Why is it so urgent that the United States of America ratifies the Convention on Biological Diversity?

The Convention on Biological Diversity is an international convention signed in Rio de Janeiro, dedicated to promoting sustainable development. It seeks to conserve the diversity of life on Earth at all levels – genetic, population, species, habitat and ecosystem – and to ensure that this diversity continues to maintain the life support system of the biosphere overall. The Convention recognizes that biological diversity is about more than plants, animals and micro-organisms and their ecosystems – it also is about how dependent people are on a healthy environment and that we need nature in our lives. Read more… (Beáta Bella Szutor)


The Convention on Biological Diversity (hereinafter: “CBD”, or “the Convention”) is an international convention signed in Rio de Janeiro, dedicated to promoting sustainable development. It seeks to conserve the diversity of life on Earth at all levels – genetic, population, species, habitat and ecosystem – and to ensure that this diversity continues to maintain the life support system of the biosphere overall[1]. The Convention recognizes that biological diversity is about more than plants, animals and micro-organisms and their ecosystems – it also is about how dependent people are on a healthy environment and that we need nature in our lives.

The Convention was opened for signature on 5 June 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit and entered into force in December 1993. With 196 parties to date, it enjoys almost universal participation, with the notable exception of the United States.[2] To be specific, the United States has signed but not yet ratified this international treaty, whose signature is a common interest all over the world in order to protect species and habitats, and which could mitigate the significant and irreversible changes that are currently occurring to the natural world.  Only four member states of the United Nations are not Parties to the CBD, namely: Andorra, South Sudan, the United States of America and the Holy See (the Vatican).

In my blog, first of all, I would like to point out the main reasons why it is so important for every state to submit to this legally binding Convention.

Secondly, I will discuss why the ratification by the U.S. would mean a milestone for the whole world that is actually quite urgent. After discussing the importance of these impacts, through the example of the worst environmental disaster for the U.S. – the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill – I will sum up its consequences and the current situation: that is, how they still refuse to make the effort that they should. 

What specific steps must Parties to the Convention take to protect biodiversity?

The conservation of biological diversity is a common interest under the Convention; on the other hand, the biodiversity located within the territory of each country is part of the national wealth of the respective countries. Consequently, only the state itself can decide on the exploitation of the components of biodiversity and, above all, the benefits of natural resources also belong to them. Therefore, the Convention establishes – and this is considered an essential requirement – that individual countries cannot cause damage to biodiversity outside their borders through their activities on their territory.[3] Biodiversity is inseparable from sustainable development, as it provides essential goods for economic recovery, social well-being and an adequate quality of life: for example, for food production, carbon sequestration and regulation of the water cycle. In addition to climate change, the loss of biodiversity is the most critical global environmental threat, resulting in significant material and well-being losses. At the international level, the EU is a strong advocate for the protection of biodiversity and the sustainable use of natural resources. It spends more than €350 million a year supporting biodiversity in developing countries, through programs focused on biodiversity and programs that integrate biodiversity in other areas. For example, in 2018, the EU funded 66 protected areas in 27 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.[4]

The Contracting Parties undertake to establish a system of protected areas to ensure the protection of natural habitats, maintain viable populations of species, develop regulations for the conservation of endangered species and populations, and ensure their compliance. The section of the Convention concerning management related activities applies to in situ conservation of ecosystems and the maintenance and recovery of viable populations of species in their natural surroundings; also, that the measures should include the reinforcement of terrestrial, marine and aquatic protected area systems. On the other hand it implements ex situ measures as well, preferably in the source country.

Another important step is that research that contributes to the conservation of biological diversity will be supported and encouraged, and the Parties will work together to use the results of scientific research and develop methods for the conservation and sustainable use of biological resources. “Special attention should be given to the development and strengthening of national capabilities by means of human resource development and institution-building, including the transfer of technology and/or development of research and management facilities.”[5]

To protect and exploit genetic resources, the Convention establishes that States can exercise sovereign rights over genetic resources. The Convention lists the general provisions to guarantee access to biological resources in areas under national jurisdiction and beyond. The Parties undertake to share fairly and equitably the benefits derived from the commercial and other utilization of genetic resources. The dissemination of technologies for the exploitation of biological resources, including biotechnology, to developing countries under the Convention will be subject to the most-favored-nation principle in the future. The economic benefits of biotechnological processes must also be shared fairly and equitably. The extent of this must be agreed upon between the interested parties.

According to the convention, the parties must develop an appropriate strategy for the protection of biological diversity. Special attention should also be paid to this issue in environmental impact assessments. The convention describes the general principles and requirements for conducting environmental impact assessments. An important objective of the Convention is to achieve the sustainable use of natural resources. To this end, it contains requirements for the development of scientific knowledge in this regard and for the development of a global monitoring system and information systems to support data exchange.

To protect biodiversity, the Convention recognizes the need for developed countries to help developing countries financially, through technological know-how and the transfer of tools and procedures. This assistance should not be included in existing development aid, but should be seen as an additional source to it. Under the Convention, the Conference of the Parties will periodically review, inter alia, the situation of countries with economies in transition in relation to the Convention. These countries can be included in a list to be attached to the Convention, temporarily exempting them from the obligation to provide financial assistance.

For what reasons would it be a milestone if the U.S. ratified the Convention?

