IUCN congress to set conservation roadmap amid Covid uncertainty

Zebras at the Nairobi National Park in Kenya, 10 August 2021. Discussions at the IUCN World Congress Congress will revolve around new biodiversity goals to be adopted in 2022. (Credit: Keystone/EPA/Daniel Irungu)

Governments, civil society organisations, scientists, and indigenous groups will be setting the roadmap to protect nature for the next four years at the world conservation congress.

Over 1,500 members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) will be meeting throughout next week to discuss the most pressing issues for the protection of nature. The World Conservation Congress, convened every four years, will kick off this Friday in Marseille, France, with events also taking place in virtual form.

Masking up. Organisers are expecting over 3000 people on site, who will be required to wear masks and comply with France's controversial sanitary pass rule. “This is my fourth congress as congress director, and by far, it has been the most complicated one, because of the situation that we have been confronted with, and the level of uncertainty,” congress director Enrique Lahmann told Geneva Solutions, noting that if the meeting could not take place for sanitary reasons, it would be cancelled altogether.

The event, which was due to take place last year, has already been postponed twice for Covid reasons. To avoid a backlog, most motions were voted on electronically in October, with 109 out of roughly 200 proposals getting through.

There are still 19 texts left to be discussed face to face at the members' assembly, which is IUCN's highest decision-making body. They “are probably the ones that will take a lot of debating”, Marc Magaud, manager of the Congress's forum, which will be held in parallel to the assembly, told Geneva Solutions.

What they’re debating.  Oceans, wildlife, sustainable business, technology and climate change are some of the key topics that will be addressed during the session.  Among the remaining proposals, one that is likely to cause some heated debate deals with synthetic biology, which essentially entails altering genes of living organisms to modify their characteristics or behaviour, or to create entirely new ones. 

New technologies are developing quickly across the world, but some of their applications remain quite controversial since they have the potential to disrupt nature. The proposed text asks that IUCN develop a policy to guide governments and organisations on how to approach the scientific field and avoid risks. However, reaching a consensus on this issue is unlikely, Lahmann said.

Other proposals include creating a climate change commission and developing a policy on natural capital. Members will also vote on calling for a moratorium on deep seabed mining. While the practice is still banned, the International Seabed Authority is currently drafting regulations for the extraction of deep-sea minerals in international waters.

Read also: The race to write the rulebook on deep seabed mining

The motions adopted by a simple majority in both groups – governments and non-government organisations – are non-binding. However, they carry “the moral weight of the joint decisions of governments and the different sectors of civil society”, Lahmann pointed out.

Aside from deranging the logistics of the meeting, Covid-19 will also permeate discussions.“There's a whole topic around post-Covid recovery, and how that recovery could be nature-based and what it entails,” Magaud said.

Nature and human health in the spotlight. The pandemic has served as a stark warning of the dangers of messing around with ecosystems. The loss of natural habitats, mainly driven by deforestation and climate change, as well as wildlife trafficking, increases the risk of diseases jumping from animals to humans, threatening to trigger future pandemics.

Currently, the IUCN doesn't have a specific programme on human health but members might be starting to see the need to develop one. There are no proposals regarding health and conservation yet but members have until the beginning of the congress to submit urgent motions that didn't meet last year's deadline. “We would not be surprised if there were motions around health that are new and urgent,” Magaud said.

Talks will also revolve around the new biodiversity targets, currently under negotiations and due to be adopted early next year at the biodiversity summit in Kunming, China. One of the flagship objectives that will likely be set is protecting 30 per cent of the Earth's land and water areas.

The world already failed to meet the previous biodiversity goals by the 2020 deadline, adding pressure on governments to come up with a better plan for the coming decade. “Our role as a union, which includes states, is to possibly nudge on and propose things that are technically feasible and raise the ambition, but in the end the result depends on what sovereign states decide to do,” Magaud observed.

“The forum also serves the purpose of making an analysis of why some targets were not reached. Were they not realistic? Was there not enough political will? Was there not adequate understanding?” Lahmann added.