Between two COPs

It is well established that, worldwide, there is an unfolding, escalating, multi-factor environmental crisis. It is seen in the loss of biodiversity and of biomass, massive changes in the use of land, air pollution, chemical pollution, plastics pollution and climate change. It has effects on health, food security, livelihoods, social and political stability, conflicts and the ability to handle them.

There is no real empirical argument left about any of this. It is getting something done to arrest the slide that is hard.

Two main international agreements attempt to address the environmental crisis: the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. There was a Conference of Parties (COP) – a kind of health check – for the climate convention at the start of November, and there will be one on the Biodiversity Convention in December.

So right now we are between two COPs.

Conventions, COPs and other agreements

There are plenty of other international agreements on environmental deterioration; as a handy guide, the EU lists 29 more to which it has signed up. And this year, representatives of over 190 governments meeting in the UN Environmental Assembly agreed to draft a new legally binding treaty on plastic pollution, to be ready by the end of 2024.

But the UNFCCC, under which the Paris Agreement of 2015 was reached, and the Biodiversity Convention are the two key agreements so far. Each convention is reviewed by a Conference of Parties (COP) – annually for the UNFCCC, every two years for the Biodiversity Convention. For the UNFCCC, COP number 27 ran from 6 to 18 November in Sharm el-Shaikh, while for the Biodiversity Convention, COP number 15 starts on 7 December in Montreal and finishes on the 19th.

So how was it in Sharm el-Shaikh and how will it be in Montreal – good COP or bad COP?

Good / bad

You could say that COP 27 was the story as before – distinctly mixed.

Most climate COPs seem to be a case of a glass that is simultaneously half full and half empty (though I recall writing about the Copenhagen COP in 2009 that it was an unfathomably profound failure).

Bill McGuire wrote after Sharm el-Shaikh that the big takeaway from COP 27 was that “these climate conferences just aren’t working.” Others are far more positive.

A generally shared view is that the conference’s agreement to set up a fund to meet the costs of what is known as loss and damage is a significant yet vague step – significant because it’s the first time it has been agreed, thus justifying terms like “breakthrough“, and vague because:

  • It is not universally agreed what constitutes loss and damage from the impact of climate change (natural disasters for which compensation should be paid after the event, the costs of readiness, the effect of slow attrition of water security, the impact on old infrastructure, the costs of building new infrastructure, all of the above, something else?);
  • It is not agreed how to pay into a loss and damage fund so as to get it going;
  • It is not agreed how to pay out to cover the costs of loss and damage;
  • The agreement does not actually establish a fund, though the governments at COP 27 agreed to do that; what it does is set up “a transitional committee on the operationalization of the new funding arrangements for responding to loss and damage” (paragraph 4 of the agreement), which is to report with recommendations to COP 28 in November/December 2023.

So: watch the Transitional Committee to get the unfolding answers to the questions of what, who, how and how much – and to monitor the arguments about each question.

But whatever the reservations about the agreement’s lack of specificity, it is new and it does change the terms of discussion on the costs of climate change for poorer countries. They have historically done least to create the problem yet face the heaviest burden from its consequences. It is past time to do something to right that wrong. In short, though there are crucial details to sort out, the loss and damage agreement is nonetheless significant.

For the rest, however, COP 27 was underwhelming. It is something – something important – that the issue gets massively increased press coverage worthwhile. It is important that over 100 heads of government and state participate and express their commitment to constructive action to slow down climate change and soften its impact. But it hardly needs adding that fine words do not always lead to fine deeds. Once again, as at every previous COP, there was no formal agreement to reduce the use of fossil fuels, which is the thing that needs to happen to slow global warming.

The conference itself included numerous surrounding events in addition to the high level speeches and inter-governmental negotiations. It adds up to an enormous circus with at least 35,000 people present from governments, inter-governmental organisations, some research centres, the media and many campaigning non-governmental organisations. If you’re in the climate change game, you have to be there. That also includes the fossil fuel industry: there were 636 lobbyists from fossil fuel industries present and accredited to the conference, according to a quick analysis of the list of participants.

Montreal next – and a new framework

That was Sharm el-Shaik and the climate COP then; what of Montreal and the bio COP?

The task in Montreal is to agree a new framework for preventing the further loss of biodiversity. The Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework will establish goals to meet by 2030. It will be rather like the Paris Agreement on Climate Change in 2015, expressing the commitments governments now undertake in order to fulfil the broad goals they established in 1992 at the Rio Convention, also known as the Earth Summit, when both these conventions were agreed.

The first draft of the new Biodiversity Framework has been published.

Assuming it is agreed, it will replace the Aichi framework agreed in 2010 at COP10 in Nagoya, Japan, which set out targets that the governments who signed up to it were committed to achieve by 2020.

Not a single one of those targets, not one, zero, has been achieved.

Crisis and decision time – or suicide

This inescapable fact will produce a lot of language and fine speeches emphasising decision time, crisis, critical moment, probably a precipice or too, and maybe a yawning chasm between what has been achieved and what we know actually needs to be achieved.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres is particularly eloquent on this score and strikes chords that go much deeper than the platitudes of so many political leaders. In October 2021 at a biodiversity summit conference in Kunming, China, he began his speech  by saying, ‘We are losing our suicidal war against nature.’

The choice is pretty clear. Some snippets in case they are necessary or helpful:

  1. The sixth mass extinction in the planet’s history is well under way.
  2. The 2019 global assessment report on biodiversity and its contribution to our well-being showed that an average of around 25% of species in assessed animal and plant groups are threatened; the rate of extinction is between tens and hundreds of times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years.
  3. The crisis of biodiversity (how many species there are) is also a crisis of biomass (how many creatures there are): an estimated 83 per cent of wild mammal biomass has been lost since the dawn of human civilisation.
  4. More recently, the abundance of wild vertebrates (fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds) fell by 60% between 1970 and 2014.
  5. Detailed local observations over almost three decades reveal local declines in the biomass of flying insects of over 75 per cent.
  6. Decline in biomass of insects and spiders in rain forests from the mid-1970s to the early 2010s has been estimated at between 75 and 88 per cent depending on the time of year.  
  7. This is what some call the insect apocalypse.
  8. About 75 per cent of crop types grown by humans require pollination by insects.

What is happening is that the foundations on which our lives are based are being undermined. The most obvious link between the environmental issues and the security and peace issues with which I tend to concern myself is in the loss of food security as the number of pollinators continues to crash – and not just pollinators but other seed disseminators including birds and wild animals.

But the decline of biodiversity has other impacts too. Start with medicine. An estimated 4 billion people rely primarily on natural medicines for healthcare, while about 70 per cent of the drugs used to treat cancer are either natural products or, if synthetic, were first identified because of the effects of natural products and inspired by them. The loss of biodiversity and biomass is a clear, direct health hazard. We don’t yet know what the social and political consequences might be, resulting from that health hazard.

These issues take concerns and questions about security well beyond their traditional scope of wars, military defence, alliance and diplomacy. None of these things has become unimportant in thinking about security and peace – but other things have moved in alongside them.

Conclusion: we need Montreal to go far beyond the COP norm.

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