BiodiversityConsumerismDeforestationEconomicsGlobal Warming/Climate ChangeSociety

A Planet in Square Brackets

The draft global plan for saving biodiversity contains no firm proposals at all.

by George Monbiot: journalist, author, academic and environmental and political activist, United Kingdom

As the summit begins, I’ve finally got round to reading the draft declaration on biodiversity* the governments meeting at Nagoya in Japan will discuss. It’s 195 pages long. If it were a thesis about the causes and consequences of the decline of the world’s wild species, I would give it a fairly high mark. As an action plan for doing something about this decline, it’s a dead loss.

It begins by reminding us of the comprehensive failure of the last big declaration, in 2002. Then the governments agreed to “achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss”. The new declaration begins by saying this hasn’t been met “in full”. Later, it concedes that it hasn’t been met at all:

“The diversity of genes, species and ecosystems continues to decline, as the pressures on biodiversity remain constant or increase in intensity mainly as a result of human actions.”

It warns that, unless something changes pretty drastically, there will be “continuing high levels of extinctions and loss of natural and semi-natural habitats throughout this century”. There’s a danger, it says, that certain critical thresholds could be crossed, leading to the collapse of ecosystems, with serious consequences for the human communities that depend on them.

“While the harshest impacts will fall on the poor, thereby undermining efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, no-one will be immune from the impacts of the loss of biodiversity.”

It blames the absence of progress on a lack of money and a lack of expertise on the part of many governments. But while these doubtless contribute, the truth is that these are secondary issues: the primary one is a lack of political will. Wildlife and ecosystems suffer from the same problems as all other environmental issues: their decline takes place on a timescale longer than the political cycle; while there is a collective interest in protecting them, there’s often an individual interest in destroying them; and, unlike special interest groups, they don’t lobby, bribe and threaten politicians.

The declaration also suggests a fairly reasonable list of what should, in principle, be done to defend biodiversity. It proposes 20 targets, which include recognising the value of biodiversity in national planning, getting rid of incentives to destroy it, switching to sustainable farming and forestry, protecting coral reefs from climate change, creating more protected areas, giving special help to threatened species and eradicating invasive species. There’s only one problem: the governments agreeing to these measures don’t actually have to do anything.

All these targets, virtuous as they are, are merely “aspirations for achievement at the global level” and a “flexible framework” within which countries decide what they want to do. The governments signing up to them are “invited” to set their own targets, and only for those measures they deign to adopt. There are no sanctions and no specific measures to which particular governments must agree.

Any text which might imply acting on these proposals, even voluntarily, is in square brackets – meaning that it has been contested and might not be adopted. This includes the following, at the beginning of the list of targets:

“Take effective and urgent action towards halting the loss of biodiversity”

The same applies to most dates and all numbers and percentages: if these are not adopted, it’ll be nigh-on useless even as a voluntary agreement.

There won’t be a big fight at Nagoya because there’s nothing to fight over: governments can adopt these non-targets without incurring any cost to themselves, political or economic.

Having read this draft, it’s obvious to me that our Biodiversity100 campaign, which presses governments to declare at Nagoya that they will adopt specific targets of their own, is more necessary than ever. It’s also clear to me that the campaign can’t stop there: we’ll need to keep adding targets to the list, and keep demanding that governments sign up to them, long after the summit ends. Otherwise, in 2020, we’ll end up with exactly the same situation as in 2010: an admission that nothing has improved, a general wringing of hands and a commitment to adopt another meaningless set of non-specific targets. The vague commitments in the draft declaration will at least give us some leverage to say: here’s what you governments have agreed to do in principle. Now here’s what you must do in practice.

To his credit, Ahmed Djoghlaf has set aside some time for a Biodiversity100 event at the summit.

Here’s what he said about our campaign:

“I am the one indebted to you for giving us the opportunity to highlight the challenges and engage your readers. Thank for your unique contribution with the Guardian 100 biodiversity. Great idea and great initiative.”

It takes a big man to respond so constructively to the stiff criticism we’ve made of the process he oversees.

