Inside the COP auditorium

How will COP15 bring social justice into conservation?

By Richard Benwell 13 January 2023 4 minute read

In this guest blog, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link Richard Benwell explores how the UN COP15 Biodiversity agreement may influence environmental policy in the UK. Opinions are the author’s own.

There is a nightmare version of wildlife conservation. Hotspots of degradation emerge in which poorer communities are foisted with exported environmental harm, while wealthier areas avoid curbing their own consumption. Meanwhile, colonialist conservation protects pristine pockets of biodiversity at the expense of indigenous communities. People are forced off the land, as offsets for on-going exploitation.

This is conservation without social justice. It is unacceptable, and ultimately self-defeating, but unfortunately this kind of land-spoiling and land-clearing are all too common. This is true internationally, with the Global South suffering the effects of rich countries’ economic exploitation. It is true nationally, where environmental inequality in Britain harms poorer and more marginalised communities the most.

In a world that is over-shooting planetary limits, we cannot afford to keep exporting destruction, while maintaining a ‘little island’ illusion of progress at home—we need worldwide systemic change. In a world of competing interests, we cannot afford to alienate people from our conservation mission—we need everyone if we are to succeed.

That’s why we should celebrate the progress made to ensure that the new Global Biodiversity Framework has social justice woven into its core.

What did COP15 achieve?

The new deal, agreed at COP15 in December under the Convention on Biological Diversity, seeks to halt and reverse the decline of nature by 2030. In doing so, it has recognised that success depends on social equality. It acknowledges:

  • access to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right;
  • the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities;
  • the need for gender equality and equitable representation;
  • responsibility to reduce the global footprint of consumption in an equitable manner; and
  • the role of richer countries in financing implementation.

These acknowledgements join a focus on equitable sharing of benefits from the use of genetic resources, which was always at the centre of the Convention.

Certainly, there is further to go. On finance in particular, the agreed sum of $30 billion per year by 2030 is far from sufficient. There is also much more to be done to formalise and support sustainable indigenous ways of life. But the new deal could curb the worst excesses of colonialist conservation, ensuring that the benefits of a more biodiverse world are shared by everyone.

What does COP15 mean for the UK?

Implementation requires political will. The world failed spectacularly to meet previous Aichi targets to halt the decline of biodiversity, and rich countries fail year after year to give the financial support they’ve promised for climate change by whole orders of magnitude.

Success depends upon leadership from countries with influence. The UK positioned itself as a diplomatic leader in the run up to COP15, so would be well-placed to set an example for how conservation and social justice can go hand in hand.

There has been some good work, in particular Natural England’s efforts to map where lack of access to natural greenspace is affecting people’s lives. So far however, the UK is not keeping pace with international aspirations.

For example, the UK has a huge opportunity to showcase a fair transition to sustainable farming and fishing, but current proposals lack the ambitious investment and clear regulation needed to support farmers and fishers in bold reform.

The Environment Act also brings a chance to set new goals to tackle pollution, such as the 40,000 premature deaths a year from air pollution, which affects poorer and ethnic minority communities the most. The government’s own analysis shows that reducing concentrations of fine particulate matter to 10 µg/m3 is achievable by 2030, but DEFRA is proposing a target for 2040—another decade of unhealthy air.

How can Levelling Up further environmental social justice?

Perhaps the clearest opportunity for Parliamentarians to combine social justice and environmental protection right now relates to planning.

“Levelling up” is meant to ensure that opportunity and quality of life are not determined by people’s background or where they live. There are huge disparities in life chances across the UK caused by pollution and lack of access to nature. Around 1 in 3 people in England don’t have access to nature-rich spaces near their homes, with no green space at all in some of the most deprived areas. Ethnic minorities are twice as likely to live in nature-poor neighbourhoods, leading to mental and physical health inequality.

Yet the Government hasn’t recognised the need for environmental equality in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. Requiring a “Levelling Up Mission” for access to a healthy environment under Clause 1, with a duty to ensure equitable access to nature, would be an important step toward meeting the COP15 right to a healthy environment. Greener communities are healthier, happier communities.

The stage is set for a new kind of global conservation, with decisive action for wildlife delivering and depending on action for social justice. The text of the deal includes more of the right language than ever before, expressing people’s need for nature. Now is the time for the UK to show conviction in implementing the Convention, starting with Levelling Up—everyone needs nature and nature needs everyone.


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