As I reflect on 2022, I am buoyed by all the evidence of progress being made in our global efforts to confront the damage we are doing to our only home. But I am, if anything, even more pessimistic than I was a year ago regarding our ability to learn to live sustainably on this wonderful planet. All the bits of progress amount to a handful of confetti scattered across a continent – sparkling in the sun, they are uplifting when seen up close, but they don’t amount to a proverbial hill of beans.
There’s real irony in the timing of the climate change CoP27 meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, last month, followed by the biodiversity CoP15 meeting just now winding up in Montreal, and the end-of-year season of gift-giving in much of the world. Every year the gifting seems to become just a little more over-the-top extravagant. We are never going to solve the truly existential environmental problems we have created if we cannot shake free from our consumer-driven, materialistic, economic system in which anything other than year over year growth is seen as failure.
I remember reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, and thinking she was perhaps exaggerating when she called for the overturning of our economic system. Surely we can rise to fix the environmental problems we have caused without destroying the global economy in the process. Now I think she may have been closer to the truth although I’d still prefer a deliberate revision of economic theory and practice to a wholesale destruction of the way human societies work. We’ve had an unpleasant glimpse of what happens when a political/economic system is deliberately torn down and replaced by chaos during the Trump presidency, and that was just within one (large, powerful) country. Imagine the chaos if the global economic system was torn down mindlessly.
Greta Thunberg famously described CoP26 as “blah, blah, blah”. Why cannot others speak such truth?
Image © Michael Campanella/The Guardian.
On the other hand, I think it’s far past time to speak truthfully concerning the abject failure of our global efforts to confront and remedy our assault on nature. Our tools for global, international cooperation are weak, and we have been using them far less effectively than we might. Take our efforts to contain climate change.
The Charming Scene at Sharm el-Sheikh
Large, UN-sponsored, multinational climate conferences happen annually. At huge cost. They’ve been happening since 1995, 27 in all, over 27 long years. Each time, the media tell us of all sorts of positive outcomes, while hinting at failure. Meanwhile the world grows warmer, more polluted, less resilient, and people struggle on. These meetings are the annual Conferences of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – the CoPs. We just finished CoP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, with a record 45,000 people attending with their associated carbon baggage in international flights and other travel excesses. CoP28 will occur next year in the United Arab Emirates. Nearly half the people on the planet today were born after we started having these meetings. Climate CoPs occur as reliably as the planet swings around the sun. And what do they accomplish?
Well, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere stood at 360 ppm during March 1995 when the first CoP took place in Berlin. In November 2022, while CoP27 was taking place, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was 418 ppm. That’s an increase of 58 ppm, or a 16% increase in 27 years, and the upward trajectory shows no signs of flattening out. And yet the outcome from CoP27 still did not include an agreement to phase out oil or natural gas! Indeed, the final report introduces a new term, ‘low-emission energy systems’, which many people see as a loophole that will be used to justify continued expansion of use of gas.
The purpose of all these meetings is to forge consensus and implement plans to reduce global climate change, by reducing atmospheric concentration of CO2! So, the progress has been slow. Or, less diplomatically, the world has been moving away from the goal throughout those 27 years. We are failing dismally, and all the hand-holding and singing of Kumbaya doesn’t change that.
There were more than 600 people with ties to the fossil fuel industry among the 45,000 delegates at Sharm el-Shiekh. More than the combined delegations from the 10 most severely climate-impacted countries, according to the BBC. Those fossil fuel executives were not there to close down their industries; they were there to quietly act to impede progress, to ensure we will go on digging up and using fossil fuels for as long as possible. Tweek a phrase here, add a word there, strike out a word somewhere else and the final communique becomes limp as an overcooked strand of spaghetti. And those fossil fuel executives, with help from nations (including Canada) that get much of their GDP from the fossil fuel industry, succeeded again. No words in the final report about a commitment to reduce our use of oil or gas.
