Like so many in our community, I can remember heading into 2020 anticipating an exciting sprint towards the Convention on Biological Diversity’s 15th Conference of the Parties (COP) to be held in Kunming, China. It would be the culmination of a “Super Year for Nature,” which would put us on a path towards finally protecting the planet at the scale we really need – a moment for the biosphere to rival the Paris climate agreement. We would secure commitments to protect 30 percent of the planet’s lands and oceans by 2030, and to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. But as with so many things, COVID’s curveball upended our plans, sending us into a time-warp that turned our 2020 sprint into a now over two-year marathon. And though it’s been disappointing to chase a serially receding finish-line as CBD COP 15 has been postponed on multiple occasions, I have been clinging to the thought that the delay might prove to be a pandemic silver-lining that gives us the time to be truly prepared to meet this moment of opportunity as it finally unfolds.
So, you can imagine my disappointment in hearing the sobering news out of the latest round of Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) negotiations held in Geneva this March. By all accounts, the first face-to-face CBD discussions since prior to the pandemic had failed to deliver the momentum boost many had hoped for on the road to Kunming, instead stalling out with critical issues unresolved. Media observers went so far as to raise the specter of Kunming heading towards a “Copenhagen moment,” referencing the 2009 UNFCCC climate COP which not only failed to deliver a meaningful agreement, but also left advocates and champions reeling from the defeat. It took seven years for the climate movement to recover and reverse its fortunes with the 2016 Paris agreement; it’s clear that the world’s remaining habitat and biodiversity do not have time for a setback on that timeframe. Indeed, for so many of our partners, who labored through early morning and late night, time-zone spanning Zoom calls during the darkest days of the pandemic in order to sustain the momentum for a break-through “global deal for nature,” the prospect of a Copenhagen moment for nature is just unthinkable.
"It’s clear that the world’s remaining habitat and biodiversity do not have time for a setback on that timeframe."
But as I stop to take a clear-eyed look at the road behind us and reflect on what’s ahead, I feel strongly that Kunming will not be nature’s Copenhagen moment. I don’t say that because I am naïve about the realities of the challenges before us, or because I can’t recognize the very real possibility that the CBD negotiators will not be able to reach an agreement. Unfortunately, with the limited time between now and the COP15 Kunming round in the fall, that outcome remains very much on the table. But agreement or no agreement, Kunming does not have to be a setback for the movement to protect nature. The work that our partners have done to meet this moment has already created substantial momentum towards meaningful global conservation, and we can capture those opportunities regardless of how the official negotiations play out. The leaders who have stepped forward to commit their own nations and states to more ambitious area-based protections for nature, the Indigenous peoples and local communities who have fought hard for their own guardianship of nature to be recognized, and the companies who have advocated for wider recognition of business impacts and dependence on nature are all in a position to keep the nature action agenda moving, irrespective of what CBD’s multi-lateral government-to-government negotiations yield.
For starters, among the 90+ member countries of the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People who have committed to championing the global target of protecting and conserving 30 percent of the world’s lands and oceans, we have many governments that are ready to begin implementing a new deal for nature in their own territories, regardless of the CBD outcome. Indeed, the newest member of the High Ambition Coalition is the United States, who joined citing the Biden Administration’s America the Beautiful Initiative commitment to protect 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030, despite the fact that the U.S. is not even a party to the CBD. But beyond the U.S., the High Ambition Coalition’s members include many countries whose territories encompass lands that can make critical contributions to halting biodiversity loss and safeguarding the ecosystems that people depend upon for prosperity and security. Many of those countries have already begun developing the maps, spatially explicit development plans, and policy frameworks that will allow them to implement 30x30 on the ground and on the water.
No matter what happens in Kunming, there is much our community can do to amplify and accelerate those efforts.
Perhaps even more notably, one of the bright spots on the road to the CBD has been the ways that Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) have brought their voices directly into decision-making through the engagement of the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity at a global level, and through leadership by key representatives in national and sub-national dialogues. As a result, explicit language about the importance of IPLCs in achieving targets for spatial protection and conservation, and the absolute necessity of respecting their rights, was incorporated directly into the target (“Target 3”) setting out area-based goals. The formal integration of IPLC and spatial conservation goals represents an important breakthrough in terms of the framework being assembled for a potential CBD agreement. But in practice, it is in effect formal recognition of the role that IPLCs are already playing in protecting and conserving places crucial to biodiversity and ecosystem function. As explained in a report on “The State of Indigenous Peoples’ and Local Communities’ Lands and Territories” developed by a consortium on international ENGOs, over 30 percent of global land is under IPLC governance, and over 90 percent of that land is in good ecological condition with only low to moderate levels of human modification. Perhaps more importantly for purposes of halting and reversing global biodiversity loss, over 40 percent of global lands that remain in good ecological condition are in IPLC hands, as are at least 36 percent of those identified as “Key Biodiversity Areas.” The strength of the connection between these peoples and their important places will not waiver regardless of the status of the CBD negotiations. And the opportunity to support IPLCs in their role as guardians of nature through support for their tenure rights, governance and management capacity, and sustainable livelihoods will remain a high potential leverage point for conservation.
Finally, the mobilization of the business community on the road to Kunming has also built a strong foundation for further action. In Geneva, we saw ~35 major companies join the negotiations, stepping up as advocates to voice their support for mandating the assessment and disclosure of impact and dependencies on nature by business. With the launch of the Science Based Targets for Nature, these companies that are ready to lead on nature commitments will be armed with guidance to help them assess their impact, prioritize interventions, and measure and track their progress. In addition, an important development we’ve seen as part of the delayed 2020 “super year” climate and CBD COP tandem is the private sector’s growing understanding of the interlinkages between climate and nature risks to business, and their increasing embrace of nature-based solutions that will put us on a sustainable development path. Given that agricultural commodity production has been the primary driver of biodiversity loss over the past 50 years, and accounts for roughly a quarter of carbon emissions, financial institution and company initiatives to eliminate deforestation from business supply chains have the potential to contribute substantially. And though these voluntary commitments have not yet delivered at the pace and scale pledged for action, our partners have harnessed momentum in Glasgow and for Kunming to organize renewed efforts that learn from past successes and obstacles to reach for significant impact.
But to be clear, while I firmly believe that momentum for country-level, community-level, and company-level action should make us confident that we can continue to make important progress on our nature action agenda independent of a break-through global agreement at the CBD, none of that says that we should not still be pushing for the strongest possible outcome in Kunming.
This is an “all-hands on deck” moment for people and planet.
If bottom-up action by countries, communities, and companies can be met by a powerful global policy framework for nature action, we will be all the better positioned to catalyze positive feedback loops between bottom-up and top-down action that can drive true systems change. Progress in Kunming remains a priority, and one that we can still take meaningful action to advance. Indeed, even our most pessimistic partners emerged from the Geneva talks with the sense that the consensus for the 30x30 apex target, and for ensuring that implementation of that target is equitable and meaningful, is stronger than ever. Most also agreed that the biggest barriers to progress at the pace necessary were a combination of the unfortunate reality that two-years of virtual-only negotiations have left negotiators scrambling to catch up, and that political leadership has not embraced a tone of urgency and ambition sufficient to overcome that lagging pace.
So from now until Kunming, many of our partners will throw their weight into two key interventions:
(1) ensuring that our nature agenda attracts not just bureaucratic attention, but also the focus of political leadership at the highest levels, and
(2) mobilizing the resources necessary to deliver on ambitious plan of action.
On the latter, I must confess that I have felt very torn about how to respond as donor countries of the global north simultaneously declare their commitment to ambitious action on nature, but also demur based on the fiscal constraints that responses to the COVID pandemic and the war in Ukraine have placed on them. On the one hand, I understand that the human toll of these crises is proximate and intense, and that the resource mobilization for these purposes is a necessary priority. At the same time, I cannot help but wonder how, as we bleed resources for the crises of today, we cannot fathom investing what would amount to a fraction of those same resources to make a meaningful investment in nature that would buy-down the risk of tomorrow’s pandemics and resource-driven conflicts. No doubt it will take real leadership to have the foresight to make these investments – our focus on the road to Kunming must be finding these forward-thinking leaders.
And so, from here to Kunming, I will hold the tension of this moment: pushing as hard as we can for a breakthrough international agreement, but also investing in the bottom-up initiatives that ensure we will maintain momentum regardless of the outcome. Kunming will not be our Copenhagen moment, because we still have the agency to shape a better outcome. The real question is how high we can push the ceiling on what can be accomplished.
AILEEN LEE IS THE CHIEF PROGRAM OFFICER FOR ENVIRONMENTAL CONSERVATION AT THE GORDON AND BETTY MOORE FOUNDATION.