- After multiple delays due to COVID-19, nearly 200 countries at the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Montreal sealed a landmark deal to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030.
- The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), with four goals and 23 action-oriented targets, comes after two weeks of intense negotiations at COP15, in Montreal, Canada. This agreement replaces the Aichi Biodiversity Targets set in 2010.
- Among the 2030 goals, countries pledged to protect at least 30% of terrestrial and marine areas, while also recognizing Indigenous and traditional territories.
- Concerns have been raised about the ambitions of the framework, with many criticizing the agreement for its corporate influence, vague language and watered-down targets, many of which are not quantitative.
COP15, MONTREAL, Canada — After marathon negotiations and a clutch of protests (including a “die-in” by global youth, and a walk-out by developing countries over a funding stalemate) nearly 200 nations struck a historic deal to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by the end of the decade, at the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Montreal, Canada.
The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), with four goals and 23 action-oriented targets, was adopted early Monday morning at the Fifteenth meeting of the Conference of Parties on the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) or COP15, chaired by China and hosted by Canada from December 7 to December 19.
The agreement preserves the headline goal to “ensure and enable that by 2030 at least 30 percent of terrestrial, inland water, and coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services, are effectively conserved and managed,” while recognizing “indigenous and traditional territories, where applicable.”
Currently, 17% and 10% of the world’s terrestrial and marine area respectively is under protection.
Importantly, the agreement includes a commitment to mobilize at least $200 billion per year by 2030 in financial flows from “all sources” including the public and private sectors, to “progressively” close the biodiversity finance gap of $700 billion per year, and aligning financial flows with the Framework and the 2050 Vision for Biodiversity.
“It will be very interesting to see how the results from this framework will be influencing other processes. We have benefitted a lot from decisions taken by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, United Nations Environment Assembly and World Trade Organization. It is our turn to see how we can influence them and eventually there will be a convergence between the various instruments,” said Basile van Havre, co-chair of the Open-Ended Working Group on the GBF, at CBD, at a press briefing following the adoption.
The GBF text comes as part of a package including decisions on a monitoring framework, Digital Sequence Information on genetic resources (DSI), resource mobilization, mechanisms for planning, monitoring, reporting and review, and capacity-building and development, and technical and scientific cooperation.
Hits and misses
While the COP15 agreement reflects successes in paving the way for resource mobilization and monitoring frameworks, it has drawn criticism for its watered-down ambitions and weak language and stagnation in critical areas such as reducing extinction of plants and animals, protection of intact ecosystems, and tackling unsustainable production and consumption.
“The agreement’s mission to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030 has the right level of ambition, but if we add up the goals and targets they alone aren’t enough to achieve this. For example, it lacks a numerical target to reduce the unsustainable footprint of production and consumption. This is disappointing and will require governments to take action at the national level,” said Lin Li, senior director of global policy and advocacy at WWF International.
Guido Broekhoven, global head of policy research & development at WWF International dubbed the agreement “unfortunate,” noting that the reference to overshooting planetary boundaries “was removed at the last minute from the text.”
“It remains vague on the outcomes we need to achieve by 2030 — with a focus on 2050 deadlines for key conservation goals on ecosystems and species. That will be far too late for us to halt and reverse biodiversity loss and address related challenges such as climate change,” said Alfred DeGemmis, associate director of international policy for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
In a landmark report in 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an independent science and policy group, estimated that one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction. The report identified the five direct drivers of change in nature with the largest relative global impacts: changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution and invasive alien species.
Argentine ecologist Sandra Diaz, co-chair of the 2019 IPBES report, one of the crucial scientific assessments that underpins the science-based targets of the framework, commended the effort to adopt the framework, especially “after so many days of negotiations that did not look particularly promising,” but lamented the lack of more ambition throughout the framework.
She acknowledged the “very good progress” in areas such as the space given in the final document to Indigenous peoples and local communities and gender equality. “The major facets of biodiversity — species, ecosystems, genetic diversity, nature’s contributions to people — have retained their identity, and each has aspirations. I am glad that the genetic diversity of domesticated species, so crucial for food sovereignty and the food security of the whole of humanity, has survived in the text.”
“But unfortunately, not all of these targets have quantitative targets,” Diaz said. “More quantitative commitments, both in targets and in financial investment [are needed]. There are specific targets for the drivers of nature’s decline, but I think that the language of some of them, particularly those related with pesticides, the control of the business sector and the change in consumption patterns, have been seriously watered down.”
