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Landmark decision gives legal teeth to protect environmental defenders

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A 46-strong group of countries across the wider European region has agreed to establish a new legally binding mechanism that would protect environmental defenders, the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) said on Friday.

“I remain deeply concerned by the targeting of environmental activists”, said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, welcoming the rapid response mechanism as “an important contribution to help advance my Call to Action for Human Rights”. 

The agreement will delegate setting up the new mechanism to the United Nations, or another international body.

As the first ever internationally-agreed tool to safeguard environmental defenders, it marks an important step in upholding the universal right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment – as recognized by the Human Rights Council earlier this month

“Twenty years ago, the Aarhus Convention entered into force, bridging the gap between human and environmental rights.

Today, as the devastating effects of climate change continue to ravage the world, the Convention’s core purpose – of allowing people to protect their wellbeing and that of future generations – has never been more critical”, spelled out the UN chief. 

A protective eye

The agreement to establish the mechanism was adopted on Thursday by the Meeting of the Parties to the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, known as the Aarhus Convention. 

“This landmark decision is a clear signal to environmental defenders that they will not be left unprotected”, said UNECE chief Olga Algayerova.

“It demonstrates a new level of commitment to upholding the public’s rights under the Aarhus Convention, as well as Parties’ willingness to respond effectively to grave and real-time challenges seen in the Convention’s implementation on the ground”.   

Vital defence

Whether it is groups protesting the construction of a dangerous dam or individuals speaking out against harmful agricultural practices in their local community, these activists are vital to environmental preservation across the globe, said the UNECE.

The Aarhus Convention ensures that those exercising their rights in conformity with the provisions of the Convention shall not be penalized, persecuted or harassed in any way for their involvement.

As such, the mechanism will establish a Special Rapporteur – or independent rights expert – who will quickly respond to alleged violations and take measures to protect those experiencing or under imminent threat of penalization, persecution, or harassment for seeking to exercise their rights under the Convention.  

As time is of the essence to buttress the safety of environmental defenders, any member of the public, secretariat or Party to the Aarhus Convention, will be able to submit a confidential complaint to the Special Rapporteur, even before other legal remedies have been exhausted.   

Defenders targeted

Although it is crucial for environmental defenders to confidently exercise their rights, cases have been reported in which instead, they face being fired, heavy fines, criminalization, detention, violence, and even death. 

Moreover, incidents of harassment and violence against environmental defenders are far from uncommon

A report to the Human Rights Council by Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, found that one-in-two human rights defenders who were killed in 2019 had been working with communities around issues of land, environment, impacts of business activities, poverty and rights of indigenous peoples, Afrodescendants and other minorities.  

Since January 2017, among the Parties to the Aarhus Convention, incidents of persecution, penalization and harassment of environmental defenders have been reported in 16 countries

In contrast to current existing initiatives, which mainly rely on applying political pressure through the media, the Aarhus Convention’s rapid response mechanism will be built on a binding legal framework, giving it much greater powers to act.

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Excess salt in soils puts food security at risk

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Improper water management, including insufficient supply and poor quality drainage systems, are contributing to excessive soil salinization – a problem that threatens global food security, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). 

Soil salinization refers to excessive levels of salt in the soil, which can inhibit plant growth and even be toxic to life.  It can occur naturally, for example in deserts due to lack of water and intense evaporation, or as a consequence of human activity. 

FAO is highlighting the issue in marking World Soil Day on Friday, ahead of the official commemoration on Sunday. 

Soils at risk 

“Soil is the foundation of agriculture and the world’s farmers depend on soil to produce about 95 per cent of the food we eat.  Yet, our soils are at risk,” said Qu Dongyu, the agency’s Director-General, in advance of the Day, which is organized around the theme of Halt soil salinization, boost soil productivity. 

FAO said unsustainable agricultural practices and the overexploitation of natural resources, as well as a growing global population, are putting increased pressure on soils and causing alarming rates of soil degradation worldwide. 

More than 833 million hectares of soils are already salt-affected, representing around nine per cent of the world’s land surface, or roughly four times the size of India. 

Salt-affected soils occur in all continents, and under almost all climatic conditions, but more than two-thirds are in arid and semi-arid zones. 

Some of the regions most affected are in Central Asia, the Middle East, South America, North Africa and the Pacific. 

Challenges in Uzbekistan  

Uzbekistan, located in Central Asia, is the world’s largest landlocked country, and is in turn surrounded by other landlocked nations. More than half the soils there are salt-affected, making it extremely difficult to farm productively.  

Adyl Khujanov runs a farm in the village of Kyzylkesek, situated in the Karakalpakstan region in western Uzbekistan, which is considered the hottest and driest place in the country. 

“I’ve been farming this land all of my life and seen so many people from this area leave over the years because of the heat, dry weather and water shortages,” he told FAO recently. 

