Oceans, biodiversity, deforestation: what’s on the climate agenda for 2020?

This year could be crucial in determining the response to the environmental crises

Climate protesters in Lausanne

World leaders and business chiefs meeting in Davos this week will be confronted for the first time with an agenda on which the climate and ecological crises take top billing. Financial and economic concerns have been shunted down the list of priorities in favour of five environmental issues: climate breakdown and extreme weather; failure to mitigate or adapt to climate change; human-made pollution; biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse; and natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions.

Green campaigners and social and human rights activists have been raising concerns on all of these for more than two decades, but it seems that finally the world’s powers are paying attention. In some cases it may be too late to act to avoid the consequences of the delay in taking action.

Since 2015 when the landmark Paris agreement was signed, greenhouse gas emissions have risen a further 4% and although there are signs the rate of increase may be slowing, that is nowhere near enough. Oceans are at the hottest ever recorded.

Last year, ecological scientists said 1 million species were on the brink of extinction. The biomass of wild animals on the planet has fallen by more than 80%, about half of the area of key natural ecosystems has been lost, and insect populations have crashed, according to the report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in 2018 that by 2030 the world must be on track or exceeding 1.5C of global heating above pre-industrial levels would be all but inevitable. Warming has already topped 1C and 2019 was the second hottest year on record.

As the Davos agenda shows, businesses are taking note. Ashim Paun, the global co-head of environmental, social, and governance research at HSBC, said: “Will 2020 be an inflexion point? Our investor clients increasingly think climate change is absolutely core to their investment processes. So this year we look to major political and policy developments – the details of the EU green deal in March, the outcome of elections, particularly the US where we see the outcome as fairly binary for climate, and whether this year’s climate talks in Glasgow [in November] can regain previous momentum.”

There is plenty that all people around the world can do to get involved and shape the direction of this crunch decade. “2019 proved that activism works,” said Richard George, a climate campaigner for Greenpeace. “The amazing contributions from the school strikers and Extinction Rebellion, along with many others, got us a net zero target [in the UK and other countries], and almost universal agreement that not only is climate change happening but action to stop it is both vital and urgent. What we need now is real action to get the carbon out of our energy, transport, food and finance sectors, which means turning up the heat on politicians and corporations. This is the year to do it.”

There will be international conferences this year on the climate, the oceans, biodiversity, deforestation and a host of other pressing environmental concerns. Many targets and deadlines for taking action are pegged to 2020, and governments and businesses will have to answer for any failure to meet those goals. The world is changing and leaders in all spheres are recognising that people are no longer willing to passively accept environmental destruction.

Here’s what to look out for in 2020.

Nearly five years have passed since the signing of the Paris agreement pledging to prevent global heating of more than 2C above pre-industrial levels. Since then, progress has stalled. Last year’s UN climate conference in Madrid ended inconclusively with no agreement on some basic aspects of implementing Paris. More importantly, countries’ commitments on cutting greenhouse gas emissions under the 2015 accord are inadequate to stay within the 2C limit and would lead to a disastrous 3C rise.

That makes this year’s climate summit the biggest since Paris. Governments must come to COP26 in Glasgow in November armed with new emissions targets commensurate to the risk of climate breakdown. If Donald Trump is still in power, other countries must press ahead without the US and face down challenges to the Paris accord from Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Russia and others. That will be a massive struggle, and strong clear messages from civil society will be vital to its success.

Trump has blasted through federal protections ranging from clean air and water to Alaskan drilling and pipeline construction, and if he wins a second term he is likely to continue on that track. In international terms his influence has been baleful on climate action: he started the formal process to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement in 2017, and that decision that will come into effect the day after the presidential election on 3 November. COP26 begins on 9 November and the US delegation will be drawn from the Trump White House whatever the election outcome. British diplomats will be looking to use the supposedly friendly relationship between Trump and Boris Johnson to try to ensure the US does not play a disruptive role.

