Just before Christmas, international governments signaled they may be ready to make a dramatic shift away from humanity’s penchant for destroying the natural world. On Monday, December 19, COP15, the largest UN biodiversity conference in more than ten years concluded in Montreal with a deal that has been hailed as a transformational, once-in-a-decade agreement. Despite intense negotiations, world leaders committed to taking “urgent action” to “halt and reverse biodiversity loss” by 2030.
More than 15,000 people participated including governments, NGOs, and journalists. Delegates from more than 190 countries overcome disagreements on ambition, fiance, monitoring, and reporting to finalize a plan. The agreement formally called the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) was reached at the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15), to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) which took place in Montreal from 7 to 19 December 2022. The summit was originally scheduled for Kunming China, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was postponed and then moved to Montreal, Canada, the seat of the UN CBD Secretariat. The first part of the convention was held virtually in 2021 and although the second part was held in Canada, China remained the official host country.
The new UN-brokered agreement outlines 23 targets for protecting biodiversity and lays the foundation for a more sustainable and equitable relationship between humans and the natural world. The final accord addresses issues like fisheries management and forestry practices (Target 10). The CBD seeks to stop biodiversity loss on land and in the ocean and to restore the damage humans have done to the natural world. The goal is the implementation of a roadmap that will protect lands and oceans and prevent further habitat degradation and anthropogenic species extinction. Some of the other key issues addressed by the CBD are reducing pollution, the sustainable management of agriculture and forestry, and sharing the benefits of genetic resources fairly and equitably. The vision of the GBF is that by 2050, “biodiversity is valued, conserved, restored and wisely used, maintaining ecosystem services, sustaining a healthy planet and delivering benefits essential for all people.” It specifically outlines what countries need to do to protect species and ecosystems
Reaction to the COP15 accord
Steven Guilbeault, Canada’s environment and climate minister called the summit in Montreal “the most significant conference of the United Nations on biodiversity in history.” When the deal came together Guilbeault said, “Together we have taken a historic step…We have an agreement to halt and reverse biodiversity loss, to work on restoration, and to reduce the use of pesticides. This is tremendous progress.”
Chinese Environment Minister Huang Runqiu told delegates: “We have in our hands a package which I think can guide us as we all work together to halt and reverse biodiversity loss and put biodiversity on the path to recovery for the benefit of all people in the world”. UNEP welcomed the deal as “a first step in resetting our relationship with the natural world.” and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres declared: “We are finally beginning to close a peace pact with nature”.
Jay Ritchlin, Director General for Western Canada and nature programs director of the David Suzuki Foundation called the accord “a win for nature globally”. Even staunch critics of the UN’s biodiversity efforts are lauding the deal. One such critic is the World Wildlife Fund’s director general Marco Lambertini who broke down in tears of joy when he saw the final draft on December 19. “Early this morning, countries have chosen the right side of history,” Lambertini said.
The goals going into COP15
Billed as the “COP of the decade” expectations were high going into COP15 but the outcome was far from certain. We knew what had to be done, but it was not clear that the world would agree to do it. The steps required to stem biodiversity loss and restore nature were laid out well before the convention began. As the key drivers of habitat destruction, the focus was on the overexploitation of living resources, the climate crisis, agriculture, mining, the fossil fuel industry, pollution, urban sprawl, and the spread of invasive species.
The chief COP15 goal was to create a deal that protects 30 percent of the planet by 2030 as well as the elimination of $500 billion in destructive agricultural subsidies. Environmental organizations called for the reversal of nature loss by 2030 and full recovery by 2050. They also want to see governments held accountable for their adherence to clear science-based targets as well as better monitoring and financing.
As quoted by The Guardian before the start of COP15, French diplomat Laurence Tubiana, an architect of the Paris Climate Agreement, said: “We need a global goal to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. This will direct targets, laws, policies, and funding at all levels and regions, much like the 2015 Paris agreement has started doing for climate action. In seven years, the momentum is clear to see. We need the same momentum to protect all life on Earth.” Prof Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, corroborated Tubiana’s aspirations saying: “We need a ‘Paris moment’ in Montreal. Only if we protect and regenerate Earth’s nature, can we really protect Earth’s climate.”
The link between biodiversity and climate
Biodiversity loss and climate change are intimately interconnected, which is why they are seen as twin crises or two sides of the same coin. The UN has a two-track convention process that splits biodiversity and climate into two separate COP processes. While COP27 was part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP15 is part of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
Although these two crises are inextricably linked, climate gets the bulk of public attention. As explained by Dr. Lindsay Rosa of Defenders of Wildlife, “The biodiversity crisis needs the same amount of face-time here in the US that climate gets given its severity. The two crises are inextricably linked, but climate is still just one of the major drivers of biodiversity loss”.
