The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: A Historical Deal for Biodiversity


The 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biodiversity took place in Montreal from the 7th to the 19th of December, 2022. The results were mixed. This article analyses the good, the bad, the ugly, as well as the way forward from CBD COP15.

Hummingbird in a tree

It was an awkward incident: Right at the moment that the Chinese environment minister serving as chairman of the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD COP15) wanted to adopt what has been touted as the “Paris Agreement of biodiversity”, the representative of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) asked for the floor and stated that the agreement was unacceptable because it did not include a new independent Global Biodiversity Fund. It seems his words, spoken in French, were lost in translation for Chinese Environment Minister Huang Runqiu. He looked confused, quickly consulted the CBD Secretariat, and then lowered the hammer saying that the agreement had been adopted as nobody had “objected”.

It was an ugly blemish on an otherwise impressive exercise of international diplomacy by the Chinese presidency of COP15, which took place in Montreal from December 7 to 19, 2022. After four long years of painstaking negotiations, they succeeded in crafting, through intense consultations with nearly every country at the conference, an impressive package of six compromise deals including a Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), a monitoring system and interim resource mobilization strategy for the GBF, and an agreement to share the benefits of digital sequence information systems.

The package was subsequently presented to the plenary as a “take-it-or-leave-it” deal, a strategy that reminded some of the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009, where Barack Obama tried to push through a similar last-minute compromise negotiated behind closed doors. Obama’s deal was rejected in the final plenary, while the Chinese package deal at CBD COP15, which was still subject to dozens of profound disagreements only two days earlier, was surprisingly accepted by each and every country except for, initially, DRC. And even this last blemish was rapidly brushed away: at the next day’s closing session, DRC opened the meeting by publicly changing its objection to the package to a mere “reservation” about it in the footnote.

Of course, one might wonder whether the sudden reversal had something to do with the fact that the DRC is one of the African countries that receives the most Chinese investments. But the often very smart compromises in the final package also displayed the power of Chinese diplomacy, which throughout the process had focused on trying to bridge the differences between countries rather than imposing its own views on them. Meanwhile, the host country, Canada, had been crystal clear about its own agenda. On top of the package, the conference agreed on no less than 56 decisions (including 37 related to the CBD itself), although it failed to agree on a new Bureau due to a nasty last-minute fight between the Russian Federation and the EU and its allies, which means COP15 was formally not closed but suspended.

The Bad

No comprehensive technology horizon scanning

Regretfully, the fact that they were smart did not mean that the compromises were also strong. Notably, a lot of the more progressive proposals that directly or indirectly touched on corporate interests were ruthlessly deleted in the final compromise package. The final package of decisions was genuinely disappointing for activists that were hoping for strong texts on, for example, a horizon scanning mechanism for new technologies, or measures to reduce the risks of synthetic biology, genetically modified organisms, false climate solutions like Bioenergy and Carbon Capture and Sequestration, or the privatization and commercialization of genetic information through digital sequence information systems. Some initial steps were made to start horizon scanning related to synthetic biology in a separate decision, but the proposal is absent from the GBF itself. On a more positive note, attempts to include geoengineering (technologies to manipulate the climate on a massive scale) in the GBF were prevented as well.

No legally binding corporate accountability

Similarly, important proposals that would hold corporations legally accountable for damage caused to biodiversity were ruthlessly removed from the final GBF text. The targets dealing with the role and accountability of the private sector and consumers were watered down to weak and hollow phrases about the need to “encourage” and “enable” businesses to monitor their risks, dependencies and impacts on biodiversity and “provide information” about this to consumers so that they can make sustainable choices. Such self-reporting has been prominent in certification and other green marketing schemes, which are broadly seen to have failed as the institutions that were supposed to control these claims were often financially dependent on the very corporations they were asked to verify – if there was any verification at all. The proposals also assume consumers would be in a position to choose, while most people on this planet are simply too poor to choose.

No recognition of the role of unsustainable diets and food systems

Deleted from the text were references to the need to change diets and/or food systems in general to reduce the impact of, in particular, unsustainable livestock farming, which is a primary cause of biodiversity loss and climate change. These were replaced by a repetition of an already existing target to reduce global food waste by half. And while it was celebrated that a related target on sustainable agriculture, forestry and fisheries specifically mentions the need for a substantial increase in agroecological practices, this reference is now accompanied by a reference to “sustainable intensification”, a term which is often used by industry to promote even more intensive forms of livestock farming, or the use of genetically modified organisms to ‘intensify’ agricultural production.

