China host of major nature talks fails to step up at UN biodiversity summit

Campaigners had hoped President Xi would surprise the world again this week with tough measures to reverse biodiversity loss. They were left disappointed

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)


China was exposed empty-handed at a UN biodiversity event, raising concerns the host of critical talks on restoring nature next year is failing to set the pace for negotiations. 

Those expecting a repeat of President Xi Jinping’s surprise announcement last week that China was aiming to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 were left disappointed.

Xi outlined no grand plan for reversing nature loss and environmental destruction when he addressed the high-level biodiversity event on Wednesday. 

“The goal is to seek a kind of modernisation that promotes harmonious coexistence of man and nature,” he told political leaders in a pre-recorded message, insisting that economic development could take place while preserving the environment.

“It falls to all of us to act together and turn the earth into a beautiful homeland,” he added, calling on countries to strike an agreement during major biodiversity talks in Kunming, provisionally scheduled for May 2021, when governments are due to agree on a new framework to halt the decline of biodiversity beyond 2020. 

The UN summit on biodiversity convened by UN secretary general António Guterres on the sidelines of the general assembly aimed to build political momentum and bolster financial commitments ahead of the talks in Kunming. 

The UN hoped the event would be a platform for countries to announce concrete action to stem the decline of the planet’s biodiversity. But beyond speeches, few leaders came with a plan.

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“If the summit is nothing but rhetoric, then we are repeating the mistakes made in Aichi,” Li Shuo, Beijing-based senior energy and climate officer at Greenpeace, told Climate Home. 

“The lack of substance can’t hide the fact that political will on global nature protection is low,” Li tweeted during the summit. 

On Monday, 64 political leaders and the European Union launched a “leader’s pledge for nature” with a 10-point plan to halt global biodiversity destruction.

The pledge has now been signed by more than 70 countries, but China is not one of them. Australia, Brazil, Russia and the US, whose governments all control vast swathes of land and oceans, have not signed up either. 

Campaigners say that without concrete commitments, next year’s talks will fall flat.

A UN report earlier this month concluded that the world has missed all 20 biodiversity targets for 2020 agreed in Aichi, Japan, in 2010. Funding shortfalls were highlighted as a significant barrier to meeting the targets and campaigners fear the failure could repeat itself if countries do not raise more funds ahead of the talks in Kunming.

UN agencies have warned that countries needed to commit an additional $700 billion per year to reverse the destruction of nature. But at a funding conference on Monday, only Germany made a firm commitment to increase its funding for protecting biodiversity in developing countries.

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“China should provide stronger leadership in the current Kunming process. It is crystal clear that the negotiations are heading to an Aichi 2.0. If one looks at the Aichi round, it is essentially a rhetorical boom in 2010 followed by an implementation bust over the subsequent decade,” Li told CHN. 

Other major emitters have also been criticised for their lack of commitment.

The US did not even send a representative to the UN event. And Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro told the UN in a statement last week the country was already subject to “the best environmental legislation on the planet”. 

On Tuesday, Bolsonaro revoked regulations that protect tropical mangroves and other coastal ecosystems. 

“Their deliberate plans to actively destroy nature makes both the Trump and Bolsonaro administrations climate villains,” said Arlo Hemphill, oceans campaigner at Greenpeace US.

Australia was also noticeably absent from the UN biodiversity summit. A government spokesperson said Australia would not agree to environmental targets “unless we can tell the Australian people what they will cost to achieve and how we will achieve it”.

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