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We handpick and explain the most important stories at the intersection of climate, land, food and nature over the past fortnight.
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The first part of the UN Biodiversity Summit, COP15, began on Monday. The two-part conference aims to deliver a crucial global biodiversity framework for this decade. Hosts China pledged $233m towards a biodiversity fund for developing countries and invited other countries to contribute. Over 100 countries adopted the Kunming Declaration.
Tens of thousands of hectares of carbon-rich rainforest in Papua New Guinea were felled for palm oil by Malaysian-backed companies whose executives were caught admitting to human-rights abuses. Palm oil and its derivatives from these plantations have made their way to the supply chains of global brands, such as Nestlé and Kellogg’s, Global Witness found.
Droughts in several parts of the world have reduced crop harvests and have led to shortages of certain staples. As a result – and in combination with high energy prices, labour shortages and supply chains still feeling the impacts of Covid-19 – food prices are on the rise.
Biodiversity COP begins
WHAT: The 15th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) began in Kunming, China on Monday. It is China’s first major international environmental conference as hosts. Because of Covid-19 constraints, it is being held in two parts: the first, in a virtual format this week; the second, in person in Kunming next year from 25 April to 8 May. The pandemic paused preparatory meetings and “not everyone agreed to the online format”, but scientific and policy discussions have since resumed virtually.
BACKGROUND: The CBD has 195 signatories and three main stated objectives: to conserve biological diversity; allow for its sustainable use; and enable fair and equitable benefit-sharing from genetic resources. Its COPs have inspired less interest than those of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change for several reasons. Besides fewer binding legal obligations in the CBD, biodiversity involves much more complex interactions. In addition, targets are harder to set, measure and implement. However, failure to reverse biodiversity loss could undermine global climate, food security and sustainable development goals. Many countries have also set biodiversity targets in their climate pledges.
AIMS: COP15 aims to deliver a Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework to reverse biodiversity loss globally and is a “once-in-a-decade” summit, albeit delayed. It comes a year after a UN report found that the world failed to meet a single biodiversity target for the last decade, agreed to by leaders in Aichi, Japan in 2010. States will negotiate biodiversity targets, finance and reporting standards as well as develop implementation mechanisms as part of the framework. The first part of COP15 aimed to build political momentum and interest and was largely ceremonial.
PLEDGES: COP15 officially opened on Monday, with previous hosts Egypt handing over the presidency to China. Chinese president Xi Jinping pledged $233m towards a Kunming Biodiversity Fund meant for developing countries and invited other countries to contribute to it, while announcing the establishment of the country’s first national parks. Japan announced an additional contribution of $17m to its existing global biodiversity fund. Germany announced that it was investing €600m in global biodiversity conservation – “50% more than in former years.” Bangladesh said the implementation of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework would need “at least $800bn per year”, or 1% of global GDP. The Global Environment Facility (GEF), UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP), announced they would “provide immediate financial and technical support to developing country governments” towards assessing policy coherence, monitoring systems and reviewing sources of biodiversity finance. On Wednesday, COP15’s leaders summit concluded with the adoption of the Kunming Declaration after feedback from nearly 40 countries, some of whom raised language concerns and that there was not “sufficient discussion”, Trust reports.
RIGHTS CONCERNS: Days before the conference, India signed up to a “high-ambition coalition” led by Costa Rica and France to protect 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030, the first of the BRICS countries to do so. The 30×30 campaign has generated the most amount of political interest, with the UK also championing a Leaders Pledge for Nature. But concerns remain about “conservation via dispossession”. More than 160 civil society organisations wrote an open letter to world leaders demanding that “human rights, and the protection of those who defend them, must be a non-negotiable part of measures adopted in upcoming negotiations” at COP15 and at COP26. Significantly, the Kunming Declaration notes the 30×30 goal, but does not indicate if it has host China’s support.
WHAT: Channel 4 News in the UK reported that three Malaysian-backed firms – East New Britain (ENB), Rimbunan Hijau (RH) and Bewani Oil Palm Plantations – clear-felled tens of thousands of hectares of the world’s third largest rainforest in Papua New Guinea. The story covered a two-year, undercover investigation by Global Witness in which company executives from ENB were caught on camera appearing to admit to grave human rights abuses and tax evasion. Senior employees and palm oil executives from the ENB Group and a local company Tobar Investment appeared to confess to using child labour, paying police to threaten villagers, bribing officials including a government minister and tax evasion. Researchers found that palm oil and its derivatives from “tainted” plantations were allegedly sold on to brands, including Kellogg’s and Nestlé.
