22 December 2014
Biodiversity in 2014: A Year in Review
Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth
story highlights

It's all about the bass, the bass….no treble…..The popular tune for 2014 was all about the base….the natural resource base and how it could support solutions to the world's development problems.

It’s all about the bass, the bass….no treble…..The popular tune for 2014 was all about the base….the natural resource base and how it could support solutions to the world’s development problems. This year saw natural resource issues through the lens of the negotiations on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the emerging post-2015 development agenda, as well as the Small Island Developing States Conference in Apia, Samoa and the 2014 International Year of SIDS. These feature events and processes led agencies and actors to position biodiversity conservation, oceans issues and protected areas as mechanisms for achieving goals related to food and nutrition security, access to fresh water, and a higher quality of life for all. The idea that ecosystems and the biodiversity within them have value that should be accounted for in economic models (natural resource accounting) and the notion of the green, as well as blue, economy continued to gain momentum this year, as did the push to manage and approach the conservation of ecosystems and their services from a more holistic ‘landscape approach,’ or with regard to climate, an ‘ecosystem-based adaptation’ approach.

In addition to the boost and focus lent to biodiversity issues by these major international events and processes, the year also saw several major Conferences of the Parties (COPs) to biodiversity-related conventions convene – namely the eleventh COP to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS); the twelfth COP to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD); the seventh COP serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (COP-MOP 7); and the entry into force of and first–ever COP-MOP 1 to the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-sharing.

Also of note were the first-ever UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) as well as the once-a-decade International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Parks Congress (WPC). Among the outcomes of these biodiversity-related events, there was a continued focus on wildlife crime; and a large amount of attention given to oceans issues and marine conservation. This year, which was also the International Year of Family Farming, an array of stakeholders focused on building awareness of the importance of neglected and underutilized species, genetic resources, and forests to food and nutrition security.

Against this backdrop, this piece recounts the outcomes of the year’s major biodiversity-related and multilateral events, as covered by Biodiversity Policy & Practice and IISD Reporting Services, and seeks to draw out emerging themes with regard to how biodiversity-related issues and policies are now being framed, and how they might be approached going forward.

A Development Focus: UNEA, CBD, WPC

The first-ever meeting of the UNEA, UNEP’s new governing body, had a strong development focus. This meeting focused heavily on establishing and strengthening UNEP’s role in the post-2015 development agenda and convened under the overarching theme, ‘Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Post-2015 Development Agenda, including Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP).’ The high-level segment, ‘A Life of Dignity for All’ featured a Ministerial Plenary on the SDGS and the post-2015 development agenda as well as a Ministerial Dialogue on illegal trade in wildlife.[1] While it adopted decisions on air quality, the science-policy interface (SPI), ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA), implementation of Rio Declaration Principle 10, chemicals and waste, and marine debris and microplastics, the UNEA’s most biodiversity-focused outcome was its decision on wildlife crime. UNEP reports released during UNEA linked this issue, discussed in greater detail below, to human security, as well as to development.

While UNEA was holding its first-ever session, the CBD was taking stock at its mid-way milestone, half-way through the UN Decade on Biodiversity allotted to achieving the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity (2011-2020) and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. The meeting had a strong focus on sustainable development, not only reviewing progress on biodiversity goals and targets, but also discussing biodiversity as a means for achieving development goals, including the links between biodiversity and health, nutrition, food security, economic growth and other development objectives.

The basis for the CBD’s discussions, the mid-term assessment titled ‘Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO-4),’ reports progress on protected areas, access and benefit-sharing, and national biodiversity strategy and action plans (NBSAPs), but on other goals, especially on coral reefs, deforestation, and species extinctions, it calls for greater effort from governments, as well as coordination with the agriculture sector, a main driver of biodiversity loss. Linking back to sustainable development, the report highlights that the Aichi Targets cannot be met in isolation, and can contribute to broader development goals. It suggests the mainstreaming of biodiversity in the SDGs.[2]

CBD COP 12 also featured a high-level segment that adopted the ‘Gangwon Ministerial Declaration on Biodiversity for Sustainable Development.’ The declaration emphasizes the contributions of the Strategic Plan and Targets to the post-2015 development agenda and calls on the international community to recognize and link the two processes. It also highlights the contributions of access and benefit-sharing (ABS) with regard to genetic resources to conservation and poverty reduction.[3]

