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On September 30, world leaders convened virtually for the 2020 UN Summit on Biodiversity in New York under the theme of “Urgent Action on Biodiversity for Sustainable Development.” As expected, the summit addressed the COVID-19 and the overall relationship between humanity’s invasion and destruction of nature with zoonotic diseases, but it also focused on biodiversity as an essential part of humanity, through its provision of food, water, medicines and protection from extreme events. Earth.Org rounded up 11 noteworthy pledges and speeches from the UN Summit on Biodiversity. 

  1. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attacked “international greed” over the Amazon rainforest. He insisted that countries should have the right to use their natural resources, adding that “that’s precisely what we intend to do with the huge wealth of resources in the Brazilian territory.”
  2. More than 70 leaders and head of state from around the world have now signed the “Leaders’ Pledge for Nature,” including Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau, Jacinda Ardern and Boris Johnson. It entails a 10-point pledge to reduce pollution, adopt sustainable economic systems and eliminate the dumping of plastic waste in oceans by 2050. 
  3. Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno called on countries to self-regulate their fishing activities in the waters around the Galápagos islands, in a thinly veiled message to China after a mostly-Chinese fleet of 340 vessels descended on the biodiversity-rich region for squid in late July. The fleet had turned off their tracking devices, a common ploy to disguise illicit activities. 
  4. Chinese President Xi Jinping did not follow up on his surprise announcement last week at the UN Summit’s opening that China would reach carbon neutrality by 2060 and that greenhouse gas emissions would peak in 2030. 
  5. Conservationists and campaigners were not convinced by many of the pledges made by world leaders at the summit. Greta Thunberg dismissed the “the laughable, cynical empty promises and “pledges” still taking place.” 
  6. Indigenous leaders expressed dismay that plans to protect 30% of the planet by the end of the decade could threaten their people, with one activist saying it could be the “biggest land grab in history” while another said that only through “traditional knowledge can we guarantee the conservation of biodiversity and the reduction in deforestation needed to address climate change.”
  7. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez called humanity “parasites” and urged world leaders to use the delay of the Kunming, China meeting as an opportunity to bolster ambitions. In particular, Sanchez says that the world must focus on ensuring that 30% of land and sea is protected by 2030, restoring 15% of degraded land and recognising the close link between people, plants, animals and their environment. 
  8. The Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that his government will explore an expansion of Ireland’s marine protected areas and will use its seat on the UN Security Council to link human conflict with the environment. 
  9. Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih referenced the COVID-19 pandemic, saying that “humanity is living with the consequences of our constant disrespect to nature.” He pledged to designate one island, one reef and one mango grove in each atoll as a protected area. The island country is phasing out single-use plastic by 2023. 
  10. Qu Dongyu, director general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) delivered a sharp rebuke to world leaders. He said, “Let me put it plain and simple: without biodiversity there would be no food. The loss of biodiversity undermines efforts to tackle poverty, and to halt biodiversity loss we need to radically change our economies.”
  11. Costa Rican President Carlos Quesada told the UN Summit on Biodiversity that humanity must focus on three areas to improve our relationship with nature. First, he says that we need to take responsibility and be self-critical by thinking about how our behaviour affects ecosystems. He is a proponent of economic development models that are based on human wellbeing, not just growth. Secondly, we must realise that we are not the most important beings on Earth and be humble enough to learn from nature. Finally, we must focus on equality by protecting ecosystems and decarbonising economies for the good of everyone. 

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Featured image by: Flickr

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matter was adopted on June 25 1998 in the Danish city of Aarhus as part of the “Environment for Europe” process. It entered into force in October 2001. 

The Aarhus Convention establishes a number of rights of the public (individuals and their associations) with regard to the environment. The Parties to the Convention are required to make the necessary provisions so that public authorities (at national, regional or local level) will contribute to these rights to become effective. Each party state must aim to ‘guarantee the rights of access to information, public participation in decision-making, and access to justice in its environmental matters’. It empowers ordinary citizens and civil society organisations, affirming that they have a voice in how their country deals with environmental issues.

There are 47 Parties to the Convention, including Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the EU, Poland and the UK. 

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How It Works

The Working Group of the Parties oversees the implementation of programs and prepares for the Meeting of the Parties. They review possible ways to improve the Convention itself, and make suggestions on how the Convention can be achieved by members. Meetings of the Parties take place every three years. The latest Meeting of the Parties was scheduled to be on 1-3 July 2020 in Geneva, but due to the pandemic, it has been converted into two sessions: a virtual session on the original dates, and an in-person session in late October 2020. 

The Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee is central to ensuring that the Convention is implemented by the Parties. Individuals, non-governmental organisations and parties can bring up allegations of non-compliance by any party, and they will be considered by this Committee. Meanwhile, all Parties must submit national implementation reports to the Committee at each Meeting of the Parties. 

When allegations of non-compliance, called “communications,” are raised, the Convention’s compliance mechanism is triggered. The most recently concluded communication was raised by Stichting Greenpeace Netherlands in 2014, claiming that the Netherlands failed to ‘provide for public participation… prior to its decision to extend the period of operation of Borssele Nuclear Power Plant until 31 December 2033’. After a hearing and information gathering, the findings were concluded in 2018. The Committee found that the Netherlands did fail to comply with the Aarhus Convention, and gave a brief recommendation for the Netherlands to ‘take the necessary legislative, regulatory and administrative measures to ensure that, when a public authority reconsiders or updates the duration of any nuclear-related activity within the scope of article 6 of the Convention, the provisions of paragraphs 2 to 9 of article 6 are applied’. A compilation of communications submitted can be found here.

Communications can be raised by individuals or groups within the public against a Party. Historically, most communications have been raised by non-governmental organisations against their respective nations, such as the Green Salvation in Kazakhstan and the Clean Air Action Group in Hungary. The Compliance Committee would determine whether the communication is admissible, gather information and provide recommendations if the party in question is found to be non-compliant. The compliance mechanism is bound by a set of rules agreed upon by the Parties. For example, meeting documents of the Committee must be available online to ensure transparency to the public and all meetings must be open for anyone to attend by request. In some cases, an oral hearing is also held.  A 2007 study found that the average length of time between the submission and conclusion of a case is slightly over a year. It also concluded that the compliance mechanism has been able to function in a transparent way, with full participation of the public without abuse of this power. Parties whose compliance has been challenged, have generally complied with requests for correspondence, albeit sometimes slowly. For instance, in one 2004 communication raised against Turkmenistan, the government repeatedly failed to respond to the Committee’s queries. The Committee issued its recommendations, followed up with the government of Turkmenistan in each subsequent Meeting of the Parties, and issued cautions when no action was taken. Eventually, at the 2014 Meeting of the Parties, the Committee concluded that Turkmenistan had satisfactorily fulfilled the recommendations and was no longer in non-compliance with the Aarhus Convention. In this case, it was nearly ten years before results were seen. 

Kyiv Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers

At the 2003 Meeting of the Parties for the Aarhus Convention, the Kyiv Protocol was adopted; in 2009, it became legally binding to its 27 parties. It commits its Parties to establish publicly accessible pollutant release and transfer registers (PRTR), which requires pollutants from environmentally impactful activities to be reported. This protocol in particular requires PRTRs to cover at least 86 pollutants, including major greenhouse gases and heavy metals. A PRTR contains information on how much pollutants are being released from facilities. This helps to directly fulfil one of the Aarhus Convention’s objectives: the right to access environmental information. At the same time, it may help discourage pollution, since companies would not want to be identified as major polluters on such registers. Parties to this protocol are to ensure that operators such as refineries and power stations submit annual reports to the national PRTR. Data collected in different Parties can be accessed at the Centre for PRTR Data. Like the Aarhus Convention, the Kyiv Protocol has its own dedicated Meetings of the Parties and Compliance Committee. As of the eighth meeting of the Compliance Committee in March 2020, it has not yet received any communications on non-compliance. 

How To Apply the Aarhus Convention?

The Aarhus Convention is legally binding to its 47 parties. Some states that are in the UNECE that are not party to the Aarhus Convention include the US, Israel, Canada and Turkey. 

The people’s rights under the conventions can be divided into three main categories: the right to access to environmental information, the right to participate in decision-making and the right to effective access to justice. These are detailed in Articles 4-5, Articles 6-8, and Article 9 of the Convention respectively. For example, Article 6 outlining the right to participate in decision-making specifies that Parties should provide reasonable time frames for informing and involving the public regarding environmental decision-making procedures. If a Party does not comply with any of these articles, a communication can be submitted to the Convention Secretariat through email. 

One useful tool is the Aarhus Clearinghouse for Environmental Democracy, a portal that provides information on laws and practices that are related to the Aarhus Convention. Its resources include e-learning courses, handbooks on legal standards and relevant news. 

Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, says, “This treaty’s powerful twin protections for the environment and human rights can help us respond to many challenges facing our world, from climate change and the loss of biodiversity to air and water pollution. The Convention’s critical focus on involving the public is helping to keep governments accountable.” The role of the public in environmental protection is undeniable. Citizens can make their voices heard through rallies, votes, consumer choices; the Aarhus Convention provides an additional legal avenue for them to be represented at the international scale. 

A report from the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) warns that zoonotic diseases are increasing and will continue to do so without action to protect wildlife and preserve the environment. 

