Photo by Erik Karits
“Biodiversity is fundamental to human well-being and a healthy planet, and economic prosperity for all people. Including for living well in balance and in harmony with Mother Earth, we depend on it for food, medicine, energy, clean air and water, security from natural disasters as well as recreation and cultural inspiration, and it supports all systems of life on earth.”Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, Section A, 1.
I had been dreading COP15, because engaging with two weeks of the litany of destruction of wildlife, catastrophic species loss, and seeing indigenous people being ignored once again is not a process that feeds the soul. But as the cumbersome COP15 grinds to a halt in Montreal, it’s worth reflecting on what has become a historic agreement and includes the phrase “Mother Earth” more than once.
The purpose of the Conference of the Parties (COP) was to review progress on the aims of The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), originally signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and ratified so far by all 195 signatories apart from the US. It was designed to protect diversity of plant and animal species, ensure natural resources are used sustainably, and achieve “fair and equitable sharing” of benefits from natural genetic material in industry, including with indigenous communities and countries where they originate. However, earlier targets set in a series of COPs since 1992 were largely ignored due to the lack of accountability and a concrete roadmap. The Aichi targets of 2011 held such promise and were to have delivered a range of results to boost and protect biodiversity loss from as early as 2015, but none of them were achieved on a global scale.
COP26, the parallel UN climate conference held in Glasgow in 2021, included a special day for nature, the first time biodiversity and the climate crisis were linked at international level. But this COP15 is undoubtedly the first time that a UN biodiversity event has been treated to the full glare of global media with heads of state and ministers attending in significant numbers. Maybe we are starting to grasp the interdependence between humans and the rest of nature – how climate change simply can not be tackled without it; without biodiversity, there will be no future “us”.
This challenge was put succinctly by Sveinung Rotevatn, Norway’s climate and environment minister, at the launch in June of a report by the world’s leading biodiversity and climate experts:
“It is clear that we cannot solve [the global biodiversity and climate crises] in isolation – we either solve both or we solve neither.” The next step to watch is whether/how countries bring these goals and targets into national laws and plans, which is the place where they become legally binding.
Unlike the trusting dodo, eaten to extinction by visiting Europeans, COP15 has proved surprisingly resilient. We now have historic and specific global conservation targets for the first time: protection for 30% of land and 30% of water by 2030. Only about 15% of the world’s land and less than 8% of the oceans are currently protected. The resulting Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), known officially as the Kunming-Montreal Global biodiversity framework, is akin to a Paris Agreement for nature, setting out goals and the mechanisms for reaching them, including finance, accountability and monitoring. The GBF has taken a leap forward in terms of targets and timetables, although the goals now extend to 2050 – too late to save many places and species from irretrievable loss.
It is also not clear where this land and water will be, as some countries have little land to protect and others are extremely biodiverse. A 2021 study contained maps of the ecosystems that humanity must protect in order to meet our climate targets, including the boreal forests and peatlands of Russia, China and the US, and the tropical forests of the Amazon, Congo basin and Indonesia. These areas hold 139bn tonnes of “irrecoverable” carbon and researchers believe this is where 30×30 efforts should be concentrated. Expect more on this in the next few months and years.
This agreement is sadly set in a reality where the world’s wildlife populations have plummeted by more than two-thirds since 1970 – and there are no signs that this downward trend is slowing. The extinction risk of plants and animals is monitored on the IUCN red list, where scientists examining more than 150,388 species, have found that more than 42,000 could go extinct, often due to human behaviour. The IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) identified the five key drivers of biodiversity loss:
- changes in land and sea use;
- direct exploitation of natural resources;
- climate change;
- and invasion of alien species.
A million species are now at risk of extinction.
We have taken what we wanted from the delicate surface of our planet without thinking much about the consequences. As a result, soils are depleted and cannot grow food without tonnes of added fertiliser, which in turn runs off and pollutes our rivers and seas. We have also failed to design a circular economy and now face a mountain of refuse fuelled mostly by overconsumption. Marine plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, affecting 44% of seabirds and penetrating human tissue through the food chain: a third of UK fish and up to 100% of UK mussels have plastic in them, which we then eat. Our national dish should perhaps be called Fish & Plastic & Chips. There are even whole plastic bottles laying at the bottom of the world’s deepest Mariana Trench. Air, water and soil pollution are all on the rise in some areas, leading to devastating human health challenges, and threats to food production.
Recent new research has modelled a synthetic Earth with virtual species to understand the effect of global heating and land use change on the web of life. The researchers say 6% of plants and animals will disappear by 2050 in a middle of the road emissions scenario, rising to 13% by the end of the century. In the worst case scenario of global heating, they estimate 27% of plants and animals could disappear by 2100.
