The Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission takes us over the Tarawa Atoll in the Republic of Kiribati – a remote Pacific nation threatened by rising seas. © contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2020), processed by ESA/ CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO
Against the backdrop of COP27, UNEP chief scientist, Dr Andrea Hinwood, discusses the importance of her role in acting as an intermediary between the science and the policymakers, in a bid to avoid the catastrophic changes to our planet if climate change and biodiversity loss are not addressed
Dr Andrea Hinwood – chief scientist of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
Andrea Hinwood (B.Sc., M.AppSc., PhD) is an environmental scientist with expertise in environmental exposures and impacts on human health. Prior to working at UNEP, Andrea served as the first chief environmental scientist at the Environment Protection Authority in Victoria, Australia. Her career has included the provision of strategic advice to the government on a wide variety of environmental matters, including ozone depleting substances, air quality, fire and smoke management, biodiversity impacts and emerging contaminants.
The kind of biodiversity and habitat loss we are seeing in the Amazon rainforest is a keen barometer of how well we, the human race, are looking after our planet. Inextricably linked to climate change and global warming, destroying the natural habitats that have existed for millions of years is taking us ever nearer to the point where some scientists argue Earth will not be able to recover.
Synonymous with this debate for decades is the Amazon rainforest, which has lost around 20% of its area since pre-1970 levels and which saw, in 2021, the largest annual loss in 13 years. Some modelling studies suggest the ‘Lungs of the Earth’ are reaching a tipping point if more isn’t done to stop and ultimately reverse the losses.
A recent study published in Nature Climate Change provided direct empirical evidence that ‘more than three-quarters of the Amazon rainforest has been losing resilience since the early 2000s, risking dieback with implications for biodiversity, carbon storage and climate change’.
It is clearly an area of great global concern. But then how do you make sure a country does not make the best use of its natural resources if it’s not in the global interest? How do you, when you are from a ‘developed nation’ tell ‘developing nations’ not to go down a certain path? How do you explain the realities the science is depicting, when so much of it is presented in a way only other scientists can understand?
With so many difficult questions to answer, Aether spoke to Dr Andrea Hinwood, chief scientist of the United Nations Environment Programme about her role, the challenges the Earth faces and how we move forward together to try to reduce the impact of climate change at this most critical point.
Aether: Can you tell me a little about your role at UNEP?
AH: Essentially my role is to ensure that the evidence-base that we use to support decision making is sound and robust. What that means in practice is that we work across many different scientific fields, discipline areas, knowledge systems and stakeholders. Last year we published on 35 topic areas across 37 disciplines. As a scientist I have my own specialty, environmental exposures and health with the focus on managing exposures; nevertheless, I have to cover everything from biodiversity loss to climate change, which means reliance on our many partners, scientific institutions and collaborating centres to provide the evidence base.
Another part of my role is to communicate the science, because the backbone of UNEP’s work is the science-policy interface. We are not individual researchers from academic institutions who fund specific research projects. Rather we curate, distil and translate that research and try to communicate it effectively to policymakers, so that we achieve an improvement in a given environmental outcome. In effect, we become knowledge brokers or intermediates between the evidence-base and the people who need to hear it and take action. Science needs to be accessible and inclusive so that people know what to do with the knowledge and what actions will be suitable.
That is a big remit, so what I try to do is put in processes and systems and operate strategically, whilst still working in my own area of environmental exposures management and pollution prevention.
Melting of the Margerie glacier in Alaska. © Kimberly Vardeman/ Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Aether: You mention biodiversity loss – the deforestation of the Amazon is still accelerating, so how are you making sure there is a reduction in human impact on biodiversity
AH: UNEP works across UN member states. It has 193 member states in the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA). So, we work directly with governments on negotiated outcomes, for example, the Convention on Biological Diversity. We have the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, which is about the percentage of protected areas amongst other targets aimed at protecting biological diversity. Countries sign up to those conventions and they agree to resolutions to address environmental problems and the application of the convention to their national legislation, planning and practice.
In June, the post-2020 Framework on Biological Diversity was discussed in Nairobi, Kenya. The Aichi Biodiversity Targets for protected areas was at about 17%, but what we are now advocating for ‘30 by 30’. That means protecting 30% of marine and terrestrial environments by 2030 so that we are halting degradation and the conversion of land.
As well as climate change, there are some additional major challenges coming for biodiversity down the line. For instance, as we transition out of fossil fuels and we start to bring to market more electric vehicles, there will be an increase in digital products as well as the need for battery storage for energy systems. The technologies rely on metals and rare elements and much of those are found in areas that are biodiversity rich.
Why do we need to electrify and digitise? We need to rapidly slow the rate and drastically limit the amount of global temperature increase to as low as we can, to avoid a dramatic and dangerous transformation of our planet. We already expect an increase of 2.8°C, or 2.4°C to 2.5°C with the current commitments made last year, but we are on track for higher than that.
We want to avoid a 3°C or 4°C increase. If we reach that, we will have catastrophic changes that will affect biodiversity everywhere, and it will affect us all as well. That is the message we are trying to get out there: speed up our action to deal with global warming. The actions will require a rapid increase in technologies as noted, so we need to be mindful of the impacts on biodiversity and develop circular approaches to the use of raw materials and products.
In terms of protecting biodiversity, as a premise, what UNEP advocates for is firstly you actually maintain the biodiversity you have got, and we are unashamedly saying that clearing must stop.
Secondly, you then have to restore degraded areas. It is not acceptable anymore not to restore degraded landscapes, whether they be agricultural or whether they be industrial land. We have a major campaign called the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, where we have a huge focus on trying to restore degraded lands.
Finally, there is the mitigation and adaptation for climate change. If a country is being really smart it is putting a lot of effort into restoring landscapes and including regenerative agriculture, and by doing this some of the effects of climate change will be mitigated by ensuring you are maintaining biodiversity and Nature but at the same time, enhancing the ability to sequester carbon dioxide.
There are some great initiatives: in Pakistan, for example, they are planting ten billion trees by 2023 because the recognition is that you actually need to start restoring those degraded landscapes to help to mitigate and adapt to climate change, including the increased variability of monsoons, receding Himalayan glaciers and extreme weather. By restoring ailing ecosystems and investing in natural capital, governments like Pakistan are also supporting livelihoods and social wellbeing.
A collapsed block of ice-rich permafrost along Drew Point, Alaska. With the loss of sea ice to protect the beaches from ocean waves, salt water inundates the coastal habitats. © Public Domain
Aether: But there is a specific issue with the deforestation of the Amazon. What steps are being taken there?
AH: There are some big challenges that governments around the world face in maintaining what they have, and UNEP’s role is to facilitate and to provide the science, particularly where capacity is tightly constrained, so that countries can make informed decisions and take action.
As discussed earlier, we need to move out of fossil fuels, above all in high-income countries – the G20 in particularly, because they are the biggest emitters per capita, need to move quickly. They are the ones who have caused most of the issues, by generating nearly 80% of GHG emissions, and its where urgent action is needed. But absolutely, the Amazon is certainly a critical asset vital for the planet’s life support system, that we need to protect. Without it, our chances of stabilising temperature rise and avoiding the most catastrophic of impacts are vastly diminished.
Aether: Is it as simple as talking about developed or developing countries?
AH: No, and actually the terminology has shifted. The language is more ‘global North’ and ‘global South’. What you will hear more typically is that much of the development that has occurred is in the global North and that’s right – most of the issues have arisen due to unsustainable production and consumption.
Let us encourage innovative technologies to get the appropriate energy into the various parts of any country and to then market it globally.
As an Australian, even though it’s geographically in the south, it may be considered an ultra-high-income country. It is true that such countries have historically contributed most to environmental challenges like climate change, so other countries should not simply be told what they ought to be doing.
There are some real challenges coming around that issue. We need to be sensitive of how the debate is undertaken in lower-income countries, to ensure it is inclusive and grounded in science. That is what makes my role both difficult, important, and fascinating.
Dr Andrea Hinwood
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)