Delegates from nearly every country in the world are meeting in Montreal for the UN Biodiversity Conference known as COP15. Their goal is to come up with a new global action plan to preserve nature and global biodiversity. Top among those goals is agreeing to a new global target to protect for conservation 30% of land and 30% and marine habitats by 2030.
To discuss the importance of this UN Biodiversity Conference, Ongoing at time of recording, we are joined by John Reid, co-author of Ever Green: Saving Big Forests to Save the Planet (co-authored with the late Thomas Lovejoy), and the senior economist and partnership lead at the non-profit Nia Tero
We discuss the recent history of global efforts to protect biodiversity and its link to climate change, as well as the key issues at play at COP 15 in Montreal.
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Transcript lightly edited for clarity
Why is Biodiversity Important?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:00:00] Can you explain to listeners why is biodiversity an important topic for international cooperation at a UN forum like this (COP15)?
John Reid [00:02:00] Biodiversity, like our global climate, is an international issue because the organisms that make up that biodiversity don’t recognize national boundaries. In 1992 there was the creation of this convention, a UN treaty between countries who all pledged to work together to preserve the Earth’s biodiversity. The climate convention was born at the same time with a similar spirit of looking at something that is a global problem that individual countries can’t solve on their own as they could, for example, the problem of local pollution of lakes or rivers that are fully within one’s own national boundaries.
What is the state of the world’s biodiversity today?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:03:35] So looking at a topic as vast as biodiversity, how do you perceive the stakes in a conference like this? What are the stakes in terms of the health of the planet?
John Reid [00:03:52] Years ago, he earth’s biodiversity was seen as an issue separate from the fate of our climate and that has changed quite a bit, so that today, although we still have these two separate U.N. processes for climate and biodiversity, it’s been increasingly recognized that the two are just two aspects of the same problem, which is the degradation of our planetary natural environment. So, the more we take fossil fuels out of the ground and put them up in the atmosphere, the warmer our climate gets, which has direct impacts on ecosystems all over the world. That doesn’t just make the planet hotter, it inhibits the ability of particular species to thrive in their habitat. I’ll give one example: in the Great Barrier Reef, in Australia, a problem has been recognized that is directly due to this warming, which is that sea turtles there are all being born female. That’s because the sex of the baby reptiles is driven by the temperature of the nest while they’re incubating. So, you have these direct impacts on particular species and at the same time the degradation of the natural environments, particularly forests and particularly large and intact forests, causing those ecosystems to emit carbon to the atmosphere, accelerating the climate crisis. So, you have feedback loops between climate and biodiversity, such that the stakes of the biodiversity agreements that countries can forge and pursue together are being seen as much greater today, going way beyond the question of the preservation of a particular charismatic species, like the polar bears or the blue whales.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:00] Sea turtles.
John Reid [00:06:00] Sea turtles! And it’s funny because it’s something that lots of people have known forever, which is that all the elements of the world in which we live are connected to each other — it’s a web. John Muir knew that; Aldo Leopold knew that; Indigenous peoples who live close to these environments have known it forever and continue to tell us that message. It’s remarkable how long it takes for it to penetrate and get into the public consciousness.
What is COP15?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:34] Well, that was going to be my next question. I mean, scientifically, we’ve known the link between climate and biodiversity for a long time, yet here we are 30 years after the Convention on Biodiversity, having this major COP15, which seems to be the most high-profile conference on biodiversity in the history of the planet. Why has the political momentum lagged so far behind the scientific consensus?
John Reid [00:07:07] Well, I think one impediment to bringing these two conversations together actually was created at the moment that the two conventions were born, and that was that forests were explicitly excluded from the climate treaty, and they were to be treated as part of the natural environments and habitats of biodiversity that were dealt with in the biodiversity treaty. Over the first ten years or so of the climate treaty, there was a great deal of resistance and a lot of that was coming from within the environmental movement to include forests in the climate convention. The reason for that is that many environmental organizations saw the inclusion of forests as a climate solution, as a way that fossil fuel emitters could do some carbon accounting, and on paper, offset their carbon emissions with things that were being done in the forests, but in ways that really wouldn’t reduce the overall amount of greenhouse gas emissions — so that was part of the problem. At different climate COPs, forests have become a bigger and bigger part of the conversation to the point today that they’re really being embraced within the climate policy arena. I think the other thing is that we’ve had 30 years of experience of climate change now that we didn’t have in 1992 and have been seeing these things happen. We’ve been seeing unexpected impacts on various different species of plants and animals and have been seeing things, for example, like how the emissions of methane from peatlands could completely blow our climate goals out of the water and thus, we see the necessity of keeping these ecosystems intact, like the boreal forests and the peatlands of central Congo and in Indonesia, in order to secure those potential greenhouse gas emissions underground. I think that experience of the last 30 years of the links between our ecosystems and our atmosphere have become more evident — and of course the scientific literature is important — but those realizations have gotten into the public square as well.
