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MEA Bulletin - Guest Article No. 100 - Friday, 24 September 2010
Nordic Expert Symposium: “Synergies in the biodiversity cluster”
By Niko Urho, Senior Adviser, Ministry of the Environment of Finland
Full Article

It is hard to imagine that there could be anything more important on earth than biodiversity, since without it there is no life and no evolution. Realizing the necessity to protect the richness of life, States have signed more than 150 multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) that concern biodiversity at some level. In addition, there are numerous other MEAs that relate indirectly to the protection and sustainable use of biodiversity. Altogether, more than 500 MEAs are registered with the UN. However, MEAs have been negotiated gradually during the past decades as the problems they address have appeared on political agendas, which has led to fragmented and incoherent international environmental governance (IEG). It has become apparent that creating a holistic approach to international environmental governance, in general, and increasing efficiency and synergies among MEAs, in particular, is fundamental for overcoming persistent global environmental problems.

During the past decade, numerous meetings and conferences have been held to identify means to enhance the IEG-system. Clustering of thematically related MEAs has been highlighted numerous times as a bottom-up solution for increasing coherence in the IEG-system. Significant work has recently been done to enhance synergies among three conventions in the chemicals and waste cluster (the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions). The process began in 2006 with the establishment of an ad hoc joint working group (AHJWG) among the three conventions. The recommendations from the AHJWG were adopted in decisions by the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conferences of the Parties (COPs) in 2008 and 2009. Pursuant to those decisions, simultaneous extraordinary meetings of the three COPs convened from 22-24 February 2010, in Bali, Indonesia.

The work done in the chemicals and waste cluster has been hailed as a breakthrough, since it is first process to make real progress in the IEG discussions. Many of the administrative and programmatic reforms include, inter alia, the creation of joint services and functions among the secretariats, synchronized budget cycles, joint managerial functions and joint audits. Enhancing cooperation and coordination among the biodiversity-related MEAs is seen by many as the logical next step. However, the chemicals and waste cluster model cannot be directly applied to the biodiversity cluster. The reasons for this include the fact that the MEAs that might be included in a biodiversity cluster are greater in number and cover a wider scope of activities. However, the chemicals and waste cluster provides a useful model and inspiration for work in the biodiversity cluster.

Against this backdrop, a Nordic symposium on synergies among biodiversity-related MEAs met in Helsinki on 8-9 April 2010. The symposium was arranged by the Ministry of Environment of Finland together with colleagues from other Nordic ministries of the environment. The Nordic Council of Ministers provided the funding for the symposium. The symposium brought together 50 experts in international environmental governance and biodiversity from governments, MEA secretariats (Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA)) and other relevant UN bodies (UN Environment Programme (UNEP), UNEP-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC) and UN University (UNU)). Presentations and discussions were undertaken with the following four questions in mind:

What are the advantages and disadvantages of a government-driven synergies process for biodiversity-related multilateral environmental agreements?
What would be the optimal composition of a coherent and well-designed biodiversity cluster?
What are the relevant areas for enhancing cooperation and coordination within such a cluster?
What would be the optimal structure, timing and form of a process for enhancing cooperation   and coordination and achieving synergies between biodiversity-related multilateral environmental agreements?

The symposium’s discussion on these four points is briefly summarized below.

Advantages and disadvantages of a government-driven synergies process for biodiversity-related MEAs
Enhancing national implementation was broadly viewed as the top priority for creating synergies among the biodiversity-related MEAs. It was also broadly understood that system-wide cooperation and coordination can only be driven by the Parties to the MEAs. Many participants also highlighted that effective synergies cannot be achieved without the commitment and support of secretariats. It was also believed that synergies are likely to provide cost-benefits in the long-term, but would not necessarily lead to immediate cost-savings. However, there are a few potential stumbling blocks that need to be considered, inter alia, some parties have not ratified all relevant agreements, each MEA has its own culture and the MEAs are administered by several different organizations and their secretariats are located in different parts of the world.

Composition of a coherent and well-designed biodiversity cluster
The following biodiversity-related agreements and processes featured in the symposium discussions: CBD and the Cartagena Protocol, CITES, CMS, World Heritage Convention (WHC), Ramsar Convention, UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW), UN Forum on Forests (UNFF), ITPGRFA and the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. These were all considered important in the biodiversity context, however, it was understood that the biodiversity cluster must be clearly defined and limited in size to keep it manageable.

Six conventions were considered to form a manageable and coherent cluster: CBD, CITES, CMS, Ramsar, WHC and ITPGRFA. The importance of enhancing synergies among the three Rio conventions (CBD, UNFCCC and UNCCD) was also supported, in particular, in order to better integrate biodiversity with climate change issues. It was highlighted that synergies among these partially overlapping clusters can be pursued in parallel. It was even pointed out that talking as a family of conventions with this shared objective of conserving biodiversity vis-à-vis the UNFCCC could bring better results.

Relevant areas for enhancing cooperation and coordination within a biodiversity cluster
One of the main conclusions of the symposium was that the focus should be primarily on enhancing synergies on issues of substance, rather than on administrative issues, because the secretariats are dispersed and administered by different organizations. Possible areas for joint action were identified and include, inter alia, the science-policy interface, harmonization of reporting, streamlining of meeting agendas, joint information management and awareness raising, capacity building, compliance, and review mechanisms. The issue of funding was also discussed and the fact that the Global Environment Facility (GEF) functions as a financing mechanism for the CBD, but not the other biodiversity-related MEAs, was considered by many as a significant factor that will need to be taken into account. Readjusting the financing mechanism for the biodiversity cluster was seen as important for reaching coherence in implementation.

Symposium participants also discussed the possibility of achieving synergistic benefits in sub-clusters based on substantive issues (e.g. invasive alien species), rather than creating a fixed biodiversity cluster.  This could allow for a flexible approach to synergies among biodiversity-related MEAs as well as creating links to other biodiversity-relevant sectors. However, many arguments were raised against the proposal (e.g. it was considered challenging to recognize a lead MEA if countries are not parties to all MEAs and the idea of forcing parties to accept decisions taken in another forum  was believed to be impossible).

The structure, timing and form of a synergies process for the biodiversity-related multilateral environmental agreements
It was broadly understood that the Parties to the MEAs must address the lack of coherence among MEAs. The international environmental governance process is important for providing new ideas, but cannot solve the problems alone. Regional workshops were highly recommended for identifying national needs for synergies. The 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the CBD, which will take place from 18-29 October 2010, in Nagoya, Japan, would be an opportune occasion for launching a biodiversity-related synergies process.

More information about biodiversity synergies can be found on the symposium website (
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