COVID delays are thwarting world plans to save biodiversity

3 young caimans caught by illegal hunters in the Amazon of Brazil.

Young caimans caught in Brazil. Illegal hunting is a major threat to biodiversity.Credit: Collart Hervé/Sygma via Getty

Researchers are increasingly concerned that the world is two years behind schedule to finalize a new global framework to protect biodiversity. They say the delay in the deal, which aims to halt alarming species extinctions and protect vulnerable ecosystems, has implications for countries’ ability to meet ambitious biodiversity targets over the next decade.

Representatives from nearly 200 member states of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) were scheduled to meet in Kunming, China, in October 2020 to finalize a draft treaty. It includes 21 conservation goals, including protecting 30% of the world’s land and seas. But the meeting, dubbed the 15th Conference of the Parties, was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and has since been postponed several times.

The conference is tentatively rescheduled to late August or early September, but China – which is also hosting as conference president – has not confirmed the date. And now the country’s strict COVID-19 lockdown in Shanghai and rising cases of the virus in Beijing have called that meeting into question as well.

Researchers say the delay in completing the deal is stymieing conservation work, particularly in countries that rely on funds provided by wealthier nations to meet the goals. The nearly two-year delay means countries will have less time to meet the deal’s 2030 deadline. “We now have eight years to do more as many countries face recession and try to prioritize economic recovery,” says Alice Hughes, a conservation biologist at the University of Hong Kong. “The longer we wait, the more diversity is lost.”

A 2019 report estimated that about a million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction, many within decades. In the last 2 years alone, the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List has declared more than 100 species to be extinct, including the greater lipped lemur (Palaeopropithecus ingens), the Guam flying fox (Pteropus tokudae) and the Yunnan sea newt (Cynops Wolterstorffi). Sparse monitoring means the true extent of species and habitat loss is unknown, says Hughes.

Additionally, tropical forests, particularly in Brazil, are disappearing rapidly, conservation measures have been relaxed in some regions, and researchers have documented escalated plant poaching caused by unemployment during the pandemic. “Every year we are losing biodiversity at an unprecedented and unacceptable rate, undermining nature and human well-being,” says Robert Watson, a retired environmental scientist formerly at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK.

release funds

The importance of a global deal on biodiversity cannot be overstated, says Aban Marker Kabraji, United Nations adviser on biodiversity and climate change. These agreements spur action – for example, governments could wait to update or develop their national strategies until they are settled. “It is extremely important that these meetings take place in the cycle in which they are planned,” says Kabraji.

Global agreements also result in the release of funds earmarked to help countries meet their biodiversity goals, such as through the Global Environment Facility, Hughes says. At a preparatory meeting in October 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged 1.5 billion yuan ($223 million) to a Kunming Biodiversity Fund to help developing countries protect their biodiversity, but details of those funds have yet to be released.

Delays in funding will be felt mostly in “countries that have the highest levels of biodiversity and the fewest resources to actually conserve it,” says Kabraji.

meeting uncertain

The CBD Secretariat in Montreal, Canada has said the Kunming Conference will take place in the third quarter of 2022, but is waiting for China to confirm the dates. David Ainsworth, Information Officer for the Secretariat, says preparations for the meeting are underway, including plans to isolate those attending the meeting from local residents, similar to what happened at the Beijing Winter Olympics in February. There are arrangements for the event to be held at a different location if a host is forced to step down, but Ainsworth says there are no official plans for that just yet. Conference officials, including representatives from China, are scheduled to meet on May 19 to discuss the date and location of the summit, he says.

A decision to postpone the meeting would require China’s approval, which it is unlikely to agree to, researchers say. But sticking to holding the meeting in Kunming could delay it further due to China’s strict lockdowns that have brought cities to a standstill. Several major sporting events scheduled for later this year, including the Asian Games in Hangzhou, have already been postponed. The meeting will likely be postponed to September or even next year, says Ma Keping, an ecologist at the Institute of Botany of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

Some researchers say the world should wait for China to host the meeting — whenever that will be — and that its leadership is important to the negotiations’ success. “The Chinese government has worked very hard to prepare such a meeting,” says Ma. “It should happen in China.”

Others think it is more important that the meeting takes place this year – whether in China or not. Facilities to host such a meeting exist in Rome, Nairobi and Montreal. “Any of these locations would be preferable to an indefinite further delay,” says Hughes.

“Another delay sends a problematic signal that habitat loss and species extinction can somehow wait,” said Li Shuo, policy adviser at Greenpeace China in Beijing.

Regardless of when and where the meeting takes place, the researchers say the most important thing is for the world to agree on and meet ambitious biodiversity goals. The two-year delay has given countries more time to develop the draft framework, but countries have yet to agree to many conditions or figure out how to fund and monitor the work. There is “significant disagreement about almost every aspect of each goal,” says Anne Larigauderie, executive secretary of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Bonn, Germany. The nations will meet only once more – in June in Nairobi, Kenya – before the deal is expected to be finalized at the Kunming Summit.

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