At the end of 2020, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the global community to end the “war on nature”. At one side, the human activity is at the root of human descent towards chaos; on another, human actions can help solve the problem as “making peace with nature” is the present century’s defining task. The survival issue must be the top priority for everyone and everywhere; the recovery’s process from the pandemic is just an opportunity for humans, depicting such rays of hope as vaccination. However, there is no vaccine for the planet and nature needs a bailout. In overcoming the pandemic, humans can also avert climate cataclysm and restore the planet: besides, this is an epic policy test for the world and the Europeans; hence, ultimately this is a moral test as well.
At least 155 UN member states now legally recognize that a healthy environment is a basic human right; the knowledge base is presently greater than ever. The UN Academic Impact Initiative (AII) is working with institutions of higher education across the globe as the contributions of universities are essential to this successful endeavor. More and more people are recognizing the limits of conventional yardsticks such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), in which environmentally damaging activities count as economic positives. But mindsets are shifting: more people understand the need for their own daily choices to reduce their carbon footprint and respect planetary boundaries. Hence, a new world is taking shape…
The pandemic effect on nature was crucial: new heights of global heating, new levels of ecological degradation and new setbacks in the global goals for more equitable, inclusive and sustainable development, so-called SDGs. Simply said, the state of the planet is broken as the present global governance is “waging war on nature”. The process is really suicidal: the nature always strikes back; and it is already doing so with growing force and fury. As a result the biodiversity is collapsing and about one million species are at risk of extinction.
Some new evidences are showing that ecosystems are disappearing, deserts are spreading and wetlands are being lost; every year about 10 million hectares of forests are lost, seas and oceans are covered with plastic waste as the carbon dioxide they absorb is acidifying the seas. Coral reefs are bleached and dying, air and water pollution is killing 9 million people annually – more than six times the current toll of the pandemic. In 2019, carbon dioxide levels reached 148 per cent of pre-industrial levels; in 2020, the upward trend has continued despite the pandemic, e.g. methane soared even higher – to 260 per cent. Nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas but also a gas that harms the ozone layer, has escalated by 123 per cent.
Meanwhile, global regional and national climate policies have yet to rise to the challenge. Emissions are 62 per cent higher now than when international climate negotiations began in 1990; and every tenth of a degree of warming matters. Today, we are at 1.2 degrees of warming and already witnessing unprecedented climate extremes and volatility in every region and on every continent. We are headed for a thundering temperature rise of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius this century. The science is crystal clear: to limit temperature rise to 1.5-degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the world needs to decrease fossil fuel production by roughly 6 per cent every year between now and 2030. Instead, the world is going in the opposite direction — planning an annual increase of 2 per cent
Today, two new authoritative reports from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) spell out how close we are to climate catastrophe. For example, 2020 is going to be one of the three warmest years on record globally and the past decade was the hottest in human history.
Ocean heat is at record levels; this year, more than 80 per cent of the world’s oceans experienced marine heat waves. In the Arctic, 2020 has seen exceptional warmth, with temperatures more than 3 degrees Celsius above average – and more than 5 degrees in northern Siberia. Arctic sea ice in last October was the lowest on record – and now refreezing has been the slowest on record. Greenland ice has continued its long-term decline, losing an average of 278 gig tons a year. Permafrost is melting and so releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Apocalyptic cyclones and hurricanes are increasingly becoming the new normal. The North Atlantic hurricane season has seen 30 storms, more than double the long-term average and breaking the record for a full season. Central America is still reeling from two back-to-back hurricanes, part of the most intense period for such storms in recent years; last year such disasters cost the world $150 billion.
Transforming modern economy
According to scientists, sustainable economy driven by renewable energies will create new jobs, followed by cleaner infrastructure and a resilient future. An inclusive world will help ensure that people can enjoy better health and the full respect of their human rights, and live with dignity on a healthy planet. COVID recovery and the planet’s repair-process must be the two sides of the same coin; though the climate emergency is definitely a priority.
We face three imperatives in addressing the climate crisis: first, global carbon neutrality must be achieved within the next three decades. In recent weeks important positive developments have been seen: e.g. European Union has committed to become a first climate neutral continent by 2050; it is expected that the EU will reduce harmful emissions to at least 55 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030.
More than 110 countries have already committed to carbon neutrality by 2050; a new US administration has announced exactly the same goal and China has committed to get there before 2060. This means that by the end of 2021, countries representing more than 65 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions and more than 70 per cent of the world economy will have made ambitious commitments to carbon neutrality. This momentum must be turned into reality and the central UN’s objective for 2021 is to build a truly Global Coalition for Carbon Neutrality; it means that 2021 can be a new kind of leap year – the year of a quantum leap towards carbon neutrality. Every country, city, financial institution and company should adopt plans for transitioning to net zero emissions by 2050; the main emitters have to lead the way in taking decisive action now to get on the right path and to achieve this vision, which means cutting global emissions by 45 percent by 2030 compared to 2010 levels.
These goals must be clear in the “nationally determined contributions”: every nation must also perform its part, as well as consumers, producers and investors. Technology’s achievements are there to help and so is a sound economic analysis: more than half the coal plants operating today cost more to run than building new renewables from scratch (that means the coal business is going up in smoke).
International Labour Organization estimated that, despite inevitable job losses, clean energy transition will result in the creation of 18 million jobs by 2030: a just transition is absolutely critical and we must recognize the human costs of the energy shift. Social protection, temporary basic income, re-skilling and up-skilling can support workers and ease the changes caused by decarbonization. Renewable energy is now the best choice not just for the environment, but for the national and global economy as well.
However, there are worrying signs: some countries have used the crisis to roll back environmental protections; others are expanding natural resource exploitation and retreating from climate ambition. The G20 members, in their rescue packages, are now pledge spending 50 per cent more on sectors linked to fossil fuel production and consumption, than on low-carbon energy. And beyond announcements, all must pass a credibility test.
Just one example of shipping: if the shipping sector was a country, it would be the world’s sixth biggest greenhouse gas emitter. At the 2020-Climate Action Summit, the Getting to Zero Shipping Coalition initiative was launched to push for zero emissions by deep sea vessels by 2030. Yet current policies are not in line with those pledges: enforceable regulatory and fiscal steps are needed for the shipping industry to deliver its commitments; otherwise, the net zero ship’s idea is doomed to failure.
Exactly the same applies to aviation: the Paris Agreement’s signatories are obligated to submit their revised and enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions with their 2030 emissions cut targets. In mid-January 2021, a “Climate Ambition Summit” has marked the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement; less than a year from now in Glasgow the COP26 will take place. These moments are opportunities we cannot miss for nations to detail how they will build forward and build better, acknowledging the common but disoriented responsibilities in the light of national circumstances (as was said in the Paris Agreement) but with the common goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.
Second, collecting global finances to support the Paris Agreement’s implementation could be the world’s blueprint for climate action. The commitments to net zero emissions are sending a clear signal to investors, markets and financial institutions; however, the world need to do more: all governments have to translate these pledges into policies, plans and targets with specific timelines, which would provide certainty and confidence for businesses and the financial sector to invest for “net zero” approaches.
All asset owners and managers have to “decarbonize” their portfolios and join key initiatives and partnerships launched by the United Nations, including the Global Investors for Sustainable Development Alliance and the NetZero Asset Owners Alliance equipped with $5.1 trillion dollars of assets. Companies need to adjust their business models, investors need to demand information from companies on the resilience of those models. The world’s pension funds manage $32 trillion dollars in assets, putting them in a unique position to lead the way.
World developed countries have to fulfill their long-standing promise to provide $100 billion dollars annually to support developing countries in reaching shared climate goals. This is a matter of equity, fairness, solidarity and enlightened self-interest. All countries have to reach a compromise on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, as they prepare for COP26, to get clear, fair and environmentally sound rules as the carbon markets need to be fully functioning. The work of the task force launched last September, with member states representing 20 economy’s sectors and 6 continents, to develop a blueprint for large-scale private carbon offset markets is highly appreciated. Among the most urgent measures (although numerous) are: – to put a price on carbon, – to phase out fossil fuel finance and end fossil fuel subsidies, – to stop building new coal power plants (and halt coal power financing domestically and overseas), – to shift the tax burden from income to carbon and from taxpayers to polluters, – to integrate the goal of carbon neutrality into all economic and fiscal policies and decisions, – to make climate-related financial risk disclosures mandatory, – to reorient funding flows towards green economy, resilience, adaptation and just transition programs (the world needs to align all public and private financial flows towards the Paris Agreement’s and the Sustainable Development Goals), – to activate multilateral, regional and national development institutions and private banks towards commitments to align their lending to the global net zero objective.
Third, global regions must deliver a breakthrough on adaptation to protect the world, especially the most vulnerable people and countries, from climate impacts as the civilization reaching a race against time to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Adaptation must not be the forgotten component of climate action: presently, adaptation represents only 20 per cent of climate finance, totaling $30 billion in 2017-18, which actually hinders essential work for disaster risk reduction. The Global Commission on Adaptation found that every $1 invested in adaptation could yield almost $4 in benefits.
Global community has both a moral imperative and a clear economic case for supporting developing countries to adapt and build resilience to current and future climate impacts. Before COP 26, all donors and the Multilateral and National Development Banks should commit to increase the share of adaptation and resilience finance to at least 50 per cent of their climate finance support.
Early warning systems, climate-resilient infrastructure, improved dry land agriculture, mangrove protection and other steps can give the world a double dividend: avoiding future losses and generating economic gains and other benefits to move to large-scale, preventive and systematic adaptation support. The race to resilience is as important as the race to net zero; though it has to be remembered: there can be no separating climate action from the larger planetary picture. Everything is interlinked – the global commons and global well-being; it means governments must act more broadly, more holistically, across many fronts, to secure the planet’s health on which all life depends.
Last year supposed to have been a “super year” for nature but the pandemic has changed these plans: instead, 2021 must be used to address the planetary emergency: e.g. global leaders are going to forge a post-2020 biodiversity framework to halt the extinction crisis and put the world on a pathway to living in harmony with nature. The world has not met any of the global biodiversity targets set for 2020; hence much more ambition and greater commitment is needed to deliver on measurable targets and means of implementation, particularly finance and monitoring mechanisms.
In 2021, countries will hold the Ocean Conference to protect and advance the health of the world’s marine environments. Overfishing must be stopped, chemical and solid waste pollution (plastics, in particular) must be reduced drastically, marine reserves must increase significantly, and coastal areas shall be given greater protection. The blue economy offers remarkable potential: presently, goods and services from the ocean already generate $2.5 trillion each year and contribute over $31 million direct full-time jobs – at least until the pandemic struck. However, urgent actions on global and European sides shall reap these benefits and protect the world’s seas and oceans from the many pressures they face. Next year’s global conference on sustainable transport in China must also strengthen this vital sector while addressing its negative environmental footprint. The Food Systems Summit must aim to transform global food production and consumption as food systems are one of the main reasons that humans failed to stay within the planet’s ecological boundaries.
At the start of 2021, the newly launched UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration is supposed to focus on preventing, halting and reversing degradation of forests, land and other ecosystems worldwide. The Decade is a “rallying cry” to tackle the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change with practical and hands-on action.
The International Conference on Chemicals Management will establish a post-2020 framework on chemicals and waste. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), sound chemicals’ management could prevent at least 1.6 million deaths per year.
This year will also be critical in advancing the New Urban Agenda, as the world’s cities are fundamental frontlines on sustainable development: let’s not forget that more than 50 per cent of humankind already lives in cities; this number will reach almost 70 per cent by 2050.
The World Economic Forum has estimated that business opportunities across nature could create 191 million jobs by 2030; Africa’s “Great Green Wall” alone has created 335,000 jobs. Indigenous knowledge, distilled over millennia of close and direct contact with nature, can help to point the way. Indigenous peoples make up less than 6 per cent of the world’s population yet are stewards of 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity on land. It is known already that nature managed by indigenous peoples is declining less rapidly than elsewhere. With indigenous peoples living on land that is among the most vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation, it is time to heed their voices, reward their knowledge and respect their rights.
Note: an original version can be seen in the Prof U. Simonis article in “Sonnenseite Newsletter” (02.01.2021), the German environmental weekly: