COP15: What is the UK Government pushing for in the global biodiversity treaty?
The UN’s 15th biodiversity COP is now well underway in Montreal, with nations negotiating a treaty designed to end nature degradation and bring about large-scale restoration. Here, we look at what measures the UK Government is advocating.
COP15 is taking place now until Saturday 17 December. It has been described by The New Statesman as ‘the most important summit you’ve never heard of’. Held as part of the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the summit is being hosted to convene nations deciding a biodiversity treaty for the next ten years, in the hopes of accelerating and unifying efforts to prevent Earth’s sixth mass extinction.
The latest living planet report, published in October, revealed that the population sizes of animals excluding insects has decreased by an average of 69% globally since 1970. Worryingly, the decline was steeper in rainforest regions. Failure to buck this trend will have wide-reaching negative impacts. Recognising this, the new treaty is headlined by an ambition to halt nature loss and degradation this decade and to shift to a period of restoration at scale and pace thereafter.
COP15 officially began in 2020, with China as the official hosts. But a string of delays due to Covid-19-related restrictions meant that talks were moved to Nairobi this summer. After little progress was made there, the decision was taken to add new talks in Montreal in December, where observers are hoping for the ratification of a finalised treaty.
Attendees began arriving on Monday (5 December) to finalise the agenda for the days ahead. Negotiations then began in earnest on Wednesday (7 November). Most world leaders are not present, sending instead their environment ministers.
Building on our explainer article on what, exactly, COP15 is hoping to achieve and how it will run, this article breaks down the negotiating position of the UK.
As expected, the UK is advocating for the overarching ‘mission’ of the Treaty to involve halting biodiversity loss this decade and reversing it thereafter. There is now broad international agreement on this aim. However, some observers want to see more done to ensure that nations do not allow biodiversity loss to increase through to 2030. The UK has stated that it wants an agreement to halt species extinctions pre-2030.
Underpinning this mission is the so-called 30X30 goal, which would require nations to dedicate at least 30% of terrestrial and marine habitats as protected for nature by the end of the decade. The UK has been advocating for this goal consistently since late 2020, with this advocacy having begun under Boris Johnson.
Nature charities in the UK have urged the UK Government to do more to ensure that habitats dedicated as protected have adequate systems in place to prevent their degradation. The Wildlife Trusts estimates that 68% of the Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in Wales and 60% in England are significantly degraded. The proportions for Northern Ireland and Scotland stand at 39% and 35% respectively.
The UK will not face the same level of potential societal risk in preserving greater areas than some other nations. While the 30X30 goal is broadly popular, some NGOs, including Amnesty International, have advocated for the UN to do more to ensure that, in meeting the goal, nations uphold the rights of Indigenous communities and do not undertake “land grabbing”.
Subsidies and finance
One of the issues being negotiated at COP15 is a pledge for nations to end the provision of direct government subsidies to activities that harm nature. As with the other commitments, this would need to be implemented by 2030. It has been estimated that at least $1.8trn each year is spent on subsidies that support entities driving environmental harm – equivalent to 2% of global GDP.
The UK Government’s Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) has stated that it will advocate for a strong agreement here. The EU is taking a similar stance. A strong agreement would have a numeric target, and the number on the table is a $500bn reduction to begin with, and a complete phase-out thereafter.
The devil in the detail regarding this goal will be which sectors it covers. There is a potential for the coverage of sectors including agriculture, forestry, construction, mining, chemicals and fossil fuels. Nations will also need to agree on whether the $500bn is a target for 2030, or whether a complete phase-out is the target for this date. The former is, realistically, the more likely.
On finance more broadly, Defra has stated that the UK will advocate for increased finance “from all sources” to fund the global effort to halt nature loss. It has also stated that it wants the treaty to include a commitment for “all financial flows” to be aligned with its aims.
