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Whatever it takes, or just “whatever”? Biodiversity targets post Montreal

by | Feb 28, 2023 | 0 comments

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By Peter Burnett

With some ambitious biodiversity targets negotiated in Montreal last December, now it’s time to translate these into action on the domestic front. The good news is that Australia was a leader in setting those ambitious targets. The bad news is the ambition may just be more hollow rhetoric.

Ambition at the 15th CoP

The 15th Conference of the Parties (CoP 15) to the global Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) wound up its long deliberations in Montreal at the end of last year. It adopted a bold set of targets that needed to be met by 2030. While it didn’t receive enormous media attention back here, by all accounts one of the heroes of the hour was Australia’s environment minister Tanya Plibersek, who pushed hard for decisions with plenty of ambition.

After many years of bringing up the rear, it’s heartening indeed to see Australia returning to the leadership role first articulated by Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1989.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the CBD has form for adopting ambitious targets that nobody feels obliged to meet. Most countries, including Australia, have been long on aspiration and short on perspiration.

Will Tanya Plibersek also prove to be a biodiversity hero back home? I thought I’d go through the four goals and 23 targets adopted in Montreal to see what she’d have to do if she means business.

After all, 2030 is only seven years away and our current national biodiversity strategy is the most vacuous environmental policy I’ve ever seen, so there’s a lot of ground to cover.

Lofty goals and targets aplenty

The official CBD vision is that by 2050 we will be living in harmony with nature. The four goals adopted in Montreal in pursuit of this vision revolve around enhancing and restoring natural ecosystems and halting human-induced extinction. With this done, biodiversity should be used sustainably and the benefits of genetic resources shared equitably with Indigenous peoples. Finally, recognising the lack of effort to date, the fourth goal calls for adequate resources and increased capacity for implementation.

The four goals are in turn supported by 23 targets, grouped under three headings: reducing threats; sustainable use and benefit sharing; and tools for implementation. There’s too much to cover everything here, so I’ll cover what I think are the highlights.

The headlines are a ‘30-by-30’ target for land, freshwater and marine protected areas, and urgent action to reduce extinction risk, on a path to halting human-induced extinction by 2050. These are said to involve bringing biodiversity into spatial planning; preventing over-exploitation of wildlife; reducing new invasive species by 50%; eliminating risks from pollution; and minimising the impact of climate change and disasters.

Sustainable use and benefit sharing is said to require, not just management of wild species and ‘biodiversity friendly’ farming practices, but maintenance of ecosystem services such as ‘regulation of air, water and climate, soil health, [and] pollination’. For good measure, sustainable use is also said to require a significant increase in green and blue urban spaces.

When it comes to implementation, the specifics include getting large and transnational companies to disclose their impacts on biodiversity; halving global food waste; phasing out subsidies harmful to biodiversity; substantially increasing both government spending on national biodiversity strategies and private investment in Nature; payment for ecosystem services and ensuring ‘best-available data’.

What does all this mean domestically (and will Plibersek act)?

Even allowing for the usual mix of flowery language and weasel words, that’s a pretty hefty agenda.

Apart from core biodiversity actions such as increasing protected areas and increasing investment in restoration, pursuing the 2030 targets vigorously would bring biodiversity into a number of non-traditional’ areas for biodiversity policy — urban planning and development, pollution control, waste management, and corporate affairs, to name a few.

Plibersek has already made strong public statements about the 30-by-30 and no more extinctions targets. But can she deliver? And I mean in substance, not just in the fudging or ‘box-ticking’ sense.

For example, one fudge involves creating large reserves in places where there are few vested interests and voters. In that regard, Plibersek has just announced a tripling of the size of the marine reserve around Macquarie Island, creating a marine reserve the size of Germany.

As nice as that is, it makes me a little uneasy.

On the other hand, Plibersek has also shown signs of being a strong environment minister. In the same week she made good on her promise to use water ‘buy-backs’ if necessary, to meet the water savings targets of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. That’s a move that will burn significant political capital.

Real world hurdles

If the minister is serious about the domestic delivery of the Kunming-Montreal 2030 targets, she’ll need to burn a lot more political capital, not just with various stakeholders, but with her own Cabinet colleagues.

Here’s three reasons, for starters.

First, biodiversity restoration is very expensive. The federal environment portfolio was run down by the previous government and competition for new funds will be cut-throat, given major demands in big-spending areas like aged care and defence.

Plibersek is attempting to overcome this with a Nature Repair Markets bill, designed to facilitate private investment in biodiversity. I’m just one of many who can’t see a business case for such investments, beyond the small amounts available from philanthropists and companies seeking to build their social licence. If business doesn’t come to the party, she’ll be back knocking on the Treasurer’s door.

Second, the states control most of the levers for on-ground action. They manage the lion’s share of Australia’s parks and reserves; they also make the planning laws and control most of the on-ground staff.

Traditionally the states oppose Commonwealth involvement in what they see as their backyards; they may be prepared to relent on this, but only at a significant price. That’s another path leading to the Treasurer’s door.

As for bioregional planning, while Plibersek has committed the Commonwealth and even has a ‘launch partner’ in Queensland, the going is likely to get very rough once people realise the constraints that need to be placed on development just to protect the Koala, let alone several thousand other threatened species.

The third reason is that halting threatened species extinctions is probably impossible, given we don’t fully understand the processes involved — the Red Goshawk for example is in serious decline, even though its main population is found in tropical savannah that is subject to relatively few pressures. If it went extinct tomorrow, the major causes might eventually turn out to be impacts that occurred decades ago.

“Whatever it takes” or just “whatever”?

The answer of some previous ministers to CBD targets has, in effect, been “whatever”. Plibersek seems to come more from the “whatever-it-takes” school, in which case she will need to pull some seriously large rabbits out of her political hat.

The alternative, down the track somewhere, will be that she (or her successor) will have to admit that the targets were just too ambitious, just like what occurred internationally with the 2010 CBD targets and the 2020 targets.

Apart from my uneasiness over Macquarie Island, I reckon the minister is showing real signs that she means business. Stay tuned.

Banner image: The official CBD vision is that by 2050 we will be living in harmony with Nature. Unfortunately, when it comes to the cut and thrust of realpolitik, Nature is rarely given a high priority. (Image by Ronny Overhate from Pixabay)

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