Why has global biodiversity governance failed so badly?

by Chris Armstrong on May 8, 2024

Later this month it will be World Biodiversity Day, and we will again celebrate the remarkable contributions that biodiversity makes to the resilience and productivity of the earth’s ecosystems. But it will also be a fitting time to face the continued failure of our institutions to grasp the scale of biodiversity loss. Or, if not to grasp it, to respond in any way adequately.

The figures speak for themselves. Since 1992, the Convention on Biological Diversity has been charged with agreeing global targets for biodiversity conservation. The Aichi Biodiversity Targets for 2011-2020, for instance, aimed to halve the rate of habitat loss, protect 17% of terrestrial ecosystems, and much else besides.

None of those targets were met. In response, the Kunming-Montreal Agreement recently agreed to protect 30% of ecosystems by 2030, to restore 30% of degraded ecosystems, and so on and so on and so on. On current projections, these targets are going to be missed too, by some distance. Like Canute ordering the tides to stop, it turns out that setting targets, by itself, achieves nothing.

So why has the biodiversity governance regime failed so spectacularly? Presumably for some of the same general reasons that, for all of our climate summits and agreements, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. The job of meeting biodiversity targets is delegated to states. The only state duties that are in any way binding relate to reporting and monitoring alone – and we are indeed monitoring and reporting our way towards ecological oblivion. Governments that want to take serious measures to tackle biodiversity loss face the threat of capital flight, real or imagined. And so on.

The low political salience of biodiversity probably helps too, even when compared to climate change. Very few people are out there campaigning for biodiversity. Many people have a pretty shaky idea of what it is, and why it is important – in this respect we are decades behind climate change. Policy goals like Biodiversity No Net Loss are hard to grasp, and there is evidence that they lull voters into a false sense that, if successful, biodiversity will, well, actually stop disappearing (spoiler alert: that really isn’t what No Net Loss usually turns out to mean).

Either way, ‘biodiversity loss’ has not had the same convening power as ‘climate change.’ And leaders who fail to meet targets they themselves have accepted are not held to account for that. To repeat an anecdote from my recent book on the subject, when it emerged that Rishi Sunak had no plans to attempt Climate COP27, the public outcry rapidly brought about one of his trademark U-turns. But his failure to attend Biodiversity COP15 passed almost without notice.

Perhaps climate change itself has gobbled up much of the attention available for environmental issues. But the environment is about so much more than climate! And some climate policies – like ocean fertilisation, or solar radiation management – could turn out to be pretty bad for biodiversity. One thing which is needed – and is still lacking, after year after year of World Biodiversity Days – is anything resembling a climate movement for the planet’s biodiversity.



Matt 05.08.24 at 9:45 am

Like Canute ordering the tides to stop, it turns out that setting targets, by itself, achieves nothing.

I feel like Leviathan Chapter XVII, par. 2 says something that is relevant on this topic.


Aardvark Cheeselog 05.08.24 at 4:49 pm

Climate might be getting a lot of attention compared with biodiversity, but it’s not clear that effective action is following the attention. I think the people who actually sit on the IPCC are generally convinced that political leadership will do nothing to ensure that any significant amount of carbon stays in the ground, and there will be global ecological collapse and gigadeaths.


engels 05.08.24 at 9:57 pm

On the plus side, it turns out that we can eat money.


Alex SL 05.08.24 at 11:41 pm

Yes, not much to say here: a combination of short-term gains versus problems that will arise in the long term and of rat-race conditions where any nation that gets serious about conservation feels it gives itself a competitive disadvantage. It is nearly as if organising every area of human activity around profit, competition, and markets has downsides. Who would have guessed that?

I expect that yes, few people care about biodiversity. I am spending my life as a biodiversity researcher and thus in a social bubble where everybody cares very much, but even I have variously run into people who seriously believe that we don’t need to conserve any species because we can simply GMO new ones that are better adapted and many, many others whose understanding extends to the idea that pandas and whales should perhaps be protected but that any ants or spiders they ever run into should have a date with Mr Pesticide, ASAP.

In truth, many people simply do not care. Most people don’t even care about the well-being of anybody outside of their immediate circle of friends and family; how would one get them to value a rare species of beetle, or a native bushland habitat that could be turned into more suburban housing?


Gareth Richard Samuel Wilson 05.09.24 at 5:13 am

“It is nearly as if organising every area of human activity around profit, competition, and markets has downsides.”

