Meet the young climate official championing Fiji’s oceans

A blog by Chimaobi Omeye, Commonwealth Correspondent

This Commonwealth Secretariat blog is the second in a series launched during Youth4Climate and continuing in the lead up to COP26 and beyond, featuring young people from across the Commonwealth who are leading the way on local climate action. View the full blog series.

The blogs are written by fellow youth citizens from the Commonwealth Correspondents network. To be part of this series, contact us.

Kushaal Raj is the Acting Manager for Climate Change and the Ocean Specialist for the Ministry of Economy, Government of Fiji, where he develops ocean policy and provides technical expertise for international negotiations on ocean-related climate challenges.

He is also responsible for updating Fiji’s progress on oceans within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – so is currently immersed in preparations for the global COP26 climate talks which take place next month.

Here, Commonwealth Correspondent Chimaobi Omeye interviews Kushaal Raj during the busy lead up to COP26, about his journey as a Fijian climate official for one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world, during the most critical time in history for climate action.

What led you to become a climate change champion?

I started my career as an academic at the University of the South Pacific with a focus on renewable energy, after studying biology and chemistry.

My academic research group discovered the critical links between climate change and the renewable energy sector in Fiji. The University then championed further exploration of this link by developing the first programme in Fiji on Renewable Energy Management.

The passion I developed for climate change began there and took me towards a change in my career pathway. I diversified my knowledge through training and began aspiring to join climate change and oceans advocacy movements.


Kushaal Raj, Acting Manager for Climate Change and the Ocean Specialist for the Ministry of Economy, Government of Fiji

Why and how is Fiji is prone to climate change and ocean disasters?

As a large ocean state and developing Island Nation, Fiji – like the rest of the Pacific – is not immune to climate change.

We are vulnerable not only due to our small economies and inability to secure and adapt to climate-ready infrastructure, but the ‘doubled’ threat we face from multiple climate scenarios: sea level rise, coral bleaching, coastal inundation, intense and frequent cyclones, droughts, and others.

Fiji alone does not have the financial resources nor the technical capacity to address climate challenges, yet it trail-blazes efforts towards ensuring and increasing climate resilience through innovative policy interventions, coupling adaptation and mitigation co-benefits through nature-based solutions and integrated disaster risk reduction systems.

In what ways has Fiji been successful in rising above the challenges?

Fiji has always led through implementation; whether it was on mitigation through our Low Emissions Development Strategy, adaptation through our National Adaptation Plan or more recently on oceans through the National Ocean Policy.

Robust policy requires concise and effective implementation – which is what we are currently doing – through dialogue with mandated ministries and development partners, as well as the public through consultation on progress of actions within the ocean space.

This helps create greater awareness on the threats of natural disasters and what communities can do to assist in mitigating damage.

Climate policies

Apart from those stated, other notable policies include:

  • Fiji’s Five year and 20-year National Development Plan
  • The Third National Communication
  • The Planned Relocation Guidelines
  • The National Climate Change Policy
  • The Displacement Guidelines
  • Fiji’s Updated Nationally Determined Contributions and

Fiji has also complemented the Paris Agreement through its updated Nationally Determined Contribution, through which Fiji reaffirms its:

  • 2030 target under Article 4.11 of the Paris Agreement
  • Commitment to achieve net zero carbon emissions by the year 2050
  • Commitment to enact its Climate Change Bill by 2021; and
  • To operationalise its National Adaptation Plan.

The Climate Change Bill, once endorsed, will be the legislative force which will ensure the implementation of numerous climate projects assist in Fiji ambitions to become carbon neutral.

In July 2019, Fiji successfully compiled its first Voluntary National Review (VNR) and presented it at the High-Level Political Forum in New York.

Fiji has learnt from its first progress report on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and is now undertaking preparatory works for the compilation of its second VNR for presentation in 2022.

Fiji is also working jointly with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs in strengthening advocacy, awareness and institutional readiness for the implementation of the SDGs across all sectors.

Ocean action

How does your work influence the attainment of SDG 14: Life Below Water?

Our work consists of collating information and reporting on ocean actions and activities within Fiji to Government, development partners and the international community.

As the oceans unit, our work automatically creates synergies with SDG14: Life Below Water, however our work is holistic and spreads across multiple Ministries, such as Fisheries, Foreign Affairs and Environment, due to the diverse nature of the ocean.

Fiji has already taken steps to expedite work within the area of SDG 14 specifically through the SDG unit of the Climate Change and International Cooperation Division of the Ministry of Economy, which will report on all SDGs and initiate a streamlined and directed approach towards collecting data on SDG 14, among others.

How do you work with communities?

Earlier this year we held a creek clean-up in Nabukalou. This was done in partnership with the Ministry of Environment and numerous civil-society organisations and was the first of many clean-up campaigns and events organised to raise awareness of pollution management, while we continue to improve other means of waste collection to protect the marine space.

The turnout was quite significant for the creek clean-up, particularly from young people – more than 100 people attended from registered community groups, faith-based organisations and the public.

Businesses have also taken initiatives to decrease their plastic pollution, which has been further assisted by the ban on single-use plastic bags in Fiji, which came into force on 1 January 2020.

Challenges

How has Covid-19 and cyclone Ana impacted your work?

I believe the paradigm shift to virtual meetings due to COVID-19 has been the biggest change. Although avoiding the long transits to attend meetings has been a respite, the lack of first-person contact has been a hurdle for many to counter, especially during negotiations and high-level meetings.

