In a damning Making Peace with Nature report released at the beginning of the fifth United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), UN Environment has admitted that the planet faces a triple existential threat from climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.
These threats not only pose a danger to the continued existence of the human race but will also ensure that the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) agreed by the international community to tackle the world’s pressing challenges including poverty reduction will go unachieved.
This report comes on the backdrop of a global battle with the Corvid 19 pandemic, which has seen many disruptions to human life. An example of this disruption is the holding of this year’s UNEA online. UNEA has traditionally been held in Nairobi, Kenya, the headquarters of UN Environment, every two years since 2014, and brings together UN member states, international NGOs, industry and media to discuss persistent planetary environmental challenges.
The world has known for some time now that the three threats in the Making Peace with Nature report needed addressing and has made efforts in recent years to tackle them.
On biodiversity, there has been steady destruction and degradation of vital and fragile habitats such as forests and marine ecosystems. Many of these are caused by human activities and largely driven by population growth. In 2020, the United Nations reported that the international community had already failed to meet the targets set in 2010 to reverse many of the impacts of biodiversity loss both on land and the oceans. This means that the world is on course to loose over a million plant and animal species to extinction in coming decades, including many fish species which will affect over 200 million people directly who depend on fishing for livelihoods.
On climate change, the report shows that the world has not lived up to its commitments to reduce global warming and it is unlikely the target of net zero emissions by 2050 will be achieved. This is despite many nations submitting their National Determined Contributions, a set of voluntary commitments required as part of the ratification of the 2015 Paris Agreement, and committing to the Zero Pledge. This means that we are likely to see an increase in destructive heat waves, rising seas, and more destruction of ecosystems – all caused by the destabilizing of the earth’s temperature equilibrium. These changes will affect humans socially and economically and may even lead to war as resources such as food and water become scarce with some parts of the planet becoming inhabitable.
On pollution, the report identifies air and water contamination as areas where we have the biggest threats to humanity, especially due to poor chemical and other waste matter management. Plastic and micro-plastics have recently gotten a lot of flak from civil society and media but they are not the only problem. Some heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, nickel, lead, and mercury, and many fertilizers used in agriculture as well as pharmaceutical waste not only pose a danger to humans but also kill animals and plants, poisons soils, and degrade farmlands and marine ecosystems.
These planetary existential challenges can largely be blamed on the doubling of the human population in the last fifty years which has led to a tripling of the global resource use footprint. Making Peace with Nature report warns that the earth might have reached its capacity to sustainably support life, provide resources, and absorb waste matter, and refers to the problem as a planetary emergency.
What can be done then?
The world will need to do three things to enhance its capacity to support life, provide resources for its population and manage waste.
The first one is the development of systems, both economic and financial, that have the capacity to address sustainability in key human development areas of clean water, food, energy and health.
Secondly, these systems must ensure that there is minimal wastage of resources. Sustainable use of the world space and resources is key if we are to maintain ecosystems integrity. A circular economy where resources are used and reused and recycled is thus desirable.
Thirdly, the world needs to invest in better waste matter management. These matters include carbon dioxide emissions which have a direct effect on global warming. Likewise, chemical and other waste pollution which continue to exacerbate biodiversity loss and diminish access to resources have to be properly managed.
It is estimated for example, that by 2030 there will be more plastic waste in the oceans than fish. By then, parts of the oceans may well be dead as a source of food for humankind, which feeds up to 2 billion persons on a given day. To stop this collapse of marine fisheries, the world will need to pursue strategies that include, ‘conserving, restoring and sustainably using marine ecosystems; rebuilding overfished stocks (including through targeted limits on catches or moratoria); reducing pollution; managing destructive extractive activities; eliminating harmful subsidies and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; adapting fisheries management to climate change impacts and reducing the environmental impact of aquaculture’, the Making Peace with Nature report suggests.
Finally, the three planetary environmental emergencies of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution are linked and must be addressed together in order to address the existential threats to humankind and achieve any level of sustainability, the report recommends.
