Optimism from COP15
Protecting 30% of nature by 2030
11th January 2023
2022 undoubtedly brought many lows, but the year ended on a high note after delegates from over 200 countries came together at the COP15 UN Biodiversity Conference in Montreal (not to be confused with the recent COP27 on climate change in Egypt). COP15 delegates struck a landmark deal including a target to protect 30% of nature by 2030. The historic agreement is hoped to help the drive towards the Paris Agreement goals.
Biodiversity and the Climate Crisis
Fascinating statistics and analysis just released by Our World in Data offer some complexity to discussions about biodiversity loss. They show on average, there has been a large decline across tens of thousands of wildlife populations since 1970. Humans are responsible for most biodiversity loss on land, and in the ocean. However, thanks in particular to conservation efforts, not all animal populations are in decline; and around half have increasing numbers. Some iconic mammal species – such as the Eurasian beaver, European bison, and brown bear – have made a comeback. As well as conservation, the researchers behind the data argue that agricultural productivity has decreased the amount of land the industry uses, giving more habitat back to wildlife.
Biodiversity is fundamental to climate strength and resilience, economic prosperity, human well-being, and well, life as we know it. Biodiversity loss is largely caused by human activities — deforestation, overfishing, and extreme weather events caused by the climate crisis. Similarly, some of the main drivers of carbon emissions are degraded land, deforestation, and overfishing. The two go hand-in-hand.
Area-based conservation could potentially help solve both of these issues.
A 2021 study in Nature Ecology & Evolution showed that conserving 30% - 50% of what they identified to be the most important land areas for biodiversity would conserve 60 - 85% of the estimated total carbon stock and 66% - 90% of all clean water, in addition to meeting conservation targets for 58% - 79% of all species considered.
Area-based conservation generally refers to particular areas of land and water which have been set aside for the preservation of natural resources, managed in ways designed to deliver long-term conservation goals. One of the most common forms of area-based conservation is the protected area. Protected areas vary from those that prohibit human activities or carefully control them, to those where conservation efforts take place alongside human activity such as agriculture and fishing. The OECM (‘Other effective area-based conservation measures’) is sometimes seen as a ‘more inclusive’ approach to conserving biodiversity, giving recognition to communities whose activities demonstrate long-term positive impact on biodiversity, but fall outside of the purview of traditional protected areas. A significant proportion of existing and prospective OECMs can be found in indigenous communities. The complexity of these designations makes it hard to get a truly accurate picture of the extent of protected areas, though it’s estimated only about 17% of the planet’s land and inland water ecosystems, and 8% of coastal waters and ocean fall within protected areas and OECMs (‘Other effective area-based conservation measures’). COP15 might change this.
The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF)
The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) was the centrepiece of COP15, setting out 4 overarching goals and 23 targets to be achieved by 2030. Target 3, colloquially known as 30x30 is to:
Ensure and enable that by 2030 at least 30% of terrestrial, inland water, and of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services are effectively conserved and managed through ecologically representative, well-connected and equitably governed systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures.
Smart area-based conservation, as the Nature study referenced above shows, is vital in order to deploy resources effectively to protect biodiversity. If signatories are successful in protecting these areas to an acceptable level, this could have a transformative impact on biodiversity and carbon emissions.
Other key targets include:
- Ensuring that by 2030 at least 30% of areas of degraded terrestrial, inland water, and coastal and marine ecosystems are under effective restoration
- Ensuring that the use, harvesting and trade of wild species is sustainable, safe and legal, preventing overexploitation
- Eliminating, minimising, reducing and/or mitigating the impacts of invasive alien species on biodiversity. Reducing such figures by 50% by 2030
- Reducing pollution to levels that are not harmful to biodiversity by 2030’, including reducing overall risk from pesticides and highly hazardous chemicals by at least 50%.
- Promoting sustainable agriculture and agroecology
- Urging businesses to disclose impacts on biodiversity and human rights
- Eliminating subsidies to industrial activities which are harmful to nature
- Increasing conservation funding to indigenous communities
While not legally binding, signatories will be required to demonstrate their progress toward the framework’s targets. This is a bit more complicated than it first seems, as some countries will have a greater share of important conservation land than others. Many countries from the global south, including Brazil, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are home to immense biodiversity. Rich countries in the global north agreed to provide $30bn aid for biodiversity to poorer countries by 2030 through a biodiversity fund created under the Global Environment Facility, established over 20 years ago before the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.
Indigenous Groups and Concerns
An important aspect of the conference was the repeated emphasis on indigenous local knowledge (ILK) and supporting indigenous groups. Estimates show that despite comprising less than 5% of the world’s population, indigenous people protect over 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity. Despite centuries of ongoing exploitation, there is an extraordinary amount to be learned from indigenous groups regarding ecology, conservation, and resource management. Indigenous people are mentioned 18 times across the Global Biodiversity Framework draft decision, and numerous other times across other final documents.
Unfortunately, the agreement has come under fire. Oxfam have argued that 30x30 is a threat to the rights of indigenous groups, writing:
Without a commitment to safeguard human rights, the 30x30 target will result in conservation efforts that would lead to Indigenous Peoples and local communities being evicted from their ancestral lands. When creating protected areas, the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples should be respected, they should be allowed to manage such areas and be provided with the financial resources required to support them.
As in so many international agreements, it’s hard to separate the fluff from the substance. However in Section C, subsection 8 of the Framework, there is explicit acknowledgement of the important roles and contributions of indigenous peoples as custodians of biodiversity and discusses how implementation must ensure that [indigenous peoples’] rights, knowledge, innovations, worldviews, and practices are respected, documented, and preserved with their free, prior, and informed consent. Target 19, shown above, commits to increasing conservation funding.
Will it work?
The Global Biodiversity Outlook 5, a 2020 report published by the UN on the state of nature demonstrated how the world failed to meet one single target from the Aichi Biodiversity Targets agreed in Japan in 2010. This was the second consecutive decade that governments failed to meet such targets. Some progress was made, and six targets partially achieved, including the protection of 17% of terrestrial and inland water areas, and 10% of marine habitats.
So what makes COP15 different? The Aichi Biodiversity Targets, for one, were much more vague and lacked quantitative thresholds. For instance, Target 8 of the Aichi Targets was that ‘By 2020, pollution, including from excess nutrients, has been brought to levels that are not detrimental to ecosystem function and biodiversity.’ It’s hoped that having quantifiable metrics will help keep signatories accountable.
Ioannis Agapakis, a ClientEarth lawyer, reflected on the conference, saying “though it’s not the most solid foundation from which to protect biodiversity, [the Framework] nonetheless draws a line in the sand and a starting point from which to build on.”
- The EU struck a remarkable political deal last month to impose a carbon tax on imports of polluting goods such as steel and cement, fertilisers, aluminium and electricity. The world-first scheme, which is designed to apply the same cost to domestic industries and overseas firms, will require companies importing certain goods to buy certificates to cover their embedded CO2 emissions. The aim is to support European industry as they decarbonise by preventing them from being ‘undercut’ by cheaper goods made in countries with weaker environmental rules.
- A new fact sheet produced by Clean Air Task Force, alongside Carbon Gap and Bellona EU demonstrates the need for carbon dioxide removal (CDR) in order to reach climate goals. CDR methods vary significantly in terms of how carbon dioxide is extracted from the atmosphere, where it is stored, and for how long. To ensure environmental and consumer protection, CATF are calling on a high-quality certification for CDR so stakeholders and reliably measure, validate and certify carbon removal. We need common rules on accounting, monitoring, and verification to ensure we can avoid unintended impacts, and double counting.
- Ugbaad Kosar, Director of Environmental Justice at Carbon 180 has written a thoughtful piece about direct air capture (DAC), CDR, and environmental justice, arguing how and why it should be a tool for climate justice, rather than continued fossil fuel reliance.
- Mongabay featured 15 species discoveries from 2022 including a resplendent rainbow fish, a frog that looks like chocolate, and a Thai tarantula. Scientists estimate that only 10% of all the species on the planet have been described. The article is a fascinating reminder of some of what’s at stake in our mission to preserve biodiversity.
- Recent satellite images suggest that seaweed, or kelp, forests are far more extensive than previously realised. This is a major step forward in understanding the role seaweed might play in mitigating the climate crisis. A group of scientists led by Dr Albert Pessarrodona from the University of Western Australia found that underwater forests cover between 6m and 7.2m sq km – an area twice the size of India. Seaweed forests are thought to potentially store as much carbon as the Amazon rainforest. However there is still very little understanding in their long term ability to store carbon.
- Earlier in December, the Welsh government passed a law banning single-use plastic from Autumn 2023. This is a welcome change that helps end plastic pollution. Over 14 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean yearly, and plastic makes up 80% of all marine debris. Surfers Against Sewage continue to campaign for a circular economy focused on reducing plastic production and creating an all-in deposit return scheme to effectively capture and recycle plastics.
