Climate Change Diplomacy & International Relations

A Step for Sustainability: California Becomes an Observer to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity

California Natural Resources Agency Secretary Wade Crowfoot officially announced that California will now participate in the UN Convention on Biological Diversity as an observer in an effort to combat biodiversity loss.

On December 16th 2020, California Natural Resources Agency Secretary Wade Crowfoot made an announcement that California was officially granted observer status to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is an international, legally-binding treaty created to promote the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity resources. Due to human exploitation of the environment threatening the extinction of around one million species, the CBD strives to set targets for its members to support biodiversity in an endeavor to preserve the world’s ecosystems while continuing development.

The CBD is governed by the Conference of Parties (COP) which consists of the 196 government parties that meet biannually  to advance the purpose of the Convention. The next meeting of the parties will be the 15th in its history, called COP15, and is set to take place in Kunming, China in 2021.

Today, the only two countries not party to the CBD are the United States of America and the Holy See. The Holy See refuses to join the CBD due to political restraints, while the United States did not ratify the CBD for structural purposes. The Convention’s proposed rules on the use of biotechnology and the fear that the U.S. would be forced into financially supporting conservation in other countries resulted in the growing opposition to ratification amongst members of the U.S. government.

Unfortunately, the United States is prominent in the international sphere and is leading, alongside China, the global degradation of important biological sanctuaries. Therefore, the government’s decision to exclude the U.S. from the conservation treaty is detrimental to the continuing plummet in biodiversity, as it has inherently weakened society’s response to the ecosystem crisis.

The United States’ decision has increasingly heavy consequences today more than ever as the Covid-19 pandemic has been linked to be one of the long-term ramifications of biodiversity loss, directly showing why the country needs to join the rest of the world in adopting conservation plans. This issue is also especially important to California, as the state is considered to be a “global biodiversity hotspot” containing a higher variety of species and ecosystems than any other state in the U.S.

California’s step to join as an observer is showing its initiative to act as a catalyst for change and lead as an example for the rest of the United States in addressing the global biodiversity crisis. If the United States would follow in California’s footsteps, the CBD could gain an influential member, with the financial capacity to contribute to the Convention’s environmental targets. 

During the Speaker Series opening, Secretary Crowfoot stated: “We as California will engage formally in the Conference of Parties on Biodiversity. This was a suggestion made by many constituents of Assembly member Friedman’s and others…so we’re excited that we are actually announcing today that we’ve achieved official sub-national status to engage in those discussions and that convening in Kunming, China next year.” 

The movement for engaging California in the CBD was championed by Assemblymember Laura Friedman when she asked Secretary Crowfoot for California to become an observer to the CBD, as well as a member of the CBD’s Advisory Committee on Subnational Governments and Biodiversity.

In support of Assembly member Friedman’s request, a group of over thirty nonprofit organizations and leaders, organized by Environmental and Social Policy Advisor Rosalind Helfand, created a coalition and sent a letter to Secretary Crowfoot on May 26 urging California to “step up and contribute to the CBD’s planning process, showing that Americans understand the urgent need to tackle biodiversity loss.”

The coalition included organizations such as Heal the Bay, Natural Resources Defense Council, and California League of Conservation Voters. The mobilization of a diverse group of stakeholders underscored the individual Americans’ growing understanding of the need for transformative environmental change. The coalition was crucial to the effort for involving California in the CBD by bringing to light that despite the fact that the legislative branch blocked the United State’s ratification of the Convention in the 1990s, the importance for the United States to partake in the CBD persists today and is recognized by many. 

In response, Secretary Crowfoot’s office held meetings to discuss moving forward together with representatives from Friedman’s office, Regions 4, which organizes subnational government participation in the CBD, from the government of Quebec, which is also a subnational government CBD observer, and from the leadership of the coalition.
Nearly a year from the day Assembly member Friedman sent her request, Secretary Crowfoot announced that California had joined the CBD as an observer. In this capacity, California will be able to contribute input to the COP15 preparations and weigh in on the “post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework” to be negotiated at the Conference.

This framework is meant to help countries achieve the 2050 vision of a restored environment that continues to provide ecosystem services, and it is developed prior to the COP15 by an open-ended working group, to which California would be able to submit comments. 

As California takes on the crucial role of being the first U.S. state to contribute to the international efforts for preservation of the world’s ecosystems, there is hope that it will incite national debate around sustainability. The issue of the United States becoming party to the CBD has not been brought up since the Senate’s failure to support it in 1994. Because one of the states is starting to actively partake in the negotiations of the CBD, there is a chance that other states may follow and eventually even that the U.S. leadership could once again consider ratifying the Convention.

With the Biden administration now in power, the country has seen the President sign multiple executive orders to confront climate change, stating that “we desperately need a unified national response to the climate crisis.” The administration has not yet commented on California’s actions, however, as the effort hopefully gains more attention, the United States becoming party to the CBD may yet be brought up again.

California becoming an observer to the Convention on Biological Diversity could trigger a chain reaction and gather enough internal support for the United States to contribute to sustainable development alongside other countries and utilize some of its financial resources to address an increasingly stronger threat to human health and survival. 

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By Diana Rudenky

Diana is a sophomore at UCLA double majoring in Political Science, with a concentration in International Relations, and Russian Studies. She is on the pre-law track with aspirations to work in international law. Diana is currently an intern with Senator Allen's office, and at UCLA she is part of the Model UN club and the Equestrian team.

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