Unlike the Paris accord set for climate emissions in 2015 the new Global Biodiversity Framework does not set country specific targets
Mike Buckley is the director of the Independent Commission on UK-EU Relations and a former Labour Party adviser
The world’s biodiversity crisis is just as acute as the climate crisis but has historically received far less attention from media, business leaders and governments.
The recently concluded COP15 summit in Montreal was an attempt to change that. The culmination of four years of negotiations and led by China, the summit ended with an ambitious agreement. There are also signs of a shift of sentiment among governments and business leaders.
The picture as it stands is bleak. The world has failed to meet all previous UN biodiversity targets. Globally, wildlife populations have plunged by an average of 69% in under 50 years.
The headline commitment from COP15 is an ambitious pledge to conserve 30% of land and sea by 2030 while respecting indigenous and traditional territories in the expansion of new protected areas.
The language emphasises the importance of effective conservation management to ensure wetlands, rainforests, grasslands and coral reefs are properly protected, not just on paper.
The agreement contains welcome recognition of the importance of indigenous peoples who collectively represent 5% of humanity but protect a staggering 80% of Earth’s biodiversity.
It contains provision to end environmentally harmful subsidies. Globally, governments spend at least £1.3tn every year on subsidies which are driving the annihilation of wildlife and climate change. Governments have now agreed to change tack.
Governments also committed to ensure that large and transnational companies disclose “their risks, dependencies and impacts on biodiversity” and to find a way to enable developing countries to be paid for genetic information gained from nature in their countries but monetised by Western companies in drugs, vaccines and food products.
Each of these commitments, if implemented, would have a dramatic impact on the biodiversity crisis and global justice. Yet despite the grand ambitions the agreement is far from perfect and may be far from enough.
Unlike the Paris accord set for climate emissions in 2015 the new Global Biodiversity Framework does not set country specific targets and has been criticised for not including stronger language on halting extinction. It is not legally binding.
Countries are also yet to determine which areas of land and sea they will protect. “There are places that we know are more important for sustaining other systems outside of that area,” said Jennifer Sunday, a marine biologist at McGill University. “Places where animals come to breed, or where we know there are important migratory nodes in a network. Not all land and ocean freshwater is equal.”
Others more optimistically believe there has been a sea change in the attitude of both governments and business leaders.
Christopher Dunn, executive director of Cornell Botanic Gardens, said international agreements would always represent compromise and that while the lack of “strict targets” was “a concern” the deal was broadly positive.
Investors and business leaders were at COP15 in unprecedented numbers, recognising that an increasing understanding of the rising risks to their companies from a decline in natural resources means inaction is no longer feasible.
The World Economic Forum estimated in a 2020 report that more than half of global GDP, or about $44tn, was “moderately or highly dependent on nature”. Construction, agriculture and food and drinks are the sectors most dependent on nature, the WEF report highlighted.
Adam Kanzer, head of stewardship for BNP Paribas Asset Management in the US, said the strong level of interest from investors was “new”. “Very few investors, very few companies” were previously talking about biodiversity, he said.
“It’s difficult to talk about the significance of this issue without sounding like a crazy person — and you tend to tune those people out. But the data is really terrifying. It’s not just a horrendous thing happening to the environment, [it] is a financial risk,” said Kanzer. “We have an obligation to pay attention to it.”
In short, there is much to celebrate. Key countries, including DRC, Brazil and Indonesia have made commitments to protect their biodiversity, working with the international community. Even the US, which played only a background role in Montreal, committed to protecting 30% of its own land and sea.
The proof of COP15, as with all such summits, will be seen over the next decade as countries either realise commitments or back away from them.
Yet from a domestic perspective the picture is less encouraging. Progressives have had to get used to the UK being, with some exceptions such as our commitment to Ukraine, a bad actor on the world stage.
Our government’s inability to commit to the rule of law or to uphold agreements signed with other nations, most notably the Northern Ireland Protocol and Trade and Cooperation Agreement we signed with the EU, have shorn the UK of widespread international respect formerly taken for granted.
As a result, it is perhaps no surprise that despite signing the COP15 agreement the UK government has been accused of hypocrisy over its environmental targets.
“It’s astonishing to see the UK government voice so much support for 30×30 at COP15 when there’s not a 30% target in our own environmental goals for protected areas,” said Craig Bennett, CEO of Wildlife Trusts.
The UK is among the most nature depleted countries in the world, with more than two-thirds of land now used for agriculture.
Guy Shrubsole, an environmental campaigner, said: “It’s the height of hypocrisy for the UK government to be calling on the world to commit to 30×30 and be falling so woefully behind at home,” he said. “Just 3% of England is properly protected for nature. The government’s new Environment Act targets will only add another 4% in new habitats by 2042.”
In truth Rishi Sunak appears uninterested in protecting nature or tackling the climate crisis. He went to COP27 in November only after protests from fellow Conservative MPs at his planned absence. As the COP15 agreement is announced his government is refusing to reveal the CO2 impact of its transport plan, fuelling concern they will do little to curb emissions.
For the UK to take meaningful action on the climate and biodiversity crises, as on so much else, we need a change of government.
Alex Sobel MP, representing Labour at COP15, set out a plan to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030, rather than simply halting it, which is Sunak’s current target.
“It’s clear the government won’t even be able to achieve their embarrassingly poor targets for protecting the UK’s natural environment,” he said. “Ahead of COP15 the UK should have been leading on biodiversity, challenging other countries and highlighting nature based solutions, but the government are not treating it with the seriousness that it needs.”
Progressives in Britain must continue to pressure the current government to take more action at home. With likely two years to the next election there is still scope for Sunak’s government to do more if it chooses to. But we must also be encouraged by the seriousness with which Labour is treating both the climate and biodiversity crises.
COP15 may in future be seen as a turning point for biodiversity, the future of the natural world and the fight to sustain a liveable world. Those of us who wish the UK to play a leading role will have to wait, but can with some confidence believe that if Labour is returned to power things will shift, radically and quickly, in the right direction.
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