However, in other regions of the world, soil salination is attributed to unsustainable human activities.  These include over use of fertilizers, inappropriate irrigation methods, poor quality water, and deforestation. 

Learning new methods  

FAO works with countries to support them in managing soil resources. 

In Uzbekistan, FAO’s Global Soil Partnership (GSP) collaborates with scientists to develop climate-smart soil management practices so that crops in salt-affected areas can thrive.  

“Thanks to new methods which we have learnt and adopted here to cope with climate change and severe water shortages, I can grow tomatoes, melons, pulses and forage crops to feed animals,” said Mr. Khujanov. 

Reliable data critical 

FAO has also stressed the importance of generating reliable soil data, though it warns that many countries face challenges in this area. 

The agency has published the Global Soil Laboratory Assessment Report, which reveals that out of 142 countries surveyed, 55 per cent lack adequate capability for soil analysis.  Most are in Africa and Asia. 

At the report’s launch, Mr. Qu underlined the need for investment in soil laboratories to provide reliable data that will inform sound decisions for ensuring sustainable soil management and preventing degradation. 

He said the recent adoption of a new Soil Strategy by the European Union (EU) is a positive example, setting concrete and ambitious targets to improve soil health within and outside the bloc. 

FAO recalled that the vital role of healthy soils in climate change mitigation and adaptation and in building resilience figured prominently at the COP26 conference last month. 

The agency has called on all countries to urgently improve their soil information and capacities by making stronger commitments towards sustainable soil management. 

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UNIDO and the Alliance to End Plastic Waste partner to scale circular solutions to plastic waste

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A cooperation framework for jointly tackling global plastic waste using circular economy approaches was signed today by LI Yong, Director-General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), and Jacob Duer, President and CEO of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (Alliance).

Through the partnership, UNIDO and the Alliance aim to develop, implement and scale projects and programmes to advance plastics circularity. The collaboration will also help to facilitate knowledge sharing and best practices to support inclusive and sustainable industrial development.

A transition to a circular plastics economy would reduce the presence of plastics in the environment while maintaining the value of plastic materials for as long as possible. The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the creation of new and inclusive jobs and cost savings to governments, are some of the significant environmental and socio-economic co-benefits of transitioning to a circular plastics economy.

LI Yong, UNIDO Director-General, expressed his enthusiasm for the partnership. “Ending plastic waste in the environment will require new business models, technologies, perspectives and partnerships. We are pleased to enter this partnership with the Alliance and bring our expertise in circular economy solutions to bear in solving this environmental crisis.”

Jacob Duer, President and CEO of the Alliance, said, “We are investing in projects and solutions that can scale and will be able to deliver long-term benefits to the environment and to the communities where they are situated. We are excited to partner with UNIDO to amplify the impact of our mission to end plastic waste in the environment and support inclusive and sustainable development.”

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COP26 closes with ‘compromise’ deal on climate, but it’s not enough

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Negotiators marking the closing of the United Nations climate summit, COP26, which opened in Glasgow, Scotland, on 31 October. The conference sought new global commitments to tackle climate change. UN News/Laura Quiñones

After extending the COP26 climate negotiations an extra day, nearly 200 countries meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, adopted on Saturday an outcome document that, according to the UN Secretary-General, “reflects the interests, the contradictions, and the state of political will in the world today”.

“It is an important step but is not enough. We must accelerate climate action to keep alive the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees”, said António Guterres in a video statement released at the close of the two-week meeting.

The UN chief added that it is time to go “into emergency mode”, ending fossil fuel subsidies, phasing out coal, putting a price on carbon, protecting vulnerable communities, and delivering the $100 billion climate finance commitment.

“We did not achieve these goals at this conference. But we have some building blocks for progress,” he said.

Mr. Guterres also had a message to young people, indigenous communities, women leaders, and all those leading the charge on climate action.

“I know you are disappointed. But the path of progress is not always a straight line. Sometimes there are detours. Sometimes there are ditches. But I know we can get there. We are in the fight of our lives, and this fight must be won. Never give up. Never retreat. Keep pushing forward”.

A snapshot of the agreement

The outcome document, known as the Glasgow Climate Pact, calls on 197 countries to report their progress towards more climate ambition next year, at COP27, set to take place in Egypt.

The outcome also firms up the global agreement to accelerate action on climate this decade.

However, COP26 President Alok Sharma struggled to hold back tears following the announcement of a last-minute change to the pact, by China and India, softening language circulated in an earlier draft about “the phase-out of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels”. As adopted on Saturday, that language was revised to “phase down” coal use.

Mr. Sharma apologized for “the way the process has unfolded” and added that he understood some delegations would be “deeply disappointed” that the stronger language had not made it into the final agreement.

By other terms of the wide-ranging set of decisions, resolutions and statements that make up the outcome of COP26, governments were,among other things, asked to provide tighter deadlines for updating their plans to reduce emissions.

