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Hopes are high for new binding resolutions for biodiversity at the Kunming COP15 meeting, particularly since progress on ecosystems and conservation has been fragmented and slow

By Peng Danni Updated Dec.1

The 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) was held from October 11 to 24 in Kunming, Southwest China’s Yunnan Province. This is the first time that China has hosted such high-level multilateral environmental talks, and COP15 is tasked with developing a roadmap for the next decade and establishing new targets and directions for global biodiversity conservation to 2030 and beyond.  

As the host country for Climate Conference COP21 in 2015, France pushed the parties to the conference to make the historic Paris Climate Agreement, establishing the global climate governance landscape after 2020. It is hailed as the third landmark international legal text for addressing climate change, following the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.  

Since the first draft of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework was released in July, it is considered as equivalent to the Paris Climate Agreement in global biodiversity preservation efforts.  

According to Li Shuo, senior climate and energy policy officer at Greenpeace China, the historical significance of the Kunming COP15 for the biodiversity negotiation process is similar to the Paris Climate Conference to climate change negotiation, and should leave a distinguished political legacy comparable to its significance. However, this legacy should not be limited to political “makeup,” but should reach the root of the problem with effective “operation” on the critical issue of biodiversity conservation.  

Stops and Starts 
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published an alarming report on the status of global ecosystems in May 2019, which finds that around 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before. According to the report, the average abundance of native species in most major landbased habitats has fallen by at least 20 percent, mostly since 1900. Human actions have significantly altered three-quarters of the landbased environment and about 66 percent of the marine environment. According to the WWF Living Planet Report 2020, “global wildlife populations fell by 68 percent, on average, between 1970 and 2016.”  

Globally, as human activities continued to threaten species and ecosystems resulting in accelerated biodiversity loss, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) convened the Ad Hoc Working Group of Experts on Biological Diversity in November 1988 to explore the need for an international convention on biological diversity.  

By February 1991, the Ad Hoc Working Group had become known as the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee. Its work culminated on May 22, 1992 with the Nairobi Conference for the Adoption of the Agreed Text of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was adopted in May 1992 and opened for signatures on June 5, 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Rio Earth Summit. It remained open for signatures until June 4, 1993, by which time it had received 168 signatures. The CBD entered into force on December 29, 1993. There are currently 196 parties to the CBD, which aims to promote the conservation of biodiversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources.  

Every 10 years, the Parties to the CBD set a package of targets and aim to implement them for the next decade. The year 2020 was the start of a new 10 years, and Kunming COP15 is scheduled at this critical point, albeit delayed by the coronavirus pandemic to 2021.  

After two years of discussions, on July 6, the Secretariat of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) released the first draft of a new global biodiversity framework, to guide worldwide actions through 2030 and preserve and protect nature and its essential ser-vices to people. This framework, after further improvement during online negotiations, is to be submitted to 196 Parties to the CBD and then considered at Kunming COP15.  

The Framework comprises 21 targets and 10 milestones proposed for 2030. Some main targets include ensuring that at least 30 percent of global land and sea areas, especially those of particular importance for biodiversity and humans, are conserved through effectively managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes.  

It also aims to prevent or reduce the rate of introduction and establishment of invasive alien species by 50 percent, and control or eradicate such species to eliminate or reduce their impacts, reduce nutrients lost to the environment by at least half, pesticides by at least two-thirds, and eliminate discharge of plastic waste.  

Basile van Havre, co-chair of the Open-ended Working Group on the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) who drafted the document, told environmental news portal China Dialogue in September 2020 that the importance of the Kunming meeting provides a “major course correction in our effort to reach the vision.” In an interview with The Guardian in July, he said they based the goals on the latest science. He added that, if adopted, it could represent a significant shift in global agriculture.  

Professor Sandra Díaz from the National University of Cordoba, Argentina, lead author of the IPBES report, said in an email interview with NewsChina that major drivers for biodiversity loss include land use and sea use change, followed by direct exploitation of organisms like hunting and fishing, climate change and pollution. “But behind them the real root causes driving nature’s decline is the predominant model of appropriation of nature, that prioritizes profit for a few, programmed obsolescence and fast consumption and disposal, over the common good and the respect for all life on Earth (including human life),” wrote Díaz: “I think the GBF points to them clearly. But without a strong enough decision of all sectors to go for these root causes, we will fail again. This is extremely difficult because it goes against very powerful vested interests.”  

Forest rangers in Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve, December 2020

Confiscated tiger skins are displayed, Kunming Customs, Yunnan

A tagged black-headed gull, Kunming

Lower Status 
Li Shuo told NewsChina that the completeness and effectiveness of the Convention on Biodiversity, the interests and political will of participating countries are a much lower priority compared to the Paris Climate Agreement.  

Climate change has become part of both governments’ political and enterprises’ agendas, but biodiversity issues receive far less attention.  

Climate change can cause cross-national, global impacts for everyone on Earth, but biodiversity preservation is, for most cases, limited to a single country.  

Li said that as ecologists have pointed out, why should people in China be interested in protecting Bengal tigers in India or why should India be interested in protecting Chinese giant pandas? However, this is an enormous oversimplification of biodiversity interconnectedness and its importance for the planet, something that is only becoming mainstream opinion in the wake of the pandemic and as climate impacts worsen, as people realize the importance of ecosystems services and the roles they play.  

Li said that many developing countries, including Indonesia, Brazil and China, are rich in biodiversity resources, thus they are willing to sign up to the CBD. But some wealthier countries are not enthusiastic enough. For example, the US has not ratified the legally binding CBD even today. Both human and financial investment into the CBD is not comparable to the level of convention on climate change.  

A report titled “Financing Nature: Closing the Global Biodiversity Financing Gap” released by the Paulson Institute in August 2020, estimated that financial flows into global biodiversity conservation were US$124 billion to US$143 billion in 2019, only 0.12 percent to 0.14 percent of the global GDP. To reverse the continued biodiversity decline trend by 2030, the report suggests that, “globally, we need to spend US$722 billion to US$967 billion each year over the next 10 years. That puts the biodiversity financing gap at an average US$711 billion per year.”  

Implementation of the CBD has been piecemeal. In fact, governments have failed for decades to achieve the goal of containing natural destruction, including the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, agreed in Nagoya, Japan in October 2010. According to the fifth edition of the Global Biodiversity Outlook issued in September last year, despite some progress, none of the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets for 2020 has been achieved, despite including more modest goals than the Kunming roadmap, for example, conserving 17 percent of terrestrial and inland water, and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas.  

Li said the Paris Climate Agreement not only sets targets but also shows how to implement them into their specific commitments for the next 10 to 15 years, as well as some clear supporting rules and financial plans. The CBD however, spends more energy on finalizing and negotiating its goals.  

Nature magazine published an editorial titled “The United Nations must get its new biodiversity targets right” early last year which said the Aichi Targets had failed, in part, because their format makes progress hard to measure. “Take the first target, intended to ensure that ‘people are aware of the values of biodiversity and the steps they can take to conserve and use it sustainably.’ It’s clear this aims to raise public awareness of and engagement with biodiversity, but it’s not clear when success has been achieved,” it said.  

“There are a number of reasons for the failure of the Aichi Targets,” Díaz said. “A major weakness was the poor traceability of several of them. This is because there was considerable delay in agreement and implementing adequate indicators to track progress of these targets. And some indicators were never really implemented.”  

As a result, the new framework lists major indicators that can be quantified, reported consistently, and really track progress toward each of the targets including, for example, ensuring that at least 30 of the planet’s land and 30 percent of its oceans are protected by 2030 (30x30 target).  

This January, at the One Planet Summit held in France, the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People (HAC) was officially launched as an intergovernmental group, the aim of which is to support the adoption of the 30x30 target.  

Workers process rose petals in a factory, Anning, Yunnan Province

A view of lots at the Kunming International Flower Auction Center

Kunming Target 
There are grounds for optimism. Díaz thinks there is now more awareness by governments and the public of the importance of biodiversity. “Five years ago it was unthinkable that people, especially young people, will take the streets to claim for solutions for climate and nature.” In early 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron urged the “fight of the century” to combat climate change and preserve the environment.  

On September 22, on the sidelines of the 76th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, nine organizations pledged US$5 billion over the next 10 years to support the creation, expansion, management, and monitoring of protected and conserved areas of land, inland water and sea, working with indigenous peoples, local communities, civil society and governments. This is the largest biodiversity private fund so far.  

As a routine, a COP host country contributes to a host country fund to achieve COP goals. For example, Germany invested 800 million euros (US$926m) after COP9 to support the implementation of more than 30 sub-projects. At the last moment of the deadlocked negotiations on the COP10 Nagoya Protocol where Aichi was negotiated, Japan announced a presidential proposal to invest 1 billion yen (US$8.9m) for the Japan Biodiversity Fund and an additional 1 billion yen to help developing countries in capacity building.  

NewsChina learned from sources in the CBD negotiation team that China is developing a host country fund plan.  

In July, during the 2021 High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF 2021), CBD Executive Secretary Elizabeth Maruma Mrema noted the post-2020 global biodiversity framework will include a reporting, monitoring and accountability structure, which was missing from the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. “It took a while for national-level implementation to begin. But this time, the action plans are already in place, so implementation should begin immediately,” she said in an interview with China Dialogue in November 2020. “One lesson that signatories to the convention learned from the failure of Aichi was that the work cannot be left to governments alone,” Mrema said. “This time, the framework will ensure universality, inclusivity and transparency, and all stakeholders are already engaged in making contributions to the framework.”  

“The biodiversity convention’s member states have to publish biodiversity action plans – but these are often statements of a country’s ambitions, rather than records of its achievements. For the next set of goals this has to change,” stated the Nature article, “fortunately there seems to be a way forward. This is the UN System of Environmental Economic Accounting (SEEA), a mechanism for reporting environmental data, and it needs to become the global standard for environmental reporting.”  

At the crossroads of biodiversity preservation, expectations are high for Kunming COP15. “I think China is in a unique place to reach across to a number of countries,” Basile van Havre told China Dialogue in September 2020, adding that it has a significant advantage in being able to persuade as yet undecided developing nations.  

China can contribute unique innovations to the process of biodiversity conservation. One highlighted contribution, often presented on international occasions, is the Grain for Green program, a successful reforestation effort. The program pays farmers to plant trees on degraded lands, and so far has transformed some 15 million hectares of degraded agricultural land and 17 million hectares of barren mountainous wasteland with natural vegetation.  

Guido Schmidt-Traub, Executive Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, as lead author, published an article in July titled “Integrating climate, biodiversity, and sustainable landuse strategies: innovations from China” in National Science Review, an English-language periodical published in China. The article introduced China’s spatially explicit land-use policies and its ecological conservation redline system, showing with suitable modifications, these experiences of China can provide a new approach to achieve large-scale and holistic protection of species and habitats and hold important lessons for other countries to design their policy frameworks.  

Addressing China’s would-be role in the negotiation of the new framework, Li Shuo added that much depends on how profound the changes are that China can bring to the convention. One of the key issues, according to Li, is that after the “Kunming targets” are planned and agreed upon, all countries should formulate domestic strategies as soon as possible to address and fulfill the Kunming goals one after another.  

On October 8, three days before the opening of COP15 in Kunming, the State Council released the White Paper on Biodiversity Conservation in China. Zhao Yingmin, Vice Minister of Ecology and Environment spoke at a press conference releasing the new white paper. He said that a key emphasis of the white paper was to outline the theory and practice of biodiversity protection in China, to improve the international community’s understanding of China’s biodiversity conservation, and to add Chinese wisdom to global biodiversity preservation.