RESPONSE: Companies reacted differently to Global Witness findings. For example, Nestlé said it had not received palm oil from one of the mills mentioned in the report since 2019. It said that it had asked Earthworm – a foundation that helps its member companies eliminate deforestation from their supply chains – to investigate allegations. “If any mill was involved in deforestation or had failed to seek proper consent from traditional landowners, it would suspend them”, continued Nestlé. Kellogg’s said it was taking the investigation seriously and had reached out to “three potentially impacted suppliers”. ENB denied that it used bribery, child labour or engaged in tax evasion, Channel 4 News reported.
FUNDERS: The report also raised concerns about banks and global financiers for palm oil who Global Witness said are “bankrolling” deforestation, a key issue at COP15 and COP26. Malaysia’s Maybank, “whose record of lending to the palm oil [industry] is well-established”, counts as its shareholders the BlackRock subsidiaries, UK’s Pyrford International Limited and Norges Bank Investment Management (NBIM). The latter manages Norway’s oil fund and has excluded companies on human rights, environmental and climate grounds in the past.
In response to Global Witness’ requests for comment, Pyrford said it had raised the report’s concerns with Maybank. NBIM said it had “proactively engaged” with banks in Southeast Asia on lending to companies that contribute to deforestation since 2018, but said it did not provide information about its engagements with individual companies. BlackRock said it could not “exclude any particular companies from the indices selected by [its] clients” but that its focus was on engaging with companies to understand how they were managing sustainability issues. Maybank, citing banking secrecy laws, said it closed its PNG subsidiary in 2015 and did not respond to allegations of firms operating without community consent.
WHY IT MATTERS: “In Papua New Guinea, we host 13% of the world’s rainforest and 6% of the world’s biodiversity. We have the most forested land cover in the world”, said PNG prime minister James Marape at COP15 on Tuesday. The Global Witness report estimates that his government plans to increase land under palm oil cultivation ten-fold by 2030. According to Global Witness, these forests store billions of tonnes of carbon and have been protected by Indigenous communities for millennia. “The destruction of these rainforests by palm oil companies erodes their value as a precious carbon sink and also releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide,” lead investigator Lela Stanley told Carbon Brief. “Keeping Papua New Guinea’s forests standing is not only critical for the lives and livelihoods of people who depend directly on them, but it’s also crucial in the effort to tackle the climate emergency,” Stanley said.
CANADIAN DROUGHT: A dry summer across much of Canada means that harvests of key crops such as peas and wheat were 40-50% lower than normal, multiple outlets reported. Pea production in Canada was at its “lowest levels in a decade”, the Times said, leading to a “global shortage” of the crop. Metro catalogued pasta shortages in several parts of the UK, writing that “a shortage of durum wheat after a drought and soaring temperatures” was to blame for the empty supermarket shelves. Both the Times and Metro noted that excessive rains in Europe had further affected key crop harvests.
FOOD PRICES: The Times added that pea protein is a key ingredient in certain types of plant-based burgers, which will “inevitably” rise in price as a result of the poor harvest. Metro warned that UK shoppers may have to “pay up to 50% more for pasta in the future”. Miguel Patricio, the chief executive of Kraft Heinz – one of the world’s largest food and beverage companies – said that his company was “raising prices, where necessary, around the world”, BBC News reported. Patricio blamed a “broad range of factors”, including higher energy prices and labour shortages for the increases.
HUMAN RIGHTS: The UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Tomas Ojea Quintana, called for the easing of sanctions on that country to avert a humanitarian crisis, according to Reuters. In a report prepared for the UN, Quintana wrote that “access to food is a serious concern” in North Korea. Last month, BBC News reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “highlighted the danger of climate change” in a speech. The outlet noted that typhoons, drought and monsoon rains have all affected “vital crops” over the past two years.
News and views
METHANE EMISSIONS: More than 30 countries have signed on to the joint US-EU pledge to “slash” methane emissions by 2030, the New York Times reported. The paper noted that while the pledge includes nine of the 20 top “methane polluters”, the four countries with the highest emissions – China, India, Russia and Brazil – have yet to sign on. The pledge calls for reducing methane emissions by 30% from 2020 levels by the end of the decade. The “Global Methane Initiative” is set to be launched at COP26 in Glasgow next month. A separate piece in the Guardian examined several technological fixes that are being developed to reduce methane emissions from cows, but noted that “experts are concerned [these solutions] may distract from other, more systemic ways to reduce farming’s footprint”.
FARMERS KILLED: At least eight people – four farmers, a local journalist, a driver and two ruling party workers – were killed in violence in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh on 3 October. Graphic videos on social media showed a car allegedly driven by Indian home affairs minister for state Ajay Mishra’s son running over farmers at high speed as they were retreating after peaceful protests against India’s farm laws, Scroll.in reported. After four died on the spot, protestors retaliated with violence, reported Newslaundry. Opposition leaders were illegally detained and prevented from meeting families of the dead, Indian Express reported. The minister’s son, Ashish Mishra, was arrested five days after he was charged with murder, reported NDTV. The killings have “dramatically altered the terms of the national debate” on the farm law protests, the Wire commented.
