UN meet signs off on biodiversity roadmap amid 2020 target concerns

21 October 2014

Delegates meeting under the umbrella of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) on Friday closed a two-week long meet held in South Korea after agreeing to a series of 33 decisions. These form a so-called “Pyeongchang roadmap,” named after the city in which the meetings were held, geared towards enhancing international efforts around biodiversity conservation and sustainable use.

The near 3000 delegates that made the trip to the mountains sought to tackle a wide range of issues. These included finance for biodiversity conservation, national biodiversity action plans, access and benefit sharing regarding the use of genetic resources, guidelines for tackling foreign species imported into new environments, and emerging issues such as synthetic biology. 

A high-level ministerial segment held towards the end of last week also resulted in a Gangwon Declaration that calls for links between the work of the CBD and the ongoing post-2015 development agenda process.

This latest CBD Conference of the Parties (COP) took place against a backdrop of stark warnings on the current state of international conservation efforts. At a 2010 gathering, parties agreed to a strategic plan for biodiversity governance covering the period 2011-2020, and outlined a set of 20 targets. (See BioRes, 8 November 2010)

The Global Biodiversity Outlook 4 released at the start of the latest conference disaggregates these, known formally as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, into 56 elements. The flagship UN report notes that, of the total, only five targets are on track within the 2020 timeframe, 33 are progressing at a slow rate, 10 are stalled, and 5 are moving in the wrong direction. 

Conservation organisation WWF also published a study ahead of the meeting suggesting that vertebrate animal populations have declined by around 52 percent over the last 40 years. This includes a 76 percent decline in freshwater species and 40 percent decline in land-based animals.

Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias, CBD executive secretary and UN Assistant Secretary General, said that this latest COP had nevertheless witnessed governments respond to the dire warnings about the biosphere.

“Parties have listened to the evidence, and have responded by committing,” said Dias on Friday.

“Their commitments show the world that biodiversity is a solution to the challenges of sustainable development and will be a central part of any discussions for the post-2015 development agenda and its sustainable development goals,” he continued, referring to a new set of development goals that are currently being negotiated at the UN. Those latter talks are set to conclude next year.

National plans

Among the agenda items, the Pyeongchang meet featured a mid-term review on progress on the strategic plan and its related Aichi targets.

As part of this work, delegates discussed progress around parties’ national biodiversity strategies and action plans (NBSAPs), with a number of countries stepping forward to showcase their efforts.

A final decision in this area urges parties to review and update their national plans, if they have not yet done so. Requests are also made for further capacity-building support, especially for developing countries, and for these nations to make clear their technical and scientific needs in this area.

Last week also saw the Korean government launch a new platform, dubbed the “Bio-Bridge Initiative,” which aims to link developing countries’ need for biodiversity-related science and technology with developed countries’ provisions.

Finding funds

As part of the overall Pyeongchang outcomes, a deal was eventually struck on the implementation of a biodiversity aid commitment to developing countries, and particularly least developed countries (LDCs) and small island developing states (SIDS), after reports of a near-stalemate among representatives.

At the previous CBD biennial meet held in Hyderabad, India in 2012, governments outlined a plan to double biodiversity-related finance to be maintained at such a level until 2020. (See BioRes, 5 November 2012)

However, consensus on details such as the baseline year for measuring this target had remained inconclusive until last week. Parties have now agreed to use average annual biodiversity funding for the years 2006-2010 as a reference point.

The decision on resource mobilisation also calls for at least 75 percent of CBD parties with adequate resources to have prepared national finance plans for biodiversity by next year. In addition, parties are encouraged to fully mobilise domestic financial resources from all sources, in a bid to address the gap between needs and available funding.

This latter reference allegedly faced some opposition by larger developing economies, fearful that it would absolve developed countries from historic responsibilities.

An estimated US$36-50 billion is currently spent each year on tackling biodiversity challenges across the globe.

