A tree grows through the water in Wanaka, New Zealand. Laura Smetsers, Unsplash

COP15’s new deal for nature: What it is – and what it isn’t

Notes from the floor of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s meetings in Montréal

When the intergovernmental scientific advisory body to the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (UN CBD) gathered in Tiohti:áke – now known as Montréal – in 2019, nobody could have predicted there would be such a long road to a “new deal for nature.” With this deal, everyone was wishing for a Paris Agreement moment for climate’s less famous sister: biodiversity. 

The road thereafter proved to be not only long but also extraordinarily bumpy. 

China held the presidency for the CBD’s 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15), meaning that the conference where the deal would be negotiated was supposed to be in Kunming. But the COP was repeatedly postponed due to the global pandemic, and eventually, it was moved to Montréal in 2022. And so, this December, delegates from more than 190 countries and representatives from expert organizations and civil society groups flooded the Palais des congrès de Montréal.

The prevailing sentiment upon arrival was one of valid fear that an agreement might not be possible. The pandemic deeply interrupted the whole process: governments and delegations changed, and the global economy is vastly different from 2019. And if anything, the pandemic laid bare the incredible injustice between countries. The poor track record of biodiversity agreements under the CBD – none of the 20 biodiversity targets set at Aichi in Japan in 2010 were met – certainly didn’t set a hopeful tone, and delegations traveled to Montréal with more questions than answers about the slow progress during pre-COP15 preparatory talks in Geneva and Nairobi. Tense international relations, skepticism and protests from more than 100 local Quebec organizations, and the disappointing climate COP27 in Egypt in November cast long shadows over what was to be agreed upon in COP15’s three weeks. 

Indigenous youth protesting during the opening ceremony of COP 15. Eirini Sakellari, GLF

Skip to the end, though, and on 19 December at 3:30 a.m. local time after countless technical meetings, a series of walkouts and late-night negotiations sprinkled with wordsmithing, the Kunming–Montréal pact went down in history as the outcome of COP15. The adoption of the final text was not without controversy.

A deal for the decade in titles 

We know that science has never been more straightforward: biodiversity – and humanity’s health and livelihoods – cannot wait another decade. “Biodiversity loss and the climate crisis are interconnected – they are issues of the same origin, but reflected in different ways,” said Oluwaseun Adekubge, the Managing Director of Youth4Nature. “Whatever the agreement of COP15 is should tackle biodiversity loss in a holistic way, including the interface with climate and respecting human rights, and taking into consideration intergenerational equity.”

But has COP15 been a good listener? 

The adopted Kunming–Montréal Global Biodiversity Framework – or, simply, the Kunming–Montréal GBF – includes four goals and 23 targets for achievement by 2030. Overall, the GBF has hopeful elements that, if implemented, could benefit peoples and landscapes, but it also has missed opportunities and vague and contradicting language in places. Let’s take a quick look together. 

GYBN representatives calling for world leaders to Stop the Same. Eirini Sakellari, GLF

The notorious 30×30

The ambition to protect 30 percent of land and marine regions by 2030 made it to the final text in Target 3. Without a doubt, the most significant element of this target is the strong language for the rights, territories and contributions of Indigenous Peoples and local communities – a decisive first step away from fortress conservation and toward holistic practices. The International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB) welcomed the target as the successful result of many years of rallying to avoid the biggest land grab in history. The language should encourage new ways of supporting biodiversity beyond insisting on the enclosure of the global commons

“For us, it’s a major shift: they recognize this important role that was invisible. This is incredibly significant, as, without the inclusion [of Indigenous Peoples’ rights], we could suffer human rights violations in the name of conservation,” said Viviana Figueroa from the Omaguaca-Kolla peoples in Argentina, speaking on behalf of IIFB. Despite the very much welcomed rhetoric of centering Indigenous Peoples in conservation efforts, we cannot neglect that almost six decades were needed to get protected areas covering 17% of the Earth without delivering qualitative results for habitats and species. And the truth is that this history has a poor track record of respecting people’s rights – a lot needs to change.

A second 30×30 goal also made it into the final text: Target 2 is an area-based target to effectively restore 30 percent of “degraded terrestrial, inland water, and coastal and marine ecosystems.”

From left to right: Dwi Riyan (Wetlands Restoration Steward 2023), Eirini Sakellari (acting GLF Youth Coordinator) and Adrian Leitoro (Drylands Restoration Steward 2022). Eirini Sakellari, GLF

A lost opportunity for agriculture

Negotiations for the GBF could not ignore either the Global Land Outlook, which points out that food production is “the single largest cause of biodiversity loss on land” or that 90 percent of the global subsidies for farming are harmful. However, the targets addressing productive landscapes are a watered-down version of the need and ambition to address the relationship between agriculture, biodiversity and livelihoods. For example, Target 7 does include language for the phase-out of agricultural pollutants, such as synthetic pesticides, but campaigners for food sovereignty are arguing that it is the use of pesticides that should be reduced, not the risk

Countries were deeply divided for most of the negotiations regarding Target 10, dealing with sustainable land management. The E.U. advocated for agroecology as the main approach, while a group mostly led by Brazil and Argentina argued that this is not the only method of sustainable agriculture. The final text reads, “The application of biodiversity-friendly practices, such as sustainable intensification, agroecological and other innovative approaches,” with agricultural experts raising their disappointment for the outcome. 

