Cop15 Q&A: Why this biodiversity summit should matter to everyone

Will the world accept that biodiversity loss is just as big an existential threat as global warming?

As life on Earth is being pushed to towards mass extinction, protection and halting biodiversity loss and restoration of nature is the only course left to ensure a healthy planet where humanity can thrive.

There is no economy without nature. This has finally dawned on businesses and financial institutions globally. But too many politicians, especially global leaders, are not sufficiently engaged on the issue and not delivering urgently needed policy actions.

No head of state is at the Cop15 global summit, other than Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, whose country is co-hosting the gathering with China.

How can the world respond to the biodiversity emergency?

Like climate Cops (conferences of the parties), the UN holds a biodiversity gathering regularly. The 15th convening — Cop15 — was due to take place in Kunming, China, but after a series of Covid-related postponements, it was relocated to Montreal.


It is the only global mechanism for collective action. It is a gathering of almost every country in the world under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

Arguably, Cop15 is the most important gathering ever on biodiversity given the scale of the problem and the possibility of a ground-breaking outcome. Countries could negotiate a deal that could hold equal significance to the 2015 Paris climate agreement, and set the course for a “nature-positive” world.

More than that, biodiversity enhancement is considered the main weapon in combating global warming, while at the same time protecting the world’s ecosystems and the diverse life within them.

It also means protecting natural carbon sinks that absorb emissions. Failure to do so will release vast amounts of greenhouse gases and the goal of keeping global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees will be quickly lost.

What is the latest evidence indicating an acceleration of nature decline?

Everywhere you look, there is evidence of nature under stress. Planet Earth is experiencing what is being called a sixth mass extinction; the first to be driven by human activity.

It is due mainly to unsustainable use of land, water (oceans and freshwater) and energy use ie fossil fuels — with climate change fast becoming the biggest contributory factor. Other issues such as over-exploitation of species, pollution and invasive non-native species undermine nature relentlessly.

The evidence is unequivocal, and if anything it’s getting worse: 28 per cent of the more than 150,000 species of plants, animals and fungi across the world’s land, freshwater and seas assessed for the International Union for Conservation of Nature “red list” are considered to be under threat, classed as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable to extinction.

That amounts to 42,000 species. And that does not include the huge numbers of species that are not monitored; notably many insects.

Earth’s wildlife populations have plunged by an average of 69 per cent in just under 50 years. Even if the destruction were to end now, it is estimated it would take up to seven million years for the natural world to recover.

How did we get to this point?

Governments have never met any of the key targets set under the CBD. From tackling pollution to protecting coral reefs, the international community did not fully achieve any of the 20 Aichi biodiversity targets agreed upon in 2010. Lack of finance from wealthy countries has been a big barrier to effective actions.

However, much has changed since and the Paris Agreement — despite its flaws — has set a course for achieving a decarbonised world based on scientific targets. Cop15 has an opportunity to do likewise under a new global biodiversity framework (GBF).

So what are the key priorities as Cop15 goes into its final days?

From nature restoration to sharing new information about diseases, the biodiversity agreement being negotiated covers a vast range of issues as 193 governments wrangle over the “fate of the living world”.

As with climate talks, there are big divisions between the Global North and the Global South while fault lines focus on money; the move to protect 30 per cent of lands and waters by 2030, the monitoring of targets and delivery mechanisms and a row over digital sequence information relating to biopiracy.

Negotiators are wrestling with a draft agreement setting 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. Tools and solutions to achieve targets and goals figure prominently in the talks.

The final text — the GBF — requires unanimous agreement to pass. It is due to be completed by December 19th. As always, everything could change in the final hours. An agreement will not be legally binding though the aims of the CBD are, so it will have significant teeth.

So what are the big emerging issues?

Eight priorities are emerging:
  • 1. Protecting Earth: More than 110 countries support a proposal to conserve at least 30 per cent of land and ocean by the end of the decade — the so-called “30x30 goal”. It draws inspiration from biologist Edward O Wilson’s Half-Earth theory, which advocates protecting half of the planet for humanity’s long-term survival. Canada and the EU (including Ireland) have thrown their political weight behind it. Canada’s environment minister Steven Guilbeault says it could be “biodiversity’s 1.5-degree target”. But it faces pushback from some Indigenous communities, who warn it could justify land grabs and human rights violations;
  • 2. Pesticides: With insect populations in freefall due to overuse of pesticides, a target to reduce their use by at least two-thirds is being considered. The European Union has committed to a 50 per cent reduction by 2030 but a global target is likely to face significant pushback from big agricultural producers;
  • 3. Preventing extinctions: Several clauses seek better protection for the one million species estimated to be facing extinction from human behaviour;
  • 4. Government subsidies: Some $1.8 trillion is spent annually on subsidies driving the annihilation of wildlife and global overheating. Through tax breaks for clearing the Amazon for beef or financial support for extracting groundwater in the Middle East, huge sums are spent by on environmentally harmful policies. Many countries want to include a target to reduce or repurpose at least $500bn a year by 2025;
  • 5. Plastic pollution: In March, world leaders agreed to draw up a legally binding treaty on the plastic waste that is overwhelming the Earth’s oceans and rivers, and entering the foodchain, especially in marine species. The first round of talks ended in Uruguay recently on a potential agreement, which will cover the full life cycle of plastics from production to disposal. Any target agreed at Cop15 will have to defer to the ongoing framing of a treaty;
  • 6. Invasive species: The spread of alien animals and plants that overcome and destroy ecosystems is worsening. A draft target proposes greater efforts to eliminate invasive species and reduce their spread by half;
  • 7. Nature restoration: As well as expanding protected areas, a target to restore at least one billion hectares of degraded terrestrial, marine and coastal ecosystems has been proposed, roughly the size of China. Rewilding, restoring and reviving an area this size could have significant benefits for biodiversity and climate;
  • 8. Indigenous people: Concerns remain that the rights of Indigenous peoples will not be protected. There is, however, growing recognition of the value Indigenous peoples can provide as stewards of biodiversity. The framework as proposed aims to make sure their traditional knowledge guides biodiversity decisions, their consent is given, and their rights are upheld. It also acknowledges that decision-making, and benefits to natural systems, need to be shared equitably among people, cultures and countries.

Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa are yet to commit on some of the key priorities, so compromises from developed countries in other areas like finance and genetic resource benefit sharing will need to be made.

Genetic resource sharing means distributing any benefits, including profit, that come from using genes found in the world’s living organisms to create new products including medicines. Agriculture is an obvious example: much of the genetic information used to create new, drought-resistant “cropscomes” from plants in the southern hemisphere but companies developing them are typically in the north.

Can a meaningful deal be reached at this stage?

As of now, the talks are bogged down by too little agreement on too many issues. But this is often the case at a Cop. Political discussions in the coming days may unblock much of this.

“Words that are being bandied about are actually very much similar. Let’s just settle on some of these things,” said director of the UN Environment Programme Inger Andersen. “Because when the gavel goes down, and the day is done, what will be remembered is not the complexity around a word. What will be remembered is the level of ambition, and the implementation, that followed.”

There are some reasons for optimism as biodiversity is finally on the international agenda and there is still time to plot a path to living in harmony with nature.