Can the U.N. Save the World from Ecological Collapse?

The Red List of Threatened Species might best be described as a lack-of-progress report. Every six months or so, the list, which is maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, is updated, and, with each update, more creatures are classified as heading toward oblivion. The latest update, issued last week, added seven hundred species to the roster of those threatened with extinction. Many of the new additions are classified as “critically endangered,” including the Hot Creek toad, found only in Nye County, Nevada, and the Dixie Valley toad, found in neighboring Churchill County. The trend “is that things are getting worse,” Craig Hilton-Taylor, the head of the I.U.C.N.’s Red List unit said, when the additions were released.

Not coincidentally, the latest Red List update was released just as the latest talks on the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity were getting under way. Some twenty thousand delegates from around the world have gathered in Montreal, where, it is hoped, they will agree on a “road map” for saving the world from ecological collapse. (The talks are scheduled to conclude on Monday.) António Guterres, the U.N. Secretary-General, outlined the enormousness of the task in his opening remarks. “Our land, water, and air are poisoned by chemicals and pesticides, and choked with plastics,” Guterres observed. “The addiction to fossil fuels has thrown our climate into chaos. Unsustainable production and monstrous consumption habits are degrading our world. Humanity has become a weapon of mass extinction.”

The Convention on Biological Diversity, an international agreement about species conservation, was presented to world leaders in 1992, at the so-called Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, alongside the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Since then, the climate-change treaty has received the lion’s share of the world’s attention, while the C.B.D. (and actual lions) have often been overlooked. The reasons for this disproportion are complicated, but one of them sits in Washington, D.C. A few months after the Earth Summit, the United States Senate unanimously approved ratification of the climate-change convention. But, owing to Republican lawmakers’ (largely specious) objections, which (ostensibly) involve concerns about American sovereignty and intellectual-property rights, the C.B.D. has never even been debated on the Senate floor. This is the case even though the convention was drafted under a Republican President, George H. W. Bush, and shaped by U.S. negotiators.

“The U.S. failure to ratify the CBD is a classic case of actual American ‘exemptionalism’—the tendency of the U.S. to seek to make rules for the world, only to defect in the end from a treaty it initially spearheaded,” Stewart Patrick, the director of the Global Order and Institutions Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote recently. At this point, the U.S. is the only member nation of the U.N. that has not ratified the C.B.D., a situation Patrick called “embarrassing, unconscionable and self-defeating.”

In the absence of American leadership—or, to be fair, any other kind—negotiations over fulfilling the terms of the biodiversity treaty have lurched along, the Red List has continued to grow, and the world’s remaining forests and coral reefs and grasslands have all continued to shrink. In 2002, the parties to the C.B.D. agreed to achieve a “significant reduction” in the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. The results of this effort—or, really, non-effort—have been described as “an abject failure.” In 2010, the parties agreed to a new set of ten-year goals, which became known, after the Japanese prefecture where they were negotiated, as the Aichi Targets. (The targets were optimistically subtitled “Living in Harmony with Nature.”) Signatory countries agreed to a list of twenty goals, which included setting aside seventeen per cent of the world’s land area and inland waters and ten per cent of its oceans as nature preserves. By September, 2020, progress had been made on some fronts, but not a single one of the twenty targets had been met. “Earth’s living systems as a whole are being compromised,” the executive secretary of the C.B.D., Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, said at the time. Negotiations on new targets were supposed to take place in October, 2020, in China; however, because of COVID, they kept being postponed.

Which brings us to the current gathering in Montreal. What’s now being debated has been dubbed the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. The latest draft of the framework contains twenty-two targets; the splashiest of these, which goes by the shorthand “30 by 30,” would commit countries to protecting thirty per cent of their land and water by 2030. (The Biden Administration has set a goal of “30 by 30” for the United States, and, despite not being a party to the C.B.D., the U.S. has sent a large delegation to Montreal.)

Does it make sense to set new, more ambitious targets for conservation when the old, more modest ones have yet to be achieved? Certainly it’s hard to imagine that the world, having failed to set aside seventeen per cent of its lands for conservation, will over the next eight years find its way clear to protecting thirty per cent. Many experts have pointed out that the post-2020 targets seem destined to meet the same fate as the Aichi Targets. “Despite decades of increasing investment in conservation, we have not succeeded in ‘bending the curve’ of biodiversity decline,” a recent paper in the journal One Earth, by researchers in Africa, Europe, the U.S., and Australia, noted. Efforts to meet new goals, the researchers wrote, “risk repeating this outcome.”

Setting targets that are difficult—perhaps impossible—to meet, though, would seem to be better than setting none at all. There is a real danger that the negotiations in Montreal will produce no agreement, or only a vague, watered-down one. The draft of the framework presented to negotiators last week was essentially one long series of disagreements. It contained more than seven hundred pieces of bracketed text, each of which represents a dispute over wording and, in many cases, substance as well. “We need a text with teeth—and far fewer brackets,” Sandra Díaz, a professor of ecology at Argentina’s National University of Córdoba, said the other day.

The implicit theory behind the Red List is that people care about the natural world. Alerted to the threats posed to one species or another, they will, this theory holds, try to address them. But, as the Red List itself makes clear, time is running short. In the latest update, two species of frogs were declared extinct: the sharp-snouted day frog, the last record of which comes from 1997, and the mountain mist frog, last recorded as seen in 1990. Both were endemic to Australia. “For tens of thousands of years, there were these little frogs that were calling their hearts out in these rainforests,” Jodi Rowley, an amphibian biologist at the Australian Museum Research Institute, told the Guardian, referring to the mountain mist frog. “Now it’s silent.” ♦

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