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Taxpayers are funding planetary breakdown: Harmful subsidies must end

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Tackling the interlocking triple crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and human rights abuses is fundamental to ensuring a safe, sustainable and just future. So why are we paying to accelerate these crises, and to make ourselves poorer in the long run? I’m talking about harmful subsidies. Not all subsidies are harmful, but many are. From fisheries, to farming, to fossil fuels, they are an invisible menace forcing us to fight the planetary emergency with one hand tied behind our back, writes Steve Trent, CEO and founder, Environmental Justice Foundation.

Fisheries

In fisheries, over 60% of subsidies are harmful, meaning they are spent on increasing fishing capacity when many fish populations are already overexploited or the target of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing. This has huge consequences for both people and our planet. In Ghana, for instance, increased fishing by foreign trawlers has led to over half of the people employed in fisheries in Ghana’s coastal communities to go without sufficient food in the last year. Even more have seen declines in their income. There are implications for the global climate too. On the high seas, outside national jurisdictions, fishing vessels are often able to travel much further with subsidies, to areas that would otherwise be economically unviable. In fact, 43.5% of the “blue carbon” – the carbon stored in marine life ­­– that these vessels remove from the ocean comes from these areas. We depend on this very same blue carbon if we hope to bring the climate crisis to an end, and yet we are paying to destroy it.

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The World Trade Organization, under the new leadership of Director-General ​​Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, is closing in on a deal to end harmful fisheries subsidies, after decades of effort. Doing so would boost human rights around the globe, protect wildlife, and safeguard our planet against the climate crisis. Farming Nearly 90% of global farming subsidies are harmful. They fuel climate breakdown, the destruction of nature, and rampant inequality, particularly for smallholder farmers, who are often women. In 2019, US$1 million was spent on farming subsidies every minute globally, with only 1% of that being spent on environmentally beneficial projects.

The biggest subsidies are reserved for the most destructive products, such as beef and milk; the former emits more than twice as much carbon per kilogram of product than any other foodstuff. Agricultural expansion causes other problems too. Land conflicts are common, with Indigenous peoples and local communities often suffering extreme violence, land grabbing and pesticide poisoning.

This also brings the destruction of priceless ecosystems, from the forests of South-East Asia to the Cerrado grasslands of South America, along with associated extinction of wildlife and yet more contributions to global heating. The European Union is currently developing legislation to keep the products of deforestation off Europe’s supermarket shelves. If sufficiently robust, covering enough ecosystems and commodities, this legislation could be a powerful tool for promoting human rights and nature preservation around the globe. It would be even stronger if accompanied by efforts to redirect harmful farming subsidies, at home and abroad, into sustainable agriculture which benefits both people and the planet.

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Fossil fuels

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said of fossil fuel subsidies that "what we are doing is using taxpayers’ money – which means our money – to boost hurricanes, to spread droughts, to melt glaciers, to bleach corals. In one word – to destroy the world." And we are doing it on a vast scale. G20 governments spent US$584 billion each year between 2017 and 2019 on fossil fuel subsidies, and their support for fossil fuels in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, far from a green recovery, is moving in the wrong direction by increasing support.

Fossil fuel subsidies outweigh the support given to renewable energy 20 times over. Whether it’s tax breaks for fossil fuel companies or governments paying to clean up the environmental destruction they cause, these subsidies give a tiny handful of companies artificial support to make more money while they further accelerate the climate crisis. EU officials have rightly identified that these subsidies undermine Europe’s ambitions of reaching net zero. The solution is clear and simple: end all public finance for fossil fuels immediately, redirect the power of government spending towards renewables, and deliver the energy transformation we need to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

Crossroads

We have nine years, according to the IPCC, to make dramatic reductions in our carbon emissions to stand a chance of avoiding the worst impacts of the climate crisis. This crisis is a humanitarian one, wrapped in a cruel injustice where those who did the least to cause it overwhelmingly suffer its greatest and earliest impacts. We cannot afford to continue paying to make the world less safe and more unjust.

Continuing subsidies for planet-destroying industries also locks us into the same economic models we need to leave behind, stranding assets and finance which could otherwise be used to start a surge of good, sustainable, green jobs. Harmful subsidies make no environmental, economic or moral sense. To take on the planetary emergency, and build a safer, more sustainable, fairer world, we must redirect the vast power of public finance for good, turning harmful subsidies into the financial muscle so urgently needed to get us to a real zero carbon economy and restore the natural systems we all ultimately depend upon.

