Too little, too late? The potential power of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework

Too little, too late? The potential power of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework

By SMU City Perspectives team

Published 10 August, 2023


The world is urbanising so rapidly that not only are we losing biodiversity at rates never before seen in human history, we have become so desensitised to this loss that we don’t even notice as environmental destruction occurs around us. 

Michelle Lim

Associate Professor of Law, Singapore Management University

In brief

  1. The latest biodiversity framework is set to impact biodiversity governance, recognising diverse values and scales of biological organisation.
  2. Its non-binding nature, however, poses challenges for enforcement and accountability.
  3. Due to its rich biodiversity, ASEAN countries may play a key role in implementing targets.

Amid the global struggle to preserve biodiversity, a glimmer of hope emerges from the shores of Singapore's East Coast Beach. Recently, the National Parks Board celebrated a milestone as critically endangered hawksbill turtle eggs hatched, signifying a small yet significant victory in the battle against biodiversity loss. This is but one small example of how a nation can safeguard its delicate ecosystems. However, despite these positive developments in Singapore and other parts of the world, global biodiversity loss is higher than ever in human history. As the race to protect our planet's rich diversity intensifies, the need for collective global action becomes ever more urgent.

To address global biodiversity loss and safeguard the planet's natural heritage and to ensure the sustainable and equitable use of nature, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was concluded in 1992. Since then, there have been significant developments for the future of our planet, particularly with the adoption of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) at the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Adopted in December 2022, the GBF dominated headlines in the realm of biodiversity conservation and governance. It represents a critical global effort to address the unprecedented loss of biodiversity and promote the sustainable use of natural resources.

“Put plainly, biodiversity governance is about the ways in which society and societies come together to ensure that the diversity of life on Earth thrives now, and in the future,” explains Michelle Lim, Associate Professor of Law. “So it is not just about formal legal and policy systems, but also about the ways in which human communities and cultures interact with nature; and how they interact with each other due to connections to nature.” 

As the GBF takes a comprehensive and ambitious approach to biodiversity conservation, it also faces limitations. One significant challenge is the non-binding nature of the framework, diminishing its enforceability and accountability. Assoc Prof Lim observes,“There is a lot of talk alongside a lot of genuine intention to address unprecedented global biodiversity loss in some sectors. However, it cannot even be said that the GBF failed to deliver binding targets because binding targets weren’t even on the table.”

From species conservation to holistic approach: evolution of biodiversity governance

While traditional approaches to raising awareness around environmental conservation tend to focus on specific species, the Convention on Biological Diversity of 1992 represents a significant shift. “The Convention not only appreciates the multiple interactions as part of landscapes but also the various scales of biological organisation - from the ecosystem to the species, to the genetic level,” explains Assoc Prof Lim.

Compared to earlier agreements like the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species and the Convention on Migratory Species, the Convention on Biological Diversity recognises the diverse values that people attach to nature. It emphasises the sustainable use of natural resources and the equitable sharing of benefits by the community. This balanced approach considers the priorities of both developed and developing countries.

GBF: A game-changer for biodiversity conservation and restoration?

Kunming-Montreal lists 23 comprehensive targets to address the three main objectives. These range from the “30 by 30” target aiming to protect 30 percent of the earth’s surface effectively and equitably; to addressing issues of restoration, trade, invasive species, pollution, climate change, subsidies; and the role of the business and financial sector. As Assoc Prof Lim observes, “Importantly, the targets seek to go beyond a nation-state approach to addressing the biodiversity crisis.”

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Encouragingly, an unprecedented work programme that allocates US$1.4 billion in direct support for developing countries’ endeavours to safeguard and promote the sustainable utilisation of biodiversity has been approved. This aligns with the commitments made in Montreal, underscoring the commitment to protecting our planet’s natural heritage.

Notably, the GBF framework promotes transparency through the encouragement of disclosure by transnational companies and financial institutions.

Non-binding Nature of the Framework

Despite the Convention on Biological Diversity’s comprehensiveness, its targets are non-binding, unlike the Paris Agreement for climate change. As a result, there are challenges to timely implementation and measurable, collective global progress.

“This is not the ‘Paris Agreement for Biodiversity’ – the nickname that the media is keen to tag the GBF with,” says Assoc Prof Lim, referencing the 2015 Paris Accord of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “ Its ambiguity aside, due to the length of time it took to conclude the GBF, the runway to the 2030 deadline for realising the targets is also increasingly short”.

The text’s ambiguity has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, this flexibility allows states to implement the GBF in accordance with their national priorities. However, it also poses a risk of limited progress on a global scale towards the targets set forth. It is important to note that among previous targets set under the GBF’s predecessor, the Aichi Biodiversity Targets set in 2011, there was progress in only one out of the 20 targets.

“The IPBES Global Assessment, the world’s most comprehensive stocktake on biodiversity, clearly states that it remains possible to change the trajectory of global biodiversity loss,” explains Assoc Prof Lim. “This is only possible if we act in ways that are radically different to the way most of us currently live.”

Disputes in conservation discourse

Amid debates around the GBF, conflicts have also emerged, including those around the EU nature-restoration law, which serve as stark examples of the cultural, political, and economic challenges tripping up over conservation efforts. Such disputes highlight the different values, interests, and beliefs surrounding nature and its protection. Critics of the law might argue that it places an excessive burden on certain industries or regions, potentially leading to job losses or economic downturns. Supporters, on the other hand, want to restore and protect nature, to address climate change and sustain ecosystems.

Assoc Prof Lim comments, “It is crucial to raise the profile of biodiversity, and help stakeholders recognise the magnitude of change required.”

Engaging stakeholders for meaningful change

To plug the gaps in biodiversity conservation, the GBF opens doors for non-state actors, including businesses, NGOs, and communities, to actively participate. Assoc Prof Lim stresses the importance of maintaining pressure on governments to implement the GBF effectively. But another fundamental step lies in developing a personal sense of care and concern, thus leading to collective transformation and engagement with broader conservation efforts.

Can ASEAN play a leading crucial role in biodiversity conservation?

According to the World Economic Forum, investing in the protection of the biodiversity of Southeast Asia can generate returns of over US$2 trillion a year.  The Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada reported that this vibrant region is home to almost 20 percent of the world’s flora and fauna, 30 percent of the world’s coastal and marine habitats and 30 percent of the world’s coral reefs. It boasts a wide array of remarkable creatures, including the majestic Asian elephants, Malayan tigers and Bornean orangutans. Efforts are being made to ensure that these amazing species continue to roam the lush wilderness, with initiatives such as Malaysia’s translocation programme to move elephants to protected reserves. 

“ASEAN is home to some of the most incredible terrestrial and marine ecosystems,” says Assoc Prof Lim. “I would like to see ASEAN countries leading the way in developing laws to implement the GBF. It is important for ASEAN countries to map the origins of the drivers of biodiversity loss in one of the most biodiverse regions of the world. Solidarity is important here – to recognise that the extraction of ASEAN biodiversity, and threats to nature are often the result of consumer consumption far away from where biodiversity loss occurs.”

The adoption of the GBF signifies a shift towards a holistic approach, reiterating the multifaceted value of nature and the need for collective action. With ASEAN countries and global actors actively participating, there is hope for a future where biodiversity thrives, ensuring a sustainable and harmonious world for generations to come.

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Methodology & References
  1. Tan, J. (2023).Critically endangered hawksbill turtle hatchlings emerge from monitored nest at East Coast beach. The Straits Times. Retrieved from:
  2. GEF (2023). GEF Council provides $1.4 billion boost for environmental action. GEF. Retrieved from:
  3. IPBES. Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. IPBES. Retrieved from
  4. Abnett, K. (2023). EU fears for global biodiversity goal if own nature law not passed. Reuters. Retrieved from:
  5. World Economic Forum (2022). How Southeast Asia can simultaneously protect nature and generate $2 trillion a year. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from:
  6. CNA Insider (2022). Saving Malaysia's Endangered Animals From Extinction | CNA Correspondent. CNA Insider. Retrieved from: