Mr Vicente Paolo Yu III is an Associate Fellow with the GCSP’s Global Fellowship Initiative and Senior Legal Adviser to the Third World Network and Visiting Research Fellow at the UNRISD. On World Environment Day 2020, we had the chance to interview him.
5 June 2020 was World Environment Day. This year the theme was "Time for Nature". How can we use the COVID-19 pandemic to kickstart or continue our focus on climate action?
Many countries’ and individuals’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic show us that when faced with an urgent existential threat, people can quickly adapt and change their behaviour, and governments can show themselves willing to do whatever it takes to deal with the threat.1 Of course, there are many nuances and differences in how various governments deal with such a threat, driven in many cases by differences in their national circumstances and their understanding of the nature of the particular threat that they face. However, the global nature of the current pandemic and the impact that it has had and will have on the economies and the daily lives of people dictate that international cooperation and the generous sharing among and within countries of the resources, knowledge, and tools (such as vaccines) that exist or may be developed to address the pandemic will be a key element in eventually defeating COVID-19.
In many ways, the same is true of the climate change crisis. However, there is hope that effective medical treatment and vaccines may eventually be developed and spread worldwide to stop and eventually eradicate the COVID-19 virus within the next few months or years, and that countries will recover in about a decade from the damage that the pandemic has caused to their economies. But the impacts of climate change will not be as easily remedied or addressed, and the loss, damage and need to adapt will last much longer (on a time scale of centuries), will be on a much larger scale, will entail much greater levels of societal change, and will require more extensive levels of international cooperation and sharing than efforts to deal with COVID-19 will ever need.2
For both the countries that are still in the thick of fighting the pandemic and those that are slowly emerging into their post-pandemic phase, a shift in policy attention is needed to develop approaches to address the interlinked and synergistic health, economic and climate crises.3 During the height of the pandemic various temporary energy-, transport- and consumption-related policies were put in place to address COVID-19 that simultaneously resulted in lower greenhouse gas emissions or were seen as possibly resulting in an improved capacity to adapt to climate change. These included such policies as encouraging non-motorised individual transport, putting in place decentralised clean and renewable energy solutions, and consuming locally sourced goods. Making these and similar policies permanent could result in more economically and politically equitable societies with more environmentally sustainable ecological footprints.
Many of these changes will necessarily have to be implemented at the national level and even at the community level if they are to be sustained and acceptable to the wider society. At the same time, as pointed out above, international cooperation and sharing will be a key ingredient for success. Because some countries are rich and many others are poor, while there are also economic inequalities within each country, international cooperation and sharing will be needed to ensure that the resources, financing, technology, skills, knowledge, experience, expertise, opportunities and costs of action are equitably shared.
Post-pandemic action on climate change should continue and enhance the international conversation on equity as being part of the key foundational principles for international and national climate change action. This is similar, in a way, to the conversation about ensuring that in addressing the pandemic, there should be equitable access to the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), medicines, and vaccines both within and among countries.
In the climate change context in a post-pandemic scenario, this will require first of all a greater focus on the need to increase the provision of climate finance and climate change mitigation- and adaptation-related technology from developed to developing countries to levels that would be commensurate with these developing countries’ needs. This has become more urgent in light of the much greater adverse economic impacts of the pandemic on developing countries, especially considering their much lower level of economic resilience, fiscal space, and domestic capacities needed to address such adverse economic impacts.
There is increasing focus on biodiversity and the need to develop strategic ecosystems. Why is this important?
The biodiversity crisis is another facet of the current crisis affecting global ecosystems and ecological balance that the world is experiencing. This is clearly linked to the massive extent of the ecological disruption caused by the relentless search for and extraction of natural and ecosystem resources,4 not only at a basic level to shelter, clothe, feed, and provide energy and jobs for a growing global population, but also to supply the demand for greater levels of over- and conspicuous consumption of material goods and services by the global rich.
The consequent increase in global emissions driven especially by high levels of fossil-fuel-dependent energy consumption by the global rich (both countries and individuals) is often matched by increased ecosystem destruction leading to habitat and biodiversity loss that accompanies large-scale natural resource extraction (such as industrial logging, large-scale mining, commercial fishing, etc.).
Any country’s national economy usually depends on the continued existence and availability of its natural resource endowments – including biodiversity – and its access to the ecosystem services (such as water resources, near and offshore fisheries, forest watersheds, wetlands, etc.) on which national economic activity depends. Because of this, an integrated approach to the management of national development and the conservation of ecosystems, biodiversity, and natural resources will be necessary if climate-change policies and actions are to achieve their purpose. This will help countries avoid piecemeal or siloed approaches to dealing with various ecosystem crises and will also help to ensure that crises of this kind are dealt with in ways that help to address a particular country’s unique development and poverty eradication challenges.
However, what should also be made clear is that, as with climate change, countries have different levels of capacity to address biodiversity challenges. Developing countries that lack the necessary resources will require additional finances to be able to effectively put in place and implement policies for the protection and conservation of biodiversity, including forests, and keep these ecosystems intact. In the past the international donor community has provided financing that recognises the need to provide payments for ecosystem services and the reduction of deforestation-related emissions. In this context, additional resources should be made available to the Global Environment Facility, Green Climate Fund and Adaptation Fund so that they can increase their support for ecosystem services and forest protection, especially those services provided by indigenous peoples and local communities. This is because biodiverse and forest-rich countries need financial resources to meet their development needs, and many depend for these resources on exports of products such as timber, palm oil, sugar cane, cocoa, soy etc. that involve the destruction of these forests/biodiversity habitats to make way for land on which to produce commodities such as these. With new and additional international financial resources being provided to protect forests and biodiversity for the global public good, there will be more incentives to not sacrifice these precious natural resources in order to produce crops or products that ultimately upset and destroy the ecological balance.
Which key issue do we commonly misunderstand about environmental policies?
Environmental policies had often been mistakenly seen as being in a separate policy space from economic and social policies, or in other instances as constraints on the adoption or implementation of economic policies. This situation often led to policy incoherence, inconsistency, or gaps that are then exploited in ways that often lead to greater ecosystem or social damage.
Instead, the integrated, multifaceted, and inter-linked nature of countries’ national development processes, including their reliance on their ecosystems and natural resource endowments to provide for their populations, requires that national policymaking and implementation should be integrated and systems-oriented. This integrated approach has been and is now increasingly being recognised both in the multilateral system as well as by national governments.5 Doing so would allow those responsible for making and implementing policy to better see the linkages between various sets of policies, to be more conscious of the various needs of their countries’ peoples, and to see how ecosystems and the natural environment can be best protected, conserved, managed, and utilised in order to provide economic and environmental benefits to these peoples.
What is your advice on how to be better #fornature?
To be better for nature while also equitably addressing the needs of humanity requires three levels of action:
(i) Individual learning and action are important, especially in terms of each individual’s understanding of their relationship to nature and the ecosystems that surround them, and how their individual actions affect that relationship.
(ii) Collective community action and cooperation are also important and can provide positive multiplier effects for individual actions. These include active engagement in community discussions, policymaking and implementation (e.g. at the local or national levels) to ensure that community concerns and needs regarding the protection and management of the natural world are heard, understood, and reflected in the policies that are designed and implemented.
(iii) International cooperation is important for the development of international policy frameworks, and in particular for the sharing and provision of the necessary financing and technology, especially from developed to developing countries. Such international cooperation is needed especially for the protection and governance of the global commons, including biodiversity, the climate, the atmosphere, the oceans, water resources, wildlife, and other areas that extend across national jurisdictions.
1 For surveys of these governmental response measures to COVID-19, see, e.g. ACAPS, #Covid 19 Government Measures Dataset, at https://www.acaps.org/covid19-government-measures-dataset; and University of Oxford – Blavatnik School of Government, Coronavirus Government Response Tracker, at https://www.bsg.ox.ac.uk/research/research-projects/coronavirus-government-response-tracker.
2 See, for example, IPCC, AR5 Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability (2014), at https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg2/; IPCC, Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5oC, at https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/.
3 See, for example, United Nations, A UN framework for the immediate socio-economic response to COVID-19 (April 2020), at https://unsdg.un.org/sites/default/files/2020-04/UN-Framework-for-the-immediate-socio-economic-response-to-COVID-19.pdf; UNIDO, Responding to the Crisis: Building a better future (April 2020), at https://www.unido.org/sites/default/files/files/2020-05/UNIDO_COVID19_External_Position_Paper.pdf; UNDP, Covid-19 and Human Development: Assessing the Crisis, Envisioning the Recovery (2020), at http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/covid-19_and_human_development_0.pdf; WHO, WHO Manifesto for a healthy recovery from COVID-19 (26 May 2020), at https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/who-manifesto-for-a-healthy-recovery-from-covid-19; UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, “The recovery from the COVID-19 crisis must lead to a different economy” (31 March 2020), at https://www.un.org/en/un-coronavirus-communications-team/launch-report-socio-economic-impacts-covid-19; UNEP, How to articulate integrated responses to the health, economic and climate crises in Latin America and the Caribbean (2020), at https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32673/COVID19_CLIMATE_EN.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y; Inger Andersen and Johan Rockstrom, COVID-19 Is a Symptom of a Bigger Problem: Our Plant’s Ailing Health (Time, 5 June 2020), at https://time.com/5848681/covid-19-world-environment-day/. For other resources relating to the linkages between COVID-19 and environmental policy issues, see, e.g., Geneva Environment Network, Update COVID-19 and the Environment, at https://www.genevaenvironmentnetwork.org/resources/updates/updates-on-covid-19-and-the-environment/.
4 See, for example, IPBES, Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (2019), at https://ipbes.net/global-assessment. See also IPCC, Special Report: Climate Change and Land (2019), at https://www.ipcc.ch/srccl/; IPCC, Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (2019), at https://www.ipcc.ch/srocc/.
5 This has been done, for example, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, led by the United Nations under which UN agencies have developed a wide range of measures to support governments in their COVID-19 responses (see, e.g., United Nations, Information from the UN System on COVID-19 Response, at https://www.un.org/en/coronavirus/information-un-system). Integrated approaches to the climate change and biodiversity crises have also been recognized both in academia and multilateral processes, see e.g. Tegan Armarego-Marriott, Climate or biodiversity?, Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 385 (2020), at https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0780-6; UNEP, Integrated Solutions for Biodiversity, Climate Change and Poverty (2010), at https://www.uncclearn.org/sites/default/files/inventory/unep98.pdf; Katherine Cunningham, The Benefits of Integrating Biodiversity Conservation and Climate Change Adaptation in Global Development (27 October 2017), at https://www.climatelinks.org/blog/benefits-integrating-biodiversity-conservation-and-climate-change-adaptation-global-development.
Watch Vicente’s webinar presentation on COVID-19 the environment and the developing world to learn more.