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November 12, 2019

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The urgency for a global biodiversity accord

Governments from around the world are already preparing for the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Kunming, China. This is no ordinary gathering: Its goal will be to conclude a new policy framework on biodiversity that works for all member states.

Although the CBD adopted the Aichi Biodiversity Targets in 2010, the international community has been decidedly ineffective in achieving them.

The next decade will show that we can no longer treat the destruction of nature as “business as usual.” We are quickly approaching environmental and climatic tipping points that could trigger catastrophic feedback loops, making climate change impossible to reverse. A major report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services earlier this year showed that our current activities could lead to the extinction of up to 1 million species in the next few decades.

Given that such losses to biodiversity will jeopardize the future of humankind itself, the time for effective public and private leadership is now — or never. In developing a framework to align international policies and industrial practices, we should focus on 10 key priorities that belong in any new CBD framework.

First, we must end the global trade in wildlife and endangered species, by making it illegal in both supplier and destination countries. As matters stand, the international community is doing nothing about this issue.

Second, we need a global agreement on how to regulate high-seas industrial fishing, given that industry subsidies are currently contributing to unsustainable overfishing.

Third, we must put an immediate stop to industrial-scale logging and burning of primary forests, be they tropical, boreal, or temperate. Allowing such activities makes no sense. Industrial logging benefits neither governments nor indigenous communities, which should be permitted to farm and log their own lands sustainably.

Fourth, related priority is to ban deforestation across the board. In many countries, deforestation can be conducted legally simply by submitting a request for a change in land use on a given plot. Reaching a world of zero-deforestation commodities will require the support of private companies and consumers who are willing to make a change.

Fifth, we need all governments to adopt a carbon tax, without which we will be effectively promoting a market failure. Currently, we not only subsidize fossil fuels; we also fail to provide ample compensation for the carbon sequestration provided by tropical forests, agroforestry systems, mangroves and wetlands. While carbon prices in voluntary markets averaged US$3 per ton of CO2 equivalent in 2016, the global price should be in the order of US$40 per ton if we are to meet the reduction targets under the 2015 Paris climate accord.

A carbon tax makes sense

Implementing a carbon tax might be politically complicated, but it makes perfect economic sense. Costa Rica introduced a carbon tax in 1997 that now generates US$32 million per year. Those funds are then used to provide environmental services to indigenous communities, farmers and others who plant trees with the intention of increasing biomass in the productive landscape.

Sixth, we should adopt a new financial target for the international community’s biodiversity efforts. We are currently investing a mere 0.08 percent of global GDP in natural conservation. If we can commit to mobilizing 1 percent of global GDP under the new framework, we will have the resources to meet all the other targets we set. Although conservation programs are a domestic matter for national governments, the target should be framed as a multilateral benchmark, given that biodiversity loss is a shared problem.

Seventh, we must stop — and reverse, if possible — PADDD (protected area downgrading, downsizing, degazettement) events. In the US and elsewhere, the movement to deregulate protected lands, or to strip them of their protected status entirely, is well-funded and powerful. Obviously, such efforts pose a direct threat to all conservation efforts.

Eighth, we should aim to phase out single-use plastics before the end of next decade, as the accumulation of non-biodegradable plastics is impeding many other conservation efforts.

Ninth, in a similar vein, we need to start thinking about how we can tax pollution of all kinds. In too many cases, polluting is simply free. In the absence of any costs, the problem will only worsen.

Finally, governments urgently need to adopt green national accounting systems. Effective policymaking requires the best available data. Insofar as the current economic system fails to account for biodiversity loss, water pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions, it is part of the problem, not the solution.

Carlos Manuel Rodríguez is minister of environment and energy of Costa Rica. Alvaro Cedeno Molinari is a former Costa Rican ambassador to Japan and the World Trade Organization. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.


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