Five things to know about the global biodiversity agreement

World governments have agreed to conserve nearly a third of the planet’s lands and waters as part of a broader effort to stem the collapse of global plant and animal populations.

The last-minute deal at the United Nations biodiversity conference in Montreal (COP15) was heralded as a landmark step for protecting nature. It comes as approximately 1 million species — an eighth of the worldwide total — are threatened with extinction, according to the U.N. Environmental Program.

About three-quarters of Earth’s land area — and two-thirds of its oceans — have been “significantly altered” by human activity, the U.N. says, with farming and fishing being primary causes of the ongoing threat of extinction.

Here are five things to know about the deal:

Countries agree to protect 30 percent of land, water by 2030

Nearly 200 countries agreed to protect almost a third of Earth’s lands and waters — a significant goal.

The agreement sets out a target of ensuring 30 percent of “areas of degraded terrestrial, inland water, and coastal and marine ecosystem” are under “effective restoration” by the end of the decade, with a goal to “enhance biodiversity and ecosystem functions.”

“Biodiversity” refers to the variety of life on the planet — that is, the total system of different plant, animal and other species that exist on Earth.

This would be a significant step up from how much land and water is currently protected. A U.N. report from last year found that as of 2020, about 17 percent of land and inland water ecosystems were protected. The report also found that just 8 percent of coastal waters and oceans were protected.

“A global agreement to protect a third of the planet by 2030 is monumental,” Tanya Sanerib, international legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “My whole life, habitat loss has been a key driver of decreasing biodiversity.”

The deal calls for this conservation to be achieved through “ecologically representative, well-connected and equitably governed systems” and calls for ensuring any sustainable use of these areas is “fully consistent with conservation outcomes” and the rights of Indigenous people.

US was not part of the formal agreement

The biodiversity conference included all of the countries that are parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, a global biodiversity treaty, a list that notably excludes the U.S.

While then-President Clinton in 1993 signed the treaty upon which the summit was based, Congress never ratified it. The U.S., therefore, is not part of the treaty and is not subject to the agreement.

However, the Biden administration set its own 30 percent conservation goal by 2030 last year. In response to the agreement, a White House press release characterized the agreement as the world following the U.S.’s lead.

“Under President Biden’s leadership, the United States will continue our progress towards broad, equitable, and strong environmental stewardship, with continued global cooperation as our shared goal,” Brenda Mallory, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said in a statement.

The administration released a statement last week highlighting the actions it is taking to combat global biodiversity loss, including providing millions in financing for international conservation initiatives.

Sanerib, with the Center for Biological Diversity, told The Hill such funding was “crucial” for the agreement.

Some environmentalists have called on the U.S. to go even further by creating a national biodiversity strategy to combat habitat loss, climate change, pollution, invasive species and the overuse of animal and plant species by humans.

Lindsay Rosa, vice president of conservation research and innovation at Defenders of Wildlife, said in an email that a biodiversity strategy would elevate “the biodiversity crisis as an explicit national priority” and provide a “blueprint for a whole-of-society approach to tackling the crisis.”

African countries raise objections over financing

Earlier this month, the United Nations called on world governments to double their spending on protecting nature to reach a level of about $300 billion per year.

Yet the COP15 agreement calls for $200 billion in spending per year by 2030 — with $20 billion going to poorer countries by 2025 and increasing to at least $30 billion by 2030.

This amount — far less than what poorer countries had asked for — led to an awkward scene as the agreement was signed, Reuters reported.

Huang Runqiu, COP15 president and China’s minister of ecology, announced the conclusion of the deal at 3:30 a.m. on Monday despite fierce objections from the representative of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is home to one of the world’s largest rainforests.

The Congolese representative called for wealthier countries to agree to provide more resources for causes like forest protection, but Runqiu appeared to ignore the request, Reuters reported.
Cameroon and Uganda also objected to the conclusion, as did delegates of Latin American countries, which also host large, threatened wildlands.

While direct funding was far smaller than poorer countries had hoped for, signatories did agree to cut subsidies that support nature-harming behaviors — like incentives for unsustainable fishing or logging — by $500 billion per year by 2030.

The agreement has corporate implications

While the U.S. is not an official signatory, the agreement also has serious implications for U.S.-based corporations doing business in other countries, with the agreement boosting the idea of reporting on how businesses’ operations impact biodiversity.

One of the 22 provisions agreed upon suggests governments ensure large transnational corporations and financiers “monitor, assess, and transparently disclose their risks, dependencies and impacts on biodiversity.”

The agreement is part of a broader pattern in which investors are increasingly calling for companies to disclose biodiversity risks in a manner similar to ongoing calls for disclosure of climate risks.

Part of these concerns are around reputational risk — investors don’t want to find out a company they’ve put money into is doing something embarrassing to the environment.

But other concerns hinge on the growing awareness that the world economy is entirely dependent on massive, largely invisible contributions from the natural world.

More than half of the world’s global gross domestic product (GDP) — about $44 trillion — is dependent on nature and its systems, according to the World Economic Forum.

But collapse in those systems — like forest loss and pollination by insects, a group of animals whose populations are in steep decline — is on track to cause nearly $3 trillion in global GDP losses by 2030 if drastic steps aren’t taken, according to a 2021 report by the World Bank.

While the COP15 agreement represents an important milestone in corporate reporting around nature, the signatories didn’t agree to require company disclosure — just to recommend it.

Advocates say agreement is big — but more work to be done

Environmental advocates touted the agreement — and particularly the 30 percent conservation goal — as a big deal. But many said there is more work to be done.

“It’s not the agreement that we hoped for, but it still gives me hope,” said Sanerib, arguing the treaty would be stronger if it had an agreement to stop extinction.

“There has to be a recognition that people are causing the extinction of species and one of the crucial things we need to do at this moment in time is put all of our attention and resources to halting that,” she said.

Additionally, the agreement comes amid the reality that the world has failed to meet global biodiversity goals in the past.

World governments didn’t accomplish any of the 20 goals they committed to in Aichi, Japan, at the last biodiversity summit in 2010, the U.N. found.

The treaty’s provisions also aren’t legally binding — further raising questions over whether countries will be able to achieve the goals.

“While agreements are great, if we’re going to save life on Earth, now we have to roll up our sleeves and do it,” Sanerib said.

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