UNEP at Work                
Economies grow on trees

Kelly Levin
Research Director, World Resources Report 2010-2011

Manish Bapna
Interim President, World Resources Institute

Environmental concerns have only relatively recently concentrated on the global commons, which are the shared resources that no one owns but all life relies upon. In the early days, the focus was mostly on local impacts — on traditional pollutants such as acid rain and sewage, on garbage damming rivers, or on pesticides. These problems were acute and tangible. Rivers caught fire and smog was so thick that visibility across cities vanished. True, the problems of the global commons were rising in this backdrop, but it was not until later in the 20th century that the environmental challenge spread planetwide, when governments woke up to the reality of a rapidly transformed world. In a few short decades, global forces of consumption, production, and population have made a profound, at times irreversible, mark on the planet’s shared resources.

There is now no greater challenge to the wellbeing of the global commons than human-induced climate change. Since the industrial era began to trigger large-scale releases of fossil fuels, global average surface temperatures have risen by 0.8°C, already resulting in significant changes in physical, hydrological and ecological systems.

Worse, global climate change is not occurring in isolation, but is exacerbating other problems of the global commons. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change records climate-induced reductions in krill, for example, lead to the depletion of many fish species, undermining, in turn, the health of marine ecosystems, food supplies and livelihoods around the world. The Antarctic Peninsula has warmed substantially in recent decades causing 87 per cent of the edges of glaciers to retreat, with grave implications for life on the unique continent. Worldwide warming of 2-3°C above pre-industrial temperatures is very likely to herald major changes in terrestrial and marine ecosystems and likely to increase the risk of extinction for 20-30 per cent of species.

These threats underscore an urgent need for steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. They also make adaptation an imperative, given the unavoidable impacts that will result from the greenhouse gases already emitted and the warming that will in future follow, thanks to the heat carrying capacity of the world’s oceans.

Over the past two years the 2010- 2011 World Resources Report, developed in partnership between UNDP, UNEP, the World Bank and the World Resources Institute, has engaged government leaders and practitioners in Africa, Asia and Latin America to learn from, and build on, existing adaptation efforts. It focuses on how national policy makers and planners can make better decisions in a changing climate — an increasing priority for preserving the global commons, developing recommendations for public engagement, information collection and supply, institutional design, planning and policymaking tools, and resources. It also reports promising examples of how governments are integrating climate change risks into their practices, which could provide models for scaling up adaptation in the developing world. These include:

Farmers are engaged in a constant struggle against the desert in Namibia: the driest regions receive on average only 20mm of rainfall a year. With climate change likely to bring even shorter rainy seasons in future, Namibia’s government has established local Forums for Integrated Resource Management where farmers and extension service providers exchange information about how to help prevent land becoming infertile. Farmers monitor local rainfall, the availability of fodder and the condition of livestock, while officials provide guidance on sustainable farm management and good animal health practices. Farming communities have also established rotational grazing and rested grazing lands in danger of degradation and — if informed a dry period is coming — sell livestock, avoid over-grazing and bank the income. Such two-way information channels between public officials and farmers help enhance the ability of communities to withstand droughts and land degradation, and can be replicated both within and beyond Namibia.

One of the world’s 17 megadiverse countries, South Africa is home to almost 10 per cent of the world’s total known bird, fish and plant species and almost 15 per cent of its coastal and marine ones. Climate change threatens to compound threats to biodiversity from urban and industrial growth, since there are likely to be more droughts and floods, lower river levels and more frequent wildfires.

So, South Africa is pursuing an innovative strategy for maintaining enough intact natural habitat to protect threatened species and secure wildlife corridors. It has developed biodiversity plans, mapping whole areas’ natural features and species and use of land and resources. Climate change “design principles” have been integrated into the plans, prioritizing connectivity and refuge areas to enhance the resilience of species. Local authorities use them in developing municipal plans, helping them to decide where conservation should be prioritized and where development can be promoted.

Being in the tropics, Vietnam is extremely vulnerable to impacts from climate change, particularly sea level rise. So the government has institutionalized the large-scale restoration of mangroves — with support from donors including the World Bank and the Red Cross — adding 15,000 hectares of protective forest to the country’s coastline since 2001.

The results, however, have been very different in the north and south of the country. In the north, the plantations have been officially protected, denying locals user rights, and creating conflict and resentment. In the south, the restoration has been coupled with efforts to alleviate poverty and diversify livelihoods — thus winning local communities’ support. The experience suggests that incorporating adaptation within a comprehensive development planning process is more likely to succeed in the long term.

These case studies and other research can be found in full at www.worldresourcesreport.org



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