The Guardian’s Asia correspondent Jonathan Watts will be presenting the campaign to the governments in Nagoya. Let’s hope some of them bite. In the meantime, please keep sending in your proposals for actions governments should be taking, and keep lobbying your government to adopt the targets we’ve already chosen.

*See document 3: UNEP/CBD/COP/10/1/ADD2/REV1


  1. Many thanks for highlighting this, George

    I see in the Guardian today that India is taking the lead in trying to change the paradigm

    ‘India is today expected to become the first country in the world to commit to publishing a new set of accounts which track the nation’s plants, animals, water and other “natural wealth” as well as financial measurements such as GDP.’

  2. with governments and politicians being funded by the big corporations that have caused all of the worlds problems,especially the war making industry,don’t expect them to change from their position on blaming their countries population for these problems
    they will encourage/defend these criminals in corporations because I see every politician as a greedy lying two faced hypocrite that couldn’t tell the truth to save their lives
    all these meetings are a waste of time until we see a world population boycott of these corporations and governments,that are just taking us for a ride
    just my opinion

  3. Tony – A law change in regards to the present core corporate charter which corporate CEOs must abide by, and which basically make it illegal for them to work in the interests of people and place (they can be sued for not making money for shareholders) is an urgent need. See the sub-section in this post titled ‘Getting to the heart of the matter: Corporate greed is a CEO’s legal obligation’.

    Until we change the present system where everyone is legally obliged to work in their own selfish interest only, we’ll get nowhere.

  4. I agree completely craig and it will take the people of the world to wake up and realise this for their collective benefit
    the world seems to be just a big corporation at the moment and hopefully permaculture will be one option in the transition to and restoration of community living
    with personal freedoms returned to individuals, which will also build personal responsibility, the corporations will have lost control of their monopoly on human behaviour and greed based economies
    fines and taxes are built into their loss management bull so these will not fix anything

  5. “A source close to the department said: “We are looking to energize our forests by bringing in fresh ideas and investment, and by putting conservation in the hands of local communities.””

    And I who always thought that nature was quite able to energize itself!

    When I look at nature documentaries from BBC, my impression is that nature has a lot of fresh ideas, in fact an abundance of fresh ideas above human imagination.

    I really hope these local communities to be given care of the conservation of these forests, will be permaculture communities. Or will it be in the hands of the few and most greedy in these communities, after all I think it requires a lot of money to buy out these forests. Maybe they are even sold to corporations that are forced by law to make a surplus for their stock holders. I think this means exploitation, not conservation.

  6. Can please someone give this essay by Ernest Partridge to these myopic idiots in the British Governments:

    Whose Trees Are These? –

    “Ore and oil, beams and boards — all these are resources. But these too are resources: Mountain sheep and brown bear along the Salmon River in Idaho. The morning mist rising above Thoreau’s Walden Pond. The tang of sagebrush in Edward Abbey’s southwestern desert. Omul fish and Nerpa (lake seals) in the transparent waters of Lake Baikal. The rare glimpse of the spotted owl in those cathedral forests of the Pacific Northwest. Redwood and Douglas Fir, standing forever as the result of tectonic forces, volcanic eruption, lichen, shrub, humus, mist and rain — and the reverent forbearance and foresight of our generation and it’s successors. And these, paradoxically, remain as “resources” precisely to the degree that we do nothing to them, other than simply admire them.”

    Is this the country of David Attenborough? The country which learned the world to love nature through the world’s most spectacular nature documentaries. How can you now have any authority claiming the poor countries of the south to protect their rain forests? Have you lost all your dignity and self respect?

  7. Crop biodiversity: USE IT OR LOSE IT!

    “The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has launched the Second Report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, the definitive healthcheck on the biodiversity of crops. Much has changed since FAO published its last report twelve years ago, including an acceleration of climate change, making the conservation and the utilization of genetic resources even more pressing.”

    – FAO launches 2nd State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture report:



    – Country Reports:

    – State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources – website:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Back to top button