Dr Heather Alberro, Co-convenor, PSA Environmental Politics specialist group

The post-1945 ‘Great acceleration’ era of mass production, consumption and economic expansion particularly in industrialised countries has seen the gradual simplification, range reduction and disappearance of megafauna populations across the globe (Ripple et al 2019). The tides of loss are so extensive that a general consensus amongst experts is emerging: we are now well into a ‘sixth mass extinction’ event (Ceballos et al 2020). The WWF’s latest ‘Living Planet Report’ found an incomprehensible 69% decline in the relative abundance of monitored wildlife populations across the globe, largely due to species overexploitation and land degradation. Such monumental losses don’t just constitute an existential threat to the continuity of human life through, for instance, the indispensability of biodiversity and ecosystem integrity to mitigating the climate crisis. Crucially, they represent a grave ethical and political failing towards our fellow terrestrial companions. And yet, decades of global biodiversity negotiations have largely failed to effect meaningful change, with none of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) 20 Aichi 2011 – 2020 targets having been fully achieved.

Now, all eyes are on Montreal as CBD parties convene from 7 – 19 December for the second half of the UN biodiversity conference COP15 wherein, effectively, ‘the fate of the entire living world’ will be decided. Parties will deliberate in order to agree on a Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework for halting biodiversity loss by 2030 and ‘living in harmony with nature by 2050’. A centrepiece of the negotiations involves the ’30 by 30’ proposal, wherein over 100 countries aim to set aside 30% of marine and land habitats as biodiversity reserves by 2030. This is a marked increase from the nearly 17% of the earth’s land surface currently set aside as protected areas (PA’s). A recent analysis of 175,000 global terrestrial PA’s found that around 41% of these are under ‘strict’ control and management.

However, the 30 by 30 target has been met with criticism and suspicion given the history of ‘fortress conservation’ approaches involving the neo-colonial displacement of indigenous and local peoples in order to make way for the creation of ‘untouched’ Nature preserves. This has been particularly the case in relation to areas designated as ‘strict’ PA’s under The International Union for Conservation and Nature’s (IUCN) classification system, which impose strict restrictions on local communities’ access to and use of the resource base. In a wonderful twist of irony, research on PA’s has found that indigenous-managed lands tend to have equal and even higher biodiversity than traditional PA’s. Moreover, PA’s tend to be most successful when associated with positive socioeconomic outcomes such as reduced socioeconomic inequalities, the democratic involvement of local groups and incorporation of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). This is why the biodiversity crisis cannot be disentangled from questions of multispecies justice, which should be central to any target or proposal.

There is no silver bullet solution to the biodiversity crisis; the magnitude and complexity of this monumental challenge, like the climate crisis, call for fundamental and multifarious transformations. Among other things it requires multi-level cooperation, a radical scaling back of hyper-extractive enterprises, and a shift from anthropocentric worldviews that portray humans as separate from and superior to an inert ‘Nature’ as a mere resource-base. Unfortunately mainstream discourses, even the first draft of the CBD’s Post-2020 biodiversity framework, still often frame biodiversity as valuable and worth protecting because of its indispensability to human wellbeing first and foremost. We must dispense with colonial imaginaries that envision sacrificial peoples and places, as well as an instrumental rationality that values others solely as means to our ends. Similarly, as the UN Secretary General António Guterres remarked at the opening of COP15,  ‘the deluded dreams of billionaires aside, there is no Planet B’. Establishing more harmonious relations with our terrestrial counterparts here on earth is one of the most important fights of our lives. Ambition alone is insufficient. We need urgent and transformative action now. How can we do so justly, so that no group shoulders most of the costs whilst others reap the benefits? COP15 represents a vital and quickly vanishing window of opportunity for building a liveable futurity for much of life on earth. We must not let it slip away. 

Find out more about the PSA's Environmental Politics Specialist Group: Environmental Politics | The Political Studies Association (PSA)