The U.S. has a huge environmental footprint, and the protection of nature requires international cooperation and coordination. Their leadership is needed to protect domestic and global biological resources.  The absence of the U.S. makes this harder for several reasons. The U.S. is home to some of the world’s best conservation researchers and tools, including those used for monitoring wildlife populations. Another key reason for them to join the agreement is that the U.S. could help other countries develop conservation strategies that don’t come at the expense of Indigenous people and local communities, which has been the case historically.[6]

They also are guilty of harming native populations for the sake of protecting wildlife (most famously when creating Yellowstone National Park.)

In addition, the U.S. possesses transparent laws, dispenses significant foreign aid, and embodies a tradition of public engagement that leads to greater biodiversity-related protection and enforcement than most countries. The U.S. has also been a good international partner in other environmental agreements and treaties such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (“CITES”), the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. The interests of the United States stand to benefit greatly from such multilateral cooperation and the continued ability to access biological diversity from other countries across the globe.[7]

To what extent would U.S. ratification change its international obligations regarding protection of the Gulf’s biological diversity? 

The 2010 Gulf Oil Spill was the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Studies indicate that it will take parts of the Gulf, such as deep ocean ecosystems, decades to recover. However, unfortunately the legal landscape governing offshore drilling is still unchanged from before the spill. The U.S. still outsources drilling safety and spill cleanup to the industry, which has proven far more adept at extracting oil than protecting the environment. In my opinion, the possible outcome of the U.S. ratifying the Convention – the increased protection of the law of the sea and of biological diversity – would be more aligned with their obligations than the objective of setting a new record of oil production, like they did in 2019.[8] Americans are still not serious enough about reducing their nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and accelerating the transition to clean energy. This failure stands out as the continuing tragedy of the spill. The preamble of the Convention states that “the intrinsic value of biological diversity and of the ecological, genetic, social, economic, scientific, educational, cultural, recreational and aesthetic values of biological diversity and its components…(and) also of the importance of biological diversity for evolution and for maintaining life sustaining systems in the biosphere.” The CBD further affirms “that the conservation of biological diversity is a common concern of humankind,” Consequently, by ratifying the Convention, it would apply to the U.S., so they would be required to reduce fossil fuels and to develop clean energy, besides many other obligations. In 2012 the Congress passed the RESTORE Act in response to the spill, but only to ensure that the responsibility to restore the environment would be shared among Gulf coastal states. The laws in the U.S. were too silent about drilling safety and future oil spills. They are still more focused on their income from oil than on protecting biodiversity and making sure it is not going to happen again. In terms of new regulations, the Obama administration enacted new safety rules. Many of these had unfortunately been reversed by the Trump administration. President Trump also expanded offshore drilling. However, while the oil industry is more committed to protecting the sea these days than it was in 2010, without the U.S. ratification to the Convention, their promise is still not an enforceable obligation. BP paid an enormous amount to the harmed states, but the U.S. is still not addressing its responsibility for the disaster sufficiently. Many people have hopes that the Biden administration – which has already reversed many actions of the Trump administration for the better – may ratify the Convention. By doing that, they would have a much greater obligation regarding the creation of new domestic rules – such as to protect the sea and biological diversity, and to help address impacts of global warming, unstable weather patterns, and other abrupt changes caused by stressed ecological systems – to stop being as harmful on the environment as they are in the present. 

The three objectives of the Convention – conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of biological and genetic resources – would apply naturally to the U.S. so their obligation would be much more extensive. The Member States, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, have to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.[9]

The United States is already in full accordance with the substantive terms of the CBD, which provide discretion and flexibility based upon national circumstances. No new legislation at either the federal or state level is necessary for the United States to ratify and implement the CBD immediately, and future legislative and administrative amendments would not be precluded.[10]

If the U.S. participated in the Convention, besides these obligations, it would also save them money in the long run. Financial resources would be used more efficiently by helping coordinate federal agencies with other international agreements. They could also keep their sovereignty on all issues, with no exceptions. 

Closing thoughts and consequences

Protecting biodiversity maximizes the resilience of ecosystems and large regions – and indeed, the entire world – so that the use of land, water and air is done sustainably. This is good for food and water security, overall global well-being, and the long-term maintenance of biodiversity’s many economically beneficial services. The CBD is the one legal tool that brings these important issues together. It should be ratified by the U.S. Senate in short order because it is without legal controversy, it will benefit the people of the United States, and it will make the world a better place for all its inhabitants.[11]

For a list of references, click HERE.
Source for the image used: https://www.undp.org/press-releases/world-wildlife-day-highlights-importance-biodiversity-super-year 


Author: Beáta Bella Szutor
law student, University of Debrecen Faculty of Law

[3] Dr. Bándi Gyula, Dr. Faragó Tibor and Dr. Lakosné Horváth Alojzia – Környezetvédelmi és Területfejlesztési Minisztérium – 2004. – Nemzetközi Környezetvédelmi és Természetvédelmi Egyezmények – 39.

[4] Action against biodiversity loss, nature conservation and the nature protection strategy of the European Union – https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/biodiversity_hu.pdf 06.08.2021.

[5] Rio summit page 215, C, international and regional cooperation and coordination

[7] William J. Snape, Joining the Convention on Biological Diversity: A legal and scientific overview of why the United States must wake up https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/publications/papers/SDLP_10Spring_Snape.pdf 06.10.2021.

[9] art. 15.1 (“Recognizing the sovereign rights of States over their natural resources, the authority to determine access to genetic resources rests with the national governments.”)