Cop15: UN chief calls for end to ‘war on nature’

Almost 200 countries gather in Montreal in attempt to address biodiversity loss

The world’s unrelenting “war on nature” must be brought to an end by countries attending the global summit on biodiversity in Montreal, according to UN secretary-general António Guterres.

Speaking on Tuesday as representatives of more than 190 countries gathered for Cop15, which is hosted by Canada and China, Mr Guterres said destruction of nature over centuries had to end.

“Our bottomless appetite for unchecked and unequal economic growth, humanity has become a weapon of mass extinction”, he warned.

“Nature is humanity’s best friend ... yet humanity seems hell-bent on destruction. Without nature, we have nothing. Without nature, we are nothing. Nature is our life-support system,” he added.


“Deforestation and desertification are creating wastelands of once-thriving ecosystems. Our land, water and air are poisoned by chemicals and pesticides, and choked with plastics,” he noted.

Fossil fuels, he said, had thrown the global climate into chaos, sending emissions skyrocketing, but also “degrading our land, sea and air”.

“One-third of all land is degraded, making it harder to feed growing populations. Plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates – all are at risk. A million species teeter on the brink,” Mr Guterres said.

“Multinational corporations are filling their bank accounts while emptying our world of its natural gifts. Ecosystems have become playthings of profit,” he told national delegations. Separate to cost in lost jobs, hunger, disease and deaths, he said there was a projected $3 trillion in annual losses by 2030 from ecosystem degradation.

The cost was also seen in higher prices for water, food and energy; “and a cost we measure in the deeply unjust and incalculable losses to the poorest countries, Indigenous populations, women and young people. Those least responsible for this destruction are always the first to feel the impacts.”

Cop15, running until December 19th, “is our chance to stop this orgy of destruction. And to apply the ambition and action the challenge demands. We need nothing less than a bold post-2020 global biodiversity framework (GBF)”, he said.

He said the summit has to fight the biodiversity apocalypse by urgently tackling its drivers – land and sea-use change; over exploitation of species, climate change, pollution and invasive non-native species. “It must address the root causes of this destruction – harmful subsidies, misdirected investment, unsustainable food systems, and wider patterns of consumption and production.”

This needed to be reinforced by “clear targets, benchmarks and accountability”. It was time to repurpose subsidies and tax breaks, Mr Guterres believed, away from nature-destroying activities towards green solutions such as renewable energy, plastic reduction, nature-friendly food production and sustainable resource extraction.

A “high ambition coalition” of nations including Ireland are pushing for a deal to halt and reverse declines in nature by 2030, with measures such as protecting 30 per cent of land and seas by the end of the decade – known as 30x30.

Representatives are negotiating wording of an agreement laying out four long-term biodiversity goals for 2050 and 23 specific “action targets to be completed by 2030″, according to the UN. The latter group includes eight targets to protect biodiversity, and five geared at making sure humans use nature sustainably and share its bounties and benefits equitably. The remainder aim to achieve new targets and goals.

The 15th gathering under the Convention of Biological Diversity is attempting to forge a Paris agreement for nature, but an agreement on 30x30 would be a major achievement.

Cop15′s ambitions were boosted by the EU agreeing on Tuesday a new law to prevent companies from selling into the EU market coffee, beef, soy and other commodities linked to deforestation around the world. It will include rubber, charcoal and some palm oil derivatives and derived products such as leather, chocolate and furniture.

It will require companies to produce a due diligence statement showing their supply chains are not contributing to the destruction of forests before they sell goods into the EU – or they could face hefty fines.

“I hope that this innovative regulation will give impetus to the protection of forests around the globe and inspire other countries at the Cop15,” said the European Parliament’s lead negotiator, Christophe Hansen.

“The EU’s ground-breaking law is a historic moment and a bold initial step towards reversing unsustainable production and consumption in some of the world’s highest consuming countries,” said Guido Broekhoven of the WWF International.

He added: “At Cop15, we need leaders to build on this momentum and take an even bolder next step of including a commitment to halve the global footprint of production and consumption by 2030 in the GBF through a just transformation of productive sectors.

“Negotiations must not ignore progress achieved with this landmark ruling which, while not perfect, will increase the EU’s credibility by showing it is willing to lead on nature. Instead, leaders must apply similar ambition, if not more, to transform our relationship with nature, and include action to address the drivers of nature loss, including those brought about by devastatingly high current global levels of production and consumption.”

While campaigners welcomed the law, they also criticised its requirement for companies to prove they respected the rights of indigenous people – but only if those rights are already legally protected in the producer country.

“This legislation is a gamechanger for the world’s forests,” said the Mighty Earth chief executive Glenn Hurowitz. “For the first time, European governments are telling companies selling agricultural goods, ‘If you or your suppliers destroy forests, you can’t sell your products here.’ With this law, Europe is putting real action for wildlife on the table.”

However, Mr Hurowitz cautioned that there were gaps in the legislation, including a failure to protect Indigenous rights and other important non-forest ecosystems such as peatlands.

MEP for Ireland South Grace O’Sullivan said: “This deal comes at a good time as we get ready for the start of international biodiversity negotiations at Cop15 taking place in Montreal.”

She welcomed adoption of green priorities, including higher standards for companies to adhere to, human rights for indigenous peoples, and the addition of products like maize and biodiesel.

“One particular win for MEPs was tighter definitions for what constitutes ‘forest degradation’, so that we can ensure that naturally generated forests can also be protected alongside plantations,” she added.

Ms O’Sullivan was disappointed, however, to see financial institutions will not have to immediately improve their due diligence reporting on deforestation despite being a large driving force for financing deforestation. “European consumption has been a major driver of deforestation around the world, and it’s time we hold ourselves to a higher standard, including Ireland’s financial sector,” she said.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times