We were fortunate that the cyclone did not cause as much damage to the capital city of Suva (our place of business) as it did in the northern areas of Fiji and as a result, much of our work was unaffected. However, there have been numerous challenges posed on our economy and climate aspirations, which is constant with frequent cyclones in Fiji.

An area we are currently lacking in is advocacy, but although our work is updated and regularly reported on the international and global stage, we have only recently started campaigning more widely on climate change issues domestically.

Our hope is to align our work with the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030).

The team is in the process of operationalizing the National Ocean Policy, as although the Policy is robust, its implementation will require multi-stakeholder input.

Similarly, as Fiji was devastated by the recent tropical cyclones Yasa and Ana, a pilot project called the Savusavu Blue Town Model is being developed to assist in rehabilitation in the northern division and as a foundation to improve economic resilience through investment in ecological resilience.

Advice for young people

Climate ambition without climate action is ineffective. Your passion about climate change should not end at advocacy, but if you have the capacity, should also diversify into assisting the community in curbing climate and oceans issues.

This could be done through clean up and community-led programmes, pilot projects on innovative climate solutions and advocacy of these issues within communities – this will also help the drive towards resilience.

Do you believe young people are given opportunities in Fiji and globally?

Youth participation has always been key for climate action in Fiji and the world. Greta Thunberg is an excellent example of how youths can make a difference.

For Fiji, Timoci Naulusala is a similar figure in the context of climate change and international youth leadership, who at the age of 12 gave the opening speech of COP23 in Bonn, Germany. He captivated world leaders on the impacts of climate change and remarked that the ‘blaming and waiting game’ was over and it’s now time for action.

Together for change

national climate youth summit with a focus on climate change was recently organised by the Ministry of Youth and Sports in partnership with non-governmental organisations, civil society organisations and the Climate Change Division of the Ministry of Economy, to inform youths on the importance of their roles in society as first responders and advocates for climate action.

They were also consulted on Fiji’s upcoming Climate Change Bill. It is an avenue to renew commitment towards youth-led community activities that address climate change and enable youth to better communicate and network on this issue with government ministries and development partners.

This youth leadership and collaboration is critical in addressing climate change. We must all work together for real change.

This Commonwealth Secretariat blog is the second in a series launched during Youth4Climate and continuing in the lead up to COP26 and beyond, featuring young people from across the Commonwealth who are leading the way on local climate action. View the full blog series.

The blogs are written by fellow youth citizens from the Commonwealth Correspondents network. To be part of this series, contact us

Share this blog series on social media using hashtags #CommonwealthForClimate, #CommonwealthYouth and #BlueCharter.

Mangrove Blue Carbon for Climate Change Mitigation

NAIROBI, Oct 7 2021 (IPS) – Smelly, boggy, and full of bugs, mangroves’ superpowers are well hidden. However, there is rising confidence that mangroves are the silver bullet to combat the effects of climate change.

“Mangrove ecosystems are a habitat and nursery grounds for various plants and animals and can absorb three to four times more carbon than tropical upland forests, helping to mitigate the effects of climate change,” Dr Sevvandi Jayakody, a senior lecturer at Wayamba University of Sri Lanka, tells IPS.

A natural line of defence

Mangrove forests also act as a natural defence against storm surges, including mitigating the effects of cyclones and tsunamis, says Dr Nicholas Hardman‑Mountford, Head of Oceans and Natural Resources at the Commonwealth Secretariat.

Within this context, he says, Commonwealth countries are working together under the Commonwealth Blue Charter, an agreement made by all 54 member states, to actively work together to tackle ocean-related challenges and meet global commitments on sustainable ocean development.

The Blue Charter works through voluntary action groups led by ‘champion countries’, who rally around marine pollution and the sustainable blue economy.

The Mangrove Ecosystems and Livelihoods Action Group consists of 13 countries, including Australia, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Guyana, Jamaica, Kenya, Maldives, Nigeria, Pakistan, Trinidad and Tobago Vanuatu, and the United Kingdom, is championed by Sri Lanka.

Hardman‑Mountford tells IPS that countries exchange knowledge centred on mangrove protection, management, and sustainability within the action group. Shared knowledge includes a wide range of topics, including policy, legislation, and regulatory frameworks.

Leveraging on the protective power of mangroves, Jayakody says that Sri Lanka is actively building its second line of defence. The country’s first line of defence, the reefs, were heavily compromised by the deadly 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami – one of the worst disasters in modern history, killing nearly 230 000 people across dozens of countries.

Such was the devastation that the government of Sri Lanka estimated losses of over $1 billion in assets and $330 million in potential output.

Worse still, approximately 35 000 people died or went missing. In Sri Lanka alone, property damage included 110 000 houses, of which 70 000 were destroyed. In all, at least 250 000 families lost their means of support.

Combatting the impacts of climate change

Experts say that mangroves have immense capacity to prevent such catastrophes and combat other devastating effects of climate change.

Bolstered by growing scientific evidence, Trinidad and Tobago, the dual-island Caribbean nation, has made significant strides in building its defence using mangroves.

Dr Rahanna Juman, Acting Director at the Institute of Marine Affairs, a government-funded research institute, tells IPS that in 2014, the government of Trinidad and Tobago commissioned an aerial survey of the country. Using this data, an estimate of carbon in mangrove forests across the country was ascertained.

