Can a ‘Paris moment’ be delivered for nature?
The world’s biodiversity crisis is “flashing red,” yet as representatives from almost every country gather in Montreal from Dec. 7 for the UN COP15 summit, agreement is far from certain.
COP15 is the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, a treaty originally drafted in 1992. The forum was originally set to take place in China in 2020, but was postponed several times due to the pandemic.
The convention has been moved to Canada to avoid further delay, with China retaining the presidency. The first phase was held last year, with ministers from more than 100 countries pledging to reach agreement on what has been billed as a global biodiversity framework, but falling short of committing to specific targets.
The goal in Montreal is to develop a post-2020 biodiversity framework to tackle the crisis in the natural world, potentially until mid-century for most countries, with the exception of the US, which has yet to sign up. This will include key targets to be met by 2030.
If this can be agreed, the meeting could be as consequential for stemming biodiversity loss as the landmark 2015 Paris agreement still might be for action on climate change. The need is particularly pressing since countries have failed to meet a single target set for the previous decade.
The warning lights are flashing red in what has been described by some scientists as the sixth great extinction facing the planet, with an estimated million plant and animal species threatened with extinction. Monitored wildlife populations have plummeted by an average of 70 percent in the past 50 years, and vast swathes of forest are being lost every minute. Clearly, this cannot go on.
Today, at least half of global economic output is estimated to be dependent on healthy functioning ecosystems. This is either directly — from the use of resources such as water, processes such as pollination, or conditions such as soil health — or via indirect activities — retail, for example — that rely on those natural processes.
There are more than 20 targets in the draft agreement created by a UN working group in the years leading up to COP15 to replace an agreement from the last major biodiversity summit held in Japan in 2010. Getting through this mammoth task will require painstaking negotiation in Montreal, and only a handful of the targets and around one-fifth of the text in the framework has so far been agreed.
One of the key targets is a commitment to protecting at least 30 percent of land and water around the globe by 2030. More than 100 countries have joined a coalition in support of this “30 by 30” goal, which would represent a significant increase in land and ocean protected, but is seen by many NGOs as too little, too late.
While the event is not centered around climate change per se, this topic is critical to the discussion. Global warming is accelerating biodiversity loss, and the loss of key ecosystems, including biodiverse forests, may well be a death knell to the 1.5 degree Celsius temperature goal in the Paris treaty.
With the stakes so high, one striking feature of the event is that few heads of state and government will be present, with exceptions including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. This is despite pressure on world leaders to attend.
In the UK, for instance, dozens of MPs, including Conservatives from the ruling party, wrote to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak asking him to attend COP15 and warning that lack of high-level political buy-in could spell failure. Former prime minister Liz Truss had committed to attend.
UK Environment Secretary Therese Coffey will be there, but the lesson from successful climate summits, such as Paris in 2015, is that it often takes the top political players to make the difference between success and failure in what can be exhausting, marathon negotiations. The letter to Sunak, rightly, warns that there is a danger Montreal could replicate the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, where the process almost collapsed.
With the Montreal COP about to start, the world is at a crossroads. Failure would be a disaster, yet success could still see a welcome and powerful new framework for nature that becomes a foundation stone of sustainable development for billions across the world in the 2020s and beyond.
• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.