In formal terms, the crowning event of this “Super Year for Nature” will be the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (CBD). Following on a World Economic Forum Annual Meeting that strongly focused on biodiversity (for the first time) and the mammoth IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille in June, it is a vessel into which a great deal of hope is being poured.

The Super Year for Nature comes on the heels of a series of reports on ever-worsening reports on global biodiversity trends from the IPBES, and closes a disappointing decade during which the Aichi biodiversity targets were meant to be implemented – but weren’t. Certainly, in terms of biodiversity and ecosystem health, we are headed the wrong direction at an accelerating pace, and past efforts to reverse this trend have proven to be insufficient.

The CBD secretariat has recently released a “zero” draft of the COP outcome document. This is a first glimpse of the strategic framework that is to govern and embrace global cooperative action to save and restore biodiversity in the course of this new decade – surely the last in which humanity has a chance to avoid planetary disaster. Here we provide a review of the analysis of the problem, the identification of the key areas for action, about the ambition level, and the hidden messages. Based on these, we also provide some conclusions about the prospects for success.

Problem Analysis

In the 28 years since CBD was adopted, the Secretariat and Member States have certainly advanced in their understanding of what drives biodiversity loss and the scale of the changes required to reverse present trends. IPBES can marshal and model the data, monitor trends, and warn us where these are taking us, and they can hit the alarm button and ensure that its echoes reach the furthest corners of the globe. However, it is increasingly clear that, while the analysis of what needs to change is powerful and well made, exactly how these changes will be achieved is barely mentioned.

Key Areas for Action

Interestingly, the nature and scale of the change we need requires mobilisation of actors well beyond the traditional CBD community. Indeed, a significant part of the action called for, directly or by implication, relates to the domain of macroeconomic policy or the choice of development model, and even to fundamental notions of social justice, inclusive and participatory democracy, and respect for traditional cultures and lifestyles. Nobody engaged in the conservation or restoration of natural resources or ecosystems can be in any doubt that the broad focus of CBD’s targets is correct. The “transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors” in the opening paragraphs highlight exactly what is needed to  generate action at scale.

Ambition Level

With every CBD COP, the warnings grow more dire and the required level of ambition rises in proportion. In response, the zero draft is correct in its calls for transformative shifts in how the economy functions, “whole of government responses”, reform of incentives, subsidies and economic sectors, and integration of biodiversity considerations into planning, development, poverty strategies as well as into accounting. All this, and more, is needed to put in place an enabling policy and regulatory framework that would eliminate perverse incentives to over-exploit nature and replace them with incentives that reward conservation-friendly action. It appeals to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and many others, suggesting that these frameworks have already been identified and adopted, but that we now need to take them seriously. The level of ambition implicit in the zero draft is something to be celebrated.

Hidden Messages

It is hard not to read the zero draft as a cry for help wrapped in bureaucratic language. It is in many ways a touching appeal from a limited community, overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges that it is facing, to the much more powerful elite political and economic communities, which could take the required action but are not listening. The sub-text is that addressing the challenges at scale will require concerted action across a much broader front than the one CBD can muster. Further, most of the political and economic leaders needed on that front have shown no particular commitment to this agenda, and are not signed up to the cause of transformative change and paradigm shift.

Enabling Conditions

So, are we headed to the COP in Kunming in October with a real chance of securing the commitments needed to turn the trends around at the pace and scale required ? Nothing suggests a positive answer. Everything points to repeat of the patterns that have prevailed since the CBD was adopted in 1992 – a surge of mobilisation and hope, a set of ambitious targets solemnly adopted, but with necessary commitment to action hampered by the need for consensus in the multilateral process.

The zero draft offers a theory of change, but it is not one that inspires confidence. It lacks recognition – and a pathway towards – what is really needed: a genuine questioning of the status quo and a recognition of its profound incompatibility with what is needed to deliver the reversal of trends on which the future of our planet depends.

Ultimately, the zero draft focuses – like so many exhortatory texts – on setting out what needs to be done, without shedding light on the essential question of how it is to be done. This is perhaps understandable, given the intergovernmental nature of the CBD process and the required understatement and modesty in which CBD is obliged to embed its advice. But success requires the sort of action that the CBD cannot deliver – its limited mandate prevents achievement of the goals and targets it so clearly, and correctly, identifies. As the challenge grows, so the action needed becomes more radical as the chances of genuine political sign-up recede. This means that the (necessary) multilateral process must be supported and complemented by unprecedented support from all sides.

The theory of change “assumes that transformative actions are taken to put in place [the necessary] tools and solutions”. It goes on to identify the enabling conditions and means of implementation needed to achieve this. These preconditions for transformative action are essential and sit squarely on the need for “adequate inclusive and integrative governance [and] political will… at the highest levels of government”. These are the very preconditions for success that the CBD’s political mandate prevents it from focusing on. Without these any ‘Kunming Commitments’ will, likely, go the way of the Aichi targets, and the dodo.

Better Nature Together welcomes comments and responses to this briefing. In the first instance please respond using this form. As responses are received we’ll bring commentators together to continue discussion, refine and improve the proposals and discuss and agree on next steps.