“This information illustrated how mangrove and other hardwood forests could offset emissions and was incorporated into the Greenhouse Gas inventory of Trinidad and Tobago. Importantly, the survey conclusively demonstrated that mangrove forests store more carbon per hectare than other hardwood forests,” Juman expounds.

In 2020, the Institute of Marine Affairs received funding from the British High Commission to fund a mangrove soil carbon assessment project involving Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago.

Dr Juman indicates that the assessment found that “the amount of carbon in the mangrove soil was many times larger than the amount of carbon above the ground. This is an assessment that could be replicated in other Commonwealth countries because we have developed a low-cost technique of undertaking this important assessment.”

Adding that Mangroves are starting to be incorporated into the United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) programme, which means countries could potentially earn money from protecting and restoring mangroves.

Mangrove blue carbon

Meanwhile, Hardman‑Mountford cites various challenges in exploring blue carbon because it is still an evolving area of science and policy.

Sri Lanka understands this challenge all too well. After the Tsunami, Jayakody says that the government launched vast mangrove restoration projects covering over 2 000 hectares in partnership with other agencies.

Due to limited information on mangroves, she tells IPS that a majority of these projects failed. Undeterred and leveraging on scientific research over the years, Sri Lanka is today a success story in restoring and conserving mangrove cover estimated at 19 600 hectares.

Other challenges facing countries keen on mangrove blue carbon include a lack of protection for mangroves because approximately 75 percent of mangrove forests globally remain unprotected and overexploited.

Over the years, Jayakody indicates that mangroves have been at a very high risk of destruction because their power to prevent coastal erosion, protect shorelines, and provide livelihoods for coastal communities through fisheries was not fully understood.

Hardman‑Mountford agrees, adding that mangrove forests have declined globally with a loss of between 30 to 50 percent over the past 50 years from over-harvesting, pollution, agriculture, aquaculture, and coastal development.

The Commonwealth has a huge role to play in reversing this decline. Overall, there are 47 Commonwealth countries with a coastline.

“Nearly 90 percent of Commonwealth countries with a coast have mangroves, and at least 38 of these countries with mangroves have provided some level of protection to their mangroves. In all, 16 countries have protected about half or more of their mangroves,” he says.

Mangroves
Image credit: Joyce Chimbi/IPS

This is a challenge that Sri Lanka is successfully overcoming. With an estimated 40 percent of the population in Sri Lanka living along the coastline, Jayakody says that there was an urgent need to protect both livelihoods and coastlines from further degradation.

“In 2015, Sri Lanka established the National Mangrove Expert Committee, and through that, all mangroves were mapped. More so, several new areas were brought under protection, and there have been relentless efforts to improve the communities’ understanding of the importance of mangrove ecosystem,” she says.

Further, Sri Lanka recently validated the Best Practice Guidelines on the Restoration of Mangroves in Sri Lanka and the national mangrove action plan, in line with the mangrove policy adopted in 2020.

Other countries making strides in the right direction include the Australian government’s involvement with blue carbon and especially ongoing efforts to build capacity in blue carbon science, policy and economics through multi-sectoral partnerships.

“To support its efforts in blue carbon advocacy and outreach, the Australian government launched the International Partnership for Blue Carbon (IPBC) at the UNFCCC CoP in Paris in 2015,” says Ms Heidi Prislan, a Blue Charter Adviser at the Commonwealth Secretariat.

Australia is also one of the 28 countries that refer specifically to the mitigation benefits of carbon sequestration associated with coastal wetlands in its National Greenhouse Gas Inventory. In comparison, 59 other countries mention coastal ecosystems as part of their adaptation strategies.

To increase opportunities for blue carbon to participate in the national emissions reduction scheme, the Emissions Reduction Fund, the Australian government has supported research into potential mitigation methodologies that could be implemented to generate carbon credits from domestic projects.

Equally important, she says that Commonwealth member countries have collectively made 44 national commitments to protect or restore mangroves.

As the world stares at a catastrophe from the devastating effects of climate change, the massive potential of blue carbon and, more so, mangrove blue carbon to bolster climate change adaptation, mitigation and resilience efforts can no longer be ignored.

This article was originally published by IPS.

How one young scientist is tackling plastic pollution in The Bahamas

A blog by Metolo Foyet, Commonwealth Correspondent

This Commonwealth Secretariat blog is the first in a series launched during Youth4Climate and continuing in the lead up to COP26 and beyond, featuring young people from across the Commonwealth who are leading the way on local climate action. View the full blog series.

The blogs are written by fellow youth citizens from the Commonwealth Correspondents network. To be part of this series, contact us.

By 2025, it is estimated that The Bahamas will have around 687 million metric tons of plastic debris on its shorelines. This is more than the combined weight of the people who live on the islands.

One islander who wants to change this is Kristal Ambrose, environmental scientist and founder of The Bahamas Plastic Movement.

The Movement educates local people about plastic pollution through youth camps that use arts and data science to encourage policy change.

Meeting Kristal

I had the opportunity to speak with Kristal, an enthusiastic young islander who has been driving awareness of marine debris for over a decade and was recognised for her tireless work in 2020 with a Goldman Environmental Prize.

