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24th Jan 2022

EU threatened global biodiversity deal, critics say

  • A dodo in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (Photo: net_efekt)

Europe's tough stance on sharing genetic information threatened to wreck last week's historic deal on biodiversity, NGOs present at the talks in Japan have said.

The reports suggest negotiators were staring down the barrel on another Copenhagen-style failure until concessions in the final hours of the fortnight-long meeting allowed an agreement to be struck.

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"Without a deal on access and benefit sharing (ABS) of genetic material there wouldn't have been an agreement on anything else," the head of the Greenpeace delegation at the Nagoya talks, Nathalie Rey, told this website on Tuesday (2 November). "There was a lot of frustration that the EU was holding everything back."

Developing states have long accused companies in the industrialised world of 'biopiracy' - exploiting genetic material over which poorer governments have sovereign rights, in order to make commercially successful products such as medicines and cosmetics.

Last Friday's late-night compromise agreement - the Protocol on Access to and Benefit Sharing of genetic resources, signed by the 190 states which attended the tenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 10) - aims to draw a line under the squabbling.

Although thin on detail, the new protocol establishes the idea that the use of genetic material, both future and past, must include royalties, potentially bringing billions of dollars to countries rich in biological diversity.

Agreement on a global strategy to halt biodiversity loss and the mobilisation of funds and technology to achieve this were the other two key issues at the meeting, with delegations pushing hard on their priority topics.

"Countries rich in biodiversity such as Brazil, Indonesia and the African bloc insisted on a deal on financing and ABS. The EU was keen on tough targets under the strategic plan to halt biodiversity loss," said WWF biodiversity manager Rolf Hogan.

Skillful Japanese chairing of the meeting managed to bring all the sides together in the end, but only after Europe, strongly influenced by the German ministry of health, was persuaded to ditch an earlier call to sideline some ABS requirements under emergency conditions, for example in the development of a bird flu vaccine.

"Germany was arguing for a wide definition of an emergency situation that would have reduced the need pay royalties and get permission from developing states," said Friends of the Earth campaigner Friedrich Wulf.

Despite the tough negotiating, governments, NGOs and the media have all hailed the Nagoya agreement as an important breakthrough in the fight to save biodiversity, with scientists estimating that the earth is losing species at 100 to 1,000 times the historical average, the fastest rate since the dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago.

Activists acknowledge however that implementation remains the key issue, with multilateral agreements under the Conference of Biological Diversity (CBD) lacking any system of sanctions for states that renege on commitments.

A similar 2002 declaration failed to meet its 2010 target to halt biodiversity loss, but supporters of last week's deal say the 20 sub-targets under the strategic plan allow for much greater monitoring of progress by individual governments.

Under the strategic plan, signatory states agreed to increase the earth's protected land coverage from 13 to 17 percent, and protected oceans and seas from 1 to 10 percent.

A compromise agreement on financing will see developing states quantify their exact needs in time for the next CBD conference in 2012.

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