SAVING THE PLANET: Paradox of Centuries

SAVING THE PLANET: Paradox of Centuries

What is Armenia’s perspective on climate change mitigation and why is the idea of saving the planet paradoxical? Regional Post discussed some of the central questions of the environmental agenda in Armenia and the world with the Deputy Minister of Environment Dr. Irina Ghaplanyan.

Interview : Arshak Tovmasyan    Photo : RA Ministry of the Environment

 

We have witnessed a number of very hot and dry summers over the past few years. Is this becoming a new norm?

Scientific data and forecasting is telling us that it is going to get even hotter and this will take place across the country. The most recent data tells us that if before the temperature increase that we had registered stood at 1.23 degrees Celsius, the most up to date information has brought that number to 1.3 C. In addition to the increasing temperatures, we have also registered a decrease in precipitation, which currently stands at 9%. This is very alarming especially for Armenia – a country whose economy largely depends on agriculture.

 

What does Armenia do to overcome this situation? Do we have a strategy?

Before jumping into our projects and strategies, I would like to mention that Armenia has signed and ratified the Paris Agreement, and with this historic agreement along with many developed and developing countries, committed to tackling climate change. This agreement was essential in establishing climate justice – that is, documenting that warming of the planet is due to greenhouse gas emissions and the lion portion of these emissions fall on the shoulders of developed countries. Moreover, this agreement ensured that developed countries took commitments to support developing nations in climate change adaptation and mitigation measures.

As a political scientist for me the issue of climate change is the most pressing global challenge today, because we all – developed and developing nations – have to come to an agreement and make immediate changes in the way we run our economies, i.e. ensuring just transition to a sustainable model both from social and economic perspectives while at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

There was a great momentum during and after the signature of the Paris Agreement back in 2015, however, as some of the large developed economies are stepping back and withdrawing, the process has largely stalled. There was a great hype in the run up to the Climate Summit this year in New York, to which the UN Secretary General called all the nations to “come with a plan, not a speech.” But unfortunately, instead of hearing strong commitments from the biggest emitters in the world to ambitious GHG reduction plans, we heard mediocre commitments or even at times adversary sentiments. Luckily, the voice of the youth was loud and clear and I am sure we will witness a great momentum and a snowballing effect from the new generation demanding climate justice and ownership of our generation’s leaders to commit to ambitious action in order to prevent the climate perils of our planet.

The window of making drastic and critical political decisions on the way we globally run our economies is narrowing down very fast. Major GHG reduction strategies and actions have to be adopted and kicked off in the next 10 years – essentially, the global economy at large and largest economies in particular have to fully readjust from fossil fuel energy dependency to renewables. Is it doable? Yes. Is it going to be costly and incredibly difficult? Absolutely. But these changes must be viewed from the perspective of long term both economic as well as environmental investments. Because if we do not take swift and large scale decisions and actions today, the costs of environmental, social and economic loss and damages to the livelihoods of nations around the globe would be so vast that it would virtually be impossible to calculate let alone manage.

On the bright side, I want to say that although this is perhaps one of the most critical periods in human history where both developed and developing nations have to come to a mutual understanding, make political decisions of planetary scale and take swift and joint action, the scale of which is unprecedented, I do believe that humanity after all will want to save itself on this planet. We must understand that this is an existential issue for us as species – the planet existed for 4.5 billion years and it will continue to exist whether we make joint political decisions or not.

 

So how does Armenia figure into this planetary bargain?

Well, for us it is important to remember that no country is too small to make a difference. Armenia has a unique opportunity to be a poster child of climate smart transition – we are a fossil fuel importing country with a very strong potential for growth of renewable energy. So we have a good opportunity to continue what is called ‘decoupling’ – the movement of two important curves in climate related calculations further away from each other: the curve of economic growth going up, and the curve of GHG emissions going down.

As part of the commitments undertaken under the Paris Agreement, Armenia along with other signatories has committed to developing the so called Nationally Determined Contributions. This is a set of long term goals, which the country commits to in order to reduce its emissions and to adapt to the impacts of climate change. This is a very complex and comprehensive document, and currently Armenia is working on its preparation with the support of a number of international organizations and partners.

Equally important is the National Adaptation Plan – this is a very crucial plan for Armenia, which is aimed at conducting comprehensive medium and long term climate adaptation planning. This plan spans virtually all sectors of human activity from health to transport, from agriculture to urban planning. One of the most important outcomes expected as a result of NAP is integration of climate change into Armenia’s national decision-making. It is important to remember, that as the temperatures continue to rise, and as we experience a decrease in precipitation, we would have to adapt virtually all infrastructures and sectors of our livelihoods.

 

The processes you’ve mentioned are quite extensive in their scale. Thus, they definitely require massive financial investments. Where would the funding come from?

Indeed, they would and thank you for bringing up this question. As I stated, in the framework of the Paris Agreement developed countries have committed to supporting developing nations, and this support also entails financial assistance. It may come from different platforms and organizations, including the funds created in the framework of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). One such platform and the largest climate fund in the world is the Green Climate Fund (GCF). Armenia is one of the most active if not the most active country in our region in the format of its engagement with the GCF – this is reflected both with our presence on the Board of the GCF as well as Armenia’s climate project portfolio, a lion portion of which is funded by the GCF to include the above mentioned NAP. The Fund’s 10th and one of the largest projects in the region is the $20 million project on “De-risking and Scaling-up Investment in Energy Efficient Building Retrofits” coordinated by the Ministry and implemented by the UNDP office in Armenia.