You’d think that climate-change professionals, being intelligent people, would have figured out after 27 years that continuing a process which is not working was perhaps not a worthwhile idea. And yet, we are all looking eagerly toward CoP28 in Dubai, to “make further progress”. The planet may not be dead yet, but the global program to prevent it dying looks to be brain-dead. Does anyone believe the culture in Dubai will be sympathetic to a rapid shift away from fossil energy? Countries will make more promises of goals to meet in the future a decade or more away, while ignoring all the goals that have not been met during the past 27 years. Yes, we have reduced the carbon intensity of our economy to a significant degree. We are in a better place than we would have been without the 27 CoPs. But we are not moving nearly fast enough to prevent run-away climate change, and the warnings from scientists continue to fall on deaf ears. Can’t risk an economic slowdown due to a too-quick transition away from use of fossil fuels.
Biodiversity CoP15, Baby Sister to the Climate CoP.
The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), like the UNFCCC, was a product of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. It came into force in 1993. As of now, 196 countries are Parties to the Convention, notably not including the USA which signed but never ratified it. CBD global goals are to conserve biological diversity, to use the products of biodiversity sustainably, and to share fairly and equitably the products arising from the use of genetic resources. Like the climate change convention, the CBD has its CoP meetings, but only every second year – hence in Montreal we had CoP15.
CBD meetings have always been more modest affairs than the climate meetings, despite the fact that our assault on the natural world is primarily an assault on biodiversity. There were fewer than half the number of delegates as were at Sharm el-Sheikh. I suspect the lower profile is due in part to the difficulty in raising awareness in the general population concerning the risks to humanity from our elimination of biodiversity – loss of species in far-away places, loss of land or ocean in a natural state, these don’t seem so serious as the threat of a radical change in the climate. Indeed, if we manage to keep the places where people live looking green and with wild, but not too wild, animals evident, most people assume all is well. Another reason for the lower profile – confronting biodiversity loss does not, on its face, seem to demand a major adjustment in our global economic system. (In truth, the needed adjustment is just as profound as what is required to really address climate change.)
One might hope that CBD CoPs, being less high profile, might achieve more than do climate CoPs. But they haven’t. To begin with there is the troubling fact that the Convention on Biological Diversity is rooted in the twin concepts of the need to conserve natural systems so they will continue to provide biological goods and services (i.e., so they will continue to function ecologically), and the idea of sustainable development, a form of development that uses biological resources for the well-being of people but only at rates that do not impede the ability to provide for future generations. That sustainable development is incompatible with a perpetual-growth economic system is conveniently glossed over by governments intent on ensuring economic prosperity. In a world in which the human population is growing rapidly and the global economy is growing even more rapidly, the need for conservation to ensure sustainability of ecological systems takes second place to the need to consume now.
As a consequence, the CBD has a history of failure much like the UNFCCC. At the CBD CoP10 held in Nagoya, Japan, in 2010, an updated strategic plan was adopted, including 20 explicit targets to be achieved by each country by 2020. These Aichi Targets, named for the Aichi Prefecture in which Nagoya sits, were not achieved. None of them. Oh, there were partial successes of some targets in some places, but overall – zilch.
After a few months of trying to portray abject failure as progress, people got busy developing a new set of goals for the decade to 2030. That set of targets was up for finalization and ratification in Montreal as the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. It was finalized and agreed in the early morning hours of 19th December following the usual marathon final negotiating session.
The Kunming-Montreal Agreement includes four goals for 2050 and 23 targets to be achieved by 2030 in order to reach those goals. As is predictable, there was a flurry of press reports heralding this outcome with most attention given to the ‘30 by 30’ target – to achieve protection of 30% of all land and of all ocean by 2030.
When I look at the text of the agreement, I see the Aichi Targets all over again – lots of high-sounding diplomatic language with nods to every possible disadvantaged group of humans, but precious few numbers. Indeed, apart from mention of ‘30%’ of area protected in targets 2 and 3, reduction by ‘50%’ in the rate of invasive arrivals in target 6, and some notional billions of dollars that might be raised in targets 18 and 19, there are no numbers among the 23 targets. Only one of the four goals includes a number – the reference to a need to close a $700B gap in biodiversity financing in goal D. Instead, the language is uplifting, aspirational, and littered with wiggle room. The agreement is non-binding and there is little doubt in my mind that most countries will make some gestures, drawing lines on maps to declare regions protected, and then continue with business as usual. That is what countries do following CoP meetings.
