Toward a Global Biodiversity Accord
The 2015 Paris climate agreement was made possible when countries realized it was in their own interest to commit to reducing their carbon dioxide emissions. But a similar understanding of the need for stronger conservation policies has yet to take hold, putting the world's ecosystems increasingly at risk.
SAN JOSE – Governments from around the world are already preparing for the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Kunming, China. This is no ordinary gathering: its goal will be to conclude a new policy framework on biodiversity that works for all member states.
Although the CBD adopted the Aichi Biodiversity Targets in 2010, the international community has been decidedly ineffective in achieving them. Some countries that host vast extensions of rainforests spend up to 100 times more on subsidies that cause deforestation than on aid to prevent it, and the global picture may be even worse in other latitudes.
The next decade will show that we can no longer treat the destruction of nature as “business as usual.” We are quickly approaching environmental and climatic tipping points that could trigger catastrophic feedback loops, making climate change impossible to reverse. A major report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services earlier this year shows that our current activities could lead to the extinction of up to one million species in the next few decades.
Given that such losses to biodiversity will jeopardize the future of humankind itself, the time for effective public and private leadership is now – or never. In developing a framework to align international policies and industrial practices, we should focus on ten key priorities that belong in any new CBD framework.
First, we must end the global trade in wildlife and endangered species, by making it illegal in both supplier and destination countries. As matters stand, the international community is doing nothing about this issue. Second, we need a global agreement on how to regulate high-seas industrial fishing, given that industry subsidies are currently contributing to unsustainable overfishing.
Third, we must put an immediate stop to industrial-scale logging and burning of primary forests, be they tropical, boreal, or temperate. Allowing such activities makes no sense. Industrial logging benefits neither governments nor indigenous communities, which should be permitted to farm and log their own lands sustainably.
Subscribe today and get unlimited access to OnPoint, the Big Picture, the PS archive of more than 14,000 commentaries, and our annual magazine, for less than $2 a week.
A fourth, related priority is to ban deforestation across the board. In many countries, deforestation can be conducted legally simply by submitting a request for a change in land use on a given plot. Reaching a world of zero-deforestation commodities will require the support of private companies and consumers who are willing to make a change.
Fifth, we need all governments to adopt a carbon tax, without which we will be effectively promoting a market failure. Currently, we not only subsidize fossil fuels; we also fail to provide ample compensation for the carbon sequestration provided by tropical forests, agroforestry systems, mangroves, and wetlands. While carbon prices in voluntary markets averaged $3 per ton of CO2 equivalent in 2016, the global price should be in the order of $40 per ton if we are to meet the reduction targets under the 2015 Paris climate accord.
Implementing a carbon tax might be politically complicated, but it makes perfect economic sense. Costa Rica introduced a carbon tax in 1997 that now generates $32 million per year. Those funds are then used to provide environmental services to indigenous communities, farmers, and others who plant trees with the intention of increasing biomass in the productive landscape.
Sixth, we should adopt a new financial target for the international community’s biodiversity efforts. We are currently investing a mere 0.08% of global GDP in natural conservation. If we can commit to mobilizing 1% of global GDP under the new framework, we will have the resources to meet all the other targets we set. Although conservation programs are a domestic matter for national governments, the target should be framed as a multilateral benchmark, given that biodiversity loss is a shared problem.
Seventh, we must stop – and reverse, if possible – PADDD (protected area downgrading, downsizing, degazettement) events. In the United States and elsewhere, the movement to deregulate protected lands, or to strip them of their protected status entirely, is well-funded and powerful. Obviously, such efforts pose a direct threat to all conservation efforts.
Eighth, we should aim to phase out single-use plastics before the end of the next decade, as the accumulation of non-biodegradable plastics is impeding many other conservation efforts. Ninth, in a similar vein, we need to start thinking about how we can tax pollution of all kinds. In too many cases, polluting is simply free. In the absence of any costs, the problem will only worsen.
Finally, governments urgently need to adopt green national accounting systems. Effective policymaking requires the best available data. Insofar as the current economic system fails to account for biodiversity loss, water pollution, and greenhouse-gas emissions, it is part of the problem, not the solution.
In pursuing a new global framework for biodiversity, we should heed the lesson of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations. The Paris agreement was made possible when countries realized it was in their own interest to commit to reducing their emissions. That understanding still has not taken hold among the CBD parties. We have between now and the gathering in Kunming to ensure that it does.