Linking Making Peace with Nature, Corvid 19, broken multilateralism, and poverty eradication
It is however unlikely that the world will be able to act multilaterally on the recommendations of the Making Peace with Nature report in the medium term. If the Corvid 19 crisis is anything to be used as an example, governments are not collectively and properly prepared for crisis despite existing multilateral frameworks. The handling of the crisis by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the withdrawal of the United States of America from the body, making it almost financially incapacitated in the middle of a pandemic, reveals a weak underbelly.
Countries have largely responded to the pandemic on their own without a joint public health global plan and it has only taken the work of private business which has developed the vaccines to give the world some hope. By the time of writing this article, the United Nations has reported that 75 per cent of the available global Corvid vaccines are in the hands of 10 rich countries with over 130 countries yet to vaccinate a single person. Too much for multilateralism.
Another reason why the tackling of the world’s environmental challenges remains a mirage in the medium term is the very bureaucratic nature of multilateralism with its adjacent politics and sectarianism. The UN Environment works in this setting. That is why every few years the world agrees on a set of protocols and goals, many of which the targets are never realized before new ones are negotiated. Isn’t this the whole idea of why we have UNEA every two years so we can engage in more negotiations and release more reports? This has thus reduced UNEA to a fraternity club for diplomats and environmental practitioners with communities that suffer being mostly ignored. That is why for all the progress that the world makes, a third of its population is left behind, many remaining poor and being affected by the environmental actions of a small percentage of the global population mostly from the more developed nations.
If you asked some, if multilateralism paused for a minute and pooled resources to only tackle one goal – SDG 1 – until we significantly reduce global poverty, chances are we will learn much much more, including tackling the environmental existential threats to our remarkable planet. If you listened to the language adopted by the UN Secretary-General, Mr. António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres, at UNEA 5, you will see what I mean.
António Guterres has called the environmental crisis an emergency, which it is, and stated that it is the defining issue of our time which has weakened political, economic and social systems, also stating that the crisis poses specific risks to global peace and security. He has also declared ‘2021 as a make-or-break year for collective action against this emergency’!
While all these pronouncements are valid, when was the time we heard a UN Chief dedicate a year to the global end of all forms of poverty? When was the last time extreme poverty was referred to as an emergency in the same way environmental crisis has? When was the last time the UN Security Council declared poverty as a threat to international peace and security?
It is therefore impossible to convince some of us particularly in the Global South that we can have a proper discussion on the threats caused by environmental degradation between a father in Chyulu Hills in Kenya and a diplomat from the United States or China or Russia without discussing SDG 1. The father has to illegally engage in charcoal burning to provide for his family (contributing to deforestation and biodiversity loss) while the diplomat is openly blind to the state-sanctioned large-scale coal mining in his country and says global warming is simply politics. Nor can the same diplomat face the fishermen in Bangladeshi where rivers are dead because of factory waste from the textile industries which supply big European fashion brands. It is just impossible.
I have a feeling when we attend another UNEA meeting in two years and another in two more years, we will release more damning environmental reports. END
ABOUT CLEAN UP KENYA
Clean Up Kenya was established in 2015 to advocate for and promote sustainable public sanitation in Kenya. Since then we have become the de-facto national public sanitation advocacy brand. We are also experts in community mobilizing for cleanups. We have done numerous cleanups over the years, some of which have been attended by over 1000 volunteers on singular sites. At the core of our work is honest and actual engagement in communities – not PR events. We also run advocacy campaigns holding duty bodies, consumer brands, green-washing NGOs and other stakeholders to account for unsustainable public sanitation in Kenya and the global South. We receive no funding for our work but collaborate with others on projects.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Betterman Simidi Musasia
Founder & Patron, Clean Up Kenya
Betterman is a sustainable public sanitation advocate and a pollution control evangelist. In 2015, after becoming extremely tired of seeing all the trash in Kenyan neighborhoods and hearing the authorities fake promises to clear the mess, he sold his trucking business to establish Clean Up Kenya. Today, the organization is a leading national sustainable public sanitation advocacy brand. In September 2020, he stepped down as Clean Up Kenya Chief Executive Officer and currently serves as Founder and Patron.