Biodiversity talks in Geneva need more talk

Delegates gathered at the International Conference Centre Geneva from 14 to 29 March to try to work out an agreement to protect biodiversity. (Credit: Geneva Solutions/ML)

Countries have decided to meet again in Nairobi in June for another round of discussions as they struggle to hammer out a deal to halt biodiversity’s decline.

Global negotiations for the protection of nature wrapped up on Tuesday evening with countries making little progress towards an agreement. Negotiators from more than 150 countries gathered in person in Geneva for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic for 15 days of meetings, sometimes up to 3am.

Much to the frustration of some civil society observers, the delegations involved struggled to reach a consensus on a number of issues and instead came up with new suggestions for the text.

“What we've seen is a lot of state parties putting in ideas, which results in the text getting ever longer and more contradictory, rather than negotiating and narrowing down options,” Gavin Edwards, director of the global nature positive initiative at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), told Geneva Solutions.

Some paragraphs had up to 30 brackets, meaning that governments had yet to agree on the language. Yves Lador, Geneva representative of the US-based organisation EarthJustice, noted that negotiators have not been able to meet in person because of Covid, which could explain the slow progress.  “Every country wants to have a say on every sentence, and so you have to go through this process. It's an unavoidable step,” he told Geneva Solutions.

“What we realised arriving here is that people need to talk, they need to get it out of their chest,” Basile van Havre, co-chair of the working group in charge of negotiations for biodiversity framework, told reporters in Geneva after the session ended.

Fellow co-chair Francis Ogwal said that parties sometimes took too long to realise that they could reach a compromise if they were more flexible but was glad that they could produce a text – even if it still filled with brackets.

Countries have agreed to organise another round of talks in Nairobi, Kenya at the end of June ahead of the biodiversity summit in Kunming, China, which Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, confirmed should run from the end of August to beginning of September.

Protecting a third of the Earth’s lands and seas

Among the goals that are still up for debate is the proposal to protect 30 per cent of the terrestrial and sea areas by 2030. Countries overall support the idea but differ on how this should be done.

“There's emerging consensus around 30x30, but inside that, what counts as 30 per cent? How strict should the conservation be? How are indigenous peoples and local communities rights respected? How is their free, prior, informed consent given to ensure that the protected and conserved areas benefit the communities that have been traditional stewards of these lands for hundreds and hundreds of years and longer?” said Edwards.

Indigenous leaders were also in Geneva to get their rights recognised in the agreement. “We have unbracketed language in there on the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities – that means that there's no disagreement. However, indigenous territories and free, prior and informed consent are, for example, still in brackets,” said Jennifer Tauli Corpuz, of the Kankanaey Igorot people from Northern Philippines and a representative of the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity.

Unlike the previous agreement known as the Aichi targets, this one is likely to take the first step to make references to human rights, including the right to a healthy and sustainable environment, Lador observed.

Tauli Corpuz told Geneva Solutions that the process had been “frustrating” since countries didn’t “seem to feel the urgency and the need to act quickly to solve the biodiversity crisis”.

Edwards regretted that there was a lack of “strong leadership” from any of the countries.

Biodiversity is declining at an incredibly fast pace with around one million animal and plant species threatened with extinction and along with them the balance of ecosystems on which humans heavily depend.

Talks in Nairobi will be the last chance for countries to hammer out a deal as clean as possible for it to be adopted at Kunming, China in September.

“There will be progress. Definitely. Those square brackets that are almost everywhere. That's what we're going to work on,” said Ogwal.