Amandine Orsini, Professor of international relations at CReSPo – Université Saint-Louis – Bruxelles, Visiting Professor at Sciences Po Grenoble (2021)
2020 was meant to be a threefold turning point for global environmental governance. States were supposed to take stock of their efforts to tackle climate change within the framework of the 2015 Paris Agreement. They were also expected to adopt a new global biodiversity strategy for 2030, to solve the current mass extinction wave. Tthey were ready to adopt a new international treaty on ocean’s governance under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to deal with oceans’ marine biodiversity conservation.
This agenda was obviously planned without considering the 2020 COVID 19 pandemic outbreak that disrupted the whole world. Does it mean the pandemic put an end to the 2020 ambitious global environmental agenda? On the one hand, several signs confirm that it disrupted global environmental governance by postponing key international environmental meetings, and, with diplomacy becoming digital, by slowing down diplomatic processes or leaving several less digitally-equipped actors left behind.
On the other hand, by postponing international meetings, the pandemic is giving more time to negotiators to reach stronger consensus. It actually also increased the relevance of environmental issues, by recalling our vulnerability to transnational issues. What do, in the end, these changes mean for global environmental governance? The following gets back to each of the key global environmental diplomatic event that was initially planned for 2020 to see how they now will be tackled in 2021.
2021 for renewed climate ambitions
The twenty-sixth edition of the Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was meant to be organized in November 2020, in Glasgow. COP26 was programmed as a landmark event, entitled with evaluating the effectiveness of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. Adopted in 2015, the Agreement relies on a bottom-up approach for environmental efforts by inviting states to nationally determine the targets they plan to reach to tackle climate change. The Agreement also stipulates that, after five years, Parties to the Agreement have to take stock and increase their level of ambition for the next 5-year period. The idea is therefore to create a 5-year policy cycle spiral of positive feedback and increased ambition. Because the agreement was adopted in 2015, 2020 was meant to be the first evaluation of the first of such policy-cycles.
While, because of the pandemic, COP26 has been rescheduled for November 2021, the sanitary crisis has positively recalled the danger of exponential change dynamics, visible for the pandemic, but also confirmed for climate change. When the climate looks fine at time t, the situation can become highly problematic at time t+1. As such, the pandemic re-boosts the urgency to embrace the climate crisis. Already at the end of 2020, the United Nations organized an online summit on climate change to keep pace on the issue, and it is now calling for pre-negotiations to take place online. While different in nature, studies show that online diplomacy can be a very efficient way to prepare for more efficient face-to-face interactions.
2021 for stronger targets to take care of worldwide biodiversity
On top of climate change, the extinction rate of biodiversity is highly problematic with the 2019 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Global Assessment Report describing a sixth mass extinction wave characterized by the fact that ‘the average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%’. The fifteenth Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (the twin sister of the UNFCCC) was meant to take place in October 2020 in China to assess the efforts made by states on this issue. Again, the idea was to first take stock of the 2011-2020 biodiversity strategy plan and the corresponding 20 Aichi targets adopted in 2010, to slow down the biodiversity loss pace by 2020. On this basis, states were also expected to adopt a new biodiversity strategy by 2030, known as the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.
COP 15 is currently postponed to May 2021. But again, the sanitary crisis also re-dynamized global biodiversity governance. Indeed, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) experts indicate that 60% of current infectious diseases and 75% of emerging infectious diseases, including COVID-19, are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted to humans through animals. To avoid such a transmission of viruses, and warrantee a balance within and across pathogen agents, UNEP shows how important it is to maintain the integrity of ecosystems. This can be done by preserving spaces for biodiversity, that will not only advance the environmental agenda but also improve global health perspectives.
2021 for a new international treaty on oceans
2020 was also the initial deadline for states to adopt a new international treaty on oceans, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Four rounds of negotiations were planned to lead to the adoption of the new agreement, with the third having taken place in August 2019 and the fourth to be reconvened as soon as possible. The new treaty, negotiated by the ‘Intergovernmental Conference on an international legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction’ is meant to establish news norms, principles and rules on precise questions, such as the conversation of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions through the establishment of marine protected areas. But it is also a major occasion for states to position themselves on more general issues such as the principle of freedom of the high seas, or the importance of the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities.
Intersessional online work on this new treaty has already started, with issues of access to marine genetic resources gaining importance due to their potential for biomedical applications, useful to develop new medicines, a research line emphasized since the pandemic.
2022 for a synthesizing Earth Summit: Stockholm +50
While climate change, biodiversity and oceans are apparently separate issues, negotiated in different international arenas, they actually interact. The future oceans’ treaty is positive for biodiversity governance, especially marine biodiversity. It is expected to impact positively climate change with oceans having a mitigating effect for the atmosphere. The same is true for terrestrial biodiversity.
After the organization of these sectorial negotiations in 2021, 2022 is expected to host the fifth global environmental summit. In global environmental governance, summit diplomacy is playing a key role, setting the global agenda on the environment for the following decades. Sweden has already proposed to host the 2022 Earth summit, recalling its key environmental role of the first Earth Summit host in 1972. 2022 is therefore foreseen as a year to consolidate existing agreements and plan new ones, to jointly address the environmental, but also the social, economic and sanitary crises. It might be that the pandemic has helped states to back off to better blow up in 2021 and 2022.
Additional resources to know more about global environmental issues: