PETER SAINSBURY. Sunday environmental round up, 5 April 2020

Apr 5, 2020

Coronavirus is yet another serious disruption to daily life in Africa, while the Brazilian President prefers clearing the Amazon to managing the epidemic. Two reports from WWF highlight the contributions that nature-based solutions can make to solving global problems but not everyone agrees. Coal no longer ‘cheap’.

Coronavirus is causing massive disruptions to everyday living across the world but we hear little about the Global South where massive disruptions are a constant feature of everyday living: authoritarian government operating without parliamentary scrutiny, states of emergency, restrictions on civil liberties, food shortages, health systems under stress, fires, droughts, floods, deforestation, rampant infectious diseases, and economic and environmental collapse, all often compounded by coups, civil wars, land grabs resulting in loss of communal land rights, and socially crippling structural adjustment programs imposed by the agencies of the rich developed nations in exchange for loans. Coronavirus is no less serious or frightening to the people of Sub-Saharan Africa than it is for Australians but the people and institutions of Zimbabwe, Congo, Burkina Faso, etc. start from a very different form of ‘everyday life’. The picture below, taken in mid-March, shows hundreds of students in Kigali, Rwanda, waiting for hours for buses to take them back to their rural homes, their real homes, I imagine, not their holiday houses.

We hear more about Brazil than we do about all of the other nations of Latin America combined. Just at present the focus is on the President’s bizarre and dangerous response to coronavirus. However, for the last year it’s been more about the dramatic increase in legal and illegal logging in the Amazon rainforest since he came to power, as Four Corners very clearly demonstrated a couple of weeks ago. It’s not only the trees that have been chopped down in their prime – environmental defenders, particularly Indigenous ones, are unfortunately meeting the same fate in many cases. The bravery of the ABC’s journalists who compiled this story is admirable.

If you are getting bored with crosswords and old movies, you might have a look at a couple of reports published recently by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Climate, Nature and our 1.5oC Future (38 pages) very usefully summarises and synthesises the three IPCC reports on warming of 1.5oC, climate change and land, and climate change and oceans and ice, and the IPBES report on biodiversity and ecosystems. The report looks at the risks posed by climate change and environmental degradation to polar regions, freshwater, grasslands, forests and agriculture and food supply systems, and suggests three priority recommendations for each. The report is clear that we can still make choices that will make a difference and encourages policy-makers to develop policies to keep warming under 1.5oC; make nature-based solutions (see below) central to climate commitments; coordinate climate, biodiversity and sustainable development policies; match finance to the system changes needed; and tackle the international impacts of domestic policies.

The second report, Global Futures: Assessing the Global Economic Impacts of Environmental Change to Support Policy-Making (Summary Report 26 pages) assesses the impacts of nature’s decline on the world’s economies, trade and industry and concludes ‘that unless we reverse nature loss [approximately US$10 trillion by 2050] will be wiped off the world’s economies, industries will be disrupted and the lives of millions will be affected’ (didn’t need to wait for 2050, did we!). The research examined how future development pathways would affect forests, grasslands, wetlands, peatlands, coral reefs, mangroves and sea grass beds and how this would impact on six essential ‘services’ that the environment provides for human populations: pollination of crops, coastal protection, water for agriculture, timber production, marine fisheries and carbon storage. This is only part of the story of course; the full implications of carrying on as we are doing at present would be even worse. Recommended strategies to mitigate the problem include expanding protected areas globally, integrating nature’s value into planning decisions, reducing our global environmental footprint, and getting on with it now.

Nature-based solutions (NBS) to society’s problems have enjoyed increasing interest for the last few years. Inevitably there is no one definition but the International Union for Conservation of Nature defines NBS as ‘actions to protect, sustainably manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits’. Figures on pages 5 and 36 of the Climate, Nature and our 1.5oC Future report illustrate this but it might help also to provide examples of what they are not. Plantations of mono-cultured or non-native trees and burning biomass instead of coal are not NBS. There’s also concern about the growing enthusiasm for NBS, however.  No one doubts that they have a useful role to play but there are at least three concerns: that they may be embraced as the answer and divert attention away from the essential and urgent tasks of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and halting further environmental destruction; that Indigenous land rights and knowledge will be ignored; and that the implementation of NBS is open to rorts (not in Australia of course).

To maintain society’s addiction, one of the coal-pushers’ principal claims is that coal is cheap. HA! It was only ever ‘cheap’ because of the enormous government subsidies paid to mining companies and because the enormous cost of the harms done to human health and the environment by coal were never built into the price consumers paid for it. But now it isn’t even ‘cheap’ by the pushers’ own definition. In fact at the end of March coal was the most expensive of the fossil fuels, although admittedly this was because the price of oil has plummeted recently. Nonetheless, it’s the coal industry that’s going up in flames more than coal these days. The Newcastle coal price may be the world benchmark now but even the Newcastle Port Authority recognises that the future lies in containers not coal.

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