The meeting ended with what was hailed as a “historic” breakthrough: an agreement to protect 30% of all land and water by 2030 and stop the destruction of nature. This just-concluded conference on biodiversity in Montreal, Canada, was heralded as the event that will decide the “fate of the whole living world”.
How historic is this deal, really? Judging by the effect of protected areas and major environmental events in recent decades, we should have no illusions. Indeed, this agreement may force us to reconsider the usefulness of such meetings entirely.
If there’s one thing that defines the story of conventional conservation, it’s the steady increase in protected areas, which covered about 2% of the world in the 1960s to about 17% today.
This progress was incredibly difficult and yet it created many.”paper parks” ineffective where species are protected from hunting and other threats in name only. Even worse, it led to human rights abuses and violence, as people outside the boundaries of designated protected lands were excluded.
If it took 60 years to get to 17%, how realistic is it to nearly double Earth’s protected areas in the next eight years? And how will you ensure, despite the pact’s rhetoric of putting indigenous peoples at the center of conservation, that past violence is not repeated?
The more than 190 countries that are members of the treaty must implement these measures. Given the pressures of the extinction crisis and the increasing militarization of conservation, we have little faith that history will suddenly work differently.
The real issue is non-negotiable
Even if 30% of the Earth were protected, how effectively would that prevent biodiversity loss? The proliferation of protected areas occurred at the same time as the extinction crisis intensified. Perhaps, without these efforts, things could be even worse for nature.
But an equally valid argument would be that area-based conservation has blinded many to the causes of Earth’s biodiversity decline: an expanding economic system that squeezes ecosystems by converting more and more habitat into urban sprawl or cultivation, polluting air and water. with more and more toxins and warming the atmosphere with more and more greenhouse gases. These structural issues are mentioned but not really addressed at global environmental meetings.
Cooperation at all levels to prevent the destruction of nature
These meetings became elaborate affairs enthusiastically staged by host states for tourist revenue and diplomatic goodwill. The idea is that the conferences will allow countries to negotiate global frameworks for dealing with multiple overlapping crises. Clearly, the planetary scale of environmental change requires cooperation at all levels.
After World War II, multilateralism based on cooperation between states developed out of a sense of hope and led to global conventions to address common challenges in many areas, including the environment. The 1987 Montreal Protocol helped close the hole in the ozone layer. The CITES ivory ban has helped ease pressure on African elephants since 1989.
But that era is over. UN summits have become little more than traveling circuses filled with desperate hopes but no real-world influence. Its meetings, announcements and agreements are made up of increasingly trivial language games, empty promises and no decisions, many of them about the progress of the convention itself.
After each summit, small and sometimes big victories are celebrated as the breakthrough the world has been waiting for. But what did they actually do about the problems they were supposed to solve?
Stop the growth of CO₂ emissions
Recent summits on climate change have done little to stop the rise in CO₂ emissions. And the Convention on Biological Diversity, which held this last meeting in Montreal, had its origins in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. Here it was decided to divide climate change and biodiversity into two conventions, putting them fundamentally on two different paths when the scientists argue that they need to be tackled together.
It was also decided to turn biodiversity, especially genes that could be valuable to industries such as pharmaceuticals, into “natural capital” that could be marketed internationally. This consecrated capitalist ways of understanding the environment at the beginning of this process and consolidated a logic of commodification of nature. In short, the logic of the problem, the promotion of an ever-expanding economy, became the logic of the solution.
International treaties actually deepen the destruction of nature
And so it can be argued that international treaties actually deepen environmental destruction by making the problem seem solvable without changing a profoundly unsustainable global economic system. They promote carbon offsets, biodiversity credits, zero net loss (the idea that negative and positive consequences for biodiversity can be balanced like an accounting sheet) and other non-solutions. A blueprint for an economy that accepts ecological limits to growth is fundamentally lacking.
While more protected areas could alleviate the damage to some ecosystems and species in the coming years, their historic failure to avert accelerating extinctions is not encouraging. We can still celebrate that the international community reaches an agreement. But high expectations, big promises and insignificant results have become the hallmark of UN environmental meetings. They have little strategy for actually preventing the destruction of nature.
So we must ask: have they become empty institutional hangovers of a persistent status quo that must be abandoned? Or is it worth clinging to the tattered fragments of multilateralism, even if they are becoming little more than extravagant witnesses to the unfolding disaster?
This article was written by Bram Büscher, Professor of Geography, Environmental Management and Energy Studies at the University of Johannesburg, and Rosaleen Duffy, Professor of International Politics at the University of Sheffield.