The experts blame the rise in diseases such as COVID-19, which most likely originated from a bat, on high demand for animal protein, unsustainable agricultural practices and the climate crisis, saying that this alters the way that animals and humans interact with one another. 

Neglected zoonotic diseases kill two million people a year, they add. These diseases include Ebola, West Nile virus, SARS, anthrax, bovine tuberculosis and rabies. 

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What Does the Report Say?

Inger Andersen, under-secretary general and executive director of the UN Environment Programme, says, “In the last century we have seen at least six major outbreaks of novel coronaviruses. Over the last two decades and before COVID-19, zoonotic diseases caused economic damage of $100bn (£80bn).” COVID-19 is set to cost the global economy USD$9tn (£7.2tn) over two years.

She adds, “These are often communities with complex development problems, high dependence on livestock and proximity to wildlife.” 

Meat production, for instance, has increased by 260% in the last 50 years.

“Dams, irrigation and factory farms are linked to 25% of infectious diseases in humans. Travel, transport and food supply chains have erased borders and distances. Climate change has contributed to the spread of pathogens,” Andersen says. 

The report gives governments 10 recommendations on how to prevent future outbreaks, including strengthening monitoring and regulation practices associated with zoonotic diseases, including food systems, incentivising sustainable land management practices and managing landscapes that enhance sustainable co-existence of agriculture and wildlife. 

“To prevent future outbreaks, we must become much more deliberate about protecting our natural environment,” Andersen says.

“The science is clear that if we keep exploiting wildlife and destroying our ecosystems, then we can expect to see a steady stream of these diseases jumping from animals to humans in the years ahead,” she adds.

The report singles out Africa as a potential ‘source of important solutions to quell future outbreaks’ owing to the continent’s experience with and response to a number of zoonotic epidemics, including most recently the Ebola outbreak. 

ILRI Director General, Jimmy Smith, says, “The situation on the continent today is ripe for intensifying existing zoonotic diseases and facilitating the emergence and spread of new ones. But with their experiences with Ebola and other emerging diseases, African countries are demonstrating proactive ways to manage disease outbreaks. They are applying, for example, novel risk-based rather than rule-based approaches to disease control, which are best suited to resource-poor settings, and they are joining up human, animal and environment expertise in proactive One Health initiatives.” One Health approaches unite public health, veterinary and environmental expertise as the best way for preventing and responding to zoonotic disease outbreaks and pandemics.

The report was released on World Zoonoses Day, observed by research institutions on July 6, which commemorates the work of French biologist Louis Pasteur. On July 6 1885, Pasteur successfully administered the first vaccine against rabies.

Meanwhile, Chinese reports say that a city in Inner Mongolia has confirmed a case of the bubonic plague, with a second suspected case. It is unclear how the first patient became infected, however the second suspected case, a 15-year old boy, had apparently been in contact with a marmot hunted by a dog, a tweet from The Global Times said. 

The UN secretary-general António Guterres has released a policy brief called, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Food Security and Nutrition,” in which he discusses the need to safeguard everyone’s access to food and sufficient nutrition, calling our current food systems ‘broken’. He also urges the world to reshape its current food systems to be more resilient and sustainable to combat the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the climate crisis. 

The brief calls on governments to prioritise actions that will protect people during and beyond the pandemic. Guterres points out that millions were already struggling with hunger and malnutrition before the pandemic; 144 million children around the world under the age of five are stunted mainly due to malnutrition, which is likely to get worse as the world deals with the pandemic. While there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone, more than 820 million people still do not get enough to eat, numbers which will likely increase, he adds. 

He says, “Unless immediate action is taken, it is increasingly clear that there is an impending global food security emergency that could have long term impacts on hundreds of millions of adults and children.”

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Even in countries with an abundance of food, COVID-19 risks disrupting food supply chains. He says, “Our food systems are failing, and the COVID-19 pandemic is making things worse.”

Earlier in June, the UN predicted that at least 49 million people may fall into extreme poverty due to the pandemic, expanding the number of those that are food or nutrition insecure. For every percentage point drop in global GDP, an additional 700 000 children will experience stunted growth. The World Bank predicts that the global economy will shrink by 5.2% in 2020.

The policy brief makes three recommendations, including governments directing resources to areas most at risk of food insecurity, putting social protection systems in place to ensure that children, breastfeeding and pregnant women and other vulnerable groups have access to nutritious food and finally, investing in more sustainable and efficient food systems. 

Essential Food Services

Countries should designate food and nutrition as essential, while also implementing protections for those who work in the sector to ensure that food systems can continue to function. 

He adds that relief packages should also benefit the most vulnerable members of society, including small-scale farmers and rural businesses. 

