News | Socio-ecological Transformation - Climate Justice Is This Our Last Chance to Save Biodiversity?

The UN biodiversity summit’s commitment to business-friendly solutions sets a worrying precedent



Tone Smith,

Protesters interrupt a speech by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the opening ceremony of the COP15 UN conference on biodiversity in Montreal, Canada, 6 December 2022. Photo: IMAGO/Paul Chiasson

The United Nations biodiversity summit, formally known as the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), hence COP15, is currently in session in Montreal, Canada. Hundreds of delegates from around the world have come together to negotiate and agree on a global biodiversity framework (GBF).

The COP reconvenes against the backdrop of gloomy statistics showing degradation of land and soil, decline in natural habitats, destruction of ecosystems, and loss of species. Of particular importance in documenting the state of biodiversity was the 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The assessment showed that biodiversity is declining globally at “rates unprecedented” in human history.

Tone Smith is an ecological economist and a freelance writer. She is active in the international degrowth movement and in Rethinking Economics Norway. 

As if that was not enough, the rate of species extinction is even accelerating. Currently about one million species are threatened with extinction. In 2017, a German study made headlines internationally as researchers had found shocking declines in insect populations, even within nature reserves. More recently, WWF's Living Planet Report 2022 confirmed this gloomy picture, revealing a 69 percent decline in average wildlife populations since 1970. The situation has led scientists to suggest that we are entering the sixth mass extinction in the history of the Earth, and the first ever caused by humans.

When the CBD signatories meet to negotiate, they need to take into account why they have failed to live up to earlier plans and targets. Neither the overarching 2010 goal of “a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss” nor the 2020 target “to halt the loss of biodiversity” were met. Actually, according to the 5th Global Biodiversity Outlook, none of the 20 Aichi targets agreed at the COP10 in 2010 had been met on a global scale by 2020.

This does not mean that nothing has been done. Governments and the wider society have indeed taken action, without which the state of affairs would have been even worse. Still, the fact of having failed to reach earlier targets, combined with a serious and accelerating decline in biodiversity means the stakes are high at the upcoming COP. Given the urgency to move away from the current path, many are calling for a “Paris Agreement for nature”.

A Global Biodiversity Framework

The process for developing the GBF was agreed at the last COP, which took place in Egypt in 2018. A key element was that the framework would be based on a broad consultation process involving various actors from civil society as well as the business sector. An open-ended working group was established to do the drafting work.

The new framework is meant to guide the implementation of obligations for the signatories of the CBD for the decade post-2020 through specific goals and targets. The framework has four goals and 22 action targets. These 22 targets, to be met by 2030, cover topics such as eliminating environmentally harmful subsidies, reducing pollution, action on invasive species in an effort to cut extinction rates, and prevention of adverse impacts from biotechnology.

The goals reflect the three goals of the CBD: 1) promoting the conservation of biodiversity, 2) sustainable use of biological resources, and 3) the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources. An additional goal on “adequate means of implementation” was agreed at the insistence of the Global South. This includes financial resources, capacity building, and the transfer of appropriate technology.

Despite the general failure to address the root causes of biodiversity loss, it is still to be expected that some of the measures put in place will have a positive impact on the state of biodiversity.

Beyond the means of implementation, the GBF also contains several other tools or mechanisms for enhancing implementation. A central feature in this context, which distinguishes the GBF from earlier CBD strategies, is the centrality of establishing a compliance and accountability mechanism. Countries will establish (measurable) national targets aligned with the framework, and progress towards the national and global targets will be periodically reviewed.

Due to the COVID-19 situation, the conference is taking place more than two years after it was originally planned. One might think that two years of extra preparation time would mean good progress on the draft text, but this is not the case. In some ways, the extra preparation time, including virtual meetings perceived as inequitable by many developing countries, seems to have increased the level of conflict and some seemingly irreconcilable positions have crystallized.

This is evident by the fact that only a few of the 22 targets have been fully agreed. Some substantive divisions remain, especially between the Global North and South, for example over proposals to protect 30 percent of land and sea by 2030 (target 3) or with regard to the target of reducing threats from climate change (target 8), including the new concept of “nature-based solutions”.

Controversies on Digital Sequence Information

In 2010, almost 20 years after the CBD was established, the Nagoya Protocol on access and benefit sharing was adopted, an agreement meant to stop bio-piracy and ensure fair and equitable sharing of the benefits that arise from the utilization of genetic resources. However, soon after the protocol entered into force in 2014, the new topic of digital sequence information on genetic resources (DSI) has come to dominate the discussions on access and benefit sharing within the CBD.

The advancements in genome sequencing technologies have allowed DSI to bypass the need for the physical genetic resource, central to the Nagoya Protocol. DSI is stored in so-called “open access” databases that are free for corporations to use and profit from. This was not envisaged when the Nagoya Protocol was negotiated, and makes it virtually meaningless.

DSI has therefore become one of the most heated and controversial topics of the GBF. Many developing countries view the issue as being so important that they have linked the progress on discussion of the framework to also making progress on DSI. A common understanding among the respective parties has gradually developed.

The establishment of a multilateral system for benefit-sharing for DSI on genetic resources is now crystallizing as a way forward. However, nothing is yet sure on this topic.

Resources and Finance

Resource mobilization is generally a difficult topic at all COPs, but this time it is expected to be even harder.

Currently, “increasing the level of financial resources from all sources” is more or less the only agreed text under the respective target 19.1. A major division between the parties concerns the amount of financial resources needed. An initial figure of 200 billion US dollars per year, put forth in the first GBF draft, was seen as too unambitious by many countries from the Global South.

Several suggestions are now on the table, the highest being 700 billion dollars, which has been established as being the gap in financing which needs to be filled in order to protect global biodiversity.

But how should such funds be raised? Where should they come from? Who should pay for conservation? Recent years have seen a general promotion of private finance to help solve the biodiversity crisis. This is based on the claim, particularly from countries in the Global North but also from large environmental NGOs and UN bodies, that the public sector cannot provide all the finance needed. Hence, the private sector needs to step in.

However, for this to happen, we need to first turn nature into a business and investment case. Many organizations are currently hard at work to prepare the ground, not only businesses, but also UN bodies such as UNEP or large conservation organizations such as the Nature Conservancy.

Still, much disagreement reigns on this issue. A range of civil society actors are sceptical about private investor funds and label them false solutions. Many countries of the Global South are pointing to the Rio principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. This principle indicates that developed countries shall provide public resources to developing countries. To make sure this principle is actually taken into account, there have been some attempts to bring it into the GBF fully spelled out, but this text has remained in brackets, meaning there is no agreement on it yet.

Another way to increase public funds could of course be through identifying structural barriers like debt, austerity, and tax avoidance. Dealing with these could release large public funds. However, proposals to address sovereign debt in just and equitable ways have made it into the target as bracketed text.

Merely calling for aligning activities and financial flows with the vague notion of ‘biodiversity values’, without any mention of the need for strong regulation, plays in favour of the already powerful actors in the economy.

Despite the above disagreements, the draft still includes text on “leveraging private finance”. However, all the suggestions on how to do this are in brackets, some of which cover market-based instruments like payment for ecosystem services, others going even further and promoting more controversial ideas like blended finance.

A different kind of proposal is that of a fund to be filled by a one percent levy on retail sales, in developed countries, from all products which in some way derive from biodiversity. Then there are proposals to build links to climate financing, including maximizing co-benefits and synergies with the Paris Agreement (including the notion of “nature-based solutions”).

Finally, there have been suggestions for a new international financing instrument, a global biodiversity fund, to serve as a dedicated mechanism for the provision of financial resources to signatories from developing countries as set out in Article 21 of the CBD. However there has not been agreement on any of these proposals.

There is also a proposal for “stimulating innovative schemes”, a language that usually paves the way for the increasing financialization of nature, which is exactly what the proposals in brackets suggest: green bonds, biodiversity offsets, carbon credits, and debt-for-nature swaps.

Instead, the topic of finance could have been, in a more progressive way, considered within the larger context of the actual global (political) economy, with its extractive and inequitable aspects, including trade and investment rules or austerity and debt loads on developing countries depleting public finances, impeding government action, and further fuelling extractivism. However, there is nothing in the current GBF that addresses such structural resource mobilization issues.

Conservation or Sustainable Use?

Target 3 of the current GBF draft — the target on conservation — is of particular importance to biodiversity. In the first draft, the suggestion was to protect at least 30 percent of the planet by 2030, a moderated version of E. O. Wilson's “Half-Earth Project” aiming to set aside half of the planet for conservation purposes. Yet the so-called “30 by 30” goal, promoted heavily by governments in the Global North, the CBD Secretariat, and especially large conservation NGOs (like the WWF) has been heavily contested, and is now in brackets. But a strong push is ongoing, especially from the High Ambition Coalition (HAC) for Nature and People, launched in early 2021 and which now comprises more than 100 countries.

There have been concerns, particularly from Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) and civil society, that without due attention to equitable governance and the rights of people living on the ground, the 30 by 30 target could result in massive land grabs. These might be predominantly committed by the conservation industry, and would result in the dispossession of IPLCs from their territories. Respecting the rights of IPLCs is now included in the framework, together with language on equitable governance.

IPLCs have also fought for text that recognizes Indigenous peoples and their lands on their own terms and with their own words, beyond “colonial conservation categories”. This wish has also been heard — it is currently being reserved with a placeholder in the text, although in brackets.

There are, nevertheless, still concerns about the actual consequences of a 30 percent target. Given the increasing attention to nature-based solutions, there are fears that the target can be used to serve such ends, thereby locking up swathes of land for its carbon sequestration potential. The aforementioned High Ambition Coalition, for example, explicitly promotes both 30 by 30 and nature-based solutions.

