The promise of COP15

Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault made big commitments at the international biodiversity conference held in Montreal in December. What does that mean on the ground?

  • Dec 22, 2022
  • 2,316 words
  • 10 minutes
Canada's prairie grasslands, pictured here with a grazing bison, are one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world. (Photo: Sean Tilden/Can Geo Photo Club)
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Montreal was mostly grey and dry when attendees of COP15, the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, gathered earlier this month inside the fortified Palais des Congrès in the city’s downtown core.

But the final Friday of their two-week stay brought snow. Snow that would keep falling well into Saturday while ministers and other delegates from 188 countries sat locked in marathon negotiating sessions facing a Monday deadline to reach consensus on a post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) — the so-called “Paris Agreement for nature” needed to save life on Earth by halting and reversing rampant global species decline.

The man at the middle of the negotiating maelstrom, COP15 president Huang Runqiu, China’s minister of ecology and environment, saw the white wintery blanket as a good omen. “There is a Chinese saying that snow will bring good luck,” Huang said (through a translator) in his final COP15 press briefing on Tuesday.

Speaking barely 30 hours after he’d brought down the gavel on a landmark text that most observers say largely lives up to the ambitious expectations for the conference going in, Huang was entitled to wax poetic.

Seated next to him was Canada’s Steven Guilbeault, minister of environment and climate change and head of COP15’s host country delegation. Guilbeault, whom Huang tapped at crunch time to help ministers hammer out the framework’s flagship target to protect at least 30 per cent of the world’s lands, inland waters, coastal areas and oceans by 2030, called the final package “a major win for our planet and for all of humanity.”

But now that it’s done, what’s next? While Canadians can be proud of this “Montreal moment,” what will the suite of 23 action targets and four overarching goals in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework mean for the future of the tens of thousands of animal and plant species in this country?

The Vancouver Island marmot is a critically endangered species found in Canada. (Photo: Troy Wood/Can Geo Photo Club)
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Just a week before COP15 began, the Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council — a team of researchers working for the federal, provincial and territorial governments — published a report on Canada’s wild species warning that more than 2,000 plants and animals found here face a high risk of extinction. The list includes familiar iconic species like whooping crane, spotted owl, Blanding’s and spiny softshell turtles, Vancouver Island marmot, grey fox, several species of whales, as well as many lesser-known insects and plants.

Other recent data compiled by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, as well as the federal Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, show that the number of species at risk continues to climb while the recovery rate for listed species targeted by recovery strategies and management plans failed to advance from 2014 to 2021.

Such underperformance is a microcosm of the findings in the landmark 2019 UN report that warned one million plant and animal species worldwide are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. That outlook is what drove calls for high ambition in the GBF towards halting extinctions of threatened species, reducing extinction risk of all species and increasing species population abundance, as spelled out in the document’s Goal A. But it also illustrates the difficulty in delivering on those same goals.

Speaking at the release of the Wild Species report, Gauri Sreenivasan, director of policy and campaigns at Nature Canada, whose members include hundreds of Canadian environmental NGOs and nature groups, said to “bend this curve” of species loss, Canada needs an action plan of its own. That plan, she said, must include “structural interventions” related to land use, elimination of subsidies that incentivize harm to nature, and terrestrial and marine protections that are centred on Indigenous rights and Indigenous-led conservation.

The Blanding's turtle (left) is one of the familiar species included in the report on Canada's wild species, warning of the more than 2,000 plants and animals facing a high risk of extinction. (Photo: Ian Darragh/Can Geo Photo Club)
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What’s next for Canada after COP15?

The good news is that plan is coming. After the new GBF’s adoption, every party is required to produce a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan under the terms of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). That plan must lay out how it intends to take action to meet the new framework’s goals and targets.

In fact, at COP15, during a Nature Canada panel discussion, Guilbeault committed to developing just such a “whole-of-government” domestic plan for 2030. It will be backed, he added, by an accountability act “enshrining our 2030 nature targets in law.” He also stressed that “successful ecosystem restoration is rooted in Indigenous knowledge as well as Western sciences. We will continue to work with First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities to reach these goals.”

Guilbeault didn’t disclose a timeline or other details. But given that the GBF targets all have a 2030 deadline, it needs to happen quickly.

When it comes to laying out a roadmap to reach the specific target of protecting 30 per cent of Canada’s terrestrial and marine areas by 2030, several recent developments will help point the way — in particular, the official launch of the Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) program in October.

KBAs are a scientific tool for identifying areas where conservation can have the biggest impact. Criteria for selection are based on a standard developed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The presence of important species, or species richness generally, are important attributes, as is ecosystem integrity or uniqueness. Here and around the world, the KBA program is seen as an important tool in ensuring that as countries earmark lands and waters for protection, they choose places with high biodiversity value.


A crucial piece: Indigenous-led conservation

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s announcement at the start of COP15 that Canada will provide up to $800 million to support the development of four major Indigenous-led terrestrial and marine conservation initiatives offers another clear signal as to how the government aims to proceed on 30 by 30. Together, those four initiatives have the potential to bring one million square kilometres under protection.

However, Indigenous leadership is also demonstrating its potential to play a transformative role in species-specific conservation, says Rachel Plotkin, Boreal Program Manager with the David Suzuki Foundation.

In particular, she points to the decline of woodland caribou in B.C. and throughout the boreal. The primary causes: habitat destruction, fragmentation and disturbance from logging, and resource development. While caribou were first listed as threatened nationally under the Species at Risk Act in 2003, there were long delays in creating a recovery strategy and, to date, Plotkin says, little or no effective remedial action has been taken by provinces. “The good news stories, almost all the ones I can think of, are under Indigenous leadership,” she says.

