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Explained: What is the Convention on Biological Diversity, and what does it do?

Thirty years ago, a landmark agreement committed the world to protecting all forms of life which call this planet home.

But what has this deal, the United Nations (UN) Convention on Biological Diversity, achieved since then? We explain what you need to know about its purpose, development, and possible future. 

Nature faces a series of unprecedented threats in the twenty-first century - and one agreement sets the stage to help it fight back.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was groundbreaking in many ways when it came into force almost three decades ago. Not only does it commit countries to the conservation and sustainable use of their biodiversity, but also to share the benefits of genetic resources in a 'fair and equitable' way.

Thirty years on, however, and the world is continuing to lose its flora and fauna at an alarming rate. Targets to conserve biodiversity have largely been missed as nations continue to use the world's resources in an unsustainable way.

With new targets agreed at COP15, there is renewed impetus to ensure that the CBD is an agreement that works for all, and protects the biodiversity that life on this planet depends on.

Dr Chris Lyal, a Scientific Associate at the Museum who has been involved with the Convention for 20 years, says, 'The CBD is immensely important to ensure we conserve biodiversity. It's not perfect, and doesn't do everything that we want it to, but then again, neither does any other treaty.'

'It gives us a good chance, the best chance, to ensure that the wealth of life we have on this planet is preserved.'

A building with a COP8 sign on the side

Convention on Biological Diversity meetings have been happening for many years, with COP8 taking place in 2006. Image © Morio, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

What is the Convention on Biological Diversity?

The Convention on Biological Diversity is the largest and most significant international agreement on the environment. Work began on the agreement in 1988 after the United Nations formally recognised the threats facing the world's species and ecosystems.

After years of negotiations, the CBD was agreed in 1992, and was opened for signatures at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It came into force in December 1993, with 168 nations signing up in the first year.

Since then, every nation on Earth has become a party to the agreement, with two exceptions. The Holy See, representing the Vatican City, has never signed the agreement, while the USA has signed it but has never formally brought it into force.

The treaty has three main aims: to conserve biological diversity, to use its components sustainably, and to provide fair and equitable access to the benefits of using genetic resources. These aims are elaborated in 42 articles, and their implementation is discussed every two years at Conventions of the Parties such as COP15.

'These three objectives form a "grand bargain" between wealthy nations and biologically diverse developing countries,' Chris says. 'Diverse countries are remunerated for conserving their biodiversity through the benefit-sharing aim.'

While the CBD provides a framework for countries to act on, implementation of these policies takes place at a national level as countries have control over their own resources. As a result, although the treaty is legally binding, it cannot compel signatories to protect their biodiversity in a certain way.

'Over the years, COPs have discussed a variety of approaches that, if implemented, would put the world's biodiversity in a much better position than it is now,' Chris says.

'As the decisions of these COPs are obligations, and not legally binding, not all are taken forward at a national level. Some have been implemented by different nations, but there are a lot more good policies waiting to be put in place. However, countries have sovereign rights over their natural resources, so they can't be dictated to on how to use or protect them.'

Since its signing, two major additions to the CBD have been made in the form of the Cartagena and Nagoya Protocols.

Hoodia gordonii with flowers

The cactus Hoodia gordonii is the subject of a benefit sharing agreement under the Nagoya Protocol. Image © Roger de la Harpe/Shutterstock

What are the Cartagena and Nagoya Protocols?

Both the Cartagena and Nagoya Protocols are international treaties which build on the agreements already made in the CBD. Not all countries which have signed the CBD are members of the protocols and, even then, not always both of them.

The Cartagena Protocol came first and entered into force in 2003. With rising concerns about the use of genetic modifications in research and industry, this protocol aims to protect human health and biodiversity from genetically modified organisms.

This protocol has since been added to by its own supplementary protocol that aims to provide new rules and procedures to follow if genetically modified organisms do cause damage.

Over a decade later, the Nagoya Protocol was enacted in 2014. This agreement focuses on how the benefits of using of genetic resources can be shared.

'Bioprospecting remains an important area of research to look for new compounds which can be commercially exploited,' Chris explains. 'The Nagoya Protocol aims to ensure that a share of the benefits of that exploitation, such as drug production, goes back to the country where the genetic resource initially came from.'

'The benefits can be monetary, but for non-commercial research there could be training for local researchers, the deposit of specimens in that country's collections, or the sharing of research outcomes.'

Under the protocol, anyone wanting to study genetic material from a country should first get permission to research and agree terms for benefit sharing. For instance, if there is any commercial exploitation of the material, then that country might get a cut of the income.

Implementing the Nagoya Protocol is not without challenges. Terms such as 'fair and equitable' haven't been defined, and there are difficulties in agreeing what monetary benefit would qualify.

Concerns have also been raised by scientists on the amount of bureaucracy the protocol can entail, sometimes delaying projects or even causing them to be abandoned. As understanding of the protocol develops, these issues are gradually becoming less significant.

