The G7 are, by definition, amongst the world’s wealthiest and influential nations. Where they go other countries follow – so when the leaders of these countries talk a good game on the environment but then continue to act in ways that completely ignore, or worse, undermine protection of the environment then other countries will follow suit.
This environment, and particularly the oceans, have been higher up the political agenda at this year’s G7 than in previous years with a succession of strong sounding commitments included in the G7 environment ministers’ communique. However, impressive promises and ambitious targets have been made many times before. It is hard to keep track of how many times world leaders have pledged to end overfishing, tackle the scourge of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, protect vast swathes of the ocean and end subsidies that support environmentally damaging fishing. Yet all these things continue unabated.
All G7 countries have consistently pledged their commitment to end overfishing and restore the seas. Just last year, the Leaders Pledge for Nature, a string of important commitments led by the UK and signed by most of the current leaders of the G7, explicitly said they would end unsustainable use of the oceans – yet just a few weeks later we saw several of the signatories pushing for continued overfishing. From the “30×30” commitment, to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, to the Convention on Biodiversity, to the UN Shared Stocks agreement, a smorgasbord of formal and informal international agreements exist committing to restore our oceans yet somehow the problems continue. The issue is not a lack of commitments or bad targets – it is a lack of action and political will.
All the G7 nations are guilty of making impressive promises to protect areas of the sea and then creating small ‘paper parks’ where nothing harmful is actually prohibited, the sites aren’t monitored or they are placed in areas where there is little human activity causing damage anyway.
There is a twin climate and biodiversity crisis, this cannot be denied. The conventions to solve these challenges remain separate. Policy must deliver on the targets of climate and biodiversity conventions simultaneously, recognising the inextricable links between the two. The G7 must drive better connectivity between the UNFCCC and Convention on Biodiversity processes. Leaders must devote time and money to understanding the opportunity for Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to drive domestic marine conservation and restoration.
NDCs are statements of ambition, waiting for all evidence to be in place risks further catastrophic decline of blue carbon habitats. Properly protecting these should be a priority for all G7 countries, for the extraordinary co-benefits that they provide. Rapid investigation of the impact of mobile contact bottom fishing on carbon stocks and the carbon cycle must be a priority.
Urgent and ambitious actions are needed. Unfortunately, what we see is urgent and ambitious pronouncements followed by very little in the way of substantive action. Governments are doing some good things – just not many and not fast enough. Declaring an official ‘biodiversity emergency’ and then doing next to nothing to respond to it raises serious questions about the G7’s understanding of the issues and the honesty of the commitments.
So what can the G7 leaders do immediately that would show real leadership? Firstly, they could all push for and vote to end harmful fishing subsidies at the World Trade Organisation in a couple of weeks. These subsidies use public money to sustain hugely damaging high seas fleets that are plundering the world’s shared environmental riches hundreds and thousands of miles away from their homes. Without these subsidies damaging high seas fleets would no longer be economical. Secondly, they could get their own houses in order – stop overfishing in domestic waters, implement a network of marine protected areas where all damaging fishing is banned and where at least 10% of their national waters are fully protected.
The G7 countries are fond of calling themselves “world leaders”. Perhaps it is time they led by example.