UNEP: 2008 Was The Year of Living Dangerously

NEW YORK, New York, December 31, 2008 (ENS) - Financial damage and loss of life caused by climate-related natural disasters made 2008 one of the most devastating years on record, according to the United Nations Environment Programme's year-end assessment.

Cyclone Nargis claimed 78,000 lives in Myanmar. The Atlantic hurricane season wreaked havoc in the Caribbean, Central America and the United States. Munich Re, the world's biggest reinsurer, estimates dosts associated with weather-related catastrophes at about $200 billion - double the costs of 2007.

Insured losses of $45 billion were 50 percent more than in the previous year.

September brought Hurricane Ike, the third most destructive hurricane ever to make landfall in the United States.

Ike has been blamed for 164 deaths. Of these, 74 were in Haiti, which was already struggling to recover from the impact of three earlier storms - Fay, Gustav, and Hanna.

In the United States, 82 people were killed, and 202 are still missing, and Ike has cost insurers $15 billion in the United States.

Climate extremes, including devastating floods, severe droughts, snow storms, heat waves and cold waves marked the year. Ice volume in the Arctic dropped to its second-lowest level on record.

Earlier in the year, UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said, "The extreme weather events we are witnessing underline the increasing vulnerability of humankind to natural disasters - vulnerability that scientists predict will rise if climate change is left unchecked."

A Climate for Change

At the annual UN climate conference set for Copenhagen in December 2009, governments are expected to agree on a treaty to limit climate warming greenhouse gas emissions to follow the Kyoto Protocol which expires in 2012.

UNEP is calling on UN agencies, governments, civil society, businesses and industries to unite to combat climate change by supporting the call for a post-2012 definitive agreement on climate change.

The UNite to Combat Climate Change campaign urges world leaders to reach an inclusive, comprehensive and ratifiable deal during the Copenhagen talks.

Industrialized and emerging economies are expected to take action towards reducing their greenhouse emissions and to provide funding mechanisms to climate-proof vulnerable economies and communities.

The Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism, CDM, allows developed countries with legally-binding emissions reduction targets to offset some of their emissions by funding projects in developing countries.

Thousands of projects joined the CDM in 2008. It is estimated the number of CDM projects will rise from the current number of 4,200 to 8,000 by 2012, generating financial flows from North to South that UNEP calculates will be over $30 billion.

Seeing REDD

Up to 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions result from deforestation. In September 2008 the United Nations launched the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or REDD, program, which aims to tip the economic balance in favor of the sustainable management of forests.

If REDD gets the green light in a post-2012 climate agreement, developed countries may be able to pay developing ones for the emissions saved from improved management of particular tropical forests.

A report by UNEP's Finance Initiative indicates that public-private insurance solutions may be needed to kick start the forest carbon market and the potential of reduced emissions.

UNEP's Billion Tree Campaign has proved popular. More than 4.3 billion trees have already been pledged and 2.59 billion have been planted in 161 countries.

Seven billion trees - to be planted by the end of 2009 - is the new target set by the campaign in the lead up to the Copenhagen climate conference. Business Un-usual

Global markets are still trying to cope with the aftermath of the credit crunch, the single catastrophe for which 2008 will be remembered for generations to come.

To face up to the challenges of economic meltdown and global warming, the UN called in 2008 for a Global Green New Deal - a UN-led initiative that seeks to mobilize and refocus the global economy towards investment in clean technologies, renewable energy and natural infrastructure to combat climate change and trigger a green employment boom.

Energizing Renewables

Innovation and greening of the global economy both took place in 2008, including a multi-billion dollar boom in renewable energy development and the growing carbon markets.

Over $148 billion in new funding entered the sustainable energy sector globally last year, up 60 percent from 2006, even as a credit crunch began to upset financial markets.

The sustainability of biofuels has assumed global significance given, on the one hand, the potential of biofuels to contribute to greenhouse gas emission reduction and climate change mitigation, and on the other, the concerns raised in 2008 about biofuel production's impact on the global food crisis.

UNEP is leading the effort to develop standards on the development of the biofuel economy.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels has produced draft principles and criteria, currently open to a six month public comment period.

A Global Renewable Energy Insurance Facility planned for launch by UNEP and partners in 2009 is set to bring a wide range of innovative insurance and risk management products to assist the growth of renewables and clean energy in developing economies.

Investment in sustainable energy between now and 2030 is expected to reach $450 billion a year by 2012, rising to more than $600 billion a year from 2020.

Meanwhile, fossil fuels remain the most heavily subsidized energy source worldwide. Total energy subsidies amount to around US$300,000 billion per year, or around 0.7 percent of Gross Domestic Product.

Towards Climate Neutrality

Climate neutrality is catching on around the world.

Climate neutrality means living in a way which produces no net greenhouse gas emissions, achievable by reducing emissions, and using carbon offsets to neutralize the remaining emissions.

UNEP's Climate Neutral Network, CN Net, is growing into a platform for networking and the sharing of best practice, energizing progress towards a low carbon society.

CN Net participants have set the most ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets in the world. Costa Rica aims to be climate neutral by 2021 when it celebrates 200 years of independence, and Iceland has the world's highest rate of renewable energy use.

CN Net cities include Växjö, Sweden, which has decided to become a "Fossil Fuel Free" City, while in Rizhao, China, close to 100 percent of urban housing has solar heaters.

CN Net corporate participants are the largest category, including Toyota Motors Europe, Skanska Norway, and Tesco Lotus, Thailand's largest supermarket chain which aims to at least halve its carbon emissions by 2020. NatureAir, based in Costa Rica, is the world's first carbon neutral airline.

Green Sports

The Sport and Environment initiative is spawning a new wave of environmental action and awareness.

In Beijing, solar power was used to light the lawns, courtyards and streets at the Olympic village; reclaimed water was used for heating and cooling systems; and 3000 cubic metres of rainwater was captured and used. The organizers set a target of achieving a 50 percent recycling of waste including paper, metal, and plastics at the venues.

UNEP has been asked to play a similar role for the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games in 2010, the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 on Russia's Black Sea coast, and for South Africa in preparation for World Cup 2010.

{Photo: Debris from Hurricane Ike lines the beachfront in Galveston, Texas. September 17, 2008 (Photo courtesy FEMA)}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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