COP15: Why does the UN biodiversity conference matter?

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In 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services warned that one million species face extinction.
In 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services warned that one million species face extinction.
Peter Chadwick
  • Delegates from nearly 200 countries will be gathering in Montreal, Canada this week for the UN biodiversity conference, COP15.
  • Biodiversity affects everything, including global health, food security and even the climate crisis.
  • The goal of the meeting is to develop a framework on how countries can go about protecting biodiversity.
  • For climate change news and analysis, go to News24 Climate Future.

Scientists, rights advocates and delegates from nearly 200 countries are gathering in Canada this week to tackle one of the world's most pressing environmental issues: the loss of biodiversity and what can be done to reverse it.

For years, experts have sounded the alarm over how climate change and other factors are leading to an "unprecedented" decline in animals, plants, and other species, and threatening various ecosystems.

Against that backdrop, the United Nations' biodiversity conference, known as COP15, begins its sessions on Wednesday in Montreal with the aim of setting out a plan to tackle global biodiversity loss over the next decade and beyond.

"This is potentially an historic moment for biodiversity," said Andrew Gonzalez, a professor in the biology department at McGill University in Montreal and founding director of the Quebec Centre for Biodiversity Science.

Here, Al Jazeera lays out all you need to know:

What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity – short for biological diversity – refers to the many forms of life on Earth, from animals, plants, and microbial species to habitats and entire ecosystems, such as rainforests and coral reefs.

Why is biodiversity important?

Biodiversity affects everything from global health and food security to the economy and the wider fight to tackle the climate crisis, the United Nations explains.

More than half the world's total gross domestic product (GDP) – approximately $44 trillion (~R762 trillion) – also is "moderately or highly dependent" on nature and thus vulnerable to its loss, the World Economic Forum said in a 2020 report (PDF).

"Climate change is not the only horseman of the environmental apocalypse. Nature loss looms just as large. And the two are intertwined. You can't solve one without addressing the other," said Carter Roberts, president and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund-US.

What is the state of biodiversity in the world?

In 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services estimated that three-quarters of the world's land surface and 66% of its oceans had been significantly altered. One million species face extinction, it warned, including "many within decades" if serious action is not taken.

"The rate of global change in nature during the past 50 years is unprecedented in human history," the report said, pointing to five key drivers: land- and sea-use changes, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and invasions of alien species.

"The way we are exploiting our environment, the way we are destroying habitats, often for reasons that are to do with supporting agriculture and growing food or extracting resources, is now at an unsustainable rate – an astonishingly unsustainable rate," Gonzalez told Al Jazeera.

"And it's causing what many of us think to be a mass extinction event," he said.

What is COP15 and who is participating?

The December 7-19 conference will bring together representatives from the 196 countries that have ratified the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (PDF), which dates back to 1992. Scientists, non-governmental groups, and other experts will also be on hand.

The goal of the meetings – which were relocated to Montreal from Kunming, China, due to Covid-19 restrictions but are still being presided over by China – is to reach a framework to help guide countries on how best to protect biodiversity. While China has not invited world leaders, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to attend an opening ceremony on Tuesday afternoon.

"We can no longer continue with a 'business as usual' attitude," said Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, urging states to adopt an "ambitious, realistic and implementable" plan.

What will the new framework include?

A draft (PDF) of the new biodiversity framework released last year included 21 targets to meet by 2030. They include reducing pesticide use, increasing funding to $200 billion (~R3.5 trillion) per year, and protecting at least 30% of land and sea globally – the 30×30 proposal – through "systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures".

But experts pointed out that the draft of the agreement, dubbed the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, included many proposed amendments – indicated by square brackets – that the parties had not reached a consensus on, prompting concern.

READ | SA to push for more financial clout at COP15 talks to help tackle conservation crisis

"We need a text with teeth — and far fewer brackets," Sandra Diaz, a professor and member of Argentina's National Scientific and Technical Research Council, recently wrote in Nature.

"This much we have learnt in the 30 years since the foundational 1992 Rio Earth Summit drew attention to the impact of human activities on the environment: a strong, precise, ambitious text does not in itself ensure successful implementation, but a weak, vague, toothless text almost guarantees failure."

What are the biggest challenges?

Getting a "strong and ambitious document together" will be the conference's first major task, said Gonzalez of McGill University, alongside securing funding commitments and establishing implementation mechanisms for the agreed-upon targets.

Of the 20 targets laid out in the last, 10-year global framework in 2010, known as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, the Convention on Biological Diversity reported that none had been fully achieved (PDF) by 2020.

"It's not just about implementation in the old-fashioned way, which is sort of just putting nature behind a fence," Gonzalez explained, about the implementation challenge in the next pact. "But it's also about healthy people, healthy ecosystems.

"We're seeing recognition of the rights of Indigenous and local communities, of women, of youth, thinking about the long-term outcomes for everybody, not just this generation."

What other issues need to be considered?

Late last month, Greenpeace urged richer countries to take on a fair share of the financial burden and help nations in the Global South protect areas at risk of destruction; similar debates over which countries should pay what dominated the recent COP27 climate talks in Egypt.

The environmental rights group also called on governments to ensure the next framework respects the rights and sovereignty of Indigenous peoples, who live in areas home to most of the world's remaining biodiversity, according to the UN and other experts.

READ | Twin crises: experts say nature and climate can't be siloed

Other rights organisations, including Amnesty International, also urged caution about any framework that would designate 30% of the planet as "protected areas" – the 30×30 idea. Such efforts in the past "have led to widespread evictions, hunger, ill-health and human rights violations, including killings, rapes and torture across Africa and Asia", they said (PDF) in November.

"Given that 80% of the world's biodiversity is found on Indigenous Peoples' lands, the evidence is clear that the best way to conserve ecosystems is to protect the rights of those who live in and depend on them."

Can an 'ambitious' deal be reached?

Despite the lingering questions and challenges, Gonzalez said he was "cautiously optimistic" that the parties will be able to get on the same page and reach an "ambitious" framework. "There is huge momentum for biodiversity right now," he said, pointing to subnational authorities, as well as NGOs, who are working on the issue.

A groundswell of public interest in biodiversity could help put pressure on decision-makers, as well. For example, officials involved in securing the 2015 Paris Agreement to tackle climate change recently stressed the importance of reaching a "transformative" pact at COP15.

"Leaders must secure a global agreement for biodiversity which is as ambitious, science-based and comprehensive as the Paris Agreement is for climate change," they wrote in an open letter last month (PDF).

"Like the Paris Agreement, it must encourage countries to pledge and also ratchet up their action commensurate with the size of the challenge. It must be inclusive, rights-based and work for all. And it must deliver, through the whole of society, immediate action on the ground – our future depends on it."

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