Environment in 2020: A critical year for climate, biodiversity and oceans

This year, crucial international summits take place that must advance action to protect the planet

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Greta Thunberg climate environment 2020

Swedish activist Greta Thunberg participates in a protest at COP25 negotiations in Madrid in December. 2020 is shaping up to be a critical year for the environment (image: UNFCCC)

"Our house is on fire,'' Swedish activist Greta Thunberg said at the beginning of 2019, her statement resonating throughout the year as global temperatures hit record highs, the number of endangered species rose, extreme weather events became more frequent, and the oceans continued to lose oxygen. 2020 is shaping up to be a critical year for the environment.

Government action to tackle these problems fell way short last year and millions of made their frustration known, participating in numerous protests calling for greater protection for the planet. Countries' failure to advance negotiations at the COP25 climate summit in December summed up a disappointing year. 

While society and many sectors of the economy will continue to take their own action to help protect the environment in 2020, there is still time to accelerate last year's slow progress in the international political arena with landmark global summits on climate change, biodiversity and oceans.

1. Biodiversity

In October, the city of Kunming in southwestern China will host the the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), a crucial meeting that aims to establish a new plan for the protection of biodiversity.

The conference has been likened to a ‘Paris Summit for biodiversity’, hoping to match the 2015 meeting in the French capital that resulted in the landmark global pact to tackle climate change.

In 2010, the 194 countries that form the CBD approved the Strategic Plan for Biological Diversity 2011-2020. Talks in Aichi, Japan, delivered 20 general objectives, known as the Aichi targets, to end biodiversity loss and restore ecosystems.

However, most goals were not met and China’s stewardship of the talks will look to preserve the Aichi targets as a minimum basis, adding new elements to ensure compliance.

"Biodiversity is experiencing an unprecedented decline in the history of mankind," said Obdulio Menghi, a biologist and president of the Argentine Biodiversity Foundation. "It's not just species of animals and plants, all ecosystems are being affected."

60%

From 1970 to 2014 animal populations fell by an average of 60%

Global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles decreased an average 60% between 1970 and 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the WWF Living Planet Index. The decrease affects nature’s function to provide the world such as fresh air and drinking water, as well as other vital services.

There are five driving forces behind the decline in biodiversity, according to the latest report by The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES): changes in land and sea use; the direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution; and invasive species.

“A transformative change is needed, according to IPBES. We cannot continue with the current production and consumption system. It is an emergency situation,” said Ana Di Pangracio, deputy executive director of the Argentine Environment and Natural Resources Foundation (FARN).

2. Climate change

In November, the Scottish city of Glasgow will host the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) on climate change. It faces huge challenges since must now resolve everything left over from previous years. The summit also needs to spur countries to be more ambitious in their efforts to fight global warming.

The previous conference, COP25, was meant to advance key points for the implementation of the Paris Agreement, such as the creation of an international carbon market and secure financing from developed countries to developing countries. However, it was a resounding failure with progress made only on a gender action plan.

“COP had clear mandates in Madrid but unfortunately it did not fulfill them. This year the original objective was to focus on achieving greater ambition. But now we will continue to drag out outstanding issues,” says Enrique Maurtua Konstantinidis, senior climate policy advisor for FARN.

Diplomats and other observers suggest the UK get to work on building support for the negotiations immediately, going from capital to capital as the French did in advance of the Paris summit. This could help generate preliminary agreements and create a more congenial environment in 2020 than the zero-sum game the talks have become.

3-4C

the projected increase in global temperatures by 2100, based on countries' national climate plans

Through the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries committed to limit global warming to 2C compared to pre-industrial levels. However, based on national contributions (known as NDC’s) already submitted, the world is heading for rises of between 3 and 4ºC.

This year, countries are expected to update their NDCs and that should bring down emissions reductions. However, only 80 countries representing 10% of global emissions presented plans to improve their national efforts.

3. The oceans

In June, a high-level UN meeting will take place in Lisbon, Portugal, to advance the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals 14 (SDG), which focuses on life underwater.

The SDGs were agreed by UN-member countries in 2015. They are a set of 17 global objectives to eradicate poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity as part of a new sustainable development agenda to 2030.

we will begin to discuss the next goals in 2020. But we must see what is the point of doing that if many were not fulfilled

Some of the SDG 14 targets are supposed to be met in 2020. These include putting an end to unsustainable fishing of all kinds; prohibiting fishing subsidies that encourage overfishing; and conserving at least 10% of coastal and marine areas.

"Several of the goals are far from being met," said Loreley Picourt, director of politics and international affairs for the Ocean and Climate Platform. "In addition to evaluating them, we will begin to discuss the next ones by 2020. But we must see what is the point of doing that if many were not fulfilled."

This is the second conference and this time seeks to elicit voluntary commitments from countries to support SDG 14. The governments of Portugal and Kenya will preside over talks.

Along with the conference in Lisbon, the oceans will feature strongly in COP26. The final text resulting from COP25 highlighted the link between climate and oceans and it was agreed that there would be separate dialogue on the matter, the first of which will take place in June.

Countries are also expected to include specific mentions of the oceans in their new and more ambitious NDCs, to be presented prior to COP26. The contribution from the South Pacific island of Tuvalu already focuses on the oceans.

"The COP26 presidency mentioned that it wants the oceans to remain on the agenda, suggesting that discussions of the links between the climate and the oceans will continue," said Rémi Parmentier, coordinator of Because the Ocean, an initiative joined by 30 countries to incorporate the ocean in climate change policy.

4. Fishing

The World Trade Organization (WTO) will hold its annual meeting in Kazakhstan in June. Among its various objectives is the elimination of harmful fishing subsidies. The issue has been under discussion for more than two decades but progress has been sorely lacking.

Action at the highest political level is needed, it is no longer enough to leave the discussions in the hands of technical negotiators

SDG 14, which will be the focus of the oceans conference in Portugal, includes among its goals the elimination of fishing subsidies by 2020. The subsidies granted to the fishing industry amount to approximately US$35 billion annually, according to the Fisheries Committee of the European Parliament.

Fishing subsidies significantly distort world fish markets and are an important factor contributing to the depletion of resources. However, developing countries want to protect subsidies, which they say support the livelihoods of low-income fishers.

Around 60% of the world’s studied fish are fully exploited and 30% are already overexploited, according to the SOFIA 2016 report, published by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

“The WTO negotiations on subsidies have advanced too slowly and the WTO knows that. Action at the highest political level is needed, it is no longer enough to leave the discussions in the hands of technical negotiators,” Parmentier said.