In December 2022, Matilda Eve Dunn, PhD student in the Centre for Environmental Policy, attended the 15th United Nations Biodiversity Conference of the Parties (COP15) in Montréal, Canada, as part of the Imperial delegation. In this blog, she reflects on why transformational change is essential to achieving the world’s biodiversity goals.
At COP15, it was incredible to witness 188 parties negotiate (and eventually agree upon) the Kunming-Montréal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), an ambitious plan for halting the destruction of the Earth’s ecosystems by 2030. However, conversations on the side-lines often concluded that “the real work begins once the framework is agreed”. The previous set of global biodiversity targets (the Aichi targets) were agreed in 2010, and not a single one of them has been achieved. Now that the dust has settled on the COP15 proceedings, signatory countries must start working on implementation to achieve the goals they signed up to.
Bringing biodiversity into the ‘mainstream’
The GBF outlines four key goals and 21 targets parties must reach by 2030. Amongst these, target 14 sets out that biodiversity should be integrated into “policies, regulations, planning and development processes, poverty eradication strategies, strategic environmental assessments, environmental impact assessments and, as appropriate, national accounting, within and across all levels of government and across all sectors, in particular those with significant impacts on biodiversity”. The concept behind this target has been termed ‘mainstreaming biodiversity’ and was a key theme in Montréal, becoming a catchphrase heard across the venue.
Mainstreaming biodiversity means including a focus on nature, and the services it provides, within and across different sectors and at many levels of governance, so it becomes a core part of decision making. It is not enough that biodiversity is “on the government’s agenda”, as it is often viewed as a separate, low priority issue compared with a large list of urgencies (such as housing, health, trade…). Instead, governments must understand that biodiversity loss will undermine other high priorities issues and should take an integrative approach by incorporating biodiversity into all aspects of their decision-making. This approach would help address some of the root causes of biodiversity loss and ensure that different sectors take responsibility for maintaining and improving biodiversity.
More than just “blah blah blah…”?
This is not the first time the idea of mainstreaming has been mentioned at a COP. So how can it become a reality in our governance structures this time, and not just the latest COP catchphrase? My PhD research looks at how biodiversity is integrated (or mainstreamed) across the United Nations (UN) and what the barriers to this are. The UN is not one homogenous body but is made up of a system of agencies, organisations and programmes, each with a specific mandate (collectively referred to as the UN Systems) – which critics have argued leads to siloed and disjointed work across the UN. During the COP15 proceedings, the UN Environmental Programme’s Executive Director, Inger Anderson, made it clear that the entities across the UN systems must “provide a common narrative to issues that we know need to be lifted”. But biodiversity mainstreaming must go beyond just finding a common narrative. There is a need for a paradigm shift in how entities integrate biodiversity across this system and work together.
During the side events on the UN’s approach to biodiversity that I attended, different UN agencies were very self-aware of the issues they faced in mainstreaming biodiversity, highlighting specific barriers including:
- Lack of incentives for cross-agency collaboration,
- Organisational language barriers (for example, do we even think about the same thing when we say “biodiversity”?),
- A culture of competition rather, than joined-up working, in response to overlaps across different UN programmes.
The UN has adopted frameworks that commit to mainstream biodiversity through better coordinated efforts. The Common Approach to Biodiversity and Nature-Based Solutions, for example, outlines a list of practical interventions to promote joint delivery of biodiversity initiatives. However, changing the working culture across the UN Systems is no mean feat, and these interventions don’t yet address some of the key structural and systemic barriers to mainstreaming biodiversity (like those described above).
In its 2019 assessment, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) recognised that the goal of mainstreaming biodiversity will ultimately require a ‘transformational change’ across current systems of governance – defined as a fundamental re-organisation of governance systems and structures. This assessment was crucial in defining the focus for the GBF and, consequently, catalysing transformational change was highlighted as a key aim of this framework. However, this ambition doesn’t follow through to the final GBF targets, with no mention of transformational change in any of them. As a result, the call for a transformation to current systems is watered down within the final framework.
Eight years and counting
While often seen as the ‘other’ UN convention, next to the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, COP15 has done a great job of putting biodiversity on the agenda. But implementing the GBF by 2030 – and ensuring its targets are not empty promises – is the next step.
The ambitious goals agreed, such as protecting 30% of marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems by 2030, will not be met on current trajectories. Transforming governance systems, such as the UN, will be essential for the next eight years of action, otherwise any efforts to protect and restore biodiversity will be undermined and weakened by fragmented, siloed and contradictory approaches to implementation.
Although the barriers to mainstreaming biodiversity I’ve identified above relate to the UN systems, they are applicable more widely, and should encourage us all to consider the barriers within our own governments, institutions and places of work. Can we imagine what a transformative change to these structures would look like?
Read our briefing paper, which considers the relationship between the biodiversity and climate crises, the interactions between them, and why an integrated approach is essential to creating a sustainable future where people and planet can thrive: The interactions between biodiversity and climate change and the actions required to tackle both issues simultaneously and synergistically