At the opening of the 10th Conference of the Contracting Parties (CoP) of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, held from October 28th to November 4th, IUCN Director General Julia Marton Lefèvre called on governments to make conserving wetlands and sustainable use of water the basis for a sustainable future.
With wetlands the most threatened of all ecosystems, and water “the irreplaceable source of life”, Marton-Lefèvre said, “The Ramsar Convention must be willing to lead. Urgency truly does demand that the Convention is updated, that Parties use it to build solutions and provoke action that leads to transformation.”
As the CoP drew to a close on November 4, it was time to take stock of how much progress was made.
The CoP is the forum held every three years when all 158 member countries assemble to update priorities for the Convention and adopt new commitments. Since the Convention was first agreed in 1971, understanding has grown of the importance of rivers, lakes and wetlands for human well-being and for building and sustaining economic prosperity. Member governments have gradually agreed to integrate wetland conservation into economic development.
The proposals put before this CoP were set to take this process a stage further, with Resolutions debated on wetlands and river basin management, human health, poverty reduction, urbanization and extractive industries. As the final text for each was negotiated and adopted, the Convention was laying the groundwork for helping governments to put wetlands at the centre of their plans for sustainable development.
As the CoP wound down to its final hours, however, two Resolutions were proving stubbornly contentious. It looked increasingly like agreements on how wetlands should be handled in dealing with biofuels and climate change would not be reached. Governments were split over what is needed to make biofuel production sustainable and whether there should even be explicit acknowledgement of the key roles that wetlands can play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and in helping people cope better with climate change.
At stake were the ambitions of the Convention to play its part in building a transition to a sustainable future. With the Minister of Environment for the Republic of Korea waiting to close the conference, negotiators for the EU and Brazil huddled and finally found acceptable wording.
But, the compromise meant that on the issue of climate change, the Convention merely inched forward, instead of sending a bold message of urgency. The governments participating reached the consensus they cherish, but in so doing will they let wetlands become marginalized in action on climate change?
Stopping degradation of wetlands is urgent because numerous wetlands store large amounts of carbon and hence protect the climate. Wetlands also provide natural infrastructure needed to adapt to climate change impacts on water resources.
The Ramsar CoP this year gave the Convention a stronger voice in sustainable development, but it still struggles to shout loudly about climate change. Those who understand the importance of wetlands to action on climate change will have to push harder in future.