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The Reporter (Addis Ababa)
By: Carlos Manuel Rodríguez and Alvaro Cedeno Molinari
Governments from around the world are already preparing for the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Kunming, China. This is no ordinary gathering: its goal will be to conclude a new policy framework on biodiversity that works for all member states.
Although the CBD adopted the Aichi Biodiversity Targets in 2010, the international community has been decidedly ineffective in achieving them. Some countries that host vast extensions of rainforests spend up to 100 times more on subsidies that cause deforestation than on aid to prevent it, and the global picture may be even worse in other latitudes.
The next decade will show that we can no longer treat the destruction of nature as “business as usual.” We are quickly approaching environmental and climatic tipping points that could trigger catastrophic feedback loops, making climate change impossible to reverse. A major report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services earlier this year shows that our current activities could lead to the extinction of up to one million species in the next few decades.
Given that such losses to biodiversity will jeopardize the future of humankind itself, the time for effective public and private leadership is now – or never. In developing a framework to align international policies and industrial practices, we should focus on ten key priorities that belong in any new CBD framework.
First, we must end the global trade in wildlife and endangered species, by making it illegal in both supplier and destination countries. As matters stand, the international community is doing nothing about this issue. Second, we need a global agreement on how to regulate high-seas industrial fishing, given that industry subsidies are currently contributing to unsustainable overfishing.
Third, we must put an immediate stop to industrial-scale logging and burning of primary forests, be they tropical, boreal, or temperate. Allowing such activities makes no sense. Industrial logging benefits neither governments nor indigenous communities, which should be permitted to farm and log their own lands sustainably.
A fourth, related priority is to ban deforestation across the board. In many countries, deforestation can be conducted legally simply by submitting a request for a change in land use on a given plot. Reaching a world of zero-deforestation commodities will require the support of private companies and consumers who are willing to make a change.
Fifth, we need all governments to adopt a carbon tax, without which we will be effectively promoting a market failure. Currently, we not only subsidize fossil fuels; we also fail to provide ample compensation for the carbon sequestration provided by tropical forests, agroforestry systems, mangroves, and wetlands. While carbon prices in voluntary markets averaged three dollars per ton of CO2 equivalent in 2016, the global price should be in the order of USD 40 per ton if we are to meet the reduction targets under the 2015 Paris climate accord.
Implementing a carbon tax might be politically complicated, but it makes perfect economic sense. Costa Rica introduced a carbon tax in 1997 that now generates USD 32 million per year. Those funds are then used to provide environmental services to indigenous communities, farmers, and others who plant trees with the intention of increasing biomass in the productive landscape.
Sixth, we should adopt a new financial target for the international community’s biodiversity efforts. We are currently investing a mere 0.08 percent of global GDP in natural conservation. If we can commit to mobilizing one percent of global GDP under the new framework, we will have the resources to meet all the other targets we set. Although conservation programs are a domestic matter for national governments, the target should be framed as a multilateral benchmark, given that biodiversity loss is a shared problem.
Seventh, we must stop – and reverse, if possible – PADDD (protected area downgrading, downsizing, degazettement) events. In the United States and elsewhere, the movement to deregulate protected lands, or to strip them of their protected status entirely, is well-funded and powerful. Obviously, such efforts pose a direct threat to all conservation efforts.
Eighth, we should aim to phase out single-use plastics before the end of the next decade, as the accumulation of non-biodegradable plastics is impeding many other conservation efforts. Ninth, in a similar vein, we need to start thinking about how we can tax pollution of all kinds. In too many cases, polluting is simply free. In the absence of any costs, the problem will only worsen.
Finally, governments urgently need to adopt green national accounting systems. Effective policymaking requires the best available data. Insofar as the current economic system fails to account for biodiversity loss, water pollution, and greenhouse-gas emissions, it is part of the problem, not the solution.
In pursuing a new global framework for biodiversity, we should heed the lesson of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations. The Paris agreement was made possible when countries realized it was in their own interest to commit to reducing their emissions. That understanding still has not taken hold among the CBD parties. We have between now and the gathering in Kunming to ensure that it does.
The Reporter (Addis Ababa)
By Froilan Grate and Lili Fuhr
Plastics have become a hot topic. News stories about plastic on beaches and in the oceans abound, and policymakers have begun to respond with bans or limitations on plastic bags and single-use plastic items.
But the plastics industry is fighting back, arguing that plastics are indispensable, and that the real problem is littering consumers and poor waste-management systems. According to the industry’s talking points, bedridden hospital patients and the elderly depend on bendy straws, and phasing out shrink-wrap on vegetables will lead to a food-spoilage disaster.
No one doubts that waste management in much of the developing world – and even in many richer countries – needs to be improved. Governments urgently need to invest in better waste-collection and processing systems. But the rich world also must stop exporting its worthless plastic waste to poor countries for so-called “recycling.” All too often, the trash that Europeans and Americans sort and separate into different bins ends up in containers bound for Southeast Asia, to be picked up by underpaid workers in hazardous conditions. Ultimately, much of it ends up in dumpsites or waterways anyway.
More to the point, the flood of plastic into our natural systems is linked directly to the other forces that are destroying our environment, decimating biodiversity, fueling climate change, and depleting natural resources. That is the main finding of the Plastic Atlas, recently published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Break Free From Plastic Movement.
As the Atlas – a compendium of facts, figures, and background information on the synthetic polymers that have become an integral part of our lives over the last 70 years – makes clear, the plastics industry has been selling us a false narrative. The plastics crisis is much more than a waste-management problem. The real story starts as soon as oil and gas are extracted from the ground, and continues long after plastic waste enters the ocean and other ecosystems. Not only is plastic production a major source of greenhouse-gas emissions; it also releases a wide range of other chemicals into the environment, many of which end up in our lungs and stomachs.
Thus, while efforts to tackle waste are important, they must not distract attention from the main problem: the world is producing far too much plastic in the first place. Between 1950 and 2017, around 9.2 billion tons of plastic were produced globally, which is equivalent to more than one ton per living person today. Worse, over half of that plastic has been churned out since 2000, and the rate of production continues to accelerate, with no slowdown in sight.
According to recent estimates, plastic production and incineration could emit 56 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2050, accounting for 10-13 percent of the total carbon budget we can “spend” by mid-century under current emissions-reduction commitments. By the end of the century, plastic-related emissions could amount to half the total carbon budget.
The climate crisis and the plastics crisis are two sides of the same coin. To keep global warming within an acceptable range, we absolutely must reduce the amount of plastic we produce, consume, and discard. And no, this is not a problem that we can recycle our way out of. Less than 10 percent of all plastics ever produced have been recycled. In the case of the United States, under 10 percent of plastic waste is recycled; the rest is incinerated or dumped in landfills.
While better waste-management and more recycling are both imperative, the only real, lasting solution is to produce less plastic in the first place. We must start by cutting down on the plastic packaging that accounts for 40 percent of all plastic waste. The first step is to phase out single-use items such as plastic grocery and garbage bags, cutlery, and, yes, those wonderful bendy straws.
Humankind must find ways to get by without laying waste to the planet. That means reducing, in absolute terms, the amount of material we use throughout the economy. It also means halting the development of petrochemical facilities that produce plastics and other highly polluting materials. More broadly, we must force manufacturers to change their distribution and delivery systems towards refillable and reusable systems, and to take responsibility for the damage their products cause.
Some of these measures are already being adopted. In Asia, entire cities are moving toward zero-waste solutions through decentralized community-led and centered initiatives, bans on single-use plastics, and lobbying against waste incineration. Many of the solutions remain to be discovered and developed; but Asia is proving to be the engine of change.
The movement for zero waste is growing at the global level. It is naming and shaming the corporations that churn out the most plastic. And it is pushing governments to ban fracking and drilling, mandate reduced production of plastic, and champion reuse and refill solutions.