The GBF has a clear mission to halt and reduce the loss of biodiversity by 2030, but there is no numerical target, no pathway for achieving this aim, and the earlier wording of “loss reversal” did not get through to the final text.
As usual, there has been a fair amount of posturing, mane-shaking and the occasional roar. China played a key role as holders of the presidency of COP15, pushing through the financial deal and working unusually outside its usual position as leading member of the “group of 77” developing nations bloc. This is the first time China has led on a major UN environment deal, although its national covid restrictions meant that the first event was held online from Kunming in late 2021 and this second meeting moved to Montreal.
The US worked from the sidelines, as it is one of only two nations not to have ratified the treaty. US president Bill Clinton signed the CBD treaty on the US’s behalf in 1993, but the Senate refused to ratify it. The US special biodiversity envoy, Monica Medina, instead represented the US as an observer. The US is, however, a major donor, pledging $600m to the Global Environment Facility, the main UN fund for climate and biodiversity, over the next four years. USAid funding for biodiversity is also growing, with $385m of biodiversity funding in 2022. Although not a party, the US has been pushing for the GBF to be translated into a national biodiversity strategy to shadow that of the signatories. 193 other countries have so far developed forms of national biodiversity strategy.
There was plenty of controversy too. Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau’s welcome speech was drowned out by indigenous protestors calling attention to the country’s fossil fuel policies, and a large group of 70 African, South American and Asian countries walked out of negotiations for several hours on Wednesday in protest at the failure to secure adequate financial support from wealthier nations. Brazil’s incoming president, Lula brought a showbiz flavour to his speech and there was a sense of relief that the country that is home to the Amazon rainforest is back on board. The EU looked slightly on the back foot as it opposed a new fund for biodiversity and tried to water down the 30% land figure to enable extraction to continue. The UK came into the COP as co-leaders of a coalition of more than 100 countries supporting the “30×30” target, despite the fact that this target was not included in the UK government’s own plans. UK conservationists warn of the danger of creating “paper parks” that are protected in theory but not on the ground. They point to the UK government’s claim that it is protecting 28% of the country’s land for nature, but in reality it is closer to 3% according to a report by the Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCF).
The final agreement pushed strongly by China reached the crucial financial target of $200bn a year from all sources – including public and private sectors – for conservation initiatives. This target is seen as critical for the successful implementation of any deal, although developing countries were pushing for $100bn a year flowing from wealthy countries to poorer nations and the final text mentions only $20bn – to $30bn a year to come from developed countries by 2030.
It is interesting to note that some 150 financial institutions, representing over $24 trillion in assets are calling on governments to adopt measures within the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, which would clearly align financial flows with the preservation of global biodiversity, like Article 2.1C did within the Paris Agreement (a legally binding international treaty on climate change). Reports from the UNEP and the World Economic Forum found that half of the world’s GDP (approximately $44tn) is dependent on nature – for example for pollination, water quality and disease control – and every dollar invested in restoration generates up to US$30 in benefits. Some businesses see this as a win-win area but need the regulatory framework to make it happen.
Like in the field of fossil fuels, where the fear of “stranded assets” make firms drop oil and gas for reasons of risk, a new report argues that the momentum to protect nature in regulation and treaties makes biodiversity loss a material risk to companies. Failure to take nature impacts into account could leave companies toxic and unable to raise finance. A case in point is Canadian company, Belo Sun Mining, whose share price dropped over 50% following a report revealed how its plan to build the largest open pit mine in the Amazon would negatively impact water and wildlife. Investors had not been told about the ongoing suspension or cancellation of its environmental licences.
The GBF text signals to large businesses that they will be required to assess and disclose their impact on nature across their supply chains, but voluntary action does not have a good track record for reaching high standards in business. The target of making businesses halve their negative impacts on biodiversity was removed, which means there has been little discussion of the rampant overconsumption that drives biodiversity loss. There is even a danger that, If achieved in isolation, the 30×30 target could result in more rapid destruction of the 70% of the planet not under protection – and it is actually the endless extraction of the planet’s resources that needs to be tackled.
Land use and its impact on biodiversity is all about farming: how we farm, what we farm and where we farm. According to the UN, food crop production globally has increased by about 300% since 1970, despite the negative environmental impacts. Most farming is specific and exclusive, requiring effort to grow robust, single species in huge quantities, which is rarely beneficial for biodiversity. At least $1.8tn (£1.48tn) of environmentally harmful subsidies is financing the annihilation of wildlife every year, research shows.
