This brief provides targeted recommendations for co-designing actionable and user-focused climate services. By this, the authors mean processes in which climate researchers and consultants work collaboratively with planners and other practitioners to develop climate information that supports adaptation planning and decision-making. The authors focus specifically on various means to enhance this collaboration.
Thus, this brief addresses subject matters -vocabulary choice, relationship building and political agendas, for example- that may seem far afield from the natural focus of people in research-driven, science careers. This brief aims to give people with climate expertise needed tools to help generate and target science that can inform more effective policies, make efficient use of limited funds, and reduce the vulnerability of people and places to the impacts of climate change.
In brief, the key recommendations provided, are (p. 2-5):
Help practitioners articulate their needs, and challenge predefined solutions;
Thoroughly assess the planning and decision-making contexts;
Discuss output and time horizons early in the process;
Involve facilitators in the co-design process;
Adjust communication to the target audience;
Combine different formats, including visualizations, to present the information;
Align climate services with existing planning tools and processes;
The COVID-19 outbreak has dramatically changed the shape of daily life in cities around the world. The cities in which the Urban Climate Change Resilience Trust Fund (UCCRTF) operates are no exception.
Economic activity has slowed considerably during lockdown and the planning and construction of infrastructure projects face delays as municipal governments tackle the immediate health crisis. So, what has life been like inside cities supported by UCCRTF? What lessons might the response to the COVID-19 crisis hold for building resilience to other shocks and stresses such as climate change?
The city resilience officers of UCCRTF, who have been working on climate change resilience projects in many secondary cities across South and Southeast Asia, share how the pandemic has impacted their cities
Summer season has arrived in Viet Nam and temperatures are rising. Reflecting on recent months, Hanoi citizens are very proud of what has been done to combat COVID-19. By the end of April, the Vietnamese Government recorded only 270 confirmed cases, of which 223 have recovered and returned home. Since that time there have been no further deaths, as of June 17th 2020.
The relatively low number compared to neighboring countries is largely due to the swift and effective prevention and control measures that the government put in place since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) in January and cases in Hanoi in early March.
Viet Nam suspended entry of all foreigners from 22 March and mandatory health declarations became required at all international borders for Vietnamese nationals arriving from abroad. Authorities also suspended schools and canceled festivals nationwide. The most challenging time for many was the 22 days of lockdown from April 1 to 22. Everyone was asked to stay at home and stop all unessential activities.
People remain worried about the possibility of the virus spreading through the poorer areas of the cities, where living conditions are crowded. In Hue and Hoi An City, most people rely on tourism and other related business activities. They work in restaurants, hotels, tourism services, or small businesses such as street vendors or lottery ticket sellers. During the lockdown, the ban on gatherings meant many businesses had to close, many people lost their income and jobs.
To support these vulnerable groups, the government provided a support package of about VND 62 trillion ($2.7 billion) for around 20 million severely affected people for three months between April and June. In addition, free rice distribution centers were set up in Hanoi, HCMC, Danang, Hue, and other provinces to help poor people and those affected by the coronavirus.
While the country works toward a socioeconomic recovery, the immediate response to the crisis will focus on food production and manufacturing to support labor markets. As early as 4 May, tens of millions of students from preschool to high school in 63 provinces and cities returned to school, taking another step towards returning to some semblance of normal life.
The whole country has been declared as an ‘Infection Risk Area’ under Section 11 of the Bangladesh Infectious Disease (Prevention, Control and Elimination) Act, 2018. As of 17th June, 98,489 cases of COVID-19 have been identified and the number of deaths has risen to 1,305. The highest number of COVID-19 cases is recorded in the older parts of Dhaka City.
All offices remain closed to prevent the spread of the disease. The army is currently carrying out street campaigns to enforce social distancing. People in infected areas must stay at home unless absolutely necessary. A daily curfew is enforced from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.
