As UN Biodiversity Conference opens, a plea for ‘a peace pact’ with nature

With 1 million species at risk of extinction, policymakers, scientists and activists gathered for the UN Biodiversity Conference in Montreal to hammer out a plan to begin reversing biodiversity loss by 2030. Agriculture — considered the main driver of biodiversity loss — is key to the negotiations, which will center on conserving land and water, reducing pollution, redirecting subsidies that enable environmental harm, and curtailing unsustainable production and consumption. 

“We are committing suicide by proxy,” warned UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaking at the conference’s opening ceremony on Tuesday evening. “It is time to forge a peace pact with nature.”

The conference’s big-picture goal is to reach a “Paris style” agreement for biodiversity — a benchmark that governments and the private sector can rally around, like the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. If the conference is successful, 196 nations will adopt the agreement, called the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, by the time the conference closes on Dec. 19.

The draft under negotiation includes more than two dozen goals and targets. Perhaps the most prominent is the proposal to protect 30 percent of Earth’s land and sea by the end of the decade, up from the 17 percent of land and 10 percent of marine environments currently under conservation. This 30×30 proposal has widespread support, but Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa have not yet endorsed it. And some indigenous groups have expressed concern that expanding protected areas could lead to land grabs and dispossession. 

Sustainable use of all lands used for agriculture, forestry and other purposes is another target, as is halving the ecological footprint of the production and consumption of goods. The draft also proposes curbing pollution by reducing pesticide use and nutrient runoff, and repurposing at least $500 billion in subsidies that harm nature, particularly in the agricultural and fishery sectors. But provisions curtailing agriculture will likely face opposition, especially from major commodity-producing countries. 

Financing the protection and restoration of biodiversity is another key issue — the UN estimates that an additional $700 billion per year is needed — and is looking to the private sector, governments and philanthropies to commit funds. “The developed countries must provide massive financial support to the countries of the south which are the custodians of our planet’s natural wealth,” Guterres said. “We cannot expect developing countries to shoulder this burden alone.” 

But even if an agreement is reached, its success is far from guaranteed. The predecessor to the current framework, called the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, set numerous goals for protecting biodiversity and sustainably using natural resources, but none of these targets were met, the UN has concluded. The conference organizers say securing funding and mechanisms for accountability will be key to success this time around.

The U.S. is not an official party to the talks because it has not ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity. But, conference organizers said that the U.S. has been active in discussions and will send a delegation.

The U.S. State Department declined to comment on whether it would send a delegation, but President Biden recently named the country’s first Special Envoy for Biodiversity and Water Resources. The Biden administration has also outlined its own 30×30 plan, called the America the Beautiful initiative, and recently announced a nature-based solutions agenda at the UN Climate Summit last month. The administration will also conduct the first ever National Nature Assessment on the status of nature in the country. But some critics argue that these efforts fall short of a comprehensive strategy to deal with the problem. 

Melissa Ho, senior vice president for Freshwater and Food at the World Wildlife Fund-U.S., said the effects of biodiversity loss are felt globally, so the U.S. must also help protect species and habitats where they remain on the planet. “I think the U.S. has financing to offer, I think we have moral leadership to offer and I think we also have a lot of really important models of action that we can offer,” she said. 

In Montreal, Guterres implored governments, financial institutions and companies to stop the “orgy of destruction” and to take responsibility for their damage to nature. “With our bottomless appetite for unchecked and unequal growth, humanity has become a weapon of mass extinction,” he said.