The once-a-decade World Parks Congress (WPC) can also be added to the list of 2014 environmental meetings with a strong sustainable development focus. Convening under the theme ‘People, Parks and Planet’ the meeting highlighted the role of protected areas in meeting development goals related to fresh water provision, disaster risk reduction (DRR), health and livelihoods. It took note of the GBO-4, especially its report of progress towards Aichi Target 11 (at least 17 percent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas conserved by 2020), but discussed extensively the need for more robust, equitable management of protected areas (PAs) as well as the establishment of PAs that cover areas truly significant for the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services.[4] The WPC’s outcome document, ‘The Promise of Sydney’ recognizes that human existence depends on ecosystems, and that rebalancing the relationship between human society and nature is essential.

Action pledges in support of the Promise of Sydney were made by nearly 100 governments, organizations, businesses, groups and individuals globally, such as: Australia, to provide AUS$14 million to conservation; Brazil, to protect 5% of its marine waters; China, to increase its PA coverage by at least 20%; Kiribati and the US, to jointly conserve nearly 490,000 square nautical miles; Madagascar, to triple its marine PAs; and the UN Development Programme (UNDP), to mobilize at least US$100 million to support the diversity and quality of governance of PAs.[5] IUCN framed the meeting as a “launching pad to area-based conservation in the Anthropocene.”

Water, Water Everywhere…

In 2014, marine biodiversity conservation and ocean issues also received increased attention, particularly via the SIDS Conference and the WPC. The proposal on SDGs featured a stand-alone goal on oceans; and, in the context of sustainable development, much work continued to advance the concept of a ‘blue economy,’ which depends on healthy ocean biodiversity and ecosystems. The CMS COP 11 was heavily focused on pelagic species and, along with the UNEA, featured a decision on marine litter and plastics. Outside these major meetings, negotiations continued on a potential legal instrument on Biodiversity Beyond Areas of National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the International Whaling Commission (IWC) convened its 65th Annual Meeting to discuss, among other things, conservation management plans for various whale species and marine debris.

Marine Protected Areas

With 2014 serving as the International Year of SIDS, marine and ocean conservation issues received a natural platform from which to elevate policy objectives and launch new initiatives. The Third International Conference on SIDS held in September 2014, in Apia, Samoa, was the apogee of the SIDS’ Year. The Conference saw the announcement of nearly 300 partnerships, many of which focused on oceans, marine biodiversity and protected areas. [6]Some of the highlights, all Pacific-focused, included: a partnership between the Waitt Foundation, the National Geographic Society and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) to promote marine resource conservation; the launch of a framework for Nature Conservation and Protected Areas (NCAPA) in the Pacific Islands; the launch of the Pacific Ocean Alliance to support national ocean governance and policy processes; and the creation of the Pacific Island Oceanic Fisheries Management Partnership to help 15 Pacific SIDS meet international obligations on sustainable fishing.

With ocean and marine management as a core theme, the 2014 World Parks Congress (WPC) also gave a big boost to marine protected areas and conservation.[7] Some 250 ocean-related sessions were held and the Marine Vice Chair of IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas (PAs), Dan Laffoley, described the event as “the largest marine park event in history.”[8] Some announcements of note at the Congress included: Gabon closing a quarter of its country’s territorial sea[9] to commercial fishing, creating a network of protected areas in the region; the US and Kiribati agreeing to jointly support research and conservation[10] in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument; and the Cook Islands’ Prime Minister committing to expand the Marae Moana marine park to include the Northern Group Islands thereby creating a park that will encompass the entire EEZ of the Cook Islands – approximately 2 million square kilometers.[11]

While not necessarily protected areas, but relevant to the topic and of note, the CBD COP 12 addressed and adopted a decision on ecologically or biologically significant marine areas (EBSAs). The CBD has conducted research on criteria for determining EBSAs, but at the COP, some Parties noted that Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ) should fall within the purview of an ongoing UN General Assembly process and pointed out potential overlap with the Ad Hoc Open-ended Informal Working Group to study issues relating to the conservation and sustainable use of marine BBNJ process. Concerns also manifested over possible threats to national sovereignty, especially among countries with strong fisheries interests, from pressure to conform to international standards.[12] The adopted decision cautiously invites Parties, in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS, to undertake scientific and technical analysis of the status of marine and coastal biodiversity in areas within the respective jurisdictions of Parties and other governments and the mandates of intergovernmental organizations, described as meeting the EBSA criteria and contained in the EBSA repository.