Climate change has caused mass extinctions in the past and an editorial by a team of scientists describes biodiversity loss as the most critical, complex, and challenging dimension of the climate crisis. The editorial is titled Curtailing the Collapse of the Living World and it was published in the journal Science Advances. Its authors are three scientists, Prof Shahid Naeem at Columbia University, Prof Yonglong Lu at Xiamen University, and Prof Jeremy Jackson at the American Museum of Natural History. Naeem and his colleagues concluded that a review of the research makes a clear connection between climate change and biodiversity loss. They review how reduced human activities during the COVID-19 lockdown benefited nature. Reflecting on the importance of the 2022 biodiversity summit they said the “fate of the entire living world” is being decided, and this makes COP15 “vastly more important than COP27”.
Why the need for climate action is so urgent
Naeem and his colleagues point to the collapsing terrestrial, marine, and freshwater systems and say we must act, adding “failure is not an option”. We are in a race against the clock making efforts to minimize anthropogenic impacts on nature more critical than ever. Three-quarters of ecosystems have already been altered by human activity and more than a million species are currently at risk of extinction. We are facing a biodiversity crisis of epic proportions. There is no avoiding the fact that humans are responsible for the rapidly rising extinction rates that are driving the sixth mass extinction event (species loss is occurring at a rate that is 1,000 times greater than it would be without human impacts).
Biodiversity is central to a range of environmental, social, economic, and justice issues, it is also crucial for ecosystem health and the survival of all life on Earth. As Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the CBD explained, our food, water, and air come from biodiversity. We are dependent on the diverse array of animal, plant, and fungal life in many ways. UNEP succinctly described our predicament as follows: “For far too long humanity has paved over, fragmented, over-extracted, and destroyed the natural world on which we all depend. Now is our chance to shore up and strengthen the web of life, so it can carry the full weight of generations to come. Actions that we take for nature are actions to reduce poverty, improve health and achieve the UN’s sustainable development goals,”
We are destroying the life support system upon which we depend and this is pushing us ever closer to tipping points that could cause entire ecosystems to collapse resulting in the collapse of civilization. Although genocide is about the intentional destruction of people, what we are doing to the natural world can be understood as a form of genocide against the natural world. We need to understand that what we do to nature we also do to ourselves, so our wanton destruction of nature may be best described as suicide.
At the beginning of the summit UN secretary general, António Guterres said: “Without nature, we are nothing. Nature is our life-support system, and yet humanity seems hellbent on destruction. With our bottomless appetite for unchecked and unequal economic growth, humanity has become a weapon of mass extinction,’ he said. ‘[Cop15] is our chance to stop this orgy of destruction, to move from discord to harmony.”
COP15 lived up to expectations and provided a common set of goals designed to protect nature, just like the Paris Agreement that came out of COP21 established common climate goals. COP15 was tasked with replacing the Aichi Goals and after two weeks of intense and difficult negotiations, the UN biodiversity summit succeeded in creating a new global framework designed to enable humans to live in harmony with nature. The deal, formally known as the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, provides a clear timeframe and significantly increases ambition.
The 23 new targets include what is known as the 30×30 target which seeks to preserve 30 percent of land, freshwater, and oceans by 2030. (Currently, 17% of the land and 8% of the seas are protected). “On the ‘30×30’ target, that is really, I think, one of the most historic components of this framework. There has never been a conservation goal globally at that scale,” said Brian O’Donnell, director of the Campaign for Nature, adding this gives us “a chance of safeguarding biodiversity from collapse.”
The accord seeks to stop the anthropogenic extinction of known threatened species. It also seeks to recover and conserve species. as well as reduce the risks associated with pesticides, pollution, and plastics. The goal is to enable humans to coexist with wildlife and the 70 percent of land and ocean outside protected areas.
Financing biodiversity around the world
Going into the 2022 UN biodiversity summit, delegates from the global south focused on the funding gap for biodiversity which has been estimated at $700 billion per year (only about $17 billion in public funding had been committed prior to COP15). Led by Brazil, countries in the global south sought $100 billion a year for conservation.
Although finance was the most contentious topic at COP15, the GBF secured long-term funding from wealthier nations to developing nations. The accord more than doubles global funding pledges for nature protection. This includes 30 billion dollars in annual aid for conservation efforts in developing countries. This funding is critical because many of the most biodiverse places on Earth are in the less affluent global south.
