Barry Gardiner

Working Hard for Brent North

What can we learn from the Paris climate deal for protecting biodiversity?

Barry gave a speech to the Oceanography Institute about what the Convention on Biodiversity can learn from the historic Paris Agreement on climate change. 

What can we learn from Paris?

We have known for 25 years that the world had to keep CO2 emissions below the 2° threshold above pre-industrial levels, but we had never managed to come to a legally binding agreement that could achieve it.

So what went wrong before?

And what went right in Paris?

In a nutshell: Paris respected sovereignty.

I was at the disaster that was the Copenhagen COP in 2009. In those days governments and NGOs thought it was very simple: you just had to negotiate a legally binding agreement and tell all the countries what they had to do as their share of it and the problem would be sorted!

This attempt to impose a global agreement from the top down led to finger pointing between the developed and developing world, and no meaningful outcome. The meeting ended in a mess, with the collapse of international trust and cooperation on the most pressing global challenge of our age.

I remember the shock of the Chinese delegation – who had come with some really substantive offers to put on the table. They had announced beforehand precisely what they were going to propose and suddenly they found themselves the villain of the piece with the USA accusing them of not allowing independent monitoring, recording and verification of their emissions by the international community.

Just think about this: America who had never ratified the Kyoto Protocol were accusing China – who had – of bad faith!

I was also present a month before that - again in Copenhagen - this time in the Folketing, their parliament, for a meeting of GLOBE – the Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment – where legislators from around the world agreed that the problem should be tackled from the bottom up, with individual governments pledging what they might do, and setting these commitments out to their own parliaments. We pointed out that this was the only way that would respect local sovereignty. The GLOBE proposal was visionary and as with most visionary endeavours, it was widely ignored and derided as unworkable.

Well I spent the first two weeks of last December in Paris at COP21 in the climate change negotiations. And what was different in Paris was not the target or the framework – the UNFCCC already existed – we already knew it had to be below 2°.

What was new about Paris was the delivery mechanism.

It used as its model the UK Climate Change Act

A long term goal – we had said “At least 80% reduction in emissions by 2050”

They said Keeping well below a 2° rise and aiming for 1.5°

An Independent Body setting a series of Carbon Budgets – we set up the Committee on Climate Change to give us four yearly carbon budgets.

They have set in place a ratcheting process of review every five years to crank up ambition. And they have agreed a process where progress will be transparent with monitoring and verification reporting via national parliaments.

The quid pro quo of the transparency is that developed countries have agreed to provide at least $100Billion a year from 2020 to support developing countries to transition their economies to a clean low carbon future.

No longer a top-down agreement with rich countries lecturing the poor about a problem the rich had created and the poor were now suffering from.

No longer poor countries thinking that Climate Change was simply the Developed world’s latest trick to stop their economic development.

No longer the grand-standing, the finger-wagging and the blame game.

Now each country submitted its own INDCs – “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” – their own pledges to their own people through their own parliaments. Pledges about what they considered they needed to do to resolve the problem of climate change that their own people were facing. China’s air pollution and red dust storms. Brazil’s changing weather pattern affecting agriculture. India’s droughts and floods finally prompting all governments – all 186 of them to submit publicly the measures and targets they would take to build low-carbon economies and climate resilience at home.

This is the bottom up approach: enhanced by a collective agreement by all governments to come back to the table with higher targets every 5 years, working in sync to get the world on a pathway to a safe climate. Suddenly the best elements of national ownership and collective direction of travel were introduced into the process, ensuring the Paris agreement will become more ambitious over time.

Paris has not solved climate change – far from it – but it has set the world along a path which has both the framework and the mechanism whereby the investment can be mobilised, emissions can be curbed and ultimately our economies will be decarbonised. Instead of talk of mitigation, adaptation and dealing with the impacts of climate change being seen as a cost, the narrative has begun to swing towards opportunity and ambition.

In part, of course, the success of climate negotiations in Paris reflected the fact that the impacts of climate change – in different ways – are being felt everywhere: drought, sea-level rises, greater intensity and frequency of severe weather events, crop failure, migration and exacerbating root causes of conflict. Climate denial is now a dark art practiced extensively only by U.S. Republicans. And tonnes of CO2 equivalents are – and I say this rather tongue-in-cheek – a relatively straightforward and measurable concept.

A pathway to halt biodiversity loss

My question is this.

Are there lessons here to construct and implement a similar mechanism that starts us on the path of reversing the frightening degradation and loss of ecosystems and associated biodiversity that is occurring across the world, largely unseen; and especially in the oceans.

Like Climate Change, there is an existing international framework.

The Convention on Biological Diversity came into force as long ago as 1993.

In 2010 the CBD adopted the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits and the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020 with the mission of halting biodiversity loss and enhancing the benefits it provides to people. (I chaired the 2 day meeting of legislators that met there and passed the Natural Capital Protocol.) Nagoya produced the 20 Aichi Biodiversity targets, framed under 5 strategic goals and intended to be translated into action through national biodiversity strategies and action plans.

Targets 6, 10 and 11 relate to the oceans. 

There was a mid-term progress review at the end of 2014. It revealed that of 54 indicators assessed within these 20 targets, only 1 was ahead of schedule – ratification of the Nagoya Protocol itself. A procedural target rather than a substantive one! No indicator that related to the oceans showed any significant improvement and the pressures on coral reefs were recognized as having deteriorated further.

