Saving biodiversity

Background

With the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the global community wants to make a new attempt to halt the rapid and dramatic loss of ecosystems, species and genetic diversity, or biodiversity.

Felder in Yunnan, China

On October 11th, the COP 15 will be officially opened in Kunming, China. A high-level event and a political declaration are on the agenda. The event, which will be held online, is the first of a two-part process on which the international community and the Chinese government have agreed after a long delay.

The COP 15, which should have taken place already in October 2020, was postponed several times due to the pandemic. As currently planned, the second part of the COP 15 will then be held as an in-person meeting in the second quarter of 2022. The Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, which the CBD member states have been negotiating since 2018, is to be adopted there.

Introduction

While the political debate on biodiversity lags behind the climate issue by at least eight to ten years, there are now more and more people from the scientific community and civil society as well as policymakers who speak of the massive loss of biodiversity, ecosystems and genetic diversity in the same breath as of the threats of catastrophic climate change – and rightly so. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has given additional impetus to the debate and brought home to us in an unprecedented way the risks that the massive destruction of nature and the illegal wildlife trade – and, not least, industrial factory farming – are driving.

2020 was to have been the international community’s Super Year for Nature and Biodiversity. Following the expiry of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, the international community was slated to reach a new UN-wide agreement with a binding target framework to halt biodiversity loss in Kunming in October 2020.

After several postponements, the second quarter of 2022 has now been set as the date for the signing of such a UN “Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework”. Some see this as a “Paris moment” for biodiversity and hope for an agreement comparable to the Paris climate agreement. Despite its great success and the binding targets set out there, however, the Paris agreement relies on self-commitment in implementation, in which governments are currently failing on a grand scale. Moreover, in view of the growing political interest in the topic, others observe an increasing influence of lobbying by industry or even a creeping corporate takeover of the CBD.

One thing is clear: Biodiversity needs protection. Unsustainable exploitation must be stopped and the benefits derived from its use must be equitably distributed. But what exactly is driving biodiversity loss? Which actors and institutions are engaged in the debate and what are their positions? What is the CBD negotiating and which areas of conflict are emerging? We want to provide an overview of these issues with this article. While it does not claim to be exhaustive, it essentially covers the topics to which the Heinrich Böll Foundation has the most to contribute globally. It is an annotated collection of material intended to encourage further reading, your own research and involvement.

Part I: Biodiversity under pressure

What is at stake globally?

On September 15, 2020, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) published the Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO-5). This report assesses the achievement of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets set by the international community in 2010 for the protection of biodiversity – the diversity of ecosystems, species and genes – by 2020. It is based on a number of indicators, research studies and assessments (in particular the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, IBPES) as well as the national reports of countries on the implementation of the CBD.

The result is devastating: The global loss of biodiversity has not been halted – on the contrary, worldwide species extinction has actually accelerated. The state of nature has deteriorated dramatically over the last ten years. The global community has not achieved any of the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets, and only six have seen a degree of progress.

The above-mentioned first Global Assessment Report of the IPBES comprehensively described the state of our ecosystems and their biodiversity in May 2019, and for the first time included knowledge, innovations and customs of indigenous peoples and local communities.

This analysis also confirmed that biodiversity is in a dramatically poor state:

  • Up to one million species are threatened with extinction, many of them within the next few decades.
  • The rate of extinction today is at least ten to one hundred times higher than the average over the past ten million years.
  • Over half of all living coral has disappeared since 1870.
  • Global forest area is down to 68 percent compared to the pre-industrial era.
  • 75 percent of the land surface and 66 percent of the ocean area have been altered by human influence.
  • More than 85 percent of wetlands have been lost in the past 300 years.

The five direct drivers of these changes, ranked by impact level, are changed land and ocean use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution and invasive species. They result from a number of underlying causes, the indirect drivers. These, in turn, are determined by societal values and behaviors such as production and consumption patterns, population dynamics and trends, trade, technological innovation, and politics – from local to global.

The Assessment Report highlights the urgency of addressing the main drivers of biodiversity loss at all levels and provides concrete recommendations for action and levers for policymakers. So far, governments have failed to tackle the drivers: Over-intensive use of land and the oceans continues and the catastrophic effects of the man-made climate crisis on ecosystems are intensifying. Pollution has increased and the immigration of invasive species is on the rise. Global agriculture in particular operates at the expense of biodiversity, climate, groundwater and soil fertility, thereby destroying the foundations on which its future depends.