“It remains to be seen whether these targets indeed bring about the transformative change we were all hoping for, and which is essential for a better future for all life on Earth,” Diaz told Mongabay-India.
The GBF replaces the UN Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, which included the Aichi Targets, which was adopted in Nagoya, Japan in 2010 — none of which, according to a 2020 CBD report were fully met, largely due to failure to monitor and report the implementation of goals.
After multiple postponements due to COVID-19, the Montreal summit, pegged as the “last chance” to agree to a deal to protect nature, began with sticking points on measurable targets and implementation, DSI, and resource mobilization — all of which almost stalled talks midway.
On Sunday morning, December 18th, the penultimate day of the meeting — while millions around the world watched the Football World Cup — China, released the new draft of the Framework that had been shaped over the last two weeks of talks. That document was adopted by 196 Parties in the early hours of Monday, December 19th, to applause and cheers following a final leg of consultations that stretched past midnight. The deal was sealed despite objections by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), home to the world’s second-biggest rainforest, primarily over financing concerns. The United States is the only major world nation not a party to the agreement.
30 by 30 and IPLCS
Governments struck an agreement to conserve 30% of land, inland water and coastal and marine areas by 2030, a pact known as “30 by 30,” which became an often contentious target during negotiations. While Indigenous and local communities campaigned heavily in the last two years to create strong language guaranteeing the recognition and protection of their lands and rights in the targets, many NGOs also saw 30 by 30 as a lifeline helping species struggling amid the biodiversity crisis.
Currently, 17% of lands on Earth are protected, nearly doubling the goals of the Aichi targets, while tripling the Aichi target’s marine conservation goal of 10%.
“By including a target to protect and conserve at least 30% of the world’s lands and marine areas, the draft text makes the largest commitment to marine and land conservation in history,” said Brian O’Donnell, director of the Campaign for Nature. “Conservation on this scale gives nature a chance. If approved, the outlook for leopards, butterflies, sea turtles, forests and people will markedly improve.”
According to spatial land-use scenarios, 1.3 million sq km (321 million acres) of land requiring conservation attention is projected to be lost to intensive human land use change by 2030. Indigenous advocates — often citing the latest scientific studies on their effective and necessary conservation stewardship of forests and biodiversity — fear losing their traditional lands not only to deforestation and development, but also to newly created protected and conserved areas.
At the 11th hour, the recognition of the land and rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities was included in the 30 by 30 target in an adequate way that Indigenous delegates part of the Indigenous caucus (the IIFB) say could correct the legacy of neglectful conservation practices perpetrated on Indigenous peoples.
Although the text did not include the exact wording the IIFB proposed, it opens up the possibility of a new pathway for Indigenous and traditional territories to be taken into consideration in achieving conservation targets, beyond protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs), says Jennifer-Tauli Corpuz, a member of the IIFB.
The explicit inclusion of OECMs in the target as a conservation measure, and not just protected areas, also creates the opportunity to move away from “fortress conservation” that often excludes local and Indigenous communities from conserving lands.
However, contentious issues remain for some Indigenous traditional groups, especially those from countries with strong rights infrastructure, who felt the agreement language wasn’t strong enough compared to what their states already recognize. Representing about 10,000 Indigenous traditional nations from seven different socio-cultural contexts, the IIFB said it did its best to implement general language that covered all Indigenous communities.
“We feel like although [the agreement] is very general, it does cover the many different contexts,” said Jennifer Tauli-Corpuz at a press briefing. “Some Indigenous people, especially in countries with strong rights recognition in their country, wish the language were stronger. However, we have to take into consideration that we are found in very different contexts.”
Why not 50 percent?
Despite the celebratory atmosphere arising at the end of the summit, other contentious issues on the 30 by 30 target remain.
A group of advocates say 50% of land and ocean should have been protected in the framework if parties want to reverse, and not simply halt, biodiversity loss. Thirty percent, they note is the bare minimum target proposed by the UN IPCC’s Working Group II’s latest assessment, a point with which Kina Murphy, chief scientist of Campaign for Nature agrees. Advocates, citing an ICCA Consortium report, also say the goal is already pretty much achieved.
“Thirty percent of land is not in reality an ambitious number, because if we add up the already existing recognized protected areas and the Indigenous peoples’ territories where biodiversity is de facto preserved and sustainably used, the global number is already above 30%,” says Avaaz, a NGO activist organization.
