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COP15 in the spotlight

Overview

While in recent months the approaching COP26 has been occupying the bulk of government and media attention, the 15thmeeting of the UN Conference of the Parties ("COP15") to the Convention on Biological Diversity ("CBD"), is also due to take place in the latter part of 2021 and spring 2022, which is seen by many as being just as critical to the future of the planet.

Background to COP15

COP15 was due to take place in in Kunming, China between 11 October – 24 October 2021 after being postponed twice due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, last week it was announced by the COP15 co-chair Basile van Havre that the international summit is likely to be split into two parts with the main negotiations set to take place in May 2022.  Originally signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the CBD has three main goals:

  • the conservation of biological diversity;

  • the sustainable use of its components; and

  • the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources (i.e. genetic material of actual or potential value).

At COP15, the 195 parties to the CBD, which does not include the US (who have signed but never ratified the convention), are set to review the achievement and delivery of the CBD’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and to make a final decision on the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework ("GBF"), the first draft of which was released 12 July 2021, with the aim of preserving and protecting nature and its essential services to people. Under the new timeline, it is likely that the October 2021 event will only be a high-level opening session which will hope to produce some kind of declaration from attending ministers with the substantive negotiations on the GBF being postponed until 2022.   

The GBF Targets

The aim of the targets outlined in the GBF are to protect the planet's plants, animals and ecosystems and halt or reverse extinction rates of species around the world.

The draft of the anticipated global treaty is aimed at fighting biodiversity loss more rigorously after an extremely critical report was released in 2020 which revealed that none of the previous 2011-2020 'Aichi Biodiversity Targets' had been achieved in full (which has been termed by some as evidence of a 'lost decade').

  • Examples of missed targets include the fact that the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet are continuing to experience loss, degradation, and fragmentation (such as the Amazon Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef), there has been more overfishing at unsustainable levels placing undue pressure on existing fish stocks, plastic pollution continues to increase and species worldwide have continued to move closer to extinction (on average).

One important aspect of ensuring the success of COP15 is enabling and encouraging sufficient financial support to be mobilised. This was one of the areas identified as a failing, thus contributing to the 'lost decade'.

Ambition needs to be matched by adequate financing, as it is often the case that countries with the richest biodiversity and highest levels of threatened species which require the most funding (and conversely often do not have access to the same financial resources of countries with less of a significant biodiversity 'footprint').

To address these issues and others, the GBF sets out 21 proposals and 10 milestones to be achieved by 2030. These will form the heart of the discussions that take place between the signatory states at COP15.  

Key targets contained in the GBF and to be agreed at COP15 include:  

  1. reducing pesticide use by 2/3 and eliminating the discharge of plastic waste;

  2. halving rate of invasive species introduction;

  3. eliminating £360bn of harmful environmental government subsidies a year;

  4. protecting at least 30% of world's oceans and land and providing a third of climate crisis mitigation measures through nature-based solutions by 2030;

  5. all businesses (regardless of size) to assess and report on their impact on biodiversity;

  6. increase financial flows to developing nations;

  7. restoring freshwater and marine habitats; and

  8. maintaining genetic diversity of wild and domesticated animals through boosting conservation funding by at least $200bn a year.

The importance of nature-based solutions and how they are linked to climate change

Nature-based solutions are seen as a key solution to the dual threats of climate change and the biodiversity crisis the world is currently facing. By protecting and enhancing the ecosystem, both biodiversity and climate change impacts can be reduced.

Nature-based Solutions: actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits

International Union for Conservation of Nature

  • Forestry is one of the best-known nature-based solutions.
    • Protecting forestry helps to protect biodiversity, absorbs harmful air pollution, helps to regulate water flows, reduces flooding risk and helps to retain water in soil (which reduces the risk of droughts).

  • Wetlands are also vital to tackling climate change.
    • In addition to sequestering carbon, they absorb floodwater and act as a natural filtration system by trapping bacteria, waste and other pollutants to purify water. Wetlands also boost biodiversity - as they support life for a vast array of species including insects, fish, and birds.

Many other nature-based solutions exist, such as peatlands, coral reefs and mangroves (the latter which provide an important habitat for juvenile sea animals and also can mitigate against the impacts of extreme weather events – such as hurricanes).

All of these ecosystems will be instrumental in helping the planet to adapt to a warmer and more turbulent climate and this is reflected in the far-reaching and diverse range of proposals set out in the GBF.

In the lead up to COP26, the importance of nature-based solutions cannot be overstated as they are fundamental to meeting the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to "well below 2 degrees Celsius".

Addressing issues relating to biodiversity loss and climate change clearly go hand in hand and the collective actions of stakeholders on biodiversity and climate change need to be harmonised if any meaningful impact is to be had.

Challenges and next steps

The draft text of the GBF has been praised by many for directly addressing a wide range of key biodiversity issues. However, there are concerns about how this global framework will translate into national action and indeed, how action from other stakeholders, such as the private sector (including financial institutions), can be used to facilitate change.  

There are also concerns that countries may cherry-pick easier targets to deliver, leading to the more onerous biodiversity goals being ignored. As was the case with the Paris Agreement, there are also suggestions that the draft framework does not properly take into account global inequalities and how historically some stakeholders have benefitted more from activities which have contributed to biodiversity loss than others. Given that nature-based solutions are high on the COP26 agenda, the outcome of COP15 will directly impact the discussions and negotiations that take place at COP26 the following month.

The level of ambition and cooperation at COP15, in continuing the conversation around how to tackle biodiversity loss, will be a crucial indicator as to how successful COP26 will be in mobilising action to tackle climate change, especially in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic. That said, the further delay to finalising the text of the GBF until spring 2022 will also increase the already mounting pressure on the international community to make meaningful commitments in order that biodiversity loss can first be stopped and then hopefully reversed over the coming years.  

Travers Smith will continue to provide analysis on the latest developments in this area and in relation to COP26 as and when they are announced.

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