Rethink needed on subsidies harmful to nature

Can humanity curb spending that harms the world’s biodiversity and instead focus funding on protecting it? That question is at the heart of negotiations in Geneva, which will set the stage for a crucial United Nations COP15 biodiversity summit in China later this year. 

Almost 200 countries are to adopt a global framework to safeguard nature by mid-century from the destruction wrought by humanity, with a key milestone of 30% protected by 2030.

These ambitions will only be met with a new approach to biodiversity funding and a rethink of the huge sums spent on subsidies harmful to nature such as fossil fuels, agriculture and fishing, according to observers. This can often result in environmental destruction and encourage unsustainable levels of production and consumption.

The exact figure that the world spends on these harmful subsidies is debated, although the group Business for Nature estimates that it could be as much as $1.8-trillion every year, or 2% of global GDP. 

Financing in general is among the more challenging issues up for debate at the Geneva meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity

“Resource mobilisation at this meeting has become a thorny issue,” said Ghanaian academic Alfred Oteng-Yeboah, who has played a key role in international efforts to protect biodiversity.

The draft text contains the aim “to redirect, reallocate, reform or eliminate harmful incentives”, reducing them by at least $500-billion a year. 

It also includes a goal of increasing total finance from all sources to at least $200-billion a year by 2030 and increasing international money that goes to developing countries by at least $10-billion a year. 

Last year, a study by groups including The Nature Conservancy and the Paulson Institute estimated that in 2019, the world spent between $124-billion and $143-billion a year on activities that benefit nature. 

But they said the amount needed by 2030 should be up to $967-billion a year, which could include refocusing funding for harmful subsidies.

Vinod Mathur, president of the National Biodiversity Authority of India, is calling for $100-billion every year in additional funding.

“It should be new funding, or additional funding and it should be timely,” he said. 

Without it, developing countries say conservation targets will be impossible to achieve. 

Rich countries “recognise that there are additional efforts to be made”, according to one representative, although they took issue with the developing countries’ estimates of funding needed. 

Observers expect the private sector to play an increasingly important role. 

The Business for Nature coalition has the support of more than a thousand companies, which, like the conservation groups, are asking for an ambitious text. 

“Companies need the political certainty to urgently invest, innovate, shift their business models,” said Business for Nature’s director, Eva Zabey, adding that many firms are prepared to be held accountable for the harm they cause to biodiversity. 

As for subsidies, governments often defend them as helping the poor, said Ronald Steenblik, author of the Business for Nature study. But “When you do the analysis you find that actually the major beneficiaries are very often the most wealthy”. 

Some 80% of fishing subsidies, for example, go to industrial fishing and not to small-scale fishers.

Reforms can be difficult because entire sectors of activity depend on them. As is often the case in international negotiations, the subject may only be resolved in the home stretch, at COP15 in China. — AFP

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