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Global biodiversity goals and targets won’t be met through voluntary commitments

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By John Scanlon

· 6 min read

A large body of international environmental laws 

International environmental law-making has not been coherent, structured, or part of a grand plan. Rather, it has evolved naturally as the science base has improved. 

As a result of decades of effort, we have many well-crafted, multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) in place to address our most pressing environmental and sustainability challenges, including biodiversity loss, climate change and desertification. Other instruments are being agreed upon, advanced or considered – on high seas, plastics, pandemics and wildlife trafficking – all backed by a strong and improving science base. 

We are losing the fight to protect biodiversity 

Despite this, the two most recent Living Planet reports show a sharp decline in wildlife over the past 50 years – uninterrupted by the adoption of multiple MEAs, including the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and its 2010, 2020 and, most recently, 2030, global goals and targets. 

Almost 30 years since the CBD was adopted, the IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services concluded that one million species will go extinct within the coming decades if we continue on our current trajectory. There has been an agreement on international wetlands since 1971, the Ramsar Convention. Yet, IPBES says we’ve lost 85% of wetlands by area. 

Other IPBES reports on wildlife and pandemics, sustainable use, and the values of nature, highlight multiple shortcomings. The IPBES has, in a short space of time, done what no other entity has managed to do: clearly and credibly portray the multiple dire threats to our biodiversity. 

We need ‘all hands on deck’ to deliver on global biodiversity targets!

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), with which I am very familiar, has been more open than most MEAs in enabling the active involvement of observers from across all sectors. CITES could not have been implemented without this active involvement. While States Parties carry the legal obligations, it is the wide array of actors that are actively engaged with the Convention that have been critical to its relative success. 

But CITES can only address a thin slice of the biodiversity cake. There are many other biodiversity-related conventions, including on wetlands of international importance, migratory species, and outstanding cultural and natural heritage – as well as the CBD, which, as a framework convention, can address the full depth and breadth of biodiversity. 

In some ways, the adoption of the CBD was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it demonstrated political and legal commitment. On the other, it provided a forum for the global biodiversity community to meet, and agree upon biodiversity strategies and targets, largely detached from the agencies and sectors that determine the fate of biodiversity. 

This detachment, along with inadequate financing, is one reason why the CBD has failed to achieve its targets time and time again. Fortunately, the engagement with other agencies and sectors, and the level of financing, are starting to change for the better. These issues (amongst many others) are specifically addressed in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), and multiple pledges have been made for increased funding. However, we still have a long way to go to get close the gap in financing – with the CBD estimating the gap could be as high as between US$403 billion to US$711 billion annually. 

It is critically important to continue to deepen the level of engagement with all actors in implementing the GBF, recognising the roles and contributions of local communities and indigenous peoples as custodians of biodiversity, the impact of business on biodiversity, and the contribution made by a wide array of NGOs towards achieving biodiversity goals and targets. 

If not, we will fail once again. 

Business sector – voluntary actions have not delivered

At CBD CoP10 in Nagoya in 2010, where the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity (2010-2020) was adopted, there was a concerted effort to engage with business, and there was some pick-up. At CoP15 in Montreal last year, where the GBF was adopted, we saw a step change in the level of outreach by the CBD and interest shown by, amongst others, businesses, including financial institutions.  

But we need to go beyond mere engagement and voluntary actions in implementing the GBF. For example, while the financial sector is a central part of a prosperous economy, it can – unwittingly or otherwise – be an enabler of the destruction of biodiversity.

Over the past decades, we have placed a lot of reliance on non-binding, and voluntary initiatives, pledges, and declarations. In the financial sector, we have the Equator Principles, amongst others. 

In 2014, major companies made significant commitments to zero deforestation through the New York Declaration on Forests. It was a necessary part of an effective strategy, but, as an independent five-year review of the Declaration revealed, it was not enough without the “stick” of government action. 

Voluntary measures all serve a useful purpose, but they tend to attract industry leaders, not the entire industry. They have their place – but they also have clear limits. And one must ask where has it got us in real terms? The Living Planet and IPBES reports suggest not very far. 

The IPBES explains in a compelling way just how dire the situation is: how much longer can we place so much faith in voluntary measures to save the day? 

This applies to companies and financial institutions. But what are we asking of them? What do we say they must, should, or could do? Are we asking them to be a de facto regulator, to support regulators, carry out due diligence, and make full disclosure? When making full disclosure, of what, or should they determine for themselves what is or is not environmentally destructive? 

It’s time for regulators to lead

Haven’t we reached the point where governments and parliaments need to play a much stronger role as effective regulators in meeting a state’s commitments under the CBD? 

The GBF offers some high-level guidance regarding business in Target 15, which will need to be translated into national laws and policies, as will the outcomes of other important processes, such as the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD). 

Importantly, we are seeing some countries, such as France and the UK, and regions, such as the European Union, starting to make better use of the law to reduce the loss of biodiversity by regulating larger businesses, and in some cases financial services, in new ways. It’s not without its challenges and is still evolving, but it is needed, and one can expect this trend to continue. 

One thing is for sure: we need all relevant actors on board to deliver on the GBF. Some are natural allies. Others will require more than a gentle nudge to head in the right direction.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

John Scanlon AO is a seasoned leader in the fields of environment, governance and sustainable development, with a unique range of experience gained across multiple continents, disciplines and organisations. He has served in senior positions in the private sector, with government, international organisations, the United Nations, and not-for-profit organizations, and as chair or member of many boards and initiatives. This includes working with IUCN (Bonn), UNEP (Nairobi) and CITES (Geneva)

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