In a session at COP15, representatives of the Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations presented details of a caribou stewardship plan launched earlier in 2022. Their traditional territories overlap with four caribou ranges in northern Alberta. While in Montreal, the group spoke directly with Guilbeault, asking that he reallocate federal funding for caribou protection currently going to the province of Alberta directly to their efforts. Their plan, which marries Indigenous knowledge, laws and stewardship principles with Western science, includes targets for habitat restoration that exceed those in the federal boreal caribou recovery strategy.

Woodland caribou in Northern British Columbia. (Photo: Eric Seeman/Can Geo Photo Club)
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Fort Nelson First Nation in northeastern B.C. has also released a recovery plan, while the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations have had success with a program that corrals new caribou mothers and their calves in maternal pens to enhance calf survival. “They are very large pens in areas with lots of lichen and food sources for the caribou,” says Ronnie Drever, senior conservation scientist with Nature United. “They keep them there until the calves are old enough to have a much better fighting chance.”

Plotkin says the long-term goals of Indigenous-led caribou recovery strategies are also more in sync with the restoration goals in the GBF than is often the case with federal species recovery plans. Too often the latter simply aim to reduce the rate of decline, “whereas the Indigenous colleagues that I work with are aiming for an abundance of wildlife again, so that wildlife can be harvested. Wildlife can be used as sustenance and still there can be healthy populations.”

Given that the entire GBF is about saving nature, all of the goals and targets relate directly or indirectly to species conservation. But to envision how the trajectory of that work in Canada might evolve as we move from adoption to implementation, the first eight action targets in the section “Reducing threats to biodiversity” are most explicit. It’s there, for example, you’ll find the 30 by 30 target (Target 3) and another (Target 2) that calls for effective restoration of at least 30 per cent of degraded marine and terrestrial habitat.

However, the target most directly related to species recovery and threatened species is Target 4. It calls upon parties to ensure “urgent management actions to halt human induced extinction of known threatened species and for the recovery and conservation of species…to significantly reduce extinction risk.” These so-called management actions include things like supplementary feeding, vaccination against disease, captive breeding and protection from disturbance.

No comparable target existed in the CBD’s 2011-2020 strategic plan for biodiversity. Yet Stuart Butchart, UK-based chief scientist of BirdLife International, a global partnership of conservation NGOs, says that without it, the framework would doom many threatened species.

“Even if you were to tackle all the threats — invasive species, pollution, climate change — and you expand protected areas and retain central habitats and restore some areas, you would still see large numbers of species extinctions [without management action],” he explains.

How many species, exactly? According to a research paper published earlier this year, which Stuart co-authored, 57 per cent of the more than 7,700 species worldwide listed as either threatened or extinct in the wild on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List fall into this category.

A textbook Canadian example of species management in action is currently centred on the Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve in southeastern Manitoba. There, a number of partners are doing species research, captive breeding and rearing, habitat maintenance and restoration, and community engagement to save the Poweshiek skipperling, a small orange-brown butterfly whose global population numbers fewer than 1,000, at locations in Manitoba and Michigan. The Poweshiek is what’s known as a habitat specialist, and when that habitat is exceedingly rare North American tall grass prairie and prairie fens that also require periodic disturbance from fire and grazing, it makes it tough to hang on. Its plight was further complicated by a population crash in the early 2000s for unknown reasons.

“It’s one of those things where we kind of hold our breath [every June] until we see some flying adults,” says Carey Hamel, Manitoba director of conservation with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, a key partner in the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve and Poweshiek skipperling program.

For now, the Poweshiek’s prospects hinge on continued restoration and expansion of tall grass prairie habitat coupled with the captive breeding and other hands-on efforts. Hamel says engagement with the local community, encouraging private landowners to protect even small bits of tall grass habitat on their own farms, is also critical. “We’re never going to buy all the prairie or conserve it all, it will be the decision by the local landowners to do that. And if they feel proud of what they’ve done over generations to maintain that, we think that’s going to have a good conservation impact.”

The North Atlantic Right Whale is one of the most endangered species on the planet. (Photo: Larissa Schiffmann/Can Geo Photo Club)
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Beyond COP15: “Mainstreaming” biodiversity conservation

Yet, as much as that kind of local buy-in counts in the case of the Poweshiek skipperling, it’s nothing compared to the level of cooperation, acceptance, investment and adaptation that’s going to be needed to achieve the “structural” interventions and transformational actions that Nature Canada’s Sreenivasan advocates — and which living up to Canada’s GBF commitments requires.

For a clearer glimpse of what that might look like, David Browne, director of conservation at the Canadian Wildlife Federation, points to actions now underway on the east coast to help save the North Atlantic right whale.

“They’re one of the most endangered species on the planet,” says Browne, citing a 2018 population tally that counted just 72 females. Despite the low number, however, Browne says there’s still reason for optimism.

“There are two things killing these animals: ships and fishing gear. So we know why they’re dying,” says Browne. “So both Canada and the U.S. have been taking major actions like transforming shipping practices down in the U.S., speeds in particular; changing the gear that fisherman fish with; and closing vast areas of the ocean to fishing to try and let these guys recover.”

On a global scale, Browne says, the transformations required under the GBF essentially come down to rethinking the way we feed ourselves, house ourselves, conduct transport and trade. “That’s what it’s all about. How do you do that with nine billion people and not wipe out the system that sustains it all, which is biodiversity?”

The term used in the parts of the GBF that refer to these kinds of systemic changes is “mainstreaming.” What it means in a practical sense, adds Butchart, is that it is no longer enough to treat biodiversity as an issue solely for the environment ministry.

“We need nature fully integrated into what the transport ministry is doing, what the mining ministry is doing, what the energy infrastructure ministry is doing … all the way through the treasury and finance ministry,” he says. “We cannot solve this crisis unless it’s all of society, all of government, working together in an integrated way.”


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