The Biodiversity COP Has So Far Failed. Scientists Say This Year Must Be Different

Not a single target set by the U.N. delegation to stave off extinction and conserve habitats has been met, and researchers say more failure would be catastrophic.

"STOP EXTINCTION" projection at COP15 in Montreal, Canada, December 5, 2022. Photo credit: Patrick McCormack

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This month, “the fate of the entire living world will be determined in Montreal, Canada.”

That’s the dramatic warning three of the world’s leading biodiversity scientists wrote in an editorial for the journal Science Advances this week to mark the kickoff of the United Nations’ annual global summit aimed at halting and reversing the loss of biodiversity.

The 15th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity, or COP15, which began Wednesday in Montreal, has been described by some environmental experts as “the most important global meeting you have probably never heard of” and “the most important United Nations Biodiversity event of this decade.”

That’s because for the next two weeks, environmental ministers and other world leaders will work on setting the official international agenda for the next decade about how they can protect the roughly one million plant and animal species now believed to be at risk of extinction. While the biodiversity COP hasn’t received the same kind of attention as COP27, the U.N.’s global climate summit held last month, many wildlife and climate experts believe it’s the more significant conference of the two.

“In a century marked by horrific environmental crises … it is perhaps not surprising that climate change dominates the global change agenda,” the three researchers wrote in their essay. But COP15 “must take center stage. We say this because of the many dimensions of anthropogenic global change, the most critical, complex and challenging of which is that of biodiversity loss.”

In other words, one of the key reasons society is even talking about climate change is because the most significant impact of a warming climate on the world is the threat it poses to plants, animals and wildlife habitats—the same ecosystems that also ensure a healthy environment for humans.

But since it was first established some 30 years ago, the conference has failed to accomplish any meaningful gains on its mission, and scientists say this year’s summit may be one of the last chances for governments to establish a path forward that averts a future of accelerating mass extinction while also ensuring an equitable outcome for historically disadvantaged communities.

A growing body of evidence shows that the Earth is experiencing levels of mass extinction not seen since the end of the dinosaur era. In fact, because of human activity, some of the world’s most iconic modern animals, including the Monarch butterfly and the Komodo dragon, are now at risk of blinking out of existence, researchers say.

Already, early reports of the Montreal summit show a messy and contentious process, bogged down by disagreement and far from reaching any kind of official pact. That follows a recent U.N. report that showed that not a single target from the summit’s previous 2010 agreement has been met.

The targets under that agreement, known as the global biodiversity framework, included protecting 17 percent of terrestrial and inland water areas from human development by 2020, as well as establishing consensus around policies that could help curtail pesticide and plastic pollution—all while prioritizing the needs of women, Indigenous groups and low-income communities. Those goals remain top priorities during the global talks this year, and in some cases have become more ambitious, such as the new “30×30” effort that aims to conserve 30 percent of the planet by 2030.

Indigenous rights groups are also pushing for stronger protections for their communities to be built into this year’s framework, pointing to their outsized role in maintaining global biodiversity levels. While indigenous groups account for about 6 percent of the world’s population, their lands safeguard about 80 percent of Earth’s current plant and animal species, according to the World Bank.

Among the disagreements are Indigenous groups who fear the 30-by-30 target is being used to take away their land in the name of conservation, while others worry that 30 percent isn’t an ambitious enough target. Violent encounters between Indigenous communities and hired security patrols in places like Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo are just a few of the most recent examples highlighting the unintended consequences of the Western world’s conservation efforts.

Because the COP15 framework requires full consensus from all 196 nations involved in the process to pass, some scientists have expressed deep concerns over whether any meaningful agreement can be reached at all. A recent draft revealed some 1,400 instances where the document is marked to show the language is still under debate, according to the Guardian. That report also found that delegates waited until the last minute to even begin addressing points of contention in the draft framework despite having two years to work on the issues ahead of COP15.

Complicating the matter further is the fact that the United States, by far the world’s most significant carbon emitter and a leading contributor to biodiversity loss, is not an official party to the COP15 delegation. While the reason for that lies mainly with a long history of Republican opposition, the outcome remains that the U.S. will play a backseat role in this year’s critical global talks.

“We do not have an official voice at the table, so we cannot actively weigh in in real time during negotiations,” Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, a prominent U.S. environmental advocacy and research center, told me in an interview from the summit. “And obviously it looks terrible to the rest of the world and reflects that we aren’t seriously committed to safeguarding global biodiversity.”

Curry is one of the roughly 50,000 people, along with more than 100 organizations, who have signed a petition calling for an immediate end to human-caused mass extinction and urging the COP15 delegates to ratify a strong framework this year. Even though the last agreement ended in failure, she said, it doesn’t mean negotiators should aim for less ambitious targets and they, in fact, should be doubling down on their efforts.

“There is so much potential for us to turn the ship around if we get this framework right,” Curry told me. “But if the delegates do not agree on a strong framework and commit the resources to enact it, then it is no exaggeration to say that the extinction and climate crises are going to continue to spiral out of control to our own peril.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox Tuesday—but before you go:

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Today’s Indicator


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