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Much more to be done

By JOHN E. SCANLON | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-03-04 10:09
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Global environmental strategies are falling short, but there are solutions that offer hope

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

Given this flurry of international activity, our environment ought to be in good shape. But it's not; 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, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and many others reveal multiple crises, including biodiversity loss, climate change, land degradation, plastic pollution and declining air and water quality, all of which are making our planet an increasing unhealthy place for people and wildlife.

Have all these meetings and the hundreds of multilateral environmental agreements 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 percent of the world's wetlands were lost between 1970 and 2015. We've had a convention on migratory species since 1979, yet 44 percent of the listed species are undergoing population declines. We failed to meet our globally agreed 2010 and 2020 biodiversity targets, with over 1 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 success cannot be measured by how many we have, but how they impact what is happening on the ground. International agreements can act as a catalyst for national plans, legislation and action. They can create a positive cascade effect at the national level and enhance cross-border cooperation, as we have seen to varying degrees with conventions addressing biodiversity, climate change, marine pollution, ozone depletion, the transboundary movement of waste and the wildlife trade.

But more is still needed. For example, last year, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, 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 we are clearly 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. China has embedded the ecological civilization into its current five-year plan (2021-25), reconciling international obligations and national expectations, in the pursuit of harmonious coexistence between humanity and nature, as was evident from the actions taken in China to close its domestic ivory markets.

Now, more than ever, we need a strong global anchor institution for the environment, one that can measure how we are lessening 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 United Nations Environment Programme was created in 1972 with an ambitious mandate. While progress was made, by 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 was established by the UN General Assembly, as the world's first subsidiary body of the UN with universal membership (namely of all 193 member states of the UN). China was actively engaged in this inclusive process to strengthen global environmental governance.

International law is not static — it is continuing to evolve. Today, we see important new international laws being created, or discussed, in multiple international fora where China is engaging, on the high seas, pandemics, plastic pollution and wildlife trafficking. This is part of an ongoing and evolving approach to tackling global environmental challenges through the multilateral system.

While we have multiple well-crafted international agreements in place, or in progress, to address our most pressing environmental and sustainability challenges, we are in need of 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.

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

This is a crucial time for the environment and our planet's health. The time is ripe for UNEP and UNEA to step up and be more ambitious and impactful, to become the global environmental authorities they were designed to be.

It's not all bad news. Over the past 50 years we have collectively developed a comprehensive body of international and national policies and laws. China is a party to all of the major multilateral environmental agreements. This body of laws continues to evolve, backed by a strong and improving science base. It has not been fast enough, effective enough, or adequately financed, but despite all of these shortcomings, we are better off today because of them. It also reflects how humanity has been continually striving to find the ways and means of better responding to environmental threats to our planet's health, to achieve harmonious coexistence.

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

For example, in 2021, China pledged 1.5 billion yuan ($206 million) to the Kunming Biodiversity Fund to support biodiversity in developing countries, and the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation donated 1 million yuan to support the fund and established a public fundraising platform.

The science tells us it's still not too late — provided we change course. It will not be easy but there really is no other option. And, if we try hard enough and work together in common cause, we may just succeed.

The author is chair of the Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime, former secretary general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and a recipient of the Friendship Award of the Chinese Government. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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