Najib Saab. 17/12/2023

COP28. Despite the urgency of the challenges posed by climate change, the world faces other environmental problems that are no less important and cannot be ignored. The twenty-eighth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) in the UAE, coincided with the twenty-third Conference of the Parties to the Barcelona Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment and the Coastal Region of the Mediterranean (COP23), which took place on Slovenia’s Mediterranean coast. These are only two among dozens of conferences of the parties to international environmental treaties and agreements, beginning with seas, deserts and wetlands, and not ending with mountains, biodiversity and toxic waste.

While the parties conferences on climate attract international media attention, the conferences of the parties to other major environmental agreements are ignored, even though they also raise issues of concern to billions of people and involve intense debates and disagreements, which are no different in essence, from the areas of disagreement in climate meetings. This goes beyond the division between the interests of rich countries and the rights of poor countries, to the confines that govern the exploitation of resources and how to reconcile sovereign rights and national interests on the one hand, and shared regional and international concerns on the other, let alone financing and division of responsibilities and obligations.

The climate conference ended well, despite the long discussions and disagreements, leading to compromises in which each party considered its team a winner, which is a positive indicator, as the success of international negotiations is only achieved through compromises. So what about the conference of parties to the Mediterranean agreement, which was completely ignored by the media, except in the host country, Slovenia?

The Mediterranean Action Plan was the first of 18 initiatives for the management of regional seas, launched by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1974, some of which are administered by UNEP and others independently, and today comprise 143 countries. In addition to the Mediterranean programme, Arab countries participate in the Regional Organization for the Conservation of the Environment of the Red Sea & Gulf of Aden (PERSGA), and the Regional Organization for the Protection of the Marine Environment (ROPME), which includes Arab Gulf states and Iran.

Within the framework of the Mediterranean Action Plan, member states established the Barcelona Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean from Pollution, which has evolved to include the protection of marine environment and the coastal zone, and support the achievement of sustainable development goals in the basin countries. Seven binding protocols emerged from the agreement, covering the protection of the Mediterranean from pollution caused by ships and aircraft, with an emergency plan for cooperation in addressing pollution incidents, combating pollution from land-based sources, establishing protected areas that preserve the sustainability of natural wealth and biodiversity, transporting hazardous waste across borders, integrated management of coastal zones, and protecting the sea from pollution resulting from exploration and investment activities for marine resources, especially oil and gas. The convention and its protocols are binding for the 22 member states, which are part of the Conference of the Parties.

The Mediterranean, on whose shores are located countries from Europe, Asia and Africa, resembles a big lake, slightly connected to the Atlantic Ocean by the Strait of Gibraltar and to the Red Sea by the narrow Suez Canal. The Adriatic and the Black Sea are part of the marine body of the Mediterranean. Being a semi-enclosed sea, it takes the Mediterranean a hundred years to replenish its waters, making its environment very sensitive to pollution, taking into account that it receives 730 tons of plastic waste on a daily basis, and the temperature in its basin is rising 20 per cent faster than the global average.

COP23 for the Mediterranean succeeded in reviewing an agenda consisting of dozens of items and thousands of pages, and approving it within four days, without the need to postpone or extend. The member parties agreed on practical programs to stop the decline in biodiversity, strengthening measures to eliminate carbon that harms the marine environment, limiting the use of single-use plastics up to preventing their production and circulation, allocating 30% of coastal areas as nature reserves by 2030, and strengthening integrated management programs for coastal zones. One of the most prominent decisions was the establishment of a Mediterranean Center for Climate Change, based on a proposal from Turkey, whose goal is to monitor and develop joint programs to reduce emissions, as well as to meet the challenges of climate change, namely, adaptation measures.

Since many European countries share this sea, they, along with European Union bodies, support programs to protect and develop it in a sustainable manner, in order to preserve their own interests, which explains why they contribute the largest part of project financing. However, North-South differences were still there, as disagreements emerged which required intense discussions to reach compromises. One example was the objection of developing countries from the southern Mediterranean basin to the inclusion of specific fish types in the list of protected species, because, according to them, this threatens a major source of income and livelihood of fishermen in those countries. Such a conflict is reminiscent of similar disagreements at the climate conference, where meat-producing countries opposed placing strict restrictions on raising cows, a prominent source of methane, the most powerful greenhouse gas, because it harms their farmers and economic interests.

The events in Gaza were not absent from the Mediterranean Conference, as Slovenian Prime Minister Robert Golob said, in a speech before the General Assembly, that protecting the Mediterranean cannot succeed if armed conflicts and the killing of civilians do not stop, explaining that there is no point in protecting the environment and natural resources while violating human rights. He called for a two-state solution in Palestine as a basis for a just peace, which will reflect positively on all Mediterranean countries. While this speech prompted an objection from the Israeli representative, who considered it a departure from the topic of the conference, the rest of the participants found that environmental protection and human rights cannot be separated.

COP23 succeeded in developing a plan to protect fish. Will the international community succeed in protecting humans?