The New Global Biodiversity Framework: Driving Transformative Change?
20 December 2022
A new global agreement aims to drive transformative action to halt and reverse the decline of nature by 2030.
By Julia Kreienkamp and Tom Pegram (UCL Global Governance Institute)
Biodiversity is declining at alarming rates. Scientists are warning that we might already be in the midst of a sixth mass extinction – one caused almost entirely by human activities. According to the WWF’s most recent Living Planet Report, global wildlife populations have declined by a staggering 69% on average between 1970 and 2018, indicative of broader threats to ecosystem health. At current speed and scale, biodiversity loss threatens the integrity of ecological functions upon which all life on Earth ultimately depends.
A new global agreement, adopted this Monday at a major summit on biodiversity (COP15) in Montreal, Canada, aims to turn the tide on the degradation of nature. It has been negotiated under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CDB), the only multilateral forum that addresses all aspects of biodiversity. The CBD enjoys almost universal membership, with the notable exception of the United States. The new agreement, known as the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), sets out four overarching long-term goals and 23 near-term targets to galvanise enhanced action on conservation, sustainable use, benefit sharing and other biodiversity-related concerns, paving the way towards the CBD’s long-term vision of “living in harmony with nature” by 2050.
After many Covid-related delays and several rounds of difficult negotiations, the fact that COP15 produced a deal was widely met with relief and celebration. However, much will depend on whether governments are willing to implement the non-binding agreement. Crucially, if the GBF’s ultimate goal of halting and reversing the decline of nature by 2030 is to be reached, governments need to take action on multiple direct and indirect pressures. The most important direct drivers of biodiversity loss are (1) land and sea use changes, (2) overexploitation of animals, plants and other organisms, (3) climate change, (4) pollution, and (5) invasive alien species. Most of these pressures arise from unsustainable economic practices, such as agricultural intensification, overconsumption and continued reliance on fossil fuels and other sources of pollution, and are underpinned by a mindset that continues to view nature primarily through the prism of human needs and economic value.
In the past, failure to address these underlying drivers of biodiversity loss has meant that no global target to protect nature under the CBD has ever been fully met. Of the last set of decadal targets, agreed in 2010, only a third were partially achieved. It is hoped that the new GBF can galvanise significant momentum, similar to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, encouraging “urgent and transformative action.” The framework recognises that this will require a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach, involving a range of actors beyond the environmental ministries that are typically involved in CBD negotiations. However, compared to recent climate summits, COP15 did not garner much media attention and it did not see high-level political engagement from heads of state and government. Also, the GBF did not receive unanimous approval, with the package being adopted despite an objection by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in a manner that some African countries perceived as a ”coup d'état” by the Chinese presidency.
A major source of contention was finance. Developing countries, which host the majority of the planet’s most biodiverse ecosystems and/or are particularly affected by the biodiversity crisis, had asked developed countries to scale up support to $100 billion annually and pushed for the creation of a new dedicated fund, taking into account that richer countries are major beneficiaries of conservation efforts by poorer countries. The final agreement asks wealthier countries to raise financial aid to $30 billion annually by 2030, a threefold increase from current levels but short of what developing countries had asked for. It also provides for the establishment of a new fund under the existing Global Environment Facility (GEF), with a view to creating a stand-alone mechanism in the future.
In total, the GBF aims to mobilise $200 billion a year for biodiversity. This number includes both domestic and international spending as well as money provided by philanthropy, private funds and other sources. The deal also calls for a reduction of environmentally harmful subsidies by at least $500 billion by 2030. This is an important step, however according to some estimates, annual global spending on harmful subsidies is as high as $1.8 trillion a year. This means that even if the GBF’s provisions are fully implemented, annual spending on protecting nature would still be less than a sixth of the money spent on subsidising damaging activities.
