Redirect harmful subsidies to benefit the planet, UN urges governments

Head of the Kunming biodiversity summit asks nations to review destructive support for fishing, agriculture and other industries

By Patrick Greenfield

Billions of pounds of environmentally harmful government subsidies must be redirected to benefit nature, the United Nation’s biodiversity chief has said, before the restart of negotiations on an international agreement to set new targets for protecting nature.

Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, said states must review and adapt support for agriculture, fishing and other industries that are driving the destruction of the natural world, and adopt policies that meet human needs while also conserving the health of the planet.

昆明COP15 Kunming 2020 UN Biodiversity Conference official logo
The official logo of the COP15 Kunming UN biodiversity conference. Intensive negotiations ahead of the meeting will restart on Monday, 3 May.

Each year, governments in large and emerging economies provide $345bn (£247bn) of potentially harmful agricultural subsidies, according to the OECD. A 2019 report found that the public provides more than $1m a minute for the overuse of fertiliser, deforestation to expand agricultural frontiers and cattle production.

The failure to remove these subsidies was one of the 20 Aichi biodiversity targets governments failed to meet, and Mrema said the international community needed to take it seriously alongside increasing protected areas.

“The human population is growing. That’s a fact. And statistics clearly indicate we need more food and more resources. All this may have an impact on biodiversity,” she said. “There are resources – particularly unsustainable subsidies – which could be redirected into greener operations.

“It’s not just food production. It’s agricultural production. Do we ask ourselves: this shirt I’m buying, is it coming from sustainable cotton? The furniture we use at home, is it coming from sustainable wood?” Mrema added.

The comments come as negotiations on a Paris-style agreement for nature restart on Monday following months of delays due to the pandemic. A gruelling schedule will mean delegations and experts meet virtually six days a week for three hours until 13 June for talks about the scientific and financial elements of the agreement. In October, final negotiations are scheduled to be held in Kunming, China, to thrash out a final agreement on biodiversity targets for this decade.

Brazil has been accused of trying to obstruct proceedings over its opposition to online negotiations, having raised concerns that internet connectivity issues might put developing nations at a disadvantage. The Guardian understands that a behind-the-scenes diplomatic effort by China has encouraged Brazil and others to take part in negotiations on the understanding it does not set a precedent.

Li Shuo, a policy adviser for Greenpeace China, said the Chinese government was serious about ensuring the success of the negotiations and urged Beijing to resolve any major issues in Kunming later this year.

“The Chinese government worked very hard in the first place to get to host these. They genuinely wanted to project a green image,” Li said. “One thing people really need to understand is that, compared to the climate negotiations, Kunming is more vulnerable to changes imposed by the pandemic. The outcome requires multilateral negotiations from the start.

“In the next few months, it will be really important to identify the few critical issues that will probably not be resolved until the last 48 hours of Kunming. They need to deploy political energy to try to solve those issues,” Li added.

Before the negotiations, the CEOs of major conservation organisations – including WWF, Birdlife International and the World Resources Institute – are urging governments to agree a focused target for nature at Kunming that the public and businesses can get behind, akin to the central aim of the Paris agreement to keep global heating well below two degrees.

There are fears that the four goals and 20 targets of the proposed Kunming agreement are too disparate, covering action on pesticides, plastic pollution, invasive species and protected areas, and must be summarised in a single, easily recognised aim: achieving a nature-positive world.

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features.