TWN Info Service
on Biodiversity and Traditional Knowledge (Nov20/01)
By Lim Li Lin
This year, 2020, was meant to be a ‘super year’ for biodiversity and the environment. Instead, what a year it has been as the COVID-19 pandemic rages its way through the human population and humanity scrambles to respond, with no clear end in sight. International travel has ground to a halt, and physical distancing imperatives to curb the spread of the virus have meant that large international meetings are off the cards.
A slew of high-profile international environmental meetings had been planned for 2020, including a UN Biodiversity Summit on the margins of the UN General Assembly’s annual session. A much pared-down version of the planned Summit was eventually held virtually.
The 15th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the 26th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) were to be the twin major achievements, the former adopting a new ‘Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF)’, and the latter finalising outstanding aspects of the rules for the Paris Agreement on climate change, while also advancing work on ongoing issues. Instead, both meetings have been postponed to 2021, and may be subject to further postponement.
Under the CBD, a Strategic Plan for Biodiversity, together with its Aichi Biodiversity Targets, had been agreed to guide its implementation from 2011-2020. The Aichi Targets translate some of the CBD’s general obligations into specific strategic goals and targets, which are to be implemented through Parties’ National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans. Comprehensive implementation of the CBD remains an issue in the post-2020 GBF, as there are concerns over the ‘cherry picking’ of issues to include in the 4-goals-and-20-targets format of the GBF.
It is widely acknowledged that effective implementation of the CBD has been hugely lacking in the decades since it entered into force. According to the CBD’s recently launched 5th Global Biodiversity Outlook, which is the final ‘report card’ on the progress of the 20 Aichi Targets, none of the targets will have been fully met by the end of 2020.
Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework process
In 2018, COP 14 of the CBD launched new negotiations under an ‘Open-ended Working Group (OEWG)’ to address the CBD’s implementation in the period post-2020. Two meetings of the OEWG have been held, in August 2019 and in February 2020. The third and final meeting of the OEWG has since been postponed and may be held some time in 2021.
At the second meeting of the OEWG, a ‘zero draft’ of the post-2020 GBF that was prepared by the Co-Chairs of the process – Basile van Havre from Canada and Francis Ogwal from Uganda – was discussed by the Parties. This ‘zero draft’ was mandated by the first meeting of the OEWG, after some Parties pressed for a document which could serve as a basis for Parties to begin negotiations.
However, at OEWG 2, Parties did not begin negotiations on the ‘zero draft’ but instead made comments, and provided suggestions and proposals on the draft document. These were collected, collated and annexed as a document to the conclusions of the meeting.
Since OEWG 2, the Co-Chairs have produced an ‘update of the zero draft’, taking into account the inputs and proposals made at that meeting. This is in order to facilitate the work of the CBD Subsidiary Bodies – the 24th meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) and the 3rd meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Implementation (SBI) – to provide inputs and advice to the post-2020 GBF process.
The meetings of the Subsidiary Bodies are scheduled to take place before OEWG 3, and the ‘first draft’ of the post-2020 GBF is to be produced by the Co-Chairs six weeks before OEWG 3, taking into account the outcomes of SBSTTA 24 and SBI 3, among other inputs. With the meetings postponed, there is no certainty on when the long-awaited ‘first draft’ will be made available.
SBSTTA 24 is mandated to ‘carry out a scientific and technical review of the updated goals and targets, and related indicators and baselines, … as well as the revised appendices to the framework (containing the preliminary draft monitoring frameworks for the goals and targets of the draft post-2020 global biodiversity framework) …’.
SBI 3 is mandated to ‘provide elements to the development of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, in particular with regard to means to support and review implementation, including implementation support mechanisms, enabling conditions, responsibility and transparency and outreach and awareness …’.
Civil society concerns
Documents related to the post-2020 GBF issued in advance of SBSTTA 24 for its ‘peer review’ process reflecting an updated zero draft drew consternation and concern from across civil society.
One of the documents for ‘peer review’ was the ‘Draft monitoring framework for the post-2020 global biodiversity framework’ which included in table form: updated 2050 goals, milestones and targets; components of the goals and targets; monitoring elements; indicators; and period of availability of baseline data and frequency of updates.
All elements except the updated goals, milestones and targets were open to ‘peer review’, meaning that they were open to comments and inputs by Parties and observers. The documents are then to be revised, taking into account these comments and inputs, and issued as official documents for SBSTTA 24 for its review during the meeting.
In an open letter, the CBD Alliance (comprising civil society organisations), the Women’s Caucus and the Global Youth Biodiversity Network expressed deep concern about the planned sequencing to first discuss the components of the goals and targets, monitoring elements, indicators and baseline data, when the goals, milestones and targets themselves have not yet been agreed on and prioritised by Parties, as this ‘risks pre-judging and pre-determining the goals, milestones and targets. It will inevitably hamper SBSTTA 24 from carrying out a proper scientific and technical review of the updated goals and targets, as per its mandate, and worse, will leave Parties little room to properly negotiate the goals, milestones and targets’.
The open letter from the CSOs also expressed concern that while it may be necessary to move to virtual and online processes, these must take into account the realities, needs and priorities of the Global South and rights holders, particularly the accessibility of such virtual meetings, and insisted that it should be standard procedure to conduct such meetings and provide documentation in all six UN languages.
The open letter also demanded an urgent response from the CBD and its bodies on the most relevant way to react to the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘The post-2020 GBF has to reflect the profound and long-term implications and urgent challenges of this new reality through an inclusive and equitable process for a rethink and restructuring of both the content and process of the post-2020 GBF,’ it said.
UN Biodiversity Summit
A ‘virtual’ UN Biodiversity Summit was held in September 2020, a first for summits usually held with great fanfare in New York around the time of the General Assembly. The Summit’s theme of ‘Urgent action on biodiversity for sustainable development’ was meant to highlight the urgency of action at the highest levels in support of the post-2020 GBF.
The programme included two ‘Leaders’ Dialogues’ on ‘Addressing biodiversity loss and mainstreaming biodiversity for sustainable development’, and ‘Harnessing science, technology and innovation, capacity building, access and benefit sharing, financing and partnerships for biodiversity’.
With limited time for the online sessions, and with no possibility of real interaction during and around the meetings, the Summit was even more of a one-way public relations exercise than usual. A summary of key messages from the Summit will be its main substantive outcome, which will be transmitted to relevant processes such as the post-2020 GBF.
Ahead of the UN Biodiversity Summit, around 70 countries endorsed a Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, with 10 urgent actions to put nature on a path to recovery by 2030. A few more countries have since endorsed the Pledge. However, whether these countries will actually fulfil their pledges is an open question, as there is no legally binding aspect to the pledges.
In the meantime, more than a hundred civil society organisations supported another open letter (see box) expressing concerns about the UN Biodiversity Summit. In particular, concerns were raised regarding the inadequate representation and lack of a democratic process for civil society participation at the Summit, even as it ‘provides a prominent role to some of the world’s biggest corporations and financial actors who are among those most responsible for biodiversity destruction.’
The open letter also highlighted many of the concerns around the content of the post-2020 GBF itself, while pointing to the urgent actions that are needed to address the root causes of biodiversity loss.
The COP decision launching negotiations on the post-2020 GBF invited Parties and other governments (the United States is the only country that is not Party to the CBD) to consider developing ‘voluntary commitments’ that ‘contribute to the achievement of the three objectives of the Convention, strengthen national biodiversity strategies and action plans, facilitate the achievement of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets and contribute to an effective post-2020 global biodiversity framework’. Information on these ‘commitments’ is to be shared through the CBD’s Clearing-House Mechanism of inforrmation exchange and other means.
At the same time, indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs), and organisations and stakeholders, including the private sector, were also encouraged to consider developing biodiversity ‘commitments’ that may contribute to an effective post-2020 GBF and to make such information available as a contribution to the ‘Sharm El-Sheikh to Kunming Action Agenda for Nature and People’.
As such, an online engagement platform for the Action Agenda has been launched by Egypt and China, which are the hosts of the previous and next COPs respectively. It aims to ‘catalyze a groundswell of actions from all sectors and stakeholders in support of biodiversity conservation and its sustainable use, while enabling the mapping of current global efforts, in order to assess impact and gaps.’
To date, 150 ‘commitments’ have been registered on the online platform from academia and research institutes, non-governmental organisations, the private sector, the UN system, youth, IPLCs and individuals. ‘Commitments’ from governments are also registered.
Civil society groups have been critical of the voluntary approach by Parties, arguing that a ‘voluntary commitment’ is not legally binding and is merely a pledge. And while contributions from various sectors of society are welcome in principle, they must not detract from Parties’ legally binding obligations to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity, and to share the benefits equitably. Mixing up Parties’ legally binding obligations with the voluntary contributions of other actors blurs the line, and dilutes and lessens Parties’ obligations.
Contributions from business and industry, especially those that are driving the biodiversity crisis, are also very problematic. It provides an opportunity for companies to ‘greenwash’ their practices often with tokenisms, leaving systemic flaws intact; it opens the door to conflicts of interest; it allows for the introduction of ‘false solutions’, which often benefit the companies themselves; and it turns a blind eye to the corporate lobby that prevents real action.
There is also evidence that some corporations are destroying biodiversity and violating human rights. Rather than being the subject of regulation, corporations are instead invited to contribute, with no means to distinguish between real and false efforts.
One of the issues that have increasingly gained prominence in the discourse on the biodiversity and climate change crises, and around the post-2020 GBF and the Paris Agreement on climate change, is ‘Nature-based Solutions (NbS)’, a recently coined term which is broadly and vaguely self-defined. Different understandings of the term lead to vastly different conclusions, making common ground on the use of the contested term elusive.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the initial proponent of the term, defines it as ‘actions to protect, sustainably manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits.’
NbS are actively promoted by many large Western conservation organisations and fossil fuel companies in particular, for the unsubstantiated claim that ‘nature’ could provide more than 1/3 of the global climate change mitigation effort by 2030. This proposition advances the idea that ‘nature’ can compensate for (or ‘offset’ though the carbon market) the continued burning of fossil fuels though carbon sequestration.
(With the rules on carbon markets due to be finalised during the next UNFCCC COP, which will be held after the CBD COP, the expectation is that some agreement on NbS in the post-2020 GBF will be necessary to carry through to the climate change arena.)
Many others, including governments, international organisations and other non-governmental organisations, also support NbS for different and diverse reasons, many using the term in its literal form and interchangeably with other terms like ‘natural solutions’, ‘natural climate solutions’ and ‘ecosystem-based approaches’ to describe an array of positive actions and approaches such as agroecology and ecosystem restoration.
Another contentious issue in the draft post-2020 GBF is a target on increasing protected areas and other area-based conservation measures that could lead to violations of the human rights of millions of indigenous peoples and other land-dependent communities, without any proper safeguards. All this while the rights of IPLCs are not fully recognised or protected within the post-2020 GBF.
Critical issues also include the continued move away from the commitment of developed-country Parties to provide financial resources towards ‘resource mobilisation from all sources’. And while elaborate provisions on responsibility, transparency, planning, reporting, assessment and review are positive in principle, the lack of commensurate focus on means of implementation, implementation support mechanisms and enabling conditions means that burden sharing between countries will be increasingly inequitable, as most of the world’s biodiversity is in developing countries, and the comprehensive implementation of the CBD with its careful balance of rights and obligations of developed and developing countries remains in doubt.
A number of virtual meetings have now been planned in light of the continuing pandemic and the uncertainty regarding when face-to-face meetings can eventually be held. Virtual sessions on some aspects of SBI 3 will be held on 9-14 November 2020, and on some aspects of SBSTTA 24 will be held on 10-11 and 14-17 December 2020.
In addition, an Extraordinary COP to the CBD and Extraordinary COPs serving as the Meeting of the Parties (MOPs) to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing will be held virtually on 16-19 November 2020. Again, this will be another first in an extraordinary year.
The Extraordinary COP and Extraordinary COP-MOPs have become necessary because the budgets for 2021 for the CBD and its Protocols need to be approved by the end of 2020. This would also include the budget for the post-2020 GBF process. The budgets will be the only agenda item for the Extraordinary COP and COP-MOPs, and only Parties will be able to participate in these virtual meetings.
The Extraordinary COP and Extraordinary COP-MOPs will be conducted through the ‘silence procedure’, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in March this year. In accordance with the procedure, a statement with a draft decision will be circulated by the CBD Secretariat, on behalf of the President of the COP (Egypt), to the Parties.
If no issues or comments are raised by any Party in writing within a certain period of time, the President will declare that agreement has been reached by the Parties on the interim budget for 2021, and close the meetings. Under the procedure adopted by the General Assembly, at least 72 hours must pass without the silence broken, before a decision can be considered to have been adopted. However, there are important considerations that need to be taken into account in relation to virtual in lieu of in-person negotiations, especially when such virtual meetings could have substantive policy impacts or implications.
The year 2020 has not been short of surprises, and the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the absolute necessity to address growing inequality and inequity among countries and peoples, and to protect against the further destruction of nature. It has clearly demonstrated that fundamental and systemic change is necessary to address the root and structural causes of biodiversity loss, a major driver of which is unsustainable production and consumption. Whether this can be accomplished and whether the post-2020 GBF will be ambitious and equitable still remains to be seen.
Lim Li Lin is a senior legal and environment researcher with the Third World Network.