In December 2022 the world finally delivered one of the most consequential decisions for nature this decade, a new Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), or global goals for nature, at COP15 in Montreal.
The GBF consists of a mission, 4 goals for 2050, and 23 targets that need to be met by 2030 to show the world is on track to deliver on the goals and mission. The meeting was postponed no less than three times due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ultimately required four years of negotiations.
What we got was a surprisingly good deal – it isn’t perfect by any means, but it still has the potential to be a global game-changer for nature. And for the first time in a long time, Australia played a leading role in improving the agreement.
We need to meet or exceed all of the goals and targets in order to reverse nature destruction, they all matter, but here are the some of the key ones:
We often talk about the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity destruction - both are urgent threats to the planet, both stem from the same failures, and we have to solve both together or we’ll solve neither. COP15 was billed by many as the opportunity for nature to have its ‘Paris moment’, that is, to get a global commitment on reversing nature destruction equivalent to the Paris Agreement to limit global heating to 1.5C.
Biodiversity is too multifaceted to get a single goal like 1.5C, but the 2030 mission to “halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030 to put nature on a path to recovery” is an attempt to define something as clear and measurable as possible. It’s close to the ‘Nature Positive’ global goal for nature many of us were calling for. The current trajectory for biodiversity is rapid and unprecedented decline, so what this mission means is that we have to take urgent action to ‘bend the curve’ of nature destruction so that by the end of the decade nature’s health is improving – species are recovering, there are more healthy forests and wetlands, and we’ve put a stop to the most damaging activities that have created the nature crisis, like deforestation and land clearing.
Given a million species globally are threatened with extinction, the world shamefully failed to deliver an ambitious species target – target 4 calls for ‘action to halt human induced extinctions’, but sets no deadline for extinction to end so effectively allows for plants and animals to continue to disappear from the face of the earth through 2050.
This is one target where Australia’s leadership was clear. Our domestic commitment to end all extinctions immediately is world-leading, so long as it is backed by the government-led action needed to deliver it. That’s easier said than done for a country that is megadiverse, has a global deforestation front, and has the current worst record on mammal extinctions in the world. It will take strong and ambitious action including new laws that actually protect nature, an independent regulator to enforce them, and a substantial increase in funding to protect and restore threatened species and ecosystems.
It went down to the final hours, but we got an agreement to protect 30% of the world’s land and ocean including terrestrial, inland waters, coastal and marine ecosystems. The 30x30 target (Target 3) was easily the most headline-grabbing of all the targets. It’s big and ambitious, and means almost doubling the area of the world under protection in only eight years. It was also contentious because of the history of protected area conservation trampling First Nations rights and disregarding the important land management approaches Indigenous Peoples have practised for millennia that have delivered good outcomes for people and biodiversity. In the end, the target included recognition and respect for the rights of Indigenous Peoples, including over their traditional territories.
Australia was already committed to delivering a representative 30% protection of land and of sea, and again our government showed some leadership in Montreal by offering to assist our Island neighbours to deliver their own 30x30 outcomes.
Photo: Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek at COP15. Credit: Tessa Stevens / ACF
One of the big surprises was that we also got a target (Target 2) to have 30% of the landscapes we’ve already degraded, through things like farming and urban development, under restoration by 2030. That’s a big deal, and an essential part of restoring nature to health in Australia, considering we've already cleared about half of Australia’s forest and woodland, converted wetlands, redirected rivers, and covered so much of our coastlines with concrete. It’s also going to need a genuine commitment of funding from governments, the good news is it only needs a fraction of what we already spend on things like the military. And since our economy is completely dependent on nature, every dollar invested in improving nature’s health comes back to us multiplied.
Nature is hot right now in business and finance circles and COP15 saw unprecedented attendance from the corporate world. Unlike the fossil fuel company presence at recent climate COPs which has hampered ambition, in Montreal groups like Business for Nature and Finance for Biodiversity actually pushed a more ambitious agenda than most national governments, including calling for mandatory reporting standards and a reduction of negative business impacts by half. Sadly, very few Australian businesses showed up compared to European, Asian, and American counterparts.
Like the Paris Agreement, the global goals for nature will set the expectation for responsible business globally. Of course, businesses have largely failed to align themselves with the goals of the Paris Agreement, so the proof of COP15’s success will be in the implementation.
That’s why it’s so important that for the first time in a global nature agreement, there are targets that will require the business world to align their operations with the global goals. Target 15 means that governments will need to introduce regulation that requires big business and financial institutions to disclose their risks, impacts, and dependencies on nature through their investments and value chains.
Business will also be affected by targets that require them to provide people with the information they need to make sustainable choices (also Target 15); reduce the footprint of consumption and halve global food waste (Target 16); and ensure areas under agriculture, forestry, fisheries are managed sustainably (Target 10). They will be also affected by an end to subsidies that are harmful to nature (Target 18).
Of course, the goals and targets agreed at COP15 will only be achieved when they are implemented by national governments. Because agreement on the global goals for nature was delayed by two years, we’ll need to get started right away if we’re to halt and reverse nature destruction by the end of the decade.
Over the next year or so, Australia will have to develop a plan for how it will achieve each of the goals and targets agreed in Montreal. Which rivers and forests will be added to our national protected area network to achieve a 30% target that is representative of the biodiversity that needs protecting? Which degraded woodlands and wetlands will we restore first? How much funding will governments commit? And what new laws will be put in place to protect threatened species and ecosystems and ensure businesses reveal their impact on nature, avoid further harm, and repair the damage they’ve already caused?
Along with every country that’s signed up to the UN Biodiversity Convention, the federal government will then have to submit its National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) to be scrutinised in the lead up to the next nature COP, in 2024 and then give regular progress reports. We, and the world, will be watching.