Weak implementation mechanisms

On top of that, the monitoring framework and implementation mechanisms that were agreed upon provide no guarantee that the lofty recommendations in the GBF will actually lead to concrete action on the ground. Similar to the climate regime, there are global goals, but it is up to countries what share of those goals they will take upon them. The indicators that were developed to help countries with their reporting process are glaringly insufficient, in some cases astonishingly inadequate (such as using controversial forest certification schemes as indicators for sustainable forest management) and ignore virtually all gender, social and economic dimensions of biodiversity policy. No binding reporting or other compliance mechanisms were agreed upon, so whether the GBF and associated decisions will actually be implemented is very much left up to the political will of the Parties to the CBD.

The Good

Recognition of Indigenous and women’s rights

While many NGOs were deploring the final GBF text, the atmosphere was quite the opposite in rightsholder caucuses like the CBD Women’s Caucus and the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB). The IIFB in particular was almost jubilant about the final GBF text. And with good reason, as the GBF reflects a hard-won paradigm shift in the field of biodiversity conservation. Instead of the old ‘fortress’ model where biodiversity conservation was mainly seen as a matter of establishing national parks to protect biodiversity against people, the GBF that was adopted in Montreal includes more than a dozen strong references to the need to respect not only the rights, but also the role, knowledge, collective action and other contributions of Indigenous Peoples, local communities and women in the field of biodiversity conservation. This includes an important recognition of “indigenous territories” in the most visible target of the GBF: the target to ensure that at least 30% of the planet is covered through formal protected areas or other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs) by 2030 – often abbreviated as the “30x30” target.

Recognition of Indigenous territories

And while part of the conservation community celebrated the 30% target, the main victory is actually that Indigenous territories are NOT included in that target, but recognized as a separate third pathway. This clearly reconfirms the rights of Indigenous Peoples to autonomously decide, in line with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and quite a number of national laws and constitutions, if and especially how these territories will contribute to conservation. These areas will therefore not fall under the authority of national parks agencies, which is something many Indigenous Peoples had feared. But if they choose to do so, Indigenous Peoples are also free to classify their own territories as Indigenous Protected Areas, as ICCAs (Indigenous territories and community conserved areas) or as OECMs. And to emphasize this autonomy, it is reiterated at the end of the target that all actions should be in line with “recognizing and respecting the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, including over their traditional territories”.

Equitable governance and effective conservation

Meanwhile, in a comical discussion during the very last days of COP15, it became clear that the 30% target itself is actually a farce as several Parties, including the EU, suddenly realized that if one really includes not only formal protected areas but also all OECMs, the total area of land that is already covered by such measures is probably significantly higher than 30%. This means the implementation focus of the target has to shift from the expansion of protected areas to the qualitative aspects of the target, including the important conditions that such areas should be “equitably governed” and “effectively conserved”. This is definitely not yet the case for the majority of these areas. So the GBF primarily mandates governments to significantly improve the governance of existing conserved areas, including by ensuring they respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities and by ensuring anything that is called sustainable use should contribute to biodiversity conservation – the latter might prevent the current practice of allowing large-scale logging or other destructive activities in “protected” areas.

Recognizing community conservation

The rights and contributions of Indigenous Peoples and local communities were also respected in many other elements of the GBF, including the targets on spatial planning (target 1), customary use (targets 5 and 9), and traditional and other knowledge (target 21). Moreover, community conservation initiatives and other “collective actions” of Indigenous Peoples and local communities were recognized as a form of resource mobilization in target 19.

Recognizing women’s rights and contributions

The CBD Women’s Caucus celebrated the final GBF as well, as they succeeded after a long uphill battle to include a free-standing target on gender (target 23) that not only urges governments to take a gender-responsive approach to the GBF and ensure women’s participation, but also explicitly recognizes the equal rights of women to land and natural resources. On top of that, a Gender Plan of Action was adopted that forms a comprehensive set of guidelines to mainstream gender in all biodiversity-related decisions and implementation mechanisms. Sadly, subtle references to non-binary people and the need to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation were ruthlessly deleted from the Gender Plan of Action during the last days of COP15. Moreover, the CBD Women’s Caucus failed to secure gender-differentiated indicators in the monitoring framework – except for the indicators related to the gender target itself – or to integrate references to gender dimensions in most of the other GBF targets. This means there is a serious risk that gender will once again become a separate pillar in the GBF and its implementation mechanisms, rather than something that will be genuinely integrated, despite the lofty words in the Gender Plan of Action.

Defending environmental defenders and human rights

A noteworthy exception is what is perhaps the most promising target of the GBF, target 22, which solidly anchors the rights-based approach in the framework. The explicit references to full, equitable, inclusive and gender-responsive participation; access to justice, rights over lands, territories, resources and traditional knowledge; and the protection of environmental human rights defenders in this target can all be seen as major victories for the rightsholder groups and NGOs who fought tirelessly for the past four years for a truly rights-based GBF.

