With the future of biodiversity on the line, UN member states meeting in Montreal this December must set a framework for a new conservation paradigm.
Just weeks after the failed United Nations Climate Summit in Egypt, UN member states will gather again from 7 to 19 December, this time in Montreal, for a similar conference on biodiversity. But the 15th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD COP15), tasked with delivering a new framework to guide global biodiversity conservation, is already suffering bad omens. Despite positive signs, including potential recognition of the need to address government financing of harmful industries and incorporating a rights-based approach to biodiversity conservation, concerns remain negotiations will, once again, be scuppered by corporate lobbying and reluctance from many Parties to commit to the steps necessary to secure the future of all life on earth.
We cannot underestimate the importance of COP15. Our planet is in crisis, with over one million species threatened with extinction. Unless we take effective action to address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss, the decline is expected to continue to accelerate, impacting our quality of life, well-being, and the future of all life on earth. These underlying causes include, first and foremost, the ever-expanding conversion of ecosystems and over-exploitation of natural resources to feed a corporate-driven, neocolonial and patriarchist business model. This model, based on continued growth in consumption and production, is often supported through generous government subsidies.
Planned as a major summit in Kunming in late 2020, COP15’s Chinese hosts postponed the meeting four times due to Covid-19 concerns before it was eventually moved to Montreal in Canada. In the meantime, China already celebrated its own Biodiversity Summit in October 2021; an event attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping and thousands of Chinese officials and stakeholders but few international invitees. To make things worse, December’s meeting has been de facto downgraded to an ordinary conference as the host, President Xi, has decided not to attend and thus not to invite other heads of state.
But the real bad omen for COP15 is for the result it is supposed to deliver: a new strategic plan in the form of a Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) that would put humanity on track with the vision to “live in harmony with nature” by 2050. The GBF is often seen as the “Paris agreement” for biodiversity; a new political commitment that will generate political action and financial support for years to come. But with only 14 negotiation days left and hundreds of often profound disagreements between parties, observers fear that rather than being the “Paris of Biodiversity,” COP15 is shaping up to be a diplomatic disaster more akin to the 2009 Climate COP in Copenhagen. What happens in Montreal this December will have existential implications for us all.
The GBF: More Ambition or a New Vision on Conservation?
Not all is necessarily lost, though. The preparatory process for COP15 has shown that tactful and skilled chairing of the negotiations can lead to consensus. Agreement has already been reached on 2 of the 22 targets. However, such consensus often comes with major compromises, and many fear the GBF may in fact represent a regression from the CBD’s first Strategic Plan. Meanwhile, many countries and conservation organisations have established a “High Ambition Coalition” co-chaired by Costa Rica, France, and the United Kingdom. Its principal aim is to incorporate a concrete target of protecting 30% of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030. Such a numerical target is seen as a similar symbolic milestone to the 1.5 C global warming target incorporated into the Paris Agreement.
Yet the two targets are not comparable. The 1.5 degrees target might be too weak to prevent climate disasters like the recent floods in Pakistan and Nigeria but it is at least an all-encompassing outcome. Protected areas are just a tool to conserve biodiversity, and protecting only 30% of the planet is astonishingly unambitious, especially if one considers that countries already agreed in 2015 to protect 100% of the world’s forests by 2020 as part of Sustainable Development Goal 15. It is also questionable to what extent a vague Paris-style ambition will add anything to the more concrete, legally binding commitments already adopted by the Parties to the CBD.
Moreover, protected areas have a mixed record as far as biodiversity conservation is concerned. Often they are established in areas under no significant threat, as they are unattractive for large-scale agriculture or other drivers of biodiversity loss. Even more cynically, when threats appear —for example, when oil or gold reserves are discovered—protected status is often lifted. Many parks are badly protected against threats in general due to a lack of enforcement capacity and there are few protections from climate change, which is rapidly becoming the primary threat to the world’s ecosystems. More importantly, the entire idea that areas need to be protected from people has often triggered violent evictions and other human rights violations, and it is based on a rather cynical assumption that people could never live in harmony with nature. A rapidly growing body of scientific literature is showing the opposite: most Indigenous Peoples and many local communities are perfectly capable of conserving and restoring the territories and areas they call home, provided their governance rights and systems over those areas are protected. Women in all their diversity have often proven to play a key role in such governance systems, by being the driving force behind community conservation initiatives and economies of care.
Rights Under Threat
What we need, therefore, is not so much a symbolic target of 30% but a GBF that reflects a truly new paradigm on biodiversity conservation underlining the 2050 vision of the Convention: To live in harmony with nature. Such a paradigm would be built on respect for the rights, roles, needs, and aspirations of key rights holders like Indigenous Peoples, women, and local communities in biodiversity conservation. Instead of protecting areas from people, it would foster conservation by and for people. Inspiring examples of highly successful community conservation initiatives from all over the planet have proven the feasibility of this new conservation model. And several truly ambitious countries have been putting text proposals on the table to ensure a rights-based approach to biodiversity conservation is embedded in the relevant GBF targets. The broad support for an ambitious target 21 focusing on the rights of Indigenous Peoples and other rights holders groups like local communities, and target 22 focusing on the rights and role of women, have raised hopes for a genuinely transformative GBF after all.
