The Carbon Brief Interview: UN biodiversity chief Elizabeth Maruma Mrema

April 6, 2022

Elizabeth Maruma Mrema is the executive secretary of the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). She is a Tanzanian lawyer and diplomat who worked for the UN Environment Programme for more than two decades, as director of the law division and deputy director of the ecosystem division. On 31 March, she was awarded the 2022 Kew International Medal.

Carbon Brief: First of all, I wanted to ask you, when you were growing up in Tanzania, when did you first become aware that the natural world around you was under threat?

Elizabeth Maruma Mrema: I think as I grew up, I took things for granted. I come from Tanzania – Moshi – literally on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. As I grew up, the way our homes are built, every home you will see bananas because that’s our traditional food. So you will never miss a home without bananas. And always there would be streams of water into the banana trees. And, in those old days, our mothers, if they needed water – particularly for washing and cleaning – would just dig a small hole, collect the water from there, and then in the bucket and use it. And we’d go to the river to collect more clean water for cooking. So that’s how I grew up. But then slowly, as I grew up water began disappearing. All of a sudden, where you’d sleep and hear water flowing became quiet. Those streams of water began disappearing. And, even where people begin climbing Mount Kilimanjaro – very high up, water used to be streaming out on both sides of the road. As I speak now, unless it rains heavily, that water is no longer there.

By that time, I was at university and becoming inquisitive: Why is this? As I grew up, this place was covered by bush trees. Then there were all these spaces because firewood was the main source of energy. The government began putting pressure on people not to cut trees, but the mistake was, yes, we should stop cutting trees for firewood, but what else do people use? Because if you say use charcoal, it is still trees. So that inquisitiveness probably led me to take environmental studies and took an interest more on that. My environment [career] entry was on marine – on the law of the sea at the time – because the environmental issues were just beginning and later on I shifted to not just marine, but also terrestrial. So that’s basically where I began.

And now I get home, I look at the mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro. Some days, you wake up and the whole mountain is covered with snow to the bottom. You wake up another day, it is just a patch on top. And there are still these questions. So clearly things are changing. They have changed a lot over the years. Moshi never used to be hot enough for people to complain. Now it gets very hot, which was not the case in the past at all.

CB: And what motivated you to take up the executive secretary position at the CBD?

EM: Before I began with CBD, I began with the UN Environment Programme where we were dealing with all issues related to the environment, which, of course, terrestrial biodiversity [and] nature is a key component of. But that also includes climate change, chemicals and all other things. For CBD, I think for me it was to get more focused. At the headquarters, you do everything, you become a jack of all trades. With the convention secretariat, you are focused.

But now more and more, I also realise actually, yes, I’m focused, but I cannot focus on biodiversity, leaving other issues. I cannot deal with biodiversity without pollution, without climate change, without chemicals. This continued to open up my understanding of how all these issues are interconnected and you cannot deal with one in isolation. So much as I thought I would be more focused, in practice I’m not.

CB: And, so, right now, parties are working towards an agreement, the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, sometimes called the ‘Paris Agreement for nature’. What in your view needs to be included in this agreement?

First why we’re referring to it as the Paris Agreement for biodiversity. I think in the last two years, the Covid situation has brought biodiversity issues to the forefront, probably more than ever before. The fact that we’re in a situation that nobody expected to happen in our lifetime, it made people inquisitive. Not just scientists, not just academician, but all of us – even at an individual level. And more and more we get to better understand that, probably, Covid was a result of our action on biodiversity. We have interfered with the animal kingdom because of increasing agricultural land, increasing livestock production, deforestation, and basically moving closer to wildlife. This has only ended up in the transmission of pathogens, which are not harmful to animals but harmful to humans. And as a result of trade, tourism, the whole world was locked down. So I think now everybody is inquisitive: Why is this? And because of that situation, we changed the world overnight. We’re all now interested to make sure we make a difference. And that difference is expected to come from this framework. And if we succeed – not me particularly, but if the parties succeed – then it will be the Paris Agreement in terms of its importance, in terms of its transformative nature, in terms of its ambition.