Also with regard to the seas, the COP adopted a decision on other ocean-related matters, including impacts of anthropogenic underwater noise and ocean acidification, priority actions to achieve Aichi Target 10 (coral reefs), and marine spatial planning (MSP) and training initiatives.[13]


Over the last decade, the need for a new international agreement to protect biodiversity in the deep seas has been under negotiation. A final decision is expected in 2015 based on the recommendations of the ‘Ad Hoc Open-ended Informal Working Group to Study Issues Relating to the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine BBNJ.’ The seventh and eighth meetings of the Working Group were held in April and June 2014, respectively, and delegates discussed: the instrument’s objective, legal nature, membership, geographic scope, guiding approach, principles, relationships with other instruments, marine protected areas (MPAs), marine genetic resources (MGRs), environmental impact assessment (EIA), technology transfer and capacity building, and feasibility of a new international instrument.[14]

The next meeting of the Working Group will convene from 20-23 January 2015 and in addition to negotiating the feasibility, scope and parameters of a treaty on marine biodiversity in ABNJ under UNCLOS; is expected to draft a recommendation to the General Assembly as to whether to launch formal intergovernmental negotiations on such an instrument.[15]

Sharks, Rays and Cetaceans

It has been an important year for cartilaginous fish. The CMS COP11 was, according to CMS, “dubbed as the Sharks COP” because 21 of its record number of 31 approved proposals to add species to the Convention’s appendices focused on sharks, sawfish and rays. The outcomes of CMS COP11[16] followed the entry into force (on 14 September) of the rules and regulations on sharks and rays adopted at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) COP 13 in 2013. The CITES measures apply to the oceanic whitetip shark, scalloped hammerhead shark, great hammerhead shark, smooth hammerhead shark, porbeagle shark and manta rays, which are all now listed under CITES Appendix II.[17] Also this year, 11 countries (the Comoros, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Mauritania, Samoa, Sudan, Sweden, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen) signed the CMS Sharks MoU, a global instrument for the conservation of migratory species of sharks.[18]

Also with regard to pelagic species, the 65th session of the IWC adopted a schedule amendment for four-year catch limits for Greenland and a resolution on highly migratory species, aiming to enhance collaboration on the conservation of migratory cetaceans. The Commission developed a list of large whale populations for conservation management plans (CMPs) and suggested marine debris as a candidate for a threat-based CMP. It also received reports from workshops assessing firstly, scientific and secondly, policy aspects, of marine debris.[19]

Plastics and Marine Debris

In addition to the IWC, the UNEA and the CMS COP 11 addressed the issue of marine litter and plastics, and their effects on biodiversity. Both meetings adopted resolutions focused on further study and collaboration on the issue. The UNEA resolution, inter alia, encourages cooperation with the Global Partnership on Marine Litter; offers support to countries undertaking action plans to reduce marine litter; and calls for a study on marine plastic debris and marine microplastics to be presented at the second UNEA.[20] The CMS resolution, inter alia, requests the Scientific Council to further the Convention’s work on marine debris issues, possibly through cooperation with other biodiversity-related agreements by means of a multilateral working group; strongly encourages parties to address the issue of abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear; and calls on Parties to incorporate marine debris targets when developing marine debris management strategies, including targets relating directly to impacts on migratory species.[21] The outcomes of IWC, UNEA and CMS’ further study and collaborations on marine debris will be taken up in 2015.

