Make no mistake, the agreement reached in Montreal, imperfect as it is, is a significant breakthrough for biodiversity action after decades of appalling failure.
It reflects never-before-seen recognition from countries at all income levels that nature loss must be halted through high-ambition changes to society’s relationship with nature and the way our global economy operates.
There are five notable developments, including some unresolved issues.
[ Kevin O'Sullivan's report from Montreal: Deal secured to halt destruction of Earth's ecosystems ]
1. We have a tangible global target — a significant first
For the first time biodiversity action has a clear goal to halt and reverse nature loss by 2030; the so-called 30x30 goal.
It is at the core of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework (GBF) — the global strategy for jointly safeguarding nature and securing our common future. It is regarded as nature’s equivalent of the 1.5-degree goal at the heart of the Paris Agreement.
While some scientists would dismiss this as an oversimplification, it can nonetheless be the catalyst for co-ordinated action at scale across the planet.
This goal has been reinforced by recognition of the critical role that local and indigenous communities have in protecting biodiversity.
What is known as the Montreal-Kunming agreement has emerged from a push to change the years of failure, apathy and environmental destruction. It also reflects a determination from political leaders around the world to make this happen.
2. The need for urgency has never been clearer
Repeatedly during negotiations at Cop15, and at numerous side events, the scale of “biological annihilation” was shockingly clear — often indicated by obvious distress of speakers as nature’s demise has been accelerating up to this point.
If reminders were needed; 69 per cent of the planet’s wildlife has been lost in just 50 years due to land-use change and pollution, 75 per cent of land is fundamentally altered, 66 per cent of oceans negatively affected and 80 per cent of wetlands lost.
The Earth could lose more than a tenth of its plant and animal species by the end of the century based on current trends. Cop15 provided yet more indication we live in the sixth mass extinction — and human activity is most to blame.
3. As always, so much was about the money
Lack of financial commitments by wealthy countries almost derailed the talks. Failure to make progress on “resource mobilisation” prompted a walkout by developing countries led by Brazil.
This is where negotiations were tortuous as developed countries wanted high ambition with numerical targets, clear timelines and strong implementation mechanisms. Countries of the Global South wanted a new global biodiversity fund backed by substantial new money.
In short, it was a classical chicken-and-egg scenario requiring deft negotiation at ministerial level to get a good compromise over the line. Substantial closing of a $700 billion (€659 billion) gap in providing biodiversity funds is now possible; key targets for the coming decade were stitched into the overall deal.
Significantly, none of the much-hailed 2010 Aichi Biodiversity Targets was achieved and drivers of biodiversity loss worsened in the 2011-2020 period. Lack of well-targeted funds was the main culprit.
A neat pivot agreed by parties at Cop15 is to begin switching away from harmful subsidies given to the fossil fuel, intensive agriculture and fisheries sectors by redirecting the supports to address nature loss.
But, as always, who pays will be a difficult next step to be negotiated as so many developing countries in the G77 grouping and China have become wealthy in recent decades.
4. The business world is changing, and there is no going back
There was a big push by hundreds of businesses represented at Cop15 to get clarity from governments on how they should respond to the biodiversity crisis.
UN special envoy on climate action and finance Mark Carney backed the call for parties to establish a mandate to align all financial flow with nature goals. “With this in place, finance can be held to account for aligning with the goals of halting and reversing nature loss and scaling nature-based solutions,” he believed.
What was agreed in the final text was short of this. Policymakers to “encourage and enable” businesses to monitor, assess and disclose how they affect and are affected by biodiversity, but not making these processes mandatory.
But the tide is already changing. Tony Goldner, who heads the Taskforce on Nature-Related Financial Disclosures — a group working on a framework for companies to manage and disclose economic risks related to nature — said a number of countries and financial firms would move toward mandatory disclosure anyway.
“At an institutional level, the train has left the station in any case because financial institutions are increasingly aware that nature risk is sitting on their balance sheets.”
Ultimately, major businesses will be expected to outline how they are contributing to a nature-positive world.
5. Biodiversity is the poor relation when it comes to tackling the dual crises of nature loss and climate breakdown
The science says they both pose an existential threat to human and ultimately to all life on Earth, but you wouldn’t think it at Cop15. That is not to say there was a lack of concern about the biodiversity emergency. There was at every turn and a willingness to apply the science in a co-ordinated response.
But it was gallingly clear it is not in the public consciousness the way climate change is. This is reflected in the low level of coverage the UN summit received compared to a climate Cop.
It prompted the Guardian’s Secret Negotiator to remark during a particularly trying stage of talks: “We could probably live with a soggy biscuit deal. Nobody is going to die if that happens — apart from Earth’s biodiversity. There are not the same main economic interests here that we see for climate change. But this was meant to be nature’s Paris moment and it looks like that ambition is being pushed into the 2030s and 2040s.”
What is clear at this point is the two crises have to have equal billing if the world is to be set on a course to sustainability.
And the hard reality is that we are still not acting with the urgency that the twin crises of nature and climate demand.