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Goodwill and Compromise: Good News from the Nagoya Biodiversity Summit

by Jonathan Watts

After the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks, a successful agreement to protect biodiversity has provided a timely morale booster and restores faith in the United Nations.


Delegates in Nagoya, Japan, have reached an agreement to protect biodiversity. Photograph: Nozomu Endo/AP


In the long run, the biodiversity deal scratched out in Nagoya in the early hours of this morning is intended to benefit habitats and species such as tigers, pandas and whales. But in the short-term, the biggest beast to get a reprieve may well prove to be the UN itself.

After the misery, disappointment and anger of last year's climate talks in Copenhagen, the body was fiercely criticized and the entire multilateral negotiating process called into question. It seemed time-consuming, prone to grandstanding and dominated by selfish national interests rather than pressing global concerns.

At the start of this week, the talks in Nagoya looked likely to become another chapter in the same sorry story. But since then, there has been an impressive – and ultimately successful – willingness to work.

Square brackets (which denote areas of disagreement) have been steadily whittled away from the negotiating texts. Pragmatism has been more evident than ideology. Delegates actually seemed willing to listen to the advice of scientists warning of the perils of inaction.

Some key goals have been set, including a plan to expand nature reserves to 17% of the world's land and 10% of the planet's waters. For a scarred veteran of the Copenhagen or Tianjin climate talks, the extent of the progress, goodwill and readiness to compromise during these past few days has been pleasantly shocking. Right up to the final hour, there have been moments when the talks appeared on the verge of collapse. But negotiators have been flexible enough to skirt around the danger zone.

This is no accident. Ahead of this event – and not wanting to repeat the breakdown of last year's talks - the EU negotiating team was given a wider mandate. The same may be true of other nations.

That alone cannot explain why the results of Nagoya and Copenhagen were so different. Other factors include the smaller scale of this event and the expectations for it. There was less superpower pride and influence at stake: the United States is not a signatory and China has been relatively low-key. Brazil and the EU have bent over backwards to secure a deal. China and India have shown a willingness to compromise. Even Bolivia and Cuba complained but did not block.

The Japanese hosts also deserve a great deal of credit for the smooth organization, though at times they have been almost comically hospitable in breaking up finely poised negotiating sessions for food, drink and music receptions.

But the most important difference may be in implementation. One of the reasons why climate negotiations are so tetchy is because rival nations want stringent checks in place to make sure everyone complies and on course to realize their goals to reduce carbon emissions.

That is sadly not true for biodiversity targets, which tend to be vaguely worded and voluntary. Nature cannot complain if it gets cheated. This is a major reason why the last set of UN biodiversity goals were nowhere near being realized.

The drafters of the new Nagoya protocol say such lessons have been learned so a tighter road-map will be put in place that ties funds to progress, mobilizes private finance as well as public funds and sees nature in terms of benefits to be shared.

One of the great achievements of this conference has been to highlight the fact that biodiversity is not just about saving a few cute animals, but about preventing risks to entire ecosystems, economies and ultimately human life. As a result, bird-lovers and tree-huggers have started to find common cause with insurers and investors.

In the conference center last night, the mood was one of relief more than euphoria. But many expressed hope that this deal may provide momentum for the climate talks at Cancún next month. That seems optimistic.

It is too early too say whether Nagoya marks a turning point for UN multilateralism, let alone life on Earth. But for both, it is at least a much-needed morale booster.


This post originally appeared on The Guardian.

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