June 11, 2014
Intergovernmental negotiations under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Cancún, Mexico ended on Friday with a slew of decisions aimed at safeguarding nature, ensuring natural resources can be used sustainably, and that the benefits are shared fairly and equitably.
The parties to the CBD, which include nearly all countries except the United States, agreed to integrate biodiversity into the policies of key economic sectors that depend on and impact nature. For the first time, high-level participation included environment ministers and also ministers of agriculture, forestry, fisheries and tourism.
The gathered ministers and heads of delegations committed in a Cancún Declaration to specific actions in each of these sectors, and “to work at all levels within our governments and across all sectors to mainstream biodiversity, establishing effective institutional, legislative and regulatory frameworks”.
This “mainstreaming” approach, coupled with pledges to bring the values of biodiversity into national accounting systems, may mean that biodiversity at last gets the attention it deserves.
However, despite the progress, a new rift between developed and developing countries has emerged. The split, which concerns digital information on genetic sequences, may have far-reaching implications for the CBD and will be addressed at its next meeting in 2018.
Good news and bad
The Cancún talks, held from 4-17 December and attended by four thousand delegates from 167 countries, got off to a good start with a number of high profile announcements. Brazil unveiled plans to restore 22 million hectares of degraded land by 2030, the largest ever commitment of this kind. Mexico announced four new biological reserves and five more protected areas. Among other moves, Japan pledged US$16 million to support capacity-building activities in developing countries.
It wasn’t all good news though. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature declared that 11% of 700 newly-recognised bird species are threatened with extinction and that giraffes have declined in number by 40% in just three decades. Meanwhile, the CBD Secretariat warned that two-thirds of the 20 globally agreed goals to address biodiversity loss – the Aichi Biodiversity Targets – are at risk of not being met by the 2020 deadline, “with serious consequences for human well-being”.
In Cancún, governments agreed more than 70 detailed decisions on everything from sustainable use of bushmeat to climate-related geoengineering, from invasive alien species to the impacts of marine debris and underwater noise.
They adopted a short-term action plan on ecological restoration, a decision to improve conservation and management of pollinators that are essential for food security, and a set of indicators for tracking progress towards the Aichi targets.
Other decisions included the repatriation of traditional knowledge; ecologically or biologically significant ocean areas; capacity building; and a global communication strategy. Parties also agreed on guidance to ensure the Global Environmental Facility, the CBD’s multilateral financial mechanism, can prioritise issues agreed in Cancún.
Protests and progress
Progress was not easy. On the penultimate day, representatives of indigenous peoples and local communities walked out of negotiations on guidelines for ensuring they have a say in how their traditional knowledge can be accessed and that they share the benefits arising from its use.
They were unhappy with proposed language describing how these groups would give consent to the use of their knowledge. Nongovernmental organisations staged a sit-in protest in solidarity.
After much debate, the parties to the CBD adopted the guidelines with text that says “prior informed consent”, or “free prior informed consent” or “approval and involvement”, depending on national circumstances, should be implemented in a context of “full respect” for the indigenous peoples and local communities.
Among the more controversial topics under discussion was ‘synthetic biology’, an emerging field of biotechnology that offers both opportunities and risks for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. Synthetic biology can be used to create both living and non-living organisms, genetic materials and biological systems.
One example is the use of so-called gene drives, through which it is possible to force a genetic trait to spread through a population of plants or animals. This approach could be used to reduce reproduction in crop pests or mosquitoes that spread disease, or to eliminate pesticide resistance in weeds.
Amid concerns that such approaches could harm biodiversity, the final decision on this topic invites governments to take a precautionary approach and says current ways to assess risks may need to be updated for future applications of synthetic biology.
The decision adopted encourages parties to the CBD to do research and foster public dialogue on potential risks and benefits of synthetic biology. It also extended the mandate of the CBD’s expert group to review and analyse relevant information on this emerging field of science.
Managing risks, sharing benefits
The negotiations included talks under the CBD’s Cartagena Protocol that aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity.
Parties to the Cartagena Protocol agreed to decisions on risk management, transit and contained use of living modified organisms, and on unintended transboundary movements of such organisms.
Parallel talks focused on the CBD’s Nagoya Protocol on access to genetic resources and the sharing of benefits arising from their use. The Nagoya Protocol governs interactions between providers of genetic resources, whether communities of indigenous peoples or national governments, and users of such resources such as universities or biotech companies.
In force since 2014, the protocol requires the two sides to reach mutually agreed terms and ensure that resources are used with the prior informed consent of the providers. But as there are cases in which this has not been possible, the parties to the protocol agreed actions that could lead to the establishment of a global multilateral benefit-sharing mechanism.
Among the most contentious issues in the negotiations was ‘digital sequence information on genetic resources’. Biodiverse countries such as Brazil, South Africa and India are concerned by projects that place commercially valuable DNA sequences online without following CBD rules requiring users of genetic resources to share benefits with source countries or communities.
Once such data is online, anyone can easily access and use it without needing physical access to genetic resources. The fear among developing nations is that this will lead to ‘digital biopiracy’, whereby information that originated in a country’s plants, microbes, animals or fungi could be commercially exploited without any benefits flowing back to that country.
Some nations argued however that the CBD and its Nagoya Protocol apply only to physical material and not information. In the end, the parties agreed that the CBD should seek views, commission research and set up an expert group to assess what implications the use of genetic sequence information has for the CBD and Nagoya Protocol.
The expert group will report to the CBD’s subsidiary body on scientific, technical and technological advice, probably in 2017, so that the parties to the CBD and Nagoya Protocol can make an informed decision when they next meet, in 2018 in Egypt.
As the question of access and benefit-sharing is one of the three pillars of the CBD, this will be a fight to watch in the years ahead. After Egypt, the CBD’s parties will meet in China in 2020 and Turkey in 2022.
Mike Shanahan is a freelance writer and journalist, specialising in environmental issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss.