Governing nature – halting biodiversity loss

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The Scottish Government has recently concluded its consultation on the next iteration of Scotland’s Biodiversity Strategy, and countries are due to come together this year at COP15 to agree the next phase of the global biodiversity framework.

This is the second of a two-part blog on biodiversity. The first part explored what is meant by biodiversity and biodiversity loss. This part looks at progress made in tackling biodiversity loss, ongoing changes to biodiversity policy globally and in Scotland, and the role of the Scottish Parliament in scrutinising this widespread challenge.

What is COP15?

COP15 is the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Like COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, which brought together the parties under the UN convention on climate change, COP15 is the meeting of those countries which have signed up to take collective action on biodiversity loss.

Also, like COP26, COP15 is ‘a big one’. Though countries meet every other year under the convention, every ten years the parties come together to agree a new set of targets to guide action for the next decade. The 2020 Aichi Targets were agreed in 2010. They were due to be updated at COP15 in 2020, but the conference was postponed due to the pandemic. COP15 is now due to be held in Montreal, Canada in December 2022, with China as President of the conference.

A first draft of a Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework has been published, including 21 new or revised targets. Key targets include ensuring that at least 30% of land and sea are well managed for nature, to “prevent or reduce the rate of introduction and establishment” of invasive species by 50%, and “reduce nutrients lost to the environment by at least half, pesticides by at least two thirds, and eliminate discharge of plastic waste”.

The UK is a party to the convention and will therefore be expected to deliver on the targets that are agreed. Scotland is responsible for the implementation of international agreements in devolved areas like biodiversity.

Has progress been made on biodiversity loss?

In signing up to the Aichi Targets countries committed to meet a range of biodiversity targets by 2020, from increasing awareness of the value of biodiversity, to reforming public subsidies to ensure they do not fund detrimental activities.

Scotland has been required to periodically report on its progress towards achieving the Aichi Targets. Having officially ‘expired’, NatureScot published Scotland’s final progress report in 2021, assessing whether the targets had been met by 2020. The report noted that:

“We have assessed Scotland as having met nine of the twenty targets. Progress has been made on the remaining eleven, but was insufficient to meet the target by 2020. Even where targets have been met, the pressures on biodiversity remain.”

The infographic below sets out which targets have been met, and which have had insufficient progress. The targets in the infographic are paraphrased from the original.

Graphic setting out Scotland's progress towards meeting the 2020 UN Biodiversity Targets. Scotland has met 9 out of 20 targets. Insufficient progress has been made on the remaining 11 targets.
Infographic produced by SPICe. Source: Scotland’s Biodiversity Progress Report 2020. To view the image in a larger format, right click and select “open image in new tab”.

Firm progress has been made in both the areas where the target has been achieved and where insufficient progress has been made. For Target 15, for example, the monitoring report points to Scotland’s peatland restoration programme and activities to improve rivers over the last 25 years.

However, many of the targets that have been met are those that have to do with implementing policies, adopting legislation, improving knowledge, and increasing awareness. By contrast, all of the targets where insufficient progress have been made are those which require tangible changes to practices, behaviour and the physical condition of biodiversity and ecosystem services on the ground, as well as those which concern funding.

This is in line with global trends, where the targets that have been met are those that are largely related to policy development, rather than the drivers of biodiversity loss or the state of biodiversity.

In Global Biodiversity Outlook 5, published in 2020, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity secretariat assessed progress towards achieving the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. It reported that none of the Aichi Targets were met in full. Six targets were partially achieved (Targets 9, 11, 16, 17, 19 and 20).

National targets were noted to be generally poorly aligned with the Aichi Targets, with gaps in the level of ambition and actions to address the nature crisis at the national and subnational level. Globally, it is reported that:

  • Indicators of responses to the biodiversity crisis in terms of policies and actions (such as updates to national biodiversity strategies and incorporating biodiversity values into national accounting systems) show significantly positive trends i.e. countries now have more biodiversity policies and accounting systems in place.
  • However, indicators relating to the drivers of biodiversity loss, and to the actual state of biodiversity mostly show significantly worsening trends i.e. those policies are not working, or not working well enough to slow biodiversity loss.

What will the new Scottish strategy set out to do?

The consultation on the new biodiversity strategy demonstrates a clear awareness that Scotland has not fully succeeded in meeting targets or implementing previous strategies:

“…the evidence tells us that, despite some isolated highlights, Scotland, in common with the rest of the UK and the world, has not done enough since 2004 to prevent the decline in biodiversity.

“It is clear on reviewing the 2004 strategy that our vision for the future, analysis of the problem and priorities for action have not greatly changed in the last 15 years, nor have we developed fundamentally different or new means of addressing the problem. What we have come to understand is that key shortcomings relating to governance and accountability structures and mechanisms for mainstreaming biodiversity into all areas of policy, including economic policy making, have undermined our ambitions. As highlighted in the Environment Strategy, our role in tackling the climate and nature crises will rely on transformative economic and social change. Reversing biodiversity loss cannot be achieved through traditional conservation measures alone – these must be accompanied by a more fundamental, society-wide shift to sustainable consumption and production.”

The consultation proposes that the new Biodiversity Strategy will set out a series of “proposed outcomes” across a variety of different landscapes, as well a list of cross-cutting “conditions for success” addressing those key shortcomings referred to above.  

The proposed outcomes set out in the consultation are high-level. To give an example, for coastal ecosystems, the outcomes are proposed to be:

“By 2045 we expect that

  • “Coastal ecosystems and adaptive management more widely adopted to allow naturally functioning coastlines in response to a changing climate;
  • “Abundance and demography of coastal bird species indicate healthy populations that have recovered in line with changing conditions.

“Which means that by 2030 we need to have

  • “Coastal ecosystems, including lagoons and estuaries, managed for biodiversity and the dynamic processes underpinning this;
  • “Management is tailored to nature-based solutions to climate impacts, notably sea level rise and coastal erosion;
  • “Machair and saltmarshes managed extensively for biodiversity richness and to respond dynamically to climate change impacts.”

The conditions for success set out in the consultation are (emphasis in original):

  • High Level Strategic Leadership;
  • Governance arrangements which:
    • ensure policy coherence and effectiveness, and alignment with other relevant strategies; and
    • are inclusive and engage and empower local and regional institutions;
  • Sufficient public and private responsible investment to deliver the desired outcomes;
  • A participatory and inclusive ‘whole-of-society’ approach that engages:
    • a wide range of delivery partners including especially local authorities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs);
    • local communities and communities of interest;
    • business, including especially land-based businesses;
    • the scientific community, academia; and
    • other stakeholders; and
  • Evidence supported by up-to-date information, particularly monitoring, to support the development of delivery policies and assess their effectiveness.

These are accompanied by further proposed outcomes in relation to each point. These are also very high level. For example, under ‘strategic leadership’ the proposed outcomes are:

  • “Ministerial leadership of a high-level strategic forum will facilitate agreement around priorities, the content of delivery plans and troubleshoot issues;
  • “Agreed priorities and outcomes contribute to coordinated messaging which helps achieve widespread public understanding and acceptance.”

The intention is for the new biodiversity strategy to be “the starting point in a process which will lead into the development of rolling delivery plans and, through the introduction of a Natural Environment Bill, statutory nature restoration targets.” (emphasis added)

What can the Scottish Parliament do?

As part of its scrutiny role, it is the Parliament’s responsibility to assess whether the Scottish Government is delivering on its biodiversity commitments – both domestic and international. Given the breadth of the proposed outcomes in the Scottish Government’s consultation, it is apparent that areas across government will need to be involved to meet commitments.

As with climate change, where scrutiny is also being ‘mainstreamed’ and multiple parliamentary committees engage with the crisis within their portfolios, there will be future opportunities for cross-committee scrutiny in the rolling delivery plans for biodiversity, which will be published following the new high-level Scottish strategy.

Global assessments, such as the IPBES Global Assessment Report discussed above, have highlighted that transformative change – defined as “a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values” – is required to halt and reverse biodiversity loss, including by mainstreaming biodiversity “within and across different sectors”. Further discussion on what it means to mainstream biodiversity is available in a SPICe briefing on this topic.

The IPBES Report identified five ‘levers’ – or key interventions – which can generate transformative change to tackle the nature crisis. These levers address underlying drivers of biodiversity loss across policy areas. Those levers are:

  1. Developing incentives and widespread capacity for environmental responsibility and eliminating perverse incentives (incentives that result in harming nature);
  2. Reforming sectoral and segmented decision-making to promote integration across sectors and jurisdictions;
  3. Taking pre-emptive and precautionary actions in regulatory and management institutions and businesses to avoid, mitigate and remedy the deterioration of nature, and monitoring their outcomes;
  4. Managing for resilient social and ecological systems in the face of uncertainty and complexity, to deliver decisions that are robust in a wide range of scenarios;
  5. Strengthening environmental laws and policies and their implementation.

The Parliament can reframe these levers as questions for scrutiny across policy areas. Where significant drivers of biodiversity loss exist, Parliament may ask –

  • Does this policy/legislation include incentives that result in harming nature?
  • Does this policy/legislation increase incentives and capacity for environmental responsibility?
  • Does this policy/legislation show evidence of integrated decision-making across sectors, or promote future integrated decision-making?
  • Is this policy/legislation precautionary when it comes to avoiding or mitigating deterioration of nature?
  • Does/should this policy/legislation include a mechanism for monitoring outcomes for nature?
  • Does this policy/legislation promote resilient social and ecological systems?
  • Does this policy/legislation strengthen protections for the environment?

Key resources

Anna Brand, Senior Researcher