Guterres says, “It means preserving critical humanitarian food, livelihood and nutrition assistance to vulnerable groups and positioning food in food-crisis countries to reinforce and scale up social protection systems.”

Reshaping Food Systems

The outbreak of the pandemic came at a time when food security and food systems were already under pressure, with factors such as conflict, natural disasters, the climate crisis and plagues of pests undermining food security. In parts of Africa and Asia, people are facing what the brief calls a ‘triple menace’, as heavy rain hinders efforts to control the swarms of locusts in the time of the pandemic. 

Guterres urges countries to build food systems which address the needs of both producers and workers, and to eradicate hunger by ensuring more equitable access to nutritious food. 

The pandemic underscores the need to transform the world’s food systems. After all, these systems contribute a significant portion to global greenhouse gas emissions- up to a third– and substantial biodiversity loss. Further, livestock contributes 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions, of which 44% is methane. Our food systems contribute to, among other things, the mass extinction of species, ecocide, soil loss, land degradation, water and air pollution and the spread of zoonotic diseases (as seen with COVID-19).

Humanity must rethink the way we produce, process, market and consume our food and dispose of waste to create more inclusive, sustainable and resilient food systems post COVID-19. 

To create food systems that are efficient, sustainable and resilient, careful management of land, soil and water is needed; the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) claims that when forest land is converted to crops, soil carbon decreases by 42%, while conversion of pastures leads to a 59% reduction. Post-harvest food loss must be tackled through low-cost handling and storage technologies as well as packaging.

As for resilience to the climate crisis, this can be achieved through water and energy-saving irrigation, conservation agriculture, as well as controlled environment farming, livestock grazing management, energy-efficient cold storage, biogas production and renewable energy. 

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer is a multilateral environmental agreement that regulates the production and consumption of 100 man-made chemicals referred to as ozone depleting substances (ODS). 

Montreal Protocol: Summary

When released into the atmosphere, these chemicals damage the stratospheric ozone layer, which protects humans and the environment from harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Adopted on 15 September 1987, the protocol is to date the only UN treaty that has been  ratified by all 197 UN Member states.  

The Montreal Protocol breaks down the consumption and production of different ODS in a step-wise manner with different timetables for developed and developing countries. Under this treaty, all parties have responsibilities regarding the phasing out of the different groups of ODS, the trade of ODS and annual reporting of data, among others. Developed and developing countries have equal but differentiated responsibilities, as well as binding, time-targeted and measurable commitments that they must meet. 

The treaty continues to evolve in light of new developments, and continues to be amended and adjusted. The governing body of the treaty is the Meeting of the Parties, and the parties are assisted by the Ozone Secretariat, which is based at UN Environment Programme headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. 

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The Multilateral Fund

The Multilateral Fund for the implementation of the Montreal Protocol was established in 1991 under Article 10 of the treaty. The fund’s objective is to mainly provide financial and technical assistance to developing country parties whose annual per capita consumption and production of ODS is less than 0.3kg to comply with the control measures of the treaty.

The Multilateral Fund has supported over 8600 projects including industrial conversion, technical assistance, training and capacity building worth over US$3.9 billion. This support towards the developing countries has illustrated that these member states are willing and able to take part as full partners in efforts to protect the environment with the right kind of assistance. In fact, many developing countries have exceeded the reduction targets for phasing out ODS with the support of the Fund. 

Phasing Out HCFCs

Hydrochloroflourocarbons (HCFCs) are gases used in refrigeration and air-conditioning that are being phased out under the Protocol since they contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer. They are powerful greenhouse gases; the most commonly used HCFC is nearly 2 000 times more potent than carbon dioxide. 

In September 2007, the parties of the Montreal Protocol decided to accelerate their phase-out schedules of HCFCs. Developed countries will completely phase them out by 2020, and developing countries are following a stepwise reduction until a complete phase-out by 2030.

Throughout the phase-out process, the parties are encouraged to promote the selection of alternatives to HCFCs that minimise environmental impacts on the climate as well as meeting other health, safety and economic considerations. This encompasses optimising refrigerants, equipment, servicing practices, recovery, recycling and disposal at end of life. 

The Kigali Amendment

Another group of substances, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) were introduced as non-ozone depleting alternatives to support the phase-out of CFCs and HCFCs. HFCs are now widely used in air conditioners, refrigerators, aerosols and other products. While these chemicals do not not deplete the stratospheric ozone layer, some of them have high Global Warming Potentials (GWPs) ranging from 12 to 14 000. These emissions are growing at a rate of 8% per year and therefore, urgent action is needed to protect the planet.