Wildlife Crime

The elephant-rhino poaching crisis continued its crescendo in 2014, keeping wildlife crime a policy focus in various fora. Early in the year, the London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade was hosted by the United Kingdom (UK) and the British Royal Family, and saw representatives from 46 States endorse the ‘London Declaration,’ emphasizing urgent action to end wildlife trafficking and eliminate demand through high-level political commitment and international cooperation.[22]The Conference prompted monetary and political commitments mainly by the Philippines, the UK, the US and Viet Nam. At the Conference, the UK made a ‘Commitment to Action’, which included £10 million to help governments and partners implement Conference outcomes, while Botswana, Chad, Ethiopia, Gabon and Tanzania launched the Elephant Protection Initiative and committed to a 10-year moratorium on ivory sales, a ban on domestic ivory trade and a decision to put all ivory stocks beyond economic use.[23]

Following the London Conference, the US announced a ban on commercial ivory trade as well as the release of a National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking. It also made the issue a focus at the August US-Africa Leaders Summit. A ‘Dialogue on Combating Wildlife Trafficking’ was convened to identify areas where the US and Africa could collaborate and inspire youth to safeguard their natural heritage.[24]

In Asia, Japan convened the Tokyo Conference on Combating Wildlife Crime, an event organized on the occasion of the first-ever World Wildlife Day.[25] It focused on transboundary information sharing, especially in developing countries.

On the world stage, wildlife crime featured prominently at the UNEA. The Assembly adopted a resolution “strongly encouraging governments to implement their commitments to fight illegal trade through targeted actions to eradicate supply, transit and demand for illegal wildlife products; as well as zero-tolerance policies and the development of sustainable and alternative livelihoods for communities adversely affected by the illegal trade.” The Assembly requested UNEP to: provide an analysis of the environmental impacts of the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products to the next UNEA session and to raise public awareness about the issue, working closely with the International Consortium to Combat Wildlife Crime, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), INTERPOL, CITES, UNDP and the Secretary General’s Rule of Law Group.[26]

UNEA also saw the release of the report ‘The Environmental Crime Crisis,’ which details, inter alia, the scale and implications of wildlife crime networks, estimating that global environmental crime is worth up to US$213 billion each year and used to finance criminal, militia and terrorist groups. The report substantiates conclusions drawn the previous year that linked environmental crime to threats to human security and sustainable development, highlighting especially the connections between political instability and poaching or illegal wildlife trade.

The CMS also focused on the issue, adopting a resolution on transboundary wildlife crime, which, inter alia, encourages Parties and non-Parties to take measures to increase awareness of wildlife crime and offenses among their enforcement, prosecution and judicial authorities and civil society.

The 65th meeting of the Standing Committee (SC65) of CITES, which convened this year, focused on elephants, rhinoceros, Asian big cats, cheetahs, great apes, pangolins, ebony and rosewoods. On Asian big cats, the Committee agreed to a recommendation to establish an intersessional working group; on cheetahs, the Committee mandated this newly established intersessional working group to coordinate with the Secretariat on the organization of a workshop before the next Animals Committee meeting; and on rhinoceros and elephants, the Committee adopted recommendations requesting non-complying countries to meet a tight deadline for action.[27]

On the occasion of the CITES SC65, the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) launched its Strategic Mission 2014-2016, which sets forth an agenda to fight wildlife and forest crime, and provides the first strategic framework for the consortium’s activities and future directions since its establishment in late 2010.[28]

The year also saw the launch of various campaigns to squelch public demand for illegal wildlife products; the implementation of new technologies; collaborations to advance the identification and thus prevention of illegal trade in fauna and flora; and capacity building exercises to help countries catch and prosecute criminals. Of note, INTERPOL launched a most-wanted list of what it calls the seven worst environmental criminals; one person on the list suspected of illegal trade in ivory has already been apprehended.[29]

A (Natural Resource) Base for 2015 and Beyond

It has been a year where ocean-biodiversity and protected area conservation garnered much attention; and wildlife crime remained a primary concern. Yet the resounding theme for 2014 has been sustainable development, and messaging with regard to the natural resource base has been clear: it is the base from which an array of development objectives can and should be attained. This year made the case for mainstreaming biodiversity into the development agenda, and for considering the importance of ecosystems to basic services provision (such as food, water, and security), livelihoods and the economy. It has been a year where the policy community asked not what it could do for (biodiversity and ecosystem) conservation, but what conservation could do for human development. Only time will tell, as we transition beyond 2015, if biodiversity-related issues have gained greater traction in the global development agenda. There will be a lot to watch out for in 2015.

[14] Elisa Morgera, forthcoming. IISD RS Policy Update; ‘Do we Need a New Treaty to Protect Biodiversity in the Deep Seas?’

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