UN chief António Guterres opened the 15th UN Conference On Biodiversity, known as COP 15, by saying humanity is a weapon of mass extinction and that governments must end the “orgy of destruction” associated with the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.
“We are out of harmony with nature. In fact, we are playing an entirely different song. Around the world, for hundreds of years, we have conducted a cacophony of chaos, played with instruments of destruction. Deforestation and desertification are creating wastelands of once-thriving ecosystems,” Guterres said. “Our land, water, and air are poisoned by chemicals and pesticides, and choked with plastics. The most important lesson we impart to children is to take responsibility for their actions. What example are we setting when we ourselves are failing this basic test? The deluded dreams of billionaires aside, there is no Planet B.”
On that happy note, the conference is scheduled to address the following topics:
- Adoption of an equitable and comprehensive framework matched by the resources needed for implementation
- Clear targets to address overexploitation, pollution, fragmentation and unsustainable agricultural practices
- A plan that safeguards the rights of indigenous peoples and recognizes their contributions as stewards of nature
- Finance for biodiversity and alignment of financial flows with nature to drive finances toward sustainable investments and away from environmentally harmful ones
“In delivering on biodiversity, we deliver on climate, on pollution, on the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, and on the food and energy system transformation. So let us ensure that this COP will be remembered as the moment we finally set our societies and economies on the path to rebuilding the biodiversity upon which we all rely,” said Inger Andersen, UN Under-Secretary-General and executive director of the UN Environment Program.
In his opening remarks, Canada prime minister Justin Trudeau urged countries to agree to conserve 30% of the Earth for nature by 2030 in the final agreement of the conference. “We have not chosen that 30% number at random. It is the critical threshold according to the greatest scientists to avoid the risk of extinction and also to ensure our food and economic security. Thirty percent, that is quite feasible,” he said, according to The Guardian.
Known as “30×30,” it is the most high profile proposal under consideration by governments for this decade’s agreement to protect biodiversity. Led by the UK, Costa Rica, and France, it has the backing of a coalition of more than 100 countries but faces significant concerns from some Indigenous peoples and human rights campaigners who warn it could legitimize further land grabs and violence against the very communities who have historically done the most to protect nature.
Scientists Weigh In
In an editorial written by Professor Shahid Naeem of Columbia University, Professor Yonglong Lu of Xiamen University, and Professor Jeremy Jackson of the American Museum of Natural History appeared in the journal Science Advances prior to the start of the COP 15 conference. In it, they wrote the “fate of the entire living world” will be determined at the Cop15 UN biodiversity summit, calling it “vastly more important than COP 27,” the recent UN climate meeting in Egypt where fossil fuel lobbyists nearly outnumbered the delegates. “We say this because of the many dimensions of anthropogenic global change. The most critical, complex and challenging is that of biodiversity loss,” the researchers said, according to The Guardian.
The current rapid loss of wildlife and natural places is seen as the start of a sixth mass extinction by many scientists and is destroying the life support systems on which humanity depends for clean air, water, and food. Protection of the natural world, such as rain forests, is also vital in ending the climate emergency. One of the objectives of the conference is to end the $500 billion a year in agricultural subsidies that contribute to the destruction of nature. The destruction of wild places for farming and mining is a key cause of biodiversity loss.
Those are all laudable goals, but a prior biodiversity protocol, known as the Aichi biodiversity targets, failed to meet any of its goals by its 2020 deadline despite being backed by 196 nations. “Failure is not an option this time as Earth’s terrestrial, marine, and freshwater systems begin to collapse under the pressure to meet the needs of a global population that will soon approach 10 billion,” the scientists said.
However, they did see some reasons for optimism because of the wide and growing support for the “30×30” protection plan and the fact that the drivers of biodiversity loss are well understood, which allows for developing clear direction for action. Other draft goals for the COP 15 agreement include reducing the rate of introduction of invasive species by 50%, cutting pesticide use by at least two thirds, halting the flow of plastic pollution, and making it compulsory for businesses to disclose their impact on nature.
In the editorial, Naeem and his colleagues said: “A comprehensive body of scientific evidence has highlighted how global change, including climate change, is ultimately tied to biodiversity conservation.” For example, they said, healthy forests and oceans can absorb huge amounts of climate-heating carbon dioxide.
They pointed out that a leading study of the effect of Covid-19 lockdowns showed how “the reduction in traffic, industrial noise and pollution, and human-wildlife contact led to a wide range of positive impacts on nature around the world,” with “animals quickly responding to the reductions in human presence. The take home message was that stemming biodiversity loss can be achieved not only by just reducing human pressures but also by enhancing human activities in research, restoration and conservation.”
They scientists agreed the rights of Indigenous people need to be recognized and that securing long term funding from wealthier nations will be needed to achieve biodiversity targets because many of the most biodiverse places on Earth are in low income countries.
Laurence Tubiana, one of the architects of the Paris climate agreement, said: “We need a global goal to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. This will direct targets, laws, policies, and funding at all levels and regions, much like the 2015 Paris agreement has started doing for climate action. In seven years, the momentum is clear to see. We need the same momentum to protect all life on Earth.”
Professor Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, told The Guardian, “We need a ‘Paris moment’ in Montreal. Only if we protect and regenerate Earth’s nature, can we really protect Earth’s climate.”
The COP 15 conference runs until December 19. If it goes like other global conferences, there will be a lot of speechifying early on followed by marathon bargaining sessions where the real work will get done in the final hours. We will keep you up to date on the news from Montreal as the conference wraps up its work later this month.
Bold Action From The EU
Just prior to the beginning of the COP 15 conference, the European Union agreed to a ban on all products judged to have contributed to deforestation. As the world’s second largest importer of agricultural products, the new rules will affect the trade in cattle, cocoa, coffee, palm oil, rubber, soya, and wood products, all of which are linked to the loss of tropical forests.
“This legislation is a game changer for the world’s forests,” said the Mighty Earth CEO Glenn Hurowitz. “For the first time, European governments are telling companies selling agricultural goods, ‘If you or your suppliers destroy forests, you can’t sell your products here.’ With this law, Europe is putting real action for wildlife on the table.” Hurowitz cautioned, however, that there were gaps in the legislation, including a failure to protect Indigenous rights and other important non-forest ecosystems such as peatlands.
Let’s hope the negotiators in Montreal are willing to be as bold as the European Union during their own deliberations.
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