What is the COP15 biodiversity summit, and why is it so important?

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 30 March 2022 08:30 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: The Alto Madre de Dios river, part of the Manu Biosphere Reserve, is seen from Peru's southern Amazon region of Madre de Dios July 15, 2014. REUTERS/Enrique Castro-Mendivil

Image Caption and Rights Information

Governments are tasked with agreeing a new global pact to stem damage to nature this year, but progress has been slow

By Laurie Goering and Michael Taylor

March 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The first in-person talks in two years between governments aiming to finalise a global pact to protect nature ended with little concrete progress this week.

About 195 countries are tasked with agreeing a new deal to stem damage to plants, animals and ecosystems - similar to the Paris climate agreement - at a U.N. summit, known as COP15, due to be held later this year in the southern Chinese city of Kunming.

Hit by delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, face-to-face talks resumed in March in Geneva, but observers were left frustrated at the lack of significant progress, with many calling for higher-level political engagement.

ANALYSIS: New global nature pact hangs in balance as 'world burns'

Efforts to protect the natural world have yet to achieve the same profile as those to limit climate change, despite advocacy by world-famous British naturalist David Attenborough and many others.

Losses of crucial ecosystems like rainforests and wetlands, as well as animal species, have accelerated even as governments, businesses, financiers and conservation groups seek effective ways to protect and restore more of the Earth's land and seas.

We take a look at the COP15 summit - taking place under the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity - and what it hopes to achieve.

What is the Convention on Biological Diversity?

Signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and later ratified by about 195 countries, not including the United States, the U.N. convention is designed to safeguard plant and animal species and ensure natural resources are used sustainably.

It also aims to achieve "fair and equitable sharing" of benefits from natural genetic material, used in everything from medicines to new crop species.

In practice, that means making sure indigenous communities and countries home to biological riches benefit from their use.

Why is protecting nature better so important?

Around the world, forests and other natural ecosystems are being rapidly destroyed, often to expand agriculture and production of commodities like palm oil, soybeans and beef, as the world's population grows.

But people depend on nature, from oceans to wildernesses, to supply clean air and water - and to regulate rainfall that is vital for growing food crops. If too many ecosystems are harmed, their basic life support services can falter, scientists warn.

Because plants absorb planet-heating carbon dioxide to grow, better protecting or expanding natural areas is also one of the cheapest and most effective ways to slow climate change.

What does COP15 aim to do?

About 195 countries are expected to finalise a new accord to halt and reverse losses of the planet's plants, animals and ecosystems at the COP15 U.N. summit in China.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the summit was postponed four times and split into two, with its final part now scheduled for the third quarter of 2022, in the Chinese city of Kunming.

The summit hopes to set both long-term nature-protection goals for mid-century and shorter-term targets for 2030 and, crucially, push for those to be enshrined in national policies.

That mostly did not happen with previous global targets to slash biodiversity loss, set in 2002 and 2010, which were largely missed.

"Nobody actually owned those targets," said Li Shuo, a senior policy officer for Greenpeace China, noting that is why they were not met.

Who's leading the push?

Countries calling for more ambitious nature protection include Canada, the European Union, Costa Rica, Colombia and Britain, according to Georgina Chandler, an international policy expert at the UK-based Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

But most of those champions are focused on particular aspects of the agreement rather than the overall deal, she said.

Brazil and Argentina, meanwhile, are seen as the "laggards", said Li of Greenpeace, with both concerned that tougher rules could affect their agricultural expansion and economies.

The United States never ratified the original biodiversity treaty and so is not part of the negotiations.

But President Joe Biden has committed to protect at least 30% of his country's land and coastal waters by 2030, as part of a broader international "30x30" campaign.

What is China's role as COP15 host?

In a bid to make a success of the COP26 U.N. climate talks in Scotland last November, British officials launched a big diplomatic push to clear potential roadblocks and win new commitments to climate action before the meeting began.

That "diplomatic outreach and engagement" is a normal part of the job for the host country, said Chandler of the RSPB.

But that has not so far been the case for Convention on Biological Diversity meetings, she added - and "it's not the way China does things - to reach out to facilitate agreement".

What needs to come out of COP15?

Clear targets to halt and reverse damage to nature are required, as well as funding to help biodiversity-rich, developing countries achieve them, and ways to compare and track efforts by different countries, political leaders and analysts have said.

The new goals set at COP15 need to be "smart and measurable" rather than "fluffy and ever-extending", with standardisation across countries, the RSPB's Chandler said.

The draft text for the nature pact includes a core pledge to protect at least 30% of the planet's land and oceans by 2030.

Targets could also be set to eliminate harmful agricultural, fishing and logging subsidies, and re-purpose that money to benefit nature - an additional way of raising much-needed cash.

Related stories:

To stem nature loss, start by ending harmful subsidies, economists say

Nature funding must triple by 2030 to protect land, wildlife and climate

Restore land the size of China to meet nature and climate goals, UN says

(Reporting by Laurie Goering and Michael Taylor; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)