It’s a very busy week in the Netherlands mainly because Sinterklaas Day is on December 5th. Now if you’re not Dutch or have any association with the Netherlands then you may not be up to speed with the arrival of Sinterklaas, so let me break it down for you.
Sinterklaas is based on Saint Nicolas and bears a striking resemblance to another old, grey-haired gentleman, who also fancies red and white attire and hands out gifts, and whose big day is the 25th of December. But unlike Father Christmas, Sinterklaas makes his way to the Netherlands by steamboat from Spain in mid-November arriving at a different port each year and parading through the streets on a white horse, carrying sweets for the kids and a naughty and nice book so he knows who to give presents to. Come Sinterklaas Eve, everybody gets a gift: the kids love it and importantly people get to spend time with their families and friends.
For the record, neither of us are Dutch, we are mostly paraphrasing what our friends and colleagues say, but you get the general idea.
Like most successful traditions and legends, it needs two ingredients to survive and thrive:
1. A set of Believers: in this case, all the kids who love the idea of Sinterklaas and passionately await his arrival; and
2. A set of Keepers of the Trust: from the parents, guardians and teachers who go to extraordinary lengths to keep the tradition alive by hiding pepernoten (a Dutch sweet that is ubiquitous during this period) in shoes, to the cities that put on a show to celebrate his arrival. There’s even a daily Sinterklaas Journal that maps his journey across the country!
At this point you are probably wondering what does Sinterklaas have to do with global environmental policy? So here it comes.
The Climate CoP that is underway right now in Spain is being billed as the “point of no return” CoP given that we are facing a climate emergency. If you do a Google news search for ‘climate emergency’, you’ll find the EU officially declaring an emergency and the President of the European Central Bank saying they need to increase their efforts. It’s even the Oxford dictionary’s ‘word of the year’ for 2019. Not to mention all the scientists, environmentalists and activists calling for more action in the fight against climate change.
Returning to our Sinterklaas criteria, we have a pretty strong case for a set of believers who want to see us take bigger strides to create a more sustainable planet.
But the struggle is whether we have enough of Keepers of the Trust who are committed to putting us on a new trajectory to create this more sustainable planet. The structures are there but most are extraordinarily under-resourced.
First up let’s look at the UNFCCC Secretariat (UN Climate Change), which was established in 1992 when countries adopted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. They have around 450 staff who are entrusted with helping governments implement the Paris agreement, providing technical expertise to enable this to happen. Assuming all countries make their contribution to the Secretariat they have an annual budget of just over US$26 million to tackle the climate emergency.
Sounds like a lot but in the last 50 years, the global average temperature has risen at 170 times the background rate. And our response? Almost 75% of the climate pledges that countries have made are partially or totally insufficient to contribute to reducing GHG emissions by 50% by 2030, and some of the ambitious pledges are unlikely to be achieved. Scary but that’s our reality.
Next on the list is the other great global crisis: the loss of biodiversity.
First let’s look at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (aka CITES), an international agreement that aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. The annual budget for the CITES Secretariat is just a tick over US$6 million — which has to fund a lengthy list of tasks from the usual coordination, technical and legal advice to support with science and training. It’s far too long a list for a 6 million-dollar annual budget.
And a drop in the (often illegally pillaged) ocean when compared to the value of the illegal wildlife trade — estimated at between US$7 billion and US$23 billion each year, making it the fourth most lucrative global trafficking crime after drugs, humans and arms.
Then there’s the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which entered into force in 1993. They have a budget of around US$12.7 million. CBD was the first global agreement to cover all aspects of biological diversity: the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources. The Secretariat has the unenviable task of implementing the goals of the convention.
And the reality on the ground? Populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians have, on average, declined by 60% between 1970 and 2014, the most recent year with available data.
We can’t talk about environmental agreements without talking about the Ramsar Convention, the oldest multilateral international conservation convention and the only one to deal with one habitat or ecosystem type, wetlands. They’ve been going since 1975 on a shoestring budget! The country contributions to the Convention in 2019 were just under US$1.9 million. Given that wetlands comprise the world’s most economically valuable ecosystems, are essential regulators of the global climate and crucial for our water security, surely they deserve a bit more? The numbers suggest they desperately need more attention. They are disappearing three times faster than forests and approximately 35% of the world’s wetlands were lost between 1970–2015!
Finally, let’s look at the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. It was adopted in 1989 by the Conference of Plenipotentiaries (fancy word for diplomat) in Switzerland in response to a public outcry following the discovery in the 1980s in Africa and other parts of the developing world of deposits of toxic wastes imported from abroad. This Convention has an annual budget of around US$4.8 million to perform its duties to the states.
What’s our reality? We chose one of the most topical pollutants, plastic — but we did have a rather long list to choose from. Of the 6.3 billion tons of plastic people have thrown away since the world started mass-producing it in the 1950s, just 600 million tones have been recycled — and 4.9 billion tones has been sent to landfill or left in the natural environment.
If you do the maths, that’s a total of US$51.4 million as an annual budget to support countries in delivering their environmental commitments. To put this into perspective — and we can keep it Dutch — people in the Netherlands spent over US$77 million just on fireworks to light up the start of 2019.
Each of the above agreements were signed at a moment in our history because we recognized we needed to do something, whether it was addressing pollutants, protecting other species or fighting climate change. They were designed to place us on a better path, but here we are in 2019 staring down the abyss of the “point of no return”.
But let’s be brutally honest (another wonderful Dutch tradition): those that we have entrusted to deliver these commitments have not lived up to our expectations. The numbers don’t lie, whether its wildlife trade, species decline, plastic pollution or climate change. The Secretariats of these conventions are invariably underfunded to assist countries in taking on these challenges — not to mention the struggles that Ministries of Environment across the world have to access a decent budget to try and implement the commitments they have made.
So this begs the question, as we go forth into 2020 (arguably the most important year for the sustainable future of the planet) to discuss a more ambitious global biodiversity framework and review of the Sustainable Development Goals, maybe we need to think less about promises and pledges and more about the actions we must take to change the tragic trajectory we are on.
Given that next year’s critically important CBD COP will be held in China, it’s probably fitting to quote Confucius: “The ancients were reluctant to speak, fearing disgrace if their actions didn’t match their words.”
That’s solid advice for those that we entrust to go into these global meetings and negotiate a new ambitious agenda. It should not be about constantly committing to do more but rather actually striving for greater impact in relation to what we have already promised. Grand new ambition without action only makes us stare deeper into the abyss. And history tells us that we do have the ability to get this right. Take the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (a protocol to the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer). Because of the effective implementation of this agreement, the ozone layer will return to 1980 levels between 2050 and 2070 making it one of the most successful international agreements ever.
A good example is what needs to be done to reverse the catastrophic 83% loss of freshwater species populations since 1970. There are six actions that all countries could implement that would have a significant impact on freshwater populations. And if we act decisively to implement this emergency recovery plan, we will help to reverse the trend in freshwater species — and enhance the health of rivers and other freshwater wetlands, which are critical to global efforts to adapt to and mitigate climate change and provide greater water security for people.
What we all need now is people in positions of real influence in government, private companies and financial institutions to prove that we can trust them to do what is necessary. And it’s not just about money, although a bit more for the world’s environmental conventions would be a great gift for this holiday season: it’s about really striving to hit all the already-agreed targets. We have enough passionate believers who continue to give their very best to see a more sustainable planet — we need more Trust Keepers.
You cannot go wrong with a combination of Believers and Trust Keepers and if you don’t believe us just ask any toddler in the Netherlands for their opinion on Sinterklaas!