“The most vulnerable countries are home to biodiversity treasures. We need to increase our funding to support them, with no expense spared! France will double its funding to 1 billion euros per year. COP 15 stakeholders: get on board and join the fight!” French president, Emmanuel Macron tweeted.
The delegates agreed that developed nations will provide “at least 20 billion dollars in annual international aid by 2025” and “at least 30 billion by 2030” to developing countries. The rest of the money will come from private sources. In all the almost 200 signatories of the GFB agreed to mobilize $200 billion annually from public and private sources by 2030 to fight biodiversity loss. The deal includes a new, dedicated biodiversity fund within the existing Global Environment Fund (GEF) and a pledge to end more than half a trillion in harmful subsidies.
These funds are critical to realizing 30×30 goals. “Without finance, none of this can happen,” said Jennifer Morris, CEO of the Nature Conservancy. In the absence of funding developing nations are faced with impossible choices. The importance of finance for the global south is explained by Gustavo Manrique, Ecuador’s environment minister, “Without nature we can’t live. But kids need to eat — tonight. Not tomorrow. Tonight.”
As reported by Climate Change News, Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, CEO of the GEF, welcomed the adoption of the Global Biodiversity Fund saying, “Today’s agreement is wonderful news, and it creates real momentum as we push toward 2030 and the critical goals ahead of us”. EU president Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement it was “very positive” that countries adopted measurable targets to protect nature, “as well as a mechanism to finance their implementation with the Global Biodiversity Fund.”
Lina Barrera, vice president for international policy at Conservation International, said the creation of the new biodiversity fund is a “necessary step”, but added “there is still farther to go” to close the funding gap. In a statement, AVAAZ, the NGO human rights organization said, “[The biodiversity fund] will not be sufficient to solve the biodiversity finance challenge: we need deep reforms in financial institutions, in particular, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank”.
US leadership is lacking
While the ruling Biden administration supports protections for biodiversity the US is the only nation (besides the Vatican) that has not joined the CBD. US President Bill Clinton tried but failed to gain the support of the Senate in 1993. The Biden administration knows it cannot marshall the two-thirds Senate vote required to ratify the CBD treaty. Although most Democrats support the CBD, Republicans oppose joining it. The Biden administration named Monica Medina to the newly created position of special biodiversity envoy and she represented the US as an observer at COP15.
“I hope someday we’ll be a member of the CBD COP but in the meantime, we are being as constructive as we can be … it’s not stopping us from making contributions,” Medina told journalists. She told delegates, “We are very much a member of the community on this planet that cares about the 30×30 framework. We have made this commitment domestically as well as globally.” Even though the US is not a party to the CBD, the country is working towards the 30×30 goals domestically under the America the Beautiful initiative. The US is a leading provider of funding having pledged $600 million to the GEF and an additional $385 million in USAID funding for biodiversity in 2022.
However, the US position is unhelpful when it comes to a range of other issues including the commercialization of biodiversity. Medina said it was too soon to mandate businesses to make nature disclosures or address pesticides. The US has to contend with a powerful lobby of Americans that oppose environmental regulations and wealth transfers. These people are distrustful of the constraints imposed by international agreements, they do not want to interfere with the private sector and they are concerned about protecting intellectual property rights.
The important roles of China and Canada at COP15
The US is wielding influence behind the scenes, but the world’s largest economy is not playing a prominent global leadership role when it comes to biodiversity. COP15 was led by the two host countries China and Canada, the two host countries for COP15. They worked together to keep the talks on track and eventually secured a deal despite being diametrically opposed on a number of issues.
China played a crucial role in advancing the GBF including pushing the 30×30 target. The ambition of the COP15 deal illustrates how China can be a leader in global efforts to protect nature, despite human rights abuses, threatening its neighbors, and alliances with pariah states like Russia. China is ideally positioned between the developed and the developing world and this gives us reason to be optimistic about future prospects for constructive leadership from China on biodiversity preservation.
The ruling Liberal government of Canada has also shown leadership. Canada hosted the Nature Champions Summit in 2019 and played a pivotal role in securing an ambitious COP15 accord. Canada pushed for some of the key parts of the plan including finance and they led by example with a series of new commitments to protect nature starting with a $600 million pledge for biodiversity conservation in developing countries. As home to some of the world’s largest tracts of forest and 25 percent of the world’s remaining wetlands, Canada is a natural leader in biodiversity preservation.
History and context of the Convention on Biological Diversity
The CBD was first drafted 20 years ago and COP10 in 2010 was the last global biodiversity COP. The summit took place in Japan and it produced the Aichi Biodiversity Targets which include 20 specific goals to address and mitigate biodiversity loss around the world.