The parties to the Montreal Protocol reached agreement on October 15 2006 to phase down HFCs. Countries agreed to add these substances to the list of controlled substances and agreed to gradually phase them out by 80-85% by the late 2040s. Developing countries will follow with a freeze of HFCs consumption levels in 2024 and in 2028 for some nations. 

With the implementation of the Kigali Amendment, the measures to limit the use of HFCs is expected to prevent 105 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, helping to avoid up to 0.5 degrees Celsius of global temperature rise by 2100 and contributing significantly to climate mitigation efforts.

Success of the Montreal Protocol

With sustained implementation of the Montreal Protocol, the ozone layer is estimated to recover by the middle of this century. Without this treaty, ozone depletion would have increased tenfold by 2050 compared to the current levels, and increased rates of cancer; the Protocol is saving an estimated two million people each year by 2030 from skin cancer. 

The parties to the Protocol have phased out 98% of ODS globally when compared to the 1990 levels, contributing significantly to the protection of the global climate system. From 1990 to 2010, the treaty’s measures are estimated to have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 135 gigatons of CO2.  

As such, the Montreal Protocol is considered to be one of the most successful environment agreements of all time. With the accomplishment since 1987, the parties of the Protocol provide an inspiring example of what international cooperation can achieve. 

Featured image by: Niall Kennedy

The UN climate talks, COP26, due to be held in Glasgow this November, have been postponed due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. What does this mean for the fight against the climate crisis?

The COP26 talks, scheduled to put countries back on track to avoid further climate breakdown, have been postponed to 2021. A statement from the UN on April 1 confirmed that the meeting of over 26 000 attendees would be delayed until next year, and said that a new date would be announced in due course. 

The UN adds that rescheduling will ensure that all parties can focus on the issues to be discussed at the conference and will allow more time for preparations. 

COP26 President-Designate and Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Alok Sharma, says, “The world is currently facing an unprecedented global challenge and countries are rightly focusing their efforts on saving lives and fighting COVID-19. That is why we have decided to reschedule COP26.”

Sharma adds, “Soon, economies will restart. This is a chance for nations to recover better, to include the most vulnerable in those plans, and a chance to shape the 21st century economy in ways that are clean, green, healthy, just, safe and more resilient.”

What Does This Mean for the Fight Against the Climate Crisis?

Despite the constant coverage of COVID-19 (rightly so), the climate crisis will not wait its turn to be the topic of conversation again. Emissions consistent with keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will have been used up by 2030. Decisive action by governments needs to be taken now, and COP26 being postponed could hamper these efforts for another year. 

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Several prominent climate experts fear that delaying the talks will mean that governments will ease off on pursuing stronger commitments to fulfil the Paris goals. Already, some countries, such as the US, are taking advantage of the pandemic to further their agendas- the nation has recently rolled back regulations mandating auto companies to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles. It is difficult to see how this pandemic will affect emissions long-term.

Christiana Figueres, the UN climate chief who oversaw the Paris summit in 2015, argued for keeping Glasgow on track. While she accepts the delay, she adds, “Emissions must peak this year if we want to limit warming to 1.5C and the Paris Agreement set the COP26 summit as the moment when all countries would ramp up their targets in line with the steep emissions decline we need to see in this decisive next decade.”

One of the outcomes of the pandemic is the fall in oil prices; its cost has more than halved during the pandemic, meaning that lower energy costs should theoretically make it easier to tax carbon. Indeed, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2015 said that it is more feasible to implement a levy when prices fall, as consumers are likely to be more accepting. 

Unfortunately, the current situation means that governments are focused on cutting taxes, not planning new ones. In the Budget speech in the House of Commons, the UK scrapped an expected increase in fuel duty and announced investments in roads. 

Although, demand shocks tend to cut global carbon emissions. The post-crisis slump in 2009 saw 31.5 gigatonnes of CO2 emitted, 0.5 gigatonnes less than the previous year. This pandemic has already seen decreases in air pollution over China, Italy and India, among others. 

Investors are also still keeping their eye on the climate crisis: asset manager BlackRock outlined how it will still pressure company directors to prioritise climate and othe sustainability issues despite the pandemic. 

The value of knowledge during the pandemic has become abundantly clear, The advice of epidemiologists has gone viral and doctors have been hailed as heroes. This may very well represent a turning point in the demise of experts. Hopefully, climate scientists and policy advisors will receive the same level of esteem, whereby society trusts that their advice is sound.

With any luck, this pandemic will compel governments to re-organise the way they look at aspects of everyday life, such as transport and carbon-heavy industries, to prioritise clean energy plans. This kind of cultural shift may push people to cycle or walk instead of taking public transport, for example. It is clear that we have many of the tools to make major advances in addressing the climate crisis; what is needed now is the political will to apply them. 

Humanity needs a new way of thinking if it has any chance of surviving the next century.

Featured image of Alok Sharma by: Bank of England

The Basel Convention is an international treaty, signed in 1989, designed to prevent the movement of hazardous waste from developed to developing countries. About 20 years later, countries like Malaysia are still having to deport containers of waste smuggled to illegal recycling facilities back to rich countries, refusing to become the ‘garbage dump of the world’. Where did it go wrong?

What may look like waste to most people in the developed world is often seen as valuable raw materials needing to be recycled and reused somewhere else. The lifecycle of waste does not come to an end when it is thrown out and the potential income it may generate is a major reason why developing countries, including Malaysia, choose to import waste. Due to lack of environmental regulations and little public opposition because of a lack of knowledge on the health impacts, developing countries have comparatively low-cost disposal methods, making them an attractive target for many developed countries to export their waste to. 

What is the Basel Convention?

However, after growing international concerns about human health and the environment, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal was negotiated in 1989 and finally ratified in 1992. While it does not place a complete ban on the shipment of waste, the treaty aims to reduce the generation of hazardous waste and promote environmentally-friendly management of this waste, wherever it is disposed. It also aims to regulate and ensure that this transboundary movement of waste is minimised and occurs consensually to reduce its impact on human health and the environment of the importing country as much as possible.

The treaty has 187 signatories. It protects countries and their people from unwanted hazardous and other waste which they lack the capacity to manage themselves in an environmentally sound manner.

Why, then, are countries such as Malaysia still having to deal with containers of waste being shipped to them illegally by richer countries? Where does the Basel Convention fall short?

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First, it is important to closely examine the language that is used to outline the constraints and rules that exporters of waste must follow. Ambiguous language allows exporters to identify loopholes in the Basel Convention and continue their exporting of toxic waste to developing countries without it being technically illegal. Due to lack of uniformity in definitions of terminology such as ‘hazardous’ and ‘waste’, the requirements are left up to interpretation of the individual nation state. This gives exporters the flexibility to exploit this in a manner in which they can continue their exporting of waste to developing countries under the pretence of it being ‘commodities’. In this way, more toxic waste ends up in developing countries where it is picked apart by local workers, affecting their and the surrounding environment’s health. 

As mentioned earlier, much of what is called ‘waste’ has value elsewhere and is reused and recycled. Therefore, exporters are allowed to ship their waste to developing countries by saying that it is being sent there to be recycled instead of just being dumped. This is termed ‘sham’ recycling and is another way for hazardous waste to be traded legally. Even when the waste is recycled, many developing countries lack the facilities and technology to safely dispose of toxic substances, again leading to adverse impacts on human health and the environment. 

It is also extremely important to note that the majority of those developing countries and environmental NGOs voted for a complete ban on the transfer of hazardous waste while the developed countries preferred a more flexible approach. Because richer countries historically have more political pull, the decision was ruled in their favour, leaving the developing countries to deal with the problems that arise from hazardous waste being shipped to their shores while exporters continue to find loopholes in the system. 

Furthermore, while the United States has signed the Basel Convention, it has not ratified it. This means that the third largest producer of waste in the world is not bound by the convention’s rules and aims of trying to minimise and prevent the export of hazardous waste from developed to developing countries. Although their reasoning for this is because they are a member of the OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an international organisation that works on building ‘better policies for better lives’ which already has a small subset on waste trade, they are the only OECD member who has not ratified this convention. This raises concerns that the US unethically prioritises being able to dispose of their toxic waste at the lowest possible cost over the implications that this will have on the society and environment of the importing country. If the US does not abide by a convention made specifically to protect developing countries, the impact of it may not be as significant as desired. Additionally, it could encourage other developed nations to adopt the same mentality. 

While it could be argued that waste-importing developing countries depend on importing and recycling waste as a source of revenue, the short-term financial benefits should not outweigh the long-term costs to society and the environment.

The shortcomings of the Basel Convention mostly boil down to the arguably unfair influence and sway that developed countries have over developing countries, and developed countries’ unawareness of the impact they have on these poorer nations. 

Further, allowing for flexibility in the Basel Convention encourages exporters to find loopholes, allowing them to export hazardous waste to developing countries legally, defeating the convention’s purpose. Combined with the fact that the United States, one of the largest producers of waste, is the only industrialised country which has not ratified the Basel Convention, the impact of the convention is substantially undermined.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that the Basel Convention has been amended in favour of developing countries by better regulating plastic waste to ensure safer management for human health and the environment. Furthermore, the fact that China has banned plastic waste sets a standard and while the pressure has fallen on Southeast Asian countries, they have started to fight back for a cleaner future.

Countries are falling behind in their commitments to meet the Paris Agreement targets, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), who calls the situation “bleak” in its new report. The UNEP warns we are on the ‘brink of missing the opportunity to limit global warming to 1.5°C’. Will countries take on the ambitious commitments needed to meet their targets? 

In 2015, 197 nations signed an historic agreement, making pledges to lower emissions and limit rising global temperatures. One year before countries are set to strengthen their Paris Agreement pledges, the UNEP says current commitments are not enough. In its latest Global Emissions Gap report, the UN’s environmental body warns that unless countries cut global emissions by 7.6% every year for the next ten years, the world will not be able to meet the Paris target of limiting global temperature increase to 1.5 °C by 2100. This means that countries must level-up their pledges with cuts needing to increase at least fivefold to reach the 1.5°C goal.

Since 2010, the UNEP has published an annual Emission Gap report which explores the progress countries are making at closing the emissions gap. This gap- also known as the ‘commitment gap’, is the difference between how much countries are currently emitting and how many emissions would have to be cut in order to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C by the end of the century. Through exploring a number of scenarios based on current climate policies and pledges, the report projects outcomes of where we can expect to see global emissions in a decade’s time. 

This year, the report paints a dire picture for the future. In all scenarios explored, all of them are not enough to limit emissions to acceptable levels. In fact, the report states that even if all Paris Agreement pledges – or nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – are implemented, temperatures are expected to rise 3.2 °C by the end of the century, falling far short of the targeted 1.5 °C limit. 

Current emissions commitments not enough to meet Paris targets - UN
Global greenhouse gas emissions under different scenarios and the emissions gap in 2030 (Source: UNEP).

This shocking scenario has resulted in strong calls from the UNEP’s Executive Director, Inger Anderson, for nations to take immediate action in cutting down their GHG emissions. “Our collective failure to act early and hard on climate change means we now must deliver deep cuts to emissions,” she says.

She adds, “Countries simply cannot wait until the end of 2020, when new climate commitments are due, to step up action. They– and every city, region, business and individual – need to act now.”

The report says emissions must drop rapidly to 25 gigatonnes by 2030 if we are to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C; under today’s commitments, emissions are on track to reach 56 gigatonnes- more than double what the report’s scientists are recommending.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres warns, “Failure to heed these warnings and take drastic action to reverse emissions means we will continue to witness deadly and catastrophic heatwaves, storms and pollution.”

The report also found that in the past ten years, GHG emissions have risen by 1.5% year-on-year. 2018 in particular saw land-use changes such as deforestation hitting a new high of 55.3 gigatonnes. Currently G20 members account for 78% of global GHG emissions, however only five members (the EU, Japan, the UK, the US and Canada) are committing to a long-term zero emissions targets. The report stresses that ‘enhanced action by the G20 members will be critical for the global mitigation effort’.

Current emissions commitments not enough to meet Paris targets - UN
Top greenhouse gas emitters, excluding land-use change emissions due to lack of reliable country-level data, on an absolute basis (left) and per capita basis (right) (Source: UNEP).

Although the report paints a daunting picture, the environmental programme says global warming can still be limited to 1.5°C. As more solutions become more readily available in energy transition, the report stresses the need for fundamental structural changes to achieve ‘full decarbonisation’ of the global economy.

Public pressure around the world is increasing on governments and private sectors around the world for more action. The UNEP is hopeful that this will trigger meaningful steps in fighting the climate crisis, a sentiment shared by Niklas Höhne, founding partner of NewClimate Institute, a climate policy NGO, who says, “The transformation is starting small but is expanding fast. We find that in all areas, some actors are taking truly ambitious actions.” says Höhne,  “Zero emission targets and targets of 100% renewables are spreading fast, and commitments for zero emissions in heavy industry were unthinkable only a few years ago,” he adds. 

2020 will be a critical year for climate action. As nations prepare for the United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow, one has to wonder whether governments are up to the task of making the ambitious commitments needed to meet the 1.5°C limit, or will they again falter as they did in the disastrous COP25.   

Featured image by: World Trade Organization

A Reflection of Colombia’s President and his address at the UN Climate Action Summit Climate Crisis in South America: Real Action or Just Talk? What a President’s Speech at the UN really tells us about Commitment.

Colombia. A country the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) described as “at high risk from climate change impacts.” So how do the remarks made by Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez at the UN Climate Action Summit held in New York on September 23 align with this very real threat? How is Colombia’s President ignoring the climate crisis?

Colombia compromises on climate change

The President duly pointed to domestic policies aimed at protecting ecosystems and promoting clean energy production and protection of the commons. 

Natural disasters as a collateral effect of the climate crisis were also mentioned. The President said that they ‘demand that we act with a sense of urgency and determination; that we understand that this is the greatest challenge’. 

However, Márquez neglected to address the root causes of human-induced disasters in Colombia that include environmentally detrimental practices in the mining and extraction sector as well as surface level resource exploitation. This can have rippling effects on communities. 

 ‘Researchers have argued that ‘the substitution of social justice for market laws leads to different crises, especially those that erode human rights.’ 

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Opposition to Fracking 

Columbia’s state-run oil company, Ecopetrol, plans to embark on a fracking pilot programme in 2020. Not with standing the ongoing legal challenges in national courts, the company has been given permission to proceed with the implementation of the programme galvanising opposition movements against fracking, which environmental activists have linked to water contamination.

With the government having given a green light, natural reserves both terrestrial and marine-protected areas have been put at risk. According to Alessi, Zolfagharu, Kletke, Gehman, Allen, and Goss (2017), hydraulic fracturing fluid components such as petroleum hydrocarbons and heavy metals that are byproducts of the extraction process, pose major health risks to humans, and are major drivers of ecosystem toxicity.

A Contradiction in Terms

As the case of Colombia attests, what is preached abroad, is often not what’s witnessed on the ground. What is delivered from the podiums to the international community, does not always bare resemblance to the realities on the ground. 

President Márquez revelled in the climate change rhetoric but his failings reside mostly in what went unsaid. Brushing aside controversial projects does not alter nor help resolve the fundamental tension between economic empowerment and the need for sustainable growth. 

Colombia’s example is not unique. A global comparison between what political leaders claim in the international arena and their actual policy implementations might reveal other significant gaps between what is said and what is being done. 

Climate change could increase the risk of disruptions, damages, and failures across the global transport sector. 

How does climate change impact transportation?

The global transport sector is well exposed and vulnerable to the impacts of extreme weather events; Climate change, which causes sea-level rise, extreme precipitation, coastal storms, landslides, extreme temperatures, and inland flooding, may exacerbate future risks.

Globally, average sea levels have swelled over 50 cm since 1880, with about seven of those centimetres gained in the last 25 years. Every year, the sea rises another .33cm. Transportation infrastructures in many coastal cities across the United States are extremely susceptible to sea-level rise. Boston, Virginia Beach, Charleston, Atlantic City, Miami, New Orleans and New York City are already facing frequent inundation with thousands of kilometers of roads submerged. A report from the U.S. Department of  Transportation states that transport infrastructure in Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia would be the most vulnerable to sea-level rise in the coming decades.

Roads and railway lines around the coast of England are predicted to be swamped due to rising tides. Committee on Climate Change — the UK’s public advisory body — estimates that 1,600km of major roads, 650km of railway lines and 92 stations will be underwater by 2080.  Another study reveals that the most vulnerable rail line in the UK may be the stretch between Dawlish to Teignmouth in London, which would face frequent disruptions because of floods.  

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) states that more than 7,000km of roads in South America and the Caribbean Islands would be destroyed if sea levels rise by 50cm. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) predicts that the Caribbean region would lose almost 600km of roads and every fourth airport in their territory.

Climate change is expected to cause local changes in average and extreme temperatures, as well as changes in rainfall patterns, duration, and intensity. These changes can destroy roads, rail tracks, and airports across the world. 

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Sea-level rise is occurring much faster than scientists expected – exposing roads to the destructive floods. A scene from Florida, USA.

Intense rainfall already brings Mumbai, India’s largest city, to a halt. More than 20,000 cars and 200 buses were submerged while hundreds of kilometers of roads were flooded following extreme precipitation in 2005. Mumbai, which receives around 250cm rainfall annually, has its main airport and hundreds of kilometers of roads and rail lines located in low lying areas.   Even a slight increase in rainfall can bring substantial damage to the infrastructures in the city.

The combination of intense hurricanes and tropical storms brings significant devastation to the transport sector worldwide. When Hurricane Mitch ripped through Central America, roads and rail lines were ruined across many countries. Nicaragua witnessed heavy and long-lasting rainfall for weeks, which caused landslides and floods, causing serious damage to the country’s infrastructures; more than 3,000 km of roads and 100 bridges were destroyed.

Rising temperatures also have adverse effects on the transport sector as extreme heat causes the roads to soften and expand creating ruts and potholes, particularly in high-traffic areas. More frequent and severe heat waves may cause rail tracks to expand and buckle resulting in quick detrition of the infrastructure.

Governments worldwide should play an elementary role in increasing the absorptive and restorative capacities of their transport sector in the wake of climate change. Building resilient systems in the light of natural disasters and extreme weather events should be the basis of their economic decision-making process. Upgrading construction standards for roads, bridges, rail lines, and culverts can reduce the impacts of the climate crisis. 

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