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 www.plantapledge.com 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 www.plantapledge.com  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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Low fat, full fat: why the diet industry keeps changing its mind

A new report illustrates just how disillusioned the diet industry has become, at the expense of everyone else.

Another year, another wave of dietary fads. Most seem to surface in the summer, when new nutritional advice claims to provide the panacea to everyone’s health woes: “Eat clean get lean!” “The simple secret of intermittent fasting!” “The paleo way is the only way!” “Six weeks to a super you!”

However, despite the barrage of diet books, the expansion of nutrition research and the growth of education about healthy living, global obesity has more than doubled since 1980.

It may be that this is due to the conflicting information constantly issued from the diet industry. “Eat lots of protein – it’ll speed up your metabolism!” “Too much protein will damage your kidneys – reduce your protein intake!” “Superfoods are a vital source of antioxidants!” “Superfoods aren’t so super at all!” “Don’t snack it will make you pile on the pounds!” “You should snack – it’ll stop you from binge eating!” It’s no wonder people aren’t sure what to eat.

The UK launched its first dietary guidelines in 1994, which have since been continuously revised to form the guide now known as “The Eatwell Plate”. The dietary guidelines recommend plentiful carbohydrates “such as rice, bread, pasta and potatoes”, at least five portions of fruits and vegetables, some protein, some milk, some dairy and minimal saturated fat.

However, a recent report serves to highlight the confusion consumers face when it comes to food: it claims that the official advice on low-fat diets is outright wrong, even damaging.

Led by the National Obesity Forum and the Public Health Collaboration, the report (not peer-reviewed, it’s worth noting) attacked a host of official health proposals. It claims that “eating fat does not make you fat”, and criticises Eatwell Plate’s small fat allowance. The report also stated that saturated fats have been unfairly demonised, as there is allegedly little evidence to suggest that they cause heart disease. Meanwhile sugar consumption should be dialled down to zero, apparently, and calories shouldn’t be counted, as an abundance of them won’t cause obesity. Also, forget about the exercise - apparently a bad diet can’t be outrun, according to the report.

Professor David Haslam, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, said: “As a clinician, treating patients all day every day, I quickly realised that guidelines from on high, suggesting high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets were the universal panacea, were deeply flawed. Current efforts have failed – the proof being that obesity levels are higher than they have ever been, and show no chance of reducing despite the best efforts of government and scientists.”

Dr Aseem Malhotra, consultant cardiologist and founding member of the Public Health Collaboration reinforced this by saying the guidelines were “perhaps the biggest mistake in modern medical history, resulting in devastating consequences for public health.” Under current dietary guidelines, obesity levels have indeed increased in the UK, with nearly two-thirds of men and women overweight or obese, costing the economy more than £3bn per year.

In the face of such starkly opposed sides - both backed by seemingly reputable experts who claim all their research is based on empirical evidence - what are consumers meant to do?

The vilification of fat

In 1983, it was recommended that overall dietary fat consumption should make up only 30 per cent of total daily energy intake – 10 per cent of which, at most, should come from saturated fat.

The recommendations came from a number of research papers published at the time, which suggested a link between saturated fat intake and increased levels of LDL cholesterol – the cholesterol which has been connected to increased risk of heart disease, stroke and atherosclerosis.

An even simpler reason for the suggestions boiled down to this: fat has more calories per gram than carbohydrates – nine calories per gram versus four, to be exact. This shape to future official guidelines, and gave birth to the low-fat high-carbohydrate mantra. Fat was cemented as public enemy number one.

As a result, the fat eliminated from people’s diets was to be supplemented with an increased intake of carbohydrates. Tipping the scales in favour of carbohydrates were promises of weight loss as a result of higher fibre content, elevated levels of serotonin to aid sleep and boosts in mood from feeling fuller.

But obesity levels continued to soar, and health experts shifted their focus to the next culprit: carbs.

The low-carb era

An analysis by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition combined the results of 21 studies and found that “saturated fat was not associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease”. Other studies demonstrated the positive effect on testosterone levels in men from increased saturated fat intake, and have noted increased levels of triglycerides (the stuff that makes you fat) from lower fat diets.

As a result, dieticians developed a deep suspicion of carbs, and sugar in particular, and diets like the Atkins regime became more and more popular.

In part, the report by the National Obesity Forum and Public Health Collaboration uses the research that propped up these low-carb high-fat diets as a means by which to attack the general consensus surrounding healthy eating. Dr Malhotra, who led the latest report, previously worked in a pressure group called Action on Sugar – a group that has tried to get the food industry to reduce the amount of sugar added to food.

The reasoning goes something like this: guidelines encouraging greater carbohydrate consumption are oblivious to the fact that sugars constitute a vast amount of refined carbohydrates. By cranking up the sugar intake we ratchet up the risk of type 2 diabetes; this in turn could spark further health problems including obesity.

The logic seems sound, and yet obesity levels have continued to soar in the face of this research. The notion that all sugar should be avoided also ignores the fact that our brains require a significant amount of glucose for optimal functioning.

Everything in moderation

In the face of an industry that can’t make up its mind about how people should eat, it’s no wonder obesity levels have grown to epidemic proportions. So what can be done?

Professor Susan Jebb, the government’s obesity adviser, believes that the current debate needs to expand beyond the battle between carbohydrates and fat. She said: “We’re eating too many calories – if we want to tackle obesity people do need to eat fewer calories and that means less fat and less sugar.” And she’s right. If decades of research have pointed to anything assertively, it’s that calories count, and paying attention to portion sizes could take us a long way.

Both fat and carbohydrates are necessary for our bodies to function. The solution? Enjoy everything in moderation. Eat fruits without fearing fructose, don’t throw away the egg yolk, get a decent amount of protein and yes, you should have your slice of cake too.