Making sense of Cop15: what to look out for in Montreal

Everything you need to know about the once-in-a-decade chance to stop the loss of biodiversity – and how you can help

Planet Earth is enduring the largest loss of life since the time of the dinosaurs, according to scientists. This loss is being driven by human behaviour, and governments are split on how to respond. At Cop15 in Montreal, many of these divisions will come to a head as they negotiate this decade’s UN biodiversity targets, known as the global biodiversity framework – or “GBF” if you are an insider. From the key players to what’s on the table, here’s what you need to know to make sense of the summit.

What is Cop15? Haven’t we just had a Cop?

Cop15 is about biodiversity, not the climate, although there are obvious crossovers. It will be the 15th conference of the parties to the UN convention on biological diversity – hence Cop15, and takes place in Montreal from December 7-19. The world negotiates biodiversity targets only once a decade, and governments will agree them for the 2020s in Montreal in December after more than two years of pandemic-related delays. The Aichi biodiversity targets were the last agreed, at Cop10 in Nagoya, Japan, in 2010. Governments pledged then to halve the loss of natural habitats and expand nature reserves to 17% of the world’s land area by 2020, among other targets. They failed on every count.

Why is Cop15 so important?

The Earth is experiencing the sixth mass extinction, according to scientists, which threatens the foundations of human civilisation. How we farm, pollute, drive, heat our homes and consume is beyond what our planet can sustainably provide and at Cop15 governments are tasked with plotting a path to living within planetary boundaries. The fate of humans is inextricably linked with nature. The insurance group Swiss Re estimates that more than half of global GDP is dependent on the healthy functioning of the natural world.

How does Cop15 aim to protect nature?

Unlike the UN climate process, which has a clear goal to limit greenhouse gas emissions, the convention on biological diversity has three aims: the sustainable use of biodiversity, sharing benefits from genetic resources, and conservation. Within these aims, negotiators will have to agree a final package on topics ranging from harmful agricultural subsidies to the spread of invasive species.

A cartoon in which a koala holds a sign that says help

What is in the draft agreement?

A draft target to protect 30% of land and sea by the end of the decade – know as “30 by 30” – has dominated the headlines about Cop15. But there are more than 20 other draft targets that make up the final text, and experts have warned that expanding protected areas alone is not enough to halt the decline of nature. Other targets include proposals to limit the spread of invasive species, reduce and repurpose $500bn (£439bn) a year of environmentally harmful subsidies, and mandatory nature disclosures for all large businesses. Much remains to be agreed, so everything could change in Montreal.

What are the main sticking points?

Money, the 30% protected areas target, how to implement the final agreement, and a growing row about digital biopiracy are likely to be the main hurdles. A deal will require money and pragmatism. So far, poorer, nature-rich countries have generally been open to enhancing protection for biodiversity – but they want rich, often nature-poor, countries to provide the resources to do it, perhaps with a deal similar to the loss and damage climate fund established at Cop26. Germany has made a $1bn commitment for biodiversity in its climate finance plans, while other major players are yet to announce the resources they plan to make available.

Who are the key players to watch out for?

The US is not a party to the convention on biological diversity so EU member states, the UK, Colombia and Costa Rica are among the 100-plus driving environmental ambition in the agreement through the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, similar to the group that got the 1.5C target into the Paris climate agreement in 2015. The Africa group, particularly Namibia, Kenya, South Africa and Gabon, will be key to a final agreement, but are looking for a deal on digital biopiracy. China, the Cop president, which has selected ecological civilisation as the theme of the summit, will also play a key role in ensuring success. Brazil and Argentina, both big agricultural producers, have been accused of blocking environmental ambition, although they dispute this, and Brazil’s role may now change under the new president-elect, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

How have negotiations gone so far?

The organisers of Cop15 could be forgiven for thinking the summit was cursed. The meeting was meant to take place in Kunming, China, in October 2020, with China taking the lead on a major UN environmental agreement for the first time. The pandemic happened and it was postponed. Then it was postponed again … You get the idea. Now, Cop15 has been moved to Canada, but China retains responsibility for organising most of the summit. Officials from the UK’s Cop26 team are understood to be helping Canada with logistics as 10,000 delegates are expected, while, despite high-profile tensions between Xi Jinping and Justin Trudeau, China and Canada are said to be working well together.

I want to help. How can I get involved?

Cop15 desperately needs your attention. Averting the collapse of life on Earth is crucial, so airing it on social media with politicians and pushing world leaders to agree a text worthy of the scientific challenge are all helpful. Leonardo DiCaprio will be following events in Montreal and updating his 19m followers on Twitter, while Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rica diplomat who led the world to the Paris agreement, is among those who have highlighted the importance of Cop15. It will need all of us.

What does a good agreement look like?

Pragmatism must be balanced against urgent scientific warnings. A good final text is one that includes substantive action on such issues as overconsumption, intensive agriculture and pollution, while also providing enough resources for ambitious conservation initiatives that do not infringe human rights. Anything less will not halt the decline.

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features


Patrick Greenfield

The GuardianTramp

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