Interwiew with Kirsten Schuijt

“Too much talk, not enough action”

The loss of biodiversity and the dangers related to it are gradually becoming part of the general awareness. But a lot more needs to be done. In an interview with Friederike Bauer, Kirsten Schuijt, Director General of WWF International, explains what exactly is required, and which role the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) plays in this.

Kirsten Schuijt im Porträt
Kirsten Schuijt from the Netherlands has been Director General of WWF International since the beginning of 2023.

Read more Biodiversity is declining at breathtaking speed. What worries you the most in this context?

It is the general trend: biodiversity is diminishing all over the world. Since 1970 we’ve seen an average decline of almost 70% of wildlife species populations, and in freshwater wildlife populations it´s over 80%. Those figures are alarming and pose a real threat to the survival of humankind. We have to take the biodiversity crisis very, very seriously. Of course there are also positive developments but the overall course is leading us in the wrong direction.

What are the exceptions you have in mind?

The tiger population is a great example. We faced massive challenges in the decline of tigers. Yet, over the past ten years we managed to bend that curve, at least in some places. The giant panda is another example. When we established WWF 63 years ago it was on the brink of extinction. Now the panda is off the endangered species list. The same holds true for the African southern white rhino or to some extent mountain gorillas. Some of the big flagship species are improving. But the overall trend is, as I said, very alarming.

Biodiversity used to be a topic for enthusiastic naturalists. Has that changed by now?

Indeed, many people did not even know what biodiversity meant. It was such a big term. That has changed. It is still not as high on the agenda as it should be. And it is definitely lagging behind climate change in people's minds, also in the political arena and in the corporate world. But it is now accepted that nature as a topic and a political issue is important and needs attention. When I speak to global leaders or to CEOs or even young people I no longer have to start from the scratch. What we are still lacking is action, consistent and devoted action. There is too much talk and not enough implementation. In addition, we need to interlink climate and biodiversity because they are very much part of the same crisis. The depletion of biodiversity leads to more CO2 emissions, while conservation can lead to a much better adaptation to climate change.

Since December 2022 there is an international agreement called Global Biodiversity Framework. It has been celebrated as a historic breakthrough. Do you share that view?

Definitely, it was a historic agreement. To get 196 countries signing a global framework on biodiversity with 23 rather concrete goals and targets was a special moment in conservation. However, we have seen many agreements in international politics: We also have the Paris Agreement on climate, the Sustainable Development Goals. We had the Aichi targets for biodiversity, passed in 2010, where countries agreed to reduce habitat loss until 2020. That did not take place. In climate we are still far away from the 1.5-degree-goal. So, to me the agreement from Montreal was very important but it was just a start and not the end of a process. And that´s the big challenge we have to tackle: the ambitions for implementation have to rise.

The next conference will come up this autumn in Colombia. What has to happen in order to make it a success?

The meeting will be very decisive. It will be interesting to see what countries have been doing since Montreal. The Global Biodiversity Framework is exactly that – a framework. It has to be broken down to strategies and action plans on national and local levels. Part of the conference will be a stocktaking to find out how serious the situation in each country really is. In order for the meeting to be a success two things have to happen in my view: It needs strong NBSAPs, as they are called: National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans, and it needs sufficient financing.

One of the 23 GBF goals is putting 30% of the Earth's surface under protection. For that purpose the area roughly has to double on land and almost to quadruple in the sea. Do you think it's possible to reach that goal by 2030?

Yes, I do. And it´s absolutely essential that we reach that goal; we have to put a lot more areas under protection. To me, although this is formulated as a global goal, it´s also quite clear that every country should reach those 30% on its own territory. That will look very different for countries because it depends on what the respective nature looks like, how the economy is structured etc. But each country should individually reach those 30%. However, it´s important to highlight that this won´t all be protected areas behind walls and without people. A lot of opportunities lie in what we call ”Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measures“, in short OECMs. These can be buffer zones, corridors between protected areas, green city spaces or river banks. There is a lot to win here.

But aren't exactly OECMs prone to be misused by countries to reach the 30%?

This is a key issue in the whole debate. We therefore need clear definitions on what counts in and what does not. There is a huge effort right now going on in a so-called ”science-based target initiative for nature“ where experts try to identify indicators and measures. To me it is most important that member states agree on some of the relevant definitions here in Colombia so that we all start from the same basis and progress – or lack of progress – can accurately be monitored.

You earlier mentioned people. There has been a shift from the fortress conservation to protection with people…

I am very passionate about this topic because in the end it is the local communities, the people who live in or near protected areas that have to conserve the forests, wetlands and ecosystems. All our efforts have to take them into account. The old notion that nature needs to be guarded and fenced is no longer viable. We as WWF follow a human-rights based approach that tries to balance conservation with the needs of people, including indigenous communities.

Kirsten Schuijt pflanz einen Baum

The Global Framework also contains an ambitious financing goal: USD 20 billion have to be raised by 2025, 30 billion by 2030 for biodiversity. Yet, many countries are facing budget constraints right now. How does this go together?

There is still a huge financing gap that has to be addressed in Colombia. And it´s not just about asking governments to put money on the table. That´s for sure important but it´s also about harmful subsidies that are still being transferred in huge amounts and that have to be cut down. It is also about redirecting investments that currently have a negative impact on biodiversity. For example, there are many pension funds that invest their money in unsustainable projects. It would make a big difference if they changed their policy and invested in a nature-positive way.

Is the private sector really interested in making that change?

There is definitely a growing interest of the private sector to get involved. Not everywhere but the awareness is growing that biodiversity is important for business. Whether it is the food and agricultural sector or the chemical industries: they all rely on nature. According to the World Economic Forum more than half of global GNP is dependant on nature.

How can a bank like KfW with a clear focus on sustainability topics support the implementation of the Montreal targets?

Next to promoting biodiversity projects as it already does, KfW could develop an integrated biodiversity strategy and make sure that the projects financed, assets, partners and programs match their nature and biodiversity ambition. Secondly, it could be looking at opportunities to generate more private investment in nature by creating new and innovative blended financing models. Both would be significant contributions to the greater cause of bending the curve in biodiversity.

What role does the EU play in the international biodiversity discussion?

The EU with its Green Deal has been instrumental in passing the Global Biodiversity Framework and so far has been leading in terms of its strategy on biodiversity conservation. Yet, many elections are coming up in EU countries, so we might face power shifts. I am concerned about what is going to happen next. Will these accomplishments be watered down then? How do we keep the momentum? Those are the questions that worry me.

Is there anything important that does not yet receive enough attention?

There is not enough emphasis on consumption and food production patterns, including food waste, also in the Global Framework. Yet, we will not be able to reverse the detrimental trend in biodiversity without addressing these issues because these are major drivers in the expansion of – industrial – agriculture and the loss of forests and biodiversity. The good thing is: Everybody can contribute through mindful consumption habits and shifting to healthy and sustainable diets.

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