Beneficiaries include high-emission cattle production, forest destruction and pollution by synthetic fertilisers. The failure to remove these subsidies was one of the 20 Aichi biodiversity targets governments failed to meet. The final text says harmful subsidies should be reduced by at least $500bn a year by 2030. It does not specify whether they should be eliminated, phased out or reformed, but this is one of the strongest parts of the agreement. Subsidies could be redirected to support storing carbon in soil, producing healthier food, keeping water clean and growing trees. Losing species and complex habitats like ancient forests and bogs also threatens human life through disease: if the current rate of biodiversity loss persists, researchers anticipate that 3.3 million people will die from zoonotic illnesses each year in the future. We know what that looks like and should be doing all we can to stop it.
Meat production is the greediest form of farming with regards to water use and carbon footprint, yet there is no mention of the need for dietary change in the GBF text. Of all mammals on Earth, 96% are either livestock or humans, which says everything about how we use land. Reducing food waste and eating less meat would help cut the amount of land needed for farming, while improved management of existing croplands and utilising what is already farmed as best as possible would reduce further expansion.
A staggering 80% of nitrogen used by humans – through food production, transport, energy and industrial and wastewater processes – is wasted and enters the environment as polluting compounds like ammonia and nitrous oxide, wreaks havoc as acid rain, toxic algae growth, soil deterioration and nutrient pollution where plants and creatures can no longer thrive in their natural habitat. The GBF text aims to reduce the risks from pesticides and highly hazardous chemicals by at least half, but does not address reducing their overall use. Language on plastic pollution has also been watered down- the final text says countries should be “working towards eliminating plastic pollution”, without any quantifiable targets.
There are real opportunities now for new life to be breathed into civil society, where NGOs are in a new position of strength to hold countries to account for biodiversity loss against the promises made in the GBF. It has been a long road from the creation of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Fontainebleau in 1948 – the first organisation to support the creation of international law to protect the planet’s wildlife. Today, the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species is a benchmark for all wildlife and conservation workers. The Campaign for Nature sees the 30×30 goal as a milestone towards something more ambitious, such as EO Wilson’s vision of protecting half the planet for the long-term survival of humanity.
At long last indigenous people had a real seat at the table rather than gathering in community centres outside the “real” COP. It was refreshing and exhilarating to hear indigenous people speaking from the main platform, with a seat at the table and with wording in the text that shows their special status in protecting biodiversity. Indigenous peoples make up around 5% of the world’s population but they protect 80% of its remaining biodiversity.There was a focus on “rights-based conservation”, which means Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) are seen as protectors of land – a position that is also supported by the science.
Indigenous peoples across the world have long been sceptical of promises made in big tents: researchers from UCL, found that European colonisation of the Americas had caused the death of 56 million people by 1600 – 90% of the Indigenous population. This was compounded in the early days by “fortress conservation”, where people who had been stewards of natural spaces for thousands of years were removed from protected areas to make them into parks. Since the 19th century, this has resulted in human rights abuses and millions of people being displaced from their homelands. Promises are still being broken today: at Cop27, $1.7bn was pledged to Indigenous peoples in recognition of their role in protecting biodiversity, but the first year progress report found only 7% of total funding went to Indigenous People and Local Communities (IPLCs).
Mega diverse nations with outstanding levels of biodiversity are now holding the cards, including Brazil, India, several African nations, Indonesia – and they are more vocal about what they require in the way of support. There are already a growing number of coalitions to protect these ecosystems. At Cop27, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Indonesia announced a big three rainforest coalition and said they would coordinate at UN climate and biodiversity talks on their conservation. Brazil said it would convene a pan-Amazonian meeting on the great forest’s conservation. Indigenous groups proposed a protected area to cover the world’s largest rainforests, equivalent to the size of Mexico, to be created by 2025 at the last biodiversity summit in 2018, known as 80 by 25. We can expect more of this to come, as countries with low biodiversity perhaps chose to support those with more to preserve, although the mechanisms for accounting for this are still to be worked out.
The final hurrah goes to an acronym that is very important but sounds quite dull: Digital Sequencing Information or DSI. This is about who owns the rights to genetic material from plants and other organisms and how countries of origin and indigenous peoples can share the financial and other benefits. The existing rules governing this process are called the Nagoya Protocol, but they are no longer fit for purpose with today’s technology, where there is no need to disturb the physical material – no plant collecting, for example. With this new technology (DSI) huge amounts of genetic information can be gathered and stored online – instantly available to academics and life-science researchers worldwide in a way that accelerates new discoveries.
There is a lot at stake, because decisions and rules agreed could have huge consequences for pharmaceutical companies, agritech industries and chemical companies – and mega biodiverse nations like Brazil, Indonesia and Madagascar stand to lose or gain a lot from the outcome on how the wealth is shared. The new text focuses on “the fair and equitable sharing of benefits that arise from the utilization of genetic resources and from digital sequence information on genetic resources, as well as traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources” with the aim of “by 2030 facilitating a significant increase of the benefits shared”.
We shall see.