According to the GBO-5 report, approximately 100 billion dollars annually are invested worldwide in agricultural subsidies that harm biodiversity. Harmful fishing subsidies are also listed. Fossil fuels, which continue to drive the climate crisis and thus pose a major threat to biodiversity, are currently subsidized to the tune of around 500 billion dollars per year. These ongoing nature-damaging subsidies are destroying biodiversity with public funds, even though alternatives exist. EU agricultural policy is just one sad example of this. The Agriculture Atlas shows how EU agricultural policy could be designed differently.

The recently published State of the World’s Trees Report, the most comprehensive global assessment of the state of our trees to date, comes to a sobering conclusion: Between one-third and one-half of the world’s wild tree species are threatened with extinction. That amounts to 29.9 percent of the world’s 58,497 known tree species. However, the percentage of endangered species is likely to be even higher, as another 7.1 percent were classified as “possibly threatened” and 21.6 percent were data-deficient or not evaluated. Only 41.5 percent were classified as “not threatened”. Once again, agriculture is the main cause of extinction.

Our soils are also in an alarming state: Deforestation, fires and intensive agriculture, but also over-fertilization, pollution and urbanization are taking their toll. These factors not only affect soil biodiversity, but also other important functions such as water storage, extreme-weather resilience through erosion protection, absorption of water to reduce flooding, protection against drought, fertility and climate protection through topsoil build-up.

The reasons for and consequences of the lack of protection of areas significant for biodiversity are described in the GBP-5 report. Many such significant areas are not protected at all, both on land and in the oceans, or have protections that only exist on paper. Furthermore, large areas would need to be restored to a near-natural state to become more resilient to climate change impacts such as global heating and extreme weather events.

What is the state of biodiversity in Germany?

It is not surprising that the current state of biodiversity in Germany is alarming: One out of every three animal and plant species in Germany is endangered, and two thirds of all habitats are threatened. The situation is particularly dramatic for insects and other invertebrates: Almost 46 percent of the species studied are threatened, extremely rare or extinct. In addition, the biomass of insects is plummeting. Just 6.3 percent of Germany’s area consists of nature reserves, and some cases those exist only on paper.

Things also look bleak for the German seas: They are filled with trash and suffer from the massive input of fertilizers, pesticides and other toxins from agriculture and industry. Sand and gravel mining, noise pollution and drilling or exploration for oil and gas also threaten marine life. The biggest driver of biodiversity loss, however, is the fishing industry, with its continuous overfishing and decimation of other species, some of them endangered, as bycatch.

With regard to protecting the nature of the North and Baltic Seas, the German government has failed across the board. Most of the marine protected areas (flora-fauna-habitat protection areas) are located in the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of the North and Baltic Seas. These areas experience extensive fishing, the extraction of raw materials such as oil, natural gas, sand and gravel, dense shipping traffic and military exercises, without any consideration for the protected areas.

All of this despite the fact that, in 2007, the government adopted an ambitious National Strategy on Biological Diversity to implement the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, with the declared aim of halting the loss of biodiversity in Germany. The strategy contains a total of 330 goals and around 430 measures, which – while actually purposeful – have only been implemented half-heartedly. Agricultural policy continues to rely on destructive industrial agriculture, natural habitats and ecosystems are falling victim to new land use plans, and existing tools for more nature conservation are not being used by the relevant federal government departments. In addition, there is a lack of political will, funding and personnel.

In 2016, formal infringement proceedings were initiated against Germany for inadequate implementation of EU directives on bird protection and flora-fauna-habitat (FFH) protected areas on land and in the sea. In 2017, ten years after the National Strategy was adopted, German nature conservation associations urgently called for a reversal of the trend with a 10-Point Plan for Biodiversity reflecting the ten central fields of action of the 2020 Nature Conservation Offensive.

But as of 2021, Germany still has not yet met its European and international obligations to halt biodiversity loss.

In June 2021, the German nature conservation organizations addressed policymakers with specific core demands for nature conservation policy to finally stop the dramatic loss of diversity of species and habitats in Germany and beyond, and to protect natural resources and use them sustainably. To this end, Germany must, on the one hand, take action within a new post-2020 CBD framework and, on the other, achieve an ambitious implementation of the National Strategy on Biodiversity. Among other things, this will require the development of an action plan with concrete targets for 2030 and measures for all federal ministries. The Federal Agency for Nature Conservation has stated that the new post-2020 national biodiversity strategy will be based on the strategic guidelines of the CBD post-2020 framework. In addition, the new EU biodiversity strategy for 2030 approved by the EU Environment Council in October 2020 (see below) is to be considered in the further development of the German National Biodiversity Strategy.

Harmful land use policy as a driver of biodiversity loss

Land is a very limited resource and demand is growing everywhere for transport infrastructure, residential areas and industrial sites, as well as for food, feed, agrofuels, and biomass for chemical products and textiles. The various uses of land are increasingly competing with one another. While cities today occupy only one to two percent of the Earth’s surface, by 2050 they will occupy about four to five percent, an increase from 250 to 420 million hectares. Agricultural land must give way; its loss is compensated for by clearing forests and grasslands. From 1961 to 2007, the world’s arable land expanded by around 11 percent, or 150 million hectares. If today’s demand for agricultural products continues to grow unchanged, additional agricultural land somewhere between 320 and 850 million hectares would have to be developed by 2050. The lower value corresponds to the size of India, the higher to that of Brazil.

With the increasing demand, tensions between different user groups are increasing. Land is an attractive economic asset for investors – an increasingly scarce one with good returns. But land is also needed by the world’s more than 500 million smallholder farmers, pastoralists and indigenous peoples to earn a living. In addition, it has an identity-forming, cultural and sometimes spiritual value, particularly in indigenous regions. Especially in deeply indebted countries with weak or nonexistent legal systems, in which access to land is of fundamental importance for smallholders, individual or collective rights of ownership and use are violated again and again. (The Voluntary Guidelines on Tenure and other such frameworks address this issue.)

But it is not only competition for access to land that is intensifying; the negative impacts on ecosystems are also increasing. Profit-oriented companies in particular pay little attention to whether the quality, diversity and fertility of a landscape is maintained when using the land. However, the more intensive the agricultural use, the more negative the ecological consequences, especially the loss of biodiversity above and within the soil.

Every year, about 13 million hectares of forest are cleared; of the world’s primary forests, nearly 40 million hectares have disappeared since 2000. Fertile soils are being lost, deserts are spreading, and greenhouse gases that have been stored in the soil for millennia are being released into the atmosphere.

Despite all these developments, many governments in industrialized countries are now touting new growth potential in a “bioeconomy”, in which renewable raw materials are to replace fossil fuels. This is the reversal of the “Green Revolution”: Land-intensive products are now supposed to replace crude oil. This growth strategy would undo all the equity, biodiversity, and climate goals that governments have agreed to in recent decades.

According to a report by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the limit of ecologically sustainable land use will have been reached by 2020, assuming an unchanged rate of increase. Global land consumption, especially by the EU and the USA, must not be allowed to increase any further. With 1.4 billion hectares of global arable land, this leaves each individual human 2,000 square meters with which to satisfy his or her food needs.

But there is another way: One example of how climate protection and biodiversity conservation can be cleverly addressed together is the rewetting of peatlands.

What is actually happening at the EU level?

The conservation and restoration of biodiversity are high on the EU’s political agenda as core elements of the European Green Deal. The EU has a lot of catching up to do in this area – past goals have consistently been missed. Three strategy papers are now supposed to change this – first and foremost the biodiversity strategy, but also the “Farm to Fork” and forest strategies. Yet contradictions, resistance and counterstrategies to the noble goals they spell out can be found in other policy fields.

On May 20, 2020, the European Commission published a new EU biodiversity strategy. A key goal of the new strategy is to put at least 30 percent of the EU’s land and 30 percent of its sea area under protection and to restore degraded ecosystems by 2030. Other goals include more sustainable fisheries and greener urban areas. The new biodiversity strategy aims to enable change and mobilize 20 billion euros annually from various sources. At the global level, the EU intends to take a leading role in the protection of biodiversity.

The European Union’s food policy strategy is called “Farm to Fork” and was presented on the same day as the biodiversity strategy. It is intended to make the entire food system more sustainable. To this end, it sets targets in key areas, primarily to reduce the ecologically problematic effects of industrial agriculture. For example, the use of pesticides is to be halved by 2030 and the use of synthetic fertilizers reduced by 20 percent. Organic farming is to expand to a quarter of agricultural land. The systematic building of soil biodiversity and topsoil on all farmland and grassland also needs to be urgently addressed.

 Intact forests are also central to biodiversity (as well as to mitigation and adaptation to the climate crisis), but the EU’s forests are in a poor state. The EU has large areas of forest, and if it does not conserve them, it cannot be a credible actor in calling for less deforestation on the world stage. Protecting, restoring and sustainably managing forests in the EU and ensuring their multifunctionality is the focus of the new EU Forest Strategy 2030 (July 2021). After strong reactions from the forestry industry as well as from the agriculture ministers from eleven EU countries, the strategy turned out to be less ambitious than initially planned by the Commission. While it does include some steps to better monitor and manage forests, it cannot address the demand for wood that has already come about as a result of the Renewable Energy Directive and the additional threat of depletion if wood is burned on an industrial scale in formerly coal-fired power plants.

While European Commission strategies are not binding per se, they can contain individual targets and proposed legislation that become binding. It is therefore now up to the Commission to flesh out the strategies with concrete legislative proposals, which the member states must then support and implement. The implementation also depends on international partners. When it comes to the “Farm to Fork” strategy in particular, resistance is mounting and alliances that are more focused on productivity gains and technology are taking shape, led by the United States.

The success of the aforementioned strategies also depends to a large extent on the Common Agricultural Policy of the EU (CAP). Despite the CAP’s central role in achieving the EU’s climate and environmental goals, its recent reform is not aligned with the goals of the European Green Deal: In October 2020, both the European Parliament and the European Council voted against an explicit integration of these goals into the CAP for the period up to 2027. Even after the reform, the CAP continues to be based primarily on flat-rate direct payments, and with the CAP compromise the EU institutions are spending a third of the EU budget on a policy that is clearly incompatible with the Green Deal. While the broad framework is set by the EU, the CAP reform stipulates that the individual member states are to draw up their national strategic plans and decide what contribution they will make to achieving the EU targets. In the agricultural sector, it is thus now largely up to the member states not only to announce ambitious goals at national level, but also to implement effective measures that are in line with the requirements of the EU’s Green Deal.

The EU must also make its trade policy more consistent with the objectives of the above strategies. As the largest single market in the world, the EU can set international standards. The EU should ensure that products it imports fully comply with EU standards, for example with regard to the use of pesticides. The European Parliament and civil society are already exerting pressure with regard to this issue. Double standards must be eliminated, not only for environmental reasons, but also to avoid exposing local food systems to unfair competition. In the trade sector, the European Commission is also taking initial steps in on the issue of deforestation: For example, it will propose legislation to ensure deforestation-free supply chains before the end of 2021. This reflects the EU’s responsibility as the second largest importer of products that cause deforestation. At this stage, it is still unclear whether the new regulation will include goods produced in areas of high biodiversity such as wetlands and savannahs, or whether human rights abuses related to deforestation will be adequately addressed. Supply chain legislation at the EU, but also the national level, affects ecology and human rights throughout the supply chain. Transparency is a first step, but only by incorporating the polluter-pays principle will prices reflect the products’ environmental and human rights toll.

Part II: Scope for improvement in the biodiversity debate

In the following section, we will highlight some key areas of policy conflict in the global biodiversity debate along four theses. We would like to give the theses a common framework that also reflects the direction of our political work in this field: We need progressive and courageous rights-based policies that take a unified view of the various crises and thereby contribute to truly just solutions without creating illusionary dead ends or false solutions.

Thesis 1: A unified concept for climate protection and biodiversity protection is needed, especially regarding land use

In (international) climate policy, approaches are often proposed that are not actual solutions or that would exacerbate other, no less important crises. These false solutions are mainly promoted by actors in the fossil fuel and other climate-damaging industries. The same increasingly holds true in the current hype about nature-based solutions (NBS) and the geoengineering approaches we have long criticized.

Nature-based solutions” can mean just about anything – and the vagueness of the term is an invitation to greenwashing and corporate capture. The term theoretically includes, on the one hand, sensible, ecosystem-based approaches such as protecting, regenerating, and carefully restoring natural ecosystems. All of this can – and should – be done with the involvement of local people, while respecting human and land rights and ensuring social justice.

Geoengineering drives the problem of reductionist, CO2-centric thinking one step further. Geoengineering involves using technology to intervene on a large scale in the environment, or more precisely in the climate system and other global ecosystems and cycles, in order – or so its proponents argue – to mitigate the symptoms of the climate crisis. More background on nature-based solutions and conflicts that arise in the interplay of land use, climate protection and biodiversity can be found in our article “5 years later – Happy Birthday, Paris Agreement?” and on the website of the Climate Land Ambition Rights Alliance.

Thesis 2: Nature must not be economized and financialized

The increasing use of market mechanisms in nature conservation, which is meeting with ever broader interest and acceptance in business and politics, is undermining nature conservation instead of strengthening it. Biodiversity offsetting, for example, allows companies to bypass legal protection of the very areas that are of economic interest to them in exchange for the promise to offset biodiversity loss by taking action elsewhere. The destruction of biodiversity is legitimized because the causer of unavoidable damage can compensate for it through nature conservation and landscape management measures (compensatory measures) or offset it in some other way (substitute measures). Whether such measures are actually effective will only become apparent after decades. The many documented failures of reforestation programs should be a warning here: No economically rational investor would want to make such an uncertain investment. Offsetting promises are unsound even for reasons inherent to the economic system itself. The developments of recent years in this area thus show that we do not need a valorization, but rather an appreciation of nature.

Valorization plays into the hands of corporations and governments around the world: On paper, biodiversity is protected, but in reality, profitable large-scale projects are implemented that usually irreversibly destroy nature. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the number of countries that have included offsetting measures or comparable approaches to biodiversity loss in their nature conservation legislation has almost doubled since the turn of the millennium. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) – the part of the World Bank Group that specializes in promoting private enterprise – is among the most active supporters of biodiversity loss offset instruments. It can finance private-sector projects even if they destroy land that the World Bank defines as “critical habitat” for biodiversity conservation. Because many rivers are already dammed and many habitats that are particularly rich in biodiversity and mineral resources have already been destroyed for the mining of coveted ores and metals, new projects by mining corporations and the hydropower industry are increasingly affecting critical habitats. IFC financing is often indispensable for the overall financing of a project, leading mining, oil and gas, and hydropower companies to show particular interest in biodiversity loss offsets.

Our New Economy of Nature dossier describes these offset mechanisms and other instruments, explains the terms and approaches, and lists numerous example projects. Further information related to the dossier is available here.

The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review”, a report assessing the economics of biodiversity by Prof. Sir Partha Dasgupta, was published in February 2021. It was commissioned by the UK Treasury and supported by an advisory panel of policymakers, academics, economists, financiers and business leaders. Given the negative impact of economic activities on nature, the report recommends that economic success be redefined and measured differently than in the past in order to protect both our prosperity and nature and to ensure that economic success is sustainable. Based on a deep understanding of ecosystem processes and how they are influenced by economic activities, the publication presents a new framework that does not aim for an “either-or” approach, but shows how nature can be taken into account in economic decision-making processes. The report also cites the IPBES Global Assessment and the IPBES Assessment Report on Land Degradation and Restoration. In addition to the full report, an abridged version and a summary of headline messages are available. Critiques of the Dasgupta Review have been published by the Green Finance Observatory among others.

A comprehensive collection of materials on offsetting, land use and climate protection is also provided by the Net Zero Files.

Thesis 3: Focus on fundamental rights of people and nature and protect them consistently

Biodiversity means diversity of ecosystems, species and genes[1]. The approach that still occupies the most space in the debate on appropriate strategies to protect this diversity is the establishment of protected areas. But what exactly does this mean and why does such an approach – which at first glance looks very plausible – create so much conflict and resistance?

To this end, it is worth taking a closer look at the historical and currently prevailing discourses on biodiversity conservation. The assumption of classical conservation was that human activities (other than tourism), and especially the use of biodiversity, ultimately destroy nature. Therefore, nature must be defended against humans. Protected areas are needed, with fences and (military) guards if necessary. Nowadays, this is often referred to as “fortress conservation”.

While most intact ecosystems are demonstrably located outside of state-established protected areas, it took a long time for the Conferences of the Parties to the CBD to recognize conservation concepts outside of protected areas, including those being sustainably used by and under effective control of indigenous peoples and local communities. These are known as “other effective area-based conservation measures”, (OECMs):

“A geographically defined area other than a Protected Area, which is governed and managed in ways that achieve positive and sustained long-term outcomes for the in-situ conservation of biodiversity, with associated ecosystem functions and services and where applicable, cultural, spiritual, socio–economic, and other locally relevant values.”

In the CBD discussion on a post-2020 agreement, the target of placing 30 percent of land and sea area under protection by 2030 is the subject of a heated debate. In the current first draft of the agreement, Target 3 states:

“Ensure that at least 30 percent globally of land areas and of sea areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and its contributions to people, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes.“

For some, however, this does not go far enough. The Half-Earth Project demands: “to protect half the land and sea in order to manage sufficient habitat to reverse the species extinction crisis and ensure the long-term health of our planet.”

A good overview of the criticism of the 30 by 30 (i.e., 30 percent protected areas by 2030) approach has been written by Friedrich Wulf of ProNatura in Switzerland. The key questions from his point of view: „What do we mean by ‘protected areas’? Where should those protected areas come from? If it is true that these would cause ‘limited human impacts’, does this not increase the pressure on the remaining 70 per cent? And what does the designation of protected areas mean for the people who live there?“

Survival International provides an even more profound critique of the “conservation versus people” approach, including the Our Land Our Nature Congress, which is designed to be an alternative event to the IUCN Congress in Marseille that explicitly advocates the decolonization of nature conservation: “Experience makes clear that these plans [i.e. 30 percent protected areas and an approach using nature-based solutions] will lead to even more human rights violations and to the biggest land grab in history, perpetuated at the expense of those who are least responsible for these crises –  Indigenous Peoples, who already protect 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, and other local peoples, predominantly in the global South. By far the most effective and just way to fight against biodiversity loss and climate change is to recognize the rights of Indigenous Peoples to their lands, and put them at the heart of conservation and climate action. This fact is acknowledged in many policies and declarations, but action “on the ground” continues to dispossess and mistreat them.”

So it is not so much about putting up fences as it is about recognizing and protecting fundamental rights. The same conclusion was reached by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, who has also published a thematic report on biodiversity. It is also a great and rare stroke of luck that in August 2021, the office of the UN Human Rights Council issued a policy brief from its Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment. With detailed source references to all UN human rights declarations and conventions and past and present violations in the protected-area sector, it calls for consideration of the rights of indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, local communities, peasants, women and youth living in rural areas, and environmental/human rights defenders.

Against this background, various actors (including our partner organization Natural Justice) are also calling for an explicit rights-based approach for the new post-2030 agreement (a more detailed analysis of human rights in the post-2020 framework can be found here).

Major foundations have also joined the chorus of those who want to finally resolve the smoldering conflicts between environmental protection and human rights with a joint letter to the CBD: „[...] in light of the history of the ‘protected areas’ approach, Target 3 is likely to be interpreted and implemented in ways that will lead to further human rights violations against Indigenous Peoples and local communities across the globe, and will be counter-productive to achieving the conservation goals we all share. [...] Administration of protected areas has often been organized around a problematic goal of separating human beings and nature. That paradigm is a Euro-American notion associated with the industrial decimation of ecosystems in Europe before colonialism exported it throughout the world, applying it to inhabited, ecologically intact places that were redefined as ‘wilderness.’ This approach plays out today as “fortress conservation” and has been used to justify land grabbing and displacement of Indigenous Peoples and local communities from their ancestral homelands.“

One can also ask oneself: Why only protect 30 or 50 percent? In a recent statement, for example, indigenous groups called for 80 percent of the Amazon to be placed under lasting protection by 2025 – a demand that has since been endorsed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The multi-layered criticism of the 30-percent or 50-percent targets also clarifies the alternative concept: Defending the land and resource rights of indigenous peoples and local communities is the most effective measure to protect nature and biodiversity! This approach is well spelled out, for example, in the above-mentioned letter from the foundations and also as a “Shared Earth” approach in a recent article by African experts.

The available data on the role of land rights and indigenous protection for climate and biodiversity is also very good. The Climate Land Ambition Rights Alliance (CLARA) considers this in their Missing Pathways report on 1.5°C: “Securing community land rights represents an effective, efficient and equitable climate action that governments can undertake to protect the world’s forests. Protecting forests while allowing for indigenous and community-based forest management to provide biodiversity, food security, and carbon sequestration benefits is an urgent first step in ending deforestation and restoring forests’ historical role as net forest ‘sink’.”

And the 2021 "Territories of Life" report[2] of the ICCA consortium states: „Supporting Indigenous peoples and local communities to secure their collective lands and territories of life and a minimum bundle of rights is arguably a key ‘missing link’ in global commitments and national level implementation. Of particular importance are the rights to self-determination, governance systems, cultures and ways of life, and rights to access information, access justice and participate in relevant decision-making processes.“

However, it is also clear that the existing legal framework for protecting biodiversity is far from sufficient. At the following points, exciting debates are taking place about a further development that would also have a direct impact on the protection of biological diversity:

The right to a healthy and sustainable environment is found in numerous national constitutions and regional agreements, but has not yet been established in and of itself as a specific human right at the UN level. Numerous demands for this to be remedied quickly have come from the Right to a Healthy Environment Coalition and others.

The demand for the explicit recognition of the rights of naturein the context of the CBD and elsewhere - goes a step further. Ultimately, the goal is to develop a legal framework that is not only human-centric, but also ecocentric, and that sees people as part of nature. The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature (GARN) has good information on this topic.

Yet another idea starts with criminal law and calls for the recognition of ecocide as a crime at the International Criminal Court. A renowned panel of experts recently presented a legal definition: “Ecocide” means unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.”

Thesis 4: New technologies require a forward-looking, transparent and democratic technology assessment that takes the precautionary principle seriously, and the consistent implementation of all three goals of the CBD

The CBD has a long history of dealing with new and emerging technologies. It has distinguished itself in the past by establishing moratoria and instruments of technology assessment and, above all, it has consistently implemented the precautionary principle – for example, in the case of the so-called Terminator seeds and on the subject of geoengineering, but also on issues related to the management of genetically modified trees and agrofuels.

But when it comes to the topic of synthetic biology – i.e. the “new genetic technologies” – this CBD approach is subject to extremely high lobbying pressure. Biotechnology companies, the governments of the countries where they have their headquarters, and private actors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are doing everything they can to stop further regulation.

Some of the biggest disputes in the CBD on this are currently taking place at these levels:

Gene drives: The campaign organization Save Our Seeds describes the dangers of “gene drive” technology as follows: “Enabled by a new tool for genetic engineering called CRISPR/Cas, sexually reproducing animals and plants can be genetically manipulated in a way as to pass on a new trait to all their offspring – even if this trait proves to be fatal for them. This overrides the natural rules of evolution. This mechanism is then repeated independently in each new generation, resulting in a risky and uncontrollable genetic chain reaction. Gene Drive Organisms are supposed to replace or even exterminate their conspecifics in nature. Their future release could have unforeseeable and irreversible consequences for ecosystems and food webs. In the worst case, this could lead to further species extinction and the collapse of entire ecosystems, as well as endangering human health and food security.”

Gene drives are to be used in nature conservation to eradicate invasive species, for example. Save Our Seeds, the Heinrich Böll Foundation and many others are calling for a global moratorium on the release of gene drives. Save Our Seeds compiled the relevant arguments and facts in a recent comprehensive brochure. We have documented how difficult the last attempt for such a moratorium was in 2016 and 2018 at the last COPs in our dossier and elsewhere.

The pro-gene drives lobby is now pursuing the strategy of making gene drives acceptable as genetic engineering in the service of nature conservation via the IUCN as well. ENSSER provides a critical assessment of the IUCN report on gene drives. In September 2021, the IUCN called for a three-year discussion process on this issue. Save Our Seeds reported: “In adopting Resolution 075 at the IUCN World Congress in Marseille, IUCN members recognized that there are major data and knowledge gaps, as well as unresolved ethical, social, cultural and environmental issues related to the use of technologies currently being developed to genetically modify wild species.”

Another topic related to new technologies is currently of great concern to the CBD, as it directly and immediately affects one of the CBD’s three objectives: The question of access and equitable benefit sharing in the use of genetic resources.

Objectives of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)

The three objectives of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD):

  1. The conservation of biodiversity
  2. The sustainable use of the components of biological diversity
  3. The fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources

Digitization is also having an impact on biodiversity: With the help of new sequencing techniques and advances in data processing, it has become much faster and cheaper to virtually transcend national borders and record the DNA of countless species and genetic varieties within species in huge databases – a scenario that was difficult to imagine just a few years ago. This data, called Digital Sequence Information (DSI), represents a treasure trove for corporations and powerful players who use algorithms to mine it for commercially viable combinations and “recipes” for new species and varieties (which in turn can be “built” from scratch using synthetic biology).

