With Cop15 in Montreal rapidly approaching, governments are gearing up to create targets on biodiversity for the next decade. The world has so far failed to meet any UN targets on halting the loss of nature, yet awareness of the challenge is greater than ever. Here we examine why this UN meeting matters and how it could herald meaningful action on nature loss.
What is Cop15?
Nature is in crisis and for the past three decades governments have been meeting to ensure the survival of the species and ecosystems that underpin human civilisation. The Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 saw the creation of three conventions: on climate change, desertification and biodiversity. The aim of the convention on biological diversity (CBD) is for countries to conserve the natural world, its sustainable use, and to share the benefits of its genetic resources.
Every 10 years, governments agree new targets on protecting biodiversity. The last round was agreed at Cop10 in Nagoya, Japan, in 2010, when governments pledged to halve the loss of natural habitats and expand nature reserves to 17% of the world’s land area by 2020, among other goals. They failed on every count.
When, where and who is in charge?
In December, the conference of the parties will meet for the 15th time (Cop15). The two-week summit starts on 7 December in Montreal, Canada, although China will hold the Cop15 presidency, the first time it has done so for a leading UN environmental agreement. The conference had been scheduled to take place in Kunming, China, but was moved after successive pandemic-related delays and concerns over hosting an international summit under Beijing’s zero-Covid policy.
Delegates will arrive in Montreal just a few weeks after the climate Cop27 in Egypt. The official text is expected to be signed off on Saturday 17 December, the eve of the World Cup final in Qatar, although negotiations often go beyond the deadline.
How is it different from the climate Cops?
Biodiversity Cops are separate from climate Cops. Climate Cops have a clear focus to limit global temperature rises to “well below” 2C above pre-industrial levels, while aiming to limit heating to 1.5C, as settled under the Paris agreement in 2015.
At the moment, the UN’s biodiversity process does not have an equivalent north star. Governments will sign off targets under the three aims of the CBD: conservation of biodiversity; sustainable use of biodiversity; and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources.
The summit’s final text – known as the post-2020 global biodiversity framework – is likely to include more than 20 targets that range from pledges to crack down on invasive species to complicated rules on the use of synthetic biology.
What is biodiversity?
Biodiversity – an abbreviation of biological diversity - is the variety of life on Earth, from the tiniest bacteria to the largest mammals. The air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat all rely on it; without plants there would be no oxygen and without bees to pollinate there would be no fruit or nuts.
Countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia and China in particular have incredible concentrations of plants, mammals, fungi and amphibians in their vast and unique ecosystems.Humanity relies on the healthy functioning of all ecosystems to survive.
Biodiversity is also the foundation of the global economy. More than half of global GDP – equal to $41.7tn (£34.6tn) – is dependent on the healthy functioning of the natural world, according to estimates by the insurance group Swiss Re.
Why should we worry?
Earth is experiencing the largest loss of life since the dinosaurs, and humans are to blame. The way we mine, pollute, hunt, farm, build and travel is putting at least one million species at risk of extinction, according to scientists. The sixth mass extinction in geological history has already begun, some scientists assert, with billions of individual populations being lost.
Unlike changes to the climate, which could be reversible even if it takes thousands of years, extinctions are permanent.
Those extinctions have huge knock-on effects. Species need to be working together in harmony to thrive and in turn to provide the essential services humans need to survive. For example, 95% of the food we eat is produced in the soil. Yet up to 40% of the world’s land is severely degraded by unsustainable agricultural practices, according to the UN.
What species are in trouble?
We are seeing huge declines in wildlife across the board. According to scientists, insect numbers are plummeting, with some saying we are living through an “insect apocalypse”; more than 500 species of land animals are on the brink of extinction and likely to be lost within 20 years; one in five reptiles are facing extinction; one in eight bird species are threatened; and 40% of the world’s plant species are at risk.
The five biggest threats to biodiversity are changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of natural resources; the climate crisis; pollution and invasive species.
Earth’s wildlife populations have plunged by an average of 69% in just under 50 years, according to a leading scientific assessment. Even if the destruction were to end now, it would take between five and seven million years for the natural world to recover, researchers warn.
What happened at the last nature Cop?
Governments have never met any of the targets they have set in the history of the UN convention on biological diversity. From tackling pollution to protecting coral reefs, the international community did not fully achieve any of the 20 Aichi biodiversity targets agreed at Cop10 in Japan in 2010. It was a similar story in the decade before that.
However, much has changed since 2010 and the Paris climate agreement, despite its flaws, restored some faith in UN processes for protecting the environment. There is still hope that Cop15 could be nature’s “Paris moment”.
How could Cop15 help stop biodiversity loss?
The 21 draft targets to be negotiated in Montreal include proposals to eliminate plastic pollution, reduce pesticide use by two-thirds, halve the rate of invasive species introduction and do away with billions of pounds worth of harmful environmental government subsidies. The goals also include reducing the current rate of extinctions by 90%, enhancing the integrity of all ecosystems, valuing nature’s contribution to humanity and providing the financial resources to achieve this vision.
What are the big issues?
As with climate talks, there are significant divisions between the global north and south and the fault lines focus on four big issues: money, 30x30 (a target to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030), the monitoring of targets, and a row over digital sequence information relating to biopiracy.
Momentum has built around a target to protect 30% of land and sea by the end of decade but concerns remain that the rights of Indigenous peoples will not be protected.
World leaders such as Emmanuel Macron, Justin Trudeau and Ursula von der Leyen have made much of the importance of Cop15 in stopping biodiversity loss, but many developing countries say they need more money if they are to expand protected areas and grow their economies in a less destructive way than their rich counterparts.
A row over how countries are compensated for drug discoveries and other commercial projects using digital versions is also a sticking point, with the Africa group warning it will not sign off on anything unless there is an agreement on digital sequence information (DSI) in the final framework.
What are we hoping for?
A positive final agreement that will be ambitious enough to halt the decline of nature, but modest enough to make targets achievable. There are plenty of quick wins available – invasive species eradication on islands, crackdowns on pollution, money for restoration efforts – but it will ultimately depend on the will of heads of state. Cop15 will be the moment to turn rhetoric into action and become a key part of the UN’s wider ambition for humans to live in harmony with nature by 2050.
This explainer, first published on 30 August 2022, is being updated to reflect the latest information. Please click on the timestamp to see when it was last modified. Any significant corrections made to this or previous versions of the article will be footnoted in line with Guardian editorial policy
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