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The Last Mile: Reflections on CBD COP 15

COP 15 in Montreal injected a large dose of energy into the biodiversity community. This energy must now be leveraged to ensure that we embark on a path of nature and ecosystem restoration. Shifting attitudes in the financial sector and the emerging debate on “nature-positive” requirements for corporations are two key trends that emerged.

In a world where planetary news is too often a source of general anxiety, the occasional bright spot is welcomed with grateful relief. The outcome of the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) represented one such soul-lifting moment, in good part because expectations, even in the weeks leading up to the conference in Montreal, Canada, last December, were uncharacteristically low.

Few people dispute the fact that the predicament for global biodiversity is grim. The science on this is beyond a reasonable doubt: each successive report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) chronicles an acceleration of biodiversity loss and spells out the grim consequences if we fail to reverse these trends. During the Convention’s 20 years of existence, action by the parties has failed to make any significant dent in these trends. Indeed, the pace of biodiversity loss, including species extinction, has accelerated over the decades.

The last major achievement of the CBD community—the adoption in Nagoya in 2010 of the Aichi Targets, to be attained by 2020—ended with not a single one of the 20 targets being fully met. COP 15 was one of the key milestones in the life of the CBD. Its purpose was to adopt a Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) to realize the 2050 vision of living in harmony with nature and to govern global action on biodiversity for the decade to 2030. A failure in Montreal would have had catastrophic consequences.

The biodiversity debate shifts focus to the financial sector

Preparatory negotiations, though extended by 2 years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, offered very few grounds for hope. The draft GBF arrived in Montreal far from consensus, and instead of fading, political dividing lines had hardened during the negotiation process. Disagreement was deep on critical issues, such as finance, whose resolution is essential if the causes of biodiversity loss are to be addressed.

Nevertheless, those attending COP 15 quickly noted that the ground had shifted. On finance, past COPs have focused on pressuring rich governments to contribute more funding to address biodiversity priorities in poorer countries that hold most of the planet’s biodiversity and on providing incentives so that private capital can also flow to these priorities.

While past approaches were still in evidence, in Montreal, the debate had changed. It focused on what reforms are needed to the rules governing financial and capital markets so that these might support biodiversity conservation and ecosystem restoration through their regular operations. Hundreds of representatives from the financial world—public and private—were present, and each day offered a rich menu of events on the link between finance and biodiversity. These culminated in a high-level Finance Day that demonstrated that the financial world now understands the risk that biodiversity loss poses to their business models and is ready to do something about it.

When it emerged from all-night negotiation sessions behind closed doors, the GBF surprised many with its high level of ambition and the specificity of the targets set and adopted by the parties. China, as COP 15 President, and Canada, as the host nation, played no small part in brokering agreements. Significant progress was made in setting financial targets, reforming perverse subsidies, embracing innovative financial instruments, and establishing disclosure and transparency requirements.

The GBF has rightly been hailed as a significant milestone for cooperation in addressing the planetary threat of biodiversity loss. Indeed, it is widely acclaimed as a “turning point” even by those not normally given to this sort of praise. Given expectations going into Montreal, the turnaround is noteworthy. Whether dictated by fear or because the moment proved to be right, there has been a shift in the seriousness with which the global community is willing to confront the threat of biodiversity loss.

In this celebratory atmosphere, it may appear in bad taste to point out that we have been here before, buoyed by a hard-fought agreement or inspired by the clear targets that guide our footsteps. The history of global, governmental biodiversity action has been characterized by a sense of “too little, too late.” Promises, as we have seen with the Aichi targets, have simply not been fulfilled. The path from the adoption of the CBD in 1992 is littered with solemn undertakings quietly dropped in the face of political resistance or financial shortages. Will we see the same fate with the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework?

“Nature positive” requirements for all corporate activities?

Two requirements could prevent us from treading that sorry path once again, both linked to the role of the corporate sector. The first, in clear evidence in Montreal, is the shifting attitudes within the financial sector. If we are able to align public and private finance to the requirements of the GBF, biodiversity will be the routine beneficiary of all economic and financial activity. Although we are still far from that position, Montreal indicated that there is now a real chance of significant movement in that direction.

The second requirement is the emergence of a global standard that requires all corporate activity to support “nature-positive” outcomes. This condition was not specifically built into the GBF, largely because it is not yet ready. But a world in which corporate accountability is based on a “nature-positive” standard, propped up by robust rules, is a world in which biodiversity loss can be reversed and a healthier planet rebuilt.

COP 15 provided a strong dose of energy to the biodiversity community. This energy must now be leveraged to ensure that, this time, we are able to turn the corner and embark on a path of planetary restoration of nature and ecosystems.

Mark Halle, Special Advisor, CCICED; Senior Fellow, IISD

These are the views of the author and not necessarily CCICED’s.

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