Reporting on the conservation climate

December has seen two important UN conferences, on biodiversity and climate change. It is the time of year when many of us spend time with the family over Christmas, and make resolutions for the coming year. It is also a time to reflect on what holds us together: the conservation of our environment. Below are links to conservation articles and reports, including the 2017 State of Community Conservation Report. NACSO takes a break from 14 December until 9 January, and we wish all of our partners in government, civil society, communal conservancies and community forests a restful and reflectful time.

However much the earth warms, it will survive. Climate change is a huge threat to humans, but not to the planet itself. The major threat to the earth we live on is the loss of biodiversity spelled out in the 2018 Living Planet Report, commissioned and issued by WWF. The report sets out hard facts, documenting an overall population decline of 60% of vertebrates between 1970 and 2014.

That’s not counting plants, fish, birds and insects. It’s also not counting humans. Our population is far from declining. But our quality of life is another matter, which is where climate change comes in.

The world acclaimed naturalist Sir David Attenborough said to the UN Climate Summit in Poland last week: “The collapse of civilization and the natural world is on the horizon.” “Right now we are facing a manmade disaster of global scale. …. Time is running out. They [the people] want you, the decision makers, to act now.”

How are we acting in Namibia?

On biodiversity, we seem to be doing well. Our State of Community Conservation Report for 2017 shows an elephant population that grew from 7,500 to over 22,000 in just over twenty years, with comparable growths in most wildlife species.

Climate change is more debatable. It is hard to tell the difference between recurring periods of drought and global warming. Climate science is not perfect, but globally an increase of 2ºC will be a disaster, warn scientists. More cars, more air-conditioning, a renaissance in coal fired power stations are leading us towards well above the 2% maximum target set by the Paris Climate Accord in 2015.

The Paris Equity Check looks at all of the countries that signed the accord, including Namibia, and plots the projected temperature rise for the planet if every country were to act as each individual country performs. Namibia does not come out well. If the world were to emit carbon at the rate projected for Namibia, we will be on track for a 5.1% increase in global temperature above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. That’s Attenborough’s “end of civilization” scenario. So climate change mitigation – not just adaption – matters in Africa too.

The Financial Times reports that in Somaliland climate change has killed 70% of the livestock and forced tens of thousands from the scorched land into refugee camps. Could that happen here? The National Oceonagraphy Centre in Britain predicts that sea-level rises could be over a metre by 2100, but with climate feedback loops it could be much more. Where does that leave Namibia’s major port of Walvis Bay?

Holding the latest climate change summit in Poland, right next to a coal mine that sponsored it, seems, as Friends of the Earth commented, to be holding a middle finger up to climate change. And President Trump says either that he doesn’t believe it is happening, or it will “change back”.

The planet may well be a self-regulating mechanism, as the Nobel prize-winning scientist James Lovelock suggested with his Gaia hypothesis, named after the Greek goddess who personified the earth in Greek mythology. Lovelock suggested that the planet is an integrated whole, rather than life living on its rocks and in its air and waters. In his book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, he stated that the earth would adapt to a 4º temperature increase, with a different and smaller composition of species. But: “we do have to take seriously the possibility that global heating might all but eliminate people from the earth.”

With these gloomy scenarios, is there anything we can do?

Some of the personal solutions may not appeal to Namibians, like eating less beef. As the world’s human population grows and wants to eat more meat, we have to face the fact that methane emitted by cows and sheep, and de-forestation to grow crops to feed animals, are significant contributors to both climate change and loss of biodiversity.

Eating less meat, like getting on your bike instead of driving, is globally important, although the arguments are more nuanced. In arid climates like Namibia, the carbon cost of bringing vegetables from the Cape may well be higher than the cost to the climate of cows and sheep for local consumption.

Other solutions could work as well in Namibia as elsewhere. In Canada’s province of British Columbia, a carbon tax was introduced in 2008. But it was a tax with a difference: all the money raised was returned to the people in tax cuts. This groundbreaking initiative, praised by the World Bank, has been adopted as a future strategy by 88 countries so far. It’s a simple idea: if you want to guzzle gas, you will pay more, and the people who guzzle less – not the government – will benefit. Money talks.

Global investors commanding budgets amounting to over US$ 32 trillion have demanded at the UN conference in Poland an end to coal fired power stations and point out the investment potential of a green economy.

The Living Planet Report tells us that we don’t have a choice. “The Great Acceleration”, to quote it, is a “unique event in the 4.5 billion year history of our planet – with exploding human population and economic growth driving unprecedented planetary change through the increased demand for energy, land and water.” All of the graphs are up: human population is up, alongside GDP, but on the other side carbon dioxide and methane emissions are up, as are the earth’s surface temperature and ocean acidification, forest loss and terrestrial degradation.

Attenborough squared the circle when he said, “The collapse of civilization and the natural world is on the horizon.” Global warming and the loss of biodiversity are intertwined if we want to save both the planet and humankind.

Steve Felton
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