Milner on Biodiversity Blog #10: “The UN Biodiversity Treaty”

January 12, 2023

My grandchildren will be at least 77 by the end of the century. Will there be any true ‘Nature’ left in the world by then? The alarm raised by this question is not helped, I fear, by the celebrations over the UN Biodiversity Charter signed by 196 nations at Montreal last month. The predominant model of development involving the commodification of Nature and the transformation of natural habitats for profit rolls on with little chance of any change – indeed the Treaty has avoided any serious consideration of how we reached the current biodiversity crisis. Under the Treaty, forest destroyers, swamp drainers and bottom trawlers all have until 2030 to wreak their havoc. ‘Pledges’ involving dates in the far distant future have a tendency to mean very little; none of the UN biodiversity targets for the decade 2010 to 2020 were met. What hope is there that the new ‘pledges’ will be redeemed? As individuals, though, we can all help pressurise our politicians into doing what they’ve signed up to.

The root cause of the current destruction – the economic system that values growth and profits over everything else – is not recognised as relevant to countering the immense biodiversity losses. It may be an inconvenient truth but ultimately the ambitions of politicians and businessmen to control Nature for profit will have to be curtailed. But not yet, apparently. Even recognition of the major factors driving biodiversity loss has yet to be achieved. The world’s major rainforests are rapidly approaching potential tipping points; already 20% of the Amazon has been deforested. But even the most ambitious plans so far envisaged are limited to reducing the rate of destruction, not halting and reversing it. At what point will it be agreed that we have reached ‘peak deforestation’ and that restoration must take precedence? Or that the annual oceanic fish catch has reached a total limit? That no more swamplands are to be drained, mangrove coasts be destroyed, pristine environments violated? Going beyond reductions in the rates of destruction but damaging activities halted altogether?

The current UN framework seems to me unlikely ever to deliver such a change; it is the product of a gathering of politicians who are directly or indirectly beholden to precisely the economic forces that have caused the destruction and continue to promote it. As I have argued before (Blog7) I think pledges and targets are a waste of time without political will, which probably means public pressure. Nations, or rather, their political representatives sign up to international treaties without any serious consideration of the policy implications entailed, while an unquestioning media celebrates these events with headlines. The true test of major treaty agreements – take peace treaties for example – is that government policies change, sometimes almost overnight, once the treaty is signed and a timetable established. Troops are ordered to stop firing; forces withdraw to demarcated lines and so on. This doesn’t seem to happen with environmental treaties. Has anyone reported changes in government environmental policies anywhere as a direct result of The Kunming-Montreal Treaty being signed? Perhaps it is too soon to judge, but distressingly several signatory governments, far from changing policies in line with the new agreement, appear to have doubled down on damaging policies contrary to the new agreement, even going so far as to object to possible changes.

In the UK several recent Government announcements appear to be steps backward.  Target dates for clean water in rivers – UK rivers being universally below legal standards for pollution – have been ‘relaxed’ from a laughable 2032 to an absurd 2064. As it is, virtually the only monitoring of UK streams and rivers is now undertaken by volunteer citizens, funding for the Government’s own Environment Agency having been so reduced. It is widely accepted that virtually none of the UK’s so-called ‘protected areas’ of land or sea are sufficiently safeguarded, and many are reportedly in poor condition. The mass-deaths of sea creatures in recent months off the North-east coast of Britain has been linked to pollution released by dredging for the construction of a new freeport. One might expect that this would be a red flag for a government that had just signed the Kunming-Montreal Agreement. Instead, research has been obstructed on the spurious grounds that one of the researchers is involved with the Green Party. Frankly it would be surprising if any researchers trying to grapple with UK Government’s current environmental policies weren’t persuaded to join the greens in pure frustration.

If anything, the Malaysian Government has revealed a more worrying trend; they have objected to new rules set by the EU to ban palm-oil from deforested land as a brake on free trade. It is precisely the conflicting claims of biodiversity vs. free trade that makes the Kunming-Montreal Treaty so problematic. In the same manner HSBC’s shareholder-driven decision to stop further investments in fossil fuels has raised the ire of right-wing commentators and politicians in the US.  

As it stands I am unconvinced by the Kunming-Montreal Treaty because what is really needed appears to be politically unacceptable – a resetting of the agenda so that protecting and enhancing the environment becomes one of the driving forces of government. It is perhaps too much to expect the imminent cancellation of major dams, roadbuilding, mangrove destruction or tourism projects in pristine areas, but more serious consideration of the environmental impact of such schemes is long overdue. Perhaps it might help if governments appointed a biodiversity or sustainability chief with genuine powers to influence policy. Eco-Business reports that the Singapore Government has done just that, with Mr Tim Tuang Liang already in place as Chief Sustainability Officer with a mandate to ‘drive the Green Plan in realising a sustainable, resource-efficient and climate-resilient Singapore’. Whether promoting and enhancing biodiversity is specifically part of his brief is not reported but that is what is needed: a reconsideration of the competing claims of business and free trade with the protection and enhancement of Nature…and a political environment in which such a change is possible.      

Edward Milner, London, UK

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