Kristal first learned about the dangers of plastic pollution in 2012, when she was on a sailing expedition in the Pacific Ocean to study the Western Garbage Patch, a 1.6 million square kilometre floating mass of plastic debris.

Isolated in the middle of the ocean, no aeroplanes flying over, no island in the distance, no boats passing by – just her, wildlife and: waste.

Kristal saw things that shouldn’t be in the middle of the ocean. Toys; a plastic comb that looked like one she had at home; a toothbrush of the same brand as that in her bag. And dead coastal animals tangled in plastic.

In particular, a sergeant major, the fish she had learned to identify when she first got into the field of marine science. Seeing that fish killed by plastic triggered a self-realization for Kristal: “I was the biggest plastic consumer that I knew. I was a huge part of the problem, and equally I felt I could be a huge part of the solution.”


Image credit: Dorlan Curtis Jr. and Jawanza-Small

Engaging youth

Soon after her trip, in 2013 Kristal started the Plastic Beach Project – a citizen science initiative which studied the concentration of plastic on local beaches.

Then, in 2014, she initiated the Plastic Pollution Education and Ocean Conservation Camp, a tuition free, summer-intensive program that engages young people in education and activism around plastic pollution. The program is funded through individual donations and small community grants from local and foreign organisations.

As the only member of staff, Kristal does all the logistics, fundraising, communications and research herself, but runs the summer camp with counsellors and volunteers.

Each year, the camp closes with a community show where students create songs, skits, poetry and dances related to plastic pollution.

“Whether you like it or not” – Poem by DeAnntae Hepburn, 7 years old, Plastic Camp 2019

Whether the sea be fine or whether the sea be not

Whether the sea be clean, but we know humans still haven’t fought

Not for the sea, not for the sand

Not for Bahamians’ gorgeous land

We have to change, whatever it takes

Whether we like it or not.

Success stories

Through beach clean-ups, school visits, citizen science projects and camps, Kristal has encouraged thousands of young people locally as well as globally to get into plastic pollution activism.

Some of her proudest achievements include:

  • Creating a ripple effect

One of the biggest impacts of plastic camp is the confidence young people leave the programme with. Kristal says they go home with “seeds of hope” that they plant in their communities through friends and families, which then blossom into new collective behaviours in society.

She says: “In 2019, I randomly saw one of the students from the camp. He was with his mother and had the exact same metal straw and metal cup that we gave him at the camp two years prior. His mother said he takes it everywhere and refuses to use any plastic. And that is just one isolated example, there are so many others.”

  • Taking the initiative

Another achievement Kristal is proud of is her resourceful networking. She was working at a field station on the island of Eleuthera when she first heard of the expedition to the Western Garbage Patch. By telling everyone about this $10,000 a seat trip, she eventually received support from a donor.

  • The Plastic Warrior Feedback Loop

The Bahamas Plastic Movement’s theory of change shows how graduated students come back into the programme to share their knowledge with other students.


Diagram designed by Metolo Foyet, based on model conceptualised by Kristal Ambrose

The Movement is also creating a ‘programmes manual’ to facilitate replication. But despite scaling her success, Kristal remains cautious: “I think having slow growth but high impact is important and once I am done with this chapter, we can get the board going. But right now, I am okay with the slow.”

  • Changing policy

At the end of the 2017 UNEP General Assembly in Nairobi, Kristal noted that most countries made a commitment to ban single-use plastic. But not The Bahamas.

Once home, she pulled her camps’ brightest students for a three-day workshop. They conducted a survey in the community to see if people would support a ban or tax on single-use plastic.

Next they worked with a local lawyer who taught them about legislation. Then in March 2018, students ranging in age between 10 and 14 years old, went with Kristal to the office of The Bahamas Minister of Environment and Housing.

Their efforts worked. On Earth Day 2018, April 22, the Minister announced that The Bahamas was banning single-use plastic, starting from January 2020.

  • Plastic Warriors Try

In 2021, alongside the regular camps, Kristal launched a sustainability and media communication program called ‘Plastic Warriors Try’. The fun, educational vlog series documents students’ journeys as they discover how to make their own products instead of buying new.

Kristal describes the week-long programme: “In the morning we learn about a new subject such as menstruation and look at how much waste is generated from that and what alternatives can be used. Looking at personal care products – all the toothpastes and deodorants and things that come wrapped in plastic – how can we make our own?

“In the Caribbean and Africa, we use a lot of synthetic hair, which is made from plastic. All of the gels come in plastic bottles. But there is a Black-owned company that makes hair out of plant-based material, and they take fibers from a certain type of plant and dye it, and you can braid your hair with it. It’s also compostable.

“Working with a local agricultural engineer, we’ll extract banana fibers from local banana trees to make our own hair. We are going to make our own gel from flax seed. We’ll learn about it in class, and the students will document how to make these things together when they are at home and will do their own video journal, and our editors will put them all together.”


Image credit: Dorlan Curtis Jr. and Jawanza-Small

Facing challenges

While Kristal has seen much success, she still faces problems in her mission to raise awareness of plastic pollution locally. These include:

  • Ineffective waste management

The plastic ban in the country is just specific to single-use plastic, but other types of plastic are still making their way through, including water bottles, snack packaging and plastic films. This is because as a small island development state, The Bahamas relies heavily on imports.

More than 90 percent of everything consumed in the country is shipped in, leaving behind a lot of waste from foreign sources, such as food, batteries, light bulbs, cars and building materials.

