Commentary

ICYMI, Kunming is Calling

Biodiversity will take centre stage next week, virtually.

This weekend sees the final preparations for the largely virtual UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15), the main business of which will be to finalise a draft Global Biodiversity Framework, ahead of formal adoption when delegates meet physically in the Chinese city of Kunming in Q2 2022.

This is a big deal. The Kunming Declaration has been compared with the Paris Agreement due to the scope of its ambition and the urgency of the issues it seeks to tackle. Its 21 overarching targets and 10 milestones are hoped to spur national regulatory measures and galvanise investor action, notably Target 15, which requires businesses to assess and report on their dependencies and impacts on biodiversity.

Not that you’d notice from the scant media coverage, with only the official channels of the host country dedicating much space to the event. As a result, Professor Brendan Mackey of Queensland’s Griffith University (and a coordinating lead author for IPCC Working Group II), might be the only Australian sought out by Chinese state media for a while.

Confined to virtual sessions for now, it’s not clear how many delegates will get to appreciate the 108-hectare Baofeng Peninsula Wetland or the hundreds of mosaicultures commissioned for the event. But anyone can enjoy the official COP15 theme song or dedicated media centre site.

The delays and restructuring suffered by COP15 are due largely to the failure to roll out Covid-19 vaccines to developing countries, the many ironies of which were not lost this week on Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and Co-Chair of the Task Force on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD).

Admittedly, many other sustainability-related issues have been competing for the attention of policymakers and investors. With gas and oil prices still setting records, COP26’s host country appears to be at the eye of the storm with domestic and industrial users hoping for government protection from volatility, while Vladimir Putin and Elon Musk look on.

It is perhaps surprising that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson did not use his closing speech at the Conservative Party Conference to outline to the nation his vision for reaching the government’s 2035 clean energy targets. Perhaps the famed optimist and orator does not yet trust himself to make the case for investment and job creation across clean energy infrastructure, including not-yet-scaled carbon capture and hydrogen-based solutions.

For help, Johnson could do worse than turning to the joint winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics. But even with experts on your side, there are few easy answers to the energy transition, as was admitted this week by Nathan Fabian, Chair of the EU’s Platform on Sustainable Finance (PSF), which has a big hand in framing and extending the European taxonomy.

As both the IMF and OECD have noted, the framework for sustainable investing is still evolving and needs regulatory support to gain critical mass, while voluntary initiatives to improve corporate disclosures still play a crucial role in driving data on ESG risks to investors. Even so, institutional investors are voting with their feet, making it increasingly clear what they expect from carbon-intensive corporates, and exiting firms that persistently ignore that advice.

We all know that change is hard and messy and uneven, but it is also surprising. If a nation of ‘rosbifs’ can cut down on meat without even noticing, signalling new opportunities for retailers and producers, who knows what we’re all capable of?

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