The achievement of the 30 by 30 goal is also often compared favorably with being equivalent to the Paris agreement’s historic 2015 target to keep global average temperatures below 1.5° Celsius. And in terms of striking a “groundbreaking” agreement in order to get some reticent countries to sign on — it is. However, in terms of the biodiversity agreement going hand-in-hand in aiding the achievement of the Paris agreement’s goals, scientists say it is not.
A 2021 study published in Science Advances establishes that the best pathway to stay below a 1.5° C temperature rise is a global conservation target of at least 50% of lands and ocean by 2030, and no less.
Now that the world has committed to increase its total conservation goals, work remains to ensure that protected areas and OECMs are effectively conserved, achieve ecological connectivity, and that the most important biodiverse areas are prioritized as the framework mentions, says O’Donnell.
Another task, Walter Jetz, scientific chair of E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation tells Monagaby, is to make sure the 30% target is global, not national, and delivers an adequate representation of biodiversity.
The final document brought some succor to developing countries, whose key demand was to set up an international biodiversity fund. On the issue of resource mobilization, the COP15 agreement recognizes the urgency to establish a “dedicated and accessible” Global Biodiversity Fund in 2023, to support developing nations to finance biodiversity protection.
However, that fund will be set up under the auspices of the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), a multilateral financial mechanism for several environmental conventions, an option preferred by wealthier nations.
The Montreal agreement seeks to raise international financial flows from developed nations to developing countries, in particular least developed countries, Small Island Developing States, and countries with economies in transition — with funding rising to at least $20 billion per year by 2025, and to at least $30 billion per year by 2030. However, this is far shorter than the total the DRC desired, a total of $100 billion a year, and which NGOs such as the WWF proposed, about $60 billion a year.
“Biodiversity funding was the GEF’s focus going into these talks — more than 60% of our recent $5 billion record replenishment will be allocated to protecting species and their ecosystems through initiatives targeting the drivers of environmental damage. Biodiversity has never been as relevant as an economic and political issue as it is today,” Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, GEF’s CEO and chairperson, said in a statement following the adoption of GBF.
Within the first week of negotiations, developing countries led by Brazil walked-out of finance deliberations in protest against donor countries for refusing to create a biodiversity fund. Developed countries preferred improving the existing funding mechanisms, such as GEF.
In a statement released by Brazil on behalf of the like-minded group of developing countries following the walk out, those nations sought a commitment from developed countries “to mobilize and jointly provide financial grants of at least $100 billion annually or 1% of global GDP until 2030, an amount to be revised for the period 2030-2050.”
These resources “should be new and additional to those already being provided under other [multilateral environmental agreements] MEAs.”
In the final week of the negotiations, 14 donor countries came together to commit billions of dollars to support the protection and restoration of the natural world. Collectively, donors committed $5.33 billion to the 8th replenishment of the GEF, with a minimum of 60% of all GEF financing delivering outcomes which benefit biodiversity.
The international fund is part of an annual $200 billion goal earmarked to achieve the global goals and targets laid out in the framework. However, according to a report by The Nature Conservancy, an NGO, at least $700 billion per year is needed to reverse global biodiversity loss by 2030. The framework does not make any clear indication that this funding goal should be met every year until 2030, but it does highlight that it should be “progressively” met to achieve the framework and 2050 vision of living in harmony with nature.
In order to help close the massive finance gap, nations are looking to redirect part of the estimated $1.8 trillion currently spent per year in government subsidies that harm nature and deplete biodiversity. Most of these harmful subsidies go to the agriculture and production sector. The agricultural sector is responsible for 70% of terrestrial biodiversity loss.
Language included in the final text covers the phasing out and eventual elimination of the $1.8 trillion subsidies, with $500 billion per year reductions. According to scientists at the Nature Conservancy, a large chunk of this reduction should be redirected towards restorative agricultural practices and initiatives that restore nature.
NGOs are also calling on countries from the OECD’s development assistance committee, like Finland, New Zealand and Switzerland, to make more pledges. So far, one third of member parties have, and there is room for countries with the capacity to contribute, like Qatar and China, to do so, says Mark Opel, finance lead at Campaign for Nature.
“Qatar just got done spending $220 billion on the World Cup,” elaborates Opel. “And we think China, with the second largest economy in the world, has the capacity to increase its financial commitments.”
Should corporations fill the funding gap?
