Joining the UN Convention on Biological Diversity an opportunity for the US to start to rectify past mistakes in conservation resourcing: expert
Published: Oct 14, 2021 11:19 PM
Photo: IC

Photo: IC

The 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) held in Kunming, Southwest China's Yunnan Province, is attracting global attention. During the conference on Tuesday, China vowed to establish a 1.5-billion-yuan ($233 million) Kunming biodiversity fund to support biodiversity projects of developing countries. The move shows it is acting as a responsible leader in global biodiversity conservation.

In contrast, the international community noticed that the US has not ratified the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) yet. Once again, the US has directly or indirectly damaged global diversity in contradiction of its vaunted image as environmental superpower.

The US government has been staying completely outside the global biodiversity conservation cooperation system claiming reasons of national interests, biologists and environmental law experts said.

"Ironically, the US government has repeatedly used excuses like environment protection to exercise its hegemony and suppress other countries," Qin Tianbao, Chinese delegate to the COP15 and Director of the Research Institute of Environmental Law under Wuhan University (WHU), told the Global Times on Wednesday.

Self-interest first

So far, 195 countries and the European Union have joined the CBD, making it the international environmental convention with the most signatories. China signed in June 1992, being one of its earliest members.

As the world's largest economy, the US has never ratified the CBD over the past 30 years due to the pressure from some conservative politicians and bioindustry giants who are afraid it could hurt US' interests, observers found.

"Joining the CBD is not 'cost-effective' to these American politicians and enterprises," said Qin, who is also the Chief Expert of WHU's Academy of International Law and Global Governance.

The three main objectives of the CBD, conservation, sustainability and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits from the utilization of genetic resources, emphasize the joint effort and benefit sharing in global biodiversity conservation, Qin explained. 

"To the US, its overseas access to natural resources may be restricted under the convention and it may have to share its eco-friendly technologies with other members with preferential prices. These are what the related industries in the US are reluctant to see," Qin told the Global Times.

"Nonetheless, self-interest sometimes should give way to public interest," Qin noted, taking the pandemic as an example. "Last year, without applying for Intellectual Property (IP) rights, China soon shared the COVID-19 gene sequence with global scientists to develop a vaccine as early as possible," he mentioned.

The possible financial loss and IP concerns have made some in the US weary of joining the CBD, Qin concluded. "We understand that businessmen always want to make profit but in terms of ecological protection, which is good for the whole world, one cannot simply keep the eyes on the cash register."

In the US, many environmental groups and scholars believe that the argument that joining the CBD would harm the US' interests is groundless. 

"The main concern centers around treaties as a threat to US sovereignty, which is unfounded in the case of the CBD because the agreement stipulates that countries retain jurisdiction over their own environment," according to Sarah Saunders, a quantitative ecologist at the National Audubon Society, an American non-profit environmental organization.

"In fact, US negotiators made sure of this when helping craft the agreement in the 1990s," Saunders told the Global Times on Wednesday.

In 1992, then US President Bill Clinton, signed the CBD. But joining the convention needs ratification by the Senate, which "requires 67 votes," according to a report published in May on the American news website Vox, explaining that to get 67 votes 17 Republican lawmakers need to support it assuming all Democrats vote in favor of its ratification. This is a "major hurdle" to joining CBD, the report said.

"Conservative nationalists in the United States (including the Senate) have long mistrusted international agreements," Stewart Patrick, Director of International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Vox.

In general, the US authority will not actively join an international convention unless it is profitable, such as playing a leading role in the convention or using it to sanction other countries, Qin said. "Look at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)," he added, noting that "it is not uncommon to see the US impose CIETS sanctions on others."

Qin does not think the US will join the CBD in the near future. "It is difficult to predict if and when the US will ratify the CBD," said Saunders, adding that she is "hopeful that it is a possibility under the Biden administration."

Disappointing the world

While taking the lead in domestic biodiversity conservation, the US has been disappointing internationally, especially during Trump's presidency. It seldom participates in global cooperation on biodiversity conservation and even plays a bullying role in this regard, observers told the Global Times.

Besides the CBD, the US has not acceded to the three other important protocols on biodiversity, namely the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from Their Utilization, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, and the Nagoya-Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress.

Financially, the Trump administration kept reducing investment in environmental research and development, and international cooperation. It proposed a budget for fiscal year 2021 that allocates almost nothing for multilateral environmental cooperation, including on climate change and biodiversity.

The US also drastically reduced its pledges to the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which serves as the main financial mechanism for important international environmental agreements, including the CBD. 

"In the history of the GEF, the largest contributions arrears come from the US, which stand at $111 million, accounting for 95.7 percent of the total arrears of 116 million," said the Report on US Damage to Global Environmental Governance released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry in October 2020.

Accidents and human damage to the environment in the US also threaten global diversity. Earlier this month, a large oil spill off the southern California coast, affected wildlife and left wetlands contaminated. The spill of the equivalent of 126,000 gallons of post-production crude, is a "potential ecological disaster," CNN reported.

In July 2018, more than 2,000 scientists jointly signed a paper warning about the environmental impacts of then President Trump's proposed expansion of the wall on the US-Mexico border. "Fences and walls erected along international boundaries in the name of national security have unintended but significant consequences for biodiversity," according to the paper published on the scientific journal BioScience.

As the largest economy in the world, the absence of the US has undermined global efforts in protecting biodiversity and preventing the extinction of species, commented Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Wednesday. 

"The US should stop seeking instant benefits when participating in international affairs at an early date, shoulder its due international responsibilities and obligations," Zhao noted.

Joining the CBD is an opportunity for the US to start to rectify past mistakes in conservation resourcing, said Saunders. The US can help establish funding mechanisms that can support conservation actions at the immense scale required and ensure that lesser developed nations are not left with the burden of achieving their own targets, she indicated.

"Globally, we have failed to reach the goals (the Aichi Biodiversity Targets) laid out by the CBD," Saunders told the Global Times, adding that "achievement of these targets [...] requires international cooperation and coordination."

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