“The loss of biodiversity and the degradation of the ecosystem pose a major risk to human survival and development. Covid-19 reminds us of the interdependence between man and Nature.” So said China’s President Xi Jinping, opening the UN Summit on Biodiversity in September. “It falls to all of us to act together and urgently to advance protection and development in parallel,” Xi added, “so that we can turn Earth into a beautiful homeland for all creatures to live in harmony.”
The 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is due to take place in China’s Kunming next year. Preparatory meetings have been ongoing on how to revise the CBD – the international framework for nature conservation and restoration – and the targets therein.
The negotiations have not had the same media or political profile as the climate change equivalents, but are at least as important.
The Covid-19 crisis has not only had a negative impact on the progress of the talks, but also illuminates important broader challenges – particularly the inseparable character of our nature, climate and health crises, as well as our economic, social, civil and political rights. Zoonotic disease is closely linked to wildlife trade and habitat destruction, of course, but the pandemic also indicates how global problems like species extinction require global, holistic solutions – and how international cooperation, action and ambition can be stymied by competition, suspicion and protectionism.
The stakes could not be higher. Last year, a landmark report by scientists from IPBES (the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) stated that one million species are facing extinction. This year, the CBD’s Global Biodiversity Outlook, which tracks the progress of the past 10 years of the Aichi targets, found that only six of the 20 targets had been partially met. Species keep moving towards extinction; the capacity of ecosystems to “provide the essential services on which societies depend” continues to decline; and the genetic diversity of plants and animals further erodes.
These concerns are reflected in Xi Jinping’s “green is gold” maxim. He has made properly valuing ecosystem services an important component of his signature Ecological Civilisation concept, and the theme of the COP15 is “Ecological Civilization: Building a Shared Future for All Life on Earth” China’s technological development, its investment in innovation and its financial capacity can make clear contributions to prioritising biodiversity. But hosting the CBD conference requires leadership beyond the rhetorical.
Arresting Biodiversity Loss
With climate change governance, China has demonstrated a degree of leadership, not only in its investment in the renewable energy technologies needed for the low-carbon transition, but also in regard to global targets: most notably, in announcing at the UN a target to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. So far, China has not offered such substantive commitments on the biodiversity process.
Nor is it clear from Xi’s speech at the UN, or from any other official pronouncement, quite what, for China, will constitute a successful agreement in Kunming, beyond the evident and understandable commitment to a successful conference and associated soft-power boost.
The new Kunming targets will need to relate to all five driving forces identified by the CBD as underpinning the decline in biodiversity: changes in land and sea use; the direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution; and invasive species. Key areas for negotiation include: targets on protected areas; financing; and the role of indirect drivers.
It is widely recognised that the 15% of land and 10% of territorial waters currently covered by national parks and other protected areas needs to be expanded. The latest draft of the CBD text proposes that at least 60% of important sites be protected by 2030, covering at least 30% of the world’s land and sea areas. Relevant here is China’s interest in the concept of ecological redlines – the comprehensive land use planning framework laid out by the Ministry of Natural Resources, which might cover over one quarter of the country. Yet such spatial planning approaches need balancing with social justice considerations, particularly given fears such proposals could dispossess poor and indigenous communities – often sustainable stewards of ecologies and genetic resources – of their land.
The talks will also need to see a major boost in finance for biodiversity, and Global South countries are seeking financial support from those in the North.
China may have a particular interest in finding synergies, both practical and diplomatic, with the UNFCC Paris Agreement on climate change. The CBD draft text suggests that nature-based solutions such as sequestering carbon in soils, trees and oceans should provide around 30% of the effort needed to achieve the Paris goals. China is co-chair of the Nature-Based Solutions (NBS) track under the UNFCCC, and co-author, with New Zealand, of the Nature-Based Solutions for Climate manifesto.
The Scuppered ‘Super Year’
But Covid-19 has reminded us of far more than interdependence. CBD COP15 was originally planned as one meeting of an aligned series in 2020, which included the UNFCC COP26 in the UK, forming a “super year for the environment”. The year was to be characterised by synergies across and between negotiations around climate, nature and health, with renewed international cooperation unlocking greater global ambition towards sustainability.
Delays, postponements and cancellations to the schedule for international environmental negotiations and government meetings have combined with profoundly negative impacts on supply and demand in the global economy. This has often seen environmental concerns downgraded on political agendas, or calls for environmental regulation to be reduced or abandoned. Rising geopolitical tensions, particularly between the United States and China, have impacted further the prospects of international cooperation.
The disrupted “super year” coincides with a historic low-point for multilateralism. Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, WHO and other multilateral institutions have been used as battlegrounds in an increasingly aggressive blame-game.
The current US administration takes a very critical approach to multilateralism in general, and to cooperation with China in particular. China in turn accuses the United States of a “Cold War mentality” and “ideological bias”. Global mistrust and tension have resulted in a “confused, fragmented and ineffectual” multilateral response to the Covid-19 crisis.
Washington’s unilateralism and withdrawal from key multilateral institutions has damaged American credibility as a reliable partner in global governance, and the EU now seems to be placing hopes in China to fill the void left by the Trump administration.
Same Bed, Different Dreams
China positions itself as a “champion of multilateralism”, and pushes the message that, unlike the United States, it is a reliable partner. China and Europe have both made recent renewed commitments to international cooperation on global issues such as public health, climate change, and biodiversity. However, Brussels and Beijing have fundamentally different notions of multilateralism.
While the EU is inherently multilateral and promotes a system that is rules and rights-based, China’s multilateralism is state-centric and promotes increased Chinese representation and influence in global governance under the banner of “democracy at the UN”. Where the EU emphasises universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, China stresses sovereignty and non-interference.
In practice, China takes an instrumental approach to multilateralism, sometimes described as “multilateral bilateralism”. Another of Xi Jinping’s key slogans, the “community with shared future for mankind” aims to reshape global governance and the international institutional order around an alternative Chinese discourse on international law and human rights.
Locating Common Ground
There could be a way out of the current conundrum. Pandemic recovery plans – whether stimulus packages, bailouts, strategic funding or targeted policy reforms – present an opportunity for dynamic coordination, international cooperation and holistic thinking around sustainability, if health, nature and climate can be prioritised.
But to really act together will require something more than invocations of cooperation and harmony. Global leadership requires legitimacy and trust. Multilateralism is possible when countries share common goals and work jointly to achieve them in accordance with certain agreed principles. It is not an end in itself but a means to maximise the chances of making effective policy to protect the global commons and promote public goods.
The question is if there is enough common ground and agreed principles to support joint action on biodiversity – and this theme underpins our workshop and linked series of articles on our website.
The articles are written in collaboration with China Dialogue.