Last week, we found out that the world is failing on its biodiversity targets. This week, ahead of the UN Summit on Biodiversity, political leaders representing 72 countries (and counting) have signed a Pledge for Nature. In doing so, they’ve “committed to reversing biodiversity loss by 2030”. But does this pledge really mean anything? Will the major UN summit change anything?
A “Pledge for Nature”?
The pledge is meant to send “a united signal to step up global ambition and encourage others to match [the world leaders’] collective ambition for nature, climate and people with the scale of the crisis at hand.”
It goes on to emphasise that “[w]e are in a state of planetary emergency”. “Science clearly shows that biodiversity loss, land and ocean degradation, pollution, resource depletion and climate change are accelerating at an unprecedented rate. This acceleration is causing irreversible harm to our life support systems and aggravating poverty and inequalities as well as hunger and malnutrition. Unless halted and reversed with immediate effect, it will cause significant damage to global economic, social and political resilience and stability and will render achieving the Sustainable Development Goals impossible.”
Well, they’re not wrong. Nor are they understating the severity of the climate crisis. So what are they planning to do?
The game plan (kind of)
There are ten broad goals. First: ensure a green and just post-COVID recovery. Second: commit the development and full implementation of “an ambitious and transformational post-2020 global biodiversity framework” for adoption at the 15th Conference of Parties of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Key here is a commitment to “address the direct and indirect Drivers of biodiversity loss”, “full and effective participation of indigenous peoples and local communities”, “a strong monitoring and review mechanism” and the strengthening of international and multilateral cooperation.
Third: end “traditional silo thinking” and address the “interrelated and interdependent challenges” outlined above. Fourth: transition to sustainable production and consumption and meeting people’s needs while remaining within planetary limits. Specifically, we’re looking at sustainable growth: circular economies and sustainable supply chains. Shifting land use and agricultural policies and promoting sustainable land and forest management. And eliminating unsustainable uses of the oceans and tackling invasive species and reducing pollutions.
Fifth: raise national climate ambitions and align them to the Paris Agreement. Sixth: end environmental crimes. Seventh: mainstream biodiversity into relevant policies at all levels and across all sectors. Eighth: integrate a “One-Health” approach into all relevant policies. Ninth: reform economic and financial sectors. Here, we’re looking at incentives aimed at the financial system, mobilisation of resources, eliminating or repurposing subsidies, and improving efficiency, transparency and accountability.
Finally: design and implement policies with a science-based approach. While recognising the “crucial role of traditional and indigenous knowledge as well as science and research”. And—wait for it—engaging the whole of society.
What do we think?
Certainly, we can’t write these off as unnecessary or overzealous. In fact, if they deliver, they’ll be making significant—and much-needed—progress on the climate crisis. These are the changes that we want to see. A just recovery? Large-scale, sectoral shifts? Greater national climate ambitions? Tackling (the mammoth of a challenge that is) the economy? Integrating science and Indigenous communities? All these are the kinds of changes you’ll find written into the Green New Deal, Project Drawdown, activist manifestos everywhere.
But let’s look at the signatories to the Pledge for Nature. 72 countries (and counting) are committed, but some important countries are not. Notably, the USA, Brazil, China, Russia, India and Australia have not signed. They, of course, are among the top contributors to the climate crisis. Without them, the pledge cannot be considered a truly global agreement.
And it’s not just who didn’t sign it that’s a cause for concern. It’s also about who did sign it. It’s kind of disingenuous, for example, for countries like the UK to sign it, given Boris’ history of, well, not great climate policies. (No wonder activists are reeling from his proposed speech, in which he’ll acknowledge that extinction is on the horizon. It just doesn’t add up, mate.) And you know which other country signed it? Canada. Yes, Canada, led by a government who violates Indigenous peoples’ human rights (even though they do more to protect the environment than most of us ever will) and gets lobbied by the oil and gas industry. (Not a good look.)
Who can afford to make paper promises about the climate crisis?
Ever heard of the Marshall Islands? It’s an island country near the equator in the Pacific Ocean. It has the largest portion of its territory made of water of any sovereign state, at 97.87%. Unsurprisingly, places like the Marshall Islands are incredibly vulnerable to the worst of the climate crisis. (No thanks to sea-level rise.) In fact, for them, climate change is probably the greatest threat to their peoples’ livelihoods, security, and wellbeing.
But, as the Marshall Islands’ President David Kabua emphasised at his recent UN speech: “small island and atoll nations like mine do not have time for paper promises.” For them, along with many countries in the Asia-Pacific region (and other vulnerable regions), the ecological threats are already a deadly, daily reality: in the form of water stress, food insecurity, droughts, floods, cyclones, rising temperatures and sea levels, etc. The climate crisis is a compounding factor and an intersecting crisis, on top of worsening societal resilience. Add COVID-19 to the mix, and it’s no wonder many vulnerable countries don’t have the time to sit around and make fancy paper promises.
Still, these countries remain committed to international climate negotiations. Meanwhile, what are the rich countries doing?
A word about the rich countries…
As Jocelyn Timperley writes “[t]he world’s richest countries have released the vast majority of emissions, and many continue to emit many times more than poorer ones. The US has emitted far more CO2 than any other country: a quarter of all emissions since 1751 have occurred there. Despite China’s huge rise in emissions over the past decade, emissions per person still sit at less than half those of the US, while the one billion people living in Sub-Saharan Africa each emit one-twentieth of the average person in the US.”
International negotiations continue without sufficiently addressing this stark inequality. It’s the same even for initiatives like the Pledge for Nature. Timperley adds: “[t]he question of whether richer, historically more polluting countries should take more responsibility for climate change than others has long been a sore point at international climate negotiations.”
As Timperley explains, this divvying up of the emissions cuts needed is indeed difficult, which is why “a different approach was developed: countries would sign up to a set of common, overarching climate goals, but self-assign their own emission reductions targets, based on whatever they felt able to promise. This was the approach taken in the 2015 Paris Agreement […] [which] recognises that reaching peak emissions will take longer for developing than developed countries, and sets up a system for ramping up country pledges over time.”
This knotty issue, and its problematic “solution”, if you can call it that, is just one of the many issues plaguing international climate negotiations. Which gets at the bigger question…
Can we bet on the UN?
The Pledge for Nature, after all, was made in lieu of the major UN summit. We don’t know whether or not both of these will deliver results. The prognosis is gloomy. Some big countries aren’t committing, while those that do are also turning their backs on nature and climate in other ways, as mentioned above. Not to mention, these conversations are happening while the climate crisis remains a reality for many vulnerable countries, that have contributed the least to the crisis to begin with.
Maybe we can’t bet on international climate negotiations, like the ones that happen at the UN. After all, as Mark Hudson argues, we’ve seen 30 years of failure. “We’re constantly encouraged to think of the next big climate summit, conference or protest as the most important one, the one that is about to make the all-important breakthrough.” And year after year, it disappoints.
But it’s all we’ve got. As Hudson himself concludes: “[w]hether the world can a transition to sustainability […] remains to be seen. But the stakes could not be higher. If political, economic, technological and cultural solutions aren’t now found, the outlook for humanity – and the other species we share this planet with – is exceptionally bleak.”
We must do better—and I hope we do.
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