There are several environmental issues plaguing our world right now, with the biggest and most notorious being climate change. According to the 6th assessment report by the IPCC, the global mean temperature has increased to 1.09°C when comparing the decade 2011 – 2020 with the baseline period of 1850 – 1900. This warming generates severe impacts across the world, such as extreme weather events like droughts, storms, and wildfires, that are occurring with higher frequency and intensity. Climate change negatively affects ecosystems and ecosystem services, water and food security, settlements and infrastructure, health and well-being, and economies and cultures, with interrelations between these issues that add another layer of complexity to this crisis.
Another crisis is biodiversity loss, with some experts calling this period the 6th mass extinction in Earth’s history, and the first caused by human activity, with the species extinction rate continuously accelerating. In 2019, a report by the UN found that around 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, which could come as soon as in a few decades, an unprecedented number in our planet’s history. The main human-related causes of biodiversity loss are land-use change (such as converting land to agriculture or forestry), air and water pollution, over-exploitation of natural resources, the introduction of alien species, and climate change.
Although they may seem like separate issues at first, climate change and biodiversity are inextricably linked. Changes in climate have been shown to affect the phenology (timing of biological events, such as when trees lose their leaves or cicadas come out from the ground), geography (species moving to higher altitudes and latitudes), and behaviour of species. To combat climate change is to help reduce biodiversity loss, but what’s more, protecting nature can also mitigate climate change, with healthy ecosystems such as peatlands or forests being effective carbon sinks (they absorb carbon from the atmosphere).
Both these crises have impacts on local and global scales, making the need for international cooperation a must. In 2015, countries around the world reached a landmark achievement in the form of the Paris agreement, a legally binding international treaty that sets goals to guide nations tackle climate change, such as the reduction of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to limit the global temperature increase to 2°C, while pursuing to limit it to 1.5°C.
In the final weeks of 2022 two events of global importance occurred: COP27, the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that took place in Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt from 6 to 20 November, and COP15, the 15th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity from the UNDP that was hosted by Canada and China in Montreal, Canada from 7 to 19 December.
In COP27, another historical agreement was reached, through the setting of a loss and damage fund to help less developed countries adapt to climate-related hazards resulting mainly from the GHG emissions of developed nations. However, there’s concern about the lack of precise wording on the reduction and elimination of fossil fuel use, and the inclusion of low-impact energy sources, like gas, which also emits GHG. Operationalisation of the fund is to be defined in 2023.
On the other hand, at COP15 another significant milestone was achieved with the adoption of a global biodiversity framework, that set 23 targets to reduce biodiversity loss and increase food security. Among them, a goal was determined to protect and conserve 30% of global territories (land, freshwater, and oceans) by 2030. This result is especially promising, considering the context of this conference. It was originally supposed to take place in China in 2020 but was postponed and relocated due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the promising outcome of COP15, there were some points of conflict between developed and developing nations, such as funding. Although some countries agreed, it wasn’t considered enough by some countries, and furthermore, the commitment is not legally binding. Another issue for some nations is that the target to stop the human-induced extinction of species that was originally proposed for 2030 was set for 2050 instead.
With all these agreements in place, it seems like the world is heading in the right direction, however incomplete they may seem to some, there’s still much to be done. Countries need to be made accountable for their commitments and learn from past experiences how to ensure the words on the paper are translated into action.
In the past, international cooperation has been shown to be effective if the proper incentives and deterrents are put in place to ensure the proper implementation of global agreements, such as the Montreal Protocol, which banned the use of CFC-based products that caused the hole in the ozone layer. Today, the hole has diminished, and the ozone layer is expected to be fully recovered by the mid-2050s. This was achieved through a mix of skilled negotiations, economic incentives, a multilateral fund, the sharing of technology and scientific knowledge, and trade bans for those that didn’t comply, effectively affecting their economic gains.
Regrettably, the global agreements that result in failure are much more numerous than the success stories. But this doesn’t have to be the way forward. With more and more of humanity being affected by the impacts of climate change and evidence of the real extent of the biodiversity crisis being found, the environmental and social concerns of nations are being highlighted together with economic development. But it’s important to remember that not all countries are the same, and the less developed ones need support in order to achieve the goals that these agreements set. We are all in this together and if we want to protect our planet, we need to strive for international cooperation.