Environment multilateralism is working – it's also the best shot to reach climate goals

Strong agreements need to be delivered at four summits this year to ensure momentum on environmental action

Cop29, to be held in November in Baku, is expected to build on the success of Cop28. UAE Presidential Court
Powered by automated translation

Building on the momentum that Cop28 has provided to the global climate fight, 2024 could be a pivotal year for environmental multilateralism. Indeed, the year presents unique opportunities as four important summits are scheduled to be held over the concluding three months – and decisions made in these meetings could be decisive.

Before that, Nairobi will host the sixth session of the UN Environment Assembly next week. As the world’s top decision-making body on the environment, the Assembly will shape the conversation on how to tackle the three-pronged planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and ever-increasing pollution and waste.

Given the ongoing debate on the effectiveness of multilateralism, recent successes such as the Kunming-Montreal global biodiversity framework of 2022 and the UAE Consensus of 2023 have somewhat restored trust in co-operation among the world’s nations. That said, strong agreements need to be delivered this year to ensure momentum on environmental action.

All eyes will be on Cop29, to be held in November in Baku. This is especially so because Cop28 in Dubai concluded with a number of positive outcomes, including a new fund for loss and damage, a global goal for adaptation, and the first mention of a transition away from fossil fuels in a UNFCCC agreement. Under its action agenda, 12 pledges, charters and declarations were issued, including the first-ever declarations on food systems transformation and health.

In Baku, the parties are expected to agree on a new post-2025 finance goal, which follows the $100 billion goal that was delayed by several years and which eroded trust in the negotiation process. An ambitious agreement on finance is much needed to restore the trust gap between developed and developing countries. Additionally, water security and clean technologies are expected to take centre stage in Azerbaijan.

These negotiations take place in times of seemingly insurmountable geopolitical divisions and against a backdrop of alarming findings

Much focus will also be on Cop16, the next UN biodiversity summit, which is slated to be held in Colombia in October and November.

In 2022, an ambitious Global Biodiversity Framework was agreed at Cop15 in Montreal. The framework commits the world to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by the end of the decade, and it has been hailed by some as nature’s equivalent of the Paris Agreement. But there have been reports about insufficient progress, with most countries yet to submit their revised National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans that should reflect increased ambition and clear implementation plans.

In Colombia, participating countries have agreed to work towards developing a broad global action plan on biodiversity and human health, while recognising the issues of equity. There is a commitment to fair and equitable sharing of benefits from genetic resources, digital sequence information and traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources.

The meeting is expected to advance the discussion and, hopefully, expedite national action plans. Marine and coastal biodiversity benefits, and risks of marine biodiversity loss, are also expected to be on the table.

Meanwhile, in November and December, the South Korean city of Busan will host talks on another urgent issue, plastic pollution, which is reaching unprecedented levels with widespread and adverse effects on wildlife, the environment and human health. To address this problem, countries are negotiating a global treaty that should be completed by the end of the year.

In March 2022, a resolution was adopted at the UN Environment Assembly to develop an international, legally binding instrument on plastic pollution that requested the convening of an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution. The Committee is tasked with developing an instrument that comprehensively addresses the full life cycle of plastic, including its production, design and disposal.

Three sessions have already taken place over the past two years, with progress being slow. A fourth session will take place in Ottawa in April, but the final push is expected when countries meet in Busan to discuss a text that presents numerous options. Finalising an ambitious draft text is seen as a challenge. At the same time, a treaty that ends plastic pollution is considered vital.

Finally, there is the issue of land degradation that officials will be looking to tackle in Riyadh in December. Every year, 100 million hectares are degraded – that’s half the size of Greenland. A recent report by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification shows that desertification is progressing fast. Further, the World Economic Forum puts half of global gross domestic product at moderate-to-high risk due to degradation.

More than a hundred countries have already set voluntary targets for neutralising land degradation by 2030 and about $5 billion in funding have flowed into global efforts to tackle desertification, land degradation and drought between 2016 and 2019. Parties assembled in Riyadh will have a challenging discussion on how to reverse these trends and to accelerate efforts to restore 1 billion hectares of land by 2030.

All this is to underscore the fact that climate change, biodiversity, desertification and plastic pollution are interlinked. Failing to tackle one issue could result in failing to tackle the rest. Even separately, these are considered some of the most pressing – if not existential – threats of our time.

There is little doubt that the negotiations listed above take place in times of seemingly insurmountable geopolitical divisions and against a backdrop of alarming findings. For instance, 2023 was the hottest year on record, and it exceeded 1.5°C of warming on average for the first time. Species are disappearing faster than ever in human history, with biodiversity declining by an average of 69 per cent in the past 50 years alone. Almost half of the world’s plastic waste is landfilled and makes up 80 per cent of all marine pollution.

Recent years, however, have proved that environmental multilateralism is working. It remains our best shot at tackling the complex and interconnected environmental challenges. The hope, then, is that we see more of it in 2024.

Published: February 21, 2024, 4:00 AM