More than 80 percent of 196 signatory nations have met the conditions of Aichi goal 11 (conserve at least 17% of terrestrial and inland water and 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020). As of 2021, 7.7 percent of marine areas and 16.6 percent of dry land and freshwater systems were protected. None of the other Aichi targets have been met, including the important goal of increasing biodiversity finance (Goal 20). The failure of nations to meet the Aichi targets has been attributed in part to inadequate finance for conservation efforts in the developing world. COP10 was also criticized for the lack of enforcement and monitoring mechanisms.
“The lesson from the Aichi system is that, when you put easy-to-understand numerical targets, they get attention,” Basile Van Havre, the co-chair of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Open-Ended Working Group said. “We need to put in place a much more robust system that enables progress to be measured as we go.”
Since COP10, a plethora of research has warned us about the catastrophic impacts we are having on nature. This includes the Biodiversity Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-5) in 2012, the IAIA Symposium on Biodiversity in 2013, and the IPBES report on human activity. In 2015. Biodiversity was formally recognized as one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and biodiversity was the central theme at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2020 and during Earth Hour in 2021.
Biodiversity has been a consistent part of the UN Climate Conference of the Parties (COP) starting with the Rio Summit in 1992. Biodiversity has also been a salient theme at recent COP summits including COP26 in 2021 when 45 governments pledged “urgent action and investment to protect nature and shift to more sustainable ways of farming”. Biodiversity was also one of the salient themes at COP27 in 2022. Despite more than 30 years of trying to address the biodiversity crisis, the problem has steadily worsened.
Valuing Indigenous knowledge
In the wake of decades of failure, many are looking to Indigenous knowledge as an alternative to the current system. We can learn a lot from the way that Indigenous people relate to nature. That is why the authoritative voices of Indigenous Peoples are being recognized and their rights over their lands, territories, and resources are enshrined in the COP15 agreement.
Indigenous people are guardians of 80 percent of the Earth’s biodiversity and their voices helped to make COP15 a success. The word “Indigenous” occurs 20 times in the Kunming-Montreal Accord, which both safeguards and recognizes Indigenous Peoples as stewards of nature. O’Donnell lauded the progress made on Indigenous leadership saying, “We’ve never seen such a historic commitment to Indigenous leadership and rights in a conservation agreement. So those two components alone are history-making.”
As the host nation, Canada recognized local Indigenous leadership and extolled the virtues of Indigenous-led nature-based solutions. Canada’s federal government has allocated up to $800 million for Indigenous-led conservation funding as well as funding for a First nations Guardianship program. Some argue the best way to stop and reverse biodiversity loss is to return land to Indigenous People (land back framework) rather than the 30×30 arrangement which some are calling a modern-day colonial land grab.
Broken economic system
As the TEEB report illustrated 12 years ago, there are tremendous economic costs associated with biodiversity loss. The European Commission estimates that by 2050, economic losses due to the destruction of ecosystem services will amount to 19 trillion USD. The immense costs of biodiversity loss have been the subject of events like the Green Economics Institute’s Biodiversity Summit 2021.
However, biodiversity loss is about much more than financial costs, there is a moral imperative at play here that transcends economics. This is about the survival of life on Earth. As Alexandra Goossens-Ishii, policy lead for the Faiths at COP15 coalition said, “once biodiversity is lost, it’s lost,” Faith-based organizations have made the case for transformative action and a values-laden approach that can serve as the foundation for coexistence with the natural world.
The science calling us to end biodiversity loss is sound but structural economic constraints have not allowed us to make the required changes at the required scale. While there are a few stellar examples of business leadership (eg Patagonia), they are the very rare exception to the rule. The economic system in which businesses operate demands profits and this mentality is at odds with protecting biodiversity.
Efforts to protect biodiversity have profound implications for business and the wider economy. We need to come to terms with the fact that our economic system is responsible for the destruction of nature and biodiversity loss. Traditional economics has proven to be incapable of remedying the crises that it created. For more than a century humans have been committing crimes against nature. We have been overexploiting, polluting, and misusing the natural world and despite 30 years of coordinated global effort, we have not been able to stop biodiversity loss.
Now is the time to stop biodiversity loss
While we made progress at COP15, success is not about agreements it is about the results. To succeed the new accord will need to deliver on 30×30 and ensure that adequate funding is made available to the global south in a timely manner.
There is much that remains to be done with little time to do it. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the window to act to stop biodiversity loss is rapidly closing. “We are no longer approaching the point of no return. We are here,” the executive secretary of the CBD said. There is still time to act, but it really is now or never.