal logging concessions

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The President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Félix Tshisekedi, ordered on Friday, October 15th, the suspension of all dubious logging concessions, including the 6 granted in September 2020. Greenpeace Africa, one of the civil society organizations that denounced these concessions, applauds the decision taken by the Head of State and encourages him to remain vigilant and ensure its effective execution by Deputy Prime Minister Ms. Eve Bazaiba.

Greenpeace Africa reiterates its call for maintaining the moratorium on new industrial logging concessions to prevent a human rights and climate catastrophe. This logging sector, characterized by bad governance, favors corruption and remains out of touch with the socio-economic needs of the Congolese people and the climate crisis we live in.

Irène Wabiwa Betoko, Head of the International Congo Basin Forest Project of Greenpeace: “The decision of H.E. President Tshisekedi against the illegal actions of former Minister Nyamugabo sends an important message to the Congolese people and their government. It is also a red light for the plans of Ms. Ève Bazaiba, current Minister of the Environment, to open a highway to deforestation by multinational logging companies through lifting the moratorium on new industrial concessions.”

The President asks to “Suspend all questionable contracts pending the outcome of an audit and report them to the government at the next cabinet meeting.” Greenpeace Africa maintains that the review of illegalities in the forest sector must be transparent, independent, and open to comments from civil society organizations.

Ms. Wabiwa adds that “Both the protection of the rights of Congolese peoples and the success of COP26 require that the moratorium on granting new forest titles be strengthened. We again call on President Tshisekedi to strengthen the 2005 presidential decree to extend the moratorium.”

Ms. Wabiwa concludes that “instead of allowing new avenues of destruction, the DRC needs a permanent forest protection plan, taking into account the management by the local and indigenous populations who live there and depend on them for their survival.”

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The right to a clean and healthy environment: 6 things you need to know

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On 8 October, loud and unusual applause reverberated around the chamber of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. A battle fought for decades by environmental activists and rights’ defenders, had finally borne fruit.

For the first time ever, the United Nations body whose mission is to promote and protect human rights around the world, passed a resolution recognising access to a healthy and sustainable environment as a universal right.

The text also calls on countries to work together, and with other partners, to implement this breakthrough.

“Professionally that was probably the most thrilling experience that I ever have had or that I ever will have. It was a massive team victory. It took literally millions of people, and years and years of work to achieve this resolution”, said David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment, who was in the room when President Nazhat Shameem from Fiji, brought down her gavel, announcing the voting results.

43 votes in favour and 4 abstentions counted as a unanimous victory to pass the text that cites the efforts of at least 1,100 civil society, child, youth and indigenous people’s organizations, who have been campaigning for global recognition, implementation and protection of the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.  

But why is this recognition important, and what does it mean for climate change-affected communities?

Here are six key things you need to know, compiled by us here at UN News.

1. First, let’s recall what the Human Rights Council does, and what its resolutions mean

The Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system, responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them.

The Council is made up of 47 UN Member States which are elected by the absolute majority in the General Assembly and represent every region of the world.

Human Rights Council resolutions are “political expressions” that represent the position of the Council’s members (or the majority of them) on particular issues and situations. These documents are drafted and negotiated among States with to advance specific human rights issues.

They usually provoke a debate among States, civil society and intergovernmental organisations; establish new ‘standards’, lines or principles of conduct; or reflect existing rules of conduct.

Resolutions are drafted by a “core group”: Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland, were the countries who brought resolution 48/13 for its adoption in the council, recognising for the first time that having a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is indeed a human right.

2. It was a resolution decades in the making

In 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm, which ended with a historical declaration, was the first one to place environmental issues at the forefront of international concerns and marked the start of a dialogue between industrialized and developing countries on the link between economic growth, the pollution of the air, water and the ocean, and the well-being of people around the world.

UN Member States back then, declared that people have a fundamental right to “an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being,” calling for concrete action. They called for both the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly to act.

Since 2008, the Maldives, a Small Island Developing State on the frontline of climate change impacts, has been tabling a series of resolutions on human rights and climate change, and in the last decade, on human rights and environment.

In the last few years, the work of the Maldives and its allied States, as well as the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment and different NGOs, have been moving the international community towards the declaration of a new universal right.

Support for UN recognition of this right grew during the COVID-19 pandemic. The idea was endorsed by UN’s Secretary-General António Guterres and High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, as well as more than 1,100 civil society organisations from around the world. Nearly 70 states on the Human Rights Council also added their voices to a call by the council’s core group on human rights and environment for such action, and 15 UN agencies also sent a rare joint declaration advocating for it.

“A surge in emerging zoonotic diseases, the climate emergency, pervasive toxic pollution and a dramatic loss of biodiversity have brought the future of the planet to the top of the international agenda”, a group of UN experts said in a statement released in June this year, on World Environment Day.

3. It was a David vs Goliath story…

To finally reach the vote and decision, the core group lead intensive inter-governmental negotiations, discussions and even experts’ seminars, over the past few years.

Levy Muwana, a Youth Advocate and environmentalist from Zambia, participated in one of the seminars.

“As a young child, I was affected with bilharzia, a parasitic disease, because I was playing in the dirty water near my household.

A few years later, a girl died in my community from cholera. These events are sadly common and occurring more often.

Water-born infectious diseases are increasing worldwide, especially across sub-Saharan Africa, due to the changing climate”, he told Council members last August.

Muwana made clear that his story was not unique, as millions of children worldwide are significantly impacted by the devastating consequences of the environmental crisis. “1.7 million of them die every year from inhaling contaminated air or drinking polluted water”, he said.

The activist, along with over 100.000 children and allies had signed a petition for the right to a healthy environment to be recognised, and they were finally heard.

“There are people who want to continue the process of exploiting the natural world and have no reservations about harming people to do that. So those very powerful opponents have kept this room from going forward for decades.

It’s almost like a David and Goliath story that all of these civil society organizations were able to overcome this powerful opposition, and now we have this new tool that we can use to fight for a more just and sustainable world”, says David Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment.

4. But what good is a non-legally binding resolution?

Mr. Boyd explains that the resolution should be a catalyst for more ambitious action on every single environmental issue that we face.

“It really is historic, and it really is meaningful for everyone because we know right now that 90% of people in the world are breathing polluted air.

“So right off the bat if we can use this resolution as a catalyst for actions to clean up air quality, then we’re going to be improving the lives of billions of people”, he emphasizes.

Human Rights Council resolutions might not be legally binding, but they do contain strong political commitments.

“The best example we have of what kind of a difference these UN resolutions make is if we look back at the resolutions in 2010 that for the first time recognized the right to water. That was a catalyst for governments all over the world who added the right to water to their constitutions, their highest and strongest laws”, Mr. Boyd says.

The Rapporteur cites Mexico, which after adding the right to water in the constitution, has now extended safe drinking water to over 1,000 rural communities.

“There are a billion people who can’t just turn on the tap and have clean, safe water coming out, and so you know, for a thousand communities in rural Mexico, that’s an absolutely life-changing improvement. Similarly, Slovenia, after they put the right to water in their constitution because of the UN resolutions, they then took action to bring safe drinking water to Roma communities living in informal settlements on city outskirts”.

According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), 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 Sustainable Developing Goals, 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.

5. The link between human rights and environment is indisputable

Mr. Boyd has witnessed firsthand the devastating impact that climate change has already had on people’s rights.

In his first country mission as a Special Rapporteur, he met the first community in the world that had to be completely relocated due to rising sea levels, coastal erosion and increased intensity of storm surges.

“You know, from this beautiful waterfront paradise on a Fijian island, they had to move their whole village inland about three kilometers. Older persons, people with disabilities, pregnant women, they’re now separated from the ocean that has sustained their culture and their livelihoods for many generations”.

These situations are not only seen in developing countries. Mr. Boyd also visited Norway where he met Sami indigenous people also facing the impacts of climate change.

“I heard really sad stories there. For thousands of years their culture and their economy has been based on reindeer herding, but now because of warm weather in the winters, even in Norway, north of the Arctic Circle, sometimes it rains.

“The reindeer who literally for thousands of years had been able to scrape away snow during the winter to get to the lichens and mosses that sustained them, now can’t scrape away the ice – and they’re starving”.

The story repeats itself in Kenya, where pastoralists are losing their livestock because of droughts that are being exacerbated by climate change.

They have done nothing to cause this global crisis and they’re the ones who are suffering, and that’s why it’s such a human rights issue.

“That’s why it’s such an issue of justice. Wealthy countries and wealthy people need to start to pay for the pollution they’ve created so that we can help these vulnerable communities and these vulnerable peoples to adapt and to rebuild their lives”, Mr. Boyd said.

6. What’s next?

The Council resolution includes an invitation to the UN General Assembly to also consider the matter. The Special Rapporteur says he is “cautiously optimistic” that the body will pass a similar resolution within the next year.

“We need this. We need governments and we need everyone to move with a sense of urgency. I mean, we’re living in a climate, biodiversity, and pollution crisis, and also a crisis of these emerging diseases like COVID which have environmental root causes. And so that’s why this resolution is critically important because it says to every government in the world ‘you have to put human rights at the centre of climate action, of conservation, of addressing pollution and of preventing future pandemics’”.

For Dr. Maria Neira, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) environment chief, the resolution is already having important repercussions and a mobilizing impact.

“The next step will be how we translate that on the right to clean air and whether we can push, for instance, for the recognition of WHO’S Global Air Quality Guidelines and the levels of exposure to certain pollutants at a country level. It will also help us to move certain legislation and standards at the national level”, she explains.

Air pollution, primarily the result of burning fossil fuels, which also drives climate change, causes 13 deaths per minute worldwide. Dr. Neira calls for the end of this “absurd fight” against the ecosystems and environment.

“All the investments need to be on ensuring access to safe water and sanitation, on making sure that electrification is done with renewable energy and that our food systems are sustainable.”

According to WHO, achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement would save millions of lives every year due to improvements in air quality, diet, and physical activity, among other benefits.

“The climate emergency has become a matter of survival for many populations. Only systemic, profound and rapid changes will make it possible to respond to this global ecological crisis”, says the Special Rapporteur.

For Mr. Boyd, the approval of the historical resolution in the Human Rights Council was a ‘paradoxical’ moment.

“There was this incredible sense of accomplishment and also at the exact same time a sense of how much work remains to be done to take these beautiful words and translate them into changes that will make people’s lives better and make our society more sustainable”.

The newly declared right to a healthy and clean environment will also hopefully influence positively negotiations during the upcoming UN Climate Conference COP26, in Glasgow, which has been described by the UN chief as the last chance to ‘turn the tide’ and end the war on our planet.  

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