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COP15: What to expect at the biggest biodiversity summit in a decade

After a two-year delay, the COP15 summit will convene in Montreal to hammer out an agreement to address the biodiversity crisis



Life



30 November 2022

The Palais des Congrès de Montréal convention centre will host the COP15 biodiversity summit

EQRoy/Shutterstock

On 7 December, representatives from nearly every country in the world will gather in Montreal for the United Nations’ COP15 summit to tackle the world’s biodiversity crisis. Delays to the meeting have tempered expectations for the outcome of the summit, but participants are holding out hope that the meeting could be as consequential for stemming biodiversity loss as the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement was for action on climate change.

COP15 is the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, a treaty drafted in 1992 to protect the world’s biodiversity. Parties to the treaty include the European Union and every country in the world except the US and Vatican City, though both will participate in the summit. Representatives from countries meeting in Montreal will negotiate an agreement to shape the next decade of action on biodiversity.

There are 22 targets in the draft agreement, known as the Global Biodiversity Framework. The draft was a created by a UN working group in the years leading up to COP15 to replace a previous agreement from the last major biodiversity summit held in Aichi Prefecture, Japan, in 2010.

One of the key targets in the draft is a commitment to protect at least 30 per cent of land and water around the globe by 2030. More than 100 countries have joined a coalition in support of this “30 by 30” goal.

That would be a significant increase – as of 2020, 15 per cent of land and about 7.5 per cent of the ocean was protected – but “30 per cent is not enough,” says Eric Dinerstein at Resolve, a US environmental consultancy. Dinerstein is part of a group advocating for 50 per cent of the planet to be protected by 2030.

Other draft targets include offsetting billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions with nature-based approaches such as conserving biodiversity-rich rainforests, stopping the spread of invasive species and reducing pollution from pesticides, fertiliser and waste. Another seeks to end or reduce subsidies for industries that contribute to biodiversity loss, for instance through deforestation.

Climate change will also be a central topic in Montreal. Not only does warming threaten many species of animals and plants, biodiverse forests and healthy ecosystems sequester carbon – and stemming their losses is key to reaching the most ambitious targets of the Paris Agreement. “We absolutely have to conserve the world’s most biodiverse forests if we are going to stay within 1.5°C [of warming],” says Dinerstein.

COP15 was originally set to happen in Kunming, China, in October of 2020, but was pushed back four times due to covid-19. The meeting was moved to Canada to avoid further delays, with China retaining the presidency. The first phase of the convention was held in Kunming in October of 2021. Ministers from more than 100 countries pledged to reach an agreement on the Global Biodiversity Framework in 2022, but stopped short of committing to specific targets.

The delays haven’t helped momentum towards an agreement, says Tierra Curry at the Center for Biological Diversity, a US conservation advocacy group. “There’s still way too many brackets” indicating portions of the agreement that are to be determined, says Susan Lieberman at the Wildlife Conservation Society, a nonprofit organisation in New York.

The working group has a final session just before the convention to try to work out as much as possible, but a packed agenda will start already behind schedule. Alice Hughes at the University of Hong Kong says just two of the targets and around 20 per cent of the text in the framework has been agreed to. “A lot of us are very anxious because we haven’t had the degree of progress needed,” she says.

Major sticking points include the role of donor countries and organisations in financing conservation initiatives in lower-income countries – the draft agreement estimates $700 billion would be needed to implement the targets. COP15 will also feature negotiations on the controversial question of who should benefit from medical or other biotechnology based on genetic sequences stored as digital information, as well as discussions on biosafety and the role of synthetic biology in conservation.

If an agreement on the framework is reached at the summit, it would replace the 2010 Aichi targets. Despite partial progress on a few of those targets, such as the amount of protected water and land, none were fully achieved by 2020.

But there is reason to hope any targets agreed to in Montreal will be more successful. For one, there’s more knowledge about how the world’s biodiversity is distributed and how to protect it, says Dinerstein. There is also a greater recognition and involvement of Indigenous people in the process. Indigenous lands often contain more biodiversity than lands not managed by Indigenous peoples.

“We’ve learned a lot of lessons from nature over the last few years,”  says Linda Kreuger at The Nature Conservancy, a conservation non-profit. “I’m hopeful negotiators will come ready to act.”

 

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