Some conservation scientists are warning that a global deal to protect the environment is under threat after negotiations stalled during international talks in Nairobi last week. They are calling on global leaders to rescue the talks — and biodiversity — from the brink. Others are more hopeful that, although progress has been slow, a deal will be struck by the end of the year.
Negotiators from around 200 countries that have signed up to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) met in Nairobi from 21 to 26 June to thrash out key details of the deal, known as the post-2020 global biodiversity framework. But the talks made such little progress that many scientists are worried that nations will be unable to finalize the deal at the UN biodiversity summit in Montreal, Canada, in December. A key sticking point is how much funding rich nations will provide to low-income nations. Failure to agree on the framework at this summit — the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP15) — will be devastating for the natural world, they say.
“This is a huge missed opportunity and puts the framework in jeopardy,” says Brian O’Donnell, director of the Campaign for Nature in Washington DC, a partnership of private charities and conservation organizations advocating a deal to safeguard biodiversity.
The framework consists of 4 broad goals, including reining in species extinction, and 21 targets — most of them quantitative — such as protecting at least 30% of the world’s land and seas. Without a deal, estimates say, one million plant and animal species could go extinct in the next few decades because of climate change, disease and human actions, among other triggers.
Researchers were relieved when the CBD announced earlier this month that COP15 would take place in Montreal instead of Kunming, China, where lockdowns to quash SARS-CoV-2 infections could have prevented the meeting. The COVID-19 pandemic has already delayed in-person CBD meetings for two years, and threatened to derail the summit.
Some conservation groups said that a few nations bore most of the responsibility for impeding progress. Marco Lambertini, head of conservation organization WWF International, based in Gland, Switzerland, referred in a statement to “a small number of countries, Brazil first and foremost, that are actively working to undermine the talks”.
Others who were at the conference spoke on the condition of anonymity because parts of the negotiations are confidential. They say that Brazil asked for changes to the text simply to slow down the process, and argued against essential elements.
Nature contacted representatives of Brazil for a response but did not receive a reply by the time of publication.
Francis Ogwal, co-chair of the framework negotiations working group, acknowledged that the talks had not advanced as much as had been hoped. But he is buoyed by some headway gained on targets to improve access to nature in urban areas and to increase scientific and technological capacity in lower-income nations. Ogwal is hopeful that countries will iron out further differences at an extra meeting scheduled for just days before COP15.
“There are still some big disagreements. We are not yet at the level we expected. But come December, we shall have a framework in good shape,” Ogwal told reporters at a press briefing on 26 June.
Lack of leadership
But scientists and conservation groups say political leadership is urgently needed to save the deal. In an open letter to UN secretary-general António Guterres and heads of state of CBD member nations, a group of eight organizations that support conservation and Indigenous people’s rights said that a lack of management is stalling the negotiations.
“There is a notable absence of the high level political engagement, will and leadership to drive through compromise and to guide and inspire the commitments that are required,” the letter says.
Some countries have restated that they back the biodiversity talks. On 26 June, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson assured Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of his support for the December summit in Montreal. The two were speaking before the meeting of the G7 group of industrialized nations in Krün, Germany.
In addition, some “hero” countries including Costa Rica and Columbia worked particularly hard in Nairobi to drive agreement, says O’Donnell.
Speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to offend the CBD, others criticized the structure and organization of the Nairobi meeting, which they say didn’t help negations to move forwards. “The session facilitators were not able to shepherd negotiations towards consensus,” they say. Nature contacted the CBD for a response but did not hear back in time for publication.
But despite the setbacks, some scientists are still hopeful that countries can strike a deal. “The negotiations are typically well-spirited. There is even a sense of collaboration arising,” says Juha Siikamäki, chief economist at the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Gland, who attended the Nairobi meeting.
Elizabeth Mrema, executive secretary of the CBD, says countries will have to compromise. “Biodiversity is too important to fail,” she says.