Celebrating a New Global Agreement for Nature

By Catherine Machalaba

March 3rd, World Wildlife Day, reminds us of the importance of wildlife as part of biodiversity, and what we can do to protect it.

Biodiversity–life on earth–is in peril. The scale of the problem is enormous: at present, over a million species face the threat of extinction. In the past 50 years, wild populations have declined by nearly 70%. With wide swaths of tropical forests under pressure, we risk losing species we don’t even yet know exist–some which could hold life-saving cures.

In December, country leaders met in Montreal to advance progress under the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, the main international environmental treaty that deals with species and their habitats. This 15th Conference of the Parties to the convention (“COP15”) was held over a two-week period in December in Montreal. Originally planned for 2020, it had been postponed for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The major outcome was adoption of an ambitious agreement between more than 190 countries: a Global Biodiversity Framework, which sets a roadmap to protect life on earth to 2030 and beyond.

The United Nations Convention on Biodiversity makes up one of three ‘Rio Conventions’ on environment and sustainable development. The other two are the Convention on Climate Change (which last met in November, at its COP27) and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. These three broad conventions cover interconnected challenges. A set of other global and regional treaties address more specific topics, such as wetlands or migratory species.

The major threats to biodiversity are occurring on a wide scale: land and sea use changes, direct exploitation of organisms (such as overharvest of wild plants and animals), climate change, pollution, and invasive species. Human activities are drastically accelerating changes to our planet, leading to the loss of whole species, declines in wild populations of animals, plants, and other biodiversity, and the degradation of ecosystems and the valuable services they provide. The complex web of ecosystems means we are all connected. Loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services make us less resilient and can put our health and economy directly at risk; the loss of pollinators, for example, directly affects crop production. 

I attended COP15 through my work at an organization at the intersection of conservation and health. Other Vermont scientists also participated, including a delegation from the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. There was a major snowstorm, with ice and freezing temperatures. I worried about colleagues from tropical nations not accustomed to the weather, yet everyone showed up without complaint. Negotiations started early and ran late, limited only by the hours the interpreters are allowed to work (until 4am; negotiations are done in the six official United Nations languages). It was apparent everyone felt the gravity of the event and what was at stake.

The Global Biodiversity Framework was adopted in the middle of night on the last day of the conference. It has four goals and 23 targets, spanning the protection of vital ecosystems, ensuring the sustainable use of species, reducing pollution and food waste, strengthening national capacity, and encouraging and enabling sustainable production and other practices by businesses and financial institutions, among other aspects including national capacity building, financing, knowledge exchange, and inclusivity for equitable implementation. A key component is ‘30×30’: committing to conserving 30% of the world’s lands, freshwater ecosystems, and oceans by 2030.

In its introductory text, the Global Biodiversity Framework highlights the need for integrated approaches such as “One Health”, which recognizes the connections between the health of humans, animals, and the environment and the need for multi-sectoral coordination to understand these links and find solutions that minimize trade-offs and maximize co-benefits. The agreement on the Framework also signals solidarity in a new way of thinking about what is possible for biodiversity–moving from stopping biodiversity loss to actively reversing the biodiversity crisis in a holistic, “nature-positive” way. Its design and supporting infrastructure also appear to have addressed some of the practical challenges that have affected implementation of biodiversity commitments in the past: inadequate financing for action on the ground, and poor metrics to evaluate progress. (Of the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets that spanned 2010-2020, none were fully achieved.)

The United States is the only nation that is not a party to the Convention. While the Clinton administration signed it in 1993, Congress has never ratified it. However, our country still contributes to the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystems in important ways, at home through effective management of natural resources and through international cooperation and financing for projects and training abroad. Vermont, for example, has fundamentally changed its landscape, moving from 70% agricultural land around a century ago to over 70% forested land today. In addition to providing vital habitat for wild plants and animals, forests generate important ecosystem services, including carbon storage, protection of water resources, pest and disease regulation, and more. Decisions on land and sea use require balancing different priorities and needs–but biodiversity conservation, as well as climate action, must be part of the equation. Farmers are playing a major part in biodiversity solutions in our state, for example, by protecting or restoring buffer zones along watersheds.

Equity considerations played a prominent role in COP15 discussions as well. Richer countries must not expect resource-limited countries to shoulder the responsibility alone; resources are needed to give everyone a fighting chance to conserve biodiversity while also looking after the needs of their human populations. Innovative financing such as payment for maintaining ecosystem services and elimination of harmful subsidies can help to shift away from unsustainable practices that are lucrative for industries or individuals in the short term but problematic for our planet in the long term.  

The Global Biodiversity Framework has broad global commitments but leaves room for local planning and solutions–reflecting differences in which threats are most relevant, how each country uses its resources, and which strategies will gain the buy-in needed for success. For example, Indigenous Peoples make up only 5% of the world’s population but are stewards for 80% of biodiversity on the planet. They also hold important traditional knowledge that can help us better understand our natural world and protect ecosystems. Yet they face critical issues related to land rights. Ensuring that they have a voice in decisions about their home will be essential to safeguarding natural resources for generations to come.

This new agreement for nature is ambitious, and we should celebrate its resounding commitment to biodiversity. Sweeping changes will be needed to have any chance of meeting its targets. For biodiversity, our collective impact is important; we can vote for officials who prioritize planet over profits; support conservation initiatives with time or money, whether at the community or international scale; and do our part to protect the invaluable habitats and wildlife found in our backyard.

Catherine Machalaba is a member of Sustainable Woodstock. She has a PhD in environmental and planetary health sciences.

COP15 Youth Pavilion. Photo: Catherine Machalaba

What You Can Do:

  • Visit the CITES website (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) to learn more about World Wildlife Day, including related events and information: https://wildlifeday.org/en
  • Support regional organizations that research, educate and inform us about wildlife and how we can all get involved to better understand and protect our wild neighbors and their habitats, such as the Vermont Center for Ecostudies (https://vtecostudies.org/), Vermont Institute of Natural Science (https://vinsweb.org/) and Montshire Museum of Science (https://www.montshire.org/).
  • Take actions to provide healthy wildlife habitats: Plant a mix of native flowers and embrace wildflowers and weeds in your lawn to encourage a diversity of pollinators, avoid the use of harmful pesticides, and leave fallen and decaying trees for ground-dwelling species.
  • Get involved in your local conservation commission to help shape decision-making about land planning and natural resource protection.
  • Join or start a salamander crossing guard to help amphibians safely reach their breeding sites during their spring migration. The Hartford Salamander Team has assembled key resources and a list of road crossings where amphibians are at greatest risk (https://hartfordsalamanderteam.org).
  • Read the 23 Global Biodiversity Framework targets to learn more and share ideas for conservation action with friends and family:https://www.cbd.int/article/cop15-final-text-kunming-montreal-gbf-221222


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