International declarations and other environmental promises: A game for those who talk but don’t walk

By Peter Burnett

When is an international declaration on the environment worth the paper it’s printed on? Don’t worry, it’s a rhetorical question. Based on the way the Australian Government treats them, they’re not worth anything. Consider what we’ve recently said about forests and climate change.

When it comes to forests, Australia stands with Bolsonaro

I was a little taken aback when, at last November’s climate summit in Glasgow, Australia joined 140 other countries in signing the Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land Use.

The declaration pledges to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 and the signatories represent 85% of the globe’s forested land.

Surely this was great news!

Unfortunately, of course, it was too good to be true. Countries were playing the old environmental promises game again. All you have to do is sign up — no action required.

Even President Bolsonaro of Brazil had signed! The same Bolsonaro who has been widely condemned for accelerating the destruction of the Brazilian Amazon.

As a declaration, this document is not legally binding. It’s also full of weasel words like ‘sustainable land use’ and ‘opportunities … to accelerate action’.

And, of course, even if you cut down all the trees, it’s not deforestation … as long as you plant new ones!

Are they any more serious at the OECD?

More recently, environment ministers from OECD countries had one of their five-yearly (or so) pow-wows in Paris at the end of March. Australia’s minister Sussan Ley was one of the vice-chairs and of course the OECD Secretary-General, Australia’s own Mathias Cormann, was there to advise ministers in their deliberations.

The top agenda topics were climate and plastics and the meeting yielded a formal outcome, the OECD Declaration on a Resilient and Healthy Environment for All.

Now we’ll see some action, I thought — unlike the UN, the OECD regards ministerial declarations as legal instruments, having a ‘solemn character’, though in this case the declaration is not actually legally binding.

So, I thought (naively) if this is a solemn commitment they’ll have to act!

The declaration committed OECD countries to net-zero by 2050, ‘including through accelerated action in this critical decade with a view to keeping the limit of a 1.5°C temperature increase within reach’ (my emphasis).

You might think this would require Australia to increase the ambition of its ‘26-28% by 2030’ target, but I’m sure you’d be wrong.

The Australian Government would probably cite later words from the statement that ‘we underscore the need to pursue collective action’ to achieve the Paris Agreement. We’ll step up if everyone else does so first.

Alternatively, we might announce ‘accelerated action’ in December 2029. I’m sure the lawyers will come up with something to get us off the hook.

Ministers also committed to ‘strengthen our efforts to align COVID-19 recovery plans with environmental and climate goals to build a green, inclusive and resilient recovery for all.’ If you thought this would require Australia to increase its policy ambition and pursue a green recovery, again I think you would be wrong.

I expect the government would say (without hint of irony or embarrassment), that its stimulus efforts were already ‘green, inclusive and resilient’. Green is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.

Plastic promises in Paris

Finally, ministers at the OECD pow wow committed to developing ‘comprehensive and coherent life cycle approaches to tackle plastic pollution’ and ‘promoting robust engagement in the intergovernmental negotiating committee to develop an internationally legally binding instrument on plastic pollution with the ambition of completing negotiations by the end of 2024’.

Australia is on more solid ground here, as it has some genuine policy ambition on plastics. These were forced on it when China stopped all imports of plastics and other waste in 2018, including ours, but … it’s the result that counts!

And no doubt Australia is happy enough to commit to an objective of negotiating a convention on plastics over the next nearly-three years. After all, it’s only a process commitment.

Much of the rest of the declaration consisted of pious incantations or directions to the OECD bureaucracy to do more work on policy tools, data-gathering and the like. No problems here — apart from a few dollars to support the OECD machine, this work creates no obligations.

In terms of putting ‘walk’ over ‘talk’ (ie, actions over words), Paris rates just a little ahead of Glasgow. I’d give the Paris declaration 2 out of 10 and Glasgow 1.

Postcard from Mathias: feeling expansive in Paris

A couple of other things jumped out at me in reading the record of the OECD meeting in Paris.

How strange it is to my Australian ears to hear Mathias Cormann abandon his ‘tell-em-nothing, concede nothing’ Australian political style, in favour of spruiking the international environmental cause, even though he did so in very-OECD economistic terms. I’ve emphasised the interesting words:

Secretary-General, Mr. Mathias Cormann, stressed the importance of a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach to meeting the climate challenge. He set out key thoughts in this regard including the need to mainstream climate change across all areas, step up efforts on implementation, to secure real net reductions in emissions, mobilise investment and realign global flows towards the transition, the need for reliable data and monitoring, and the importance of enhancing efforts towards adaptation and managing losses and damages.

Esperanto anyone?

Of greater interest, the environment ministers had lunch with a group of business leaders. Emmanuel Faber, Chair of the International Sustainability Standards Board, and former CEO of Danone, a multinational food corporation based in Paris, stressed the need for:

a common language to understand the climate impact of portfolios, underlining this pivotal moment in developing such a common language that can guide decisions to align finance with environmental goals and avoid greenwashing (emphasis added)

We have such a common language in the form of the System of Environmental Economic Accounting (SEEA), adopted in 2012 and enhanced with a standard for Ecosystem Accounting in 2021.

In my view, what we really need is for governments to learn to speak it! (Reminded me of Esperanto — great idea, but a little lacking on the uptake)

While my main point has been to decry the dominance of talking over walking, in the case of environmental accounting, talking is walking!

Banner image: Vaunting ambitions declared in Paris amount to little back home.
(Image by GAIMARD at Pixabay)

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