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COP15: Potential positive outcomes for the protection of nature

Overview

Last week one of the most significant conferences related to biodiversity concluded in Canada. COP15 has come shortly after the close of COP27 and attendees sought to agree a new set of goals to hopefully halt and reverse the worrying loss of natural capital that our planet is currently facing.

COP15 represented an important opportunity for international stakeholders to come together and agree a tangible plan and, to the welcome surprise of many, a historic agreement for the next decade was eventually reached.

What was COP15?

COP15 was a two-week conference which started on 7 December and ended on 19 December 2022. It took place in Montreal and was hailed as the most significant biodiversity conference of the last ten years. COP15 was the 15th conference of the parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity ("CBD") and was a forum for parties to decide on and negotiate a 10-year framework of goals and targets for biodiversity around the globe.

More than ten thousand participants were expected to attend the summit, with attendees including signatories to the CBD, as well as various other stakeholders including indigenous peoples, businesses, and local communities.

COP15 was originally due to take place in Kunming, China, however it was delayed on numerous occasions as a result of COVID-19. Despite the delay and relocation to Canada, China remained as President of the Conference with Huang Runqiu, the Chinese Minister of Ecology and Environment, leading the talks.

Why did COP15 matter?

Despite the rise of biodiversity as an important focus alongside the climate crisis, biodiversity loss often comes second when discussing threats to the planet.

There is a growing consensus that biodiversity loss is also inextricably linked to the climate crisis, and this was seen at COP26, whereby a Pledge for Nature was signed to reverse biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation (which received further support at COP27).

This restoration of biodiversity is increasingly important, especially so following a report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem services which states there are up to a million species currently facing extinction and belief amongst scientists that the earth is currently experiencing a 'sixth mass extinction.'

The protection of nature also has important impacts on people and the economy, with estimates that over half of global GDP is dependent on the healthy functioning of the natural world. This emphasises how important COP15 was to the goal of restoring biodiversity and planning for maintenance of ecosystems in the long-term.   

What has happened previously?

Unlike targets coming out of the UN's climate change conferences, biodiversity targets are only negotiated once a decade.

COP14 took place in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, however, the previous targets were set at COP10 in Nagoya, Japan in 2010. These targets are known as the 'Aichi biodiversity targets.' At the time, governments pledged, amongst other matters, to halve the loss of natural habitats and expand nature reserves to 17% of the world's land area by 2020. However, these targets were not met and only six of the twenty targets were partially met by the 2020 deadline.

One of the issues with these targets, highlighted by Susan Lieberman (Vice President of International Policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society) is that there has not been "sufficient accountability and monitoring" of the targets which were set.

Whilst the proposed framework for COP15 contained tools for monitoring progress, guiding implementation and setting plans, it was viewed as necessary for nations to be held accountable for their pledges if sufficient progress is going to be made on biodiversity and this would require having robust monitoring systems in place. Martin Lambertini, director general of WWF international said this monitoring "is a key element we're really advocating for in the new Global Biodiversity Framework ."

The Agenda

Seven thematic programmes of work were established for the conference, with each one setting out a vision for, and basic principles which will be used to guide future work. In addition to this, they set out key issues for deliberation and suggested a timetable for achieving the stated goals.

The seven programmes were as follows:

  1. Agricultural Biodiversity;
  2. Dry and Sub-humid Lands Biodiversity;
  3. Forest Biodiversity;
  4. Inland Waters Biodiversity;
  5. Island Biodiversity;
  6. Marine and Coastal Biodiversity; and
  7. Mountain Biodiversity.

In addition to these programmes, a number of cross-cutting issues were identified to initiate work and provide links between key areas which are of relevance across the programmes. Examples of these issues include: 'Tourism and Biodiversity', 'Traditional Knowledge, Innovations and Practices' and 'Gender and Biodiversity.'