The office of the Prime Minister issued an order assigning officials to each of the 64 districts in the country to supervise and coordinate a large-scale relief distribution program for vulnerable citizens.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) approved an emergency grant of $300,000 to the Bangladesh Government to help respond to the crisis. In collaboration with Directorate General of Health Services, this grant will be used to procure personal protective equipment such as face masks, safety googles, aprons, thermometers, and biohazard bags.
All the UCCRTF-funded cities remain under partial or complete lockdown, which is delaying progress on urban development, planning, and infrastructure programs. More importantly, cities are facing an additional challenge as the country approaches cyclone season. The combined COVID-19 and large-scale climate impacts will be difficult to manage as the responses to COVID (such as to stay inside and to maintain social distancing) are in contrast to the recommended response to cyclones, which may require people to leave their homes or congregate together in protective shelters.
Recently, on 20 May, Bangladesh faced Super Cyclone Amphan, which made landfall in the southwestern part of the country causing serious damage to property. The UCCRTF-supported city of Patuakhali was badly affected. The government evacuated an estimated 2.4 million people from coastal districts, although observing social distancing was challenging. As an immediate measure, schools were used for more space in addition to regular cyclone shelters.
A 3- to 4-meter tidal surge that accompanied the cyclone, however, destroyed crops and sources of drinking water.
Relief efforts are currently underway in coordination with local administrations. According to the Bagerhat district administration, Amphan caused $50 million in direct damages with around 349 houses partially damaged and 374 houses completely destroyed. The total number of people affected by the cyclone in Bangladesh is estimated at 5,331.
At present, only emergency services are available in all public and private hospitals, which have recently re-opened after being closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Schools are still closed and only some offer classes online. There are also severe travel restrictions. The lockdown has affected every part of life in Pakistan’s cities.
The huge reduction in traffic has led to big improvements in air quality in major cities. While there is no data covering small cities backed by UCCRTF, the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency has reported that the air quality index in Lahore has fallen from 496 parts per million (ppm) in January to 37 ppm in April. Similarly, for Islamabad, average concentrations of nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide are below the permissible limits of National Environmental Quality Standards, and concentrations of fine particulates (PM2.5) are also within permissible limits.
Currently, the UCCTRF-supported cities in Pakistan are not coping with other shocks and stresses from natural or human-induced hazards. However, since the cities are vulnerable to urban flooding and earthquakes, they are still at risk. The monsoon season is also drawing near (expected to start in July), which could compound the challenges faced by the cities. They will have to cope with flood management alongside COVID-19. While government officials, including national, provincial, and district disaster management authorities, are focused on COVID-19 response, this may well mean that there is less capacity to prepare for the upcoming flooding season.
Coronavirus Speaker Series: Sharing Knowledge to Respond with Resilience is a weekly session organised by the Global Resilient Cities Network and the World Bank as a knowledge sharing session for cities in response to the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation.
Daniela Ribeiro Guarieiro, Deputy Chief Resilience Officer, Municipality of Salvador (Brazil)
Daniela currently holds the position of Resilience Manager at the Municipality of Salvador, having participated actively in the development and implementation of Salvador’s Resilience Strategy, and actively participates in the Global Network of Resilient Cities. She is currently involved with the elaboration of the Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Plan of Salvador, Circular Economy initiatives in the city, and the resilient challenge to empower women entrepreneurship. She has an MSc in Public and Urban Policies from the University of Glasgow, UK, and a specialisation in Urban Economics and Public Management at PUC-SP, Brazil.
On the International Day of Biological Diversity, IIED hosted a multi-stakeholder webinar on how to work with nature to mitigate and adapt to climate change and halt biodiversity loss. IIED senior researcher Xiaoting Hou Jones chaired the event, and here she shares some highlights from the discussions.
One key message from the webinar was the urgent need to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss together.
Alex White, team leader for International Climate and Strategy at the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), summed up the urgent need. He said: “We need to develop approaches that reflect the complexity and scale of the challenges and work for climate, nature and people. Nature-based solutions (NbS) are part of the solution.”
This resonates strongly with the increasing global support from scientists, governments, private sector and civil society for integrated solutions such as NbS for climate change.
The discussions also pointed to the multiple social, environmental, and economic benefits provided by NbS to climate change. A wide range of stakeholders, especially vulnerable local communities, can enjoy the benefits of NbS, making these solutions more attractive than their grey infrastructure counterparts.
Innovative financing to get money where it matters is one of the most important building blocks for NbS. Chip Cunliffe, sustainable development director for multinational insurance company AXA XL, highlighted the need for blended finance from public and private sectors. He said: “It is key that we start to build the right narrative that highlights the values of natural capital to engage possible investors and try to drive down existing barriers for financing NbS at scale.”
Alliance partners are piloting innovative finance products to fund NbS at scale. These include blue carbon credits; resilience credits that allow companies to invest in restoration and conservation to reduce climate risks; corporate bonds where corporates can borrow money to manage and maintain natural capital while providing benefits for biodiversity and local communities; and insurance products that explicitly integrate natural capital and incentivise working with nature to mitigate climate risks.
Participants also shared other financing models and emphasised the importance of finance reaching local communities, which are bearing the brunt of climate change impacts and are key for implementing NbS. Examples include: educating consumers and creating demand for diverse eco-friendly products, leveraging forest carbon market to support local communities to sustainably manage forests in Tanzania, and utilising lottery funds to mobilise local communities to implement NbS in the city of Bath in England.
Click on the word cloud above to expand it. We asked participants to pick up to three words that capture the most important building blocks for translating global ambitions for nature-based solutions for climate change into effective local actions (Image: IIED)
Indigenous peoples and local communities in the driving seat
Indigenous communities around the world have been working with nature to adapt to changes for hundreds of years and are effective stewards of biodiversity and natural carbon sinks such as forests. Musonda Kapena, CEO of the Zambia National Forest Commodities Association (ZNFCA), said indigenous knowledge systems can provide useful lessons on how to effectively design and implement NbS. ZNFCA has been working with traditional leaders in Zambia to mobilise communities at landscape scale to sustainably produce a wide variety of forest and agriculture products.
ZNFCA is one of many forest farm producer organisations around the world supported by the Forest and Farm Facility, a partnership between FAO, IUCN, IIED and Agricord. Producers’ organisations such as ZNFCA can mobilise 1.5 million smallholder producers at scale, to drive a paradigm shift away from large-scale monoculture production systems that are vulnerable to climate change.
In supporting local communities working with nature to build more resilient local economy, these locally placed organisations can also support its members to respond and recover from COVID-19 and climate-related risks.
Webinar participants highlighted the importance of building local capacity to access finance, communicate and share knowledge in ways that capture benefits that matter to local communities, and to ensure secure land and natural resource use rights for indigenous peoples and local communities. Participants shared examples of how they work with local communities to champion NbS around the world, including in Scotland, Mali, Bermuda and Latin America.
Increasing global ambitions to build back better from COVID-19
Many participants pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought sharp focus on societal vulnerability to systemic and multidimensional risks such as climate change and biodiversity loss. To build back a more resilient society, governments need to ensure global recovery responses tackle climate change, biodiversity loss and protect the most vulnerable.
Sarah Nelson, head of policy oversight in the international environmental conventions team in DEFRA, highlighted the UK government’s efforts to increase the focus on the interlinkages of nature and climate and push for global ambitions for a green recovery. She said: “Nature will be one of the key themes for COP26 hosted by the UK government. The UK government recognises to achieve success either on tackling climate change or biodiversity loss, we have to tackle both simultaneously.”
Nelson, who is leading on UK government’s nature theme for the next UN climate summit, said it recognises the important role NbS can play in building back better from COVID-19 (paywalled article). She said that in the lead-up to COP26, the UK aims to develop a ‘nature action pledge’, enabling countries to pledge concrete actions on nature and climate, providing a clear bridge between climate and biodiversity conventions.
