In this series of articles, 2017 in Review, we look back at the year in each region of the world. Here, Dafna Bitran Dirven looks at the environment and climate policy.

 

With average global temperatures continuing to rise, extinction rates growing and a number of major natural disasters to boot; 2017 has been marked by yet more environmental concern, set against the backdrop of increasingly urgent global climate negotiations.

Climate change and international negotiations

Hurricanes, wildfires, cyclones, droughts, cold waves and heatwaves were just some of the various examples of extreme weather events – almost certainly explained by anthropogenic climate change.

The clear impact of human action on the climate was, however, not enough to convince some world leaders of the importance of global action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses.

Trump lips pursed
Donald Trump backing out of the Paris Climate Agreements has created a global leadership vacuum without the US. Photo credit: Flickr.

In June this year, Donald Trump, the president of the second most polluting country in the world, decided to pull out of the Paris Agreements. This means that the US will be the only country on the planet not to be part of the international commitment which seeks to confront the global temperature raise. It argues that:

“The Paris accord represents an attack on the sovereignty of the United States and a threat to the ability of [the Donald Trump] administration to reshape the nation’s environmental laws in ways that benefit everyday Americans”.

This decision provoked strong reactions from the international community and within the US, where local governments – and even private actors – decided to act independently of the government’s decisions and stick to their climate commitments.

Notwithstanding the US’ decision, the Bonn Conference of the Parties (COP 23), held in the German city in November this year, showed some – albeit rather slow – progress in international climate negotiations.

With a new UN environment report stating that even the strong commitments that have been taken are not enough to stay within a “safe” global temperature rise. All eyes are now on next year’s COP 24 in Katowice, Poland, where the final guidelines on how to put the Paris Agreements into action will be agreed; thus determining the future of our climatic system.

More degradation, some protection

On land, there was little progress this year in environmental matters. Deforestation remained high and Indonesia was, once again, the country that lost the most of its forested area in 2017. This occurred despite a forest development moratorium, and due principally to illegal forest burning for paper and palm oil production

Borneo fire smoke environment
Smoke from fires in Borneo could be seen from space. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Brazil, a country that had managed to reduce its rates of deforestation by 70% between 2004 and 2014, saw a new increase in its loss of forest cover, due principally to forest clearing for cattle ranching.

Bolivia, Peru, Mexico, Russia and other tropical countries in Africa and South East Asia followed similar trends, losing forest cover and releasing high amounts of greenhouse gases.

Sixth mass extinction

Extinction rates also remained high, suggesting that we are indeed facing a human-inspired sixth mass extinction. This is particularly due to habitat loss, land use change and pollution – factors which have led to the loss of half of the wildlife existent on Earth in less than 40 years: a phenomenon that some have called a “biological annihilation”.

Protected areas, one of the principal ways of facing these challenges, have also taken a number of hits in 2017, with President Trump deciding to pursue the “largest ever elimination of protected areas in US history”.

Marine optimism

In the sea, things went slightly better, with a number of initiatives increasing awareness. However, if we continue the trends of waste disposal and overfishing in 2050 there will a greater volume of plastic in the sea than fish.

There is growing concern for “plastic islands” in the ocean, which had amounted to nine million tonnes of floating plastic waste by 2015. Studies on plastic ingestion by fish – and consequently by humans – became a focal point for environmental campaigns.

Xi smiling
Will China’s Xi Jinping be the one to take the lead on a global scale? Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Some good news was centred around the declaration of new marine protected areas in many places around the world. This has meant that today, some 5.7% of the world’s ocean area is under some scheme of protection, but is still far behind the Aichi target, which aims is to protect at least 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020.

Additionally, the United Nations held the Oceans Conference in 2017 for the first time, taking place from 5 to 9 June in New York. The symposium brought together over 200 countries around the subjects concerning the degradation of our marine systems.

The conference ended with more than 1400 voluntary commitments to protect the world’s oceans, fisheries and coastal ecosystems by the participating countries. In the words of Peter Thomson, the President of the UN assembly:

“The Ocean Conference has changed our relationship with the ocean. Henceforth none can say they were not aware of the harm humanity has done to the ocean’s health. We are now working around the world to restore a relationship of balance and respect towards the ocean.”

New actors and new roles

The attitude of President Trump in the face of environmental degradation, and especially his scepticism of climate change, has left a political vacuum in terms of international leadership on environmental issues.

This opportunity did not go unnoticed, and many heads of state have been vying to fill this void. One such leader was French President Emmanuel Macron, who took the lead in making strong commitments and declarations for action on climate change.

He even convened an additional climate summit in December this year to keep the financial commitments that are necessary for the Paris deal on track.

Step forward Xi

Another key figure has been China’s president Xi Jinping. Under his stewardship, China has been taking action on green development and climate action. For example, his country has been a leader in the technological development and widespread implementation of renewable energy sources.

As a leader, Xi Jinping recognised the necessity of allying himself with other countries that occupy a similar position to his – especially with the world’s big, populated, resource-rich developing economies.

This led to him hosting the Dialogue of Emerging Market and Developing Countries conference in Xianmen, a summit that brought together the leaders of the BRICS and other developing countries.

What to expect in 2018

As environmental destruction continues its advance, it is probable that the measures taken will have to become stronger, as more people will become affected by extreme weather and lack of access to natural resources.

It will be interesting to see how countries react and what measures will be taken – both locally and globally. Perhaps these will take the form of meat taxes and measures seeking to reduce meat production more generally.

As environmental issues become more relevant in political agendas, those who are taking leadership now may be winning a new position in the international order.

In particular, China and the BRICS countries face enormous challenges – but also great opportunities – to position themselves as the leaders for a green future. Developing countries – and particularly small island states – will have to join them in their resolve and take stronger up positions themselves. They are the ones who will be facing the effects of climate change, and they do not have the resources to face them.

Time is of the essence

This year has showed, once more, that the fight against environmental destruction is a race against time. The leadership position is still open, but the challenges ahead are enormous.

As it has been completely misunderstood by the US president, it might be that it is the environmental realm where the future leadership of the world will be played out.

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