UNEP reports shed light on how countries are using different tools to shift to low-carbon, resource-efficient economies that achieve sustainable development
Almost one quarter of China will be covered in forest by 2020 if the country succeeds in its mission towards building an “eco-civilisation”, a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) finds.
The adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the first universally binding climate change agreement signed last year in Paris have renewed hopes that the world can shift to a low-carbon economy that uses natural resources more efficiently and fosters green economic growth.
To help drive this change, UNEP has released a series of reports at the second United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-2) that look at how individual countries are trying to achieve this transformation.
The reports look at China’s attempts to build an “ecological civilisation”, Bhutan’s use of its novel Gross National Happiness Index, Germany’s attempts to build a circular economy, Costa Rica’s use of Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) and Botswana’s Natural Capital Accounting.
The UNEP reports find that, although Bhutan faces challenges related to socioeconomic issues, and trade and aid dependency, the country has made “impressive progress in recent years”.
Costa Rica’s PES programme has also achieved notable successes, with nearly 15,000 contracts signed with landowners to improve land management. The programme has worked in over one million hectares of forests and distributed over $300 million, the report notes.
While more remains to be done, Germany’s attempts to apply the principles of a circular economy to its waste management plan has led to significant increases in recycling rates, created green jobs and increased resource efficiency.
Released on Thursday, May 26 2016, UNEP’s Green is Gold report looks at the environmental dimension of China’s 13th five-year plan. As part of this plan, China has vowed that, by 2020, it will have decreased water consumption by 23 per cent, energy consumption by 15 per cent and CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by 18 per cent.
By 2020, China’s forest coverage will reach more than 23 per cent and the share of days per year with good air quality in cities at the prefectural level will exceed 80 per cent if the country succeeds in building its “eco-civilization” – a resource-saving, environmentally-friendly society that seeks to integrate ecological development with economic, social, cultural and political development.
UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said, “There are numerous tools available for countries to develop an inclusive green economy, and in this report we see examples from across the developed and developing worlds.
“There is no one path to a low-carbon economy, but rather many different opportunities for countries to transform their economies and societies, and orient themselves toward sustainable development. The multiple pathways outlined in this report offer insight into what might work, and are a resource for governments looking to address resource and environmental challenges in non-traditional ways.”
China has already made a number of notable achievements, the UNEP report finds. By the end of 2014, China had built 10.5 billion m2 of energy-saving buildings in urban areas – roughly 38 per cent of the total area of urban residential buildings.
In addition, China’s production of new-energy vehicles increased 45-fold between 2011 and 2015. The country has also built the largest air-quality monitoring network in the developing world – 338 Chinese cities at the prefectural level and above are capable of monitoring six different air quality indicators. The country has also lowered energy consumption per unit of GDP and the amount of CO2 released per unit of GDP.
As part of its attempt to build an eco-civilisation, China will build on these successes by:
- limiting total primary energy consumption to 4.8 billion tonnes equivalent of standard coal by 2020
- increasing the share of non-fossil fuel energy in primary energy consumption by up to 15 per cent and limit the share of coal consumption to 62 per cent by 2020
- reaching peak CO2 emissions by 2030
- building a green manufacturing system that is efficient, clean, low carbon and circular.
“If China succeeds in achieving these targets then it will have taken a major step towards shifting to a greener economy that uses resources more efficiently, limits the risks of climate change and improves the health of its people,” said Steiner.
Another UNEP report released on Thursday looks at the efforts of four other countries to transition to sustainable, socially inclusive societies, including Bhutan’s unique Gross National Happiness index.
The report, entitled “Multiple Pathways to Sustainable Development: Further Evidence of Sustainability in Practice”, begins by looking at Germany’s efforts to introduce a “circular economy”, a system where products, components and resources are designed to be maintained, reused, remanufactured and recycled to reduce the high levels of waste produced by linear economic models of “take, make, dispose”.
In many parts of the country, pay-as-you-throw recycling schemes make it cost effective for households to produce less waste. The recycling rate of domestic waste grew from 50 per cent in 2000 to 64 per cent in 2013 while the amount of domestic waste has remained virtually constant over many years.
“As a result of its policies, Germany has achieved increasing resource efficiency, high recycling rates, virtually constant waste levels and more than 250,000 jobs in the waste industry,” the report says.
“However, despite being a frontrunner in the field, much is left to do to achieve a true circular economy, as the vast majority of raw materials used by German industry continues to be virgin materials (around 14 per cent derives from recovered waste).”
The report also looks at Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH), which the country uses instead of GDP to measure its development.
GNH aims for an economy that serves the spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of its citizens and natural environment instead of focusing purely on economic development.
The UNEP report notes that major improvements in Bhutan have been achieved. In the past 20 years, the country has doubled life expectancy and enrolled almost 100 per cent of its children in primary education. In the past 10 years, it has almost halved maternal mortality rate and, unique in South Asia, more than halved poverty.
“As a result, Bhutan achieved many of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) ahead of schedule, while at the same time following a cautious approach that puts preservation of traditional culture and environment ahead of economic growth,” the report states.
Since the financial crisis of 2008, GDP has become increasingly criticised as an insufficient metric of progress. Today, government initiatives to guide policy with more holistic measures of economic prosperity and well-being exist in Canada, China, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, among others.
“These countries demonstrate that the idea of GNH is relevant to a wide variety of national contexts,” the report states.
The UNEP report also looks at Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) – payments made to landowners and farmers to manage land so that it continues to provide ecological services. The report focuses on Costa Rica, which became one of the first countries in the world to initiate a nationwide PES programme.
The report states: “The programme in Costa Rica has helped to reverse deforestation and has the potential to help reduce poverty by supporting indigent landowners.”
The report also analyses Botswana’s use of Natural Capital Accounting (NCA), which is the process of calculating the stocks and flows of natural resources and measuring their contribution to a country’s economy.
The report states: “NCA helps the government to better determine the true contribution of natural resources, optimise their use, and assess how they can be used to diversify the economy and reduce poverty. Such accounts are of course no guarantee for sustainable development, but they can give important data support to decision makers that strive for it.”