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What’s on the table at the Montreal COP15 biodiversity summit?

A spotted tiger sits on a rock beneath a tree.
Image Credit: Wix

The 15th Conference of the Parties in the Convention on Biodiversity, better known as the United Nation’s COP15, could be as important for preserving and protecting the natural world as the negotiations that led to the Paris treaty on climate change nearly a decade ago.

Unlike the climate-focused global negotiations (like the one which was held last month in Sharm el Sheikh), which focus on efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change, the biodiversity conferences are focused specifically on stopping the extinction events that climate change and human industry are causing.

While emissions reductions and climate harms for the world's human population are the main topic of conversation at the climate conferences, the biodiversity summit focuses on “nature-based solutions,” “protecting diverse life,” and “natural carbon sinks.”

Cacti grow amid palm trees in a densely overgrown area with palms, ferns, and succulents.
Image Credit: Wix

The state of biodiversity

Global biodiversity is declining faster than at any other time in human history. The average abundance of native species and habitats has fallen by at least 20% since 1990. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List reports that more than 41,000 animals worldwide are threatened with extinction, building on the almost 700 that have gone extinct since the 16th century.

And while extinction is a natural part of living on Earth, the most comprehensive report on biodiversity ever — the IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services — identifies several direct and indirect factors that have accelerated the process over the last 50 years. One of the main drivers is pollution. It's in this context that the world's countries are convening to find ways to restore ecosystems and create new methods for preserving the planet's natural wealth.

The report’s stats are staggering, to say the least: Natural ecosystems have declined by 47% on average. 75% of the land surface is significantly altered and 66% of the ocean is experiencing the increasing cumulative impact. Since the Industrial Revolution, at least half of coral reef cover has disappeared with 85% of wetlands vanishing from the face of the Earth.

The reasons, from pollution to human-induced climate change and ecosystem degradation, have led many scientists to concur that we are headed toward the Sixth Mass Extinction.

A Red Ibis flaps its wings on a tree branch.
Image Credit: Wix

What is the UN Biodiversity Conference?

Stopping this extinction is where the Conference on Biological Diversity, or CBD, comes in. The multilateral treaties signed here are legally binding, the first of which was created in 1992 in the global epicenter of biodiversity: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

This Convention was the first global agreement to cover all aspects of biological diversity, including conservation, sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits from genetic resources.

While the conference has made strides in establishing meaningful goals for global biodiversity, agreeing countries do not have the best track record of following through. In 2002, the conference committed to achieving “a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss,” by the end of the decade.

The targets were not met.

In 2012, the conference tried again in Japan with the Aichi Targets. In an effort to combat the world’s biodiversity crisis, the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets set goals to address the loss and direct pressures on these populations, ecosystems, species, and genetic diversity, all with a focus on implementation. However, while these targets included goals like reducing impacts on coral reefs, preventing the extinction of threatened species, and controlling invasive ones, the Aichi Targets were notably vague.

Even with the nebulous goals, the world did not meet a single one of them by the 2020 deadline. The IPBES reports that only 9% were achieved and 40% remain extremely far from being accomplished.

While it’s hosted in Canada, the summit is chaired under the presidency of China. The December conference serves as the second part of COP15. The first part was held mostly virtually in Kunming, China. China is not holding it in person due to COVID lockdowns.

More than 10,000 delegates across 196 governments are already registered, Vox reports, making it likely the largest biodiversity COP. Despite being a second part, a lot is on the table this time around.

A toucan is perched on some palm fronds.
Image Credit: Wix

What’s on the table now?

According to news released from the UN on Sunday, this year, delegates will negotiate the wording of an agreement that lays out four long-term biodiversity goals for 2050 and 23 specific “action targets” to be completed by 2030. This is likely a specification of the failed Aichi Targets,

They will aim to make them more specific, with distinct quantitative measurements for both attaining the targets and for countries to track their progress. With nature higher on the political agenda than it was a decade ago, and more eyes on the summit, there are hopes for a better outcome. CBD is even describing this summit as “outcome-oriented.”

Aside from the specific targets, the biggest news (and most contentious topic) to come out of the summit will be the “30 by 30,” shorthand for conserving at least 30% of the Earth’s land and water by 2030. This would be an enormous step forward, because currently, according to the UN, only 17% of land and inland water areas and 8% of marine and coastal areas are protected.

Reportedly, this agreement will address the financial aspects of the conservation, a topic relevant to poorer nations and Indigenous communities, especially, those who harbor most of the world’s biodiversity without the money to keep it safe from the dangers of climate change and human interference.

However, in order to succeed, biodiversity hotspots like Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia need to join the 100 other agreeing countries in signing off. Due to their biodiversity statuses, these countries have significant sway at the conference, and will likely not sign off without firm commitments to finance the 30 by 30 from more industrialized nations.

On top of financial measures, the plan needs to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples who have historically been evicted from their lands in tropical and boreal forests, in pursuit of conservation. In spite, Indigenous populations are a global model for conversation, as they protect the most land and biodiversity. According to a 2021 report by the ICCA Consortium, Indigenous communities have already achieved the 30 by 30, protecting at least 32% of the world’s biodiversity.

Still, according to the Rights and Resources Initiative, more than 250,000 people across 15 countries were evicted from protected lands between 1990 and 2014, cementing conservation displacement as a necessary point in the plan.

In the realm of conservation, there are also several other topics to look out for as it relates to funding. As outlined by Carbon Brief, these include Brazil’s call for a “Global Biodiversity Fund” to fund conservation with $100 billion a year, as opposed to the $6.6 billion it receives currently.

Like the discussions over loss and damage at COP27, the country has also called for developed countries to pay “historical reparation” for “irreversible” loss and damage to biodiversity, as well as payment for “environmental services schemes.” Several countries, most notably Bolivia, are calling for debt cancellation in order to reach their finance targets, through a “debt-for-nature,” swap. The United Nations is even considering carbon credit-like “biocredits” to help finance the conservation efforts.

There is also talk of if the summit’s overarching goal goes far enough, as many studies call for protecting at least 50% of the world’s biodiversity, as opposed to 30%. As a 2015 paper published in Science asserts, “Averting a dramatic decay of biodiversity and the subsequent loss of ecosystem services is still possible through intensified conservation efforts, but that window of opportunity is rapidly closing.” Starting tomorrow, the world’s leaders have two weeks to agree on a plan before the window is shut.


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