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What we learned from COP26

COP26 was the most hyped and hypocritical gathering ever of the political, business and NGO elites. Even Greta Thunberg’s fearmongering was eclipsed. UK prime minister Boris Johnson said it was ‘a one minute to midnight moment’ before a ‘detonation ended human life as we know it’. The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury said world leaders would be ‘cursed’ if they didn’t reach a ‘meaningful agreement’. He warned that a failure to act would lead to ‘genocide on an infinitely greater scale than the Holocaust’. Prince Charles trumped them all by demanding that the world be put on a ‘war footing’.

Billionaire Jeff Bezos took the scenic route to COP26 in Glasgow. First, he blasted into space on his private rocket, where he observed that ‘looking back at Earth from up there, the atmosphere seems so thin, the world so finite and so fragile’. He then refreshed himself aboard his super yacht before boarding his gas-guzzling personal jet. When he finally arrived he lectured the masses on the need to ‘stand together to protect our world’ by ‘cutting our (sic) carbon footprint’. But poking fun at the hyperbole and hypocrisy is easy. What’s more challenging is to dig deep into the COP26 mire to discover insights to help conservationists prepare for CITES COP19.

At COP26 around 40 of the 40 000 or so delegates were involved in the negotiations behind closed doors. So, what did the others do for two weeks in Glasgow? According to the former prime minister of Iceland David Gunnlaugsson, the day-long agenda was primarily divided into three recurring categories: ‘advocacy sessions’, ‘inspirational talks’ and ‘expert opinion’. Parliamentarians, he observed, could only ask questions by email, and there was no vote on the final conference declaration. (See COP26: where democracy goes up in flames.) 

In that regard, COP26 was nothing like a CITES COP. But I have noted in the past how parties to CITES tend to decide which way to vote before the scientific evidence has been presented, well before the COPs are convened. This leaves scientists and those most affected by proposed prohibitions or restraints on trade with little chance to influence the outcome. Deliberations and debates at COPs are increasingly impotent. 

Released at the start of COP26, the Declaration on Forests and Land Use presupposed that the science was settled. It was as if all that was needed was a set of achievable targets (see our summary here). But there is no scientific consensus when it comes to forestry’s role in combatting global warming.

The COP26 forestry agreement soon fell into disrepute. Within days Indonesia said it was unfair to force its country to commit to zero deforestation by 2030. The authorities could not, its environment minister said, ‘promise what we can’t do’. She added that ‘the country’s vast natural resources must be used for the benefit of its people’.

A prestigious paper in Nature concluded that it remains to be confirmed whether commonly proposed sustainable European forest-management portfolios would comply with the Paris Agreement. We simply don’t know whether forests can ‘reduce the growth rate of atmospheric CO2, reduce the radiative imbalance at the top of the atmosphere, and neither increase the near-surface air temperature nor decrease precipitation by the end of the twenty-first century`. Other scientific reports suggest that methane fluxes from Amazon tree stems are up to 200 times larger than emissions reported for temperate wet forests. The Earth Innovation Institute’s Dan Depst maintains that the ‘Amazon produces a lot of oxygen but it uses the same amount of oxygen through respiration so it’s a wash’. Leading experts point out that ‘large-scale increases in forest cover can actually make global warming worse’ because all the carbon that trees store is released when they die or burn (see To save the planet, don’t plant trees). 

In other words, there is neither consensus on the targets nor the science. Meanwhile in Brazil… 

Of course, to the UN the efficacy of the forestry agreement was less important than the PR it initially generated. This reminded me of CITES’ headline-grabbing showboat listings which were a disaster because they did more harm than good: nearly every shark in the appendices, Aquilla aquilla (European eels), some big cats, giraffes, Southern African elephants and much more. 

What, then, besides a temporary PR boost, was the forestry agreement good for? Well, I concur with Survival International that what’s afoot is ‘the biggest land grab in history’. The environmental NGOs want to put off limits to human use 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030, supposedly to prevent mass extinctions and bolster resilience to climate change. To this end at COP26, the Bezos Earth Fund announced it was allocating two billion dollars to ‘create, expand, manage, and monitor protected and conserved areas’, especially in the ‘Congo Basin, the tropical Andes, and the tropical Pacific Ocean’. This brings Jeff Bezos’ investment in environmental causes (read NGOs) to three billion dollars. 

Following Prince Charles’ call to militarise climate change, maybe the billionaire-backed misanthropists will commission a fleet of well-armed, hi-tech warships to police the high seas. Or perhaps they’ll finance eco-guards equipped with helicopter gunships to take command of the Congo Basin. After all, Sea Shepherd already possesses a piratical navy. WWF’s border-blind militarized activities are infamous. In today’s climate, real power is becoming more corporate (billionaire oligarchs, philanthropic funds and FAANG stocks), increasingly outsourced (NGO-like) and supranational (global institutions). Massive decommercialized conservation zones on land won’t respect national boundaries and on the high seas the no-take zones will be beyond them. Meanwhile national sovereignty is regarded, especially when developing countries exercise it, as problematic. 

The fossil fuel ‘agreement’ was the biggest farce of all. As one newswire reporter commented, the national signatories to the COP26 coal pledge accounted for around 13 per cent of global output. These included ten countries that don’t burn coal to produce electricity. While the big users – like the US, China, and India – put their people first and didn’t sign up. 

COP26 blurred the line between NGOs, politicians, business leaders and the clergy. The NGOs were invited by the UN to be surrogates for the public. The NGOs covered their own costs using money donated by the business and political elites, from whom they derive most of their cash and clout. WWF hired a prominent pavilion in the blue zone. From there it called on world leaders to ‘finance the future’, aka WWF, and ‘pivot to action’, aka put WWF in charge of programmes. That’s the circular economy. 

There is no denying that COP26 enriched and empowered the NGOs orbiting CITES. At COP19 the NGOs will be under pressure to justify their existence by producing ‘results’ (read the quantity of new listings added to CITES’ appendices) and to push CITES to the extremes. So, I expect NGOs to turn up in record numbers to host more champagne receptions, with vegan canapés, than they did at COP18 (that’s a lot).

In Panama the NGOs will claim that the animal kingdom faces imminent extinction. The planet, they’ll stress, risks burning in hell unless CITES lists in its appendices the bulk of the species involved in the wildlife trade. The fishing industry will be accused of being the ‘greatest cause of ecological destruction’, harming biodiversity and contributing to global warming (see Sea Change). They will call for measures to be taken to strengthen existing prohibitions (watchout Southern Africa) and they’ll try to push the Convention beyond its constitutional boundaries (Covid, domestic wildlife and ivory markets). 

The usual suspects, the EU, UK, Senegal, and Kenya, will be only too pleased to promulgate the rhetoric justifying the NGOs’ agenda. It is easy for them because they have either little to no skin in the game or remain under the colonial heel. If the NGOs get their way, the global fishing industry, the human rights and livelihoods of indigenous, rural and coastal communities, along with the security of the world’s food supply will be sacrificed. 

But Southern African and Asian countries could emulate at CITES (especially if COP19 turns the screw on them) what the refuseniks did at COP26: act as a bloc. The fishing nations of the world could also lend their support to those fighting the sustainable use cause on the land. But after all the avenues within the CITES paradigm are exhausted, rule breaking might be the only means at our disposal to stop the prohibitionists obliterating the wildlife trade.

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