What is the 30×30 climate target?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:48] So that’s, I think, a very helpful background for understanding why delegates are in Montreal. I’m curious to learn from you what some of the key goals and outcomes are from COP15. Specifically, can I have you explain the 30×30 target and why that is so potentially significant to the successful outcome of this meeting in Montreal?
John Reid [00:10:19] It’s been recognized for a long time that for species of wildlife and species of plant life to thrive, they need space. They need the actual physical territories where they naturally occur to be maintained intact, to be maintained with minimal human-caused disturbance. So, one way to do that is to create national parks and other kinds of reserves to officially establish that those areas are going to be kept very close to their natural state for all that biodiversity to be able to thrive. In previous negotiations, a goal was set to have 17% of land and 10% of waters protected by 2020. Now, that has been largely achieved on the terrestrial side, and this process, the current negotiation of the new version of the convention, is focusing on what’s our next goal, what’s our goal by 2030? And there’s a broad consensus that has formed around a goal of protecting 30% of both lands and waters by 2030. There’s a document that enshrines this goal and lots of other aspects of how we protect biodiversity in the coming years called the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, and that’s what they’re working on in Montreal.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:02] We can just call that “The Outcome Document” in UN speak, but yes, the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework is the formal name. What are some controversies around this goal of 30×30? And is this the kind of issue that so often in these types of UN negotiations gets contested between the wealthier global north and the more developing global south?
John Reid [00:12:35] I think there are two controversial points worth mentioning: one is the overall goal of protecting 30% of the planet in the next eight years, or protecting the increment between where we are now and 30%. In terms of that goal, what you see now is a lot of activity on the part of agribusiness, fertilizer companies, seed companies — the sorts of folks who may be contesting, maybe competing, for some of that same space that needs to be protected for the protection of biodiversity — urging countries to not adopt strong targets, or urging them to create wiggle room in the pursuit of those targets. There’s some controversy around the overall target: 30% of the earth by 2030. Is that a target that each individual country needs to pursue and meet?
Which countries are primed to meet the 30×30 target?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:43] I would imagine it’s very easy for Canada to meet that goal, whereas it’s probably rather difficult for a country like the Netherlands to meet that goal.
John Reid [00:13:51] Well, that’s a good point: some countries are so heavily developed already that it’s very difficult to find the space to protect 30%, whereas other countries are already there. There are some tropical forest countries that have already met that goal. The Amazon of Brazil, for example, is already over 40% protected. On the other hand, if you look at Canada, it’s a massive country, so protecting 30% of a very big country is a very big area so they have their own challenges even though there’s space. And that leads to the second controversial issue that is worth paying attention to, and that is the rights of the Indigenous land holders of the spaces that are on the table for protection. Indigenous peoples, officially or unofficially, occupy somewhere between 30 and 50% of territory on earth and the places that are still most intact fall disproportionately on formerly recognized or unrecognized Indigenous lands. So, there is a caucus of Indigenous peoples at the COP which is working very hard to have Indigenous rights included in this global biodiversity framework.
What concerns do Indigenous groups have over the 30×30 climate target?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:15:28] The concern being that governments may use the excuse of 30% conservation to expropriate lands from Indigenous peoples who are presumably already preserving the land.
