Q+A: Africa at critical climate action crossroads, UN Environment chief says

26 July 2018

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BONN, Germany (Landscape News) – The movement to restore degraded land and meet targets under the Paris agreement on climate change continues to grow and African nations have a key role to play, the U.N. top environment official said on Thursday.

“The way Africa develops this century will make or break climate action,” Erik Solheim, executive director of UN Environment, said.

“Large parts of Africa are at a crossroads – to either follow the destructive path that many other nations have followed, or learn from the mistakes of others and leapfrog the rest of the world,” he told Landscape News.

“We can already see nations like Kenya take a lead on renewables and clean energy, while Rwanda has been a leader on beating plastic pollution, so it’s certainly possible to see many African nations lead on best practice in environmental management.”

Solheim, who formerly served in the Norwegian government as environment and international development minister, will speak at the upcoming Prospects and Opportunities for Restoration in Africa Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) at UN Environment headquarters in Nairobi Aug. 29-30.

More than 800 delegates and thousands more online, including heads of state, landscape restoration experts, policymakers, global media, finance experts, environmentalists, indigenous and community leaders, will meet to tackle continent-wide challenges related to land degradation.

UN Environment is a joint coordinator of GLF – which promotes restoration of degraded landscapes, meeting U.N. Paris Agreement climate targets and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals – with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the World Bank.

Solheim shared his views in the following interview.

Q: You have been head of UN Environment for a little over two years now. What have you gleaned so far about attitudes to addressing environmental concerns across various sectors? For example, the UN Environment-led anti-plastic campaign appears to be picking up steam and the new Google – UN Environment agreement to track climate targets in the landscape shows promise. How can these initiatives reshape the global community?

A: We’ve tried our best to not only present the problems, but also the solutions. People don’t want doom and gloom, they want solutions. It’s also crucial that we connect more with ordinary people, which I think is something we’ve been able to do on the plastics issue. Through the plastics campaign we hope more and more people will be able to connect to even bigger ideas, like the need for a more circular economy and a cut in the current level of all types of waste we are generating, and issues like the state of our oceans and biodiversity. Everything’s interconnected.

Q: What specific challenges do African countries face in the global context?

A: Africa’s population growth protections are one key aspect of the challenge. Another is that many parts of the world will be looking to Africa for food production. The key challenge is therefore how do you provide for job creation and increased food production, and protect the environment? The answer is of course proper land-use planning. That means first-rate urbanization and environmentally sound infrastructure growth, a space for conservation and protected areas, and the latest techniques in agriculture and irrigation that increase efficiency and resilience and reduce waste while removing the temptation to plow more land.

Q: Is an effort such as the Great Green Wall to restore 8,000 kilometers of degraded land in Africa feasible? Could a U.N. Decade of Ecological Restoration, such as has been proposed by El Salvador make an impact?

A: A Great Green Wall is possible, yes. Technically it can be done. China has shown the feasibility and the health and economic dividends of reversing desertification. What we need to do now is rally more leadership around these kind of initiatives. With the right political leadership, anything is possible.

Q: Often restoration initiatives focus on tree planting or re-greening areas where extraction activities have taken place, but how do agriculture and concerns over food security fit into the big picture?

A: Agriculture is the big challenge for Africa in the 21st century, and the obvious path looks like that of plowing more land and cutting down more trees. We therefore need to make a huge effort on several areas. The first is increasing yield in a sustainable fashion. The second is to dramatically improve supply chains to reduce produce loss. The third is to improve resilience so farmers are better equipped to cope with climate change. And finally, we need strong conservation and protected area environmental governance. In other words, we need to ensure we get more food out of the same land. This is entirely possible!

Q: How does the Global Landscapes Forum fit into the objectives of UN Environment? Do you think the concept is gaining traction worldwide? Are member states engaged with the concept of landscape restoration? Do you see an opportunity for member states to entrench practical, continuous cycles of land use and restoration?

A: I think there is an even greater understanding of how central land use management is to the whole climate change effort. We’re beginning to have a clearer understanding of the role ecosystems play in emissions. One example is the recent discovery of the Congo peatlands, and the conservation efforts now underway. A key component of this is also south-south cooperation, with Indonesia sharing its experience. I’m convinced that this is thanks to the convening role of initiatives like the Global Landscapes Forum.

Q: In your view, given the vast amount of variables, what is the key to making the changes required ensure land is restored — and will this be sufficient to meet the Paris climate targets? Concerns have been raised that we will not meet them. How do we implement restoration initiatives effectively when some politicians, entrepreneurs, etc. don’t believe that climate change is occurring?

A: What’s encouraging is that climate action is gathering pace even despite the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement. Some of that drive is also coming from parts of the United States – from individual states and the private sector. But of course we need more action. The problem isn’t the direction we’re moving in, it’s that the pace isn’t quick enough. Land restoration is one aspect of climate action that is a quick win and something that can be done with little disruption. We need to make sure we get that message out.

Learn more about landscape restoration at Global Landscapes Forum in Nairobi on Wed. Aug. 29 at 2:00 p.m. local time (11:00 a.m. GMT). Attend the opening plenary in person or online. Learn more here.

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