The private sector and philanthropies are also expected to fill the huge funding gap. So far, countries have pledged nearly $7 billion per year, philanthropies have committed $856 million but the private sector has put aside a mere $447 million. With the remarkably large presence of the private sector at COP, CBD executive secretary Elizabeth Mrema also highlighted the need for the private sector to step up and commit significant profits and investments to biodiversity finance to support the framework.
Clearly, say analysts, sufficient excess corporate profits exist to help, with room to spare: The International Energy Agency reported that the net income from the world’s oil and gas producers is set to double to $4 trillion in 2022. During the first nine months of 2022, the seven largest oil and gas companies reported profits of approximately $170 billion. In 2021, the net profit of the 40 leading mining companies of the global mining industry was approximately $159 billion.
Imposing a windfall tax on corporations largely driving biodiversity loss could be a solution, says O’Donnell. Although such an option, including debt-for-nature swaps were not expected to be included in the text, it doesn’t preclude countries from pursuing these approaches as a way to generate nature funding, Mark Opel explains further.
“If we want to find a source for increased finance for biodiversity, it’s simple. Let’s place a windfall tax on those companies that have driven biodiversity loss, primarily the oil and gas companies and the mining companies,” O’Donnell said in a press conference. “They have made massive profits in the last year while the rest of the global economy has suffered.
Offsets and voluntary contributions are not reliable options for meeting the financial need, he says. “We’re talking about governments requiring [corporations] to put up this money that can easily close a big portion of this biodiversity finance gap.”
The biodiversity agreement’s Target 14 outlines language noting that governments need to rein in private finance and financial flows to meet biodiversity targets, says Shona Hawkes of Rainforest Action Network, and NGO. But there is no way to do this without new national laws that hold corporations and financiers liable for their role in environmental abuses, and that challenge the right to profit from those abuses.
However, with the significant presence of the private sector at the conference, business interests did largely influence negotiations and actively lobbied governments, say a group of delegates from the Friends of the Earth International, Rainforest Action Network, Global Forest Coalition, the corporate watchdog ETC Group, scientists from the Federation of German Scientists, along with some Indigenous, local and civil society activists.
Corporations actively shape the biodiversity agreement
The primary corporate points of interest centered on three spheres: lobbying around the removal of biotechnology monitoring, insufficient accountability around harmful business practices and the inclusion of biodiversity offsets in the text.
“It is a huge concern that the text mentions ‘biodiversity offsets’ and ‘biodiversity credit,’ I mean what is that?” asked Ricarda Steinbrecher, a biologist and molecular geneticist with the Federation of German Scientists. Steinbrecher is involved in the UN processes, especially the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
“There’s a thinking that you can trade biodiversity like carbon. Or that you can destroy an ecosystem in one area, and make up for those lost species in another area. [Biodiversity] is not carbon, ecosystems are local and embedded. They are not replaceable. This basically allows the destruction actually,” she tells Mongabay.
A huge chunk of time in negotiations occurred around Target 15, with many businesses surprisingly pushing for mandatory reporting of risks, dependencies and impacts for the private sector. In the end, language was added requiring large and transnational companies and financial institutions to monitor, assess, and transparently disclose their biodiversity risks, dependencies and impacts resulting from their operations, supply and value chains and portfolios.
A big emphasis was on company self-reporting — with language successfully included in the text to that effect. The portion of the corporate task force that pushed strongly for self-reporting measures included Dow Chemical, Bayer, Bank of America, and BlackRock — organizations whose social and environmental responsibility records came into question in the past.
“The Global Biodiversity Framework is a wake-up call for businesses and financial institutions,” says Eva Zabey, executive director of Business for Nature, a coalition of businesses and conservation organizations.
“Those not already assessing and disclosing their risks, impacts and dependencies, will need to get ready. This is recognition from governments that business as usual is economically short-sighted, will destroy value over the long term and will no longer be accepted. The strong signal in Target 15 will contribute to transforming our systems to reward positive actions on nature.”
However, others see a big missing gap in the text. Companies should self-report their own impacts, but there isn’t mention of facing legal consequences for any environmental and human abuses incurred.
“Language that would have specifically drawn attention to the need for liability and redress was removed with little discussion. Yet access to justice is one of the most fundamental things that communities are calling for,” Shona Hawkes told Mongabay.
The biotech debate over gene drives
Issues regarding biotechnology practices were also raised at the summit, especially addressing concern (or lack of concern) over gene drives — the modification of the genome of a living organism (predominantly conducted on plants, crops and insects), and the release of that altered organism into the wild.