And more so in terms of the fact that all stakeholders are involved – even in its development – because everybody will need to be engaged in its implementation. It is not just the government, it is journalists, Indigenous peoples, local communities, it’s the youth and our children, it’s the women, it’s the business, financial sector, bankers, insurance agents – virtually everybody. We call it a framework for all, not just governments. So, if that happens and we succeed to really ensure that all stakeholders are involved, that’s part of the transformation.

It is also important to make a difference because biodiversity is so important for our lives. It is the food we eat, it is the air we breathe, it is the water we drink and water security – both in terms of quality and quantity. But it also has its role for carbon sequestration, for climate change mitigation. So without [biodiversity], there is no life. We can’t live without food. We can’t live without air. We can’t live without water. And that underlines that biodiversity is really a foundation of life, without which there will be no life. So I think we are right to say it’s a Paris Agreement for biodiversity.

CB: And turning to the targets in particular, some critics have said that some of them are not ambitious enough. For example, the target to protect 30% of land and ocean by 2030  some have called for that to be higher, or to make sure it includes the views and rights of Indigenous people. I just wondered how you respond to this kind of criticism and are there any targets in particular that you would like to see strengthened or changed in some way?

EM: There’s been a lot of pressure to ensure that Indigenous peoples and local communities are engaged in this process. Indeed, they are engaged, they are being listened to and their recommendations taken on board. The good thing with the Convention on Biological Diversity, once the NGOs, local communities, those who are not parties speak, they only need to get one party to support that recommendation and it is taken on board. It’s not one-thirds or two-thirds, it’s just one. And I don’t think any of their recommendations, at least in the last two weeks here, have not been taken on board. They want to ensure their rights are protected – particularly land rights, resource rights – and their engagement, in terms of participating in the decision-making process, consent in the decision making. And this is what hopefully will remain as the framework continues to be negotiated. So currently, in the draft framework, we are seeing Indigenous peoples – all stakeholders have a place in the framework and they’ve been recognised, they can see themselves.

We are seeing the campaign “30 by 30” increasing the number of protected areas. We’ll have to see whether that will remain. But then, the local communities are insisting on a 30 by 30 but with safeguards to protect their rights, to ensure their rights-based approaches are safeguarded, to ensure that they will participate in the decision making, to ensure there is access and benefit sharing of the resources which are accrued from them. And these issues are important because [for] 80% of biodiversity in the world, the local communities are the custodians. They are the ones actually conserving 80%. So indeed, they are doing a lot to conserve this biodiversity, which all of us benefit from. It is key that also they are considered in this process going on. So we hope what we see in the draft remains and, if it remains, what will matter then is to see that in practice. But then, when it comes at the national level, we also hope that the governments will create that enabling environment – policies and regulations that will further safeguard these rights for the local communities in those areas.

Of course, what is important and still debated in the framework are resources for implementation, because if there will be no resources for implementation – financial or otherwise – then the framework will remain a very nice paper decorating our shelves and tables. So funds for implementation are key and this is one of the major controversial issues still being discussed. But we hope here we have recommendations for resource-mobilisation strategy, financial mechanism and the draft framework is already estimating that at least $700bn will be needed every year for implementation. But the framework is also saying $500bn is already there. Where is it? That is the amount of funds being spent for harmful subsidies on biodiversity. If these funds are repurposed – redirected to positive biodiversity activities – then $500bn is already in place. So we’ll only be looking at bridging the gap to get the $200bn. If we look in the last few years at the pledges and commitments which have been made towards biodiversity, then $200bn is a small amount. We’ve seen philanthropies coming in to support local communities and Indigenous peoples with $500bn. We have seen governments who are already committing their climate funding spend a part of it on supporting biodiversity activities. France has done that, the UK is doing the same. We’ve seen China, our host, putting in $230bn to support implementation of the framework. We’ve seen Germany increasing their funding on biodiversity by almost double to support implementation. So when we look at all of this, we are really optimistic that the resources to bridge the gap for implementation will be there.

