UN biodiversity meeting needs to deliver transformative change, not just targets

Comment: The biodiversity talks taking place in China later this year require a legacy that can stand the test of time, rather than a cosmetic victory

The red panda, native to southwestern China, is listed as endangered on the IUCN red list as its population continues to decrease around the world. (Photo: Mathias Appel/Flickr)


There are just eight months left to make progress on a framework to protect biodiversity for the next ten years.

It is of global importance that the October meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in the Chinese city of Kunming helps the world to stop biodiversity loss.

The recent coronavirus outbreak in China has already messed slightly with the process. Negotiators were expected to make progress at an initial meeting in Kunming this month on proposals for the biodiversity framework that were published in an embryonic “zero draft” in January.

That meeting, which starts on 24 February, has now been shifted to the FAO’s headquarters in Rome. This is particularly inconvenient for the Chinese government delegation, as no one from Beijing can attend the session due to FAO restrictions on people with recent travel history to China. Instead, China will dispatch diplomats already in Rome, as well as officials from the United Nations Environment headquarters in Kenya.

China now finds itself unexpectedly playing an away game, but many hope the changes will not have any significant impact on the Kunming talks in October, known as COP15.

Nevertheless, there are many long-standing problems with the CBD that have not yet been dealt with, despite calls for transformative change. Problems accumulated over the nearly 30-year existence of the convention will not be solved in a single meeting, but there is still time to address three challenges that will contribute to a strong and implementable Kunming outcome.

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1. Deploy urgent political attention to implementation and support

The failure of the 2010 Aichi biodiversity targets has shown that simply having a “vision” does not guarantee its fulfilment.

The zero draft for the post-2020 biodiversity framework looks bare when compared with the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change. This is because the bulk of the Kunming process so far has been taken up with haggling over targets. Imagine if climate change negotiators only discussed the 1.5C target, leaving the nationally determined contributions, rule books and funding aside.

If Kunming is to be a success, countries must give more attention to implementation mechanisms and resource mobilisation. Once the Kunming targets are adopted, it is crucial that individual countries provide domestic answers to each of them.

For instance, if a percentage target is set for global coverage of marine and terrestrial protected areas, each country must respond with targets for those areas under its jurisdiction. This basic requirement was not fulfilled when the Aichi targets were set, leaving many of those targets “orphaned”.

Biodiversity protection efforts also need greater support. This requires national governments to allocate more resources, use existing budgets more efficiently and cut the perverse subsidies that go into destructive industries. International finance pledges are an important piece of the puzzle and should form an indispensable part of the Kunming outcome.

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2. Concentrate on a core set of actionable targets and national obligations

The CBD has always suffered an identity crisis, struggling to articulate a clear objective when compared with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which aims to “reduce global greenhouse gas emissions”.

This is partly because biodiversity issues are complex and diverse, but also due to the CBD’s sprawling agenda, which has resulted in a lack of focus and effectiveness.

In the Aichi process 10 years ago, much of the CBD’s energy went into the editorial exercise of producing the perfect targets, leaving the more important question of how to move the underlying politics for the achievement of those targets unanswered. The failure to deliver the 20 Aichi targets demonstrates the limits of this approach.

During the upcoming talks over the zero draft, national representatives should perhaps ask themselves: If a target is hard to quantify, or success in implementation hard to measure, should it still be set? Or, if the vision captured in a target is good, but the pathway to and the role of the convention in achieving it is not clear, should it still be set?

Careful consideration of these questions will help the CBD to strategically allocate its limited resources to a set of actionable targets that will actually make a difference in the next decade.

Strategic focus is also needed in the fulfilment of national obligations. Parties to the CBD are legally required to develop national strategies and reports. These instruments may sound bureaucratic, but they are the nuts and bolts of an effective global environmental regime.

Unfortunately, many countries have failed to fulfil these obligations in a timely or consistent manner, or to any kind of reasonable standard. The CBD must urgently improve in this area before it ventures into experiments such as mobilising non-state actors – such efforts are important, but should only be explored after the convention manages to deliver on its core business.

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3. Build a clear vision and a political strategy to fulfil it

A clear political vision for COP15 is still lacking in the Kunming negotiations. Such a vision needs to articulate the main deliverables of the meeting. More importantly, it needs to convince the rest of the world that these deliverables will make a fundamental difference compared to Aichi.

As national leaders, such as President Emmanuel Macron of France, start to take an interest in COP15, such a vision will help guide the development of a high-level diplomatic strategy.

Biodiversity issues were raised in various multilateral and bilateral summits during 2019, but mere mentions are not enough. Identifying specific political obstacles and directing the energies of political leaders towards unlocking them will be critical in the next few months. It’s important also that the biodiversity talks in Kunming and this year’s climate talks in Glasgow can reinforce each other – to this end, the Chinese should collaborate with the British to develop a joint plan.

All in all, the Kunming talks should avoid making cosmetic changes and focus on solving the deeper problems that have hampered the CBD’s effectiveness. COP15 is a historic milestone for the CBD, and it deserves a legacy that can stand the test of time.

Li Shuo is a senior climate and energy policy officer at Greenpeace East Asia. The op-ed was first published in China Dialogue

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