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July/August 2023

Countries adopt insufficient global conservation targets for 2030

Zak Smith


  • Leaders from around the world gathered in Montreal to finalize a global conservation plan from now to 2030.
  • Negotiators on the global stage maintained the status quo by drafting an agreement that would not threaten business as usual.
Countries adopt insufficient global conservation targets for 2030

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Late last year, leaders from around the world gathered in Montreal to finalize a global conservation plan from now to 2030. The meeting took place against the backdrop of a biodiversity crisis that threatens a million species with extinction and the foundational building blocks of human society. While some Parties pushed for a plan that would compel the kind of transformative change necessary to disrupt the drivers of biodiversity loss, the final, consensus-driven agreement made it more difficult for countries and communities to address the biodiversity crisis. By accepting insufficient targets for action between now and 2030, the agreement allows countries to continue business as usual, posing an existential threat to human well-being.

The Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD or the Convention) started negotiating conservation goals and targets in 2019. Their work included numerous negotiating sessions over the course of three years, as well as meetings of high-level delegates and Ministers at the fifteenth UN Biodiversity Conference that took place in October 2021 in Kunming, China, and December 2022 in Montreal, Canada. The resulting Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (KM-GBF) provides a conservation roadmap for the 196 Parties to the Convention. The framework identifies four long-term goals centered on the Convention’s 2050 vision for biodiversity, when Parties are supposed to be “living in harmony with nature,” and 23 “global targets for urgent action over the decade to 2030.”

No transformational change in Montreal

At the opening of the meeting in Montreal, UN Secretary-General António Guterres laid out the challenge. He was characteristically blunt, noting that “[m]ultinational corporations are filling their bank accounts while emptying our world of its natural gifts” and that “[e]cosystems have become playthings of profit.” As a result of “our bottomless appetite for unchecked and unequal economic growth, humanity has become a weapon of mass extinction. We are treating nature like a toilet. And ultimately, we are committing suicide by proxy.” The secretary-general was not exaggerating. In a “60 Minutes” story  on the biodiversity crisis, Dr. Paul Ehrlich sounded the alarm that countries are not doing enough to avert “the end of the kind of civilization we’re used to.”

Unfortunately, the KM-GBF may prove Ehrlich right, at least in the context of global multilateral environmental agreements. In Montreal, Parties consistently refused to agree on targets that would compel transformative change—a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic, and social factors, including paradigms, goals, and values—and disrupt the negative trends in nature.

Disappointing funding commitments

According to a 2020 report from the Paulson Institute, to halt and reverse declines in biodiversity we need to increase global spending on protection and restoration by an average of $711 billion each year this decade. During negotiations, many Parties from the Global South were clear that they cannot meet the KM-GBF targets without additional resources. These Parties even walked out of one negotiation session when wealthy countries signaled their refusal to compensate for the environmental degradation and destruction they cause. Nonetheless, the Parties declined to set a target that would close the financing gap. Instead, KM-GBF Target 19 would “[s]ubstantially and progressively increase the level of financial resources” to “at least 200 billion United States dollars” by 2030. The result was well short of what is necessary and is hardly transformative.

Weak protections for biodiversity areas

Similarly, the Parties rejected ambitious language for the targets addressing the two biggest drivers of biodiversity loss: changes in land/ocean use and direct exploitation of species. Target 3 was designed to address the former—the conversion of wild areas to other uses like agriculture or grazing. Protecting more of the world is desperately needed, as we’ve already severely altered around 75 percent of the terrestrial environment and destroyed more than 85 percent of the wetlands that were present in 1700.

Scientists have confirmed that we need to ascribe a high-quality of protection to at least 30 percent of the global ocean and 30 percent of land areas and inland waters by 2030 (30x30). The final Target 3 language is nominally good but lacks the kind of qualitative language that would set us on a new course for protected areas. It commits Parties to “ensure and enable that by 2030 at least 30 per cent 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. . . .” Ambitious countries sought to qualify the level of protection taking place within an area that is “effectively conserved” by including language such as “prohibits environmentally damaging activities.” But the Parties removed such language from the final draft.

Target 5, designed to address the other leading driver of biodiversity loss—direct exploitation of plants and animals like overfishing and wildlife trade—fared no better. While ambitious countries in the Global South sought language to eliminate exploitation that was ecologically unsustainable, illegal, or posed a risk of pathogen spillover, the Parties adopted language that mirrors current international commitments: “Ensure that the use, harvesting, and trade of wild species is sustainable, safe and legal . . . reducing the risk of pathogen spill-over. . . .” Countries are already supposed to ensure that the use, harvesting and trade of wild species is sustainable and legal. However, around a third of global fish stocks are harvested at unsustainable levels, and around 10 to 15 percent of global timber supplies are sourced from illegal forestry.

Status quo prevails

Negotiators on the global stage maintained the status quo by drafting an agreement that would not threaten business as usual. However, ambitious parties can do more to embrace transformative change as they make their contributions to meet these global commitments. Thus, the fight continues if we want to secure life as we know it for future generations.