‘The clock is ticking loudly’—UN Decade of Restoration aims to inspire global action on climate change; what can Peel do?
Throughout 2022, The Pointer will be covering the 10 themes of the United Nations Decade of Restoration. The global movement was launched with the goal of inspiring initiatives that restore damage done to the planet—work that is necessary in order to achieve climate change targets aimed at limiting catastrophic global temperature increase.
The United Nations is calling it the Decade of Restoration.
A 10-year plan to not only halt the ongoing harm and destruction being dealt on continents across the planet, but also an attempt to press the rewind button; reverse damage done by years of decision-making that paid little attention to the dire environmental consequences. As a result of the toll humans have taken on Earth, solving the climate crisis can not be achieved through protection measures and sustainable management alone. We must turn back Earth’s planetary clock.
“The planet’s degraded ecosystems and the huge benefits that they provide must also be restored,” reads the #GenerationRestoration report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
On a global scale, what has already been lost is hard to fathom:
87 percent of inland wetlands have disappeared since 1700
one-third of all animal species on the planet could face extinction by 2070 due to climate change
humans have altered more than 70 percent of Earth’s ice-free land, about a quarter of that is subject to degradation
extreme heat already kills approximately 5 million people every year, climate change will increase the frequency and severity of heat waves, driving up the death toll
across the globe, humans raze approximately 10 million hectares of forest every year, that’s an area larger than the state of Maine.
the world has lost more than half its coral reefs since 1950, ecosystems vital not only for ocean biodiversity, but approximately half a billion people rely on coral reefs for food, income and protection from coastline erosion
Each of these blows to the Earth’s land, water or air is a potential domino that, if toppled, will lead to what climate change scientists call “cascading risks”.
For example, the continued loss of forests leads to the continued loss of their ability to pull carbon from the atmosphere, which leads to further warming and all the catastrophic risks that follow.
In the game of Jenga, when too many foundational blocks are removed, the tower starts to wobble. The game can go on for a while, but eventually we all know how it ends.
Right now, Earth is wobbling.
Destruction versus restoration. The United Nations Decade of Restoration hopes to tip the scales back toward recovery after years of unmitigated human growth activities have come with a devastating ecological cost.
(Graphic from The Pointer/Images from Wikimedia Commons)
Yet we press on, with few meaningful commitments from our elected leaders. Much of the degradation detailed above is not only ongoing, but accelerating.
“The massive economic growth of recent decades has come at the cost of ecological health,” the UNEP report says.
In August of last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a startling report that detailed how many of the most feared impacts of climate change—things many people believe are the problems of the next generation—are actually much closer than initially thought.
The report was labelled a “code red for humanity” by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
“The alarm bells are deafening and the evidence is irrefutable,” Guterres said. “Global heating is affecting every region on Earth, with many of the changes becoming irreversible.”
The report detailed how the Earth was tipping dangerously close to the 1.5-degree increase from pre-industrial temperatures that the scientific consensus sees as the doorway to extreme climate impacts.
It’s a threshold 196 countries vowed to avoid when signing the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. It’s a threshold that, if passed, will disproportionately impact the world's most vulnerable people.
There is a growing number of climate change experts who believe we have already blown past the ability to prevent 1.5 degrees, and if we reach 2 degrees of increase… it will be a near doomsday scenario.
Many of the countries who signed the legally binding Paris Agreement have failed to reduce emissions in the years since, many of them have actually seen their greenhouse gas emissions increase.
Canada, a country known worldwide for its beautiful natural landscapes, cherished by those who live here, and with a Prime Minister who has said “climate action can’t wait”, was the worst of the G7 countries. This illustrates the disconnect between policy and action, as the Alberta Tar Sands and many other destructive features of our economy continue to receive the backing of all levels of government.
There has been a lack of vision in Ottawa to enact policies that will protect the environment, and those workers who rely on the current energy economy, by devising reasonable transition strategies.
A large contributor to the GHG increases seen is the province of Ontario, the country's most populated area. Premier Doug Ford and his PC party have shown themselves to be ardently anti-environment, and over nearly four years in government have dismantled much of Ontario’s legislation put in place to protect the environment and fight climate change.
After being elected in 2018, Ford immediately axed a number of renewable energy projects—spending $230 million of taxpayer dollars to do so—and cancelled the Province’s subsidy for electric vehicles, causing sales of these green automobiles in the car-dependent province to plummet.
The climate crisis is not a priority for the Doug Ford PCs.