However, a report released at the conference by a high-level UN panel tasked with examining resources for biodiversity governance confirmed that gaps remain in all countries and regions between funds needed and those available to shore up biodiversity loss before the end of the decade. The study also said that the benefits of investing in sustainable biodiversity use would outweigh the costs.

Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) last week warned of the costs of not stemming the rate of biodiversity loss.

“The cost of inaction to halt biodiversity decline would give rise to increasing and cumulative economic annual losses to the value of around US$14 trillion by 2050,” the UN environment chief said, while also welcoming efforts made in Pyeongchang to put biodiversity conservation on a stronger footing.

Meanwhile an annex to the Pyeongchang decision in the finance area sets out a timeline for implementing the third Aichi target, geared towards tackling economic incentives such as subsidies that are known for having a harmful impact on biodiversity. The latest text says policy or legislative action should be taken by 2016, including national studies identifying subsidies ripe for elimination, with plans for doing so finalised by 2018.

Nagoya Protocol

Among the landmark events of the latest CBD meeting was the much-anticipated entry into force of the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization (ABS). A total of 54 parties have now ratified the protocol and last week saw the first Meeting of the Parties (MOP) held.

Clinched after late-night negotiations at the 2010 CBD meet in Japan, the instrument seeks to flesh out a legally binding framework for determining how users, providers, and stakeholders each access genetic resources and how the benefits derived from their commercialisation are then shared back to provider communities.

Genetic resources are defined by the UN body as genetic material from plants, animals, and microbes that contain the functional units of heredity. These resources, along with biological compounds derived from them, are often heavily used and traded in a range of pharmaceutical, health, cosmetic, and agricultural products.

When research and development are conducted on these genetic resources, the Nagoya rules require benefit sharing from the eventual gains.

Progress was made last week towards putting in place a compliance committee for the Nagoya Protocol. This would, in theory, help countries develop effective systems of user measures to ensure their researchers have permission to access genetic resources from foreign provider countries. An annex to a decision made last week sets out compliance procedures and mechanisms, including how to evaluate cases of non-compliance.

Despite a push by a group of developing countries and indigenous and local community representatives (ILCs), an ABS ombudsman will not be created at this time. However, it was agreed that the CBD Secretariat could review information received from ILCs about cases of non-compliance against information received from parties. Participants also called on the CBD Secretariat to help facilitate at least one meeting of the compliance committee before the next MOP.

As a further transparency measure, the MOP established an ABS Clearing House that had been in a pilot test phase in recent months. The Clearing House would receive certificates of compliance from competent national authorities of parties to the Nagoya Protocol. These certificates will indicate when genetic resources have been accessed with permission and under what conditions, helping those researchers involved avoid claims of biopiracy – in other words, a genetic resource has allegedly been misappropriated.

Ahead of the meeting, some experts had warned that delegates assembled for the first Nagoya Protocol meet would have their work cut out for them.

For example, the decision on the need for and modalities of a Global Multilateral Benefit-Sharing Mechanism (GMBSM) took the form of a “gap analysis” seeking further information from parties, ILCs, and experts about how to handle transboundary genetic resources, widely held traditional knowledge, and related issues. (See BioRes, 30 September 2014)

Invasive alien species

One specific trade-related move at the Pyeongchang meet was an agreement on guidelines to help address the challenges posed by invasive alien species (IAS), specifically in relation to animals traded as pets, for aquariums, as live bait, or as food. 

Various forms of fauna and flora are increasingly crossing borders and traded for a range of reasons, finding new homes in foreign habitats and presenting a threat to the ecological balance when they do so. Some estimates pin the damage to the global economy caused by invasive species, for example crop damage due to foreign pests, at US$1.4 trillion.

The new voluntary rules will help parties towards achieving the ninth Aichi target that calls for an identification, control, and eradication of IAS introductions by 2020.

The guidelines fill a gap in the governance of IAS and offer standards that national or relevant authorities could use to develop codes of conduct in this area.

A related decision on the establishment of a Global IAS Information Partnership emphasises the need to work alongside other organisations, such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), recognising several existing organisations and agreements that regulate risks associated with trade in wildlife and plants. The CBD Secretariat is also invited to explore with standard-setting partners, including those recognised by the WTO, ways to identify risks posed by IAS sold via online transactions.

Synthetic biology, biosafety

Among the latest issues the CBD and its protocols have had to tackle is the question of synthetic biology, a research area underpinned by several fields of biotechnology and biomolecular sciences. This involves not just sequencing DNA, but also fabrication of DNA from biochemical compounds, with the potential to produce synthetic life forms.

Parties at this latest CBD meet debated over the distinctions between synthetic biology and genetic modification of organisms, an issue covered by the CBD’s other instrument known as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. The Parties noted that these new fields raise questions around biosafety, as well as whether entities have obligations to share benefits from a synthetic product that reproduces genetic resources. (See BioRes, 30 September 2014)

While delegates disagreed in Pyeongchang over whether synthetic biology is an emerging issue that the CBD should tackle, participants nevertheless agreed to establish an ad hoc technical expert group in this area.

The body will help parties evaluate whether and how synthetic biology products should be regulated. Divisions currently exist as to whether these should be governed at the national, regional, or international level, including in relation to risk assessment and risk management procedures. In the meantime, the latest COP decision highlights a precautionary approach to the environmental release of any organisms, components or products resulting from synthetic biology techniques, until further research and risk assessments can be undertaken.

The CBD COP was preceded by the seventh Meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol in the first week of October, where delegates signed off on 14 decisions involving areas of compliance, financial mechanism and resources, and the handling, transport, packaging, and identification of living modified organisms (LMOs). The occasion also saw discussion on draft guidance for risk assessments in relation to LMOs but a decision in this area was put off to the next MOP. 

Coral reefs, marine biodiversity

Among the more challenging areas facing the CBD is work related to ocean conservation and marine ecosystem damage.

In its analysis of the Aichi targets, the meeting’s Global Biodiversity Outlook 4 report described the deadline set to reduce pressures on coral reefs by 2015 as “certain to be missed.” Destructive fishing practices, overfishing, pollution, and climate change are all identified as potential obstacles to achieving progress in this area. The report also points to the rapid depletion of certain fish stocks as a significant challenge.

In addition, last week’s meeting saw the CBD Secretariat release a report placing a price tag on the impacts of ocean acidification, a phenomenon triggered by high rates of carbon dioxide absorption, and known to be particularly harmful for coral reefs.

The report suggests that the change in acidity could cause damages of nearly US$1 trillion per year by 2100 in particular due to the destruction of marine ecosystems many communities rely on for livelihoods. 

The COP noted that the coral reef Aichi target will not be achieved and took a decision on priority actions in this area. These include requests for the CBD Secretariat to organise capacity-building workshops in relation to implementing actions in this area, as well as develop a global coral reef portal to encourage technical collaboration.

Participants also continued discussion in Pyeongchang on work describing ecologically and biologically significant marine areas (EBSAs). This has been controversial in the past due to questions around other international processes. The final decision invites individual governments to use the scientific information available on EBSA criteria but does not suggest further transboundary cooperation. 

Biodiversity for sustainable development?

In the Gangwon Declaration, adopted during a two-day high level segment, ministers invited the UN General Assembly to consider integrating the Aichi targets into the post-2015 development agenda.

This past July, a specialised UN group put forward a list of proposed sustainable development goals for consideration by UN members as part of the new development framework.

Biodiversity, with references to CBD-relevant objectives such as ensuring access and benefit sharing in relation to genetic resources, ensuring ecosystem conservation, tackling IAS, and conservation of marine resources, are included in the proposal’s draft goals 14 and 15. (See BioRes, 22 July 2014)

As delegates leave the Pyeongchang meet behind, much work remains on the road ahead at a number of levels. The next COP and the meetings of its protocols will be held in Mexico in 2016.

ICTSD reporting; “Summary of the Twelfth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity and the First Meeting of the Parties to the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing: 6-17 October 2014,” ENB, IISD REPORTING SERVICES, 20 October 2014. 

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