22 February

Written by Stewart M. Patrick

His is shaping up to be a make-or-break year for international cooperation on biodiversity, though you might not know it. American news outlets have focused most if not all of their recent environmental reporting on climate change. On one level, of course, this makes sense. Climate change is the most daunting collective challenge that humanity has ever faced, and nations have fallen far behind the emissions reduction targets they set in Paris in 2015.

Given these stakes, it’s certainly front-page news that President Joe Biden has called climate change a top-tier U.S. national security threat. What’s more, he has also already scheduled an Earth Day summit to press for greater emissions reductions, committed to decarbonize the U.S. economy by 2050, and appointed a climate czar, Gina McCarthy, to mainstream climate policy across the U.S. government, and a special climate envoy, John Kerry, to serve as his global emissary.

However, climate change is not the only environmental emergency confronting the planet. The world is also experiencing a historic collapse of global biodiversity that merits far more attention. Its leading cause is not climate change—at least not yet—but intensive land use. Rampant pollution, invasive species and the unsustainable exploitation of living organisms are also contributing to the degradation of nature.

Collectively, these forces threaten the extinction of 1 million species, out of an estimated 8 million to 9 million in total worldwide. They also threaten the continued destruction of terrestrial and marine ecosystems that provide humanity with innumerable benefits, among them the air we breathe, the water we drink, the insects that pollinate our crops, the fisheries that feed us, the microorganisms that enrich our soils, the genetic riches that underpin new medicines, and so much more. Such “ecosystem services” rarely appear on countries’ current accounts or corporations’ balance sheets. Yet the World Economic Forum estimates that half of all global GDP is “moderately or highly dependent” on such “natural capital” assets. The fact that COVID-19 is a zoonosis—a disease produced by a virus or other pathogen that has jumped from an animal to humans, in this case from bats, by all accounts—only reinforces the intimate link between human and environmental health.

Fortunately, the Biden administration has two golden opportunities during 2021 to help bend the curve of biodiversity loss downward. The first is by ensuring a successful 15th conference of parties, known as COP15, to the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, scheduled for May 17-31 in Kunming, China. The second is by shepherding the conclusion this summer of a new U.N. High Seas Biodiversity Treaty. I’ll address the Convention on Biological Diversity this week, and look to the High Seas Biodiversity Treaty next week.

To date, multilateral efforts to preserve global biodiversity have failed miserably. Back in 2010, at COP10 in Nagoya, Japan, the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity committed to 20 objectives intended to guide their policies through 2020. These so-called Aichi Targets included pledges to, among other things, protect fragile habitats, preserve genetic diversity, lower extinction rates, eliminate invasive species, reduce pollution, manage agriculture and fisheries sustainably, and generally elevate biodiversity in national development plans. The world fell far short of meeting these aspirations, because the targets were often vague, unaccompanied by quantifiable indicators and poorly aligned to specific national commitments for which governments could be held accountable.

COP15 demands a new approach, combining bold global commitments, national flexibility in implementation, and rigorous monitoring and verification. At last month’s One Planet Summit for Biodiversity in France, more than 50 nations calling themselves the “High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People” endorsed the “30 by 30” objective, which would permanently protect 30 percent of Earth’s land and marine surface by 2030. Achieving that, the coalition says, will advance four aims: preventing biodiversity loss, preserving vital carbon sinks, conserving “natural capital” assets required for sustainable economic growth, and reducing the risk of future pandemics.
The current “zero draft” ahead of COP15 for what it calls the “Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework” proposes eight milestones for progress by 2030, supported by 20 new “action targets.” In contrast to the Aichi approach, most are accompanied by numeric indicators against which to gauge progress. The draft also includes welcome provisions for reporting and monitoring, transparency and data-sharing, and peer review by other parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The United States seems ready to join this global campaign. In his sweeping climate change executive order on Jan. 27, Biden quietly committed the U.S. to achieve the “30 by 30” objective domestically. (Today, about 26 percent of U.S. seas and 12 percent of U.S. land enjoy some protections). Beyond this goal, he should launch a full-court diplomatic press to ensure a successful outcome in Kunming. Admittedly, American leadership on biodiversity is a tricky proposition. Although U.S. negotiators helped draft the Convention on Biological Diversity, which emerged from the Rio Summit in 1992, Washington never ratified it. As a non-party, the U.S. participates in treaty deliberations only as an “observer.” Despite this handicap, America’s geopolitical heft and economic clout gives it significant influence in international biodiversity negotiations—including in the run-up to Kunming.

To increase U.S. diplomatic leverage and credibility, Biden should publicly announce his intent to include the Convention on Biological Diversity in the “treaty priority list” that his administration will submit to the Senate this year for its advice and consent. The legislative hurdles to ratification are obviously high. Approval would require two-thirds support in the Senate, long known as “the graveyard of treaties” and now evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the deciding vote when the chamber is split along party lines. Still, environmental conservation is a rare issue that commands strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, with one-third of Senate and House members belonging to the International Conservation Caucus. Eventual U.S. accession is possible, provided the instrument of ratification includes specific reservations, understandings and declarations to reinforce the intellectual property rights of American companies and mollify conservative Republican senators with unrealistic fears that the convention could undermine U.S. sovereignty.

Beyond signaling support for the Convention on Biological Diversity, Biden should issue an executive order on combating biodiversity loss at home and abroad, as a complement to his recent one on climate change. The order should direct his administration to formulate a new National Strategy on Biodiversity, outlining a whole-of-government approach to combat the main drivers of species and ecosystem loss and the steps the U.S. will take to advance the “30 by 30” commitment. The strategy should designate a senior National Security Council official to coordinate the global dimensions of this strategy and enhance the role of the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs in providing diplomatic support for the overseas activities of the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Interior and others, as well as agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.

Simultaneously, the administration should work with Congress to redirect U.S. foreign aid to support the conservation efforts of foreign governments and international organizations. These steps could include devoting a greater share of USAID resources to support environmental stewardship by developing countries; making nature-friendly policies a criterion for foreign nations’ access to the Millennium Challenge Account, a separate foreign aid program that gives development grants to countries that adopt economic and political reforms; and expanding U.S. support for regional biodiversity initiatives in critical hotspots, along the lines of the Congo Basin Forest Partnership, which protects millions of acres in the world’s second-largest intact rainforest.

Biden should also instruct the Treasury Department to elevate biodiversity considerations in decisions by the executive boards of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other multilateral bodies as they seek to finance the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. Finally, he should direct the Department of Justice and other agencies to expand international law enforcement cooperation to combat environmental crime, including illegal logging, illicit wildlife trade, and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

The dramatic loss of global biodiversity, like the global climate emergency, poses a grave threat to humanity. For too long, modern societies have treated nature as something that is simply nice to have, so to speak, as if our species could exist apart from it. It is time, finally, to embrace environmental stewardship.