Another immediate opportunity to increase global ambitions on NbS is the post-2020 biodiversity framework, currently being negotiated by parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Speakers called for close engagement with local communities and the finance sector in developing the framework and ensuring effective implementation mechanisms that can mobilise actions to achieve targets.
“We all need to act!” urged Musonda. As participants from all over the world representing private sector, NGO, communities, government and academia shared inspiring examples and called for close collaboration across sectors and countries, I left the webinar feeling hopeful and inspired for a future where integrated solutions like NbS is the norm rather than the exception.
This article was originally posted on the IIED website. It has been reposted with permission.
A fresh-off-the-press IDB technical guidance document will help LAC-based project developers prepare bankable Nature-based Solutions (NbS) projects that provide a substitute, compliment or safeguard to conventional ‘gray’ infrastructure projects.
Nature based Solutions (NbS) can play a central role in meeting the
rising demand for infrastructure, and strengthening the resilience of
infrastructure assets. They offer a cost-effective approach to enhance
resilience, while providing a range of social and environmental benefits (e.g.
recreational opportunities, habitat for biodiversity). In this context, NbS
refer to activities associated with the protection, management, enhancement,
and restoration of nature and implemented to deliver climate resilient
infrastructure. This could refer to re-forestation activities for erosion
control, coral reef restoration for coastal protection, and green space
creation for stormwater runoff control in densely populated urban areas.
There is a high awareness of the benefits and services that NbS can
provide, yet significantly less implementation within the Latin American and
Caribbean (LAC) context. Their potential remains largely untapped due to a
number of barriers that prevent mainstreaming NbS into project development.
Some of these barriers are upstream, for example, the lack of NbS incorporation
into infrastructure policy and planning documents, or a lack of financial
instruments to finance NbS. Other barriers are further downstream: these
include, the challenges of defining the business case and accessing finance and
funding, and the lack of adequate data, methods, and tools to incorporate NbS
into project development.
In tackling some of these downstream challenges, the IDB, in collaboration with Acclimatise, have released a 12-step technical guidance document to integrate NbS into project development. The Guidance is targeted to planners, engineers, architects, contractors and operators interested in preparing bankable climate resilient projects that incorporate NbS either as a substitute, complement or safeguard to conventional infrastructure projects.
How was the guidance developed?
In September 2019, the IDB convened a workshop with a range of LAC-based
project developers and international experts with experience in NbS
implementation (e.g. Deltares, World Bank, World Resources Institute, U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers). As LAC as a whole is early stages of NbS implementation,
the IDB considered it opportune to leverage lessons learned from other parts of
the world where NbS is more mainstream in project development, for example the
Netherlands. At the workshop, the NbS experts iterated a preliminary technical
guidance document that was drafted based on a review of LAC and international
literature. The experts iterated the early stage draft and helped answer
important questions such as ‘is this how it works in practice?’ ‘what
steps or processes still need to be incorporated in this document?’, ‘what are
the important LAC-specific elements that must be included?’.
The NbS experts shared their experiences and insights which were
incorporated in the document, both at the workshop and throughout an extensive
review in the months after. The end
product is the result of a participatory process incorporating multiple
iterations with field experts, and should be considered a reference (or
“go-to”) document for project developers interested in developing NbS projects
in LAC, and globally.
The Techincal Guidance Document is available in English and in Spanish and can be accessed here*
If you really want to tackle the climate emergency, there’s one simple but often forgotten essential: throw your weight behind schools for girls, and ensure adult women can rely on the chance of an education.
Obviously, in a world of differences, some people can do more to tackle the climate crisis than others. So it’s essential to recognise how much neglected potential exists among nearly half the human race.
But there’s a snag, and it’s a massive one: the women and girls who can do so much to avert global heating reaching disastrous levels need to be able to exercise their right to education.
Bold claims? Project Drawdown is a group of researchers who believe that stopping global heating is possible, with solutions that exist today. To do this, they say, we must work together to achieve drawdown, the point when greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere start to decline.
