Four challenges for rebooted COP15 negotiations to overcome

Negotiations towards a new global framework for protecting biodiversity are resuming online this month after being disrupted by the pandemic. Li Shuo explores the challenges.
<p>Negotiations have resumed online ahead of the rescheduled COP15 biodiversity conference, due to be held in Kunming of China&#8217;s Yunnan province in October. Yunnan is home to many endangered species, including the black snub-nosed monkey. (Image: Will Burrard-Lucas / Alamy)</p>

Negotiations have resumed online ahead of the rescheduled COP15 biodiversity conference, due to be held in Kunming of China’s Yunnan province in October. Yunnan is home to many endangered species, including the black snub-nosed monkey. (Image: Will Burrard-Lucas / Alamy)

China’s announcement in March that the COP15 biodiversity conference will be held from 11-24 October in Kunming resets the clock on the world’s efforts to reach a new deal for nature for the coming decade.

The 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) had originally been scheduled for October 2020, but was postponed due to Covid-19.

At the meeting, government delegations from around the world are expected to agree to a post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework; the previous framework reached in 2010, which produced the “Aichi Targets”, expired last year.

Negotiations have recently resumed online, marking the restart of the Kunming process after its derailment in February last year. For six weeks this month and next, countries are negotiating under the CBD’s subsidiary bodies on the issues of targets, implementation mechanisms and finance. If these virtual negotiations can be successfully conducted, they will lay a solid foundation for the final stretch of the talks at COP15, which may embrace a hybrid model of online side events and in-person negotiations, a model that is also being considered by the UK presidency for the COP26 climate conference.

The legacy of Kunming should not just be one fruitful COP, but the fundamental reshaping of CBD processes

Not everyone originally agreed to the online format. That parties are in the end going to be brought to the table through the internet is thanks to relentless efforts by the incoming Chinese presidency of COP15 and relevant stakeholders. The virtual talks should not only move the process forward, but also set an example for other international environmental processes that may have to resort to online meetings.

The negotiations so far have delivered mixed results. Four main challenges must be met if Kunming is to deliver an ambitious and balanced outcome that protects the world’s biodiversity for the next decade.

First, the treatment of targets, implementation and finance should be better balanced. The uneven attention given to these aspects has become a persistent problem for the Kunming process. A disproportionate emphasis on setting targets while neglecting the implementation mechanisms is deep rooted in CBD negotiations, and a main reason why the Aichi Targets agreed in 2010 failed to materialise. With the negotiations for COP15 entering the critical last stretch, this imbalance is already locked into the process. The online negotiations currently underway have demonstrated a large amount of time is still being spent discussing the design of targets. Parties are acting as if putting those targets on paper in itself ensures their enforcement. To address this imbalance requires utilising non-official venues outside the formal negotiations. In the past months, a few research institutions, environmental NGOs and think-tanks have made headway in advancing discussions about issues such as implementation mechanisms, which can help save time for the negotiators. Those resources should be seen as a useful supplement to the official process.

Second, various kinds of talks should be used to tackle the thorniest issues. Earlier negotiations have revealed a few topics in particular to be highly politicised and difficult to make progress on, including the target to protect 30% of the world’s oceans, public finance, sharing the benefits of genetic resources and digital sequence information (DSI). The COP15 presidency should consider conducting bilateral talks with countries most concerned with such topics or convening ministerial meetings to resolve disagreements. At the same time, important global moments such as World Biodiversity Day on 22 May, the World Conservation Congress and the UN General Assembly should be fully harnessed to provide exchange opportunities ahead of COP15 in Kunming.

Third, the quality of pre-negotiation texts prepared by the CBD secretariat and presiding officers should be improved. Pre-negotiation texts both reflect previous rounds of negotiations and provide the starting point for the next round. They are also predecessors of final decisions and agreements coming out of the negotiation process. Their quality, therefore, influences negotiation results. In earlier preparatory meetings, issues of flawed texts, late circulation and failure to reflect positions of negotiation parties have resulted in precious time being wasted on correcting mistakes and addressing manmade problems. This affects the efficiency of negotiations and deviates from the basic principle of negotiations being led and directed by the CBD parties.

Last but not least, online negotiations should adhere to the principles of transparency and inclusiveness when entering the phase of text review and finalisation. The experience so far has demonstrated that virtual processes are able to effectively collect inputs from different parties. But it remains to be seen if the online mode can effectively facilitate the finalisation of the text. Ensuring the faithful reflection of the parties’ positions in the final negotiated text is a critical step at the end of a negotiation process. Even when the word-by-word scrutiny happens offline, there have been occasional omissions and distortions. The virtual format faces an even larger challenge in this regard and should avoid misrepresentation, at all costs, to raise confidence in the fairness and effectiveness of the process. The fact that the online talks have so far been arranged during hours unfavourable to the Asia Pacific region is hardly conducive to trust building.

The ongoing virtual talks on biodiversity are a testament to the resilience of the Kunming process under the pressure of the global pandemic. The ultimate success of the process hinges upon whether countries can overcome the challenges above. The legacy of Kunming should not just be about one fruitful COP but the fundamental reshaping of CBD processes in the long run. Addressing the persistent problems is just the beginning of that journey.