Beyond finance, much attention has focused on Target 3 of the GBF: a commitment to turn a minimum of 30% of the world’s land and oceans into protected areas by 2030. This so-called 30x30 target is often presented as the “headline” target of the GBF, akin to the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C limit. Responding to key demands of campaigners, the text includes language to safeguard the rights of Indigenous Peoples over their territories. Despite this, 30x30 is not unequivocally supported. Previous efforts to implement a similar (though much less ambitious) global goal have been successful in quantitative terms but less so with regard to quality; that is, ensuring that protected areas are well connected, ecologically representative, effectively and equitably managed – and that they are established where they are most needed, not where it is cheapest or easiest to do so.
While the envisaged expansion of protected areas is great news, it is crucial that future action on biodiversity is not reduced to area-based conservation measures. The 23 targets of the GBF are complementary and 30x30 alone only scratches the surfaces when it comes to addressing the underlying drivers of biodiversity loss. It is also different from the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C limit because the mere size of protected areas does not tell us much about the overall state of biodiversity. In other words, protecting a third of the planet should not distract us from what happens to the remaining two thirds.
This means paying equal attention to the other objectives of the GBF. Important goalpost are set, for instance, by a stronger-than-expected target on ecosystem restoration and a target aimed at curbing pollution which, for the first time, explicitly commits parties to reduce the risk from pesticides and highly hazardous chemicals alongside other sources of pollution, such as excess nutrients and plastic waste. However, on the important question of reducing the ecological footprint of production and consumption, the GBF delivers few tangible commitments, aside from a target to halve global food waste by 2030. Notably, the GBF fails to put restrictions on industries such as livestock agriculture, despite the fact that expansion in this sector is the largest driver of habitat destruction, which in turn is the most important cause of biodiversity loss. The GBF does include, for the first time, recommendations for companies to report on the extent to which their activities impact and rely on biodiversity, however, these are less intrusive than business groups themselves had called for.
Many observers would have liked to see more precision and/or more stringent timelines in some of the targets, along with more rigorous accountability measures. Notably, the GBF does not contain a measurable target on species extinction rates for 2030 (only a long-term goal for 2050), arguably the most important concern for any global biodiversity protection strategy. Other targets contain ambitious but vague or generic wording, creating potential loopholes.
Above all, the agreement’s lack of teeth casts doubts over how it is to be achieved within a very tight deadline of only seven years. The package agreed in Montreal does not significantly bolster the existing mechanisms on monitoring, reporting and review under the CBD in terms of enhancing transparency on progress made by individual parties and scaling up ambition. While a global review of collective progress is scheduled at a mid-way point to the 2030 deadline, countries are only gently encouraged to step up actions if target implementation is not on track. This makes it even more important to build up public support and political momentum for biodiversity protection domestically.
The roots of biodiversity loss are complex in nature and effective responses require systemic changes to existing socio-economic and political structures and the paradigms that underpin them. As biodiversity slowly climbs up the political agenda, there is a danger that, like climate change, efforts to address the problem will focus on managerial solutions that promise efficiency without fundamentally threatening status quo power relations.
In a candid address to the COP15 plenary, following the adoption of the GBF, the Namibian negotiator Pierre du Plessis made a direct link between the legacy of colonialism and biodiversity loss, arguing that the same exploitative structures that kept the colonial machinery going have “disrupted the bond between humans and nature.” Among other consequences, he said, this has resulted in political resistance by some countries to metaphors such as “Mother Earth” that frame nature as more than just the basis of our economic prosperity.
From this perspective, it is significant that the GBF references a diversity of value systems – including those that recognise the “rights of nature and rights of Mother Earth” – and gives prominent treatment to the rights, views and knowledge of Indigenous Peoples and other communities that might bring to the table different experiences and conceptualisations of the nature-human relationship. As renowned systems thinker Donella Meadows has argued, changing the overarching mindsets and paradigms that shape a system presents the most effective (though by no means easy) strategy of driving truly transformative outcomes. A move away from narrowly anthropocentric approaches to biodiversity protection, without sacrificing the human rights of those most dependent on nature, could provide a powerful leverage point to halt and reverse the decline of nature.