John Reid [00:15:43] Yeah, there’s lots of data to substantiate the idea that Indigenous lands are better protected than other categories of land holdings, including in many cases, national parks, but certainly private lands. So, what the Indigenous peoples participating in these negotiations are bringing forward is the proposal to make the goal of reaching 30% a win-win for Indigenous peoples and the broader society — to make it a setting in which Indigenous peoples rights are recognized and the stewardship that they are already exercising on their lands are recognized as part of the accomplishment of the 30×30 goal. So, I’ll just give an example: Canada itself is one of the most interesting trends in the development of new protected areas, because they have something called Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas. In 2018, a group of Indigenous leaders was convened to come up with a set of guidelines concerning what an Indigenous protected area would look like: How would it be developed? What are the principles? And they came up with a roadmap for how to go about it, and since then, across Canada, Indigenous communities have been developing these proposals for Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas, and they’re huge, they’re tens of millions of acres, and they can be simultaneously created under traditional Indigenous law and the laws of Canada in the categories of protected areas that Canada already has. So, this is the kind of innovation that is going to be necessary if the areas are going to be found to achieve 30×30 while respecting and acknowledging the stewardship and the rights of the people who’ve been taking care of these areas.
How will the 30×30 climate target be funded?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:00] So another key trend that we have seen in the COPs on climate change is a general lack of funding, or perhaps better put, a lack of willingness by wealthier countries to provide means for less developed countries to do their part to ensure a successful outcome, and in this case, ensure the successful protection of 30% of land and marine resources by 2030. Are you seeing similar controversies or debates over funding emerge at this conference of parties?
John Reid [00:18:43] There are similar conversations going on, but they are not as central as the ones that we saw in the climate negotiations in Egypt this fall, where that was really the big issue discussed. It’s interesting because some of the same funding streams that have been committed within that process — for example, something called the Indigenous Peoples and the Local Communities Pledge, which is a pledge of $1.7 billion by a collection of funders for Indigenous ecosystem stewardship — that same funding, if it operates effectively, is going to be addressing the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis at the same time, because it’s going to Indigenous communities stewarding areas of land that do both things: protect the climate and protect biodiversity, not to mention that they’re protecting water resources and a range of other environmental values.
Is the 30×30 climate target enough to protect the world’s biodiversity?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:49] Is 30% enough? I mean, you wrote the book on preserving forests. In your opinion, is preserving 30% of the world’s forest land sufficient to meet goals around biodiversity and goals around climate as well?
John Reid [00:20:07] Absolutely not. There have been some people who have proposed bigger numbers, like half of the earth needs to be set aside for nature, but when it comes to forests, we already have a deficit because enough forests have already been cleared on our planet that the carbon that used to be in those forests is now in the atmosphere. To achieve long term stability and a livable climate, we have to pull some of that carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back into trees, so, the overall area of forests that is needed for a functioning, stable, safe planet is more than we have today. Protecting half, therefore, isn’t enough. What we say in the book, Tom Lovejoy and I, is that, first of all, we need to focus on not fragmenting and losing the forests that are still intact and have not been compromised by the building of roads or mines or industrial agriculture in their midst, because they’re the ones that store the most carbon on a per acre basis and also are the ones that are most productive in terms of the biodiversity that they would naturally have. So, first of all, save what we have that’s still in a healthy state, and then second, we do need to find ways to grow forests back in the places where they naturally thrive. Now, that doesn’t mean that we can’t have any wood production. There are ways to responsibly produce the wood that we need for construction and a variety of other uses in such a fashion that the forest doesn’t disappear. We have to do better on that; however, we have to do it more sustainably, and actually ask forests to produce less wood for us overall.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:21] Lastly, looking back to Montreal and COP15, what would you consider to be a successful outcome?
John Reid [00:22:30] What I consider to be a successful outcome for COP15 is a strong 30×30 commitment from all nations and a signaling by all nations that 2040 and 2050 are going to be times when we’re going to go further — let’s get to 30% by 2030 and formulate new goals for 2040 and 2050. That’s important because even if we protect 30% of the planet, we have had massive declines in wildlife over the last 50 years — one estimate is 69% of the abundance of wild species is gone just in the last five decades. So, what I would consider to be a success is that beyond just the territorial goal, the spatial extent that needs protection, parties to the treaty need to be looking at what else do we need to do to reverse the decline of wildlife around the world? The second thing is that the role and rights and agency of Indigenous Peoples need to be fully integrated into this treaty which then can create a real avenue to accelerate the security of those rights, the ability of those communities to thrive in their ancestral lands, and a full recognition of their contributions to our biodiversity solutions over time.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:24:18] John, thank you so much for your time, this was very helpful.
John Reid [00:24:22] Thanks for having me.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:24:30] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharp.