With carbon reduction firmly on the agenda of many governments, it is time for COP to take a more holistic approach and to properly address wider environmental concerns such as biodiversity. Of course decarbonisation is critical, but we have to ask what kind of planet do we want to save?
COP is the only body with the scale, global clout and long-term vision to make meaningful progress on an issue that has been regarded as a background problem by governments for too long. But it must become a bigger part of the conversation now, otherwise we risk losing another year and another COP as the plastic soups that are fast becoming our oceans and waterways become progressively more contaminated and dangerous to life on earth.
The final Glasgow Climate Pact, signed by almost 200 countries, will accelerate the pace of climate action – governments are now requested to produce new nationally defined contributions (NDCs) to decarbonisation, with a focus on 2030, by the next COP in Sharm El-Sheikh in November. Previously, the deadline was 2025.
The main stated objectives of COP26 were to commit to more ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, to discuss measures to adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change, and to increase funding for climate action. And good progress was made towards these objectives.
Global pledge needed
However, not enough attention was paid to wider environmental concerns, which meant COP26 yielded no international commitment on biodiversity. Although the pledge to end deforestation by 2030 was welcome, preserving natural habitats more broadly, including oceans, is key to managing the carbon in the atmosphere.
The lack of progress on these concerns was a major disappointment. Issues such as food waste (which ultimately squanders water, land and fuel, and suggests unnecessary pesticide use), plastic pollution and waste management are critical.
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The facts here are stark. By 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. The total plastic mass represents twice all living mammals, with 80% of all plastics ever produced still in the environment. Plastic waste is not only ingested by marine life including fish – the average person eats five grammes of plastic a week, equivalent to a credit card. In total, up to a million people die from plastic pollution every year.
It is no exaggeration to say that plastic pollution could eventually become as important as the emission of carbon. Yet it attracts nothing like the same level of the attention.
Part of the problem is that it is viewed as a far-horizon issue – similar to climate change in certain ways, but far less pressing. It is not a vote-winner. Cast your mind back to the last time you heard a politician discussing marine or ocean pollution. The chances are it related to an oil spill, in response to distressing images of fuel-soaked wildlife and spoiled beaches. The need to act would have been obvious, immediate and subject to intense media scrutiny.
These, however, are idiosyncratic incidences that shed little light on the true scale of the problem we face. Every year plastic inflicts €13bn of damage on global marine ecosystems, and €630m of annual losses on EU tourism and coastal communities.
This will only get worse. The World Bank expects the planet’s municipal solid waste to double within 15 years, with single-use plastics – including bottles, balloons, bags and packing – the biggest culprit.
It is time COP properly addressed these wider environmental concerns. Do we want it – and its inhabitants, marine or human – to be choked with plastic waste? Ignoring these challenges will risk that we succeed to keep the planet inside 1.5 degree warming, only to find out that we turned it into a garbage dump.
Widening the aperture to seek commitments on biodiversity and waste reduction (including fertilisers and toxic chemicals as well as plastic) can no longer be left to far-off conferences; it is becoming essential to act without delay.