Environment

EU forestry strategy: Positive but limited results

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Although forest cover in the EU has grown in the past 30 years, the condition of those forests is deteriorating. Sustainable management practices are key to maintaining biodiversity and addressing climate change in forests. Taking stock of the EU’s 2014-2020 forestry strategy and of key EU policies in the field, a special report from the European Court of Auditors (ECA) points out that the European Commission could have taken stronger action to protect EU forests, in areas where the EU is fully competent to act. For instance, more could be done to combat illegal logging and to improve the focus of rural development forestry measures on biodiversity and climate change. Funding for forested areas from the EU budget is much lower than funding for agriculture, even though the area of land covered by forests and the area used for agriculture are almost the same.

EU funding for forestry represents less than 1 % of the CAP budget; it is focused on support for conservation measures and support for planting and restoring woodland. 90 % of EU forestry financing is channelled through the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD). “Forests are multifunctional, serving environmental, economic and social purposes, and setting ecological boundaries, for example on the use of forests for energy, is ongoing,” said Samo Jereb, the member of the European Court of Auditors responsible for the report.

“Forests can act as important carbon sinks and help us reduce the effects of climate change, such as forest fires, storms, droughts, and decreasing biodiversity, but only if they are in a good state. It is the responsibility of the European Commission and the Member States to step up actions to ensure resilient forests.”

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The auditors found that key EU policies do address biodiversity and climate change in EU forests, but that their impact is limited. For instance, although the EU Timber Regulation prohibits the marketing of illegally harvested timber and timber products in the EU, illegal logging still occurs. There are weaknesses in member states’ enforcement of the Regulation, and effective checks are often missing, also on the part of the Commission.

Remote sensing (Earth observation data, maps and geo-tagged photographs) offers great potential for cost-effective monitoring over large areas, but the Commission does not use it consistently. 2 EN The EU has adopted several strategies to address the poor biodiversity and conservation status of EU forests. However, the auditors found that the quality of the conservation measures for these forest habitats continues to be problematic.

Despite 85% of the assessments of the protected habitats indicating bad or poor conservation status, most conservation measures aim only to maintain rather than to restore status. In some afforestation projects, the auditors noted clusters of monoculture; mixing diverse species would have improved biodiversity and resilience against storms, droughts and pests. The auditors conclude that rural development measures have had little impact on forest biodiversity and resilience to climate change, in part because of the modest spending on forests (3% of all rural development spending in practice) and weaknesses in measure design.

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The mere existence of a forest management plan – a condition for receiving EAFRD funding – provides little assurance that funding will be directed to environmentally sustainable activities. Furthermore, the common EU monitoring system does not measure the effects of forestry measures on biodiversit y or climate change. Background information The EU has endorsed international agreements (the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with its Sustainable Development Goal 15) and therefore needs to respect a number of targets directly related to biodiversity in forests.

In addition, the EU treaties call upon the EU to work for the sustainable development of Europe. However, the 2020 State of Europe’s Forests report concluded that the condition of European forests is generally deteriorating; other reports and data from Member States confirm that the conservation status of EU forests is in decline. The Commission unveiled its new EU Forest Strategy in July 2021.

Special report 21/2021: EU funding for biodiversity and climate change in EU forests: positive but limited results

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Environment

Nobel Peace Prize: Is this Greta Thunberg's year?

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An open ledger for the received nominations for the 1971 Nobel Peace Prize is seen in the archives of the Norwegian Nobel Institute in central Oslo, Norway September 14, 2021. Picture taken September 14, 2021. REUTERS/Nora Buli
16-year-old Swedish Climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks at the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit at U.N. headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., September 23, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced just three weeks before world leaders gather for a climate summit that scientists say could determine the future of the planet, one reason why prize watchers say this could be the year of Greta Thunberg (pictured), write Nora Buli and Gwladys Fouche.

The world's most prestigious political accolade will be unveiled on Oct. 8. While the winner often seems a total surprise, those who follow it closely say the best way to guess is to look at the global issues most likely to be on the minds of the five committee members who choose.