The Ugly

Corporate capture through private sector financing

Despite this good news, a snake lurks in the grass, as the GBF also opened the doors to “all sources of finance” to support its implementation, including in particular private sector financial support. And while the ambitious figure of mobilizing 200 billion USD per year in biodiversity finance was incorporated in the GBF, the text also specifies that only 20 to 30 billion will actually consist of official development aid.

This throws the door open for greenwashing (and potentially even whitewashing, as even illegally acquired money seems to be welcome) practices. It means public biodiversity policy will become even more dependent upon the financial support – and thus the whims and wishes – of business and industry. You do not bite the hand that feeds you, so the increasing dependence on private sector financing means governments will be less likely to adopt regulations that harm their business “partners”. And while it is welcome that the GBF includes a target to reduce perverse incentives with 500 billion USD per year by 2030, research has found that the corporate capture of policy-making through blended finance is a major obstacle to reforming perverse incentives on the ground.

Biodiversity offsets and credits

Even more ugly was the late-night inclusion of “biodiversity offsets and credits” as an “innovative scheme” of financing in the GBF. Biodiversity offsets, which are far from innovative, do not work in practice because one cannot simply replace a destroyed ecosystem with another ecosystem. For the local women and men that depend on the ecosystem that is destroyed, a compensation project in another location provides no benefits. In fact, biodiversity offsets not only create an incentive for biodiversity agencies to allow harmful projects, they also create an incentive for the very old-style fortress conservation models that other parts of the GBF aim to overcome because they need to deliver guaranteed conservation outcomes. The fact that the term “nature positive”, which was seen by many as a broad-scale approach to offsetting, was removed from the GBF was a meager bandage in this respect. Additionally, the fact that the words “with environmental and social safeguards” were added after a last-minute fierce campaign by NGOs and rightsholder groups against biodiversity offsets is only marginally helpful.

Nature-based solutions (NBS)

Another battle that was lost at the very last moment was the long struggle of many NGOs and rightsholder groups against the inclusion of the term “nature-based solutions” (NBS) in the GBF. That this battle would likely be lost was clear from the start, as NBS had not only been embraced and defined by the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) in March 2022, but also by several other UN meetings including the 27th Conference of the Parties to the Climate Convention, which took place only a few weeks before COP15. And it is precisely the climate regime that is likely to become the main victim of the use of this term. While the UNEA resolution formally limits NBS to actions that contribute positively to biodiversity only, the overwhelming majority of NBS is already formed by forest and other carbon offset projects – even whales could be included in the voluntary carbon market these days. The UNEA resolution actually recognized that the possible impact of these often fraudulent schemes on the climate regime should be analyzed. But it was clear from the many NBS side events organized by the private sector and many conservation organizations during COP15 that they see no problem with welcoming a source of funding that undermines efforts to halt one of the main causes of biodiversity loss: global warming.

No direct funding for Indigenous Peoples and local communities?

Meanwhile, it is unclear whether the new Global Biodiversity Fund that has been proposed, initially as a trust fund under the Global Environment Facility (GEF), will be more selective as far as accepting sources of funding is concerned. It is also uncertain whether it will provide direct access to funding for Indigenous Peoples, local communities and women, as many rightsholders have demanded. The GEF itself includes a modest small grants program that does directly support rightsholders on the ground. Experience with the Green Climate Fund, which was established as an alternative to the GEF, suggests that new funds will not necessarily include similar direct access facilities – in fact, the Green Climate Fund has ended up being even more dominated by corporate interests than the GEF.

The Way Forward

Preventing harm through divesting from biodiversity destruction

Not all financial news at COP15 was ugly, though. Aside from the recognition of Indigenous rights, one of the most positive elements of the GBF is target 14, which mandates governments to align all activities and fiscal and financial flows with the GBF. This commitment to divest from all those projects and sectors that destroy biodiversity, like unsustainable livestock farming, large-scale bioenergy production, and extractive industries, is an important recognition of the fact that it makes little sense to pump 30 billion USD into biodiversity conservation when 3.1 trillion USD is spent annually on biodiversity destruction. Target 14 is explicitly directed at all levels of government, thus making it clear that it is governments who should ensure that both public and private financial institutions withdraw their money from such harmful activities.

Turning promises into reality by resisting corporate capture of the GBF

As with all GBF targets, turning these positive proposals into a reality will require steadfast campaigning to consistently remind governments of the commitments they made in December 2022. Continued campaigns against the corporate capture of policy-making through blended finance and other “partnerships” are needed to ensure that governments will free themselves of conflicts of interest and truly embrace the spirit of the GBF. Promises are there, on paper. Now it is up to us all to ensure that they do not become paper tigers again.