Canada, as co-host, tried to get the financial ball rolling when Prime Minister Trudeau announced at the opening plenary the sum of C$350M for biodiversity conservation in developing countries. This pledge of new money was expanded later in the conference by a further C$255M, and separately Canada announced C$800M to support four, indigenous-led conservation projects within the country – one in British Columbia and three in Canada’s north. Still, by conference end there was no clear sign that the sums of money mentioned in target 19, let alone the $700B gap in goal D, will come close to being secured. Target 18 deals with reduction or elimination of harmful subsidies of around $500B per year, but the abject failure of countries to reduce subsidies to fossil fuel companies under climate treaties does not lead me to expect these funds will be freed up for other purposes.
I know it is unfair to condemn an agreement before the ink has dried on the signatures, but past global performance on biodiversity does not encourage expectation of much success this time around. Nor am I the only skeptic out there. Meanwhile our assault on nature continues.
How Bad is Our Current Situation?
There are numerous signs of a rapidly building transition towards electrification of transportation. While electric cars are still very much in the minority on our roads, every manufacturer is busily developing or producing fully electric and plug-in hybrid models. While they sell at a premium, the range of existing models includes everything from light trucks (Ford F150e), through the SUVs beloved by North Americans who cannot imagine fitting their oversized lives into standard-sized cars, to more modest-sized vehicles and micro-mini options that are likely to be the electric transport in the developing world. Regulations such as California’s 2020 regulation requiring “no sales of new fossil-powered cars or light trucks by 2035” have been replicated in countries and cities around the world, with many on board with 2035 while others opt for 2040 or 2045. Wikipedia provides a couple of lengthy lists.
If the fuel used to generate the electricity is coal, having electric cars is not a big step forward. However, there is also extensive movement on building generating capacity using renewable sources. The IEA reports that 2021 saw a record year in additions of renewable capacity globally, chiefly due to new solar and wind power. The overall increase of wind and solar production in 2021 was 6% or 295 gigawatts; it is expected to be 8% or 320 gigawatts in 2022. Solar photovoltaic energy is the largest portion of these increases, split almost evenly between massive-scale solar farms comparable to commercial, fossil-fuel generating stations, and distributed roof-top and similar installations. Solar energy will be 60% of all renewable energy additions in 2022.
While the growing production of renewable energy is good news, the overall energy picture reveals plenty of bad news. In its 2022 Global Energy Outlook, the IEA projects a likely plateau in oil production beginning around 2025, and more obvious peaks and subsequent declines in coal and gas (peaks also around 2025, all trends assume current policies continue). This is the first time IEA has projected an overall decline in production of fossil fuels, but the overall decline amounts to only about 2 exajoules between the peak in 2025 and 2050. Under current policies and practices, fossil fuels will fall from being 80% of the energy supply now to 75% by 2050. This is a gentle glide; not the steep decline that is needed. It is inadequate for climate change mitigation. It will lead to an increase 0f 2oC in global temperature by 2060 and a continually rising temperature through the remainder of the century.
The environmental evidence of rampant climate change is all around us. In addition to the continuing rise in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, there is evidence in the multiple records of increasingly rapid ice loss from glaciers around the world and accelerating sea level rise. Together these direct measurements tell us we are on a planet warming more rapidly than at any time in human history, and that the wholesale conversion of ancient ice to water will have major impacts on coastal lands around the world. Scientists who study glaciers in Greenland, the rest of the Arctic, and in Antarctica are routinely being surprised at just how rapidly changes are occurring. It’s not just the occasional, remote, tropical island that scarcely anyone important has ever heard of (sorry Tuvalu), which might disappear beneath the waves. Nineteen of the world’s 28 megacities (>10M inhabitants) are coastal. And they ae going to be submerged unless enormous sums of money are used in schemes to try and hold back the rising seas.
