Putting Climate Change (and COP26) in Context

Our friends at IISD – those indefatigable PhDs who sleep little and write lots at MEA meetings around the world – have produced a report that captures their take on where global environment governance is at the start of 2020. Just as the ENBs produced by these deeply informed chroniclers diplomatically yet accurately recount the daily essence of a given COP, The State of Global Environmental Governance 2019 provides a balanced view of the highs and lows of last year’s developments across the full panoply of multilateral environmental governance.

A common starting point for both: “In 2019 scientists were truth-tellers.” The report notes how many scientific reports were produced in 2019, providing data on which policymakers could act. The handful highlighted by IISD:

“Scientific bodies successfully produced a series of reports, each drawing stark conclusions for the fate of the planet. For many, this led to the question of whether the multilateral system is able to mount an effective response.”

With that jumping off point, the glass half full moments include:

On the half empty side, the report starts with another general premise:

“2019 unfolded amid rising nationalism and weakening multilateralism,” citing Japan’s departure from the International Whaling Commission, US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, and the UNEA’s inability to agree just to discuss the need for global governance of emerging technologies for CO2 removal and solar geoengineering.

With that starting point, the empty glass is unsurprisingly brimming with global environmental governance “misses” for 2019, including:

“Observers across processes increasingly note a lack of good faith in negotiations. A few countries seem increasingly willing to block progress, leading some to worry that progress might only be achievable in the context of ‘coalitions of the willing’ or ‘club diplomacy’ rather than in more inclusive forums such as UNEA and MEAs.”

One hopeful sign in the evolution of governance of global environmental problems is increasing understanding of the linkages between specific treaties.

“While 2019 showed just how difficult it can be to manage issues across agreements, many view focusing on interlinkages across issue areas as a way to raise the ambition of the system as a whole.”

This report highlights six linkages with potential to make global environmental governance more effective:

  • the Global Pact for the Environment, introduced by the French government just after adoption of the Paris Agreement, is intended to address gaps in existing global environmental governance by establishing formal linkages between MEAs through a legally binding third international covenant that codifies the principles expressed in the Rio Declaration. The report applauds focused discussion on “the need to promote policy coherence across environmental instruments, enhance collaboration and cooperation among governing bodies and secretariats of MEAs, and strengthen system-wide inter-agency cooperation on the environment.” It also points out that a legally binding outcome is no longer on the negotiation table.
  • the linkages between the ocean and climate change noted in the first “Blue Paper” produced by the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, including oceanic renewable energy, emissions from shipping, climate change impacts on coastal and marine ecosystems and fisheries, and carbon sequestration in the seabed. While Chile took this up when framing COP25 as a “Blue COP,” the outcome was tepid (a 2020 dialogue in the COP decision, not the start of a focused work programme that was sought).
  • the BBNJ is intended to comprehensively protect marine life by tending to the gaps and overlaps in governance contained in the Convention on the Law of the Sea and the International Seabed Authority, the Convention on Biological Diversity, regional fisheries management organizations, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the International Maritime Organization. But negotiations thus far have shown a lack of consensus on whether the BBNJ should be a higher level governance tool or one that complements the current array.
  • while the climate and biodiversity conventions both emerged from Rio in 1992, they have done their work on distinct tracks since then. The IPCC’s SRCCL underscored the need for more coherent policy making between the two. The IPBES agreed and formally requested in 2019 joint research projects with the IPCC, but the IPCC, citing workload, demurred.
  • discussion about linking trade and the environment has increased post-Paris Agreement, as have those about climate change and human rights.
  • the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), at five years old, are seen as “bringing environmental aspirations together with the social and economic aspects of development” and, in 2019, “a rallying point for emerging global issues.” While all but SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth) are not on track to make their 2030 targets, the SDGs overall are seen as a “useful framework to reveal the linkages among environmental, social, and economic sustainability. Such awareness reveals the need to address MEA targets in a way that also consider economic and social realities.”

“It’s perhaps predictable that science would identify the interconnections of the natural world while political responses would struggle to keep pace. As the past year showed, drawing the (scientific) connections was not entirely sufficient for political progress. However, recognition of these connections, as well as progress to address them, constitutes at least small steps toward improving the system as a whole.”

2020 is expected to be a big year for global environmental governance. Not only will the SDGs mark their fifth anniversary having fully reviewed actions taken on all 17, but the UN will kick off the Decade of Action for SDG implementation. The Paris Agreement on climate change officially begins operation, with revised NDCs showing increased ambition due in. And the post 2020 biodiversity framework under the CBD should be completed. This IISD report helps us step back from our individual MEA silos to see the big and sobering landscape of 2019 hits and misses, to see what can be achieved in this year and the decade to come.

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