It is at this point that I would welcome coughing and spluttering noises; as you should all be choking on a large helping of cynicism over the merit of holding such conferences and adopting such targets in the first place.

Just like Climate change we have known for years what the problem is. We have known what the target is and - in our optimism and hubris - we even set a date by which we would achieve it!

First we said 2010. And now we are kidding ourselves that we are going to achieve it all in the next 4 years by 2020!

I think part of the reason we are failing is the same as Copenhagen. We have failed to develop a mechanism that respects country sovereignty.

With the Oceans this is particularly difficult because we are dealing in large part with territory that is not sovereign territory and we are beset with the Tragedy of the Commons – I’m not here for once referring to the tragedy that is the House of Commons – but the overexploitation of those public goods that are not part of any countries sovereign control: the High Seas the Polar regions Space.

It is extraordinary isn’t it? Here we are living in the middle of what promises to be the 6th great extinction event on planet earth with Species loss running at 100 times the fossil record. Did I say living in the midst of? I should have said we are causing it. Yet we only act to protect species when they are at the very brink of extinction? – and then only if they happen to be charismatic macrofauna. How else could we countenance the fact that 73 million sharks are killed for their fins each year? For their fins! The fin accounts for only 2-3% of a shark’s mass; we discard the rest. That is an order of waste that ranks as amongst our most egregious.

The loss of biodiversity is far outstripping measures to combat the widespread degradation and collapse of ecosystems. Everyone here in some way is involved in trying to galvanise people to the urgent action required to stop this mass extinction from happening. But we have not, in my view, convinced the majority of people that biodiversity loss really matters far less that it requires urgent, concerted action.

The importance of data

Measuring the health and wealth of interconnected ecosystems and populations of species is clearly far more complicated than climate change’s tonne of carbon equivalent. Whatever way we try to do it, it will involve data and money. To be really successful on a global scale, this and subsequent implementation of measures will involve the transfer of money and expertise between richer, more advanced countries and those that have the most to gain from reversing ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss.

An assessment as to what exists and how it can be measured will be critical in this process: The UK National Ecosystem Assessment was commissioned in 2009, published in 2011 with a follow up report in 2014. The Office for National Statistics aims to include the value of natural capital into the UK Environmental Accounts by 2020. But there is no equivalent to the IPCC, nor our own Committee on Climate Change – though I would like to see the Natural Capital Committee transformed into that role.

We clearly need more data especially of our understanding of fish populations if we are to reverse still unsustainable fishing policies. For example, the legal obligation to fish at sustainable levels represents the cornerstone of the reformed EU Common Fisheries Policy. This involves the setting of a Maximum Sustainable Yield, yet according to a recent statement by the European Commission, not only are 30 of the 62 fish stocks with Maximum Sustainable Yield assessments being fished beyond these levels, many stocks are not included due to a lack of data. This leads to a range being adopted around the MSY – the upper end of which is almost certainly unsustainable.

In 2014 the FAO reported that “Regional management organizations or arrangements (RFMO/As) exist in the majority of high seas areas that have major deep-sea fisheries… However, management is often complicated by deficient or unavailable data and inadequate systems of administration. 

It is an accident of colonial history that 2% of the sea is under our jurisdiction, the vast majority of it surrounding our Overseas Territories. That is an area over twice the size of India. In the last few years, organisations such as the Pew Charitable Trusts, the RSPB, Blue Marine Foundation and the Marine Conservation Society – no doubt in collaboration with many of you around this table – and in conjunction with the British Government - have worked to designate the pristine waters first around the British Indian Overseas Territories and then around Pitcairn Islands, and now around the Ascension Islands. 

Going forward

I believe that the potential to create other marine reserves in our Overseas Territories is enormous.

The hurdles will no doubt become greater but then so must our ambition. And here is the politics. Again we come up against the issue of sovereignty. Responsibility for the environment is ostensibly a devolved issue for the Overseas Territories – some have greater capacity such as Bermuda, others are less willing to cooperate (Turks and Caicos Islands)- , populations are greater in size and economic vested interests that much more considerable. The issue is emotive – and potentially divisive - as I discovered when I chaired a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Biodiversity last year on precisely this issue!

But the UK Government must provide financial and technical support to build environmental expertise. With 94% of the UK’s Biodiversity in the Overseas Territories, it is our legal responsibility – we signed up to the Aichi targets – the OTs did not sign up themselves.

Just as with climate change, we cannot look at biodiversity in isolation. On this planet it is not the case simply that “No man is an island.”

 It is more a case of: “We are an island.” That means that much as we might wish it otherwise our fates are interconnected not just with every other country and person but with every other species as well.

So I want to give you three exam questions…

  1. How do we create a mechanism for biodiversity like we have created for climate change
  2. How do we establish a metric for biodiversity like we have for carbon that is capable of influencing both resources and policy.
  3. And perhaps most fundamental of all: how do we get people to understand enough so that they begin to care more?  


commented 2017-07-15 12:38:00 +0100
Dear Barry,

I have recently begun studying at the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership and the main questions I came away from the first four day workshop were exactly the three you finish your article with. I will pose these questions to the faculty and ask for their views.

Kind regards,

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