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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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