COP 15 and ‘30 by 2030’ – An Empty Promise and a Catchphrase Too Far

To the casual observer who is relatively objective and impartial, the Biodiversity Summit in Montreal, which ended today, appeared to signal a desire for meaningful changes to the ways in which nature is protected. Confusingly dubbed COP 15, it has been running behind the similarly convened climate summit, which is now in its twenty-seventh incarnation.

Chaired jointly by Canada and China, the primary goal of Cop 15 was to significantly progress the development of a Global Diversity Framework (GBF) and add the nuts to the bolts of the Convention on Biodiversity. If the aim was to build some robust administrative and legal machinery designed to protect biodiversity, then it’s far from clear how the moving parts can be put together. It’s hard to work out, at this stage, whether the apparatus will resemble an engine for change, or a Heath Robinson contraption that might fall apart at any moment.

It is, of course, entirely possible to gather the information necessary for any kind of GBF, but it won’t be easy. Obviously, any sort of global agreement is highly complex and will almost certainly never satisfy everyone. It will involve the goodwill of many countries and a far better understanding of conditions on the ground in biodiversity hotspots and threatened biomes. This is before we even start arguing amongst ourselves about the money, for the true cost of re-setting humanity’s relationship with nature will be eye-watering, compared to the pitiful sums we presently allocate to conservation.

We will be doing well if can win consensus around the important principle that all of nature has intrinsic worth that has to be valued equally alongside the benefits we accrue from exploiting its riches. It’s important because it’s fundamental to the perpetuation of extant lifeforms and natural systems, and even more fundamental to the biodiversity continuum. Sadly, COP 15, in trying to negotiate a better deal for nature, has come up with a proposition that leaves the door wide open for ‘business as usual’ for big business.

In tandem with this cop-out, a loose coalition of influential parties, flying under the banner of Nature Positive, proposed that global conservation should aim for the protection and/or restoration of 30% of the planet’s global biodiversity by 2030. From there, they say, biodiversity has a chance of becoming self-healing. If, however, you live in a country where exploitation, venality, corruption and criminality are the norm, then this figure may sound wildly optimistic. If you are a conservation biologist, or even just a humble natural history writer, you might well consider “30 by 2030” to be fatally unambitious.

Indeed, it’s all rather suggestive of “jam tomorrow, spread thinly.” Little wonder then, that ‘world leaders’ pushed through ‘30 by 2030’, hailing it as a ‘once in a decade landmark agreement’. In other words, they have jumped at the chance to underachieve for the next eight years and hope for the best. Worse still, there is, no new money for any of this. Countries are expected to continue competing for financing through the UN’s Global Environment Facility (GEF). China, with clear and present strategic ambitions in Africa is, along with Brazil, Indonesia, India and Mexico, among the top recipients of GEF funding. Without substantial new funding, “30 by 2030” already rings hollow, for global conservation will be no more empowered than it was before COP 15, and the Global Diversity Framework will remain a gimcrack edifice.

The wish list of ‘Nature Positive’ imperatives that conservation NGOs strive for is, of course, laudable. They are the basis of a roadmap out of crisis, and usefully provide us with some initial directions. They are, however, worded in the most prosaic and leaden way, with chewy sentences that are not easily communicable to a global audience. Now, any virtuous campaign that seeks to reach out to a wider audience will boil down unwieldy and complex issues into a few short sentences, or better still a couple of words.

We have had “Small is Beautiful”, “Save the Whales”, “Atomik Craft – Nein Danke!”, “Think Global, Act Local”, and the semi-literate “Conservation in Action”. It seems now that the way to save a third of the Earth’s biodiversity is to be “Nature Positive” and settle for “30 by 2030”. As slogans go, they are both pretty weak but, then again, conventional marketing and communications around nature conservation are often designed to be inoffensive. More importantly, “30 by 2030”’ had already split the room and divided opinion in Montreal as early as the mid-point of the summit.

Yet, the coming together of NGOs, faith groups, individuals and government officials to speak with one voice is encouraging. It remains to be seen if such coalitions can evolve into permanent global institutions. They have come together to issue a clarion call to action, but something so obviously confected and insubstantial as ‘Nature Positive’ is unlikely to travel far into the global consciousness. It certainly failed to launch at COP15 so, perhaps, it deserves to just go away and die quietly.

In my view, which is based on experience, affirmative action is driven by affirmative language. The words that make the most impact are simple, direct, and organic. They spring from everyday discourse and spread by word-of-mouth. It is messaging that quickly becomes the lingua franca of influential ideas, and soon passes into everyday parlance. Everyone now knows what it is to be Green, but this one-word term actually gathered momentum very quickly from the 1970s onwards. It has endured not because small is beautiful, but because short and to the point is more effective than the 900-odd words I’ve just written.

If species are to be saved from extinction and biodiversity is to be preserved, then “governmental and non-governmental actors” cannot merely promote nature conservation with a trite catchphrase, they have to demonstrate that, like climate change, it has to be prioritised. To be vaguely positive and prepared to settle for less won’t do. The planet has to be protected by the people, for the people, and it needs that protection urgently. So why not say exactly that? Let us teach our children to ‘Protect the Planet’ – write it down, spread the word, do it now.

Michael Stephen Clark