A RECORD 30.6 trillion kilograms of carbon dioxide poured into the atmosphere in 2010, while the biggest climate-change negotiations in history failed in Copenhagen 2009. Fifty thousand species are threatened by extinction, leaving the world’s 2010 Biodiversity Target, to significantly reduce the current rate of biodiversity loss, out of reach. Around 2 billion people lack adequate nutrition, indicative for the doubtful achievement of most other Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
Frankly, days before the international community returns to Rio de Janeiro from June 20 to 22 for the third Earth Summit (Rio+20), its 20-year track record after the first Summit in 1992 looks bleak. So, is there any hope for the “Future We Want,” which is also the summit’s motto, or will the meeting produce more hot air than the climate change it addresses? What is at stake? And how is the prospect for the Asean region?
Climate change and biodiversity loss: A twin problem for the Asean and the world
FIRST, it is worthwhile to look into the challenges and causes of the globalized twin problems of climate change and biodiversity loss.
Biodiversity—the variety of characteristics in plants, animals and other organisms, their abundance and their interactions in the world’s terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems—underpins and mediates the sustained delivery of these ecosystem benefits. These include the myriad of functions carried out by water, air and soil, and are essential for a stable climate, human lives and livelihoods. For instance, conserved or restored habitats greatly remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Human pressure on biodiversity today is unprecedented and the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services continues and, in some cases, is accelerating (see graph)—with the damage globally estimated at 7 percent of world gross domestic product (GDP) in 2050. This is caused by land-use change, increasing demands on ecosystems, destruction and fragmentation of habitats and pollution.
Climate change poses yet a new challenge, as it often intensifies the impacts of other pressures, and is already having noticeable impacts on biodiversity, including changes in the distribution of species and ecosystems, and overall biodiversity loss.
Rising levels of greenhouse gases are already changing the climate. From 1850 to 2005, the average global temperature increased by about 0.76°C and global mean sea level rose by 12 to 22 centimeters during the last century.
These changes are affecting the entire world, from low-lying islands in the tropics to the vast polar regions, and a further increase in temperatures of 1.4°C to 5.8°C by 2100 is projected. Such temperature increase is predicted to cause further rise in global sea level and changes in precipitation patterns, among others, putting global food security, poverty alleviation and equitable development at peril.
This is of a particular concern for the Asean region. While occupying only 3 percent of the Earth’s surface, the Asean region boasts of globally significant terrestrial and marine biodiversity, which include an astonishing 18 percent of all species, approximately 35 percent of the global mangrove forests and 30 percent of the coral reefs.
The region, like the rest of the world, is increasingly losing biodiversity at an alarming rate within various ecosystems—555,587 square km of forests and 26 percent of mangroves were cut between 1980 and 2007, 40 percent of both coral-reef seagrass habitats are already lost.
Again, climate change will exacerbate the many factors that are already endangering biodiversity in Southeast Asia, with the Asia-Pacific region most vulnerable to climate-related disasters.
As much as 85 percent of deaths and 38 percent of global economic losses due to disaster originated in this region from 1980 to 2009, marked most recently by the Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008 and the floods in Thailand in 2011.
Naturally, it is the region’s less-developed nations and people who are most vulnerable to climate change, as its impact is expected to further worsen poverty.
The never-ending story of environmental governance
WHILE the Asean member-states have already taken numerous steps in addressing biodiversity loss and climate change, it becomes evident that the regional challenges are part of a much bigger problem—a globalized problem. Since our ecosystems do not stop at country boarders and we all share one common atmosphere, a joint approach is indispensable to adequately address the issues at stake.
Moreover, biodiversity conservation and climate protection must be expanded to tackle the complex root causes—including social, economic and institutional factors. Protecting climate and biodiversity, and the services they provide is at the heart of sustainable development, crucially complementing its social and economic pillars.
The history of such global approaches to sustainable development, as well as biodiversity and climate protection, most prominently started in 1972, when the first UN environmental conference was held in Stockholm and consequently the UN Environment Programme was founded.