Activists and scientists fear the potential for unforeseen negative consequences on biodiversity from gene drives, while corporations and some countries hold out biotech solutions as big hopes for humanity and nature.
Lobbying was extreme for unbridled biotech, says Steinbrecher who took part in the negotiations. Some large agro-commodity (GM) exporters — including Brazil, Argentina and other nations — blocked any language that would have allowed oversight of new technological practices. These nations’ economies heavily rely on the industrial agricultural sector. Language on horizon-scanning, technology assessments, monitoring and a precautionary approach to biotech were struck from the text, specifically Target 17 on biosafety and biodiversity.
This rolls back stricter promises made by many parties at COP14 to begin “regular” and “broad” horizon scanning, assessments and monitoring.
Supporters of biotech argue that new innovations will significantly help human health, agriculture, and even species conservation. But critics like Steinbrecher and the ETC Group argue back that innovation in this field is moving incredibly fast, with the risks unknown.
Steinbrecher released an overview of global biotech projects targeting 32 insects, 21 of which are agricultural pests, for gene drives. Modified insects when released into the wild to reproduce with others of their species could ultimately modify species behaviors within the environment in unexpected ways, she says.
“For example, an insect can be targeted to no longer produce female offspring, making it basically a living pesticide,” she explains. The aim is to control a pest population within a certain region, but if modified species become invasive and travel to other ecosystems, the consequences are unknown. There is also uncertainty as to how ecosystems and other species will interact with gene drives.
Many of these research and development projects are backed by private funding, with gene drives targeting mosquitoes to reduce malaria transmission largely funded by the Gates Foundation, and drawing backlash against the philanthropic organization. In the midst of the conference, the ETC group staged a protest against the influence of billionaire and the private sector interests at the conference, singling out Bill Gates and the Bezos Earth Fund funding into questionable restoration projects.
During the COP15 conference, more than 100 scientists signed a petition calling for the application of the precautionary approach to these new technologies whose impacts are unknown and may negatively affect pollinators.
The use of biotech in the wild carries “understudied risks which could accelerate the decline of pollinator populations and put entire food webs at risk,” according to the letter drafted by the French non-governmental organization Pollinis, which led the petition.
The DSI controversy, and gender equality gains
DSI refers to digitized genetic information obtained from nature, data often used to produce new drugs and novel food products. These digital bonanzas are highly profitable to the companies or nations that exploit them, but they are very often discovered in the rich, often tropical, ecosystems found in the developing world. These genetic resources are hard to trace back to the nation of origin, so are also easy to pirate. Origin countries understandably want payment for the use of their resources.
In Montreal, a breakthrough agreement — pushed hard by African states — was reached to develop an equitable funding mechanism on DSI. The Parties agreed to establish, a multilateral mechanism for equitable benefit-sharing from DSI use, including setting up a global fund, to be finalized at COP16 in Türkey in 2024, without prejudice to national access and benefit-sharing measures.
A specific target on gender equality is unique to the post-2020 GBF, compared to the Aichi Targets. It commits the parties to ensuring gender equality in the implementation of the framework “through a gender-responsive approach” where all women and girls have equal opportunity and capacity to contribute to the three objectives of the Convention, including by recognizing their “equal rights and access to land and natural resources.”
Other ambitious global targets set at COP15 include having restoration completed or underway on at least 30% of degraded terrestrial, inland waters, and coastal and marine ecosystems; reducing to near zero the loss of areas of high biodiversity importance, including ecosystems of high ecological integrity; cutting global food waste in half; and significantly reducing overconsumption and waste generation — all to be achieved by 2030.
The GBF also includes goals to prevent the introduction of priority invasive alien species, to reduce by at least half the introduction and establishment of other known or potential invasive alien species, and the eradication or control of invasive alien species on islands and other priority sites.
The final agreement obligates countries to monitor and report every five years or less on a large set of “headline” and other indicators related to progress against the GBF’s goals and targets.
Headline indicators include the percent of land and seas effectively conserved, the number of companies disclosing their impacts and dependencies on biodiversity, and many others.
Banner image: From center left to right: David Cooper, CBD Deputy Executive Secretary; COP 15 President Huang Runqiu, Minister of Ecology and Environment, China; Xia Yingxian, China; and Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, CBD Executive Secretary. Image by UN biodiversity via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Elizabeth Mrema, the Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, and Jennifer Tauli-Corpuz, a member of the Indigenous Caucus participating in COP15 talks, about the progress, hopes and hard work ahead of the final agreement. Listen here: