The Convention on Biological Diversity

The International Convention on Biodiversity or “Convention on Biological Diversity” (CBD) brings together, under the auspices of the United Nations, one hundred and ninety-six countries participating in international negotiations on the preservation of biodiversity. The Convention on Biological Diversity was opened for signature at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro on June 5, 1992, and entered into force on December 29, 1993.

The Convention is a legally binding international treaty with three main objectives: conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of biological diversity, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources. Its overall goal is to encourage actions that will lead to a sustainable future. Moreover, because of its three objectives, the Convention on Biological Diversity is often considered as the main international instrument for sustainable development.

The Convention on Biological Diversity: context of its adoption

Since the dawn of the industrial era, the biological diversity of our planet (that means, the diversity of life forms on Earth, also called biodiversity) disappears at an alarming rate: this rate is estimated between one hundred and one thousand times faster than the normal rhythm on the geologic time scales. The experts call this ecological catastrophe the sixth massive extinction of species in the history of the planet (the last since the collision of a huge asteroid with our planet, sixty-five million years ago, that has erased of its surface half of the living species).

Awareness of this alarming situation by the international community is not new. It really emerged in the 1970s with the Stockholm Summit on the Environment as a highlight. Over the next decade, the publication of the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development had greatly increased the attention of policymakers and civil society to this situation. In the wake of this report, governments decided to take action by adopting the Convention on Biological Diversity, not without difficulty, in May 1992, in Nairobi (Kenya).

The Convention on Biological Diversity was opened for government signature at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in June of the same year. During the Conference, one hundred and fifty states signed the text, with the notable exception of the United States of America. Governments have recognised that sustainable management of the world’s living resources is one of the most pressing issues of our time, and have expressed their commitment to addressing it collectively.

The scope of the Convention

The Convention on Biological Diversity is a remarkable convention in scope, complexity and potential to redefine the distribution of rights and obligations of states. It is the first comprehensive treaty covering biodiversity in all its forms, from genes and species, to ecosystems. It recognises the need for a multisectoral approach to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, the importance of sharing information and technologies, and the benefits that can accrue from the use of these resources. For the first time in an international legal instrument, it recognises the importance of traditional knowledge: the sum of the knowledge, innovations and practices of local and indigenous people with direct relevance to the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.

Since its adoption in 1992, almost two hundred countries and one regional economic integration organisation, the European Union, have ratified or acceded to it, and it has become one of the most important international agreements. It has given rise to a great deal of activity both nationally and internationally, and increased coordination of intersectoral action within and between countries. It has also enabled the release of international funds to help developing countries and those with economies in transition, mainly through its financial mechanism, the “Global Environment Facility” (GEF).

It also recognises that the causes of biodiversity loss are of a diffuse nature and that they occur most often as secondary effects of economic activities such as agriculture, forestry, fishing, water supply, transportation, urban development or energy. But it is mainly the activities that focus on short-term gains rather than long-term sustainability that have the greatest impact on biodiversity. Thus, taking into account economic and institutional factors in the management of biodiversity is the keystone to achieving the objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity, which will take into account the needs and concerns of many stakeholders involved, starting with by local communities.

Progress and efficiency

Since governments have not agreed to make the Convention on Biological Diversity a truly binding instrument, it follows that it does not favour the conventional or traditional regulatory approach. Likewise, its provisions are expressed in the form of strategies and general goals, and it is up to the Parties to decide on specific actions according to the circumstances and their capabilities, quite the opposite of precise and inflexible obligations. The Convention also does not set concrete and precise goals, as it does not contain lists or appendices relating to protected sites or species (which several European countries, and above all France, would have strongly desired).

Indeed, there can be only a very partial idea of the effective implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity at both global and national levels, since there is no independent mechanism for monitoring and evaluating such implementation. The European Union has proposed the creation of such a mechanism at the last meeting of the Conference of the Parties (The Hague, Netherlands, April 2002), but both developed and developing countries are fiercely opposed. Only national reports by governments provide some insight, but many States Parties have not yet established and have not provided information through case studies or other submissions.

Countries did not prepare their strategy and national action plan on biodiversity, which was part of their commitments and cornerstone of national action in the implementation of the Convention. However, most countries became to be in the process of preparing it around nine years after the entry into force of the Convention. At the global level, the effectiveness of the Convention requires, especially, cooperation and coordination with a broad range of other conventions, institutions and processes. But the realisation of the calls for cooperation from the Conference of the Parties is a difficult task. Indeed, each convention or agency has its own work plan, its own constraints whether political or institutional or financial.

The Convention on Biological Diversity has been a key element in addressing the ecological challenge, but is not enough on its own to cope with the magnitude of the situation.