Coauthored with Naomi Egel, research associate in the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations
This year, the global environmental outlook is sunnier than last Earth Day.
To be sure, Earth faces dire threats, as global warming, desertification, and deforestation continue unabated. The world has hit record temperatures each of the last eleven months. Ninety-three percent of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral is now bleached. Biodiverse jungles in Indonesia are being burned to make way for palm oil plantations. And half of the world’s population will live in water stressed areas by 2025. And yet the news is not all negative. Over the past year, the world has collectively taken significant steps to fight these alarming trends, suggesting that we are not wholly incapable of caring for our planet. Three accomplishments in particular provide welcome glimmers of hope.
The Paris Agreement
The most prominent example of humanity’s collective will to tackle environmental challenges was the breakthrough Paris Agreement reached in December at the twenty-first meeting of the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Delegates pledged to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, buttressed by countries’ individual Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. They also established a new five-year review cycle and committed to ratchet up their ambitions for emissions reductions in each period. They further expanded financing mechanisms to facilitate sustainable development and compensate vulnerable states for loss and damage, while extending to 2025 their previous $100 billion pledge for climate finance from developed states. Overall, the Paris Agreement provides a promising platform on which to accelerate climate action in the future—provided that domestic politics do not derail countries’ commitments to meeting their pledges.
The Sustainable Development Goals
Environmental conservation featured prominently in six of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted at the United Nations on September 25, 2015. This marked a welcome change from the previous Millennium Development Goals, which gave short shrift to the global environment—and the invaluable “ecosystem services” that a healthy and resilient planet provide to the world economy. In adopting SDGs 13-15, countries committed themselves to conserve the terrestrial environment (including by fighting deforestation, combating desertification, and preserving endangered species); to sustainably manage marine ecosystems (including though better coastal zone management and more sustainable fisheries); and to combat climate change. Goals 6, 7, and 11, meanwhile, commit parties to sustainably manage water resources, promote clean energy, and make the transition to sustainable cities and communities. To be sure, the SDGs are highly ambitious and their implementation will require follow-through by UN member states. Still, they send an unprecedented and promising signal by placing environmental considerations at the heart of the global development agenda.
Restarting negotiations on a high seas biodiversity agreement
Becalmed for years, UN negotiations have finally started on a treaty to protect marine life on the high seas—the vast expanses of water more than 200 miles from shore that constitute approximately 64 percent of the ocean and cover 50 percent of the Earth’s surface. A preparatory committee, which will meet from April 2016-April 2017, will aim to develop a foundation for a treaty text. The intended High Seas Biodiversity Convention will fill a huge gap in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which addresses only marine areas within countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs), which extend just 200 miles.
Prospects for this ambitious treaty improved markedly when Obama administration, which had been on the fence, announced last year that it would enter multilateral negotiations. As the rapporteur report from a December 2014 CFR workshop noted, U.S. participation will be extremely important for the success of a high seas biodiversity treaty, given its naval dominance, economic interests, and leading role in advancing conservation. Moreover, joining the negotiations from the beginning will allow the United States to shape the treaty text (including potentially problematic clauses related to resource sharing). Another reason for optimism: when it comes to treaty ratification, conventions to preserve marine resources are among the few to escape notorious gridlock in Washington. Although the Senate has approved U.S. ratification of only five multilateral treaties during President Obama’s tenure, four of these protect ocean wildlife and combat illegal fishing.
Taken together, the Paris Agreement, the SDGs, and the negotiations for a High Seas Biodiversity Convention are hopeful indicators. They suggest that the world’s leaders, and their constituents, are waking to the realization that there is no Planet B. But driving this agenda home will require vigorous leadership from the United States, including from President Obama during his last months in office, and from whoever succeeds him next January.
One of the United States’ greatest strengths is its ability to actively engage in and to drive the agenda in nearly every multilateral body on Earth, and to bring unmatched resources and issue-specific technical and scientific knowledge to bear on global problems, not least environmental ones. During President Obama’s remaining tenure in office, the administration should draw upon this unparalleled U.S. capacity and work to enhance coordination and partnership among various environmentally-focused bodies. Such an approach is far from glamorous. But improving institutional capacity to tackle the greatest collective challenge we face is necessary to save the planet in the long term.
The president has done the country and the world a great service by placing environmental sustainability at the heart of U.S. national security, foreign policy, and development assistance. Here’s hoping that the next occupant of the Oval Office builds on this legacy so that the planet has a better chance of surviving its race against time.