NAIROBI – United Nations negotiators began talks in Nairobi this week toward reaching a new global pact for protecting nature and wildlife, called the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

With scientists warning that an estimated 1 million species are at risk of extinction, the UN is asking countries to designate 30% of their land and sea areas for conservation by 2030.

Meeting this “30-by-30” goal would help protect the world’s environments against poaching, pollution or encroaching human development, scientists say. So far, only 17% of the Earth’s land areas and 7% of the ocean currently fall under some form of protection.

This new agreement plans to improve on the 2010 Aichi Biodiversity Targets that were established by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in an effort to protect the biodiversity that underpins global food security, health and clean water. But according to an assessment by the United Nations, none of the Aichi targets have been met.

The failure to reach the targets have been blamed on an overall lack of investment, resources, knowledge, and accountability toward biodiversity conservation, but the UN has now prepared a new draft framework that would significantly increase financial resources for biodiversity conservation to at least US$200 billion per year.

But as countries race to finalise a clean draft that will be presented at the UN Biodiversity summit (known as “COP15”) held in Montreal later this year, divergent opinions remain over issues such as removing harmful subsidies for fossil fuels and agriculture, access and benefit sharing from genetic resources, and the removal of indigenous people from their land in the name of conservation.

We spoke with Elizabeth Mrema, executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, on why the final round of talks in Nairobi are vital to safeguarding the planet’s future.

Editor’s note: This interview took place over two sessions with the media, and has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. 

Q: Why is the current meeting taking place in Nairobi this week so important? 

Mrema: With this meeting we are building momentum for our journey towards the second part of COP15. There are signs of this momentum, the world has undertaken new action and inspired new partnerships at the highest level of government and business and civil society.

There is now a solid foundation for the negotiations of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework here in Nairobi, but much remains to be done to deliver an agreement that can bend the curve of biodiversity.

This week is the last meeting before the second part of COP15. And the last chance to shape not only the framework, but also many other moving parts that interact with the framework and help us achieve our goals with urgency by 2030.

Together the parties and stakeholders can demonstrate once again the power of international cooperation and multilateralism.

Q: So much attention has been devoted to climate change, global CO2 emissions and the Paris Agreement, but biodiversity loss doesn’t get nearly as many headlines. 

Mrema: So we must first understand why biodiversity and nature is important for us. Unless our population connect nature by diversity to their day-to-day life, I don’t think what we do here will make any sense to them.

Three quarters of land is degraded globally; two-thirds of oceans are polluted, 85% of the world’s land is degraded.

They need to understand that — without biodiversity, without trees, without a good environment — there will be no food, no clean water. And without it, even the clean air we are demanding and breathing will not be there. Can we imagine what kind of life we will be in?

I think this is the message needs to go out there. If people make the connection between nature and their day-to-day lives, then what is being done here will make sense.

The climate change community are talking a lot about greenhouse gas emissions and yet we have the ecosystem absorbing and storing all that extra carbon.

File photo shows a rainbow over the Ulu Baram rainforest in the Miri interior, eastern Malaysian Borneo state of Sarawak, on December 13, 2007. Photo: AFP

Q: The Convention on Biodiversity was signed almost 30 years ago. Why has so little progress been made?  

Mrema: This year we are celebrating 30 years since the Conventional on Biological Diversity was adopted [by 196 countries]. We will be celebrating 30 years since the CBD and we are still talking of we have not done well.

Over a million species are probably going to be extinct within this century, and biodiversity is being lost at the rate unprecedented in the history of humankind.

Probably the question should be – what have we been doing wrong over the past 30 years? And what difference then this week will make to ensure that we are moving in a better way for the future.

So all these figures are scary. However, another report from World Economic Forum clearly indicated that 50% of global GDP is moderately or highly dependent on biodiversity or nature.

Some 395 million jobs [are dependent on] nature, and US$10.1 trillion will [be derived] from biodiversity by 2030.

So clearly with those dependencies, there are risks, there are impacts, and yet there are opportunities for the economies of many countries.

Q: How will biodiversity loss impact the economies of vulnerable countries? 

Mrema: So when we talk about the loss of biodiversity at an unprecedented rate, what will that mean to the economy of people here in Kenya and many other countries? We all know the importance of biodiversity for tourists and a big percentage of Kenya’s economy is dependent on tourism.

We are also sitting here covering our faces because we are still in, or recovering from the COVID pandemic. And we know the cause of the pandemic is our human activities on biodiversity which have interfered with the animal kingdom, or as the result of expansion of agricultural lands, or the production of livestock, and we have continued to deforest the forests.

By coming into closer contact with animals we ended up with viruses – which are not harmful to animals, but harmful to human beings and transmitted to humans. And as the result trade, tourism, transportation – we all found ourselves locked down for over two years.

So again this clearly indicates the importance of biodiversity, and if we are not careful we will feel all the impacts.

Zebras drink water at the Amboseli national park, February 11, 2010, after a restocking journey from the Soysambu conservancy. Amboseli’s zebra and wildebeest population has been decimated by drought and the park’s carnivores are now roaming far and wide in search of food, killing cows, donkeys and goats tended by Maasai pastoralists. Picture taken February 11, 2010. Photo: David Clarke/Reuters
Q: How will the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework make a difference? 
Mrema: We have to ensure it’s not just “their” framework. We make sure that it involves me and you – the actions which we take need to make sure that we change the history.

Three quarters of land is degraded globally; two-thirds of the ocean is polluted, 85% of the world’s land is degraded.

How can we change these statistics? This is what we will hope to happen when the framework is adopted.

But the framework cannot be adopted without all of us — and particularly the negotiators who are in Nairobi now — to really ensure that the framework will enable governments, but also other stakeholders like the NGOs, the industries, the financial institutions to halt biodiversity loss and conserve nature.

And you as journalists, what role will you play to make sure that the framework will also deliver those transformative messages to the communities?

The framework we talk about requires a change of behaviour. And the change of behaviour is with me and you, not the document, not the framework.

If I don’t change my own behaviour, if I don’t change my consumption pattern, if our farmers do not change their agricultural production patterns, we will never reach the 2050 vision of living in harmony with nature.

And the actions are not just with the governments. Governments are only facilitating creating that enabling environment. But the changes are with everybody including our own individual behaviour.

We should change our production patterns. Then we can put pressure on government to make sure that creating an enabling environment is there for the population to be able to do more.