The expectations around the fifteenth and latest “Conference of the Parties” (“COP”) to the Convention of Biological Diversity (“CBD”), which includes almost every nation in the world, have been steadily building since representatives last came together (virtually) in Kunming, China in 2021.
The CBD has as its general focuses (i) the conservation of biodiversity and (ii) the promotion of the sustainable use (and equitable division) of the benefits arising from nature. Successive CBD COPs have sought to reflect our growing understanding for and appreciation of the importance of biodiversity and its role in underpinning much of our economic activity. Given its central role in the global economy, we have seen a growing consensus that coordinated action is required to prevent further decline and restore those ecosystems which have been damaged. In response, the focus at COP15 is on delivering practical solutions, rather than warm words and further inactivity.
Background to COP15
Previous meetings have sought to build upon the principles set out in the original convention text. Specifically, successive COPs have, with mixed results, sought to advance the debate and seek agreement on which targets parties to the convention should look to adopt to ensure greater recognition of, and protections for, biodiversity.
The problem statement and subsequent call for action were clearly articulated in the “Kunming Declaration”:
While the question of whether we ‘should’ value nature is now largely settled (see Nature – The next ESG frontier for corporates? - Slaughter and May Insights), the challenges facing negotiators at COP this time around are altogether more ‘earthly’ and less ‘ethereal’.
The fundamental issues at stake concern quantum. Specifically:
how should we identify and quantify value in biodiversity?
how can the value of ecosystem services be realised to promote capital flows towards projects which protect or enhance nature and biodiversity?
how can any agreed solutions to i) and ii) be designed to enable their incorporation into existing corporate accounting practices?
The key deliverable for COP 15 is the post-2020 Global Baseline Framework (“GBF”). It is hoped that the GBF can provide the springboard upon which nascent interoperable methodologies and metrics can be built. Should COP15 end with an agreement between parties, the GBF would become the third ‘strategic plan’ under the CBG and inform the agendas of future COPs for the coming decade.
Despite considerable preliminary work and good progress at COP15 itself, consensus remains a long way off. It is almost inevitable that further compromises will be required. Those negotiating on behalf of the parties will need to strike a balance to deliver a framework which adequately reflects the negative environmental impacts of some economic activities, while ensuring that the conservation of biodiversity does not come at such a high cost that it is doomed to fail from the start. In other words, the unenviable task for negotiators, is to agree targets which are as ambitious as they are pragmatic.
Looking ahead, perhaps the most appropriate ‘yardstick’ to measure the success (or otherwise) of COP15 is the one set by the parties to CBD themselves. The final output should be assessed against the criteria of whether it furthers the objective of “living in harmony with nature”. Specifically, whether the targets (which will underpin the GBF) advance the likelihood that by 2050, “biodiversity [will be] valued, conserved, restored and wisely used in maintaining ecosystem services, sustaining a healthy planet and delivering benefits essential for all people”.
Once-optimistic commentators have become increasingly sceptical about the prospects of a successful outcome to COP15 as negotiations ramp up. Concerns are mounting over whether the world can expect targets underpinned by “text with teeth”. One draft GBF target which has attracted particular attention is Target 15 - which would require parties to the CBD to report on biodiversity dependencies and adverse impacts.
Businesses would, in turn, be expected to mitigate any adverse impacts and risks arising from dependencies on biodiversity. This would likely be a significant development and would represent a shift from previous strategic plans as it would enfranchise corporate actors as partners with a share in the responsibility for the success of the GBF alongside parties to the CBD.
How this would be achieved jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction is left to the parties to the CBD. Should the GBF come to fruition, precedent would suggest that parties will be required to revise or redraft their National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plans (“NBSAPs”) to reflect the updated targets. This ‘devolved approach’ allows for the identification of country-specific challenges and the development of bespoke mitigation strategies which whilst informed by local knowledge are aligned with other NBSAPs to achieve the strategic objectives of the GBF.
So far so clear. However, those with memories long enough will remember the last strategic plan adopted by parties to CBG in 2010 (the “Aichi Targets”). Negotiators will no doubt wish to avoid the risk of history repeating itself and will be at pains to avoid the GBF sharing the same fate of the much maligned and ineffective Aichi Targets.