The last couple of years have seen the world wake up to the urgent need to act on climate change, with a constant stream of net-zero announcements and improved renewable energy technology driving prices down. The biodiversity loss crisis has also begun moving up the political agenda and there is increasing acknowledgement that it is essential to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss at the same time. Biodiversity has a key role to play in tackling climate change, as biodiverse ecosystems are more resilient, more productive, and they store more carbon.
This new impetus for action on biodiversity comes not a moment too soon, given that animal population sizes have dropped 68% since 1970 and we are losing all species at a faster rate than at any time in the Earth’s history. It is estimated that 1 million species globally are faced with extinction, and there have been drastic reductions in insect populations, which could lead to a collapse of natural systems and considerable problems for food production. Our current use of resources is unsustainable, and it is estimated that we are using the equivalent of 1.6 Earths. Our natural systems are being driven to breaking point, and without action we are endangering the survival of the planet and humanity itself.
Against this backdrop, 2021 was expected to be a critical year for global biodiversity, with the first part of COP15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) taking place online in Kunming (China) in October 2021, having been rescheduled from 2020. The follow up in-person event was originally scheduled for April 2022, but was postponed again until December 2022, so the need to reach consensus on meaningful action is becoming increasingly urgent. But what exactly is COP15, what are the main issues under discussion, and what is the likelihood that agreements signed will lead to positive action on biodiversity?
The Convention on Biological Diversity is a multilateral treaty that recognises in international law that the conservation of biodiversity is a “common concern of humankind”. The agreement covers ecosystems, species, and genetic resources, linking conservation efforts to sustainable resource use. There is a strong emphasis within the convention on the fact that resources are not infinite, and that ecosystems, species, and genes should be used sustainably for the benefit of humans, without leading to declines in biodiversity.
The convention makes use of the ‘precautionary principle’, which dictates that lack of scientific evidence is not a reason to postpone measures to avoid significant damage to biodiversity. In other words, biodiversity should be conserved as a precaution, even if we do not understand the full implications of losing it. The convention acknowledges that conserving biodiversity will require significant financial investment but argues that it will bring substantial environmental, economic, and social benefits in return. The CBD also demands that there be an equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources, and sets out safety principles for biotechnology.
The final text of the initial CBD agreement was presented at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, known as the Rio ‘Earth Summit’. From the original 168 signatories it has grown and there are now 196 signatories who are ‘parties to the convention’. The countries who have signed up meet annually for a ‘Conference of the Parties’ (COP) to discuss progress and adjust the agreements. The CBD entered into force on 29 December 1993, and the measures laid out are legally binding to the signatories.
The convention is implemented at the national level using National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAP). The CBD requires that countries prepare a national biodiversity strategy and include this in planning for all activities where biodiversity may be affected.
So far 173 of the parties have developed NBSAPs, with the UK, New Zealand, Tanzania, and the US producing particularly comprehensive strategies. These included measures to conserve individual species and habitats, and species recovery programmes. The parties are required to prepare annual reports on the status of their implementation of the convention.
Following the original convention there have been a number of subsequent protocols and strategic plans added to enhance the original aims. The Cartagena Protocol, also known as the Biosafety Protocol, was adopted in January 2000 and aims to protect biodiversity from the potential threats of organisms modified by biotechnology.
In 2002 the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation was introduced, aiming to slow the rate of plant extinctions around the world by 2010. The Nagoya Protocol was adopted in October 2010 and sets out a framework for the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources, ensuring that they are used to promote biodiversity.
Finally, a revised Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011 to 2020 was also published following the COP10 in Nagoya. This plan includes the ‘Aichi Biodiversity Targets’, which updated the original goals and aims of the CBD and required reporting back on progress in 2020.
The CBD has come under criticism for its lack of translation into action by the parties, and with none of the Aichi targets being met, it is clear than the agreement needs to be examined urgently. It is critical for the parties to strengthen the CBD framework and increase accountability so that the next series of targets can be achieved. With the momentum behind the UNFCCC COP27 recently, the attention of the world is on environmental issues, and this is the ideal opportunity to translate the aims of the convention into achievable and measurable goals.
There is increasing alarm being sounded by scientists about the rate at which we are losing biodiversity. Deforestation in tropical areas is still destroying irreplaceable primary rainforest, pollution and overharvesting are threatening marine life, and climate change poses the greatest threat to many organisms. COP15 has a real opportunity to push biodiversity further up the political agenda and oblige the parties to commit to meaningful short- and long-term action.
In spite of the urgency of the biodiversity crisis, agreement on some of the key points is still stalling. At preparatory talks in Geneva in early April, progress was slow and a large burden of action was placed on developing nations, without a commitment from more wealthy nations of the finances to fund it. On the positive side, the text from the first draft of the ‘Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework’ was not rejected, but the text does remain full of brackets around disputed issues.
The outline for the COP15 discussions has already been laid out, with the first draft of the ‘Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework’, published in July 2021. The aim of the CBD is to see humanity ‘living in harmony with nature’ by 2050, and there will be debate about whether a defined target is required, like the 1.5°C warming target of the Paris Agreement. The first draft of the new agreement proposes 21 targets and 10 milestones, working towards an interim target of 2030. These include:
The performance of the CBD parties between 2011 and 2020 in trying to meet the Aichi targets was disappointing, and not one of the global targets was reached. The UK only reached 6 of the 20 targets, and considering that it has one of the lowest levels of biodiversity intactness in the world, the UK needs to step up biodiversity conservation dramatically. Many of the countries are pushing for a strong outcome from the COP15 discussions, led by Costa Rica, who started a High Ambition Coalition with The Seychelles, UAE, Monaco, Gabon, and Mozambique. The EU, Norway, and Canada also tend to approach negotiations with strong ambitions. There may be resistance to forest related targets, however, from countries that have poor deforestation records due to demands from agriculture, although the change of government in Brazil should renew forest preservation and restoration targets.
If COP15 is to be a success then implementation mechanisms must be clearer, and financial resources confirmed to achieve them. International finance commitments for biodiversity need to be adhered to, although as the Paris Agreement shows, this can be difficult to implement. Although targets such as the 30% protection goal are global, each country must provide a domestic commitment to contribute to this target. More attention needs to be paid to the subsidies that support industries damaging habitats, so that businesses are encouraged to reduce their negative impact on biodiversity.
The new framework has taken inspiration from the Paris Agreement on climate and is more ‘outcome-oriented’ than previous strategies, with clear timescales. Hopefully COP15 will build on this framework and create a structure that countries can use to meet the targets and secure the future of our biodiversity. For more information on what biodiversity is and why it is important see our blog post.