While the World Cup Distracted Millions, Mother Earth Scored

Elizabeth May

December 20, 2022

The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) can be seen as the poorer sister of the better-known UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

They are twins, both born in June 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit. The CBD was nearly stillborn – or rather nearly drowned at birth. Then-US President George H. W. Bush tried to kill it on instructions from Big Pharma. The industry feared the CDB commitment to “equitable sharing of benefits” from drug discoveries reaped from the developing world’s biodiversity might cut in to their monstrous profits. For instance, before the CBD, when Madagascar rainforests yielded the drug that saved children suffering with leukemia, derived from the rosy periwinkle, the pharmaceutical industry raked in the profits but Madagascar received no benefit. The CBD created a multilateral framework to create that financial incentive to protect the biological diversity of such natural areas.

But in 1992, when the US pulled away, then- Prime Minister Brian Mulroney stepped up.  He phoned his ambassador for the environment, a high-level position created by Mulroney that was eliminated by former prime minister Stephen Harper. Ambassador Arthur Campeau did not hesitate to share his advice: save the treaty. And Mulroney did. Canada committed to the treaty, stopping a slide in support.

Once Bill Clinton became President, the US signed the treaty, but never tried to obtain the two-thirds vote from the Senate necessary to ratify it under the US Constitution. The US is still not a party to the CBD.

It is remarkable and very fortunate that Bush got the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) through the Senate before leaving office. No one else could have. But the CBD has been accepted by all UN members, except the United States.

The scale and urgency of the UNFCCC versus CBD is easy to spot — the climate COPs are annual; CBD bi-annual. So COP27 on climate just happened in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, while the Montreal CBD COP was only the15th.

This COP also faced serious headwinds. Originally scheduled for September 2020 in Kunming China, COP15 was delayed time and time again due to COVID.   Work on negotiating the Global Biodiversity Framework actually began four years ago. Partial meetings and hybrid formats have been tried to advance the agenda. Only six months ago did parties realize an in-person CBD COP was desperately needed. Canada has hosted the Montreal secretariat for the CBD since the mid- 1990s, a COP2 decision taken in recognition of Mulroney saving the treaty, but we have never hosted a COP. With Canada agreeing to host in Montreal only six months ago, preparations have been frantic in both negotiation and readying the Palais des Congrès. Without Montreal as host city, COP15 would have been delayed once again by Chinese COVID restrictions.

The success of these negotiations — and they were far more successful than even the most optimistic negotiator had imagined — was largely due to the personal partnership between Guilbeault and Huang.

COP15 was by far the largest and most critical CBD COP ever.

One major complexity of COP15 was that while Canada provided the physical space in Montreal, China was the chair (or in UN terms “president” of COP).

It was not a foregone conclusion that Chinese Environment Minister Huang Runqiu would be an effective chair, nor that he and his Canadian counterpart, Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault, would be capable of working well together.

The success of these negotiations — and they were far more successful than even the most optimistic negotiator had imagined — was largely due to the personal partnership between Guilbeault and Huang. Given the increasing tensions between China and Canada, this partnership was as unlikely as it was productive.

Guilbeault, often visibly uncomfortable with his role as defender of new fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure, was in his element at COP15. (By way of disclosure, I’m a long-standing personal friend of Gilbeault, though I often differ with Guilbeault the Minister.) Biodiversity is not his subject area, but campaigning is.  He worked tirelessly to bridge divides. He ignored some of the bureaucratic and diplomatic logjams by contacting ministers through WhatsApp, surprising Canadian negotiators. He and the Chinese presidency met frequently and shared the arm-twisting through the very different network of friends and allies that each country enjoys.

The resulting framework is 14 pages long but hugely complex in its many side documents on monitoring, reporting, review and other aspects of the deal. It was an unusual process for a COP, as the president’s text, worked through with a handful of North and South ministers, was released early on Sunday morning as a “take it or leave it” package. I spoke with key delegates and ministers who were amazed at how many of their bottom-line issues were reflected in the text. As the lead negotiator for Namibia commented at the 3:30 am session as the agreements were gaveled through, it was “a very balanced package deal which makes everyone equally unhappy.”

We have new agreements on everything from genetic sequencing and digital records of genetic diversity to financing goals, to protecting 30 percent of global biodiversity in the world’s lands and oceans by 2030, to 23 new and specific environmental targets.

These replace the 2010 Aichi targets that fell due in 2020, none achieved and on which not even one country fully delivered. The new agreement calls for less pollution and reduced pesticide use. It underscores the critical role of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous sovereignty. It calls for a new relationship between humanity and Mother Earth. While “Mother Earth” is mentioned in the Paris Agreement preamble, this is the first agreement where language about the Earth as our mother is raised to the level of critical text. The newly named “Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework” does not call for us to end matricide, but the meaning is clear. We have to stop abusing and killing our only home. Our Mother Earth.

The last global environment agreement that did have enforcement mechanisms was the Montreal Protocol, which was the last environmental treaty to actually deliver necessary results – it saved the ozone layer.  

Like the climate treaty, this deal does not have teeth. There are no enforcement mechanisms. The last global environment agreement that did have enforcement mechanisms was the Montreal Protocol, which was the last environmental treaty to actually deliver necessary results – it saved the ozone layer.

As is often the case in achieving UN consensus, in the final moments, one country tries to object and block agreement. In the UNFCCC COP-3 in Kyoto it was Saudi Arabia. At COP-11 (also held at Palais des Congrès in Montreal), it was Russia; at COP-21 in Paris, it was Venezuela.

This time, at nearly 4 am, it was the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), pleading for more help for the poorest nations and their vast biodiversity.

And as is the usual case, the delegates rallied around the draft, cheering for the one objecting nation to be ignored. And thus, Huang Runqiu brought down the gavel to a standing ovation and jubilation.

But the DRC is not Saudi Arabia, nor Russia, and riding roughshod over its pleas will leave a bad taste in the mouth, even for those of us cheering.

So, I will close with the extraordinary words of the Namibian representative, Pierre Du Plessis:

“I want to start by saying that I have great sympathy for my colleague from the DRC because he comes from probably one of the most brutalized countries in the world. Those of you who read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness would recall that the Belgium colonizers chopped off the hands of people for not tapping enough rubber to meet their quotas.

“And Mr. President, that colonial injustice that is exemplified by what happened in the Congo is the origin of all the problems that we have encountered in this convention and in the relationship between humanity and biodiversity. We have suffered a systemic trauma that has disrupted the bond between humans and nature. That have led some countries to query whether we can include in this instrument a metaphor, a wholesome metaphor, like ‘Mother Earth.’ The political objection to the idea that the earth is our mother!

“If we are to have any hope at all of living in harmony with nature by 2050, we need to acknowledge that the global economic and financial architecture that came out of the violence of colonization, of resource extraction, of plantation agriculture, of colonialism to drive markets for the manufactures of the countries that are today rich and control the resources of the world. The whole developed versus developing narrative which has bedeviled our consultation forums for so many years needs a much more comprehensive and holistic solution than what we have managed to craft in this biodiversity framework.

“(This agreement) is not the final step, it is not enough to live in harmony with nature by 2050. (…) Because we are very damaged, we are very sick. Our relationship with the natural world is in real, serious danger and that endangers all of life on this planet. Mr. Chairman, thank you again for your leadership, thank you everyone for the adoption of this framework, but there’s a lot more work to do.”

Contributing Writer Elizabeth May is the MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands and leader of the Green Party of Canada, working with Jonathan Pedneault in transition to co-leadership.