The CBD and its protocols also cover Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs) around the world, who are increasingly asking for their share of the benefits from genetic resources found on their lands and use of their traditional knowledge.

An example of this process in action is an agreement signed between South Africa's Scientific and Industrial Research Council and the San People in 2003. They agreed to share the royalties from the commercial exploitation of the cactus Hoodia gordonii which contains chemicals that may be used to develop new appetite suppressors and cosmetics.

Pools of muddy water and sporadic trees, with dense rainforest in the distance

Biodiverse ecosystems continue to be damaged following the introduction of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Image © PARALAXIS/Shutterstock

What issues does the Convention on Biological Diversity face?

Since coming into force in 1993, the biodiversity crisis has showed no signs of abating. The WWF's living planet report, for instance, has revealed that animal populations have declined by over two-thirds since 1970, while the UN body IPBES estimates that more than one million species are at risk of extinction.

One of the issues with trying to protect these species is that we simply don't know how many of them exist. A 2013 estimate suggests that there are between two to eight million multicellular species on Earth, and over a trillion if bacteria and other single-celled life are included, but the majority are not yet known to science.

To address this ‘taxonomic impediment’, the CBD has developed the Global Taxonomy Initiative (GTI).

'If you can't name a species, you can't manage it,' Chris says. 'The GTI was introduced to combat issues in taxonomy, which cut across many areas of the CBD and its implementation.'

'The digitisation of the Museum's collections, for instance, is contributing data to global databases which can be used by scientists all over the world to get a handle on biodiversity and help implement the GTI.'

Identifying the species, however, is just the first hurdle. Ensuring that people all over the world can recognise them is another challenge faced by the GTI.

'A lot of science in the Global North is driven by a need to get grants and have high impact, but that doesn't satisfy the needs of the convention and conservationists on the ground,' Chris explains. 'We need to give tools to people which they can use.'

'What people on the ground need are field guides to identify crop pests, for example, written in their language and avoiding technical terminology, but grants often aren't available for this. Taxonomy is also increasingly using DNA sequences, but many countries lack sufficient technical capacity to make use of this in the way we take for granted in the North.'

Building such capacity requires the sharing of expertise and increasing investment. While funding sources such as the UK's Darwin Initiative exist, there is still a large shortfall between what is available and what is required.

Aside from this lack of funding, a gap also exists in awareness of what the CBD, and the outcomes at its COP meetings, represent.

'The CBD and the decisions of its COPs are not written in a user-friendly way, and there's a real need to put it into a form where more people can understand what it means,' Chris says. 'With more awareness of policy language, and how to use it in funding requests, it might be simpler for scientists to become engaged.'

A stock image of a gloved hand picking up vials

Digital Sequence Information may be included in the Convention on Biological Diversity in the future. Image © Cavan-Images/Shutterstock

How could the Convention on Biological Diversity change in the future?

The headline achievement of COP15 was the agreement of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which is the next set of biodiversity targets for the world. The framework was due to be agreed by 2020, but was delayed due to COVID-19.

Initial proposals for the targets suggested they were split into goals for 2050, with progress towards these judged based on milestones achieved by 2030.

The milestones were subsequently removed in the final agreement, with only the goals remaining. Many numeric targets, such as increasing the area of natural ecosystems by 15%, were changed to broader statements on restoring biodiversity.

There are also short-term targets for 2030 such as reducing pollution to non-harmful levels, the sustainable management of agriculture and increasing funding for biodiversity projects.

The removal of specificity in some targets reflects the difficulty of achieving them. None of the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets, which ran between 2011 and 2020, were fully achieved.

Six, including measures relating to invasive species and the creation of protected areas, were partially fulfilled.

'It was quite an ask to get the parties to the CBD to agree to targets in the first place,' Chris admits. 'They weren't legally binding, as then nations might back away from the table and it would be very difficult to enforce compliance.'

Other significant discussions which took place at COP15 surrounded the concept of Digital Sequence Information (DSI). This term includes DNA sequences, and perhaps other aspects of cell biochemistry as well, because there's not yet agreement between the CBD parties of what DSI covers.

While genetic material itself is covered by the Nagoya Protocol, DSI is a grey area. As many scientific papers publicly share the sequences in open access databases, the sequences can be reconstructed using DNA printers and used for other purposes, including commercial ones. This severs legal links to the country of origin, so any benefit sharing is therefore lost.

'I'm part of an informal advisory group on this issue, and we've been struggling for several years now to come up with a workable solution,' Chris says.

'We have some possible solutions to the issue of DSI, but they're not near being implemented.'

One potential way of solving the issues is to adopt what is known as a multilateral system, where DSI benefits would be used to support biodiversity globally. While there has been progress on this issue in the past couple of years, such a system, or how it would work, is not agreed upon by all countries.

At COP15, countries agreed to increase the sharing of benefits from DSI, but are yet to outline how this will be achieved.

Further changes to the CBD could be agreed at future COPs as new priorities influence which targets are put forward.