US DISASTER AID: The short-term funding bill passed by US Congress includes a provision that earmarked $10bn in disaster relief for farmers and ranchers, the Food & Environment Reporting Network reported. The aid will be available for crops and livestock lost due to “drought, hurricanes, floods, derechos, excessive heat and extreme cold, winter storms including the polar vortex, and damaging precipitation”, as well as wine grapes “tainted” by wildfire smoke. The bill passed both houses of Congress with bipartisan support and provides a total of $28.6bn in total disaster relief; $750m of the aid is directed towards livestock producers. Agri-Pulse noted that livestock producers in many parts of the US have been forced to sell their cattle due to “extensive drought over the last year”.
CORAL REEFS: A major report released by the International Coral Reef Initiative found that coral reefs declined by about 14% in the 2010s, predominantly due to climate change. The New York Times wrote that the report “underscores the catastrophic consequences of global warming”, but also noted that it “offer[s] some hope that some coral reefs can be saved” if decisive action is taken to reduce emissions. A news release from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – one of the contributors to the report – noted that the report was the “largest global analysis of coral reef health ever undertaken” and said it “fills a significant gap in contemporary understanding” of reefs worldwide.
BRAZIL DEFORESTATION: An investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), Unearthed, ITV News and the Daily Mirror revealed links between British dairy and deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon and Cerrado rainforest regions. The story found that both the Amazon and the Cerrado – known as the “second Amazon” – were being deforested for soya plantations. This soya was sold, in turn, to agribusiness giants in Brazil (Grupo Scheffer) and then the US (Cargill), who supplied UK farms with soya animal feed. Milk from these farms was allegedly used to make UK supermarket staples Cadbury chocolate, Anchor butter and Cathedral City cheese. Grupo Scheffer told TBIJ that the identified deforestation “hotspots” were “outside the perimeters” the company manages. Cargill told ITV News that the company has “worked relentlessly” towards a sustainable supply chain for soya. The parent companies of each of the named brands reiterated their commitments to sustainable soya to ITV. Separately, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro was accused of committing crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court, the first case seeking to explicitly link deforestation to loss of life, AFP reported.
- Climate anxiety takes a growing toll on farmers – Gosia Wozniacka, Civil Eats
- In Peruvian Andes, ancient crops hold promise for a climate-blighted future – Aurora Solá, Mongabay
- In Odisha, an Adivasi community is using traditional farming to fight climate change – Abhijit Mohanty, IndiaSpend
Whitewashing organics – Amy Westervelt, Atmos
New research found that extreme temperatures in coastal waters can affect more than three-quarters of “exploited” fish and invertebrate species, causing “shocks” to vulnerable communities. Using a model that incorporates climate, marine biodiversity, fisheries and economic impacts, researchers simulated changes to fishery stocks and hauls under a changing climate. They found that on average, the maximum catch potential among impacted stocks was projected to decrease by 6% during high temperature extremes, but some stocks may decline by more than 20%. These impacts will be most felt in “climate-vulnerable” areas, the authors wrote, which they said highlight the need for “rapid adaptation responses to extreme temperatures in addition to carbon mitigation”.
New research showed that wild meat consumption was less emissions-intensive on average than if replaced by beef or poultry. The study assessed the carbon footprint forgone through wild meat consumption by roughly 150,000 people in 49 tropical forest sites across seven South American and 14 African countries. It found that 43% of all people sampled, many from marginalised groups, were eating less wild meat protein annually than the minimum protein required to prevent malnutrition. The authors concluded that carbon credits from sustainable wild-meat offtake in tropical forest regions could serve the “often irreconcilable interests” of conservation, food security, forest governance and climate mitigation, but would need verifiable wildlife management.
Rewetting does not return drained fen peatlands to their old selves
Even after restoration, there are “long-lasting” differences to the biodiversity and ecosystem functioning of once-drained peatlands, according to a new study. Researchers examined 320 rewetted peatlands and 243 “near-natural” ones across Europe and compared their vegetation, geochemistry and hydrological properties. They found that even several decades after restoration efforts, more than half of the rewetted sites had significantly different characteristics than their natural counterparts, including much lower moss coverage and a higher proportion of tall plant species. The authors conclude: “A better understanding of the resulting locally novel ecosystems is required to improve planning and implementation of peatland rewetting and subsequent management.”
In the diary
- 3-28 October: Water for Food Global Forum
- 16 October: World Food Day
- 20 October: Informal Joint Meeting of the FAO Council, IFAD Executive Board and WFP Executive Board
- 1-12 November: COP26 on the Framework Convention on Climate Change
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