The announcement that the world had come together to protect 30 per cent of the land and the sea by 2030 was a fleeting drip in the torrent of news coverage on the day the media was revelling in the victory of Argentina in the World Cup, which happened in the same 24 hours. The disparity in the airtime and the column inches accorded to these two world events was, of course, a reminder of the immutable law that news is driven by what is of interest to the public, not what is of public interest. But I think there was something else going on. These big, hard-to-follow global negotiations deliver results that are essentially less believable, more in doubt than the results of a football match (all the more so this time because African countries complained they were wrongly overruled by the Chinese chairman). They struggle to be understood against simple facts, such as win or lose, though the results are no less important. And yet, and yet, we must entertain the possibility that this Montreal/Kunming agreement will be remembered for at least as long as the extraordinary Argentina France match because it may actually change the world.
The problem the public rightly perceives about such UN conferences is that so little of what is agreed usually comes to pass. They are more about direction of travel. Not a single target agreed under the biodiversity convention signed in Rio in 1992 has been met to date – but wait… The parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity agreed in Nagoya, Japan, in 2010 to protect 10 per cent of the world’s ocean by 2020. That did not happen – but the target did spur an enormous flurry of activity and that is what matters. Huge pledges were made by the United States, creating a huge protected area in the North Hawaiian islands; by the United Kingdom which declared a Blue Belt around some of its overseas territories; recently there has been an explosion of activity by Ecuador, Colombia, Panama and Mexico which puts most of the world to shame. As of today, some 8.1 per cent of the ocean has been protected under form of designation according to the MPA Atlas, which also tells us that only 2.4 per cent of the ocean is actually fully or highly protected from the impacts of fishing or mining when you look at it closely.
The world – minus the US and the Vatican – has agreed in Montreal to protect 30 per cent of land and sea by 2030 and to halt and even reverse biodiversity loss as well. Even assuming the difficulties with African nations over inadequate funding of forest conservation can be smoothed out, these global commitments are never legally binding. Yet, as Therese Coffey, the UK Environment Secretary, said, “we will hold them to it.” In other words, meeting these global agreements is all about peer group pressure from one country to another. It was ever thus. There will have to be a rethink as a result of it in many places: countries that have done very little to protect the ocean to date will find themselves with a vertiginously difficult task to make headway from a standing start, while the impressive countries – in Latin America for example – will have bragging rights. China – a co-chair of the Montreal conference – has protected less than one per cent of its waters from fishing activity. Russia has fully protected only 1 per cent of its waters from fishing, the biggest killer of nature in the sea. Russia was there in Montreal. Even in Russia, apparently, there is a need to show people at home that something has to be done about what we have done to our planet. China and Russia’s continued engagement is evidence that the protection of nature is a cause that wins over ideology, at least it needs to be listened to.
In the UK, the pressure will be positive, too. Ministers and officials say that the existence of a 30 per cent global target puts them under pressure to deliver both on the 30 per cent and on the quality of protection. The UK has so far protected 39 per cent of its waters. This sounds great, until you realise that this means 38 per cent of the UK’s protected waters are in the Overseas Territories and only one per cent are at home. There is work to do. Progress towards full protection of domestic waters from damaging activities proceeds slowly, but the Dogger Bank, an area the size of Northern Ireland, was a big win this year, a rare Brexit dividend which put the EU to shame. Competition counts in conservation, as in other areas of human activity, and two of the biggest drivers of competition in global conservation were not mentioned in the new agreement at all. These two things will determine what happens on land and sea in terms of conservation more than what countries do, I believe, yet they will thrive more with agreement in Montreal. The most important factor in determining the pace of change, I believe, is philanthropic capital, flowing into conservation for altruistic reasons. For all the scrabbling after multilateral government funds at this event in Montreal, and the pledges by many leading nation’s treasuries, it is the foundations and the NGOs who have led the way in the sea. The aspirations of philanthropic donors often determine the level of ambition in conservation far more than governments do.
The second thing driving progress towards the 30 per cent target are the “tendrils of hope” as I call them from the 8 per cent of the ocean that is already protected. The paradigm is shifting in the sea from “mine out the seam and move on,” to “protect, invest, reap the rewards.” The positive economic value as well as the ecological value of conserving the sea is beginning to be understood: ie healthier fish stocks, more biodiversity for to be seen and nature-based solutions to climate change. Leaving the sea alone more of the time is the only way to invest in the future: and nature recovers astonishingly quickly if it is left to its own devices. There are almost no losers, only winners, after a brief lag to allow time for recovery. The medicine is working well in some places already, but not everyone believes it yet and the needs of the ocean get confused with the rather different needs of the world’s forests, as they did this week. All the same, the ocean news is coming through, loud and clear: conservation works, and for almost everyone. The Montreal deal may not add much to what is already going on, but it undoubtedly helps. Failure to agree a framework, on the other hand, would have been a disaster.