- Government delegates and conservationists from across the globe gathered last month in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, for the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 14).
- Experts say the biodiversity convention is just as important as that on climate change, whose latest conference is now underway in Poland, but receives a fraction of the attention.
- The Sharm el Sheikh COP largely focused on preparations for 2020, the deadline for achieving current biodiversity targets, and the date of the next biodiversity COP.
- Outcomes of the 2018 COP include progress on a framework for developing a new global biodiversity plan, as well as agreements about the links between health, gender and biodiversity.
SHARM EL SHEIKH, Egypt — As policymakers, conservation scientists and the global media geared up to attend U.N. climate talks in Poland, discussions on another environment-related global treaty were quietly drawing to a close in Egypt.
More than 8,000 delegates from around the world convened in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh from Nov. 13-29 to discuss the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, a global treaty that entered into force 25 years ago.
The timing for the meeting was critical. There are just two years left to reach a set of biodiversity goals committed to in 2010 by the treaty’s 196 signatories: an agreement distilled into the Aichi Targets, a 20-point program to protect terrestrial and marine life and habitats by expanding protected areas, reshaping public policy, raising awareness, and working to ensure equal access to the social and economic benefits that come from intact ecosystems.
The conference launched amid sobering news for the state of the world’s flora and fauna. The WWF’s latest “Living Planet Report,” published in late October, indicates that global vertebrate populations saw an overall decline of 60 percent between 1970 and 2014. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC,” also released in October, highlighted the dire effects of climate change. A month later, the National Climate Change Assessment issued by scientists in the United States illustrated how such consequences are already playing out in North American ecosystems.
“If we do not act we soon may reach tipping points that may cause irreversible destruction to nature and ultimately to humankind,” Cristiana Paşca Palmer, executive secretary of the Convention on Biodiversity, said in a statement to mark the opening of the conference.
Experts argue that protecting biodiversity is critical for both the overall health of the environment and for human progress. “We’re not going to achieve the climate goals if we don’t, for example, secure the world’s forests,” said Jonathan Baillie, the National Geographic Society’s chief scientist. “And we’re not going to achieve the various economic goals, and the longer development goals if we don’t maintain the basic infrastructure of the planet and the life support systems that all other components of society are dependent on.”
And yet, despite this urgency, biodiversity receives a fraction of the coverage devoted to climate change: one-eighth, according to a recent analysis of media coverage.
That discrepancy is reflected in public attention on the Climate and Biodiversity Conventions.
“The biodiversity convention gets way less attention than it should, given its actual importance. We have lots of people paying attention to [the World Economic Forum in] Davos or paying attention to the climate change conventions, and the kind of immediate outcomes that they’re focusing on. But all of those major conventions are dependent on the Convention on Biodiversity,” Baillie said.
Why the lack of attention?
Conference participants point to a number of causes for the low profile afforded to this landmark agreement on protecting the diversity of life on the planet.
“I think, starting very basically, the name: Convention on Biodiversity,” Baillie said. “Most people don’t know what biodiversity is. So just that alone makes it difficult for people to understand what’s happening there and why it might be important and why maybe a journalist might or might not want to cover it.”
Baillie adds that it doesn’t help that science is only beginning to truly understand the complex relationships between various forms of life, and how those interactions shape the biosphere.
“I think it’s because people don’t understand the value of biodiversity. They think it’s an add-on, or something that can be enjoyed. It’s just something else. It’s not something that they view as ‘this is our life structure,’” said Jamison Ervin, manager of the UNDP’s Global Programme on Nature for Development. “I also think we’re not making the moral argument strong enough. We have not evolved as a global culture yet, to understand that we can’t lose life on Earth. This is it.”
Observers also note the relative lack of clout of the government delegations sent to the conference, a sense that it was just “environment ministers talking to each other and being frustrated at that,” said Kaisa Pietilä, a researcher on biodiversity and public policy at the University of Sheffield, U.K.
“The governments that are here, these are the ministries of environment, which are the step-sisters in governments,” Ervin said. “They’re not powerful, they are a place where chronic do-gooders go, like myself and others, and they end up not having the same influence or power as ministries of agriculture, ministries of tourism, ministries of industry.”
Although the conference took place outside of the spotlight, some who attended felt positive about what was achieved — and, perhaps more importantly, what might be achieved at the 2020 COP in Beijing, when governments will meet to set a new global agenda for biodiversity.
“I think that a challenge in the past has been that the Convention on Biodiversity has set targets that we can’t really measure,” Baillie said. “So, for example, when the 2010 targets were set, it was ‘reduce the rate of biodiversity loss,’ and we didn’t actually know the rate of biodiversity loss, which makes it somewhat difficult.”
Without clear definitions and metrics and accessible tools to track progress, it has been virtually impossible to hold governments accountable to the commitments they have made. Now, Baillie said, technologies like satellite mapping, as well as better inventories of the status of threatened species, make such accountability possible. “That, to me, is really exciting.”
At the Sharm el Sheikh COP, significant progress was made in teeing up discussions for the 2020 COP, particularly in determining the process by which governments will aim to develop a new “Global Deal for Nature” in Beijing, said Brian O’Donnell, director of the Wyss Foundation’s Campaign for Nature.
Scientists, environmental organizations, indigenous communities and other interested parties will have multiple opportunities to give inputs on the post-2020 climate plan, O’Donnell said. “They put together a process and some details that I think most people are happy with.”
Participants also noted that compared to previous COPs, the Sharm el Sheikh conference saw an increased role for indigenous peoples, youths and other marginalized groups. Agreements were also reached regarding policies on gender and linking health and biodiversity.
This optimism, however, was in some quarters tempered by frustration at the cumbersome nature of the decision-making process itself.
“I’ve just come from a session now that looked at biodiversity and the climate and there was a 40 minute discussion on two words,” said Pooven Moodley, executive director of NGO Natural Justice. “The words were ‘concerned’ and ‘deeply concerned’ about the current state of the planet’s climate. And countries were arguing that we shouldn’t be saying ‘deeply concerned,’ that ‘concerned’ is fine. For me it was absolutely ridiculous that countries can spend 40 minutes discussing one word.”
Moodley said the pace of the discussion felt slow, even compared to climate COPs he had observed. “It’s hard to, mentally and from the heart, think how we could be stuck on words when the world is burning. It’s almost like, for me, trying to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic as the Titanic is sinking. I find it quite disturbing that we’re in that mindset.”
“There’s just an overwhelming understanding that we don’t have much time, that we’re losing nature faster and faster, and it’s accelerating, and we don’t know what to do about it,” Ervin said. “These conventions aren’t working fast enough. They’re stultified, they’re ossified — and yet, they do catalyze decisions that governments are then empowered to enact within their countries. But the pace of change of decisions and the pace of biodiversity loss are not at the same rate. We’re losing the battle.”
A Paris Moment for Biodiversity
For now, hopes are pinned on the 2020 COP in Beijing. Conservationists are hoping for a “Paris Moment,” a reference to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, when global leadership united around the clear, easily articulated goal of limiting global warming to within 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) of pre-industrial levels.
A similar commitment is needed for biodiversity — really, for nature — conservationists say. This requires a goal everyone can agree on, the leadership and political will to realize that goal, and the funding to make it happen.
That the upcoming COP will be hosted by China, a major contributor to biodiversity loss, ups the stakes. “The Chinese government has a chance to lead, to have a ‘Beijing moment,'” Ervin said. “Will they do it? It depends on whether or not they’re recognizing their role in deforestation, whether or not they’re willing to recognize their role in the illegal wildlife trade, whether they’re able to galvanize the global community.”
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