What might be key to ask ourselves is: How then we will ensure that those funds reach those who need? Because that again is a catch-22 paradigm. Money may have been pledged, money may be put on the table, but if it doesn’t effectively reach those who need it – and on time – then we will have issues. We’ve seen what has happened with the Covid-19 vaccines. In Canada, where we are based, 80% of the population has been vaccinated. Yet in Africa, hardly 14% have been vaccinated. So again, accessibility to these resources will be key. The global environmental facility (Gef) is a financial mechanism for the convention. [I am] delighted that Gef will even increase its ongoing effort to replenish with its eighth replenishment due to begin in July. Biodiversity is almost receiving a lion’s share. So again, we are seeing increasing resources. We’ve seen, even during the climate summit, resources being put on biodiversity, even though the discussions were on climate change. So the resources are there.

CB: So we’re speaking today as negotiations are drawing to a close in Geneva. How do you feel the progress has been over the past couple of weeks?

EM: I would say great progress has been made. The fact that we’ve been able to meet in person after two years since the Covid lockdown began is a success by itself. We had many meetings online. We made progress, but not so much because parties were insisting: “I need to see the person I’m negotiating with before we can reach compromises.” So that is a major tick, an achievement. And you can see the environment – the mood, the happiness – because all of a sudden now we are connecting with people in person. That has also made progress in the negotiations which have taken place.

More progress of course needs to be done. Most of the recommendations – documents negotiated here – have many brackets [CB: Brackets in UN negotiating texts signify areas of disagreement between countries]. Not few, many brackets. So the COP has a lot of work to do to remove the brackets. But again we see an agreement among the parties that they will not wait [until] the COP – progress needs to be made in these few remaining months. And they’re agreeing, as far as the development of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, to have another session in June. This will help to reduce the brackets so that we go into Kunming with as few brackets as possible, if not a completely clean document.

We will have more intersessionals – particularly informal sessions – for the stakeholders and the parties to continue to converse, to continue to understand each other, to continue to understand from which angle these proposals have been made. And again that will help to reduce the brackets and to remove the brackets for when we reach Kunming. So, if we had continued virtually, we probably would not have reached this point. We see where each party stands because a lot of new proposals have been made. But now, as we move to Kunming, it is about how all the several proposals on the table can be reduced to ensure that the framework is simple and understandable. That even our children, our youth can understand – and particularly those who are not negotiating because unless they understand they cannot implement. So that is the work remaining. Because we began with small draft targets that were just a few lines. Now we have sentences which go up to 10 or 12 lines. So those have to be simplified and synchronised for everybody to understand, if we are calling this a framework for all.

CB: Speaking of COP15, can you say for sure when it will take place and will it definitely take place in China?

EM: Yes, definitely taking place in China unless something really critical happens with Covid. But we hope now we are going in a positive direction that we are seeing positive changes globally. The fact that we have met in Geneva, we will meet in China. The firm dates have yet to be announced by our host. Nonetheless we are looking at [the] end of August and early September. But the dates are yet to be announced. We hope it will be announced soon so that we can all prepare and block our calendars for the COP.

CB: Are you confident that countries will be able to sign off the global biodiversity framework at COP15? And what are the main obstacles for that moment to occur?

EM: Signing off definitely will happen. Biodiversity loss is at the highest level – unprecedented in the history of humankind. Over one million species are at the brink of extinction. We’ve really reached the tipping point. Species continue to be degraded. 66% of the marine environment is polluted, choked with plastics. Not surprisingly, the UN Environment Assembly has now agreed to begin negotiations on plastic waste and marine plastics. Wetlands – 87% degraded; land – 75% degraded. I mean these percentages – these scientific findings – cannot continue. And if they continue, then there will be no food, no clean air, no water. All these things will not be there. That is understood by everybody. So the framework will be adopted. Probably the question is, will it be transformative enough? Will it be ambitious enough? Will it be action-oriented enough? Will implementation begin immediately so that there is no time waste[d]? But we hope all that will happen.

With that understanding, part of the negotiations here is on the review and monitoring accountability framework, meaning that countries will want to be monitoring how they’re progressing. And that’s why the framework has a long-term vision to 2050 of living in harmony with nature, but it is also looking at assessing major progress with the 2030 agenda. We have milestones to 2030, aligning with Sustainable Development Goals – because biodiversity implementation contributes to about 14 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. If we don’t succeed, it means even SDGs will be impacted. This gives me confidence that we will have a framework and that countries are committed to reaching it. An accountability framework being developed together with a global biodiversity framework is what will lead us to checking and monitoring progress.

We are also seeing businesses doing the same. I am privileged to co-chair the Task Force on Nature-related Financial Disclosure where we are developing a framework whereby businesses, financial institutions, banks [and] insurance companies will be able to assess the risks of their operations, the impacts of their operations on nature, but also their dependencies on nature – and report on them and disclose on them. The timing of the development of this framework, together with the post-2020 framework, is not by accident. Clearly even the private sector is ready – and getting ready – to engage in the implementation.

The framework will be adopted with other means of implementation. I’ve mentioned the resource mobilisation strategy. There will be a gender plan of action for the framework implementation. There will be a capacity-building framework to support implementation. We will have a communication strategy for the implementation of the framework. All these packages are beginning to converge to support and then ensure all are engaged in the implementation of the framework. And this really gives me that confidence that we will have a strong framework – a framework accompanied with a means of implementation. I’ve mentioned and talked about resources. All these are part of the means of implementation. We have UNDP, UNEP and Global Environmental Facility who have committed to fast-track their support to countries, so that they are able to begin implementation immediately. That is already underway now because we are confident we will have a framework in coming.

CB: And what role is China playing in guiding the framework?

EM: China is first the host of the COP, the president of the COP, has put resources for the implementation of the COP. Clearly this shows the leadership that China is already demonstrating to the world: that we need to have the framework – a strong framework – and if resources are limited, here is China, putting resources and also inviting other stakeholders to join. We’re really seeing global leadership from our host China.

CB: In your view, can climate change and biodiversity loss be tackled together as one problem?

EM: There’s no way they can be tackled in silos, otherwise global warming will continue and biodiversity loss will continue. The recent years have clearly demonstrated that climate change and loss of biodiversity are intrinsically connected and, because they are connected, so are the solutions. Climate change is looking at nature-based solutions. So, it means biodiversity is providing solutions for climate change. And therefore you cannot deal with climate change without nature and we cannot deal with biodiversity without climate change – 30% of climate mitigation and adaptation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will come from biodiversity. When we look, 23% of human greenhouse gas emissions comes from agriculture, fisheries and forest. Unless biodiversity plays its role, climate change will be stuck and unless climate change [mitigation] plays its role, then biodiversity loss will continue. So both need to be looked at as one common challenge. And that’s why we are saying the world is facing a triple crisis: climate change, loss of biodiversity and pollution. Pollution is chemicals. Biodiversity is land degradation, soil management. When we talk of floods, sustainable consumption and production, this is biodiversity. With climate we are so concerned with floods and land degradation, but why! These are actually biodiversity issues. They are important for climate change, but the solutions are solutions on biodiversity and on nature.

CB: And you touched on this already, but how are nature-based solutions featuring in the negotiations and what role can they play in tackling climate change and biodiversity loss?

EM: We know climate change has embraced nature-based solutions fully – but that’s from the climate angle, biodiversity is yet to embrace it as fully as climate change. I’m saying that because as we look at the ongoing negotiations, we see where nature-based solutions have been mentioned is still bracketed. So there are negotiations still needed there. And why negotiations? Because the biodiversity community needs to understand what these nature-based solutions are. Because they also know, if we are not careful, some nature-based solutions can be harmful to biodiversity. So that balance needs to be considered. When we talk of, for example, large hydro energy, it’s useful for the climate but it can be harmful for biodiversity. This is where the biodiversity community is concerned and want to make sure that we all understand the pros and cons of nature-based solutions to biodiversity before the brackets can be removed. And these discussions are still going on.

CB: Biodiversity loss has historically received less international attention than climate change. Why do you think that is?

EM: I think it began with looking at issues in silos. The whole attention has gone to climate change, that’s why we have the Framework Convention [UNFCCC], we have the Kyoto Protocol and now the Paris Agreement – and the whole world focuses on climate change. We even began seeing countries establishing ministries of climate change, independent from other environmental issues. We were delighted. But as time went by, the climate community also realised, oh, actually climate change cannot operate on its own without biodiversity, without nature. Not surprisingly, in recent years, biodiversity has come to the forefront. Probably that’s the opportunity created by the unfortunate situation of Covid-19, because attention has now shifted to seeing the connection between biodiversity and climate change.

Let’s look at Glasgow [COP26] last year. Nature was on the table to the extent that, at some points, delegates were a bit confused: Are we in climate change negotiations or are we at biodiversity negotiations? There were pledges made on deforestation, pledges made on oceans. Pledges and pledges, even from the financial institutions, the businesses, towards biodiversity. Clearly, again, indicating the connection between the two. Even the Glasgow Climate Pact recognised the links between climate change and biodiversity and therefore that solutions to global warming are in nature, and cannot happen if biodiversity conservation is not also contributing and playing its role for climate change and vice versa.

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CB: What mechanisms exist to capture the kind of overlap that you’ve just been speaking about between the UNFCCC and the CBD, in terms of the outcomes and negotiations, and how do you ensure bodies and governments don’t duplicate efforts or miss the kind of links that you’re talking about?

EM: First, CBD and climate change, together with desertification and land degradation, are the products of the 1992 Rio Summit. Two, at the Secretariat level, we have what we call the “Joint Liaison Group of the Three Rio Conventions” because we’ve seen the connection. I cannot talk of biodiversity without land degradation and now we are seeing we cannot talk of climate change without biodiversity and without land degradation. At national level, we continue to underline and ensure that the focal points of the different multilateral environmental agreements connect and meet with each other. We know in some cases we have different focal points. So the effort is to bring them together exactly for the question you are asking: to avoid duplication of activities and ensure these core benefits from different activities benefit the others. This is where domestic resources will come in. Avoidance of duplication will allow resources to be able to do more. And even when you look at some of the recommendations coming up during these three weeks, many have underlined that aspect. The Subsidiary Body on Implementation [CB: SBI, the body for how the convention should be implemented] has a specific decision on cooperation, not just of international organisations and between different convention secretariats, but also at the national level. Because these issues cut across borders, they are transboundary in nature, they are cross-cutting issues – and therefore solutions need to be equally cross-cutting.

The Rio Convention is celebrating 30 years this year. Probably a question could have been: If we had the understanding we have today, if this understanding was there 30 years ago, would we have had the three conventions as we have today or would this situation have been different? Because now we can see the three conventions are actually becoming one in terms of their solutions, in terms of the responses to the crises, in terms of now calling to collaborate and work together. Because this triple crisis cannot be solved in isolation.

CB: And would you like to see UN summits where climate change, biodiversity loss, land degradation and pollution are discussed all in one place?

EM: That’s where we are heading. Because, if I recall the 2020 UN biodiversity summit, it was biodiversity, but inevitably, all heads of state who spoke did not only speak of biodiversity, without climate change, without land degradation. It cuts across in all the statements. And yet it was a biodiversity summit. So that again is a recognition of the commonality of these triple crises and the solutions that will equally have to be looked at as a package and not in silos.

That’s why the framework is underlining, when it comes to implementation, a whole of government and a whole of society approach to implementation. With Covid, we are talking of a “one-health approach”. A one-health approach is not just dealt with by ministries of health, we also want to ensure that it includes Sustainable Development Goal 12 – sustainable consumption and production – which involves agriculture, food production and sustainable food choices. And those choices will also be used to conserve biodiversity – sustainable agriculture, sustainable consumption. And that’s why a one-health approach is the whole of society, the whole of government, working together. Unless that collaboration is there at a national level, then these triple crises cannot be looked at as one.

CB: OK, thank you. That was all my questions. Thanks so much for your time.

EM: Thank you.

The interview was conducted by Daisy Dunne at the UN biodiversity talks in Geneva on 29 March 2022.


Teaser photo credit: By Charles Asik from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania – Elephant and Kilimanjaro, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4351655

Daisy Dunne

Daisy holds a BSc in biology from the University of Bristol and a science journalism MA from City, University of London. She previously worked at MailOnline covering science and technology.

Tags: biodiversity, international agreements, sixth great extinction