Countries to resume talks in Geneva for a new biodiversity agreement

Polar bears are classified as a species vulnerable to extinction as a result of shrinking ice in the Arctic, caused by climate change. (Photo: Erik Karits/Pixabay)

Negotiations to set new biodiversity goals will be held over the next two weeks in Geneva, after being delayed for two years. 

Starting Monday, around 196 delegations will gather for the first time in person since the beginning of the pandemic at the International Conference Centre Geneva to refine a roadmap to halt nature’s decline by 2030.

The current draft on the table, which was released in July 2021, sets out 21 targets including the conservation of at least 30 per cent of the world’s land and sea areas, reducing pesticides by at least two thirds, cutting at least $500 billion per year in subsidies that are harmful to biodiversity and ramping up financial flows to developing countries by $200 million.

The text has drawn criticism from environmentalists for not being ambitious enough. It states that the overall mission of the deal is “to put biodiversity on a path to recovery by 2030”, while organisations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) have called for the “halt and reverse biodiversity loss” by 2030.

“We need a future where it’s nature-positive, meaning more nature in 2030 than we have now,” said Lin Li, global director of policy and advocacy for the WWF, warning that wildlife populations had declined by two thirds since 1970 on average.

However, there’s a notable improvement from an earlier draft, Li told Geneva Solutions, in that the call to halt and reverse nature’s decline now appears in one of the sections of the text as a milestone.

Another point which has yet to be settled is conservation. While there is an overall agreement on setting aside one third of land and sea areas, there are some countries who would like to raise that figure and others that are still reluctant to agree to 30 per cent.

Li pointed out that countries are still evaluating how much they will be able to do within their borders, considering their resources and economic needs. To this end, some developing countries will be pushing for a strong financial mechanism to help them meet the targets.

Developed countries on the other hand might push for unsustainable production and consumption to be addressed, an issue that WWF has been advocating for. 

“We need a milestone to halve the footprint of production and consumption. If you protect 30 per cent but you continue trashing the other 70 per cent you will not have much left,” Li said.

Ministers to meet in China

Negotiators in Geneva will try to iron out as many unresolved issues as possible and will then send a draft for a final round of negotiations in Kunming, China, later this year, where ministers will gather and shake hands on a final deal.

The biodiversity agreement was supposed to be completed in 2020 to replace the previous targets agreed in Aichi in 2010 as they expired. But the meetings, which shifted to virtual mode, have dragged on for two years because of the pandemic. 

The summit was postponed as governments, especially developing ones, expressed concern about being at a technological disadvantage at online meetings.

With the foreseeable easing of sanitary restrictions, the meeting was rescheduled for April-May of this year, but there are unofficial reports that it will get delayed a fourth time to be held between June and September. An official date has yet to be announced.

The nearly two year delay means that governments will only have eight years to meet the goals instead of 10, a concern for environmentalists given that none of the Aichi targets were fully achieved by 2020.

Covid still looming large

To avoid the spread of the coronavirus, the conference in Geneva has imposed certain restrictions. Presence inside the venue at the same time will be limited to only six people per state party and two per observer organisation. Li warned that this would be a challenge for NGOs participating and hoped that it would not set a dangerous precedent for the upcoming conference in Kunming.

One likely scenario would be that China, which has not eased strict Covid measures, puts in place a Covid secure bubble like the one of the Winter Olympics, raising questions about whether activists and rights organisations will be able to demonstrate during the conference, let alone allowed inside the country given the travel restrictions.

This will be the first multilateral conference organised by China and the world will be attentively watching how they manage participation.