This lack of attention to the fate of our planet also permeates the local municipalities in Peel.
Brampton has talked a big game on climate change for more than five years. The City vows to reduce emissions 80 percent below 2016 levels by 2050, and declared a climate emergency in 2019. However, in the same meeting the emergency declaration was made, councillors put their support behind the GTA West Highway, a PC project that Environmental Defence says would create 17 million tonnes of additional CO2 in the atmosphere by 2050. Councillors recently had the opportunity to reverse their support for this project, which actively works against their climate emergency declaration. The motion to reconsider support did not even make it onto the floor.
“So much for our path to a sustainable Brampton,” Councillor Doug Whillans tweeted after his motion was defeated. The council members, including Mayor Patrick Brown, voting against the motion offered no explanation for their actions.
Brampton has also accomplished very little of its ambitious Grow Green Master Plan, on target to reach only 3 of the 20 goals laid out in the initiative, six years after its implementation.
In 2022, the City will be spending more to refurbish a single road than it will on all of its climate initiatives combined.
In neighbouring Mississauga, the City has turned significant attention to the climate emergency in recent years, but old attitudes continue to prevent the shift in mindset that is required to trigger real change.
“We're all going to take transit, walk and crunch our granola bars as we skateboard to Square One—that’s never happened, it’s not going to happen, it’s utter nonsense,” George Carlson, Ward 11 Councillor and Chair of the Planning and Development Committee, said last year during a discussion to limit the number of parking spaces developers were required to include in new condo projects.
In October, Guterres addressed this gap between what world leaders had promised and their actions.
The UN Emissions Gap Report showed that even with the bold pledges from the world’s largest countries, including Canada and the United States, to reach net-zero by 2050, the world was still on track to see a global temperature increase of 2.7 degrees. This will spell major trouble.
“The emissions gap is the result of a leadership gap,” Guterres said.
“Climate change is no longer a future problem. It is a now problem,” stated Inger Andersen, executive director of the UNEP in a press release. “To stand a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees we have eight years to half emissions, eight years to make the plans, put in place the policies, implement them and ultimately deliver the cuts. The clock is ticking loudly.”
This is where the Decade of Restoration comes in. On first glance, much of the global initiative appears to have little to do with the Region of Peel.
Preserving oceans and coral reefs? The closest ocean to Peel is thousands of kilometres away. Slowing desertification in Africa, preserving rainforests in Borneo, or restoring bogs in Central Europe; what does any of this have to do with those living in Peel?
They are calls to action. Initiatives to protect the oceans and their reefs are already underway, same for desertification prevention, rainforest preservation and bog restoration. All of these projects are putting weight on the climate scales that will slowly tip emissions downward. Any country that is not doing the same is effectively doing the opposite.
A selection of initiatives already underway as part of the Decade of Restoration.
“Ecosystems can not keep up with our demands,” a UNEP report states. “The restoration of ecosystems at scale is not a small task, and it will take a concerted effort to truly restore the planet.”
Peel may not have oceans or rainforests, but it does have Lake Ontario, it does have watersheds that provide invaluable services to humans and wildlife. It has farmland to be protected from aggregate extraction, urban sprawl and needless highways. It has waterways to be cleaned up, transportation systems to be improved, buildings to be retrofitted, researchers to be supported and a vast population of close to 1.6 million people to be empowered to make changes in their own day-to-day lives for the good of the planet.
“This is an endeavour that no single entity can undertake alone,” the UNEP report lays out.
The 10-year strategy details 10 “actions” to deliver on the vision of restoring the planet. These 10 actions will serve as the jumping off point for 10 stories The Pointer will be releasing throughout 2022 on the final day of the first 10 months of the year. These stories will feature local ambassadors for the climate; analyze the local climate and environmental plans of Peel municipalities to investigate what is working, and more importantly, what is not; The Pointer will travel with researchers to get an in-depth look at the frontline efforts to save the world’s vulnerable species and their habitats; celebrate community leaders actively working to make a difference, and talk with local families about how they are trying to limit their carbon footprint and pass on a way of living to the next generation that is more connected to the natural world.
All of these stories are meant to localize the grand visions of the United Nations Decade of Restoration, and drive home not only that climate change is here—Peel is warming twice as fast as the global average—and impacting the Region of Peel, but empower local residents with the knowledge that changes they can make will actually result in significant positive outcomes.
In fact, the first “action” of the decade is “empowering a global movement.”