“Sustainable intensification is a land-sparing approach. Whereby yield productivity is optimized by minimizing the wastage of fertilizer or pesticides without degrading soil health. While this, if practiced truly, will certainly lead to less pollution, it is not biodiversity-friendly,” said Anja Gassner, Science & Policy advisor at the Global Landscapes Forum.” Intensification of the agricultural area means a loss of genetic diversity, agrobiodiversity, and habitat loss within the agricultural landscapes. It has been clearly demonstrated that land-sparing strategies do not stop agricultural expansion.”

A win for gender

The CBD Women Caucus called the Kunming–Montréal GBF a historic, pivotal moment for women in their press release. And indeed, they have many reasons to celebrate. After many years of hard work, COP15 is the first time a Rio Convention – as is called the trio of the climate-, land- and biodiversity agencies of the UN – has adopted a standalone target on “gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment,” Target 23. The inclusion of the term “gender-responsive” was a major advocacy point for the caucus instead of “gender-sensitive,” and gender responsiveness is now part of the final Target 22, with experts hoping it will enable relevant resource mobilization and measurable policies. Furthermore, the development of a Gender Plan of Action aimed to “support and promote the gender-responsive implementation” of the GBF. 

(Finally) addressing harmful practices

Arguably one of the most complex (the Mexican delegation jokingly offered tequila to everyone if a consensus was achieved) yet important discussions was on how to redirect harmful subsidies. Governments spend between USD 500 billion and 1 trillion on “environmentally harmful subsidies” for fisheries, agriculture and fossil fuels. And yet, though it may come as a surprise to people not following these processes, most high-level environmental negotiations rarely address the drivers of the crisis in question in practical ways. Target 18 is far from perfect, but it is a clear response to the failure of the previous decade to address environmentally harmful subsidies as structural drivers of biodiversity loss. The target aims to “eliminate, phase out or reform incentives, including subsidies” that are harmful to biodiversity, making it one of GBF’s strongest texts and a tool to push for transformative change on the regional and national levels. 

One of the weakest elements of the GBF is Target 15, focusing on the production footprint of business. Several voices from civil society expressed their concern regarding the exclusion of the “circular economy” from the final target, as well as the soft language merely encouraging businesses to“regularly monitor, assess, and transparently disclose their risks, dependencies, and impacts on biodiversity.”

Sectors that are major contributors to biodiversity loss have not regulated themselves in the past 50 years. “Voluntary action is just not cutting it, and we really need to get serious about setting the policy environment to drive action at scale and speed,” said Eva Zabey, executive director of Business for Nature, the coalition behind the “Make it mandatory” campaign.

Resource mobilization: Who will pay? 

Most of the world’s remaining biodiversity is found in the Global South. These nations are called to implement the GBF to preserve biodiversity on their own soils and monitor, review and report on biodiversity conservation initiatives. And this is quite expensive. For those who like numbers, the biodiversity finance gap is estimated at roughly USD 700 billion per year, with indebted countries suffering the most.

If there is a topic that could make dozens of delegates from more than 70 countries walk out of negotiations, it is resource mobilization. And indeed, it happened: Even after the GBF was agreed upon, biodiversity-rich nations in the Global South expressed their clear disapproval until the very last moment. Earlier in the process, several countries were advocating for a “Global Biodiversity Fund,” similar to the annual USD 100 billion climate fund for developing countries promised a decade ago. However, the proposal did not flourish, with reports pointing out France as one of the strongest opponents

Some of the biggest red flags of the GBF can be found in Target 19. It does recognize “Mother Earth-centric actions” (championed by the Bolivian delegation) and “non-market-based approaches”; however, the Global Youth Biodiversity Network (GYBN) stated in its press release that commitments to resource mobilization showcase a “lack of ambition for the framework overall.” In short, Target 19(a) seeks to mobilize “at least USD 200 billion per year” from domestic, international, public,and private sources, with rich countries voluntarily assuming their obligations of just USD 30 billion. This low commitment and the mention of “biodiversity offsets” in Target 19(d) have alarmed many observers that financial schemes that failed in the climate processes will now also dominate biodiversity finance. “It’s not that all the private sector is awful (or) all businesses are bad, but the ones responsible for biodiversity loss will take advantage of any lack of clarity,” said Mirna Ines Fernández, policy co-coordinator for GYBN. 

Lastly, while the term did not make it to the final text, concerns were raised around the “nature positive” discourse that is championed by the private sector and big conservation organizations. Fernandez explains it well: “Nature positive opens the door to companies to keep on destroying nature as long as they offset the damage through expanding biodiversity elsewhere, but the most diverse and highly complex ecosystems cannot be replaced.” A report by Friends of the Earth and an article in The Guardian mentioned that a BP employee sits in IUCN’s working group focused on Nature Positive, which is not a good opening line for a discussion with civil society regarding the potential value of the term. 

The hot potato – or, formally, the DSI

On the road to COP15, the issue of Digital Sequence Information (DSI) was one that everyone had questions for, and almost nobody had answers – and for many, the topic that could make or break the GBF. In a nutshell, the controversy around DSI is that while the majority of the world’s biodiversity is in the landscapes and seascapes of countries in the Global South, the revenues from using this (genetic) diversity lie in the hands of big companies – such as pharmaceuticals – especially from the Global North. Goal C and the agreement to develop a multilateral benefit-sharing and funding mechanism on DSI have been welcomed by the African Group, Latin America and the Caribbean Group, and the Asia and Pacific Group. 

But there is more!

While I have chosen to focus this debrief on the topics I followed while in Montréal, several other elements are equally important. Just to mention a few, marine issues were mostly treated as a cross-cutting theme for the GBF without a stand-alone target for oceans. Nature-based solutions, a highly divisive concept within and beyond COP15 due to concerns about greenwashing and nature commodification, are explicitly mentioned in Targets 8 and 11.

Souparna Lahiri, a senior climate and biodiversity advisor of the Global Forest Coalition, stated in a press release: “These “false solutions” do not offer protection to the world’s shrinking biodiversity but rather permit harmful industries to continue to destroy the planet under the fundamentally flawed accounting principle that destroying one part of the planet can be balanced out by conserving or restoring another part of the planet somewhere else.” Parties have agreed to work on a monitoring framework to adopt at COP16 in Turkey.

Lastly, a special shoutout must go to the incredible work of the GYBN, which hosted the very first Youth Summit and Youth Pavilion under the CBD and created space for hundreds of young experts from all around the world to participate in the negotiations and, hopefully, the implementation phase

Representatives of Indigenous Peoples in a demonstration at the COP15 venue. Eirini Sakellari, GLF

Now what?

It was three long weeks for everyone involved in the negotiations, and maybe it is comforting to call the outcome historical. But we owe it to current and future generations to hold a nuanced understanding of these processes beyond “good or bad agreement” narratives.

If we want to be realistic, none of the elements of the GBF are legally binding. We have the agreed language and the voluntary commitment of countries to work, report on, and review their actions on a regional, national and local level. Plus, the targets are pretty broad and often contradicting, thus setting the tone for a challenging process of figuring out the National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans for each of the 196 signatory parties. Fundamentally missing is a robust plan for demanding and working toward an economic system that considers ecological limits to growth, especially for the big polluters.

Ioannis Agapakis, a lawyer at the Wildlife & Habitats Program of Client Earth, said: “Given the broader socioeconomic and political context, the unproductive negotiations, and the complexity of the targets, even the fact that an agreement was reached is relatively welcomed. Still, the framework fails to address the major drivers of biodiversity loss decisively and does not set targets to transform those sectors and bring them within planetary boundaries.”

Why should anyone believe that this agreement will have any real-world influence?

If we want to be critical but still realistic, similar promises to the GBF have been made within the climate and biodiversity spaces in the past 30 years, with no substantial impact. Maybe this is a sign that we need to change the way these spaces function or finally address the systemic and historical drivers, including, among others, colonialism, racism and the ever-expanding economic system of capitalism. “That colonial injustice that is amplified by what happened in the (Democratic Republic of) Congo is the origin of all of the problems that we have encountered in this Convention and the relationship between humanity and biodiversity,” said Namibia’s Pierre du Plessis during the closing plenary of COP15. The room applauded. Why would anyone refuse to see that we cannot address the environmental crisis through the exact mechanisms that created it?

If we want to be hopeful but still realistic, biodiversity has never been so high on the agenda for governments or the private sector. The GBF sets the tone for the global biodiversity discourse and the relevant funding priorities and instruments for the next decade. The language about Indigenous Peoples’ rights, resources and territories has never been stronger. Free, prior and informed consent, gender responsiveness and intergenerational equity are terms that can be leveraged to hold governments accountable in the next decade.

“I feel like we are heard, and people are responsive, and we are taken into account. Of course, when we go to the national level, this is where we have to do the hardest work,” said Anni-Sofia Niityvuopio, a young Sámi woman who attended the CBD processes for the first time. We also need to pay attention to how biodiversity – and, to an extent, this framework – will be communicated, maybe focusing on biodiversity’s relevance for our cultures, health and livelihoods.

But still, I cannot but wonder: Why did it take multilateralism so long to agree that human rights are the basis of environmental action?

There is maybe only one non-negotiable thing. Going forward, we must amplify the stories of, and support the knowledge and decision-making of nature’s current and future stewards through our work – not because they should be responsible for fixing our broken relationship with the world’s landscapes – they are not responsible – but because they already know how to live in harmony with nature. 

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