As ecological ‘triple threat’ looms, U.S. envoy urges action on biodiversity

Leaders must act to confront the “triple threat” of nature loss, climate change and pollution, said Monica Medina, the U.S. Special Envoy for Biodiversity and Water Resources, speaking Friday at the UN Biodiversity Conference in Montreal. 

“This is our turn, this is our time,” she said.

With more than 1 million species at risk of extinction, and human activity  — primarily agriculture — to blame, negotiators from 196 countries gathered to hammer out a plan, called the Global Biodiversity Framework, to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. But, with the conference scheduled to end today, there is a growing sense of alarm that the final agreement won’t meet the urgency of the moment.

The U.S. won’t sign the final framework because it’s not a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the most important global treaty protecting biodiversity. The U.S. is the only country, other than the Holy See, that has not ratified the treaty. That won’t change anytime soon; it would take a two-thirds Senate majority and Republicans have opposed signing the treaty for 30 years.

Still, the U.S. has been actively involved in the current negotiations, and is a part of  a group of countries  — called the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People — pushing for a strong deal.

“The U.S. is all in,” Medina said, speaking with reporters Friday. “I hope someday we’ll be a member of the CBD. But in the meantime, we are working all out to be as constructive and helpful as we can be.”

The U.S. is a supporter of the conference’s flagship 30 x 30 target, that would protect 30 percent of the Earth’s land and seas by the end of the decade. Scientists say protecting 30 percent is the bare minimum needed to slow extinctions and give humans and other animals a margin to adapt to climate change. But it is still unclear whether the 30 x 30 proposal will make it into the final biodiversity framework — as of Friday afternoon, the measure had the support of 116 countries, but 80 had not yet publicly backed it.

The Biden administration has set its own 30 x 30 goal, called “America the Beautiful,” and is “very much on track” to meet it, Medina said. 

The issue of who will provide poor countries with the money they need to transition their economies to be more protective of nature has been a key tension during the conference, with delegates from several Global South countries walking out in protest last week. Medina said the U.S. is one of the biggest funders of biodiversity protection and has recently doubled its funding — to $600 million over the next four years — to the Global Environment Facility, the main global fund that supports biodiversity and environmental protection. During the Biden administration’s first two years, the U.S. has increased its foreign spending on biodiversity by 20 percent. In fiscal year 2021, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) spent $256.5 million on conserving biodiversity sustainable landscapes in more than 50 countries, according to the U.S. State Department, along with another $32 million in funds that indirectly supported biodiversity protection.

“We in the U.S. are doing our part,” Medina said.

Another contentious issue at the conference is that of harmful subsidies — the estimated $1.8 trillion that governments spend to prop up farming and fisheries practices that have deleterious effects on nature. A version of the agreement under negotiation would require countries to change their subsidy priorities in order to help fund conservation and restoration efforts. But a number of countries, including Brazil, Argentina, Indonesia, Japan and India, oppose targets that would curtail subsidies.

Medina told reporters that the U.S. is supportive of this provision, but her response was notably more muted than her support for 30 x 30. And, when pressed on whether the U.S. plans to address such harmful subsidies domestically, her response was vague. She said the U.S. is “looking at all kinds of things.” 

“While we don’t have a specific plan in mind, we do want to understand where our harmful subsidies are or where subsidies or our supply chain or other ways in which our economy might be driving climate change and nature loss,” she said. 

Similarly, when asked if the U.S. would support requiring companies to report their negative impacts on nature — another sticking point at the UN Conference — she said “we’re not there yet.” While acknowledging that “there is a cost to nature from industrial activity and development,” she said the  U.S. is still trying to understand the extent of biodiversity within its borders, she said, alluding to an effort by the Biden administration, called the National Nature Assessment, to quantify the state of the nation’s nature.

Medina’s main message was that countries have a moral obligation to agree, in Montreal, on a bold plan to save nature. “This [conference] must result in action,” she said, “action to reverse the unprecedented and catastrophic declines we’re seeing throughout the natural world, action to mend our relationship with nature, action for ourselves, for every living being on the planet, and for future generations.”