COP27: Go beyond carbon - biodiversity and plastic pollution must play a bigger role

  • 07 March 2022 (5 min read)

There is little doubt that progress was made at COP26. Many of the commitments made were meaningful, and the promise of more aggressive policy action encouraging.

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. Of course decarbonisation is critical, but we have to ask what kind of planet do we want to save?

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 Determined Contributions (NDCs) to decarbonisation, with a focus on 2030, by the next COP in Sharm El-Sheikh in November. Previously, the deadline was 2025.

For the first time, the agreement also included a plan to reduce the use of fossil fuels, even though the final wording was disappointingly watered down to state a commitment only to “phase down” coal-fired power generation not “phase out”.

There were other frustrations of course – notably the lack of formal commitment to achieve net zero by 2050 by some of the world’s bigger emitters – but, for us, there was one glaring issue from the outset.

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.

However, not enough attention, in our view, was paid to wider environmental concerns, which meant COP26 yielded no international commitment on biodiversity. While the pledge to end deforestation by 2030 was welcome, we believe that 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.

The facts here are stark. By 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.1 The total plastic mass represents twice all living mammals, with 80% of all plastics ever produced still in the environment2 . 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 card3 . In total, up to a million people die from plastic pollution every year4 .

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 communities5 .

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 that COP took a more holistic approach and sought to properly address 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. 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. 

  • European Parliament - Plastic in the ocean: the facts, effects and new EU rules | News | European Parliament (europa.eu)
  • Stockholm Resilience center - Safe planetary boundary for pollutants, including plastics, exceeded, say researchers - Stockholm Resilience Centre
  • WWF - Revealed: plastic ingestion by people could be equating to a credit card a week - WWF-Australia - WWF-Australia
  • No Time to Waste: Tackling the plastic pollution crisis before it’s too late - Tearfund, Fauna & Flora International, WasteAid, and the Institute of Development Studies
  • European Commission - Turning the tide on single-use plastics - Publications Office of the EU (europa.eu)

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