Achieving this will be no mean feat. The UK pledged at COP26 to become the world’s first net-zero financial centre, and the consensus is that not enough has been done to realise this commitment over the past 12 months. Internationally, we saw at COP27 last month that wealthy nations are still failing to meet their long-standing climate finance commitments, and that global financial architecture needs changing to unlock the scaling of finance needed.
As has been the case with measurement and science-based target setting, scaling biodiversity finance is a less mature effort than scaling climate finance. We may, therefore, expect these roadblocks in the future for biodiversity finance, especially with a weak COP15 agreement. All eyes are on negotiators in Montreal to see whether they are prepared to match talk with finance. This will be necessary to economic sustainability in the long-term, as well as environmental sustainability; the World Economic Forum (WEF) has stated that half of global GDP is dependent on nature.
Mandatory corporate reporting
Mandating businesses to report on their impacts on, dependencies on, and risks relating to, biodiversity is one of the treaty’s goals that will be debated in Montreal. The goal would apply from 2030 and nations are deciding which kinds of businesses the mandate should cover. The general consensus is that it should start with large businesses. Opinion is divided on whether financial firms should be included.
Defra does not mention this mandatory reporting goal in the UK’s official negotiating position statement. However, a representative for the Department told edie that the UK will be supporting the goal and seeking for an agreement that it covers “large and economically significant” businesses.
“We note that mandatory reporting and disclosure of nature-related financial risk for certain large and economically significant businesses is an important pre-requisite to allow investors to make more informed and nature-aligned capital allocation decisions,” the spokesperson confirmed.
The Task Force on Nature-Related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) is notably set to publish a finalised framework in 2023 following the launch of three beta versions this year. This framework would lay the foundations for unified nature risk reporting, as the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) has for climate risk.
The UK Government is recommending that the TNFD framework is incorporated into the work of the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB), set up in 2021 in a bid to unify corporate sustainability disclosures and bring an end to overlapping and competing standards.
What’s missing from the UK’s position statement?
The WEF has this week published a list detailing what, in its opinion, would need to be included in the UN post-2020 biodiversity treaty for it to be ambitious and to properly cover the private sector.
The UK Government is aligned with the top three items, which cover mandatory corporate reporting, redirecting and eliminating harmful subsidies and ensuring a strong overarchin mission. But several of the inclusions listed have not been mentioned in the UK Government’s position statement.
- Setting out a comprehensive strategy to increase green finance and resources for the Global South.
- Recommendations on valuing and embedding nature in decision making.
- SMART targets for business to address the drivers of nature loss and steer the transformation of the food, land and ocean system.
On valuing nature and embedding the ‘true’ value of nature in policy decision-making, the UK Government did commission a full review into the benefits, downsides and practicalities of adopting natural capital accounting in April 2020. Professor Partha Dasgupta of Cambridge University’s economics department undertook the review, publishing his findings in full in early 2021. The conclusion was that the UK Government should include the true value of nature in all major policy decisions that impact habitats, including housing and infrastructure development.
Taking note of Dasgupta’s findings, the Government committed, in June 2021, to ensuring that all new large infrastructure projects have a net-positive impact on nature. However, this commitment does have significant caveats. Ancient woodland is excluded from calculations on no net loss and net gain, as it cannot be replaced, for example.
Green groups including The Woodland Trust have also been highlighting that, for all the welcome advocacy the UK is showing on the international stage at COP15, there is still much to be done in regards to policymaking on the national scale. The UK’s post-Brexit environment watchdog concluded in May that the Government is still failing to deliver on its commitment to leave nature in Britain in a better state for the next generation.
More recently, the OEP chided Ministers for failing to propose ambitious legal targets for improving air quality, biodiversity and waste management. The target date for strengthening these targets was then missed amid the two changes in Prime Minister in the latter half of the year. Also of concern to the OEP at present is the fact that the Government is conducting what it believes is a “rushed” review of EU laws, including environmental safeguards, which could be scrapped by the end of 2023.
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