- In December, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs released new legally binding environmental targets as part of the Environment Act, passed in November 2021. Among many targets are the requirements to halt the decline in species populations by 2030, restore precious water bodies to their natural state, and deliver the Government’s net zero ambitions and boost nature recovery by increasing tree and woodland cover to 16.5% of total land area in England by 2050. UK woodland wildlife species have declined 53% since 1970, and the nation performs poorly in comparison with other Western European countries when it comes to Woodland as Percentage of Land Area.
- Farming groups will also be watching closely, concerned about woodland expansion’s encroachment on agricultural and food production. Others are dissatisfied with the timelines proposed.
- Environmental campaigner & author Guy Shrubsole recently published ‘The Lost Rainforests of Britain’, a captivating story of a lost habitat. A long talk on the topic is available on YouTube.
- A new study from the International Water Management Institute, in partnership with Dabane Trust and as part of the NEXUS Gains Initiative, assessed the impacts of 20 sand dams in 19 communities in the Zimbabwean portion of the Shashe catchment — a sub-basin of the Limpopo river shared by Botswana and Zimbabwe. The results found sand dams significantly improved local water availability. Water was available for an average of 4.4 additional months a year, and during a drought year, this amounted to 3.9 additional months. This improvement reduced pressure on communities to adopt restrictive adaptation measures. This further supports Sand Dams Worldwide’s mission to help transform lies through water and soil conservation in drylands.
- In a special episode from the International Institute for Environment and Development’s podcast Make Change Happen, experts discussed how climate mitigation action can respond to pervasive urban poverty in the global South. The participants show what mitigation looks like in practice, and discussed arguments for and against mitigation, asking whether it is unjust to ask low-income people to shoulder personal responsibility for climate mitigation. It’s a nuanced debate on a fascinating topic.
- In late October, The Global South Climate Database was launched by Carbon Brief, with the support of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network at the Reuters Institute. The Database is a publicly available, searchable database of 400+ climate scientists and experts in the fields of climate science, climate policy and energy from over 80 countries. Carbon Brief analysed the authors of the 100 most highly cited climate-science papers published between 2016 and 2020 and found that 90% authors are affiliated with institutions from the Global North. Meanwhile, the entire continent of Africa, which is home to around 16% of the world’s population, comprises less than 1% of authors in this analysis. The lower publishing rate of academics from the Global South, as well as other obstacles in the form of funding discrepancies and language barriers often means that they are less visible to the media, making it tricky for journalists working to tight deadlines to find diverse voices to quote in their work.
Food & Agriculture
- The most comprehensive study to date of cultivated meat production was just published in Nature Food, led by scientists at Believer Meats. It’s hoped the research might assist in efforts to get regulatory approval in the US, following safety concerns about the new technology. The study discusses various methods of producing cultured meat — primary satellite cells, pluripotent stem cells, and, their preferred alternative, spontaneous immortalization. By showing the potential of cultured adipocyte-like cells in meat substitutes, their work helps pave a way towards the sustainable and safe and secure production of cultured meat. If you’re interested, Good Food Institute have an excellent deep dive into these various technologies behind cultivated meat.
- Sustainable Food Trust, alongside many other fascinating organisations and speakers, made appearances at the Oxford Real Farming Conference this week. SFT discussed what it might look like to align our future diets with regenerative farming, citing a summarised version of their Feeding Britain report.
Education & Advocacy
- Earlier last month, Action for Conservation partners at the Penpont Estate received the Historic Houses sustainability award. The Penpont Project, launched in 2019 with AFC responds to the interconnected challenges of climate change and ecological breakdown, as well as language loss and social inequity. The group have engaged experts and local community members to create an innovative nature recovery initiative across over 450 acres of the estate, including an extensive ‘wildland’ system, a transition from clear-fell forestry rotations to continuous cover, and a regenerative upland farm to complement Penpont’s organic food production. The prize recognises and celebrates the role Britain’s historic house can play in ensuring the heritage they look after ‘has a future in a cleaner and more sustainable world’.
- Taking inspiration from Action for Conservation CEO Hendrikus van Hensbergen’s book ‘How You Can Save the Planet’, the Little Investors charity hosted four workshops at Maryport and Workington Library in Cumbria, which encouraged children to invent something using wind. Little Inventors aims to inspire children to gain a passion for creativity.
- The EU has passed a historic law that will stop products causing forest destruction from being sold in European shops and supermarkets. Unfortunately, the EU refused to include protection for internationally-recognised rights of Indigenous Peoples, instead relying on national laws in the countries where the products originate, which is problematic as in many producer countries, there is either no formal recognition of indigenous land rights, or weak and poorly enforced recognition, leaving rights and communities at risk.