This year the GCF is entering its second and crucial replenishment, where developed countries contribute to the Fund. Crucial because in the wake of 2020 the commitment of developed countries to mitigating the risks associated with climate change and to helping developing countries to adapt to climate change will be tested in the form of their financial contributions to the GCF as well as to other platforms and initiatives. It is important to note here, that under the Paris Agreement developed countries have committed to mobilize $100 billion in climate finance per year by 2020. In light of this as well as taking into consideration that besides the platforms of the existing UN funds there must be other working platforms and mechanisms for developed countries to allocate climate finance, Armenia over the past more than a year has been working on developing an innovative climate finance mechanism. We have communicated the details of this mechanism during the UN Climate Summit in New York this past September, but in brief, this mechanism employs the concept of debt-for-nature swap and works on a bilateral level between a developing and a developed country. For Armenia, we foresee working with at least 5 bilateral partners, with France and Germany being the first countries, with whom we would like to kick off the debt-for-nature or debt-for-climate swap. This is a win-win mechanism, because developed countries also use this opportunity to meet the commitments that they have taken under the Paris Agreement. We have already commenced our negotiations with France and are very positive that the process will be successful. Moreover, we are quite confident that should this work for Armenia then it will become a successfully scalable model for the world.

 

Coming back to more local problems, let’s talk about the forest issue in Armenia. In the past years, this problem has become quite vocal, but still, it doesn’t receive well-deserved attention and respect from society, even though Armenia has a commitment to restore its forest cover.

Over the past 30 years Armenia has recorded an extensive forest loss. According to the GEF data, Armenia’s optimal forest cover stood at 20.1% of its total territory, but unfortunately, by various accounts due to illegal logging and unsustainable forest management Armenia has lost close to half of its original forest cover. But at the same time, Armenia has taken an ambitious commitment in the framework of the Bonn Challenge to double its forest cover by 2050, bringing it to its original optimal cover. In reality, this is a very ambitious plan, as it would require reforesting around 260.000 hectares of Armenia’s territory. Nevertheless, it is doable especially once we create the right infrastructures and work streams. The challenges are that Armenia is a mountainous country and does not have an abundance of low elevation land suitable for reforestation, additionally, as noted, we do not have the necessary capacity in terms of nurseries for saplings as well as reforestation skilled work force and quality monitoring to ensure good survival rate of the plantings. However, all of these challenges have good and systemic solutions, and we intend to work with all interested stakeholders in order to ensure that we meet this goal. It was in this spirit that the Prime Minister, together with Minister Erik Grigoryan and CEO of FAST Foundation Dr. Armen Orujyan made the announcement on October 18th during the Global Innovation Forum on the 10-10-10 project, which entails planting 10 million trees on October 10th of 2020. As we do our job as a government agency in charge of reforestation, we need to bring everyone on board in this effort as we all collectively benefit from more trees, but more importantly, this initiative intends to raise awareness and call to action everyone to take ownership of their future

 

Could you tell us a few words about Armenia’s biodiversity? Recently, there has been some positive progress with conservation efforts of the Caucasian Leopard and this year was proclaimed as the year of protection of the Caucasian Leopard. Could you elaborate a little bit more on this?

Armenia has unique biodiversity – yet not many know about this and it is our goal to promote this and raise awareness both domestically and internationally. Armenia is in the top 25 biodiversity hotspots with very unique pockets of small yet very diverse ecosystems. Additionally, Armenia is considered as a very important route on the migrating paths of birds and you can spot unusual species for this region such as pelicans or flamingos twice a year, as they stop to feed and rest. Biodiversity documentation and conservation is a very hard, meticulous and systemic work, and requires a lot of knowledge, experience and skill. On this note I want to thank our partners, particularly the German Government for supporting Armenia in undertaking very important work on conservation of our country’s unique biodiversity.

So why did we focus this year specifically on the Caucasian Leopard – well first of all, it is a critically endangered Red Book specie and the largest surviving feline in the whole of Europe. Such large carnivores are key to ensuring that the balance of the ecosystem stays intact. If they disappear, the balance of the ecosystem shifts and we can witness various chain reactions from loss of some species to dangerous overpopulation of others. Equally important were the conservation efforts of the Caucasian Leopard that have been conducted together with various local and international organizations, which have led to a series of successes, to include the increase in the total head count of this beautiful and majestic feline. There is plenty of evidence that we have increased population of the leopards, which is mainly documented through the motion capture cameras installed across the habitat areas of the animal. The other important factor that has led to the success in the feline’s repopulation efforts was the restoration of the population of the leopard’s main source of sustenance – bezoar goats and Armenian mouflons. This is yet another important example of how well balanced the ecosystem is, and Armenia is not an exception. With these positive achievements and in the spirit of spreading awareness about the significance of conservation of the feline, the government of Armenian announced 2019 as the Year of Protection of the Caucasian Leopard. This year we had a number of events featuring the Leopard – from minting a special coin by the Central Bank with a photo of the Caucasian Leopard engraved on it, to publication of a new postal stamp to Caucasian Leopard being this year’s mascot for the Yerevan Marathon. We want to thank all the partners in helping us spread awareness about this majestic creature!

 

Do you think that humans and nature are compatible?

This is an existential question yet perhaps it is more relevant today than ever before. The problem with humans is that for centuries, as species, we considered ourselves outside of the ecosystem. This historically has been one of the most fundamental errors of our existence on this planet – through this prism, of viewing ourselves as outside of the ecosystem, we continued to extract from nature, pollute the environment and put ourselves on the pedestal or rather outside of the ecosystem. In reality, true balance can be achieved only if we position ourselves inside the ecosystem. And we need to stop pushing forward this narrative of saving the planet, we need to start realizing and acting on the simple truth that a balanced and respectful attitude and approach to the environment saves us as species on the planet. Earth will live on – we need to figure out how we, as species survive, and we can do so only collectively and by respecting and caring for the nature.

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