Climate change: what are world leaders waiting for?

The effects of climate change can already be seen in extreme weather events across the world, says Bianca Jagger. Here's how to make your contribution to the fight against it.

I am writing from the last day of the UN climate conference COP18 in Doha, Qatar, where heads of state, academics, the business community and civil society have gathered for the high level segment of the 18th UN Conference of Parties. Hopes are not high.

I have committed my life to defending human rights, social justice and the protection of the environment. I was born in Nicaragua, and spent my childhood and adolescence under the brutal and repressive dictatorship of the Somoza regime. I learned first-hand the meaning of oppression and social and economic injustice. I left Nicaragua armed with a scholarship to study political science in Paris.

I founded the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation in 2006 to be a force for change, and a voice for the most vulnerable members of society. The BJHRF is dedicated to defending human rights, achieving social justice, protecting the rights of indigenous peoples, speaking up for future generations and addressing the threat of catastrophic climate change.

Today, we stand at the precipice of various global crises.

The effects of climate change can already be seen in extreme weather events across the world. In 2012 Hurricane Sandy, the typhoon in the Philippines, record flooding in Pakistan and China, torrential rains and flooding in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua in 2011, heat waves in Russia in 2010 the UK in 2009 and 2012; Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Last month was the 333rd consecutive month that global temperatures were above the 20th century average.

The atmospheric concentration of CO2 has risen by 31 per cemt since around 1750, when the industrial revolution began. It’s now at the highest levels in 420,000 years. I could go on and on. The science is clear. Climate change is accelerating.

I am concerned about the outcome of COP18. Unfortunately, there is a serious gap between what is being negotiated and what the science requires to keep temperatures under a 2 degree Celsius rise. According to the UNEP Emissions Gap Report even if the most ambitious current pledges from countries to cut emissions are honoured, the atmosphere will likely still contain eight gigatonnes of CO2 above safe levels.

"Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4° C Warmer World Must be Avoided,"a report commissioned by the World Bank from Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, was released in November 2012. The groundbreaking report has changed the discourse among the negotiators and the media here at Cop18 in Doha. It delivers some alarming and long overdue facts, stating, "a 4°C world is so different from the current one that it comes with high uncertainty and new risks that threaten our ability to anticipate and plan for future adaptation needs… The 4°C scenarios are devastating…The inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter; unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics; substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions; increased frequency of high-intensity tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems…"

In 1896, Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist, observed that if CO2 levels continued to rise global temperatures would also rise by around 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the 21st century.

Why has it taken us over a hundred years to come to the same conclusion?

We know that even a few degrees temperature rise will drastically change the habitability of the planet and bring about potentially catastrophic changes in water sources, forests, food, health, business… It will affect cities, rural areas, economies, food security and health; the physical shape of the land and coast, every aspect of our lives throughout the developing and the developed world. Climate change will affect everyone everywhere, in every nation and from every socio-economic group – but not in the same way. Climate change is an issue of social justice.

We are already experiencing dangerous climate change. The task now is to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Not all the news is bad, however. There are concrete steps we can take. One of them is Plant a Pledge.

Plant a Pledge

In May 2012, I was appointed Ambassador for the IUCN Plant a Pledge Campaign.

The aim of Plant a Pledge is to support the Bonn Challenge target, to restore 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2020. This is the largest restoration initiative the world has ever seen.

The Global Partnership on Forest Landscape Restoration (GPFLR) has mapped 2 billion hectares of deforested and degraded land across the globe - an area the size of South America - with potential for restoration.

The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change recognises that "curbing deforestation is a highly cost-effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions." Deforestation constitutes nearly 20 per cent of  overall emissions, and is accelerating climate change. The world's forests store 289 gigatonnes of carbon in their biomass alone, and can be used as a tool to mitigate climate change. Restoring 150 million acres of forest landscapes could sequester approximately 1 gigatonne of carbon dioxide per year. Plant a Pledge, and the Bonn Challenge have never been more relevant.

Restoration of degraded and deforested lands is not simply about planting trees. People and communities are at the heart of the restoration effort, which transforms barren or degraded areas of land into healthy, fertile working landscapes. Restored land can be put to a mosaic of uses such as agriculture, protected wildlife reserves, ecological corridors, regenerated forests, managed plantations, agroforestry systems and river or lakeside plantings to protect waterways.

We launched Plant a Pledge at a press conference at Rio+20 in June 2012, where we announced landmark restoration commitments totalling 18 million hectares. The United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service pledged 15 million hectares, the government of Rwanda 2 million hectares, and the Mata Atlantica Forest Restoration Pact of Brazil, a coalition of government agencies, NGOs and private sector partners 1 million hectares.

I am delighted to announce the pledges of El Salvador and Costa Rica, of 1m hectares each, which brings us to 20 million hectares, and within reach of 50 million.

BMS Rathore, India’s Joint Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests, has indicated India’s commitment to the Bonn Challenge, in a pre-pledge of 10 million hectares, at the Convention on Biological Diversity, COP11 in Hyderabad. The Meso-American Alliance of Peoples and Forests has indicated their interest in pledging 20 million hectares. We look forward to them formalising their commitment with the GPFLR and the IUCN.

The success of the campaign, and the number of restoration and reforestation pledges has exceeded all expectations. We’ve far exceeded the target for pledges for 2012, which was 7 million hectares.

But we still need to persuade governments and others who own or manage land around the world to achieve the Bonn Challenge goal by 2020.

The Plant a Pledge campaign aims to do just that.  Plant a Pledge was devised by the IUCN and sponsored by Airbus. Each pledge at supports a global petition directed at world leaders, calls on governments put pen to paper on the specifics – ‘where, when and how?’ – to achieve the Bonn Challenge.

Damage to our forests and ecosystems could reduce global GDP by about 7 per cent and halve living standards for the world's poorest communities by 2050. Forests sustain our most basic needs. They are vital for clean air, food, three-quarters of the world's fresh water, shelter, health and economic development. 1.6 billion people - almost a quarter of the world's population - depend on forests for their livelihood. 300 million people call forests their home.

We urgently need to put public pressure on governments, businesses, big landowners and communities to contribute to the Bonn Challenge target.  

At  you can help us push land restoration to the top of the political agenda. This is a unique opportunity to renew our forest landscapes now. Our fate and the fate of future generations depend on it.

Restoration can help lift millions of people out of poverty and inject more than US$80 bn per annum into local and global economies while reducing the gap between the carbon emissions reductions governments have promised and what is needed to avoid dangerous climate change by 11 to 17 per cent. And we will see the benefits not only in our lifetime, but in years to come.

On the eve of the Second World War Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons:

"The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences."

Today, we are indeed entering a period of consequences. The crises we face are global, and we will only solve them through global collective action. I hope that our leaders will not let us down here at COP18, that they will close that gap between what is being negotiated, and what the science requires. I hope we walk away from Doha with more than vague promises and hot air. In the meantime, it is through initiatives like Plant a Pledge that we can effect change.


Bianca Jagger is Founder and Chair, Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, a Council of Europe Goodwill Ambassador and a Plant a Pledge Campaign Ambassador. She tweets @biancajagger

The effects of climate change can already be seen in extreme weather events. Photograph: Getty Images
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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.