In the same year, the Club of Rome foreknowingly pointed out the “Limits to Growth” of the traditional economic system, paving the way to sustainable development.
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” the Brundtland Report from 1987 set out, and, thus, coined the sustainability discourse down to the present.
It was also at the heart of the UN Conference on Environment and Development, the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, which was, among others, the birthplace of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).
These conventions shaped the global agenda on climate change and biodiversity ever since, with the Kyoto Protocol and the 2010 Biodiversity Targets as milestones of environmental governance.
Even though these conventions, as well as the UN Millennium Declaration and the second Earth Summit in Johannesburg 2002, were successful steps in the right direction, neither of them proved to be a panacea, capable of solving the world societies’ challenges.
So, what to expect from the 20th anniversary in Rio then?
Green Economy and Green Governance: A package deal
TWO themes proposed by the Rio+20 Summit are critical to defining a sustainable development pathway that secures a reasonable standard of living for the global population while preserving the climate, ecosystems and resources: Green Economy and Green Governance.
To begin with, there is an urgent need to move to an economic model that reflects all three pillars of sustainability: social, environmental and economic. This approach, known as the Green Economy model, values ecosystem services—both monetary and non-monetary—appropriately and recognizes natural-resource constraints by allocating the costs of “externalities” (i.e., the costs of actions currently not transmitted through prices, such as pollution) correctly.
The Green Economy represents much more than just a focus on less harmful technologies; it represents a comprehensive approach toward a viable and desirable future for all.
The transformation to a Green Economy is estimated at 2 percent of the global economic output per year till 2050—a number already dwarfed by today’s green world market, which accounts for $5 trillion worth of low-carbon goods and services per year, a trend that is increasing. Through trickledown effects, this investment is expected to importantly contribute to poverty alleviation, while protecting the environmental capital, which provides the livelihood for the world’s poorest.
The two main columns are a “Green New Deal,” $468 billion in the case of China’s current 12-year plan alone, and a “Green Growth Strategy.”
Important keystones include an increase in productivity (through increased environmental efficiency and resource productivity), more green innovation, creation of new markets and jobs for environment-friendly products and services, increased confidence of investors (by stability and predictability of policy decisions), and greater macroeconomic stability (e.g., through the reduction of the price volatility in the commodity markets).
Nevertheless, some doubts remain about the feasibility of an absolute decoupling of economic growth and resource consumption, and fears of a further commercialization and privatization of natural resources are causing mistrust of some developing countries to the Green Economy approach.
Against this backdrop, new measurements of societal prosperity are discussed, accounting for the trade-offs often involved between economic growth, social progress and environmental carrying capacity.
For instance, a pileup on the highway increases, as a result, the demand for new cars and, thus, economic growth—but hardly the individual well-being of those affected.
The clearing of rain forests in Indonesia boosts its GDP, but not necessarily the material welfare of the indigenous population, and certainly not the well-being of indigenous peoples who lived in these forests. Thus, prosperity indicators akin to Bhutan’s “Gross National Happiness” might be a way out and could be the foundation of newly established “Sustainable Development Goals,” as the successors of the MDGs.
“Because of the limited time frame, governments will need to play a much more active and stimulating role to accelerate the green transformation,” says the UN, pointing at the current governance gap at the interface of global economic, social and environmental policy.
So far, there is no universal body in the international institutional system addressing these challenges and their interactions. The most realistic option to overcome this bottleneck is the upgrading of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development to a Council for Sustainable Development, akin to the UN Human Rights Council.
This could be accompanied by a strengthening or transformation of the largely toothless, 40-year-old UN Environment Programme. Other governance measures discussed include an ecological-tax reform with the introduction of pollution charges and carbon-trade schemes, and the reduction of environmentally harmful subsidies.
An abolition of fossil-fuel subsidies alone—an estimated $400 billion to $650 billion annually—would be sufficient to cut 40 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions and limit global warming to 2 degrees.
Besides low-carbon strategies to address climate change, the international community also recognizes the importance of biodiversity and ecosystem services as the very foundation of a global Green Economy.
The new Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-20 of the CBD advocates four priority areas to stem biodiversity loss, while supporting sustainable and fair development, within the framework of the economic and institutional reforms proposed by Rio+20.
These cover the incorporation of the multiple values of biodiversity and ecosystem services into policy decisions and land-use planning, the reduction of inequities in access to the benefits derived from biodiversity and ecosystem services, and new and better ways to govern ecosystems, to account for their existence beyond national and international borders.
Bringing the Green Economy back to the region
LOOKING back on 40 years of international environmental governance, it becomes evident that the implementation gap of successful measures can be pinned down to the regional and national levels. International agreements and processes, like Rio, can only work if taken up and supported by the individual parties.
In turn, in a highly globalized world, Rio+20 and its decisions are crucial for the Asean and its 10 member-states. Asean nations, however, are still showing varying progress in implementing the targets from the first Earth Summit of 1992—the number of millionaires has multiplied, while pockets of poverty persist among the 600 million people and severe environmental degradation has occurred.
To address these issues and to prepare for Rio+20, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Escap) has designed a blueprint to help developing countries in the region sustain economic growth needed to reduce poverty amid worsening resource constraints and climate impacts.
The Low Carbon Green Growth Roadmap calls for a fundamental transformation of the current economic system with a shift toward a resource- and energy-efficient growth pattern due to growing resource constraints and climate impacts.
Currently, countries in the region use three times the resources as the rest of the world to produce a unit of GDP. Moreover, renewable energies must be fostered and an environmental-tax reform designed, shifting taxes from labor and income to resource consumption.
Additionally, to directly address biodiversity loss and climate change in the region, the Asean Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), a regional intergovernmental organization based in the Philippines, coordinates national and regional efforts on biodiversity conservation and sustainable management in Southeast Asia.
ACB has identified as an emerging key strategy to halt the loss of biodiversity, and to engage the business community and the private sector in promoting biodiversity and business initiatives.
Since September 2010, GIZ, the German development cooperation arm, through the Biodiversity and Climate Change Project, supports the institutionalization of ACB’s core program on biodiversity and its nexus with climate change.
In doing so, the project focuses on the elaboration and implementation of Asean-wide strategies, employing two components.
The Ecosystem Management approach aims at enhancing the understanding of the close interrelation between biodiversity and ecosystems in a changing climate, and its importance for sustainable development.
The focus on biodiversity and economy supports policies and actions for valuing biodiversity in the context of ecosystem services, raising awareness and integrating ecosystem services into sustainable development planning within a Green Economy.
Since the concept of Green Growth was born in the Asia-Pacific region in 2005, many governments have turned to Green Growth approaches, most notably the Republic of Korea, which was the first country to declare, in August 2008, low-carbon Green Growth as its national vision.
Meanwhile, Cambodia developed a National Green Growth Roadmap in 2010. Singapore’s “City in a Garden” approach to urbanization exemplifies a small, resource-limited city-state striving to balance the three pillars of sustainable development. Bangkok established an efficient, ecological and social inclusive mass-transit system.
The Philippines set up an integrated stormwater management. Indonesia introduced micro hydropower projects, a renewable-energy policy and fossil-fuel subsidy reforms with the goal of phasing them out. Vietnam’s Environmental Protection Tax Law is taxing plastic bags and other pollutants.
As the executive secretary of Escap highlighted, Rio+20 might become a successful road map for the future the people want after all—with “the countries of Asia and the Pacific leading the process by generating the regional momentum necessary to move toward a Green Economy, capable of lifting people out of poverty and achieving inclusive, resilient and sustainable development.”
Author: Philipp Gassner is an intern in the Asean Centre for Biodiversity-Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (ACB-GIZ) Biodiversity and Climate Change Project.
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