With the COP26 climate summit set for the start of November in Scotland, that issue could be global warming. Scientists paint this summit as the last chance to set binding targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions for the next decade, vital if the world is to have hope of keeping temperature change below the 1.5 degree Celsius target to avert catastrophe.

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That could point to Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist, who at 18 would be the second youngest winner in history by a few months, after Pakistan's Malala Yousafzai.

"The committee often wants to send a message. And this will be a strong message to send to COP26, which will be happening between the announcement of the award and the ceremony," Dan Smith, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, told Reuters.

Another big issue the committee may want to address is democracy and free speech. That could mean an award for a press freedom group, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists or Reporters Without Borders, or for a prominent political dissident, such as exiled Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya or jailed Russian activist Alexei Navalny.

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A win for a journalism advocacy group would resonate "with the large debate about the importance of independent reporting and the fighting of fake news for democratic governance," said Henrik Urdal, director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo.

A Nobel for either Navalny or Tsikhanouskaya would be an echo of the Cold War, when peace and literature prizes were bestowed on prominent Soviet dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Oddsmakers also tip groups such as the World Health Organization or the vaccine sharing body COVAX, which are directly involved in the global battle against COVID-19. But prize watchers say this could be less likely than might be assumed: the committee already cited the pandemic response last year, when it chose the U.N. World Food Programme.

While parliamentarians from any country can nominate candidates for the prize, in recent years the winner has tended to be a nominee proposed by lawmakers from Norway, whose parliament appoints the prize committee.

Norwegian lawmakers surveyed by Reuters have included Thunberg, Navalny, Tsikhanouskaya and the WHO on their lists.

SECRETS OF THE VAULT

The committee's full deliberations remain forever secret, with no minutes taken of discussions. But other documents, including this year's full list of 329 nominees, are kept behind an alarmed door protected by several locks at the Norwegian Nobel Institute, to be made public in 50 years.

Inside the vault, document folders line the walls: green for nominations, blue for correspondence.

It is a trove for historians seeking to understand how laureates emerge. The most recent documents made public are about the 1971 prize, won by Willy Brandt, chancellor of West Germany, for his moves to reduce East-West tension during the Cold War.

"The Europe you see today is basically the legacy of those efforts," librarian Bjoern Vangen told Reuters.

The documents reveal that one of the main finalists Brandt beat out for the prize was French diplomat Jean Monnet, a founder of the European Union. It would take another 41 years for Monnet's creation, the EU, to finally win the prize in 2012.

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Animal welfare

Jewish groups challenge European Court of Justice ruling on religious slaughter

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European Jewish Association Chairman Rabbi Menachem Margolin

The Belgian Constitutional Court upheld a ruling of the European Court of Justice that member states of the European Union can ban religious slaughter without pre-stunning. The ban voted by the Flemish and Walloon regions has been challenged by Jewish groups who argue that under freedom of religion, which is protected by the European Union as a human right, EU legislation allows exemption on religious grounds for non-stunned slaughter provided that they take place in authorised slaughterhouses, writes Yossi Lempkowicz.

“The Belgian Constitutional Court has shamefully upheld a decision that is openly hostile to a fundamental pillar of Jewish practice,’’ stated Rabbi Menachem Margolin, Chairman of the European Jewish Association, in a reaction to the decision by Belgium’s Constitutional Court on Thursday to uphold a decision by the European Court of Justice banning religious slaughter without pre-stunning, thereby also upholding a similar decision by the Belgian Walloon and Flemish regions. Lamenting the court decision, he said however that provided an opportunity for European countries to show their support to Jewish communities and protect this central tenet of faith and practice. “What gets to the Jewish Communities the most is the two-faced approach of some countries towards Jewish Communities. On the one side they are solidly supportive when it comes to the fight against antisemitism, on the other they have no difficulty in effectively legislating Jewish faith and practice out of existence. ‘ Rabbi Margolin continued, “Worse still these countries are blissfully ignorant of this massive contradiction and its catastrophic effects on Jews across Europe. This decision, if replicated, is a real threat to Jewish life across Europe. Every bit as threatening as rising antisemitism, and in a sense even worse as it directly targets the very tenets of our beliefs. Now is the time for European countries to stand behind their Jewish communities and leave Belgium isolated and an outlier of how not to treat Jews”. The European Jewish Association is a Brussels-based advocacy group representing Jewish communities across Europe.

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