China and COP15: From Follower to Active Participant
The UN Biodiversity Conference or COP15, under the chairmanship of China (jointly organized with Canada), concluded with a round of applause last year. The COP15 aim of ‘Living in harmony with nature’ will now move a step closer to better implementation. The first part of the meeting was held in Kunming, China in 2021, where the Kunming Declaration was adopted. The declaration was the precursor to the December 2022 meeting, which focused on building consensus among parties to agree to the post-2020 framework. Earlier the second meeting was supposed to be held in the first half of 2022 in China. However, due to the pandemic, the second meeting was moved to Montreal, Canada, where the UNCBD headquarters is located.
After extensive negotiations in Montreal from December 7-19, a new post-2020 Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (KM-GBF) was adopted. The KM-GBF has 23 targets and four goals that the world aims to achieve by 2030, to stop and reverse the loss of biodiversity. In addition, the framework targets major achievements such as the conservation and management of at least 30 percent of land and sea by 2030, the reform of harmful subsidies, and mobilizing $200 billion per year in finance. The GBF strengthens the agreement by establishing a mechanism for countries to report regularly every five years on the progress of GBF goals and targets. This comes against the backdrop of the failure of the Aichi targets. The post-2020 framework adopted comes after years of negotiations and disagreements.
COP15 and China: Taking Leadership
The COP15 negotiations were led by Huang Runqiu (Minister of Ecology and Environment of China), President of the 15th Meeting of the COP15 to the UNCBD. Huang had pushed for ambitious goals even before the start of the second meeting. In an article published before the convention, he highlighted the need to protect nature in face of the threat to biodiversity, and focus on the conservation and protection of tropical forests and wetlands in parallel with sustainable development goals. Huang, while stating his agenda and the methods of negotiations said that ‘China will adhere to principles of openness, transparency, and inclusiveness’ to achieve the ‘widest consensus of the international community’ and an ‘ambitious, balanced and pragmatic framework.’
Besides the critical importance of COP15 for biodiversity and the larger global community, this was also an opportunity for China to demonstrate its ability and capacity to hold an international conference on a large scale. What made this event more critical were three factors: the changing discourse on climate change, China’s contribution as one of the top carbon emitters, and the absence of global leadership.
The changing discourse around climate change and the lack of accountability of the political leadership at the international level has turned opinions negative towards these large gatherings that promise a drastic change in policies. China used the platform of COP15 to send a signal that it is contributing positively to the discussion on global concerns that are beyond its national interests. Similarly, it leveraged the opportunity to change opinions towards China that are negatively driven by the perceptions of China being one of the largest emitters of GHGs contributing to climate change. And finally, China sought to present itself as the new leader, in the absence of any visible leadership to mobilize countries to make promises and agree to save biodiversity to realize the ‘ecological civilization’ and the vision of a nature-positive (nature equivalent of net zero).
Today, multilateral institutions and the process of multilateralism have come under huge criticism, particularly from Global South countries on issues of climate change and biodiversity. China has made a point of highlighting its role as a leader in such negotiations. China has convened 40 meetings of the presidium, and more than 100 multilateral and bilateral meetings and seminars for consensus-building throughout the process. This helped elevate China’s image as a responsible stakeholder on global issues. The major disagreements seen on such platforms was between developing and developed countries on issues of finance, intellectual property, reform in subsidies, sustainable production, digital sequencing information (DSI), and nature-based solutions. China has tried to address some of these issues in negotiations and some through its initiatives.
Chinese President Xi Jinping while delivering the keynote speech at COP15 in 2021 promised to establish the Kunming Biodiversity Fund by investing 1.5 billion RMB to support the protection of biodiversity in developing countries, and even through the Belt and Road Initiative International Green Development Coalition (BRIGC). In addition, Xi outlined the steps taken in China to protect biodiversity: designating more national parks, protecting land areas, and building botanical gardens. Even Executive Secretary of the CBD, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, recognized China’s direction and thanked it for showing its leadership and pledging biodiversity finance for developing countries. China has assured it would work on reducing its carbon emission through policies, and push for renewable energy.
After the closing ceremony of COP15, Huang Runqiu said that China will ‘provide technical support and training’ to developing countries through the ‘South-South cooperation framework’. An article in the Global Times projected the GBF as ‘landmark’, and equivalent to the Paris climate pact. It also emphasized China’s leadership in delivering the results (post-2020 GBF) while balancing the interests of developing countries (on the issue of funding) and developed countries (on protection and targets). This was aligned with Xi’s proposal for a ‘global consensus on biodiversity protection,’ and ‘defending true multilateralism’.
Criticism and Concerns
Many celebrated the success of COP15, but some also questioned the agreement with regard to the handling of the negotiations, less ambitious targets, risks for indigenous peoples, and the sidelining of concerns from African states. Under the Presidentship of China, some countries were not happy with the final draft. Many African states raised objections, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) expressed its disagreement concerning ‘fund conservation in developing countries,’ which deals with the issue of finance before the conclusion. The demand for the creation of a separate fund in the Global Environment Facility (GEF) was for more finance, as a major portion of the grant currently goes to big countries like China, Indonesia, and India. However, the Chair outrightly neglected it. Many countries called this a total misuse of the negotiating forum and were dissatisfied with the clause that deals with biodiversity finance. While the Ugandan delegate said that ‘their objections were procedural and not about the agreement’, the DRC Environment Minister Ève Bazaiba said that ‘we didn’t accept it [agreement]’, and it would be open to further negotiations before the next COP.
On the 30 by 30 target, some said that this was a very minuscule target, and it needed to be increased at least to the level of 50 percent. There were also issues with ambiguity when it came to the 30 by 30 targets, that is, what land to conserve, and some limitations and loopholes. Further, the 30 by 30 target (Target 3) was criticized by indigenous groups for not reserving aside a ‘third type of area-based conservation for indigenous peoples.’ Amnesty International, a human rights NGO, said in a statement that the agreement ‘failed to fully recognize the immense contribution of indigenous peoples to the conservation of biodiversity, placing them at greater risk of human rights violations’. But the statement released by the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB) welcomed the post-2020 GBF’s ‘recognition of indigenous peoples and local communities’ contributions, roles, rights, and responsibilities.’
The conclusion of COP15 shows China’s increasing influence in international negotiations focusing on global challenges, by projecting its role as a ‘leader and promoter’. Through events like this, a message goes out to the world that China can deliver when given responsibility, particularly when the world is going through a leadership crisis with the U.S. policy of strategic retrenchment in multilateral institutions. Even amidst all the doubts regarding whether the global community will be able to achieve the targets by 2030, in parallel with SDGs, and the vision of ‘living in harmony with nature’ by 2050, what is particularly evident now is that in its rivalry with the U.S., China is playing the north-south divide. China is stepping up when it sees an opportunity to fill the vacuum left by other powers and presents an agenda that will be acceptable to international audiences.
Amidst the shifting geopolitical power dynamics, many low and middle-income countries (primarily based in the global south) rely on multilateral institutions to further their interests and want someone to represent the voice of their collective group. China traditionally used to represent the collective agenda in these institutions. This time during COP15 it was given the platform, position, and power, and it succeeded in developing consensus, but also in raising its stature, and creating a new audience. The absence of the U.S. from many of these negotiating venues only raises the profile of China. However, going forward, whether China’s enthusiasm converts and extends to other issues of global importance remains to be seen.