Educating girls has multiple benefits that go far beyond the individual and any particular society. It can also result in rapid and transformative change that affects the planet itself”
The project’s conclusions are startling − and positive. One is that educating girls works better to protect the climate than many technological solutions, vital though they are, and including several variants of renewable energy.
Yet, the group finds, girls and women suffer disproportionately from climate breakdown, and failures in access to education worsen this problem. After the horrendous 2004 tsunami, for example, an Oxfam report found that male survivors outnumbered women by almost 3:1 in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India. Men were more likely to be able to swim, and women lost precious evacuation time trying to look after children and other relatives.
But given more power and say in how we adapt to and try to prevent global heating, the female half of humankind could make disproportionally positive contributions, the project says.
Using UN data, it suggests that educating girls could result in a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 51.48 gigatonnes by 2050. The UN Environment Programme says that total greenhouse gas emissions had reached a record high of 55.3 gigatonnes in 2018.
The Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA) is a UK-based organisation which argues that humankind must undertake “widespread behaviour change to sustainable lifestyles … to live within planetary ecological boundaries and to limit global warming to below 1.5°C”.
It says that although access to education is a basic human right, across the world. girls continue to face multiple barriers based on their gender and its links to other factors such as age, ethnicity, poverty and disability.
But the RTA adds: “Research shows that for each intake of students, educating girls has multiple benefits that go far beyond the individual and any particular society. It can also result in rapid and transformative change that affects the planet itself.”
One example it cites is from Mali, in West Africa, where women with secondary education or higher have an average of 3 children, while those with no education have an average of 7 children.
It says that while the UN currently thinks the world’s population will grow from 7.3 billion today to 9.7 bn by 2050, with most of the growth happening in developing countries, recent research shows that if girls’ education continues to expand, that number would total 2 billion fewer people by 2045.
It argues that it is not just politicians and the media who fail to focus on this grossly slewed access to education. The RTA says the environmental movement itself rarely makes connections between the education of girls and success in tackling climate change.
One example of conservation work being tied successfully to educating and empowering women it cites is the Andavadoaka clinic in Madagascar, which is funded by a British charity, Blue Ventures Conservation (BVC).
The link between population growth, the lack of family planning facilities and the increasing pressure on fragile natural resources prompted BVC to establish the clinic, which has been running for over a decade and is part of a wider programme serving 45,000 people. As well as the original clinic other projects have grown up that concentrate on specific economic and participation opportunities for women and girls.
Making a difference
In the least developed countries women make up almost half of the agricultural labour force, giving them a huge role in feeding the future population. But there is a massive gap between men and women in their control over land, their ability to obtain inputs and the pay they can expect.
Individual girls and women continue to make a massive difference, whether Greta Thunberg spurring action on climate change or Malala Yousafzai, shot for trying to attend school in Afghanistan, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign for girls’ education.
Women who have climbed high up the political ladder have sometimes used their success to ensure that girls are taken seriously. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female president of an African country − Liberia − used her power to expand the quality of provision in pre-school and primary education by joining the Global Partnership for Education, and the former US First Lady, Michele Obama, spearheaded the Let Girls Learn organisation.
The Rapid Transition Alliance’s conclusion is short and simple: “Educating girls brings broad benefits to wider society as well improving efforts to tackle the climate emergency.”
A new discussion paper prepared by AidData and the Group on Earth Observations explores the role of open Earth observations for sustainable urban development.
Prepared for UN-Habitat’s World Urban Forum in United Arab Emirates, this paper concentrates on examples where Earth observation (EO) data can complement or enhance traditional data sources for cities and urban areas.
According to the United Nations, nearly 70% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. Ensuring sustainable urban development will be key for urban planning, land management and the timely achievement of the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda.
The world of fungi has attracted a lot of interest and seems to be becoming very fashionable of late. A new exhibition at Somerset House in London, for example, is dedicated to “the remarkable mushroom”. No surprise: we’re being promised that mushrooms may be the key to a sustainable future in fields as diverse as fashion, toxic spill clean ups, mental health and construction. It’s in this last field that my own interests lie.
