Cause for optimism at Cop15 – but could Bolsonaro scupper the deal for nature?

There are many reasons to suggest a deal to save the natural world is possible in Montreal, if division can be overcome and the Brazilian president doesn’t cause problems

We are at the beginning of a busy end to the year. The summer holidays are over in the northern hemisphere, the world economy is creaking into recession, war is raging in Ukraine and there is the small matter of the most important biodiversity conference in more than a decade: Cop15.

Money will ultimately decide the fate of the summit and the ambition of the final text in Montreal this December, as will the mood after the climate Cop27, which ends two weeks earlier.

So far, negotiations have been slow and painful. Covid has delayed Cop15 several times and it has been moved from China to Canada, although Beijing will retain the presidency. In Geneva and Nairobi earlier this year, the size and complexity of 20 or so targets on how humanity will halt the destruction of the natural world grew and grew.

Much of the draft agreement is in brackets, reflecting disagreement in the UN process as countries have added suggestion upon suggestion on how the final set of targets should look. An informal meeting in Montreal this week will try to cut it down to size.

The text is a mess, but I do not share the pessimism of leading NGOs who have warned the talks are in crisis, blaming lack of attention from world leaders. I believe countries are taking Cop15 seriously and we could end up with a substantive agreement. Whether it will be nature’s “Paris moment” remains uncertain, because biodiversity is far more complex than the climate crisis.

Major divisions between developed and developing countries remain on money and flashy targets such as protecting 30% of land and sea by 2030. European and North American leaders are happy to talk about the need to protect ecosystems in Africa, Asia and Latin America, but that costs money and must contend with local ambitions for economic development.

Even so, there are several bright spots to focus on as we head into a busy autumn, and division at this stage of a UN negotiation is normal.

At the UN general assembly in New York last week, world leaders dedicated substantial attention to nature. Earlier this month, African environment ministers met in Dakar, Senegal, agreeing a joint text on biodiversity, wildlife and desertification that will form the basis of their negotiating position at Cop15. The EU will soon release its negotiating position. Cop15 is not being ignored.

One country that does worry me is Brazil. It is home to the largest chunk of the Amazon and was once a defender of the environment on the world stage. Agriculture now trumps conservation in Brazil’s domestic politics and, as the presidential elections approach, Jair Bolsonaro could have a major impact on the agreement we reach at Cop15, regardless of whether he wins or loses.

If Bolsonaro wins, Brazil may curtail an ambitious final text. If his main rival, the former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, wins – and Bolsonaro accepts it – he could still instruct his negotiating team to cause problems, if only to embarrass his successor.

Meanwhile, Africa’s demand that the global framework must include sharing the benefits of using genetic information in electronic format, also known as Digital Sequence Information or DSI, was confirmed in Dakar and could yet turn out to be the deal breaker – or maker. There is everything to play for.

  • In a series of dispatches ahead of the Cop15 UN biodiversity conference in Montreal in December, we will be hearing from a secret negotiator who is from a developing country involved in the post-2020 global biodiversity framework negotiations.


The Secret Negotiator

The GuardianTramp

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