Environment & energy, Government and governance | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

29 November 2018

Human activities are exacting a devastating toll on the diversity of life on Earth. If the world is to reverse the course of destruction, it will need a global framework for conservation that is both flexible and robust, Jonathan Pickering and Pierrick Chalaye write.

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has the unenviable job of being the peak global body for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. Almost all of the CBD’s 196 member states are currently meeting at its 14th Conference of the Parties in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.

The meeting is taking place amid growing alarm among scientists and conservationists about the devastating toll that human activities are having on the variety of life on Earth and its essential roles in sustaining human life and wellbeing.

Between 1970 and 2014, wildlife populations have declined on average by an astounding 60 per cent. In Australia, threatened-species habitat the size of Tasmania has been destroyed since 2000, and the list of threatened species and ecological communities has increased by 30 per cent during this time.

In 2010, the CBD launched a set of 20 ambitious targets – the Aichi Targets – that countries aimed to achieve by 2020. Regrettably, few of these targets will be met. The likely main exception is Target 11, which aims for the effective and equitable conservation of at least 17 per cent of terrestrial areas and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas.

One reason for this shortfall is a lack of robust measures to hold nations to account for progress towards the targets. But ultimately, one of the biggest factors is the lack of political priority that decision-makers put on conserving nature.

More on this: Stop blaming China for the state of the world’s fishing stocks

With the 2020 deadline just around the corner, countries are now beginning to discuss in earnest how to set the next round of targets. The endpoint for the new targets will likely be 2030, coupled with a longer-term goal for 2050. The new targets – which many hope will herald a ‘New Deal for Nature’ – will be launched at the CBD’s next conference in Beijing in 2020.

Understandably, much of the negotiators’ attention at the meeting in Egypt has been on mapping out a process for crafting the targets. Ensuring that this process is inclusive and transparent is critical for the legitimacy of the targets, and there’s much to be learnt from the way in which the Sustainable Development Goals were created. But attention to procedure shouldn’t distract from the substance and urgency of what is at stake.

Given that previous targets haven’t managed to bend the curve of biodiversity loss very far, setting another round of global targets might seem like a futile exercise. Ultimately many of the actions that will make the biggest different need to happen at national and local levels.

But global cooperation remains an essential part of the solution, not least because the drivers of biodiversity loss are closely interwoven with the workings of the global economy. For example, everyday products that Australians consume – from chocolate to shampoo – may contain palm oil from Indonesian plantations on land that was once forested habitat for orangutans.

Drawing on new research set out in a forthcoming book on The Politics of the Anthropocene we can think of the challenge confronting the CBD as one of creating a ‘living framework’.

That is, the CBD needs to build an institutional framework for action that is flexible enough to respond to changing social and ecological conditions, but robust enough to provide a foundation for global cooperation.

More on this: Eating ourselves and the planet to death

While the track record of environmental problem-solving at a global level isn’t great, elements of living frameworks can be found. Perhaps the best example is the success of the Montreal Protocol in reversing ozone layer depletion. As we argue in other research, the Paris Agreement on climate change also has a promising mix of flexibility and stability, with five-yearly cycles of national contributions and review housed in a legally binding treaty.

Even so, we need to be careful about how far the parallels can be drawn between climate change and biodiversity. One big difference is the lower political profile of biodiversity compared to the high geopolitical stakes evident in UN climate talks. So a key question is what, if anything, the CBD can do to build political will and catalyse cooperation.

A promising approach here is to build on a strategy adopted in the UN climate regime, which is for the CBD to act as an ‘orchestrator’ that harnesses the enthusiasm of other actors, such as civil society, business and clubs of committed states.

A positive development in this area is the newly formed Coalition of the Willing on Pollinators. The Coalition aims to curb dramatic declines in bee populations and other species which pollinate crops that are vital for human nutrition. The grouping was formed in 2016 during the CBD’s previous conference in Cancun, Mexico, and now includes 24 members, including the European Commission.

Coalitions such as these can accelerate implementation, foster cooperation across different sectors (such as the agricultural and chemical industries in this case) and help to hold members accountable for their commitments.

Global gatherings can also put a spotlight on countries that are falling behind. To the surprise of many delegates and observers, the Australian government decided not to send a delegation to the conference, citing security reasons. The safety of government officials is an understandable concern. Nevertheless, it’s vital that Australia – as one of the world’s seventeen ‘megadiverse’ countries – remains actively engaged in shaping the future of nature conservation.

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