Climate change is the fundamental design problem of our time: buildings are hugely complicit in the crisis. Together, buildings and construction contribute 39% of the world’s carbon footprint. Energy used to heat, cool and light buildings accounts for 28% of these emissions: households are the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases since 2015, accounting for a quarter of total UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2017.
The remaining 11% of buildings’ carbon emissions consists of those associated with construction and building materials. The UK construction industry, for example, uses around 400 million tonnes of materials each year and approximately 100 million tonnes become waste. Cement alone is responsible for a whopping 8% of global CO₂ emissions. Compare this to the much maligned global aviation industry, which emits 2% of all human-induced CO₂ emissions. Buildings and, by association, the construction industry, are profoundly responsible for climate change.
There is evidently a real need for the construction industry to reduce the impact of its material and energy use and to take part in the transition towards a more sustainable economy by researching and using alternative materials. This is not an absurd ask: such materials already exist.
And yes, one such material happens to be derived from fungi: mycelium composites. This material is created by growing mycelium – the thread-like main body of a fungus – of certain mushroom-producing fungi on agricultural wastes.
Mycelium are mainly composed of a web of filaments called “hyphae”, which acts as a natural binder, growing to form huge networks called “mycelia”. These grow by digesting nutrients from agricultural waste while bonding to the surface of the waste material, acting as a natural self-assembling glue. The entire process uses biological growth rather than expensive, energy intensive manufacturing processes.
Mycelium materials offer an exciting opportunity to upcycle agricultural waste into a low-cost, sustainable and biodegradable material alternative. This could potentially reduce the use of fossil fuel dependant materials. The materials are low-density, making them very light compared to other materials used in construction. They also have excellent thermal and fire resistant properties.
To date, mycelium materials have been used in a number of inventive ways in building projects. One particular company of note is The Living, a New York based architectural firm which designed an organic mycelium tower known as “Hy-Fi” in the courtyard of MoMA’s PS1 space in midtown Manhattan. Designed as part of MoMA’s Young Architects Program, the structure illustrates the potential of this biodegradable material, in this case made from farm waste and cultured fungus grown in brick-shaped moulds.
Another project of note is MycoTree, a spatial branching structure made out of load-bearing mycelium components. This research project was constructed as the centrepiece for the “Beyond Mining – Urban Growth” exhibition at the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism 2017 in Seoul, Korea. The project illustrates a provocative vision of how building materials made from mycelium can achieve structural stability. This opens up the possibility of using the material structurally and safely within the construction industry.
I am investigating the development of mycelium materials using locally sourced materials such as wheat straw. Wheat straw is a cheap and abundant source of waste in the Yorkshire region, so would be a fantastic raw material for construction. My main objective is to develop a material for use in non-load bearing applications, such as internal wall construction and façade cladding. The material displays similar structural properties to those of natural materials like wood.
The development of mycelium materials from locally sourced agricultural waste could reduce the construction industry’s reliance on traditional materials, which could improve its carbon footprint. Mycelium composite manufacturing also has the potential to be a major driving force in developing new bioindustries in rural areas, generating sustainable economic growth while creating new jobs.
The construction industry is faced with a choice. It must be revolutionised. If we carry with business as usual, we must live with the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change.
The Infrastructure for Climate Resilient Growth (ICRG) project has initiated over 900 climate resilient infrastructure projects in just 4 years. Remarkably, it has achieved this without mechanical diggers, architects, or engineering companies being involved. How? By putting power in the hands of local communities themselves.
Listen to Daljeet Kaur, Climate and Environment advisor at DFID
The ICRG project, which is currently active across 22 districts in three Indian states, is connected with India’s largest social security programme which pays locals to build infrastructure assets. So far, the wage-for-labour programme has deployed $25 billion as wage payments to rural households in over 13,000 villages. Under the project, infrastructure assets, are identified by local communities and designed, built and maintained by ‘barefoot engineers’, living in remote rural communities. The ICRG project has provided training to over 10,000 people to ensure the infrastructure delivers resilience benefits.
The case study will be of interest to all those engaged with the infrastructure development processes, especially in developing world contexts. It provides details of the ICRG project’s approach at each stage of the infrastructure development process, from diagnosing and financing, to design and development and through to operations and maintenance. It shows how new approaches to infrastructure development can help deliver resilience benefits at scale for vulnerable communities in rural India.
In particular, the case study holds important lessons about participative approaches to infrastructure identification, design, construction, and maintenance by non-specialists. By focusing on the livelihood benefits, delivered both through the wages received for labour, but also thanks to the dividend from improved infrastructure, the ICRG project has been able to deliver a large and growing portfolio of assets in a short period of time.
The annual World Economic Forum in Davos brought together representatives from government and business to deliberate how to solve the worsening climate and ecological crisis. The meeting came just as devastating bush fires were abating in Australia. These fires are thought to have killed up to one billion animals and generated a new wave of climate refugees. Yet, as with the COP25 climate talks in Madrid, a sense of urgency, ambition and consensus on what to do next were largely absent in Davos.
But an important debate did surface – that is, the question of who, or what, is to blame for the crisis. Famed primatologist Dr Jane Goodall remarked at the event that human population growth is responsible, and that most environmental problems wouldn’t exist if our numbers were at the levels they were 500 years ago.
This might seem fairly innocuous, but its an argument that has grim implications and is based on a misreading of the underlying causes of the current crises. As these escalate, people must be prepared to challenge and reject the overpopulation argument.
At Davos #WEF2020, @algore starts screaming about the urgency of controlling the climate: “This is Thermopylae! .. This is the Battle of the Bulge! This is Dunkirk! This is 9/11!”
Jane Goodall @ Davos: “All these [environmental] things we talk about wouldn’t be a problem if there was the size of population that there was 500 years ago.”
The world population 500 years ago is estimated between 420 and 540 million — 6.7 billion fewer people than today.
A dangerous distraction
Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and Donella Meadows’ The Limits to Growth in the late 1960s and early 1970s ignited concerns over the world’s burgeoning human population, and its consequences for natural resources.
The idea that there were simply too many people being born – most of them in the developing world where population growth rates had started to take off – filtered into the arguments of radical environmental groups such as Earth First! Certain factions within the group became notorious for remarks about extreme hunger in regions with burgeoning populations such as Africa – which, though regrettable, could confer environmental benefits through a reduction in human numbers.
In reality, the global human population is not increasing exponentially, but is in fact slowing and predicted to stabilise at around 11 billion by 2100. More importantly, focusing on human numbers obscures the true driver of many of our ecological woes. That is, the waste and inequality generated by modern capitalism and its focus on endless growth and profit accumulation.
In 2018 the planet’s top emitters – North America and China – accounted for nearly half of global CO₂ emissions. In fact, the comparatively high rates of consumption in these regions generate so much more CO₂ than their counterparts in low-income countries that an additional three to four billion people in the latter would hardly make a dent on global emissions.
There’s also the disproportionate impact of corporations to consider. It is suggested that just 20 fossil fuel companies have contributed to one-third of all modern CO₂ emissions, despite industry executives knowing about the science of climate change as early as 1977.
Inequalities in power, wealth and access to resources – not mere numbers – are key drivers of environmental degradation. The consumption of the world’s wealthiest 10% produces up to 50% of the planet’s consumption-based CO₂ emissions, while the poorest half of humanity contributes only 10%. With a mere 26 billionaires now in possession of more wealth than half the world, this trend is likely to continue.
Issues of ecological and social justice cannot be separated from one another. Blaming human population growth – often in poorer regions – risks fuelling a racist backlash and displaces blame from the powerful industries that continue to pollute the atmosphere. Developing regions in Africa, Asia and Latin America often bear the brunt of climate and ecological catastrophes, despite having contributed the least to them.
The problem is extreme inequality, the excessive consumption of the world’s ultra-rich, and a system that prioritises profits over social and ecological well-being. This is where where we should be devoting our attention.