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UN Summit on Biodiversity: world leaders’ pledge for nature

Ahead of September’s UN Summit on Biodiversity, world leaders pledged to put nature at the heart of a transformational green recovery – but will this be enough to transform our relationship with nature before it is too late? Here are our takeaways from the summit.

By Noelle Kumpel

Nature underpins the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals. However, our systematic disregard for the environment, alongside deep-rooted societal inequalities, is jeopardising progress towards sustainable development. Continued loss of nature threatens over half of global GDP as well as human lives and wellbeing, with the poorest and most vulnerable the first and hardest hit. This has been brought into sharp focus this year, with the roots of the current, devastating COVID-19 pandemic linked to our mismanagement of nature.

While an economic and societal tragedy, COVID-19 presents an unprecedented opportunity to reset humanity’s relationship with nature and to catalyse the transformative change necessary in our political, economic and financial systems. The UN Summit on Biodiversity, held on 30th September as part of the high level segment of the 75th UN General Assembly, with a theme of “urgent action on biodiversity for sustainable development”, provided a similarly unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate collective ambition.

Our call to world leaders

As part of an unprecedented, coordinated set of calls to action, representing tens of millions of people and hundreds of businesses around the world, BirdLife International, with 15 other environment and development organisations, coalitions and foundations, called for world leaders at the Summit to recognise the value of nature, not just as the foundation of a healthy and resilient economy, but as the basis for human wellbeing, peace and security, and to put nature at the core of their agenda.  We urged governments to adopt a global goal for nature by the end of this decade, as part of an equitable, carbon-neutral, nature-positive world.  The delivery of this nature-positive goal requires immediate, effective actions to both conserve nature and address the causes of its decline by 2030.

The UN Summit on Biodiversity

There was a huge amount of energy in the lead-up to the Summit, with a series of hardhitting panel sessions taking place as part of the Nature for Life Hub, supported by a consortium including BirdLife. We participated in sessions on a new accord for nature, conservation and human rights and spatial mapping, as well as the Voices for Nature civil society segment of the Summit itself. We also supported the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, signed by over 70 Heads of State and Government including the EU and launched at a Hub session just ahead of the Summit.  This commits signatories to collective ambition for nature, climate and people.

The Summit was originally envisioned as the occasion where world leaders would commit to ambitious action a month before signing the new ten-year global biodiversity framework in China.  But with COVID-19 delaying the negotiations and signing of the deal by up to a year, and forcing the Summit to switch to a semi-remote format, we saw an understandable change in dynamics, with some positive, and less positive, outcomes. 

Image credit: The UN Biodiversity Summit 2020 was switched to a semi-remote format © CBD

UN Secretary-General António Guterres opened the Summit, stressing that much greater ambition is needed © ITCY

The positives

The Summit saw a record-breaking number of Heads of State and Government requesting to speak. There was wide recognition that biodiversity loss and our mismanagement of nature is causing ecological breakdown, exacerbating climate change and driving the emergence of zoonotic diseases, and that transformational change, including through a green recovery, is needed to turn things around.

Many countries, such as Kenya and Croatia, echoed our call for an carbon-neutral, nature-positive world (see below). The need for collective action and the importance of multilateralism was reinforced by countries such as China, Canada and France.  The UK and European Commission called for clear, measurable targets that allow countries to hold each other to account. France, Jordan, Slovenia and Ecuador all highlighted the links between nature protection or nature’s rights and human rights, and Pavan Sukhdev, speaking on behalf of civil society organisations, stated that the right to a healthy environment must be recognised as a fundamental right. The High Ambition Coalition, led by Costa Rica and France, called for protection of 30% of the planet by 2030, with a similar target for the oceans advocated by the Global Oceans Alliance.

The less positives

Few countries came up with concrete proposals (with the US notably absent).  China, having just committed to become carbon-neutral by 2060, unveiled no equivalent new pledges for nature.  Brazil vocally defended national sovereignty and decried “international greed” towards the Amazon. Guyana, speaking on behalf of the G77, called for developed countries to allocate increased resources for developing countries to implement the post-2020 framework. The indigenous youth representative from India warned against human rights violations associated with an increase in protected areas.

What next?

The Summit and associated meetings highlighted the need for further discussion, bridge-building and commitment regarding concrete targets and actions.  The Leaders’ Pledge forms a strong basis for this, and we will be working with Parties and other stakeholders in the coming months to ensure the post2020 global biodiversity framework succeeds in safeguarding people and planet for future generations.

Our call to action for an equitable, carbon-neutral and nature-positive world

Burkina Faso's sustainable shea butter programme © Seydou Nacro
Burkina Faso’s sustainable shea butter programme © Seydou Nacro

Leaders of 16 global environment and development organisations, coalitions and foundations, including BirdLife International, called on Heads of State and Governments at the UN Summit on Biodiversity to set nature on the road to recovery by 2030, for an equitable, carbon-neutral and nature-positive world, including through the following actions:

1. Retain and restore ecosystems

We must effectively protect, conserve and restore at least 30 percent of land, inland waters, coasts and oceans of most importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services by 2030. These protected and conserved areas must be equitably governed and with appropriate recognition, protection and land tenure security assured for all lands and waters traditionally governed by Indigenous Peoples and local communities for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. Such areas must be adequately and sustainably resourced and not undermined by legal changes. Areas important for biodiversity and that allow for

species movements in response to climate change should be prioritised, including Key Biodiversity Areas, as well as those areas which are ecologically intact and/or deliver ecosystem services. This requires integrated, biodiversity-inclusive spatial planning across the entire planet, at ecologically-relevant scales (including in areas beyond traditional boundaries and national jurisdictions) through spatially-explicit National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAPs), Strategic Environmental Assessments and national development plans.

2. Safeguard diversity and recover the abundance of life

We must address illegal and/or unsustainable wildlife exploitation, trafficking and trade and implement intensive species management actions where necessary, to help halt the decline of genetic diversity, prevent extinctions and start to recover wildlife populations.

3. Transition towards an equitable nature-positive economy

Governments must recognise that nature lies at the heart of a sustainable, resilient, green transition that “builds forward”, to mitigate future economic and societal shocks. We must mainstream biodiversity into public and private decision-making (e.g., green recovery plans), halve the footprint of production and consumption across all sectors and redirect financial flows away from activities that harm biodiversity towards those that restore, conserve and manage it sustainably. Our food systems must be transformed as well as key productive sectors such as forestry, fisheries and infrastructure. Governments and the private sector must value natural capital, invest in nature-based solutions, require sustainable supply chains, and, critically, incorporate the true value of nature into economic systems, while ensuring that social and environmental safeguards are fully enforced, so that both public and private sector actions have an overall positive impact on nature and society.

4. Ensure a healthy environment for healthy societies

Rights, equity and justice must lie at the heart of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework. Governments must recognise the universal right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and put in place legislation and actions to achieve this. Both intergenerational and intragenerational equity are needed to ensure that decision-making and implementation by state and non-state actors is inclusive and that decision-makers are held accountable. In particular, the role and rights of Indigenous Peoples, local communities, women and girls as stewards and defenders of nature must be recognised, protected and supported.

Read all the civil society calls to action at the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature and watch BirdLife International CEO Patricia Zurita’s video of support at