“The UN Decade’s overarching goal is to stop and reverse the destruction and degradation of billions of hectares of ecosystems. It is a daunting task. It gets even more complicated given the immense diversity of ecosystems and the threats they are facing: from lush forests threatened by land-grabbers and wildfires to agricultural soils so eroded that they may only carry a few more years of harvests. No single entity can steer the course in this endeavour,” the UN’s website states. “The UN Decade is therefore designed to connect and empower the actions of the many. Groups and individuals can get informed about restoration opportunities in their area. They can join an initiative already underway or start their own.”
Inspiring change in Peel will begin with commitment from the many grassroots organizations that are already making dedicated efforts to empower residents with real tools to make necessary changes in their lives.
According to Divya Arora, one of the founders of the Community Climate Council in Peel, people are already looking for ways to help.
“We actually realized there is a lot more appetite for engagement at the local level that already existed and we were essentially filling a gap rather than creating a movement from scratch,” Arora says of forming the Community Climate Council in January of 2020. “We feel like a part of building that engagement really came from tying the community together and we hope to do that through more on the ground projects, doing outdoor hikes with the communities, people of all ages, just get them involved and immersed in the local environment that they live in.”
In the same way that climate change impacts are interconnected, and snowball on top of one another like a deadly avalanche, the efforts to ignite change can work in much the same manner.
Fostering a community that cares about the space residents inhabit, as they begin seeing the trees, birds, and greenspaces outside their door as more than just nature’s simple pleasures, but as valuable assets in the climate fight—can create a population that is willing to push back against harms to these threatened natural wonders.
If a community prioritizes climate change, it is harder for politicians to ignore.
“In order to get these politicians to do the right thing so to speak in terms of climate action, it really is a matter of garnering enough support from local residents,” says LJ Prabaharan, a volunteer with the Community Climate Council. “We can stand up there and argue with them all day or make demands of them all day, but ultimately they’re going to vote the way their constituents want and we need to ensure that their constituents understand the importance of climate action so they can put the pressure on them and really make them vote in a more green and sustainable way.”
For Arora and Prabaharan, both in their 20s, the existential crisis that climate change will trigger, is sometimes hard to think about.
While Gen Z are the least responsible for decisions that have led to the current crisis, its members stand to lose the most as they inherit the worst of climate impacts in the years to come.
The pair understand that even with drastic action, things are going to get worse before getting better. We’ve put so much carbon into the atmosphere, that a certain degree of warming is already locked in, along with the negative impacts it brings.
Arora has a vision in her mind of a time when the problems of today—mass extinction, rising sea levels, extreme weather—are a thing of the past, and humans have figured out a way to live in harmony with the Earth and its natural resources.
“I know that the reason I’m working towards this is because I can picture what’s on the other side and that’s what my motivator is to keep working,” she says. “If we can at least retain a portion of that vision that I have in my mind, I think that’s the vision that keeps me working.”
Throughout 2021, Arora and other members of the Council spoke with local elected officials in municipalities around the GTA, urging them to make climate action a priority.
“We’ve sort of been patiently impatient where we know that policy change takes a really long time to occur and it’s not going to happen overnight, but at the same time if we don’t keep pushing our politicians towards that change then it might just not ever happen,” she says.
Bob Bowles, an award-winning naturalist and teacher of the Master Naturalist Program at Lakehead University in Orillia, says many young people are starting to realize what is at stake in the climate crisis, which is empowering them to take action against further destruction of the planet.
“They don’t want that and they are going to be the politicians of tomorrow. I see a light at the end of the tunnel for when they get there, but what are we going to lose or what are we going to leave for them?” he says. “My generation failed, the generation after that failed, very few people my age actually understand or care about the environment.”
Master naturalist Bob Bowles looks forward to the day when the green-conscious youth of today take over leadership positions.
(Photo from the Master Naturalists Program/Lakehead University)
It’s something federal and provincial governments have been taken to court over, several times, as groups of youth have filed lawsuits against Ottawa for its failure to properly address the climate crisis—arguing the inaction to halt climate catastrophe is a violation of the Charter rights of young people.
It’s a clear sign that despite what politicians may think, people are empowered, and taking action to make change in their communities.
The United Nations says for widespread restoration efforts to be embraced, it will involve a fundamental shift in our relationship with the natural world.
“Humanity is not outside of nature; it is part of it. We need to recreate a balanced relationship with the ecosystems that sustain us,” the UNEP report reminds us.
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