Our capture of land for agriculture or urbanization, and the radical reduction in biodiversity that follows as forests become monoculture cropland or parking lots and buildings, are not slowing down. That humans now ‘occupy’ – as in ‘armies occupy’ – over 75% of land on the planet is old news but should still be alarming. Newer data reveal humans have modified almost 95% of the planet’s land surface in one way or another. Our impacts on the ocean are just as great, though hidden beneath the waves. The loss of species, reductions in abundance of species still here, the extent to which humans and their cattle dominate the biomass of the planet, all should give us pause. I’m not going to enumerate yet again all the ways we are overstressing our planet. The long-running planetary boundary study by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and the series of ‘warnings’ from Bill Ripple and the ‘World Scientists’ provide plenty of details. What I can only conclude is that we must change our ways substantially if we are to begin to restore the resilience of the natural world, and our regular CoPs meetings are not sufficient. We have to confront our global economic model based on over-consumption and eternal growth.
The terrestrial world is rendered almost completely simply by mapping where humans have impacted it.
Image © Visual Capitalist.
So What Do We Do Now?
I don’t know what environmental scientists can do to get us all moving on these existential problems. Talking about how serious the situation is does not do it. Projecting into a future of catastrophe does not do it. Flying off to endless international climate conferences does not do it either. And most of those who manage the economic engines that drive our world seem quite satisfied to continue to find ways to grow GDP at all costs. Satisfied enough at least to not be disposed to listen to an ecologist suggesting they need to revise their economic models!
There are still beautiful places on this planet. Flourishing coral reefs and rainforests. Quiet saltmarshes, open prairies, brooding boreal forests. Places filled with amazing biodiversity still managing to function ecologically. Perhaps I need to talk about these special places, species and ecological complexities. Even revel in them. Maybe I can seduce other people, those who think their food comes from the supermarket rather than from the production of food species by efficient ecological networks of intertwined, pulsating life? Maybe I can capture their interest with the wonders that are out there, in nature, far from our concrete jungles or our virtual TikTok worlds? Maybe I can begin the conversations that move from wonder to understanding to a realization that we really do have to act and act fast? What is a good Christmas gift this year? Perhaps the gift of understanding and believing that the natural world is far more important to us than the accumulation of money or things? You cannot survive without the natural world.
Thanks very much for this, Peter!
I’d like to alert people to an essay in Nature that points towards a possible solution. However, it would take a monumental re-arrangement of world economic systems, and will surely be ignored and/or attacked vigorously.
Degrowth can work- here’s how science can help. Nature
We always seem to do too little, too late, and you are right that the decision-makers are not listening to us. They are listening to those with big money, like the fossil fuel industry and those who want to grow their economies.
Thanks Peter, as you note, ‘the natural world is far more important … than the accumulation of money or things’, but a hard sell in our consumerist, ‘he/she who dies with the most toys wins’ society. As you also note, yet more meetings and non-binding treaties are not going to solve these issues. I’d like to introduce another approach, although certainly not a panacea. This is the rapidly growing international effort to make ecocide a crime on the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
There’s a long history to this, the term apparently having been coined to describe Agent Orange impacts on Vietnam in the early 1970s. Ecocide was proposed for inclusion, back in the early 1990s, when the ICC was in gestation, but was apparently excluded on requests of UK, France and the Netherlands. I leave you to consider what they may have in common. As is obvious, those causing the most harm to the natural world, be they governments or corporations, are rarely held accountable. And when they are, they can budget for the fine, all part of the cost of ‘doing business’. Additional standard operating procedures are ‘regulatory capture’, where money buys political (and media) clout, on display in all levels of government in most nations; along with the revolving door of politicians working for the corporations they assisted, post-politics.
Putting CEOs on trial with potential for significant jail time could, maybe, change the ‘playing field’. The main idea though is to discourage those behaviours. I realize this will not address all, or even much, of what is happening globally, and the ICC itself needs significant bolstering. But it may be a small step forward, along with Earth Laws and the many other initiatives. Canada has a strong local team working on this, with a growing support-base. Twenty-five member states of the ICC have now indicated support. Best wishes.
Hi, Peter. Thank you for your continuing efforts to “speak ecology to power”. There are many people trying to answer your “So What Do We Do Now” question. The recently published “The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to A World Beyond Capitalism” is one such effort and, if you’ve come across it, I’d be curious about your thoughts on it.
Would you be interested in a Planet Haliburton interview on your Coral Reef work and the state of our climate and biodiversity crises?