For two weeks in December, the world will converge in Montreal to decide the fate of life on Earth.
That epic responsibility awaits delegates from 196 countries — the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) — when they gather for the Dec. 7 kickoff of the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to negotiate and finalize a Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.
The final document will contain 21 targets for habitat conservation, resource management, and policy, investment and equity initiatives, all with a singular aim: halting the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth. Once the deal is struck, countries have just eight years to meet the targets in order to halt ongoing biodiversity loss and put the world on track to meet the UN’s overarching vision of humanity “living in harmony with nature” by 2050.
What’s at stake at COP15?
Everything is on the line at COP15. Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the CBD, says the framework is “crucial to ensure that the future of humankind on planet Earth is sustained.”
The ways in which we’ve approached conservation so far haven’t been working, and so agreement on an ambitious framework is essential. A landmark 2019 UN report on the state of global biodiversity found that human impacts have eliminated half of the world’s natural ecosystems and cut the biomass of wild mammals by 82 per cent, while approximately one million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction. This rapid decline in biodiversity is “eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” the report stated.
The credibility of the CBD process is also at stake. The post-2020 framework will be a successor to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, which anchored the CBD’s previous 2011-2020 strategic plan for biodiversity. A review of that effort published in 2020 found that the world failed to achieve any of the 20 Aichi targets in full, with just six partially achieved. Gains that were made, the review said, were too slim to alter nature’s current decline.
What are the targets at COP15?
The 21 targets in the current draft framework are grouped into three categories: reducing threats to biodiversity (Targets 1 to 8); meeting people’s needs through sustainable use and benefit-sharing (Targets 9 to 13); and tools and solutions for implementation and mainstreaming (Targets 14 to 21). “They interact and they interrelate,” says Justina Ray, president and senior scientist at Wildlife Conservation Society Canada.
The best-known target is Target 3, which calls for the conservation of at least 30 per cent of global land and sea areas. Other proposed targets in the first category include restoring 20 per cent of degraded ecosystems, halving the rate of invasive species introduction, and eliminating the discharge of plastic waste.
The second group of targets support access to nature, equitable sharing of genetic resources, and sustainable and traditional uses of wild species by vulnerable communities and Indigenous peoples.
Targets in the third group include a call for full integration of biodiversity values into government policies and planning, and for all businesses to assess and report on their dependencies and impacts on biodiversity. Another target proposes increasing global spending to support the framework’s goals by at least US$200 billion per year while ensuring at least US$10 billion of that flows to developing countries. The need to incorporate Indigenous traditional knowledge and Indigenous-led conservation in executing all aspects of the framework (a “whole of society” approach), is also highlighted.
How did we get here?
The CBD came into force in 1993. CBD COPs are held every other year to advance work related to its primary goals.
COP15 was originally to be held in Kunming, China, in October 2020. Delayed due to COVID, it was broken into two segments.
The first, held virtually in October 2021, concluded with a declaration that included an endorsement of the substance of the post-2020 draft framework. The parties agreed in June to shift the location for the second half of COP15 to Montreal, where the CBD Secretariat is headquartered. Technically, China is still the host and, in that role, will lead negotiations and assume primary responsibility for bringing all parties to a consensus.
Who will attend COP15?
There are more than 10,000 registered delegates for COP15.
A core group of delegates from every party to the CBD and other UN bodies will negotiate the final language, targets, details and commitments in the framework text. That process culminates in a three-day “high-level segment” where government ministers will join the proceedings to iron out remaining details in the final text.
The majority of delegates will be “other stakeholders” from business and financial institutions, NGOs, Indigenous peoples, local communities and youth groups who participate as observers and in workshops, forums and other side events.
Will COP15 achieve meaningful action on biodiversity conservation?
Heading into COP15, two things are uncertain.
The first is what specific targets will make it into the final text of the post-2020 framework and what other commitments are made in talks around other important issues, such as how to raise and more effectively target additional funding, technology and human resources, that are outside the scope of the actual framework. In both areas, “the level of ambition” will be key, says David Cooper, deputy executive secretary of the CBD.
The other uncertainty lies between here and 2030. Given the failure of the parties to make good on the Aichi targets, what reasons are there to expect a better outcome for the post-2020 framework?
One source of optimism are lessons learned in assessing shortfalls in the Aichi process. Targets with the clearest language, quantitative goals and a focus on process saw the most progress, so those traits are emphasized in the post-2020 framework. Stronger measures for monitoring, reporting on and tracking progress are also planned.
Greater global concern for the declining state of biodiversity also means countries are coming to the post-2020 framework with more urgency. This is especially relevant in the growing recognition that solving the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis go hand-in-hand. Measures to protect and restore nature to reduce carbon and methane emissions are now central to climate action, as was clear at the latest UN Conference on Climate Change, COP27, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
What will COP15 mean for Canada?
While China is still the official COP15 host, it’s clear the Canadian federal government sees great opportunity in staging the event in Canada. In a recent op-ed, Stephen Guilbeault, minister of environment and climate change, described it as “Canada’s chance to set the agenda on the global biodiversity crisis.”
In October 2020, Canada joined the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, an intergovernmental group chaired by Costa Rica and France, created to push for a global deal to protect 30 per cent of the Earth’s land and ocean by 2030. The 2021 federal budget also included up to $340 million in funding over five years for Indigenous-led conservation programs, another sign of alignment with the post-2020 framework.
Even so, there are significant gaps between Canada’s goals and the reality on the ground. Currently, for example, Canada doesn’t have an existing biodiversity strategy. The federal government is also lagging when it comes to species at risk. Recent reports from the office of the Auditor General found that the number of species at risk within our borders continues to climb, while the rate of progress under recovery strategies is static. In terms of protected areas, Canada is a long way from its 2030 goals, with just 13.5 per cent of land and freshwater and 13.9 per cent of marine territory currently protected.
For Canada, and for every country that is party to the CBD, then, the lesson is that the post-2020 framework’s success, like the Aichi targets before it, will come down to implementation. And according to Ray, that’s a challenge not only for the federal government, but the provinces and territories as well. “The ultimate implementation … is going to have to happen at the provincial and territorial levels without question,” she says. “That’s the way these things work.”