2017 in Environmental Politics

Until we solve environmental problems, every year is an interesting one for environmental politics. In 2017, there were small and large gains. The Minamata Convention on Mercury entered into force and held its first meeting. China launched a national cap and trade system for its power sector, renewing motivation to secure access to the market through trading “Internationally Transferred Mitigation Outcome (ITMOs)” in the UN climate talks.

2017 saw a significant shift in the global agenda. Climate change used to dominate the attention of the public, scholars, and policy makers. Now, we’re talking about plastics and oceans. And, on all these issues, 2017 showed that when these major economies shudder, the world shakes, as China and the US took domestic action with international ramifications for climate change and waste.

Vast Year for Oceans

Oceans were a hot topic this year generally, as part of the plastics push, as a casualty of climate change, and as a stand alone issue.

Marine protected areas are not new, but they continue to grow in size, making large marine protected areas a new norm (don’t believe me, ask my friend and colleague Justin Alger). In the Arctic, Canada announced its largest marine park to date in Tallurutiup Imanga, or Lancaster Sound, the eastern entry point for the Northwest Passage. In the Antarctic, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) established a huge marine protected area in the Ross Sea. Especially welcome news, given the vast oil and gas reserves in the region.

Niue and Chile announced three new marine parks that together are twice the size of Germany. Niue’s park represents 40% of its exclusive economic zone. Chile’s parks – the size of France – will protect the ecosystem from fishing operations. Mexico announced a large marine park around the Revillagigedo Archipelago (sometimes called the Galapagos of North America) to protect sharks, rays, whales, and turtles. The Swiss-based Oak Foundation announced $100 million to support ocean conservation activities.

Oceans were a buzz beyond the establishment of parks. The UN hosted the Ocean Conference in June 2017, further raising awareness and catalyzing over 1400 voluntary commitments (as of today). It also issued a 14-point Call to Action, which reaffirmed support for international efforts, but met resistance from the US on some issues.

Work remains. Marine protected areas represent 6% of the global oceans. Fish and other animals don’t recognize boundaries drawn on humans’ maps, of course. Efforts to protect biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction at the UN struggled to reach agreement on what could be in a future legally-binding treaty.

Plastic Mountain Becomes Visible

The UN “declared war on ocean plastic” in 2017, launching campaigns capturing global attention. The facts emerging on plastic pollution in 2017 were dire. The first-ever study of the amount of plastic produced, used, recycled and/or discarded concluded this summer, with staggering totals: 8.3 billion tons of plastic produced in just 60 years. 6.3 tons of plastic is waste, of which 79% of which is in landfills or otherwise littered on land or in the oceans. By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans. Plastics threaten humans as well. They often contain chemicals, such as softeners or flame retardants, that can be toxic, carcinogenic, or alter our endocrine system.

With this threat clear, a group of scientists issued a call for a global treaty to regulate plastic production, modelled after the Paris Agreement or the Montreal Protocol (two very different treaties). The UN Environment Assembly met under the theme “Make Pollution History,” yet struggled to pass a resolution on plastic pollution that contained specific targets and timetables, largely owing to US, China and India’s refusals.

The issue will become more dire as China announced that it will severely reduce its waste imports. The global waste trade is huge, and much of it flows into China. China did import millions of tons of plastic and other recyclables each year from the US, Europe, Canada, and Japan, among others. Most governments are caught without a response, tanking the price of recyclable material and likely leading most of it into landfills.

Renewable Energy Even Sexier

Ok, the rapid uptake of solar and wind energy may seem like old news. But, in 2017, renewables became cheaper and more available than ever before. Fossil fuel subsidies may be declining somewhat, yet they continue to create a lopsided markets, among G20 and other large economies. Still, renewables attracted more investment than fossil fuels. In 2017, markets seemed to rally behind renewable energy as governments were slow to pry themselves from old, entrenched industrial interests.

Access to renewable energy, and electricity generally, is uneven. Some projects in the Global South try to rectify this imbalance. And, imagine the promise of Tesla’s renewable energy battery piloting in Australia. Millions of people could access clean energy reliably.

Maintaining momentum is vital. In the EU, a global posterchild for how to transition to cleaner energy, there are some worries that the transition as “lost some pace,” from the impressive 2016 record of installing 86% of new energy in the form of renewables. The markets can’t do this alone, governments must step up to create protections for workers, access to energy grids, investment environments, and innovation supports, among others.

Status quo in Negotiations on Paris Agreement

The status quo is a low bar to make a “best of 2017” list, but we live in the Trumpian age where expectations are low and celebrated if met. After the US announced, and formally informed the UN, at it will leave the Paris Agreement, widespread uncertainty ensued. No one really knew if the US – still formally a party to the Agreement until 2020 – would stand silently by, engage constructively, or throw a grenade into the process.

At the most recent UN climate meeting, US delegates flew under the radar, and maintained their traditional positions. From what I saw, the US continued to push for a transparency system that is applicable to all, and remained tough in financial discussions regarding how the Adaptation Fund should serve the Paris Agreement, and signalling in advance how much developed countries would provide to developing countries. These stances are fairly traditional and in line with many other developed countries.

Flying under the radar created a vacuum in leadership, which, by some accounts China was filling. Some delegates told me China was more active and “assertive” than they had seen in sometime.

An interesting twist came from a parallel summit held by subnational US leaders. The US Climate Action Center hosted dozens of events featuring over 100 US city and state leaders to show “We’re Still in.”

What’s in Store for 2018

The rising prominence of plastics and oceans issues helps round out our understanding and regulation of environmental issues. Environment does not equate to climate, but that false equivalence has been common. If plastics and oceans can remain at the top will require significant effort by the UN and others championing these issues to convince states to adopt new stances and take action.

Meanwhile, climate change governance has a big deadline looming for 2018. The “rulebook” for how countries should interpret and act on the provisions of the Paris Agreement is supposed to be concluded in December. My expectation is that the final deal will be settled in the wee hours, after the meeting was scheduled to close, in a huddle of a few main countries. Its adoption will be gavelled through with a whimper, not a bang.



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