If there is one thing that can stop the flood of plastic, it is greater accountability. And accountability, in turn, relies on good data and information. We must expose and publicize the truth about plastic, and counter the misleading narratives propagated by the plastics industry. The Plastic Atlas represents an opportunity to turn the page.
The Reporter (Addis Ababa)
By: Tariye Isoun Gbadegesin
Africa has contributed less to the climate crisis than any other continent, but it will suffer some of the worst consequences. It already is: this year, Cyclone Idai killed more than 600 people in Mozambique, and droughts in eastern and southern Africa left more than 45 million people without enough food. How can Africa achieve economic growth and development, without contributing to further global warming?
Africa has an enormous incentive to industrialize: the world’s fastest-growing population and an urbanization rate that is nearly double the global average. To create jobs for the nearly 450 million young people expected to enter the job market over the next two decades, Africa must accelerate economic growth, or face a growing risk of severe social unrest.
But, historically, industrialization has required burning huge amounts of fossil fuels. Moreover, for most African countries, natural resources like hydrocarbons are vital sources of foreign exchange and budget revenue.
These countries cannot abandon “brown” industries – those that depend on oil, gas, and minerals – and create a green economy overnight. But they can use them as a tool to achieve a clean, sustainable economy. That means putting brown industries at the center of African governments’ green industrialization plans.
International oil demand may remain relatively strong today, but it is set to drop significantly over the next decade. McKinsey estimates that if electric vehicles (EVs) are adopted at scale, oil demand for road transport will plummet, while total oil demand will peak before 2025. This could leave African oil producers with a supply glut.
But these oil producers have options. By investing in the local petrochemicals industry, which can absorb excess crude supplies, they can lay the groundwork for the manufacture of goods that are critical to the green economy of the future, such as solar panels, wind turbine blades, and EV parts. Oil-rich African countries like Nigeria, Angola, and Algeria have a narrow window to initiate this shift, following in the footsteps of Saudi Arabia, which is basing its economic-diversification efforts on a robust petrochemicals industry.
Similarly, investment in natural gas can help to propel Africa’s transportation sector toward a green future. A major source of pollution from the hydrocarbons industry is gas flaring: oil producers burn off the natural gas they extract along with oil, often owing to a lack of infrastructure for (or interest in) storing the gas and putting it to productive use. Gas flaring releases massive amounts of CO2 and results in nearly USD 20 billion in economic losses globally each year.
In Africa, where gas flaring is common, countries should pursue targeted infrastructure investments that enable the commercialization of abundant natural-gas reserves for use in transportation. After all, while natural gas does not amount to clean, let alone renewable, energy, burning it emits less CO2 than burning diesel. Large trucks and buses running on natural gas emit ten times less nitrogen oxide – a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 – than their diesel counterparts.
A third critical element of an African green transition is to capture more value in the global EV supply chain. EVs are expected to account for 80 percent of global battery demand by 2030, and Africa holds more than half the world’s cobalt supply and a large share of its rare earth minerals – critical battery inputs. Yet it is China that manufactures the majority of EV and battery components, often using commodities it imports from Africa.
If the Democratic Republic of the Congo kept just 10 percent of its cobalt for domestic processing, instead of exporting 99 percent of it to China, it could capture part of the five billion dollars global battery market, which is expected to grow nine-fold, to USD 46 billion, within the next decade. African producers of lithium and nickel – also used to manufacture batteries – will have similar opportunities to play an important role in the green industries of the future.
Africa’s late industrialization, which put it at a significant disadvantage in the past, can be its greatest asset in the transition to a green future. With less legacy infrastructure in place, African businesses and consumers have been among the earliest adopters of renewable energy and digital technologies; for example, the continent is home to some of the world’s largest solar-power projects.
African countries must now embrace progress in their legacy industries as well. By leveraging existing oil, gas, and mineral assets, they can secure a place in the green economy of the future and play a central role in the global fight against climate change.