A lot of this waste could be recovered and circled right back into the economy or into other projects, but for the most part it goes to landfill.

Kristal explains: “We need to really look at waste management because the reality is we are replacing one waste over another. We need to get plastic out of the supply chain. The landfills in The Bahamas make this even more complicated: we have so many islands, and right now it is hard to regulate these in a uniform way.

“On the smaller islands in The Bahamas, everything is landfill. It is all mixed, not separated, not properly engineered. They just burn it. This causes health and social justice issues because those toxins go into communities. It is a big issue there. We need more synchronicity and better strategies for our waste management in the country.”

Then there is the plastic that is washed in from the southern Caribbean, west coast of Africa and the tourism industry.

The Bahamian population is just under 400,000, but every year, 5 million people visit, bringing and generating a lot of waste. Cruise ships also leave their waste in the country.

On top of that is disaster debris. As climate change intensifies, storms are becoming more frequent and stronger. In 2019, Hurricane Dorian struck the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama, leaving behind 1.5 billion pounds of debris. While it is a complex issue, it is all related to plastic.


Image credit: Dorlan Curtis Jr. and Jawanza-Small

  • Lack of ownership

Kristal has realised that although the health, environmental and economic impact of single-use plastic is well known, the convenience of plastic is embedded in society.  She also recognises that the narrative accusing locals for trashing the beaches is problematic, because a lot of plastic comes from other remote locations.

“Connection is key. I could go there and say ‘don’t litter, save the coral reef’, but if I haven’t been on that coral reef and not experienced the magic, I am not going to be as inclined to truly commit to it.

“Ownership is achieved by getting people outside of their comfort zone and getting them in nature, in the ocean, in these natural spaces, and getting them to really tap into what it does to their psyche. Getting them to love it and then they protect what they love.

“Through that connection you start fostering things like eating only certain fish when it is in season or using eco-friendly products.

“Shaming, blaming, and forcing people to do things doesn’t work. Communities effortlessly protect their habitats once people feel connected, listened to, engaged in dialogue and associated to decision-making.”

  • Tackling the problem at source

We keep talking about recycling plastic, but someone keeps producing it. Adopting sustainable manufacturing could help resolve the plastic issue.

Kristal explains: “Plastic is oil which is a big-money industry that does a lot of lobbying to overturn plastic bans. To properly turn off the tap to plastic pollution you need to turn off the tap to production.

“The production level of plastic is going to skyrocket by 2050 to billions of pounds, which is more than we produce every year. Industry is a big part of the conversation that is often left out.”

  • Social media

The changing culture due to globalization and the growth of social media have made it easier for young people to express their opinions.

Kristal believes young people are given more opportunities to speak up today, but warns that talking about plastic could be depressing and overwhelming, so mental health support is critical to effective activism.

“Growing up, I don’t remember seeing any young children on the frontlines fighting for change, and often it is because our voices were suppressed.

“Today, I see social media spaces where young people are encouraged to speak, step up and tackle so many issues. It is really empowering to see that.”


Image credit: Kristal Ambrose

Following a dream

Working with young people is rewarding Kristal believes, because they learn fast, bring new perspectives and are powerful and effective in their leadership.

Bringing passion, energy and creativity, young people think outside of the box, as well as being good with technology and social media.

“They think about things in different ways that I may not consider, and sometimes it takes the student saying ‘I don’t think this is going to work, what if we try it this way’.”

Kristal’s story shows that resilience and optimism are ingredients for success. It sends a message to everyone – especially Black and brown children in The Bahamas – that they can do it too. That there are no limitations.

She offers useful advice to young activist entrepreneurs: “It is going to be hard. People can project their fears onto you. You are going to have to remember your why and always come back to it. Be fearless and lead with the heart.

“My purpose is beyond plastic, it is really about representation and showing that you could be from a small community, a poor family, a non-Ivy League graduate, and still be a source of inspiration.”

To successfully empower communities to act on climate and environmental issues like plastic pollution, Kristal’s movement shows that we must help young people understand that they have the power to make a difference.

As we close our conversation, Kristal says: “The science is as simple as picking the plastic and counting it and using it as a tool of empowerment to say that science is for everyone.

“You don’t have to look a certain way to be a scientist. Our work is truly rooted in the hopefulness of engaging young people in education and activism around plastic pollution. It is challenging, but so fulfilling and joyful.”

To learn more about Kristal Ambrose’s innovative plastic pollution programmes, visit the Bahamas Plastic Movement.

This Commonwealth Secretariat blog is the first in a series launched during Youth4Climate and continuing in the lead up to COP26 and beyond, featuring young people from across the Commonwealth who are leading the way on local climate action. View the full blog series.

The blogs are written by fellow youth citizens from the Commonwealth Correspondents network. To be part of this series, contact us

You can share this blog series on social media with the hashtags #CommonwealthForClimate, #CommonwealthYouth and #BlueCharter.

Partnership with Arizona State University will help track climate impact on coral reefs

A new agreement between the Commonwealth Secretariat and Arizona State University (ASU) will leverage cutting-edge coral-mapping technology to protect and restore coral reefs in the Commonwealth.

The partnership aims to support governments in using the Allen Coral Atlas, a powerful web-based tool, to monitor and manage coral reef ecosystems for enhanced ocean policies.