Achieving Transformative Change?

The 2019 IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services highlighted that current global responses to biodiversity loss are insufficient, and that “transformative change” is needed to restore and protect nature. IPBES defined transformative change in the following way: “a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values”.

This sounds potentially radical and ground-breaking. However, we already see very different interpretations of the concept, ranging from green capitalism to a thorough restructuring of our economic system(s).

This ambivalent interpretation can also be found in the understanding of the indirect drivers or root causes of biodiversity loss. For example, the 2019 IPBES report recommended steering away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth. However, the GBF stays clear of the whole topic, and instead simply lists some general categories of indirect drivers: demographic and sociocultural, economic and technological, institutions and governance, and conflicts and epidemics.

Another indirect driver is that of overconsumption, highlighted by many civil society actors and countries from the Global South. Attempts have been made to introduce it into target 16, but it will most likely not be accepted. The remaining text is focused on the well-known individualistic approach to sustainable consumption, and on enabling individuals to make sustainable choices in the marketplace, without any mention of the critical role that governments could play in putting in place regulatory and policy tools to limit overconsumption.

The most positive development in the GBF is the recognition of Indigenous peoples and local communities as guardians of biodiversity.

Instead, a much-used explanation for previous failure to reach agreed biodiversity goals is in the way we make economic decisions, i.e. without taking biodiversity values into account. The solution is then to integrate biodiversity values into all parts of decision-making and to mainstream biodiversity across all sectors.

We already see this kind of vague language used by many corporate actors and groups, for example, the Capitals Coalition, a global collaboration of groups aiming at “redefining value to transform decision-making” by including the value of all kinds of capital. Their ambition is that “by 2030 the majority of businesses, financial institutions and governments will include the value of natural capital, social capital and human capital in their decision-making and that this will deliver a fairer, just and more sustainable world”.

The worry, of course, is that merely calling for aligning activities and financial flows with the vague notion of “biodiversity values”, without any mention of the need for strong regulation, plays in favour of the already powerful actors in the economy. In this way, mainstreaming simply becomes an approach to avoid regulations. In line with the mainstreaming approach, the business and finance sector is working hard to show their commitment to halting biodiversity loss, by promoting self-regulation and voluntary measures.

Some groups, civil society in particular, but also a few signatories to the CBD, with Bolivia at the forefront, have wished to go further than calling for regulation of economic activities. They challenge both market-based initiatives and commodification in general, and call for a transformation of the capitalist economy itself.

Such a position is rare within the CBD, however. The general understanding of transformational change is rather aligned with some version of green capitalism.

Treating Nature Like a Business Opportunity

Despite the general failure to address the root causes of biodiversity loss, it is still to be expected that some of the measures put in place will have a positive impact on the state of biodiversity.

One example is the compliance and accountability mechanism. Another is the phasing out or elimination of subsidies harmful to biodiversity (target 18). However, this depends on making sure that countries' obligations under the GBF remain legally binding, rather than undermining the CBD by calling for voluntary commitments in the spirit of the Paris Agreement.

The most positive development in the GBF is the recognition of IPLCs as guardians of biodiversity, and agreement on the need to protect and safeguard both Indigenous rights (tenure, access, etc.) and human rights in general. On the other hand, given the recognition that the world needs nothing less than transformative change to handle the biodiversity crisis, the total lack of action points related to learning from the practices or values of IPLCs is a flaw. The sustainable management practices of IPLCs could have been showcased as a way to reimagine conservation, given that just safeguarding 30 percent of the globe's surface in conservation areas will be totally insufficient to address the environmental challenges we face.

On a different note, the prominence of business and financial actors at the last COPs is a cause for concern, as is the fact that throughout the document there features language feeding into the process of financializing nature. Traditionally, the CBD COPs used to be of little interest for the business sector, but this has changed dramatically in the last ten years as the sector is becoming increasingly interested in exploring the business opportunities related to environmental challenges.

However, other groups are also interested in making nature into a new object for economic growth and development, including the World Bank, the IMF, the OECD, UNEP, and even some large conservation organizations. The EU is pushing a similar line through its European Green Deal and the associated biodiversity strategy and sustainable taxonomy. The CBD Secretariat itself has hosted a range of events with big business in recent years and will host another two-day high-level dialogue at the COP.

Many of these players have signed up to a large ongoing campaign which calls for a “nature-positive economy”. However, despite the cheerful name, the core of the campaign is to promote monetary valuation of nature and offsetting as relevant tools for tackling the biodiversity crisis. As a counter-campaign has underlined, such an approach only diverts attention from the need to curb destruction, while at the same time empowering private finance and financial markets.

How much impact corporations and the business community will eventually have on the CBD negotiations remains to be seen. However, given the amount of powerful interest groups involved in this new way of economic thinking and talking about nature, the power of this discourse and the impact of the related projects will no doubt be substantive in the future, no matter the final details of the GBF.