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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How a small tax rise exposed the SNP's anti-austerity talk for just that

The SNP refuse to use their extra powers to lessen austerity, says Kezia Dugdale.

"We will demand an alternative to slash and burn austerity."

With those few words, Nicola Sturgeon sought to reassure the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year that the SNP were a party opposed to public spending cuts. We all remember the general election TV debates, where the First Minister built her celebrity as the leader of the anti-austerity cause.

Last week, though, she was found out. When faced with the choice between using the powers of the Scottish Parliament to invest in the future or imposing cuts to our schools, Nicola Sturgeon chose cuts. Incredible as it sounds the SNP stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to vote for hundreds of millions of pounds worth of cuts to schools and other vital public services, rather than asking people to pay a little bit more to invest. That's not the choice of an anti-austerity pin-up. It's a sell-out.

People living outside of Scotland may not be fully aware of the significant shift that has taken place in politics north of the border in the last week. The days of grievance and blaming someone else for decisions made in Scotland appear to be coming to an end.

The SNP's budget is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament. It will impose hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts to local public services - including our schools. We don't know what cuts the SNP are planning for future years because they are only presenting a one year budget to get them through the election, but we know from the experts that the biggest cuts are likely to come in 2017/18 and 2018/19. For unprotected budgets like education that could mean cuts of 16 per cent.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. The Scottish Parliament has the power to stop these cuts, if only we have the political will to act. Last week I did just that.

I set out a plan, using the new powers we have today, to set a Scottish rate of income tax 1p higher than that set by George Osborne. This would raise an extra half a billion pounds, giving us the chance to stop the cuts to education and other services. Labour would protect education funding in real terms over the next five years in Scotland. Faced with the choice of asking people to pay a little bit more to invest or carrying on with the SNP's cuts, the choice was pretty simple for me - I won't support cuts to our nation’s future prosperity.

Being told by commentators across the political spectrum that my plan is bold should normally set alarm bells ringing. Bold is usually code for saying something unpopular. In reality, it's pretty simple - how can I say I am against cuts but refuse to use the powers we have to stop them?

Experts - including Professors David Bell and David Eiser of the University of Stirling; the Resolution Foundation; and IPPR Scotland - have said our plan is fair because the wealthiest few would pay the most. Trade unions have backed our proposal, because they recognise the damage hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts will do to our schools and the jobs it will cost.

Council leaders have said our plan to pay £100 cashback to low income taxpayers - including pensioners - to ensure they benefit from this plan is workable.

The silliest of all the SNP's objections is that they won't back our plan because the poorest shouldn't have to pay the price of Tory austerity. The idea that imposing hundreds of millions of pounds of spending cuts on our schools and public services won't make the poorest pay is risible. It's not just the poorest who will lose out from cuts to education. Every single family and business in Scotland would benefit from having a world class education system that gives our young the skills they need to make their way in the world.

The next time we hear Nicola Sturgeon talk up her anti-austerity credentials, people should remember how she did nothing when she had the chance to end austerity. Until now it may have been acceptable to say you are opposed to spending cuts but doing nothing to stop them. Those days are rapidly coming to a close. It makes for the most important, and most interesting, election we’ve had in Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale is leader of Scottish Labour.