While some are working on an Earth Bank of Codes, others fear a whole new level of extractivist exploitation of the global South, including the patenting and privatization of life. Christiane Grefe has analyzed who the winners and losers will be in this new run on resources in this article (in German) for our Böll.Thema on biodiversity.

DSI may yet emerge as one of the big showdown issues of COP 15. This is due to the threat it poses of bypassing the rules of the Nagoya Protocol, which date back to a time when genetic information had to be transported across physical borders in the form of plant or animal material. Without the application of the Nagoya Protocol, however, the resource-rich countries of the global South fear that they will no longer benefit from the profits of the biodiversity business at all – even though the equitable sharing of the benefits of biodiversity is one of the three goals of the CBD.

Politically, the following questions need to be addressed: How is the data made available and who can access it – is it open access? Who will be able to use it? Who gets the patents and who pockets the profits made from this data? How can tracing the genetic resource back to its origin be technically realized? What role can a multilateral system play in equitable benefit sharing?

More information on the subject of DSI can be found (in German) in the recording of our event from October 29, 2020 and at the FDCL website (Biopiraterie).

Whether the CBD will succeed in staying ahead of the game in identifying potential hazards posed by new technologies in the future will be determined, among other things, by the extent to which it succeeds in anchoring the topic of horizon scanning and technology assessment in the post-2020 agreement.

Conclusion: We need a change of course!

In an analysis written by the journalist Kathrin Hartmann, “Verraten und Verkauft” (in German), Greenpeace shows that instruments for global nature conservation, which were previously touted as of key importance by many, have failed. In summary, it states that certifications, CO2 offsetting and the establishment of nature reserves were unable to effectively combat either the extinction of species or the climate crisis.

Approaches that essentially serve the profit interests of corporations and hope for their voluntary understanding and compliance are just as unhelpful as measures that marginalize, expel and criminalize precisely those people who make the most important contribution to the conservation of biodiversity.

In December 2020, fifty of the world’s leading biodiversity and climate experts selected by a 12-member IPBES and IPCC scientific steering committee took part in a four-day virtual workshop to explore the synergies and trade-offs between biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation/adaptation. This was the first-ever collaboration between these two important intergovernmental bodies and the result is worth reading.

It is becoming clearer and clearer: A great deal of overlap can be found not only in the key drivers of climate change and biodiversity loss: The real solutions that address the root causes are also largely the same for the climate and biodiversity crises. Key strategies include overcoming the focus on economic growth, getting out of the extractive economy – leaving fossil fuels in the ground, transforming industrial agriculture and strengthening agroecology, curbing corporate power, and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, to name just a few.

The scientific consensus has long been established. What is lacking is the political will and a policy that consistently considers and shapes the protection of biodiversity in the sense of a “whole of government” and “whole of society” approach in all policy areas. Here, lessons – both positive and negative – must be learned from the climate crisis, climate policy and climate movement, because we don’t have time for fundamental errors. Too much is at stake.

Biodiv - Literature-Tips

Further reading: Who, what and how?

Our office director in Beijing, Paul Kohlenberg, describes how the topic of biodiversity is being discussed in China and how the great power is preparing for COP 15 in this interview.

How international civil society is coming together and taking a stand on the ongoing negotiations as well as opportunities for civil society participation can be found at the website of the CBD Alliance.

 An assessment of the first draft of the new post-2020 agreement has been presented by various NGOs and civil society networks. Here is a small selection:

Helpful for the evaluation of further drafts is also the “Dos and Don’ts” paper by Friends of the Earth and other NGOs, which the Heinrich Böll Foundation has also signed.  

An important issue that we have not highlighted in this article is international biodiversity finance. We would like to provide three reading suggestions on this topic:

The authors would like to thank Christine von Weizsäcker for valuable feedback and suggestions.


[1] The paramount importance of ecosystems to the Convention, articulated and adopted early in the “ecosystems approach”, gives an early rebuff to storing genetic diversity in freezers and focusing on pandas, zoos, and botanical gardens as the focus of conservation action.

[2] Territories of life, also known as ICCAs in some contexts (TICCA in Spanish; APAC in French), are territories and areas protected by indigenous peoples and local communities. They are as diverse as the peoples and communities that shape and sustain them through their unique cultures, governance systems and practices.