Environmental groups at the UN Biodiversity Conference hoped for a “Paris moment” for nature — one that would bring the same urgency to the fight against biodiversity loss that now propels the one against climate change. As the conference came to a close in Montreal on Monday, there was the sense among many that they had largely succeeded, even if putting the deal into practice will require a huge effort.
“It is truly a moment that will mark history as Paris did for climate,” said Steven Guilbeault, Canada’s Minister for the Environment and Climate Change, speaking to reporters.
Conservationists found a lot to like in the new agreement, officially called the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. It includes a commitment to protect at least 30 percent of land and sea by the end of the decade and restore another 30 percent of degraded ecosystems. It would also phase out or reform at least $500 billion in government subsidies for agriculture and fisheries that harm biodiversity, while also incentivizing sustainable practices.
Now that the conference is over, the nearly 200 countries that agreed to the framework will develop their own national plans for putting it into place.
“This is the new deal for nature that people have been waiting for for a long time,” said Marco Lambertini, director general of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF).
The agreement’s recognition of Indigenous peoples’ rights and knowledge was hailed by many, including the International Indigenous Forum. “We have spoken and you have heard us,” the group said in a statement. “Let us now put those words into action.”
Funding to help poorer nations safeguard biodiversity and transform thier economies to be less damaging to nature was a major sticking point throughout the negotiations. The last effort to reverse biodiversity loss — an agreement that covered the period from 2010 to 2020 — failed, in part because it had no funding plan.
This time around, developing countries fought for a new global fund to help pay for implementing the new biodiversity framework. While that goal was not achieved, a new biodiversity-specific trust fund will be created within the existing Global Environment Facility, the main global fund that supports biodiversity and environmental protection.
The agreement also calls for a reduction, by at least half, in the risks from pesticide use by 2030. The Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations think tank (IDDRI) called this “important progress” because it represents a specific numerical goal that can be measured, and because it focuses on the overall toxicity of pesticides, instead of the amount used. Certain pesticides are more toxic and concentrated than others, so using a small amount can result in more ecological damage than using large amount of more benign substances.
For some, however, the conference was marred by what some considered the “strong arming” of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which objected to the lack of a separate fund for biodiversity up until the last minute of negotiations. The disagreement was potentially problematic since the DRC is home to the crucially important, mega-diverse Congo Basin Forest. But on Monday night, DRC leaders agreed to support the agreement despite reservations.
And, even while praising the agreement overall, environmental groups pointed out several weaknesses. The IDDRI, for example, noted that the new biodiversity framework does not require countries to continually improve their efforts. A similar “ratcheting-up” provision of the Paris climate agreement has meant nations are expected to keep increasing their actions on climate change.
Another “notable weakness” is the pact’s lack of a system for monitoring progress toward its targets, said Craig Hanson, managing director for programs at the World Resources Institute in a statement, noting that effective monitoring is essential to accountability and financing.
Tension also arose from a list of “biodiversity-friendly practices” in agriculture, including sustainable intensification and agroecological approaches. While a number of groups, including IDDRI, hailed the inclusion of agroecology, pairing it with “sustainable intensification” was more controversial. Agroecology works with natural systems, and aims to produce food by creating biodiverse farming systems that don’t rely on chemical inputs. Sustainable intensification, on the other hand, seeks to conserve biodiversity by growing more food on less land, often using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and GMOs, with the goal of freeing up land to be restored or preserved.
“These are two very different models and that is not clear in the text at all,” said Nele Marien, Forests & Biodiversity Coordinator at Friends of the Earth International.
The framework also falls short of requiring companies to report and disclose their effects on biodiversity, instead calling for countries to make policies that “encourage and enable” companies to do so — a weaker voluntary measure, IDDRI said.
And, while an earlier version of the agreement called for cutting humanity’s ecological footprint in half, that provision didn’t make the final text. That was “disappointing” said João Campari, the WWF’s global leader of food practice. “Protecting 30 percent of nature is not enough if we don’t also change what we eat and how we produce it,” he said in a statement.
The U.S. is not a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity but has been an active part of the talks and is a major funder of international efforts to protect biodiversity. In a press briefing on Monday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. was “really thrilled” by the biodiversity agreement.
“The Global Biodiversity Framework is the turning point we think we need to combat the biodiversity crisis and leave a better world for future generations,” he said.
In a statement, Addie Haughey, the legislative director of Earthjustice, the U.S.-based environmental law foundation, said the agreement “must spur additional action in the U.S.”
She urged the Biden administration to reverse rollbacks to the Endangered Species Act made by former President Donald Trump and to use existing funds from the Inflation Reduction Act to protect ecosystems and habitats.
“The Biden administration has every tool it needs to make significant progress fighting the biodiversity crisis in the United States in the next two years and meeting the global targets that are now in place,” she said.
And even if certain parts of the global framework, like eliminating harmful subsidies, would be a hard sell in the U.S., Brent Loken, WWF’s global food lead scientist, said individuals here can address biodiversity loss by looking at their food choices. “It’s not just about production,” he said. “We also have to deal with consumption.”