The Amur leopard lived for 70 years in a region where profit, competition, and markets were strongly discouraged, but that didn’t seem to help it to flourish.


steven t johnson 05.09.24 at 3:51 pm

“…we will again celebrate the remarkable contributions that biodiversity makes to the resilience and productivity of the earth’s ecosystems.” It seems to me that people mostly get that plantation monoculture has serious issues but it is not so well known how biodiversity in practice contributes to resilience and productivity. The history of life is a history of extinction. And the history of the mass extinctions correlate with things like the formation of Pangaea and its global ocean, or asteroid impacts, or “Volcanic activity. Climate change. Decrease in oxygen levels in the deep ocean. Changes in atmospheric chemistry.” It’s not entirely clear how the continued existence of a multitude of microspecies prevents these. At this point, biodiversity preservation seems to be about saving interesting mammals and birds, a kind of animal love, a matter of taste. It seems to me a plausible answer to the question is, people don’t understand the need.


John Q 05.10.24 at 6:39 am

There are some grounds for optimism. Land use for agriculture peaked early this century and is now declining, while agricultural output continues to rise. And, at least before Covid and the Ukraine war, the number of hungry people was also declining


There seems to have been an increase in the area of nature reserves. As with climate policy, none of these things are happening fast enough, and plenty of bad things are getting worse, but some good things are happening


Alex SL 05.10.24 at 8:03 am

Gareth Richard Samuel Wilson,

Most systems and processes are influenced by more than one variable. For example, if touching food with unwashed hands makes it spoil quicker, that does not mean that the temperature under which it is stored has no influence on how quickly it spoils. Makes sense?

Also, in this very specific context, the question was, why doesn’t global biodiversity governance work? The fact that our global economic system is built around competition to attract capital that is openly hostile to “green tape” is certainly one such variable.

John Q,

I am all for declaring more nature reserves. But we have to be realistic – when harvests have failed for five years in a row and people experience a severe food crisis in 2060, the soils under a protected rain forest are going to look very attractive for farming, and it will be politically difficult for a government (if it even still functions at that stage) to shoo squatters away if the alternative is more starvation riots.

Just overall I am bemused by optimism. Every year, organisations post about world overshoot day, meaning we have collectively used as many resources as we can sustainably use in a year. Last year it was early August. CO2 output rises and rises and rises every year except for slight blips during worldwide economic crises, only to continue rising after each. It needs to go to zero for our civilisation to survive, ideally yesterday, but it isn’t even decreasing, like, at all. Population growth is slowing, but peak population is still a way off in the future, and most people currently living in a small apartment aspire to two cars per household, a suburban home with a large garden, and annual holidays overseas. And I have just read the headline that most Europeans want governments to prioritise curbing immigration over mitigating climate change, apparently in blissful ignorance about what the predicted zero rainfall in central Spain and Denmark, the Netherlands, and northern Germany being a few meters underwater will mean for migration. I guess they may be thinking in terms of walls, razor wire, moats, mine fields, and automated machine guns all around their hometown? (Just kidding – ‘thinking’ doesn’t enter into it.)

I wish I could share the optimism, I really do, but… how?


Chris Armstrong 05.10.24 at 9:02 am

@ John Q. I love World In Data, and I think Hannah Ritchie is great. But her optimism about some of this stuff feels like an over-correction. There was an interesting Guardian review of her book last week which makes much the same point: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2024/jan/04/not-the-end-of-the-world-by-hannah-ritchie-review-an-optimists-guide-to-the-climate-crisis


Tm 05.10.24 at 6:55 pm

Alex: „most Europeans want governments to prioritise curbing immigration over mitigating climate change“

Which is totally nuts in every respect given that
– one of the biggest economic problems currently is labor shortages
– the EU population is essentially flat even with immigration
– take a look at the population pyramid at https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_the_European_Union

Our main excuse for optimism seems to be that birth rates are falling faster than predicted. And, yes, that wind and solar energy are expanding much faster than predicted. Everything else is going in the wrong direction.


John Q 05.11.24 at 6:09 am

Thanks for that link, Chris. I agree with the review to the extent that I’ve given up much hope for carbon prices outside Europe

But given that I’m almost the only one presenting any grounds for optimism, I’ll push a bit harder in that direction. In rich countries like Australia, there have been big efforts to promote biodiversity. When I was a high school student, about 0.5 per cent of my home state (South Australia) was protected by national parks and reserves, and my friends in the conservation movement were pushing for the super-ambitious goal of 5 per cent. It’s now 20 per cent. That seems inconsistent with the claim that there are very few people campaigning for biodiversity.

One problem is that it would be much more effective to protect habitats in Madagascar, which is a biodiversity hotspot than in South Australia, which is mostly arid. But Madagascar is poor a with a rapidly growing population making conservation efforts difficult

Another problem in Australia is that a relatively small group of farmers on marginal land contribute massively to habitat loss through land clearing. It has proved very difficult to stop this.


engels 05.17.24 at 4:17 pm

one of the biggest economic problems currently is labor shortagesunaffordable education, healthcare and housing and shitty pay and conditions


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