Biodiversity: when targets become lies

Victor Anderson exposes the ‘double life’ we are expected to lead in the face of planetary disaster

Great rejoicing followed the biodiversity agreement arrived at just before Christmas. For example, The Times‘ editorial began: “The agreement in Montreal by 195 countries to protect wildlife and ecosystems, with 30 per cent of Earth’s lands and oceans protected by 2030, is a rare piece of good news in gloomy times.” The Environment section of the European Commission tweeted: “The new global #Biodiversity Agreement will ensure that nature keeps sustaining communities & economies for the next decades.” Many NGOs also joined in the cheering.

Fundamentally, the EU’s word “ensure” is a lie. It’s always easier for governments to announce targets, much easier than announcing or actually implementing measures to achieve them. It’s not that target setting is wrong, but it can be an easy media win, giving the impression that far more is being achieved than is really the case.

This has recently become particularly problematic for the two key problems of the global environment: the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. In both cases, the gap between targets and achievements has reached the point at which targets are now functioning as lies, and the combination of those targets has come to constitute a Big Lie. This is a Big Lie about the state and future of the planet, something we really cannot afford to be misled or lied to about.

The same process as happened in Montreal before Christmas, a Conference of the Parties Convention on Biological Diversity, happened in 2010, when government representatives meeting in Japan agreed an earlier set of targets, known as the Aichi Targets, supposed to be achieved by 2020. The meeting in Montreal was originally supposed to be held in 2020 to review how that turned out, but got postponed twice because of Covid.

In December 2022, representatives did meet to discuss what had happened. The UN published what it called “a final report card” on the subject. Summarising it, The Guardian reported: “The world has failed to meet a single target to stem the destruction of wildlife and life-sustaining ecosystems in the last decade, according to a devastating new report from the UN on the state of nature.” The UN report itself said: “At the global level, none of the 20 targets have been fully achieved, though six targets have been partially achieved.”

Since none of the targets set in 2010 were achieved, that should surely raise question marks about the new set of targets announced in 2022. Perhaps the 2022 conference should have started off by examining the reasons for the failure of the earlier set of targets before moving on to negotiate a whole new set.

It is a similar story with climate. In 2015 in Paris, at the Conference of the Parties for the Climate Change Convention, government representatives agreed a declaration which included the goal of limiting global warming to “well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels”. That declaration led to rejoicing in some quarters, where this was hailed as an important achievement.

Now, in 2023, it is clear that, although staying below 1.5° is still theoretically possible, if a highly unlikely set of policies and circumstances were to be combined, for all practical purposes it is dead. This was acknowledged in a powerful analysis in The Economist in November 2022. According to the UN Environment Programme, the world is currently on course, on the basis of existing policies, for a rise in average global temperature of around 2.8° by 2100, i.e. almost double the 1.5° target.

These dramatic failures should make us wonder about the biodiversity agreement reached in Montreal. Undoubtedly, many diplomats, scientists and campaigners who contributed to the ambitious new agreement and its targets did so with the best intentions and were pleased with what their work had achieved. It is only natural that a certain amount of wishful thinking entered into their welcome for the conference’s outcome.

But there is also a more cynical side to all this. Politicians aren’t worried by long-run targets set for dates after they will have left office. Even when there are targets they might be held responsible for, there are always plenty of reasons that might be given as to why events prevented them from being achieved, ranging at present from Brexit to Covid to Ukraine. There are always predecessors and/or foreigners and/or opposition politicians who can be blamed. And there are always other agreements to be kept to: trade deals are legally enforceable, environmental agreements are not, and so it’s not difficult to see which will win out. Setting targets is so much easier than delivering the changes necessary to achieve them.

The conclusion could be drawn that target setting is used by politicians in unscrupulous ways. Although that’s true, there is more involved here. It is important to ask the further question: what role do these targets actually play? They might of course play the role of guiding policy, but the repeated failures to achieve them suggest they also play another and, in practice, more important role, one of hiding reality.

It isn’t only politicians seeking votes who benefit. Most of the public likes target setting and finds it reassuring. We all like to feel that things are OK and will be OK for our children and grandchildren. We like to feel that our “leaders” are looking after us and that the planet is in good hands, despite evidence to the contrary. Anything different from that either points the finger at ourselves as having some share of responsibility, or points to the need for serious policy and economic changes that might actually affect our way of life if they are on a big enough scale to make a difference.

So we live this double life: a diet of worrying news reports about how badly the planet is doing, with numerous consequences now following from climate breakdown and decline in the natural world; and at the same time, calming stories about how we now have such a wonderful set of international agreements that the trends that have been going in the wrong direction will henceforth turn around and make everything OK.

NGO leaderships are also very often part of this “calming consensus”. Their comms and marketing departments tell them the public don’t like bad news and that pessimism causes people to turn off. Their lobbyists tell them politicians like to hear more positive messages. Businesses tell them to focus on the opportunities rather than the problems. All of this has some validity, but it is also very dangerous. It’s very much like drinking a drink that calms the nerves and makes everything look much rosier than it really is. Now and then that can be OK, but it can also become addictive.

It is at this point – a point we have already gone beyond – that a consensus builds up, amongst politicians, public, and NGOs, and with economists and the media making their contributions too, that fundamentally misleads as to the state and prospects for our planet and the life on it. As a result, changes that need to be made don’t get made because they don’t appear to be urgent or necessary.

That’s the point at which targets turn into lies.

Thanks to Rupert Read for comments on an earlier version of this article

Leave a comment...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.