Named for the late Paul G. Allen, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist, the Allen Coral Atlas was conceived and funded by his company, Vulcan Inc., and is now managed by the ASU Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science.

Monitoring ‘coral bleaching’

This year, a ground-breaking new feature was added to the platform, using satellite images to monitor ‘coral bleaching’ – a phenomenon driven mainly by climate change.

Allen Coral Atlas map

Bleaching occurs when extra warm ocean waters cause corals to expel the colourful algae living in their tissues. As the algae also serve as an important food source, extended periods of bleaching will cause corals to starve and die.

Increasingly within the last decade, wide-scale coral bleaching events have been seen across the world, linked to warmer waters and more frequent marine heatwaves.

With 45 percent of the world’s tropical coral reefs located in the Commonwealth, the Allen Coral Atlas could offer vital support to help mitigate these threats caused by climate change and other human pressures.

Welcoming the partnership, Senior Director for Trade, Oceans and Natural Resources at the Commonwealth Secretariat, Paulo Kautoke said:

“Coral reefs act as vital reservoirs of marine life and biodiversity, natural sea defences and a source of life and livelihood for millions of people. This initiative will provide Commonwealth countries with essential geographic data and ecosystem health information to protect and manage their coral reefs in a sustainable manner.

Commonwealth Blue Charter Action Groups

“The Commonwealth Blue Charter Action Groups can also facilitate learning and help member countries make the most effective use of this information.”

The Commonwealth Blue Charter is a commitment by the 54 member countries to collaborate on solving ocean challenges, implemented through 10 country-driven action groups, each led by a ‘Champion country’.

The Allen Coral Atlas will support the Action Group on Coral Reef Protection and Restoration, championed by Australia, Belize and Mauritius, by providing access to common data sets, shared practices, co-learning opportunities and scientific capacity-building to support marine policy development.

Dr. Greg Asner, Managing Director of the Allen Coral Atlas, and Director of the ASU Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science added: “By partnering with the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Allen Coral Atlas will reach new countries and communities as a resource to generate and scale coral reef protection and management.

“The true impact will best be achieved as more governments and organizations implement the Atlas tool kit in pursuit of long-term reef sustainability, biodiversity protection, and the preservation of human livelihoods that depend on the world’s coral reefs.”

Head of Oceans and Natural Resources at the Commonwealth Secretariat, Nicholas Hardman-Mountford, said: “More than half of coral reefs globally have declined since the 1950s. If we continue to burn fossil fuels and drive up ocean temperatures, both ocean life and human well-being will be at risk. Coral mapping tools and technology can help countries monitor the impacts of climate change in the ocean and develop strategies to build resilience in coastal ecosystems.”

The Commonwealth Secretariat will be launching online training modules for coral managers and technicians in member countries to learn how to use the Allen Coral Atlas to map local reefs, study bleaching trends and feed this data into policy and decision-making processes.

The Atlas could also assist other Action Groups focused on mangrove ecosystems, marine protected areas and ocean observations, helping expand the mapping of other aquatic ecosystems and collection of spatial data. Earlier this year it was used to track the impacts of the MV Wakashio oil spill which occurred in Mauritius in August 2020.

This partnership follows on a previous agreement with Vulcan Inc.

How space tech is aiding mangrove conservation in the Commonwealth

Powerful satellites orbiting hundreds of miles above Earth are helping some Commonwealth countries save and restore vital mangrove ecosystems while combatting climate change.

Officials from Trinidad and Tobago and Sri Lanka recently shared how they are using sophisticated earth-imaging technology to gather valuable data on the coverage, health and changes in the features of mangroves along their coastlines and rivers.

The information is critical to stemming the rapid disappearance of mangroves worldwide, with 30 to 50 per cent of these marine ecosystems lost mainly to deforestation over the last 50 years.

The data is also key to understanding mangroves’ capacity to capture and store away carbon from the atmosphere – the main driver of climate change.

Country experiences

Countries shared their experiences during an online event organised by the Commonwealth Secretariat to mark International Mangrove Day on 26 July, which also included insights from Planet, a world leader in satellite imagery technology.

Director General of Ocean Affairs, Environment and Climate Change at the Foreign Ministry of Sri Lanka, Hasanthi Dissanayake, highlighted:

“Sri Lanka became a global leader in mangrove restoration and conservation after the devastating impacts of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. We learnt from the experience and have spearheaded the conservation in our country and across the Commonwealth.”

The country has since advanced in strides, championing the Commonwealth Blue Charter Action Group on Mangrove Ecosystems and Livelihoods since 2018, establishing a cross-sectoral Mangrove Taskforce and adopting a national policy on the conservation and sustainable use of mangroves in 2020.

The Director of the Biodiversity Secretariat at the Ministry of Environment, Pathma Abeykoon, also shared how satellite technology is used to track changes to mangrove ecosystems over time, in addition to modelling disasters and mapping vulnerable areas for disaster preparation, management and recovery.

Mitigating climate change

In Trinidad and Tobago, scientists at the Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) combined several different layers of data in order to learn how to manage mangroves sustainably, and study its role as a carbon ‘sink’.

“Mangrove forests actually store something like four times more carbon than terrestrial forests,” explained Nikia Gooding, a geospatial research fellow at the country’s Institute of Marine Affairs.

“If we’re able to understand how much carbon is stored and sequestered in these forests, then we can start an argument as to why they should be conserved and protected, because it’s one of the ways for us to mitigate against climate change.”

The IMA has been using a combination of aerial and satellite imagery, the most recent Google Earth imagery, LandSat data produced by American Space Agency (NASA) and other sources to monitor mangrove ecosystems in Trinidad and Tobago over a 25-year period from 1994 to 2019. The findings were published earlier this year.

Data sets from 3-D laser scans and physical measurements of mangroves, soil analysis and carbon testing, are also being used to accurately quantify the carbon stored in mangrove forests, both above and below the ground.

Ms Gooding highlighted the benefits of free online and virtual training modules offered through Commonwealth Blue Charter which trains mangrove technicians and managers on the use of GIS tools to map mangroves and contribute to policy development.

Democratising data

Presenting the vast applications of satellite data, Planet’s Strategic Accounts manager for the EMEA region, Mark Richardson, said: “At Planet, we collect massive amounts of data, every single day. We want to democratise access to our imagery and fundamentally that means ensuring those people who need it the most are able to access those data.”

A frontrunner in the field, Planet uses 180 small satellites to scan and produce images of the Earth every day at a 3-metre resolution, with 21 larger satellites scanning at 50 centimetre resolution. At last, 20 terra bytes of data are downloaded from the satellites every single day.

This data has been used by a wide range of stakeholders, including mangrove researchers focusing on ‘blue carbon’, habitat mapping and protection, and storm impacts.

Adviser and Blue Charter lead at the Commonwealth Secretariat, Jeff Ardron, said: “One of the aims of the Commonwealth Blue Charter is to bring countries together, along with other action-oriented partners, to share experiences and discuss solutions to common challenges.

“These include new approaches that take advantage of emerging and low-cost technologies to build resilience of local communities.”

The webinar was part of an ongoing series focused innovative solutions and best practices being implemented by the 10 country-led Action Groups of the Commonwealth Blue Charter.

About Commonwealth Blue Charter Training opportunities

The Commonwealth Blue Charter during 2020, pivoted from in-country training events to the virtual and self-paced programmes. Since mid-2020 the Commonwealth Blue Charter has trained over 300 government officials and scientists across eight topics, including Mangrove Mapping for Managers and Technicians. These courses are free and aim to help Action Group members gain new skills or enhance existing ones.

Over the coming months further modules will become available, relating to coral reef mapping, blue carbon, blue economy and sustainable coastal fisheries.

To keep up-to-date with online training opportunities and events subscribe to the Commonwealth Blue Charter newsletter.

New study on Trinidad and Tobago’s mangroves paves the way to global carbon market

New research led by Trinidad and Tobago’s Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) will be the first step in laying the groundwork for the country to trade carbon internationally, supporting the economy while fighting climate change.

Carbon dioxide is one of the main drivers of climate change, and mangroves have an immense capacity to capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it away for millions of years – a process known as carbon sequestration.

The Mangrove Soil Carbon Sequestration Assessment project, funded by the British High Commission in Port of Spain, aims to measure how much carbon is stored in local mangrove soils and give it a monetary value. This would enable trading in the emerging ‘carbon market’, where units of greenhouse gas emissions are priced and traded, in order to limit climate change.

The comprehensive, high quality data the project will provide will help develop more targeted evidence-based conservation policies for the country’s 7500 hectares of mangroves, while enabling it to earn foreign exchange income for mangrove preservation in the future. It will also contribute to Trinidad and Tobago’s commitments under the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Minister of Planning and Development, Hon Camille Robinson-Regis, welcomed the initiative: “This project will be highly profitable to Trinidad and Tobago, not only for its monetary value, but also for its environmental benefits as well as being a tool in our National Development Strategy and our Climate Action Goals (SDG13).”

British High Commissioner to Trinidad and Tobago, Harriet Cross, stated: “This project shows the importance of ensuring that we are collecting the right data to make informed choices. Projects like this help us to be ambitious, meet Paris Agreement goals, support stronger national action and stronger international collaboration, all of which are needed to tackle climate change and protect current and future generations.”

The project will be presented as a case study during a virtual event organised by the Commonwealth Secretariat on the International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystem, 26 July, in collaboration with members of the Mangrove Ecosystems and Livelihoods Action Group under the Commonwealth Blue Charter.

Mangroves – an untapped climate action treasure

Mangrove forests are among the most carbon-dense ecosystems on earth, with over 90 percent of mangrove carbon stored in their soils. The assessment involves the analysis of soil cores from mangrove forests around Trinidad and Tobago, covering a wide gamut of environmental variables.

The study also examines which mangrove forests store the most carbon, as well as the factors that affect the amount they store.

“In the Caribbean, we have not quantified how much carbon is stored in our mangrove soils. The significance of the study is that understanding how much carbon is stored helps in terms of how we can use and monetize this information,” explained IMA Director (Ag.), Dr. Rahanna Juman.

“This will allow us to investigate initiatives where we can receive payments to maintain our mangrove forests in a healthy state, or even rehabilitate degraded ecosystems so that they can continue to store carbon.”

The project builds upon another UK-funded study conducted in 2020 by Professor John Agard of the University of the West Indies in collaboration with the IMA, which measured the carbon content within mangrove biomass. Together with that research, the IMA will develop the most accurate estimation of mangrove carbon storage ever conducted for Trinidad and Tobago, among a small handful in the world.

The project will be shared at a special webinar on International Mangrove Day with a view to exchanging views, lessons and experiences with other Commonwealth member countries and supporting the work of the Commonwealth Blue Charter.

Event: Mapping mangrove ecosystems using satellite technology

Date: Monday 26 July 2021, 13:00 – 14:00 BST

To mark the International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystem on 26 July, the Commonwealth Secretariat is hosting a virtual event to showcase how powerful satellite technology can support the conservation and sustainable management of mangroves in the Commonwealth.

Mangrove ecosystems

Thirty-three of the 54 Commonwealth countries hold mangrove ecosystems, representing 22 per cent of global coverage. Sri Lanka champions the Mangrove Ecosystems and Livelihoods Action Group under the Commonwealth Blue Charter.

Between 30-50% of mangroves have been lost over the past 50 years. New approaches to restoration of mangroves are emerging, benefiting from low-cost technologies, which can help build back the resilience of local communities through empowered engagement and innovative funding.

Recognising the importance of mangrove ecosystems as “a unique, special and vulnerable ecosystem,” the Commonwealth Blue Charter promotes solutions for their management, conservation and sustainable use.

The webinar, organised in partnership with the satellite company Planet, will demonstrate how satellite images can help paint a comprehensive picture of global mangrove coverage, aiding national planning and conservation.

Speakers

  • Hasanthi Dissanayake, Director General – Ocean Affairs, Environment and Climate Change, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sri Lanka
  • Nikia Gooding, Geospatial Research Fellow, Institute of Marine Affairs, Trinidad and Tobago
  • Pathma Abeykoon, Director – Biodiversity Secretariat, Ministry of Environment, Sri Lanka
  • Mark Richardson, Strategic Accounts, EMEA Planet
  • Dr Jeff Ardron (moderator), Adviser – Ocean Governance and Project Lead for the Commonwealth Blue Charter, Commonwealth Secretariat

Mangrove Day virtual event flyer (PDF)

Registration

It is possible to leverage ocean wealth, while protecting ocean health

By Commonwealth Secretary-General, The Rt Hon Patricia Scotland QC

The ocean sustains life on earth, but remains one of the most undervalued, under-researched and recklessly exploited natural wonders of the planet.

Although it generates more than half the oxygen we breathe, regulates our climate, feeds billions of people and supports 350 million jobs across the world, humans have not only taken the ocean for granted, we have actively contributed to its decline.

At present, almost a third of the world’s fish stocks are overfished, while up to 200 million tonnes of plastic waste plague the marine environment. At least half of all coral reefs have been devastated within the past 30 years, while climate change increasingly exerts tremendous pressure on ecosystems, threatening the lives and livelihoods of communities that depend on the sea.

In the Commonwealth, we are all too aware of this stark reality. Forty-seven of our 54 member countries have a coastline, including 25 small island developing states – also known as ‘Large Ocean States’- where, on average, 96% of territory is ocean, and only 4% is land. It is the Commonwealth citizens who live in these ocean-reliant economies that bear the brunt of these challenges most tangibly and urgently.

Step up action

As demonstrated by the many global commitments, the international community recognises that it needs to step up action to tackle these crises, which are even more difficult to cope with in light of the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet support and funding for ocean action are not easy to find. Of the 17 globally-agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the commitment on ocean conservation (SDG14) is one of the least funded. Indeed, research shows less than one percent of global development assistance and philanthropy from 2013 to 2018 was targeted at developing sustainable ocean economies.

For a natural wonder that covers 70 per cent of the planet, with a reported asset value of $24 trillion and generating an estimated $2.5 trillion per year through the global ocean economy, it is only logical that we should invest more resolutely to protect it. To help member countries, the Commonwealth Secretariat recently launched an online database to share information and support access to what limited international funding is available for ocean-related projects. But much more needs to be done.

Unique opportunity

The COVID-19 pandemic offers a unique opportunity to reorient priorities and reset our relationship with the ocean. Emerging from the pandemic, a global ‘blue recovery’ should focus rebuilding equitable, resilient, and sustainable blue economies, protecting ocean health as we leverage ocean wealth.

If we miss this window of opportunity to change our destructive approach to adopt one based on sustainability and equity, we will leave the next generation with little more than environmental destruction and resulting economic and social turmoil.

This year, as we stand at the critical juncture of multiple crises, two major summits will be key moments to bolster global discussions around a ‘blue recovery’. As world leaders gather for the UN Conference on Biodiversity (CBD-COP15) in October in Kunming, China, and the UN Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC-COP26) in November in Glasgow, UK, we must all be reminded that there is no climate nor biodiversity without the ocean. Decisions at these summits must take into account the vital role of the ocean in achieving global sustainable development, bolster commitments to ocean health, and support programmes with adequate resources to make real impact.

Beacon for multilateralism

To support this, the Commonwealth Blue Charter offers a globally unique vehicle for international cooperation to drive sustainable post-COVID ocean action through the collaboration of governments, businesses, civil society, academia and the philanthropy sector. Bringing together 54 Commonwealth countries, it is driven by the 16 champions of its ten ‘Action Groups’, committed to finding solutions to the most urgent ocean challenges locally, regionally and across the Commonwealth.

Importantly, with the Commonwealth continuing to shine brightly as a beacon for multilateralism, our member nations have come together to light the way and declare that no single country or entity can solve these issues alone. The only way to overcome the colossal challenges that face us all is to work together.