An unexpectedly ambitious UN biodiversity framework

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Decision accepted

The Chinese president is knocking off a fairly ambitious UN biodiversity framework. © UN Biodiversity

Protect 30% of all land and oceans by 2030 and $700 billion a year for biodiversity. The new UN biodiversity framework can be called a success. We had a conversation with Annemie Van der Avort (FPS Foreign Affairs), a member of the dedicated Belgian biodiversity delegation.

"A game changer" is how Federal Minister for Environment Zakia Khattabi called the recent UN agreement on biodiversity. "Finally, biodiversity has its Paris agreement."

Indeed, on 19 December 2022, all 196 parties agreed to adopt the rather ambitious 'Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework'. That's all the countries that have subscribed to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), i.e. more or less the whole world.

Highly urgent

And that new framework was highly urgent. As recently as September 2021, Ines Verleye (FPS Environment) sounded the alarm bell here. She is the head of the Belgian biodiversity delegation who follows up the CBD within the EU and the UN. The coronavirus pandemic had greatly delayed the new post-2020 framework while biodiversity was - and still is - in very bad shape. The 2010 Aichi Targets had ended in failure. A new, ambitious framework was needed to save the day.

"That was quite successful," says Annemie Van der Avort (FPS Foreign Affairs), a member of the Belgian biodiversity delegation who helped negotiate the new framework in Montreal. Due to coronavirus restrictions in China, the long-awaited 15th biodiversity summit - the COP15 – eventually went ahead in Canada, although China remained president.

Tropical forest

Those who protect nature temper climate change. Both go hand in hand. © iStock

Main agreements

"Not only does the international community want to protect at least 30% of all land and oceans by 2030, but the remaining 70% must be used as sustainably as possible so that biodiversity suffers the least possible damage. In addition to sustainable agriculture, forestry and fisheries, this includes being much more circumspect with the use of pesticides, chemicals and plastics, promoting sustainable consumption, reducing food waste and halting invasive species."

Vital ecosystem facilities must be restored. Think clean air, clean water, pollination, fertile soil and a liveable climate. Moreover, at least 30% of affected land, inland waters, coasts and oceans need to be rehabilitated. All measures combined should result in biodiversity being "valued, conserved, restored and used wisely" by 2050.  

Also noteworthy is the focus on indigenous peoples. Previously, indigenous peoples were invariably banned from nature reserves. The current agreement recognises their land rights and traditional knowledge. In fact, they play a key role in protecting biodiversity as their lands contain about 80% of the remaining plant and animal species.

Resource mobilisation: $700 billion a year

Moreover, COP15 managed to raise enough money - also known as resource mobilisation - even if some aspects of it have yet to be fleshed out. "It will require $700 billion annually by 2030, a lot of money," says Van der Avort. "But if we do away with the current financial incentives, including subsidies, that harm biodiversity, and put them to work for the benefit of nature, we will already be well on our way. According to the agreement, that should free up $500 billion."

The remaining $200 billion will be drawn from various sources. Van der Avort: "Public money can only account for 10%. In the end, the final text stated $20 billion by 2025 and $30 billion by 2030, although that could also be private money. For the remaining amount, we will focus on private funding, mobilising domestic resources and novel initiatives, such as green bonds and payment for ecosystem services. It is also essential that biodiversity becomes mainstream. This means that other sectors, including agriculture, industry, infrastructure and transportation, also take biodiversity into account. That, too, can lead to additional funding."

A thorough overhaul of multilateral development banks, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, is also called for. "All investments should be made with consideration of their impact on climate and biodiversity. After all, both go hand in hand."

Belgian delegation

Part of the enthusiastic Belgian delegation with Minister Khattabi in the middle. On the far left, Annemie Van der Avort. © FPS Environment

Satisfied Belgian delegation

In any case, Annemie Van der Avort is very pleased with the agreement. "Six months before the conference, we never thought we would reach 30% protection!" The Belgian delegation fought tooth and nail for this, both within the EU and at the UN level. "After all, Belgium is a member of the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People."

That Belgian delegation consisted of some 18 experts, including from the FPS Environment and FPS Foreign Affairs, from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences and from the Flemish and Walloon governments. "It was a herculean task," added Van der Avort. "For 17 days, we started at 6am, often negotiating until gone midnight. But the efforts paid off. Our team worked well together and was able to weigh in strongly on the EU position. Minister Khattabi negotiated some of the topics of the final text on behalf of the EU, and our head of delegation Ines Verleye co-chaired the negotiations on resource mobilisation."

Not without a fight

The fine result did not materialise without a struggle. The first week in particular was eventful. "The EU, spurred on by Belgium, insisted on 30% protection. But developing countries wanted guarantees of adequate resources first. They even left the negotiation table at one point. It took time to build trust. The second week did proceed in a more constructive atmosphere."

There was also disagreement over whether to establish a separate biodiversity fund. "Eventually we reached agreement on a separate biodiversity fund to be set up within the existing Global Environment Facility (GEF), the ultimate global financing instrument for all things environmental. In the end, it was only DR Congo that had concerns about the text on resource mobilisation. After mediation by China as COP chair, the country was able to agree to the global framework after all, provided their objections on funding were included in the report."

China's role as chair in finding an agreement was very important. "China worked discreetly and adopted a fairly neutral stance," Van der Avort believes. "The final text they submitted in the final throes of the negotiations was balanced. That ensured that all parties eventually agreed."

Fair chance of success?

However, a UN agreement is not legally binding, and the previous Aichi Targets in 2010 were a failure. Will the current agreement fare any better? Van der Avort: "First of all, we now have clearer mechanisms in place to monitor the new biodiversity framework. And we have a clearer idea of where the resources should come from. Moreover, the EU is a very credible player here. After all, it has similar agreements that are properly binding on the EU Member States. The EU Biodiversity Strategy and the Farm to Fork Strategy are two cases in point here. Developing countries are also given the help they need to follow up and implement the agreements made, including through training."

But there is another major evolution compared to 2010. "Meanwhile, a broader understanding has grown that we need to address climate change urgently. And that we need biodiversity to mitigate the climate problem. If we protect forests and oceans and engage in sustainable agriculture, we not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but at the same time adapt to a changing climate. Many of the solutions lie in nature!"

Lots of work to be done until COP16

So we can entertain some hope that the new biodiversity framework can yet turn things round. But, of course, there's still some way to go. Van der Avort: "In the run-up to the next COP16 in Türkiye in 2024, several issues need to be further fleshed out. For example, the strategy around resource mobilisation needs to be better aligned with the needs of the biodiversity framework. The biodiversity fund within the GEF needs to be set up. And the monitoring framework - the framework by which we intend to track progress - needs to become more concrete. For each of the 4 goals and 23 targets, we need to find indicators by which we can measure how much progress we've made. These will be further elaborated in various working groups and at the interim meetings."

Our Belgian delegation have their work cut out, but they are facing the task with great enthusiasm. But what is also heartening in these times of rising tensions between the superpowers, is that international cooperation within the UN can still yield fine results.