Trump will also preside over the G7 meeting in June, which means environmental issues will be off the agenda. In some previous years, notably 2005-07, the then G8’s focus on the climate proved a valuable spur to progress in the UN climate talks. This year that will be missing.

Plastic pollution, overfishing, overheating and acidification from climate change are driving a crisis in the oceans. The World Ocean Summit in early March in Tokyo will set out the latest science on ocean health and present possible solutions. Later that month, from 23 March to 3 April, comes the final scheduled meeting of the UN effort to draft a new global treaty on the seas. IGC4 aims to set out a new legally binding instrument on “the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction”.

Ecosystems around the world, from the Amazon to the Antarctic, are on the verge of collapse owing to human encroachment and exploitation, pollution, water scarcity and the impacts of global heating.

Two meetings will focus attention on the loss of biodiversity and ways to stem further destruction. The World Conservation Congress in mid-June in Marseille is a four-yearly meeting of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the organisation that compiles the global red lists of endangered and threatened species.

A series of meetings held under the UN convention on biological diversity will culminate in a meeting at Kunming, China, in October where progress – or the lack of it – on protecting wildlife and plants will be assessed. The current global biodiversity action plan runs from 2011 to 2020 and its key aims are likely to be missed. A new action plan for the next decade should be adopted at the Kunming conference.

The Paris agreement was not the only major international achievement of 2015: there was also the signing of the UN sustainable development goals, a set of 17 plans to remedy social and environmental ills – including eliminating poverty and hunger, empowering women and girls, improving access to healthcare and education in developing countries, and providing access to clean water and sanitation. Most of the goals are pegged to 2030, and this year is a staging post to assess progress at the UN high-level political forum in New York in July.

The last few years have seen a new wave of environmental activism targeting businesses, whether through divestment campaigns aimed at fossil fuel investors, arts sponsorship deals or direct action. That is likely to increase in 2020 as the impact has become clearer. BlackRock made an unprecedented decision last week to start stepping out of investments with a high climate risk, and other funds will come under pressure to follow suit. There are a variety of ways people can make their views known to company boards, from questioning their pension funds to joining protests or even becoming a shareholder.

Globalisation has led to a massive increase in carbon from shipping, which now represents 3% of all greenhouse gas emissions but will reach 17% by 2050 if unchecked. But shipping has been deliberately excluded from UN climate negotiations and little progress has been made in the last two decades on cutting greenhouse gases from one of the dirtiest forms of transport. At the International Maritime Organisation meeting in March in London, countries are supposed to come up with a new way forward to fulfil the UN agency’s aims of halving shipping emissions by mid-century – a goal that campaigners say is still inadequate. Last year Extinction Rebellion led effective protests. This year, decisions deferred last year will come back to the agenda.

In 2010, companies from around the world joined forces on a target to banish deforestation for palm oil from their supply chains permanently by 2020. That target looks far from being met, but at the Consumer Goods Forum in June in London the signatory companies will have to explain their progress and what they hope to do to improve their performance. Palm oil is one of the biggest drivers of deforestation, particularly in south-east Asia where wildlife ranging from the orangutan to the Sumatran elephant and rhino are being endangered. Consumers have the chance to make their views felt: nobody wants their grocery shopping to contribute to species loss, and there are ways to grow natural resources without causing ecological disaster. It is up to producer companies and retailers to make the difference.

The new European commission took office in Brussels late last year with one central promise: a green deal for Europe, by which the whole of the European economy and EU regulations would be overhauled to put environmental protections at the heart of continued prosperity. Clean energy, transport and industry will create new green jobs to replace those lost in polluting industries, and citizens will enjoy cleaner air, water, a healthier natural environment and a stable climate. That is the goal, at least. Living up to that promise will involve hard choices and skilful diplomacy, and in the course of this year the European commission, member states and EU parliament will face a series of key votes and decisions.

The EU will also play a leading role in COP26, and the EU-China summit pegged for mid-September in Leipzig in Germany will be key. With the US rejecting the Paris agreement, cooperation between the world’s other biggest emitters will be vital, so the EU must forge a partnership with China or face failure at COP26.

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