Writings

Biodiversity: Targets, Optimism, and Lies

This piece, with Victor Anderson, was originally featured in Green World here.

Great rejoicing has followed the biodiversity agreement recently arrived at, just in time for Christmas. For example, ‘The Times’ editorial began: “The agreement in Montreal by 195 countries to protect wildlife and ecosystems, with 30 per cent of Earth’s lands and oceans protected by 2030, is a rare piece of good news in gloomy times.” The Environment section of the European Commission tweeted: “The new global #Biodiversity Agreement will ensure that nature keeps sustaining communities & economies for the next decades.”

The nub of our claim here today is: this “ensure” is a lie. Target-setting is very different from implementation and achievement. Voluntary agreements are very different from ones which are legally binding and enforced.

Don’t get us wrong. We are pleased that the Montreal talks didn’t irretrievably break down, and we are impressed by the surprising achievement of the diplomats who put together this agreement at the last minute. Moreover, we totally understand this widespread desire for good news. We two feel it so strongly ourselves! All of us desperately want to be able to believe that the future is looking less grim.

But fooling ourselves is not good for anyone. It’s certainly not good for nature; nor for our long-term mental health.

Bear in mind: We have been here before, and recently. The same process, a Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity, agreed an earlier set of targets in 2010, known as the Aichi Targets, supposed to be achieved by 2020. What happened? Summarising an official UN survey, The Guardian reported (15.9.20): “The world has failed to meet a single target to stem the destruction of wildlife and life-sustaining ecosystems in the last decade, according to a devastating new report from the UN on the state of nature.”

It is a similar story with climate. In 2015 in Paris, government representatives agreed on a declaration including a goal of limiting global warming to “well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.”

Staying below 1.5 is still theoretically possible but for all practical purposes it is dead. In fact the world, according to the UN Environment Programme, is currently on course on the basis of existing policies for a rise in average global temperature of around 2.8 degrees by 2100. 

So: Just what exactly is supposed to be different this time?

These dramatic, massive failures should make us wonder deeply about the meaningfulness of the agreement reached in Montreal. Undoubtedly many diplomats and scientists who contributed to the agreement did so with only good intentions and were pleased with what their work had achieved. It is only natural that a certain amount of wishful thinking entered into the way in which they welcomed the conference’s outcome.

But there is also a more cynical side to all this, which most members of the public are tacitly complicit in. Politicians aren’t worried by long-run targets set for dates after which they will have left office. Even when there are targets which they might be held responsible for, there are always plenty of reasons that might be given as to why events ‘prevented’ them from being achieved, ranging at present from Brexit to Covid to Ukraine. There are always predecessors and/or foreigners and/or opposition politicians who can be blamed. And there are always other agreements to be kept to: trade deals are legally enforceable, environmental agreements are not, and so it’s not difficult to see which will win out. 

Setting targets is so much easier than delivering the changes necessary to achieve them.

Most members of the public go along with all this because we all like to feel that things are OK and will be OK for our children and grandchildren. We like to feel that our “leaders” are looking after us, and that the planet is in good hands, despite oceans of evidence to the contrary. Anything different from that either points the finger at ourselves as having some share of responsibility for making things turn out right, or points to the need for serious policy and economic changes that might actually affect our way of life if they are on a big enough scale to make a difference.

So we live this double life: a diet of news reports about how badly the planet is doing, with numerous consequences now following from climate breakdown and decline in the natural world; and at the same time, stories about how we have such a wonderful set of international agreements that the trends that have been going in the wrong direction will henceforth turn around and make everything OK.

For environmental NGOs too, we are almost always at that turning point. The mistakes of the past put behind us, disaster can allegedly be avoided if only we adopt the policy recommendations in the latest executive summary. 

The reality is different. The reality is that the age of environmental disasters has already begun. We are not at “five minutes to midnight”. Midnight has struck and we are now at five past. Those of us who listened to the science, campaigned, lobbied, and protested, have been largely unsuccessful.

It will take much much more than non-binding long-run target-setting to change that, and thus to change the course we are on. 

The grave danger of the orgy of mutual self-congratulation that met the announcement of the Montreal accord is that it will encourage complacency among the public. It will give them (us!) the story that we all want to hear: that things are going to be ok; that we can safely outsource worrying about this more-than-issue to our governments; that they have this covered.

But quite simply: none of that is true.

Optimism of the intellect is not what we need at this time. For it amounts to little more than wishful thinking writ large. What we need is courage: to look the very difficult truth in the face. And a profound determination: to work together to start to build a different system; and to pressure this system we live under to transform.

If you are interested in working (with us, perhaps) in these ways, then there might even yet be a truly Happy New Year.