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Global environmental strategies are still falling short – what’s next?

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By John Scanlon

· 6 min read

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Photo credits: ISSD ENB

More than 1,400 multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) have been adopted over the past 50 years, with more in the pipeline. Over this period, we have also seen multiple global conferences, meetings, and summits. 

Given this flurry of international activity, our environment must be in good shape, yes? No! It’s quite the opposite. 

In recent years, the world’s best scientists have painted a grim picture of a degrading environment. Reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), and various others reveal multiple crises. These include biodiversity loss, climate change, land degradation, plastic pollution, and declining air and water quality. All are making our planet an increasingly unhealthy place for both people and wildlife.

Have these mega-events and the hundreds of MEAs made a significant difference to the state of our planet? Have they served to advance the cause of the environment or sustainable development? 

We’ve had a convention on international wetlands since 1972, yet approximately 35% of the world’s wetlands were lost between 1970 and 2015. We’ve had a convention on migratory species since 1979, yet 44% of listed species are undergoing population declines. We failed to meet our globally agreed 2010 and 2020 biodiversity targets, with over one million species now at risk of extinction, and we are not on track to meet our globally agreed climate targets.

Don’t get me wrong: we need international conventions, global summits, strategies and targets. But they have their limits. Their effectiveness isn't determined by their quantity but by their impact on-the-ground, in real-world situations. International agreements can catalyze national plans, legislation, and action. They can trigger a beneficial domino effect at the national level and improve cross-border cooperation, as evidenced by conventions addressing biodiversity, climate change, marine pollution, ozone depletion, transboundary movement of waste, and wildlife trade. 

And more is still needed. For example, last year, in the aftermath of COVID-19, the World Health Assembly agreed to create a treaty or instrument focused on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. The issue of pandemics is closely tied to how we treat nature, animal health and welfare, and is a perfect candidate for a coordinated global response. 

But clearly, we are falling short with the implementation of international laws and global strategies, and their financing, which are inextricably linked, and in finding creative ways to better encourage compliance with international obligations. 

It’s challenging to reconcile international obligations, and emerging science, together with changing community expectations across the three dimensions of sustainable development; economic, environmental and social. But we need to do it. 

Now, more than ever, we need a strong global anchor institution for the environment, one that can measure how we are reducing or exacerbating our impact on the global environment; to paint the whole picture to help guide our collective response. 

Recognizing that tackling global environmental challenges requires a multilateral effort, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) was created in 1972 with an ambitious mandate. Since then, it has played a major role in developing international and national environmental law. Yet, from being highly influential in the 1970s and 1980s, especially with the development of a convention for the protection of the ozone layer, the UNEP lost much of its influence in the late 1980s and early 1990s with major new conventions being concluded, largely absent from the scope of the UNEP’s influence. 

At the turn of the century, there was general agreement that the international environmental governance system was failing to deliver on expectations and, following an inclusive process, in 2013 the UN Environmental Assembly (UNEA) was established by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) as the world’s first subsidiary body of the UN with universal membership (of all 193 Member States of the UN). 

International law is not static – it continues to evolve. We see important new international laws being created, or discussed, in multiple international fora, on the high seas, pandemics, plastic pollution, and wildlife trafficking. This is part of an ongoing and evolving approach to tackling global environmental challenges, which extends beyond the UNEP.

We have multiple well-crafted international agreements either in place or in progress. To address our most pressing environmental and sustainability challenges, however, we need a revitalized commitment to implementation, the necessary international and national financing to enable it, and an authoritative global center of gravity for monitoring progress and enhancing compliance. 

It's time for the UNEA and the UNEP to step up and be more ambitious and impactful!

The UNEA should adopt a biannual ‘State of the Planet Report’, as the global authoritative report on the state of the world’s environment; comprehensively laying out the good, the bad and the ugly. It could set the global environmental agenda, including for financial instruments such as the Global Environment Facility. This could include the UNEA embarking on a process of continual review of the effectiveness of, and compliance with, MEAs, and to identify the gaps, and what needs to be done to fill them, as it has increasingly done for climate change.

Today, science is unequivocally presenting us with the reality of the environmental harm we inflict on our planet, and in real time. If we stay on the same trajectory for the next 50 years, the prognosis looks rather grim, to say the least. 

This is a crucial time for the environment and our planet’s health. The time is ripe for the UNEP and the UNEA to become the global environmental authority they were designed to be.

It’s not all bad news. Over the past 50 years, we have developed a comprehensive body of international and national policies and laws. They continue to evolve and are backed by a strong and improving scientific base. It has not been fast enough, effective enough, or adequately financed - but despite these shortcomings, we are better off today because of them. Our progress also reflects how humanity has been continually striving to find ways and means of better responding to environmental threats to our planet’s health. 

There are glimmers of hope. There are solutions. The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework adopted a bold set of biodiversity targets for 2030, creative natural and technological solutions are increasingly being deployed to meet agreed-upon targets, and new funds and innovative sources of finance are emerging. 

And the science tells us it’s still not too late - provided we change course. It will not be easy but there is no better option than to persist. And, if we try hard enough, and work together for a common cause, who knows, we may just manage to do it!

The UNEA is meeting for its 6th Session in Nairobi from 26 February to 1 March.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

John Scanlon AO is a seasoned leader in the fields of environment, governance and sustainable development, with a unique range of experience gained across multiple continents, disciplines and organisations. He has served in senior positions in the private sector, with government, international organisations, the United Nations, and not-for-profit organizations, and as chair or member of many boards and initiatives. This includes working with IUCN (Bonn), UNEP (Nairobi) and CITES (Geneva)

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