EM Cheat Sheet: The Convention on Biological Diversity

Kelly Moore Brands

Delegates from nearly 200 countries are meeting in Nairobi, Kenya this week, to give the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity some much needed teeth and get money flowing to biodiversity protection.  But what is the CBD, and why hasn’t it delivered results yet?

14 May 2010 | The International Year of Biodiversity is upon us. From events in Paris to Beijing to Vancouver, the world is celebrating the diversity of life on earth. About 1.75 million species have been identified around the globe, and an estimated six times that amount exist (estimates run from 5-100 million). This diversity supplies us with food, fuel, medicines, fiber, construction materials, dyes, and ecosystem services like water and air filtration, climate stabilization, erosion control, and pollination of crops – major contributions to human well-being.

But we are in the world’s sixth great extinction period, losing species at up to 1000 times the natural rate. We have already lost almost half of our original forests and wetlands, a third of coastal mangroves and a tenth of our coral reefs . This hardly seems like the time to rejoice with an “International Year of” celebration.

So, how did we get to this point, and what is the purpose of the IYOB?

A brief look into the past of the environmental movement brings us from the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment and the establishment of the UN Environment Program (UNEP) through the first major global push for sustainable development in the 1987 Brundtland Commission Report “Our Common Future” to 1992 and the signing of the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international treaty committed to conserving biological diversity, sustainable use of that diversity and the equitable sharing of benefits from and access to genetic resources.

One of these Things is not Like the Other…

Opened for signature on June 5, 1992, at the Rio “Earth Summit” hosted by UNEP, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) now has 193 parties (192 countries plus the EU); a majority so large that you would think even the United States would take part. But there are three outliers: the tiny principality of Andorra (a blip on the French-Spanish border that has neither signed nor ratified); the Holy See (i.e. Vatican City, an area of 0.44 square kilometers almost completely covered by cobblestones and brick, and therefore not of high biological concern, which has also neither signed nor ratified); and the 3.79 million square mile (9.83 million km2) United States.

The US was broadly involved in the six-year long negotiation and drafting process and President Clinton signed the CBD in 1993. While the Senate Foreign Relations Committee supported the CBD, it never received a ratification vote on the floor; the Senate has not revisited the issue since and the US continues as an “observer” without an official voice in negotiations or decision-making. The Obama administration has hinted at ratification, but it will be a tricky sell to the already overburdened Senate.

Cross Your Heart and Hope to Die…

Ultimately, the CBD aims to promote international cooperation on the protection of nature and natural systems, including ecosystem services. The CBD asks governments to regulate forestry, agriculture, fisheries, energy, transportation and urban planning sectors and to set measurable targets to promote biodiversity conservation, integrating conservation and sustainable use. From forestry laws in Costa Rica to creation of biosphere reserves in Tanzania, governments have slowly begun to implement tasks set out by the CBD, but have thus far not come close to meeting major goals for slowing biodiversity loss.

CBD’s Signers, Do-ers, and the Reckoning in Nagoya this October

In 2002, parties to the CBD signed an agreement committing to significantly reduce “the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on Earth.” Most parties later also developed specific national targets.

Governments that have signed the CBD are required to report their accomplishments to the CBD’s governing body, the Conference of the Parties (COP), which consists of all governments that have ratified the treaty. In October of this year the tenth Conference of the Parties (or COP10) will meet in Nagoya, Japan to discuss the next steps, akin to the recent (rather disappointing) meeting on climate change in Copenhagen.

As none of the 193 Parties to the Convention have met the 2010 Biodiversity Target adopted in 2002 (deforestation has slowed down but loss continues at high rates and forests are increasingly fragmented; species decline is increasing; and more species are becoming threatened or extinct – in a nutshell, “biodiversity is in decline at all levels and geographical scales”), what does the COP10 actually mean for the future of global biodiversity conservation?

Ahmed Djoghlaf, the CBD’s executive secretary, says that because the 2010 goal “was a political target with no baseline,” this year’s meeting will aim to develop specific and tailor-made national goals that can result in verifiable indicators. In fact, parties have already finalized a draft international agreement on access and benefit-sharing (ABS – referring to how genetic resources and their benefits are accessed and used, and one of the main CBD commitments) that will be on the agenda for adoption at the Nagoya meeting in October.

Taking Care of (Biodiversity) Business

The final results of an international initiative entitled The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), known by some as the “Stern Review” for biodiversity, will also be presented at the COP10. The study aims to compare the costs of sustainable use and conservation to the loss of biodiversity worldwide, further solidifying the claim that biodiversity loss is more costly than its prevention.

Involving business in the biodiversity mix may help countries achieve their future targets by letting markets play a role in goal-setting, creating incentives for protecting, rather than depleting, natural resources that have never before been valued. The engagement of business is one item on the agenda for the Working Group on Review of Implementation of the Convention (WGRI) going on now in Nairobi, another precursor to the COP10. The past few years have seen meetings engaging the private sector in biodiversity conservation, from the oil and gas sector to fisheries to finance to the beauty industry.

Tools for assessing biodiversity are being developed to help businesses weave biodiversity strategies into their business plans, and private-sector engagement has been one of the few accomplishments of the 2002-2010 Strategic Plan goals. Beyond 2010, the CBD, as well as programs like the Business and Biodiversity Offsets Program, hope to improve private enterprise’s sustainable management of biodiversity and encourage businesses to further develop market-based biodiversity conservation-related mechanisms such as incentives and biodiversity offsets.

Optimism for the Future

At the Trondheim Conference on Biodiversity in February (a forum to discuss science-policy dialogue), 12 major messages were concluded about the future of the Convention’s duties, mainly that: degradation of ecosystem services and biodiversity loss will pose an increasing threat to human well-being; now is the time to implement measures to slow loss; and more resources are needed to do so. Although these messages are nothing new to those working in conservation, the reality is that these measures are hard to implement, and at a global scale even more difficult.

But Jostein Garrder, a Norwegian author at the Conference, is optimistic. “I have decided not to be a pessimist on behalf of nature and biological diversity. Just as the struggle for human rights never ends, the struggle to preserve the biological diversity of the planet will never be over,” he says.

And there are other reasons to be optimistic about the meeting in Nagoya.

The targets for 2020 are on course to be more measurable and achievable than those for 2010, with “a clearer logic linking the vision, mission and targets consistent with the available scientific evidence,” Djoghlaf stated in January. The IUCN backs this statement, calling for 20 strong targets for 2020 that target ecosystems, species and genes.

Even the United States has joined the conversation, sending a representative to a workshop held in January to update the Convention’s Post-2010 Strategic Plan. And in September of this year, just before the Nagoya meeting, heads of state are set to meet in New York at the UN headquarters to address challenges of accelerated biodiversity loss and to try to convince the US to officially join the CBD.

Let the Celebration Begin

It is not surprising that the 2010 targets have not been met. As it stands, the CBD is considered soft law, meaning that there are no penalties for missing targets, or incentives to reach those targets. In addition, the decreasing presence of biodiversity combined with the increasing presence of technology in the lives of youth has meant that, for example, kids in Great Britain can more easily identify Japanese cartoon characters than native species like otters and oak trees. Without education and understanding of the world’s biological woes, how will future generations realize what they’ve been missing?

Events are happening all around the world to foster awareness about biodiversity loss in celebration of the International Year of Biodiversity, a global event created by the CBD. According to the CBD Secretariat, the IYOB’s main message is that “humans are part of nature’s rich diversity and have the power to protect or destroy it.” So, it’s up to us, as it always has been. Now, how about that US government?

2011 is the International Year of the Forests. Follow the Forest Carbon Portal for more on that story next year…

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