As I write this, it is still uncertain what the outcome of the 15th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity will be. But either way, it was a historic meeting. There is an astonishing amount to tell about it and so I will do so in 15 short excerpts.
So, what’s this COP business about again?
The stakes are high, as the hope is that Montreal will become for biodiversity what Paris was for climate. The Convention on Biological Diversity is a result of the Rio Convention held in 1992, from which the the conventions around climate (UNFCCC) and around biodiversity (CBD) emerged, as well as the lesser-known convention to combat desertification (UNCCD). As with the climate treaty, there are COP (Conference of the Parties) meetings in which the treaty is supplemented and renegotiated. With the CBD, these basically take place once every two years, hence CBD-COP15, while last month in Sharm El-Sheikh, COP27 already took place for climate.
Why is this COP so important?
As mentioned, the stakes are high. This is because the CBD’s agreed targets expired in 2020. These targets, known as the Aichi Targets, were the result of negotiations from COP10 in Nagoya, Japan, and had a duration until 2020. 2020 was supposed to be the Super Year for Nature, with COP15 in Kungming, China, the climate COP26 in Glasgow and the IUCN World Conference in Marseille. COVID threw a spanner in the works so that this meeting eventually takes place in Montreal in 2022, but with China still formally hosting. Because the Aichi Targets have expired, a new set of targets is now being negotiated under the name the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, with short-term targets for nature-positive by 2030 and a long-term vision for humans to live in harmony with nature on this planet by 2050.
By the way, have those Aichi targets been met?
We can be very brief about that. Absolutely not. As reported by UN/CBD, only six goals have been partially met, and 14 have not been met at all. Want to know more about the goals and progress? Check for yourself: https://www.cbd.int/gbo/gbo5/publication/gbo-5-en.pdf This is not very hopeful, but precisely this lack of progress makes it even more important to achieve a very ambitious GBF this time round.
So why is biodiversity so important?
Although a lot less well known than climate change, scientists generally consider biodiversity loss even more threatening than climate change. This is not just about protecting orang utangs, pandas and tigers, it’s about securing functioning ecosystems. Our entire economy and human well-being depend on them. Biodiversity loss is not only highly threatening, it is also unprecedented. It is therefore crucial that the GBF will be put in place.
Between hope and fear
A recurring saying in this kind of negotiation is: nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. That certainly applies here too. Sometimes a delegation walking away angry can actually bring the solution closer, but there is also plenty that can go wrong. The general expectation is that there will be a deal either way and what mostly is at stake is how ambitious it will be.
Two conferences under one roof
COP15 is ENORMOUS. There are estimated to be around 12,000 people from 196 countries. Of course, formal negotiations are taking place, with countries negotiating through formal collaborations or occasional groups. But the majority of participants are mainly involved in the 240 side-events, where representatives from Indigenous Peoples and local communities, science, NGOs, businesses and financial institutions, among others, make their voices heard and predominantly call for a very ambitious Global Biodiversity Framework.
Whatever the outcome, COP-15 in Montreal will go down the history books. On the one hand, because of the either good or bad outcome, but also because, for the first time, there has been an incredible presence of more than 700 companies and almost 200 financial institutions. Ninety per cent of these visitors have never been to a biodiversity summit before. They are here to advocate a strict GBF. This should bring about a systemic change whereby not only companies that want to be sustainable take steps, but where all companies are forced to take steps, thereby creating a level playing field where sustainable action is the norm.
This all sounds great, of course, but there is also plenty of discomfort walking down the hallways of the COP. Big oil companies that tell centre stage how sustainable they already are, or big asset managers that proudly present a sustainability investment fund, but of which you wonder how sustainable it really is, when you look at the portfolio. I think there is unfortunately too much bragging about how sustainable these companies are, but at the same time, it is the system as a whole that needs to change. Within that, companies have limited room to act, as long as the rules do not change. They could be more frank about it however.
So what then?
First of all, it requires companies and financial institutions to fully embrace the transition and advocate the strictest possible rules. It is precisely then that they get room to do sustainable business. Unfortunately, it is now the case that companies often declare high values on one hand, but then seek to water down far-reaching policies because they would not be practical. Just think of the simple deposit discussion that has been going on for years in the Netherlands, or the fact that externalities are still not or barely priced.
Make It Mandatory
A start is being made by the Make It Mandatory campaign, which advocates that all companies (from a certain size onwards) should report what they do in terms of water, nature, deforestation and biodiversity, among other indicators. In my view, this is a very nice step, but we have to be careful that it does not become mainly a paper tiger, with lots of reporting but little actual changes in behaviour.
Whole of government, whole of society
But it goes far beyond the role of companies and business. To achieve real systemic change, governments, in particular, also have a role to play. The Interface Dialogue Finance & Biodiversity, of which we have hosted the secretariat, has organised 15 dialogue sessions over the past 1.5 years in preparation for COP15 to discuss the alignment of all financial flows with biodiversity objectives with delegates and representatives from more than 40 countries. This led to a commendable report and 10 great recommendations for both the GBF and its implementation in the coming years. The core idea here is that the GBF provides a task not only for our Ministries of Nature, but for the entire government and society.
The momentum is there
Although the actual negotiations are going by fits and starts, there is a very optimistic atmosphere within the side events. With the high turnout of companies and financial institutions and the agreement on the need for an ambitious framework, it is clear that there is more momentum for biodiversity than ever before. A common message across these hallways, therefore, is that even without GBF, this group of people will continue on the course set and, if necessary, will cover the distance, even despite a bad GBF. This is a nice thought, but it is also partly expressed to convey a positive mindset among negotiators. Without a doubt, a less ambitious framework would be an incredibly wasted opportunity. Because it would then depend on companies’ intrinsic motivation whether steps are taken. And especially, because if the bar gets set higher, the frontrunners will be able to go even further, without being too far ahead of the troops and suffering competitive disadvantage from an overambitious sustainability policy.
The holy grail
I started with the comparison with climate. There is much to learn from what has already happened within the climate negotiations and implementation of the UNFCCC. Of course, all that is still going much too slowly and a lot of things are also going wrong, so it is too early to declare Paris a success. But the strength of the 1.5 degrees idea which has been included in Paris should not be underestimated. Governments, companies and financial institutions understand what is meant by it and the benevolent are making efforts to translate this goal into targets for themselves. Within biodiversity, we do not yet have such a clear defined goal and thus we are missing a pole star on which everyone can focus their goals. I myself am pondering on whether there can be some potential for the concept of ecosystem integrity, but that still requires some thinking for now. On the other hand, there has recently been a new buzzword: nature-positive. At its simplest, we actually need to ensure that every hectare of our planet improves in terms of biodiversity compared to a base measurement, say on 1 January 2020. Within the targets, which states that we must be nature positive by 2030, that means we have another eight years in which it would be allowed to go down a bit first – as we may still be learning how to become nature-positive – but from January 1st 2030 we should be at a higher level of biodiversity. Although biodiversity is complicated, I think we are already collecting the first building blocks for such a pole star.
No-regret measures and transition paths
So what should be our next first steps? Although all of us have become a lot wiser since the time when I started working on the topic of biodiversity 10 years ago, the reality is also that biodiversity has only declined further. This means we need to follow two courses of action very swiftly. First, implement no-regret measures. There are a lot of things that we know are better for biodiversity that we should therefore implement in the short term and at scale. At the same time, there are also plenty of serious questions and challenges. Within climate, you see transition paths being developed that allow you to get a feel for the end point of the transition and also see that it can be done. Such paths are also needed for biodiversity, to escape from discussions about whether it is possible to feed the world without chemical fertilisers, or whether energy transition is possible without large-scale damage to biodiversity. By drawing transition paths with an actually appealing final outlook – we basically have to choose between a beautiful future and a horrendous future – you can also give policymakers the confidence to really change system conditions.
Mainstreaming capacity building
To end on a positive note. If we manage to achieve an ambitious GBF, including an ambitious Target 15 (on the role of companies), we will need a lot more people who can handle natural capital and integrated capitals thinking. The free online course ‘Valuing nature and people to inform business decision-making‘ that we have developed in cooperation with WBCSD, IUCN and Capitals Coalition, among others, offers a great opportunity to gain knowledge and skills in this area, making it more relevant than ever.