Looking Back and Looking Forward:The Year of Environmental Challenge Makes Way for a Year of Opportunity
The Year of Living Dangerously
Financial damage and loss of life caused by climate-related natural disasters made 2008 one of the most devastating years on record.
Cyclone Nargis last June claimed 78,000 lives in Myanmar. The Atlantic hurricane season caused devastation in the Caribbean, Central America and the United States.
Costs associated with weather-related catastrophes are estimated by Munich Re - the world's biggest reinsurer and UNEP Finance Initiative partner - at about $200bn in 2008, double the losses incurred in 2007. Insured losses of $45bn were 50 per cent more than in the previous year. Hurricane Ike cost insurers $15bn in the United States.
Climate extremes, including devastating floods, severe droughts, snow storms, heat waves and cold waves marked the year. Ice volume in the Arctic dropped to its second-lowest level.
Earlier in the year, Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director said, "The extreme weather events we are witnessing underline the increasing vulnerability of humankind to natural disasters - vulnerability that scientists predict will rise if climate change is left unchecked."
A Climate for Change
The UN climate convention meeting, due to convene in Copenhagen in December 2009, is an opportunity to respond to the climate challenge with decisive, legally-binding commitments.
The world will need to take action towards reducing greenhouse emissions and to provide funding mechanisms to climate-proof vulnerable economies and communities.
The Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) allows developed countries to offset some of their emissions by funding projects in developing countries. The Mechanism is emerging as a key instrument for combating climate change and a creative stimulus package to developing country economies.
Thousands of projects joined the CDM in 2008. It is estimated the number of CDM projects will rise from 4,200 to 8,000 by 2012, generating financial flows from North to South of well over $30 billion.
It is widely agreed the mechanism needs to be made more robust in order for it to perform on the scale needed.
Up to 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions result from deforestation. But forests have, so far, made an insignificant contribution to CDM projects with only 0.7% registered for afforestation and reforestation.
To unleash the enormous economic, environmental and social potential of forests, the UN launched, in September 2008, the UN Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) programme, which aims at tipping the economic balance in favour of the sustainable management of forests.
If REDD gets the green light in a post-2012 UN climate agreement it may eventually lead to developed countries being able to pay developing ones for the emissions saved from improved management of in particular tropical forests. Such an arrangement could be crucial in the global effort to avoid catastrophic climate change, but it must come in concert with the will to make deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
The project is implemented by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO); the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and UNEP, in the spirit of the UN 'Delivering as One'.
A report by UNEP's Finance Initiative indicates that public-private insurance solutions may well be needed to kick start the forest carbon market and the potential of reduced emissions.
Global markets are still trying to cope with the aftermath of the credit crunch, the single catastrophe for which 2008 will be remembered for generations to come.
To face up to the challenges of economic meltdown and global warming, the UN called in 2008 for a Global Green New Deal: a UN-led initiative that seeks to mobilize and refocus the global economy towards investment in clean technologies, renewable energy and natural infrastructure to combat climate change and trigger a green employment boom.
The Green New Deal and the Green Economy Initiative signal a new chapter in UNEP's efforts to strengthen work on the interface between environment and economy. They may also provide sustainable solutions to benefit both the economy and the environment in the 21st century and beyond.
Innovation and greening of the global economy are emerging on several fronts, including a multi-billion dollar boom in renewable energy development and the growing carbon markets.
Over $148 billion in new funding entered the sustainable energy sector globally last year, up 60 percent from 2006, even as a credit crunch began to roil financial markets.
Geothermal electricity potential in Africa is estimated at 7,000 Mega Watts, much of it in the part of the Rift Valley that runs from Kenya to Djibouti. With funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), UNEP and the World Bank launched the African Rift Geothermal Facility (ARGeo). The $18 million project is underwriting the risks of drilling for steam and in doing so building the confidence of the private sector to build geothermal power stations.
Estimates indicate that globally, geothermal capacity rose from 1,300MW in 1975 to close to 8,000MW in 2000 and stood at almost 10,000MW in 2007. By 2010, geothermal capacity could reach 13,500MW.
UNEP and the GEF's Solar and Wind Resource Assessment have 'found' 10 million MW of solar and wind energy in 26 developing countries available for private sector development.
With $20 million in GEF and UN Foundation support, UNEP is also working with the Asian and African Development Banks to leverage private sector financial flows towards clean energy entrepreneurs. Over 50 entrepreneurial businesses specializing in clean energy technologies and services have been financed to date in Africa, Brazil and China.
The sustainability of biofuels has assumed global significance given, on the one hand, the potential of biofuels to contribute to GHG emission reduction and climate change mitigation, and on the other, the concerns raised in 2008 about biofuel production's impact on the global food crisis.
UNEP is leading the effort to develop standards on the development of the biofuel economy. The Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB) has produced draft principles and criteria, currently open to a 6-month public comment period.
A Global Renewable Energy Insurance Facility, expected to be launched by UNEP and partners in 2009, will bring a wide range of innovative insurance and risk management products to assist the growth of renewables and clean energy in developing economies.
Investment in sustainable energy between now and 2030 is expected to reach $450 billion a year by 2012, rising to more than $600 billion a year from 2020.
Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that fossil fuels remain the most heavily subsidized worldwide. Total energy subsidies amount to around USD 300.000 billion per year, or around 0.7 per cent of GDP. In a report entitled "Reforming Energy Subsidies - Opportunities to Contribute to the Climate Change Agenda", UNEP maintained that subsidies can be beneficial if used for enhancing access to sustainable energy and promoting clean energy technologies. The report argued against subsidies that lead to unhealthy patterns of energy production and use,
Towards Climate Neutrality
Climate neutrality is catching on around the world.
Climate neutrality means living in a way which produces no net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, achievable by reducing GHG emissions, and using carbon offsets to neutralize the remaining emissions. UNEP's Climate Neutral Network (CN Net) is a consortium of entities committed to this concept. The network is growing into a platform for networking and the sharing of best practice, catalyzing progress towards a low carbon society.
CN Net participants have set the most ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets in the world. For example, Costa Rica aims to be climate neutral by 2021 when it celebrates 200 years of independence, and Iceland has the world's highest rate of renewable energy use. CN Net cities include Växjö, Sweden, which has decided to become a "Fossil Fuel Free" City, while in Rizhao, China, close to 100 per cent of urban housing has solar heaters. CN Net corporate participants are the largest category, including Toyota Motors Europe, Skanska Norway, Tesco Lotus, Thailand's largest supermarket chain which aims to at least halve its carbon emissions by 2020, and NatureAir - based in Costa Rica - is the world's first carbon neutral airline.
Seeds of Change - The Billion Tree Campaign
Voluntary action is a major driver in the fight to meet the climate change challenge. UNEP's Billion Tree Campaign is moving from strength to strength. More than 4,319,593,340 trees have already been pledged and 2,599,045,202 planted. To date, 165 countries have participated, with planting having taken place in 161 countries.
Seven billion trees - to be planted by the end of 2009 - is the new target set by the campaign in the lead up to Copenhagen. The worldwide campaign encourages people, communities, business and industry, civil society organizations and governments to enter tree planting pledges online in a call to further individual and collective action.
The Campaign won one of the 2008 UN 21 Awards in recognition of its "exceptional contribution towards improving efficiency in the United Nations".
Focus on Africa
Launched in June in South Africa, "Africa: Atlas of our Changing Environment" has triggered policy reflection and action on the continent and among development partners. The Atlas underlines the impact of development choices; population growth, climate change and conflict on the continent's natural assets.
The Atlas features more than 300 satellite images taken in over 100 locations. The 'before' and 'after' photographs, some of which span a 35-year period, offer striking snapshots of local environmental transformation across the continent.
In addition to well-publicized changes, such as Mount Kilimanjaro's shrinking glaciers, the drying up of Lake Chad and falling water levels in Lake Victoria, the Atlas presents, for the first time, satellite images of new or lesser known environmental changes and challenges including the disappearing of glaciers and the widening corridors of deforestation.
One forest in Africa due to receive due attention is Kenya's Mau Complex. UNEP is providing technical support to its host country in restoring a unique ecosystem. The Mau Complex forms the largest closed-canopy forest ecosystem in Kenya and the single most important water catchment in the Rift Valley and western Kenya. Through the ecological services provided by its forests, the Mau is a natural asset of national importance that supports key economic sectors, including energy, tourism, and agriculture. The Mau Forest initiative is designed to restore the forest ecosystem after it has come under pressure from illegal logging and settlement.
Green Beijing and Beyond
The Sport and Environment initiative is spawning a new wave of environmental action and awareness that promises to leave real legacies after the 'games are over!'
In Beijing, solar power was used to light the lawns, courtyards and streets at the Olympic village; reclaimed water was used for heating and cooling systems; and 3000 cubic metres of rainwater was captured and used. The organizers set a target of achieving a 50 percent recycling of waste including paper, metal, and plastics at the venues.
UNEP has been asked to play a similar role for Vancouver 2010, Sochi 2014 and South Africa in preparations for World Cup 2010.
Scientists and environmentalists will be able to monitor the world's national parks and protected areas online, thanks to a UNEP-IUCN database of protected areas. The new product allows users to zoom in, fly over and explore over 100,000 sites via Google Earth. The product is part of UNEP's efforts to bring information to the heart of decisions made at the national, regional and global level for conservation.
Year of the Gorilla
Gorilla populations are at a threat of losing the battle for survival. At least one million tons of 'bushmeat' is extracted each year from the Congo Basin forests. Gorilla parts are used in traditional medicine and live infants are sold as pets. Habitat loss, armed conflict and disease are accelerating the Gorilla's plight.
Projects promoting super-efficient 'Rocket Stoves', encouraging alternative livelihoods to reduce poaching and federating successful eco-tourism programmes across Africa are among a range of initiatives to be promoted under the Year of the Gorilla 2009. The Year aims to boost conservation of humankind's closest relatives and their habitats by boosting the livelihoods and incomes of local people.
UNite to Combat Climate Change
UNEP is calling on UN entities, governments, civil society, businesses and industries to unite to combat climate change by supporting the call for a post-2012 definitive agreement on climate change. The campaign urges world leaders to reach an inclusive, comprehensive and ratifiable deal during the Copenhagen talks in December 2009. Countries around the world must agree on ways to cut their emissions and work together to fight climate change by boosting renewable energy, promoting investments in green technologies, conserving nature's natural carbon sinks and setting clear emission caps for industry and business.
The UNite campaign was launched in New York in October 2008 and will continue to be highlighted throughout the year in the run-up to the Copenhagen meeting.