April 19, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Making sense of policy and international environmental treaties with Clemence Blanchard

(by Clemence Blanchard on February 1st, 2023)

You’ll probably have heard of COP27. You might not fully understand what it is and why it’s important, but I’m sure you’ll have seen the words plastered throughout the news late last year. But if I ask you if you’ve heard of COP15, or COP19, now I’d wager that you won’t have a complete grasp on what those are — and I think that’s a shame. So, in this explainer, we’ll take a moment to delve into the world of policy and international environmental treaties. 

What is a COP? 

What few people understand is that COP simply stands for ‘Conference of the Parties’. In other words, a meeting. COPs are meetings of Parties, or signatory countries to an international treaty. If we set the clock back to 1992 in Rio, Brazil, we could witness an important meeting called the Rio Earth Summit. There, three landmark agreements were signed: the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). Each with its own aim to protect biodiversity, reduce human-induced climate change and halt desertification respectively, these international treaties set the scene to globally influence national policies on environmental issues. 

Why are they important? 

Now, you might not think that this is particularly important. But considering that we’re hearing of ecological collapse as a result of biodiversity loss and can see the effects of climate change-induced extreme events before our eyes, international environmental agreements are vital. In order for change to occur, we rely on the bigger players in the world – heads of state, or their representatives – to agree to stop these issues from occurring. It’s very much a game of politics, but when countries get together at COPs to try and take action against the extinction and climate change crises, collaboration can bloom and launch ambitious international goals from which national action is determined. Without bigger, global coordination, these issues cannot begin to be solved. Countries cannot act in siloes. 

What happens at COPs? 

So international treaties coordinate action on environmental topics, ramping up political will. But what actually happens at a COP? Just eight years ago in 2015 the landmark Paris Agreement was signed. This agreement set an important goal to keep global warming below 2C, ideally 1.5C, to stop climate change impacts from worsening. Since the Paris Agreement, leaders around the world have realised that it is incredibly important for this goal to be matched with global action – and importantly, that the goal itself remains alive.  

At COP27 in November of 2022, the goal was to further advance action to tackle climate change (such as mitigation, adaptation and financing), improving what had been previously agreed upon and ensuring these strategies are successfully implemented. Since climate issues have gained traction in recent years, the profile of climate COPs have been raised. As such we’ve seen governments and businesses pledge to reduce emissions, reach net zero and invest in more sustainable practices in their strategies.  

But while this has undeniably been a step in the right direction, it has also been difficult not to feel disappointed. At the latest climate COP, a few decisions were made, including the establishment of a fund for ‘loss and damage’ – which will hopefully provide reparations to the nations suffering the worst from climate change despite historically releasing the least emissions. The fund was globally celebrated but came with a new package deal — the COP27 Implementation Plan — that did nothing to build on the phasing down of coal, despite growing support to start phasing down all fossil fuels. Ultimately, the push for 1.5C was only narrowly sustained, and ‘wins’ came attached to many, many ‘neutrals’ – where climate goals seem to stagnate, neither diluted nor enhanced.  

It is easy for countries at COPs to talk the talk, but harder for them to enable change. COPs are international affairs, so compromise must take place. But sadder still is that so-called high ambition nations aren’t always the leaders they think themselves to be; sometimes, what seem like wins are still neutrals if no-one translates these goals from a global scale to a national one, which is what underpins these very conventions. 

Other COPs exist! 

In spite of this, the biggest loss, in a sense, at COP27 was the lack of mention of COP15, which took place a month later. COP15 was the fifteenth meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity, which brought together countries to negotiate 2050 goals and 2030 targets to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. Biodiversity and the impending collapse of our life support systems do not seem to ring the same alarm bells in civil society’s mind as the climate crisis does, though its potential impacts are similarly devastating. However, the two crises are intrinsically linked – preserving and restoring nature is counterbalancing emissions, and mitigating climate impacts is protecting nature. COP27 was an unparalleled opportunity to put in writing the links between the two conventions that should actively be pursued to tackle both crises together – to achieve greater success and best utilise resources. Instead, there were mentions of nature-based solutions for climate, the danger of tipping points and potential of forests. While all key, this wasn’t enough, and mention of the “synergies” needed between the two conventions is simply word-fill. While Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attended COP27 with some nudging, he did not attend COP15. In fairness, no head of state did, apart from Canada’s Justin Trudeau (Canada being the meeting host). This shouldn’t go on! 

And other COPs matter… 

This is why knowledge of policy and international environmental treaties is vital. The biodiversity and climate crises cannot and should not be tackled separately; biodiversity COPs should be raised to the same level as climate ones. Otherwise, we risk the public not being as active in biodiversity conversations and losing a key voice to hold heads of states and businesses to account. Biodiversity COP15 achieved 4 goals and 23 targets to bend the curve of biodiversity loss, including targets to reach ‘30x30x30’: to ensure 30% of the earth’s land (and seas) are protected and restored by 2030. This is fantastic progress, but more will need to be done to ensure the right 30% are selected (not just the easiest and cheapest options), that countries do not feel pressured to reach quantitative targets unrealistic for their circumstances, and that indigenous peoples’ rights are protected. An attempt to make business disclosures on biodiversity impacts and dependencies mandatory was also swapped for an “encouragement”. Clearly, there is progress to be made at biodiversity COPs too – but if awareness and knowledge of these various conferences, and the importance that the public voice can have is spread, we will be one step closer. 

In the midst of COP27 and COP15, COP19 – the World Wildlife Trade meeting (i.e. the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)) – also took place last year. Another piece of the environmental puzzle, this COP tackled wildlife trade regulations, protecting more plants and animals from illegal international trade. Do not let the ‘niche’ quality of conventions such as this one fool you. We can only get closer to achieving climate and biodiversity goals if our trees and animals are not illegally poached!  

The future of policy and environmental treaties 

With this knowledge in hand, it is now time for implementation. Looking to the future, scientists will need to develop new tools, monitoring progress, developing solutions, and framing evidence to empower policymakers to take best action. We must not let these environmental treaties become shows, but take active roles, learning, speaking out and enabling change.