But worryingly, an additional threat has emerged in the form of a report of an informal group of negotiators from countries that came together in September 2022 to “clean up” the negotiation text. One of their proposals is to delete references in the GBF to Indigenous Peoples’ rights and rights-based approaches, as they argue these are already covered in section “B-bis”—a section on cross-cutting principles for the GBF. However, the group is also proposing to rename this section “fundamental premises,” a unique expression in international law that would have no legally binding implications. As there are no proposals for indicators to monitor the implementation of these “premises,” countries could simply ignore them when reporting on their implementation efforts. Even more ominously, a lack of consensus could yet see the entire “B-bis” section removed, leaving the framework void of any reference to these rights.
Addressing the Real Threats to Biodiversity
Aside from incorporating human rights, the GBF needs to reflect true ambition and commitment to address the actual threats to biodiversity. A broad assessment of the resilience of community conservation initiatives in 22 different countries revealed the challenges to sustaining such initiatives when outside threats continue to grow, such as land conversion into large-scale, agro-industrial monocultures of crops and trees, including for bioenergy, and industrial livestock farming. Climate change triggered by continued fossil fuel extraction, mining, and deforestation also poses a significant threat to biodiversity. Cynically, many of these threats are directly or indirectly financed by Parties to the CBD: Governments spend an estimated 500 billion USD annually on subsidies and other perverse incentives that promote activities harming biodiversity. On top of that, more than 2.6 trillion USD is spent annually on public and private investments harmful to biodiversity: Financial resources—harmful resources, that is—are the true drivers of biodiversity loss.
Fortunately, there is increasing recognition that the so-called “alignment” of these financial flows with the GBF must be at the very heart of the framework if it is to have any chance of succeeding.
That is why there are not only draft targets calling for such alignment and the elimination of perverse incentives, but the alignment of financial flows and perverse incentive reform will hopefully also be central elements of the resource mobilisation strategy that is to be adopted as part of the COP15 package of decisions. There is also increasing support for a reference to addressing more structural problems, like debt injustice and tax evasion, that erode countries’ capacity to finance a just transition to biodiversity conservation. On top of that, there are several proposals for ambitious new funding to be mobilised. This sounds laudable, but the question is where this funding will come from; if it will be provided by developed countries in the form of significant new and additional official development assistance, it would be in line with the commitments in the original CBD. However, to hide from their failure to meet their financial obligations, developed countries have embraced the notion of “all sources of finance,” which means private sector financial flows to biodiversity would be included. Such private-sector funding would come with a heavy price tag.
Private sector financial support for public policies like biodiversity conservation creates financial dependencies of public institutions, be it government agencies or conservation organisations, on private sector interests. Of course, some of those interests can be benign, but the problem is that corporations in a capitalist system need to foster growth and are not in a position, legally or otherwise, to accept limits to that growth. But biodiversity policies and regulations must set limits to growth in light of planetary boundaries. Therefore, it is no wonder an estimated 89% of all corporate lobbying is aimed at weakening environmental policies and regulations. It is precisely for this reason many observers are concerned about processes like the negotiations on mainstreaming and the Task Force on Nature-related Financial Disclosures, which are dominated by corporations. These processes have been attempting to promote voluntary commitments of corporations to report on the benefits of nature to corporations only, rather than targets to set strong regulations to prevent corporate harm to biodiversity. The recent failure of the Climate Summit to agree on meaningful commitments to address, for example, the astonishingly high emissions caused by unsustainable livestock farming, shows once again how the corporate capture of international policy-making blocks progress.
The perverse incentives triggered by private sector support for public institutions are even stronger when it concerns harmful offsetting schemes. Both biodiversity and carbon offsets are already generating significant amounts of funding for conservation, while the outcomes of COP27 related to carbon offset markets provide very little hope that Indigenous Peoples rights, or biodiversity itself for that matter, will be respected in such markets. Offsets also create perverse incentives to grant permits for or even subsidise destructive projects to secure the generation of increased offsetting funding. No wonder NGOs and rights holders are concerned by references in the draft targets to increased private sector funding and broader market-based schemes like carbon offsets and payments for environmental services, which tend to primarily benefit large landholders to the detriment of rightsholder groups like women and Indigenous Peoples. Terms like “nature positive world” and “nature-based solutions” have also been proposed as part of efforts to incorporate market-based offsetting approaches. Nature-based solutions are causing particular controversy, as their principal source of funding is the voluntary carbon offset market, which is blamed for undermining the climate regime.
Biodiversity policy is at a crossroads. The most terrifying scenario from COP15 is not just a Copenhagen-style collapse of the negotiations; the greatest threat is a negotiated GBF that supports business as usual, allowing corporations to buy off their damage through compensation schemes that support old-style fortress conservation rather than the complex but often far more successful community conservation initiatives that Indigenous Peoples, women, and many local communities are implementing on the ground. No wonder the Global Youth Biodiversity Network is mobilising behind the slogan #stopthesame.
But a brighter outcome is still possible. Large movements of rights holders and other observers are mobilising to demand biodiversity justice and real transformative change. An increasing number of especially developing countries have been supporting their calls for stronger references to Indigenous and women’s rights in the GBF, and binding regulations to ensure investors, corporations, and consumers do not cause harm to biodiversity. They have also rejected offsetting approaches and called for a more equitable post-2022 regime that would include a fair deal to share the benefits of not only genetic resources but also associated digital sequence information. One can only hope that countries and regional blocs that profile themselves as mediators in the biodiversity negotiations are listening and understand the need for a new biodiversity conservation paradigm in the dark days before Christmas.