Global Biodiversity Framework: from words to action?
The Global Biodiversity Framework agreed in December 2022 offers a crucial chance to reverse environmental destruction and catastrophic biodiversity loss. Its headline commitment is to conserve 30 per cent of land and sea by 2030. That an agreement was reached is an achievement: at times it seemed unlikely. But a dispute over funding that almost derailed the process points to a key implementation challenge. Global south countries need proper financial support to play their role. No global biodiversity targets have ever been met, and if that dismal record is to be broken, the need is for funding, as well as effective monitoring, civil society advocacy and leadership by biodiversity-rich states.
The world has taken what could be a big step forward in reversing biodiversity loss – but only if the targets agreed in Montreal, Canada in December 2022 are met.
The latest summit of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, COP15, represented a once-in-a-decade opportunity to halt crucial biodiversity loss. It concluded with the agreement of 23 targets, known as the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. These came after two weeks of intensive, often tortuous, negotiations held in Montreal after the meeting originally due to take place in Kunming, China was twice postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The need for a new agreement was great. Research increasingly suggests a mass extinction is underway. Countless species are being lost, destroying the fragile, interconnected land and sea ecosystems that underpin human life, and that play a vital role in absorbing greenhouse gas emissions.
The end of the summit was however fractious and threatened to overshadow the outcomes. In a dispute over funding, the representative of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) objected to the agreement, but accused the Chinese representative, chair of the meeting, of ignoring it and forcing the deal through. Delegations from Cameroon and Uganda shared the DRC’s anger.
In the end the DRC withdrew its objection, apparently persuaded by Brazil’s intervention, and all was made to look like harmony. But if left a nasty taste: it gave the impression that powerful countries thought they could strongarm those with less clout. And getting the DRC’s buy-in is hugely important, because it’s home to most of the world’s second-largest rainforest after the Amazon, one of the key areas the new agreement must protect.
The agreement’s headline target is a commitment to conserve and manage 30 per cent of land and seas by 2030. This ‘30×30’ target was a major advocacy ask of civil society and supportive states. While some campaigners were disappointed, having pushed for the more ambitious target of 50 per cent, their pressure helped avert the very real threat the agreement would fall short of the 30 per cent target. Another ‘30×30’ target agreed is to restore 30 per cent of degraded ecosystems by 2030.
Crucially for global south countries, there’s another 30×30 goal set – that of mobilising US$30 billion a year in funding from so-called ‘developed’ to ‘developing’ countries by 2030, as part of an overall goal of US$200 billion a year in funding from all sources.
As in the parallel COP processes on climate change, financing is key for global south countries. In the interests of humanity as a whole, less industrialised countries being urged not to follow the same path that made global north economies wealthy. But if global south states are to be held to higher standards, they must be provided with adequate financial support.
This was the focus of the DRC’s objection: it wanted the creation of a new global diversity fund and wanted global north states to commit US$100 billion a year. Global north states resisted these ideas, insisting they could only do so much and that all sources of financing need to be explored, including from the private sector and philanthropic sources. They’re also pushing for larger global south states that have seen considerable economic development in recent years and that are the biggest recipients of current funding to become contributors. At one point, global south representatives walked out of negotiations in frustration at the funding impasse.
As a compromise it was agreed to create a special fund under the existing multilateral fund, the Global Environment Facility, but many in civil society remain unhappy. The CBD Alliance, a civil society network, made the point that financing may come from the very sources profiting from environmental damage: big businesses would essentially be free to keep harming 70 per cent of the planet providing they offer some greenwashing funding to the remaining 30 per cent.
Another financial target includes the reduction of subsidies for activities that cause environmental harm, by at least US$500 billion a year by 2030. Amounting to at least US$1.8 trillion – two per cent of global GDP – a vast array of subsidies currently provide perverse incentives for destruction – resources that could instead be used to incentivise actions that respect biodiversity.
But much depends on persuading the private sector to change harmful practices, and here the language is weak: the framework only agrees to ‘encourage and enable’ businesses to monitor and report on their impacts on biodiversity; it doesn´t mandate them to make changes. There’s a similar weakness in other targets, such as on sustainable consumption and reducing the use of pesticides and hazardous chemicals. As at COP27 on climate change, this reflects the considerable lobbying power of big business, which was present, including within government delegations, at COP15. Putting profit before people is the cause of the current crisis, and it’s naïve to assume business-led solutions are going to solve it.
More positively, the agreement commits to take a ‘gender-responsive approach’ and recognises the equal rights of women and girls to access land and natural resources. And crucially, it recognises the rights of Indigenous peoples, including in relation to their traditional territories. Indigenous people were at the forefront of protests during COP15, and their voices are vital because there’s a huge overlap between the land that needs to be protected and the places Indigenous people live and traditionally own. Extractive and land development projects are bad news for Indigenous people, but conservation can be too. Conservation projects can see the land and people as in opposition: communities with long histories of living sustainably can have their rights abused or be forced away from land subject to conservation. The agreement however doesn’t go as far as some wanted in recognising the special status of Indigenous peoples’ land and territories.
From words to action?
Civil society urged ambition, but also as much definition and detail as possible, since woolly terminology enables inaction and evasion of accountability. Better definition was achieved on some targets as the drafting process went on, but for others it was weakened. At various points in this delayed process it seemed entirely possible no agreement would result, so for many campaigners an outcome that gave some but not all of what they were pushing for was broadly seen as a positive.
But of course it takes more than an agreement for a problem to be solved, and the devil is often in the details.
The biggest challenge is that for all the fine words, no international biodiversity targets have ever been achieved.
Now states are expected to put together national biodiversity action plans, in a similar process to the development of climate plans under the Paris Agreement. Under the Global Biodiversity Framework, these plans are expected by COP16, to be held in Turkey in 2024. Plans will eventually be subject to review, intended as a mechanism to encourage progressively stronger national-level actions, again similar to the Paris Agreement.
But it hasn’t really worked with the Paris Agreement – a more ambitious and precise treaty than this – as states have largely failed to meet targets or set higher ones, and the essentially voluntary nature of this process offers little hope the experience will be any better. Strong indicators and independent review will be crucial. States can’t be left to mark their homework: a state could, for example, claim to already be conserving 30 per cent and have little need to improve.
There are some other big gaps. Two-thirds of the world’s seas fall outside national jurisdiction, and efforts to develop an Oceans Treaty, supposed to be agreed by the end of 2022, have stalled. Talks last August broke up without resolution, not least because wealthy states don’t want to lose control of fishing and marine genetic resources. Progress on this agreement will be crucial to conserving these vast ecosystems.
And there’s one huge outlier: the USA. While present as an observer at COP15, the USA isn’t among the 196 states that have ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity, and given its present political deadlock it seems unlikely to do so. If one of the world’s most powerful states isn’t bound by the agreement, it reduces the pressure on others to comply.
The biggest challenge is that for all the fine words, no international biodiversity targets have ever been achieved. These include the previous set of targets, the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, adopted in Japan at COP10 in 2010, which focused on a much less ambitious commitment to protect 17 per cent of land and inland waters.
Without funding to meet the level of ambition required, the agreement will remain on paper. Continuing scrutiny and pressure are also needed from civil society, while the world’s biodiversity superpowers – countries particularly rich in biodiversity – need to take a leadership role and ramp up the pressure for implementation. These include Brazil – under new leadership – the DRC and Indonesia, home to the biggest forests, and encouragingly they have stepped up their cooperation. Momentum needs to build through sharing early success stories and encouraging laggard states to step up the pace at COP16.
Hope comes from the January 2023 news that the once-vanishing ozone layer, a potential environmental catastrophe, is healing. The problem with the ozone layer was identified in the 1980s. States listened to scientists, forged an international treaty, the Montreal Protocol – which imposed new limitations on businesses – and stuck to it. Effective international cooperation solved a growing environmental problem. This proves that change is possible. It also shows that change takes much political will, resources and ongoing pressure. On the new biodiversity framework, the last of these is guaranteed – but will the others be forthcoming?
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Global north states should meet their commitment to provide funding of US$30 billion a year to global south states by 2030 to help meet biodiversity targets.
All states should commit to respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples and ensuring they have a full say in efforts to protect biodiversity.
Strong reporting and monitoring mechanisms should be developed, with civil society input, to hold states to their commitments under the Global Biodiversity Framework.
Cover photo by Christinne Muschi/Reuters via Gallo Images