Earlier this year, nature-rich countries (such as those from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean) raised the issue of compensation in relation to profits from drug discoveries which use the genetic data of their biodiversity in digital form (known as 'biopiracy'). This is something which countries from these areas rarely receive profits from, despite the sharing of benefits from genetic resources being one of the three objectives of the CBD. 

The Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework

The main objective of the conference was the adoption of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework ("GBF"). The framework lays out a strategy and vision for the conservation, protection, restoration and sustainable management of biodiversity and ecosystems.

The first draft of the framework was released in July 2021 and aimed to create goals and targets which national governments can adopt, with the overarching goal of halting and reversing nature loss. Prior to the conference, 22 targets were being discussed.

The most well-known target focussed on the protection of 30% of global land and marine areas by 2030 (known as '30 by 30'). In addition, other targets included the cancellation of subsidies for those who cause damage to nature and eliminating the discharge of plastic waste. The draft framework, however, contained a mass of bracketed phrases which indicated that many discussions were still required before agreement could be reached.

As with COP27, finance was a key issue at the conference. It was recognised that the mobilisation of finance will be necessary to achieve targets set during the conference, with the draft framework seeking $200 billion for conservation by 2030. There was an expectation amongst some going into the conference that a deal similar to the loss and damage climate fund of COP27 is needed to help developing countries to expand protected areas whilst still enabling economic growth in a non-destructive and sustainable way.

However, in the current world climate, with rising energy prices and pressing domestic concerns amongst many nations there were material concerns around the difficultly in convincing leaders of the necessity of this funding, especially following recent commitments to the COP27 loss and damage fund. Prior to COP15, only Germany had made a $1bn commitment for biodiversity in its climate finance plans.

What happened at the conference?

The conference concluded in the early hours of 19 December, with nearly 200 countries signing the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (the "Agreement") following two weeks of negotiations and a final plenary which lasted for over seven hours.

The Agreement was described as "a package we can all be proud of" by the Chinese Minister Huang Runqiu and sets out four global goals and twenty-three targets which are designed to "halt and reverse biodiversity loss" by 2030.

The main outcomes of the Agreement are:

  • the '30by30' pledge whereby countries have agreed to restore and conserve 30% of land and water by 2030;

  • the reduction in subsidies which are deemed harmful to nature (e.g. those supporting unsustainable agriculture) by $500 billion per year by 2030; and

  • the mobilisation of $200 billion a year in public and private funding by the end of 2030, with wealthier nations contributing $30 billion a year of aid by the end of the decade.

There is also a requirement on large and transnational companies and financial institutions to monitor, assess and disclose risks, dependencies and impacts on biodiversity, with the responsibility for oversight of this falling to governments.

In addition, an agreement was reached to create a mechanism to share the reward from vaccines, drug discoveries and food products which come from digital forms of biodiversity, following the issue being raised earlier in the year. The Agreement also included a welcomed recognition of Indigenous People's rights, role, territories and knowledge, with the 30by30 pledge requiring that indigenous and traditional territories are respected in the expansion of new protected areas.

The Agreement has been applauded, with Canadian minister Steven Guilbeault saying it is a "bold step forward to protect nature" and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres stating that "we are finally starting to forge a peace pact with nature." However, some believe the final deal is weak regarding accountability and the lack of clear and quantifiable outcomes. World Wildlife Fund International Director General, Marco Lambertini stated that the agreement "lacks a mandatory ratcheting mechanism that will hold governments accountable to increase action if targets are not met" and without this, the Agreement can be undermined by slow implementation and failure to mobilise resources.

The Agreement itself is not legally binding, however countries will be required to show their progress towards the targets via national biodiversity plans. Following the conference, it will now be down to individual countries, over the next eight years, to translate the Agreement into plans and policies, in order to reach the global goal of reversing biodiversity loss by 2030. As noted by Sabien Leemans, a senior biodiversity officer at WWF, "this deal will only be as good as its implementation."

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