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Halting biodiversity loss and protecting nature: The important role of international environmental law

By: Damilola Olawuyi & Elena Athwal At the conclusion of the fifteenth United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Montreal in December 2020, the participating countries…

By: Damilola Olawuyi & Elena Athwal

At the conclusion of the fifteenth United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Montreal in December 2020, the participating countries celebrated the adoption of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. This Framework elaborates global targets to be achieved by 2030, including the conservation and safeguarding of the wide variety of plants, animals, and other biological resources that make up our environment.

This landmark agreement is the latest in the series of global efforts such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the Cartagena and Nagoya Protocols, all of which are aimed at addressing the rapid loss of the planet’s invaluable biological resources, without which humans and other elements of the ecosystem may not be able to live life sufficiently. For example, without bees, food crops may not grow which may lead to food scarcity, hunger, and a total collapse of the global food industry. In addition to the intrinsic and ecosystem value of these biological resources in providing pivotal support for the subsistence and survival of current and future generations, such resources also have enormous economic value especially for diversifying revenue sources through a prosperous tourism industry.

Yet, environmental stresses relating to the destruction of wildlife habitats, over-exploitation of plant and animal species, poaching, use of toxic pesticides, illicit trade in plants and animal resources, climate change impacts, coupled with gaps in environmental awareness and education, have for many years contributed to rapid biodiversity loss across the world, and will require urgent legal responses.

One recent and very alarming study has found that Earth’s wild mammals comprise less than 10 per cent of the total biomass of humans and less than 4% of that of domesticated animals. These findings are supported by the recent Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services issued by scientific organizations such as Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), and the Sixth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which reveal that biodiversity loss and land degradation are taking place at an unprecedented rate.

The devastating impacts of the ongoing Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID- 19) pandemic have also accentuated calls for a more balanced relationship with nature and all elements of the ecosystem in order to reduce the rising scale of pandemics and zoonotic diseases – that is, infectious diseases that are transferred from animals to humans – in areas where they did not exist before.

Despite decades of action, efforts to halt and reverse the dangerous decline in nature remain incomplete. One key reason is the lack of sustained and coherent implementation of the plethora of international instruments that aim to address biodiversity loss. For example, the tendency of project planners and business enterprises in key economic sectors to bypass environmental impact assessment pose significant threats to plant and animal habitats. Corporate actors must move from a mere compliance mindset to a responsible approach that places nature conservation, protection, and restoration squarely at the heart of business decision making and investment planning.

Failure to integrate biodiversity and conservation into the design, approval, financing, and implementation of all development efforts could continue to exacerbate biodiversity loss. Legislation and strategies to protect plant and animal species must therefore highlight and balance these competing interests, ensuring that biodiversity considerations are integrated in all aspects of development planning, in order to promote United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) and the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.

Another key challenge across the world is the urgent need to bridge the financing gaps needed to drive efforts to reverse biodiversity loss. While virtually all countries and stakeholders agree on the compelling need to integrate biodiversity considerations into all aspects of development planning, a lot more will need to be done to mobilize the required finances to implement such targeted biodiversity programs.

The United Nations identifies that there is currently a finance gap of US$700 billion per year to be met in order to achieve biodiversity protection by 2030. In addition to the cost of restoring degraded ecosystems, financing is needed to provide necessary technologies, equipment, capacity development, and patrol vehicles in order to monitor compliance and deter illegal loggers and poachers. As countries seek to recover better from the economic impacts of COVID- 19, it is important to prioritize financial, institutional, and technological support for conservation agencies, as well as research institutions, to sustain conservation monitoring and enforcement programs.

Higher education institutions have crucial roles to play in developing innovative programs to train and equip stakeholders with advanced skills needed to integrate biodiversity considerations into their entire operations and value chain.

At the recent 4th MENA Environmental Law and Policy Scholars’ Conference on the theme of biodiversity, co-organized by Hamad Bin Khalifa University’s (HBKU) College of Law, stakeholders, such as international environmental law educators, scholars, lawyers, heads of industries, financial institutions, and international organizations, all examined how to further strengthen education and capacity development on biodiversity. There is a need for more of such multi-stakeholder capacity development programs in order to accelerate awareness and skill acquisition to support the effective implementation of the wide range of international environmental law instruments on biodiversity.

Damilola S. Olawuyi, SAN, is Professor and UNESCO Chair on Environmental Law and Sustainable Development at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, Doha, Qatar and the author of the award-winning Environmental Law in Arab States (Oxford University Press, 2022).

 Elena I. Athwal is a third year JD Law Student and a Research Fellow of the UNESCO Chair on Environmental Law and Sustainable Development at HBKU. She is founder and President of the HBKU Energy and Environmental Club.

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