Cop15: what are the key targets for the biodiversity agreement?

Countries are negotiating a framework that will cover issues from pesticides to plastic, from soil to human-wildlife contact

From nature restoration to sharing new information about diseases, the biodiversity agreement being negotiated at Cop15 in Montreal over the next two weeks covers a vast range of issues. Pollution, human-wildlife conflict and soil health are among the topics up for discussion as 193 governments wrangle over the “fate of the living world” in the negotiating halls, side rooms and corridors of the Palais des congrès.

These are the key targets that could make the final agreement, known as the post-2020 biodiversity framework, which is due to be completed on 19 December. As always, everything could change in the last hours of negotiations. The final text will not be legally binding although the aims of the UN convention on biological convention are, so it will have significant teeth.

Protecting Earth – More than 100 countries support a proposal to conserve at least 30% of land and ocean by the end of the decade. It draws inspiration from Harvard biologist Edward O Wilson’s Half-Earth theory, which advocates protecting half of the planet for humanity’s long-term survival. The UK, France and Costa Rica lead the coalition of countries backing it and the co-hosts Canada have thrown their political weight behind it. Environment minister Steven Guilbeault says it could be “biodiversity’s 1.5C target”. But it faces significant pushback from some Indigenous communities, who warn it could justify land grabs and human rights violations.

Pesticides – From Germany to Puerto Rico, insect populations are in freefall. Heavy use of pesticides that are designed to kill insect life – which are essential to healthy ecosystems everywhere – has been blamed by scientists. A target to reduce pesticide use by at least two-thirds is on the table at Cop15. The EU has said it will aim for a 50% reduction by the end of the decade but a global target is likely to face significant pushback from agricultural producers. The Soil Association says any agreement that does not include pesticides will not be enough. The organisation’s head of farming, Gareth Morgan, said: “The UN biodiversity summit will be a cop-out if world leaders fail to end the pesticide treadmill. The catastrophic crash in wildlife populations cannot be reversed in a world that is not committed to phasing out these toxic chemicals.”

Preventing extinctions Several clauses on protecting the 1 million species that are estimated to be facing extinction from human behaviour have been proposed in the Cop15 agreement, but behind the scenes, some countries do not want to mention them at all.

Government subsidies Every year, the world spends about $1.8tn on subsidies driving the annihilation of wildlife and a rise in global heating. Through tax breaks for clearing the Amazon for beef or financial support for extracting groundwater in the Middle East, huge sums are spent by governments on environmentally harmful policies. Sometimes there is good reason to do so, such as preventing poverty, but many countries want to include a target to reduce or repurpose at least $500bn (£409bn) a year by 2025. Some countries oppose this target because, they argue, the subsidies are often difficult to identify.

Plastic pollution – In March, world leaders agreed to draw up a legally binding treaty on the plastic waste that fills the Earth’s oceans and rivers, and clogs the stomachs of whales, sharks and fish. The first round of talks ended last week in Uruguay on the wording of the eventual text, which will cover the full lifecycle of plastics from production to disposal. To avoid duplication, any target agreed at Cop15 will almost certainly defer to the ongoing treaty.

Invasive species – The spread of alien animals and plants that overcome and destroy ecosystems is an expensive problem. Rabbits, Japanese knotweed and wild pigs are just a few examples of species that have been spread by humans to areas where they shouldn’t be, causing havoc. Next year, world experts will publish a major scientific assessment of the scale of the problem. In Montreal, a draft target proposes greater efforts to eliminate invasive species and reduce their spread by half. Driving them out can have transformative effects, on islands in particular. Removing rats and goats have turned some islands, such as Redonda in the Caribbean, from barren grey rock into a green island once again.

Nature restoration As well expanding protected areas, a target to restore at least 1bn hectares (2.47bn acres) 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.

Noteworthy flashpoints – The latest draft includes proposals from country groups that may be filtered out of the final agreement in the final few days. A target on managing wild species currently refers to “sustainable trophy hunting”, which has significant support from southern African states. “Mother Earth” is referenced 16 times in the latest draft and is a proposal from Bolivia, referring to the Incan belief system of Pachamama, which is intended as a challenge to western belief systems about nature. Reducing human-wildlife conflict, now the primary threat to species such as the African savanna elephant, is also in the text.

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 in Montreal

The GuardianTramp

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