On the thorny question of financing from developed countries in support of climate action in developing countries, the text emphasizes the need to mobilize climate finance “from all sources to reach the level needed to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, including significantly increasing support for developing country Parties, beyond $100 billion per year”.

1.5 degrees, but with ‘a weak pulse’ 

“Negotiations are never easy…this is the nature of consensus and multilateralism”, said Patricia Espinosa, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 

She stressed that for every announcement made during the past two weeks, the expectation is that the implementation “plans and the fine print” will follow.

Let us enjoy what we accomplished but also prepare for what is coming,” Ms. Espinosa said, after recognizing the advancements on adaptation, among others.

Meanwhile, COP26 President Alok Sharma stated that delegations could say “with credibility” that they have kept 1.5 degrees within reach.

“But its pulse is weak. And it will only survive if we keep our promises. If we translate commitments into rapid action. If we deliver on the expectations set out in this Glasgow Climate Pact to increase ambition to 2030 and beyond. And if we close the vast gap that remains, as we must,” he told delegates.

He then quoted Prime Minister Mia Mottley, who earlier in the conference had said that for Barbados and other small island states, ‘two degrees is a death sentence.’  With that in mind, Mr. Sharma asked delegates to continue their efforts to get finance flowing and boost adaptation

He concluded by saying that history has been made in Glasgow. 

“We must now ensure that the next chapter charts the success of the commitments we have solemnly made together in the Glasgow Climate Pact, he declared.

The ‘least worst’ outcome

Earlier during the conference’s final stocktaking plenary, many countries lamented that the package of agreed decisions was not enough. Some called it “disappointing”, but overall, said they recognized it was balanced for what could be agreed at this moment in time and given their differences.

Countries like Nigeria, Palau, the Philippines, Chile and Turkey all said that although there were imperfections, they broadly supported the text.

“It is (an) incremental step forward but not in line with the progress needed. It will be too late for the Maldives. This deal does not bring hope to our hearts,” said the Maldives’ top negotiator in a bittersweet speech.

US climate envoy John Kerry said the text “is a powerful statement” and assured delegates that his country will engage constructively in a dialogue on “loss and damage” and adaptation, two of issues that proved most difficult for the negotiators to agree upon.

“The text represents the ‘least worst’ outcome,” concluded the top negotiator from New Zealand.

Other key COP26 achievements

Beyond the political negotiations and the Leaders’ Summit, COP26 brought together about 50,000 participants online and in-person to share innovative ideas, solutions, attend cultural events and build partnerships and coalitions.

The conference heard many encouraging announcements. One of the biggest was that leaders from over 120 countries, representing about 90 per cent of the world’s forests, pledged to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030,  the date by which the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to curb poverty and secure the planet’s future are supposed to have been achieved.

There was also a methane pledge, led by the United States and the European Union, by which more than 100 countries agreed to cut emissions of this greenhouse gas by 2030.

Meanwhile, more than 40 countries – including major coal-users such as Poland, Vietnam and Chile – agreed to shift away from coal, one of the biggest generators CO2 emissions.

The private sector also showed strong engagement with nearly 500 global financial services firms agreeing to align $130 trillion – some 40 per cent of the world’s financial assets – with the goals set out in the Paris Agreement, including limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Also, in a surprise for many, the United States and China pledged to boost climate cooperation over the next decade. In a joint declaration they said they had agreed to take steps on a range of issues, including methane emissions, transition to clean energy and decarbonization. They also reiterated their commitment to keep the 1.5C goal alive.

Regarding green transport, more than 100 national governments, cities, states and major car companies signed the Glasgow Declaration on Zero-Emission Cars and Vans to end the sale of internal combustion engines by 2035 in leading markets, and by 2040 worldwide.  At least 13 nations also committed to end the sale of fossil fuel powered heavy duty vehicles by 2040.

Many ‘smaller’ but equally inspiring commitments were made over the past two weeks, including one by 11 countries which created the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA). Ireland, France, Denmark, and Costa Rica among others, as well as some subnational governments, launched this first-of-its kind alliance to set an end date for national oil and gas exploration and extraction.

A quick refresher on how we got here

To keep it simple, COP26 was the latest and one of the most important steps in the decades long, UN-facilitated effort to help stave off what has been called a looming climate emergency.

In 1992, the UN organized a major event in Rio de Janeiro called the Earth Summit, in which the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted.

In this treaty, nations agreed to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere” to prevent dangerous interference from human activity on the climate system. Today, the treaty has 197 signatories.

Since 1994, when the treaty entered into force, every year the UN has been bringing together almost every country on earth for global climate summits or “COPs”, which stands for ‘Conference of the Parties’.

This year should have been the 27th annual summit, but thanks to COVID-19, we’ve fallen a year behind due to last year’s postponement – hence, COP26.

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