Blog #8 Milner on Biodiversity: Beyond Forest Loss (Part 2)

The UN Biodiversity Conference at Montreal in December will be concentrating on the 30:30 proposal – every country and all the seas to have 30% in ‘protected areas’ by 2030 – with as many governments as possible to ‘pledge’ support. As I indicated in a previous blog, I am unconvinced that ‘pledges’ agreed at these conferences advance actual performance at all. As it stands, many so-called ‘protected areas’ all over the world are nothing of the sort with illegal logging, wildlife poaching, destructive bottom-trawling, mining and tourism projects rife – sometimes with ‘carbon offsets’ supposedly helping compensate for the damage. What is needed is for protection to be real, and the best practice from particular sites or regions around the world followed. 

As an alternative to the Montreal Conference, I’d like to suggest a ‘Montreal Fringe’. This would be a more informal gathering of indigenous community representatives, independent campaign groups like Greenpeace, Blue Marine Foundation, Amazon Watch, etc., together with reputable research institutes, and political representation restricted to countries with exemplary environmental credentials. It might then be possible to draw up some principles, ecological, political and financial, to conserve biodiversity on the ground rather than in the headlines. Taking forests as an example, perhaps a BFLA ‘Beyond Forest Loss Alliance’ could be formed (taking its cue from BOGA – Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, see my last blog) with the aim of securing serious funding and commitment from the high-emitting countries to arrest forest loss, restore and protect all the global forests: terrestrial (rainforests), intertidal (mangrove) and marine (kelp). Proposals along these lines (but involving National Governments) were, after all, proposed years ago at both the Kyoto and Paris Conferences, but nothing came of it due to inadequate political will. 

Meanwhile, forest destruction has accelerated, especially in countries like Brazil where government policies have been primarily exploitative, and along coasts and offshore in many parts of the world. One major problem that conserving biodiversity shares with the problem of global heating is a mechanism for the transfer of resources to enable the people and governments of poor countries to undertake the necessary actions to conserve and enhance their biodiversity – even basic protections against poaching and wildlife smuggling. Funds are regularly ‘pledged’ at international conferences such as Paris, Kyoto and recently COP26, but actual payments made are far short of what is required – even sums actually pledged are often overlooked. Once again there are some promising initiatives and funders like the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund have made positive moves; Mongabay reports billions contributed by the Fund for rainforest conservation over the past decade. A bilateral agreement between Indonesia and the Norwegian Government was recently signed to restrict forest loss for new oil palm plantations. Another major problem is due to the workings of the international financial system. Many countries of the Global South are pressurised to destroy their natural environment to produce crops for export to service debts, and debt relief seems difficult to arrange – again through the lack of political will. 

Meanwhile, as Cambridge University economists have recently pointed out* many nations are suffering credit downgrades due to ‘partial ecosystems collapse’ reducing economic performance ‘with grim consequences for ordinary people’ – and the whole environment. Some years ago, ‘debt for nature’ swaps were engineered for precisely this purpose – providing local funds for conservation in countries of the Global South. If politicians and the financial community are interested in making a contribution to this global problem here is an opportunity – funding conservation and forest wellbeing rather than supporting fresh deforestation (even supposedly ‘offset’) for yet more oil palm plantations, soya fields and cattle ranches. The attack on primary forests isn’t limited to the tropics: as a BBC expose recently revealed old growth forests in British Columbia are being cut down even now to produce wood pellets for supposedly ‘green’ energy generation in English power stations – and earning government subsidies for doing so! A different approach might be a (small) basic levy on all fossil fuels at the wellhead; or a variety of the ‘Tobin tax’ – a small levy on all financial transactions above a certain figure – say £1M, across the globe. 

If next month’s Montreal conference is to make any sense at all, it is the financing of global biodiversity conservation that must be the priority. Some radical ideas along these lines might be the way to make progress, but ultimately it all depends on the political will of the powerful players, and pressure from those already taking it seriously. Responsible leadership has never been more urgently needed. 

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