More than 190 countries have adopted a sweeping agreement to protect nature at the United Nations’ biodiversity conference in Montreal.
The gavel went down in the early hours of Monday on an agreement which includes 23 targets aimed at halting the biodiversity crisis, including a pledge to protect 30% of land and oceans by 2030. Only 17% of land and 10% of oceans are currently considered protected. Campaigners have hailed it as a “major milestone” for conserving complex, fragile ecosystems on which everyone depends.
But some countries were unhappy, criticizing the agreement for not going far enough. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has said it cannot support the agreement and has complained that it was rushed through without following proper processes.
The road to this deal has been long and littered with delays. It was originally supposed to take place in Kunming, China, but difficulties posed by the country’s zero-Covid policies made that impossible. The conference was moved to Canada under joint Canadian and Chinese leadership. Hopes were high for the conference, with some calling for it to be a “Paris moment for biodiversity” – referring to the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
Nature is declining at alarming rates. In 2019, a landmark report from the UN’s expert nature panel found that up to 1 million land and marine species face extinction because of human actions. Some scientists say the world is entering the sixth mass extinction, driven by human actions including deforestation, burning fossil fuels and polluting rivers and oceans.
After two weeks of negotiations — with tensions over how to finance global conservation proving to be a particular sticking point — the Kunming-Montreal global biodiversity framework was finally adopted at around 3:30 a.m. local time on Monday.
As well as the pledge to protect nearly one third of land, freshwater and seas by 2030, the framework also includes an agreement to reform $500 billion of subsidies that are harmful to nature, and to increase biodiversity financing to developing countries.
“The agreement represents a major milestone for the conservation of our natural world, and biodiversity has never been so high on the political and business agenda,” said Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International.
Brian O’Donnell, director of the Campaign for Nature said: “The ’30x30’ target marks the largest land and ocean conservation commitment in history. It will have major positive impacts for wildlife, for addressing climate change, and for securing the services that nature provides to people, including clean water and pollination for crop.”
The framework also includes language to protect Indigenous people, who have an outsized role protecting the world’s biodiversity but have often been overlooked and, in some cases, even forced from the lands in the name of conservation. It “has the potential to usher in a new paradigm for conservation, one in which indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ rights are upheld and where they are recognized for the leadership they have provided,” said O’Donnell.
While many have welcomed the agreement, there are warnings that the proof of success will be in how the agreement is enacted.
“It can be undermined by slow implementation and failure to mobilize the promised resources,” said Lambertini.
The agreement has also been criticized for lacking quantifiable pledges around reducing production and consumption, which are key drivers of biodiversity loss.
The agreement is not legally binding. Countries have agreed to a monitoring framework to evaluate progress but “there are no binding commitments making the whole mechanism look weak,” Imma Oliveras Menor, senior researcher at Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford told told the Science Media Centre in London.
The history of biodiversity targets is checkered. The world failed to meet in full a single one of the 20 Aichi biodiversity targets set more than a decade ago in Japan. Some developing countries have expressed disappointment over the funding levels promised in the final deal.
Many still remain cautiously optimistic.
“The Kunming-Montreal Agreement adopted today gives nature a fighting chance at recovery in a world currently divided by geopolitics and inequality,” said Lin Li, senior director of global policy and advocacy at WWF International.
The next biodiversity summit will take place in 2024 and is expected to see countries strengthen financial commitments towards halting biodiversity loss.