Bucking the trend of global environmental summits over-promising and under-delivering, representatives from nearly 190 nations came together in Nagoya at the end of the two week-long Convention on Biological Diversity and signed an important deal that aims to greatly expand the portions of the planet that are under protection and fairly divide up the world’s biological and genetic resources. The resulting Nagoya Protocol—which was negotiated up to the last minute, because diplomats have the procrastinating habits of college students—represents a hopeful attempt to fulfill the broad goals for the planet set out at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, and put biodiversity on par with climate change as a major global issue. As Achim Steiner, the head of the U.N. Environment Programme, said in a statement:
This is a day to celebrate in terms of a new and innovative response to the alarming loss of biodiversity and ecosystems. And a day to celebrate in terms of opportunities for lives and livelihoods in terms of overcoming poverty and delivering sustainable development…This meeting has delivered a sea change in the global understanding of the multi-trillion dollar importance of biodiversity of forests, wetlands and other ecosystems.
The negotiators agreed on a 20-point strategic plan to protect marine and land biodiversity while conserving larger areas of the planet. It’s the last bit that contains hard numbers—or at least as hard numbers as we’re likely to get at a U.N. summit. The signatories agreed to protect 17% of the planet’s land and inland waters, and 10% of coastal and marine waters by 2020. (That’s up from 13% of land and just 1% of marine areas right now.) There’s also a broad “mission” to take action to halt the loss of biodiversity—nations will aim to halve the loss of habitats and will each draw up national biodiversity plans that will chart how each country is mean to halt overfishing, control invasive species and in general stop the rampant destruction of the natural world.
Even more noteworthy, however, is the fact that the diplomats in attendance managed to come up with a compromise on what was by far the most contentious issue on the table: the trade in biological and genetic resources. For nearly 20 years, countries have been at odds over how to police the growing trade—or biopiracy, depending on your perspective—in biological and genetic resources, the plants and animals usually found in the developing world that can be used to make medicines, drugs and other products in the developed world. The dispute—which I outlined in an earlier post—threatened to scuttle the entire Nagoya meeting; Brazil, for one, had made it clear that it would not support general action on biodiversity unless what it deemed a fair agreement could be made on the access and benefit sharing (ABS) of biological resources.
Against the odds, though, that’s more or less what happened. The Nagoya Protocol will create an International Regime on Access and Benefit Sharing of Genetic Resources that will begin to create ground rules for the international trade in genetic resources. Notably, it will also push governments to consider ways to provide restitution for genetic material or “traditional knowledge” taken from developing nations that has been used to create patented drugs or other products. That compensation might come in the form of a special fund that could be used to finance conservation or development in poorer countries.
While environmentalists were happy that Nagoya didn’t turn into another Copenhagen, the deal was far from perfect. Conservation International (CI), for instance, had supported a goal of protecting 25% of the planet’s land, and 15% of the world’s oceans—and the deal fell short of that. Still, Russ Mittermeier, CI’s President, came away happy:
Countries were able to come together as a global community and look beyond their national agendas to focus on the future of life on Earth and its essential role in human development and poverty alleviation. We were optimistic from the beginning and are happy with the end result.
But the devil is in the details—and financing of all these fine goals, for the most part, was not. Though Japan, the host nation for the summit, promised $2 billion towards biodiversity, it’s not clear elsewhere how countries will pay for the work of expanding protected areas. And there have been similar ambitious goals before—in 2002, at a CBD summit, nations promised to reduce the rate of extinctions by 2010, and they failed in the end. It’s hard not to wonder whether they will be any more successful this time around—especially since the U.S., which never ratified the original CBD treaty, was just an observer here. On biological trade, as well, while there is a general agreement, most of the hard work of negotiations was left to be finished at a later date—making this summit, despite the late date to the Earth, more of a beginning then an end.
The task ahead is daunting for those who care about the planet’s dwindling biodiversity—a report that came out during the Nagoya meeting found that nearly a quarter of mammals, a third of amphibians and more than a fifth of planet species now face the threat of extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Conservationists should be proud of what they accomplished at Nagoya, but for species other than Homo sapiens, the future still looks dark and uncertain.
More from TIME on biodiversity: