Everything you need to know about COP15

The next time you’re forced to drag yourself out of bed for an early morning lecture, take a second to listen to the morning birdsong. But something’s not right. Is it that the morning chorus has gotten… quieter? This stealthily growing silence has sinister implications. The dampening of birdsong may seem great to those who enjoy waking up late in the afternoon, but the harsh reality is that bird species in the UK have been in decline for 30 years, with some close to extinction.

The massive worldwide decline in biodiversity is fittingly described as the ‘silent crisis’, so named ‘silent’ for its remarkable ability to go unnoticed, as we fail to recognize the absence of animals we once took for granted, and so named ‘crisis’ because of the intense dangers that follow from it. Biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate, with 1 million animal and plant species threatened with extinction by 2030 and the planet experiencing its largest loss of life since the dinosaurs. In 2022 a survey from the World Economic Forum ranked biodiversity loss as one of the three most severe risks for the next decade since the very existence of humanity rests on it.

Biodiversity is absolutely vital to life on our planet. It is the life support system of humanity. Nature underpins the world’s food system: provides fresh water, sustains the quality of the air and soils, regulates the climate, provides pollination and pest control, absorbs carbon emissions, and reduces the impact of natural hazards. If we harm too many of these ecosystems through human behaviour, we risk preventing them from providing basic life support services. And that is exactly what’s happening. Biodiversity is declining faster than at any time before in human history, according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

The significance of the crisis makes the UK Prime Ministers’ response an even greater source of concern. After his embarrassing U-turn following COP27, Rishi Sunak has once again displayed his indifference to the Climate Crisis by failing to attend the COP15 Biodiversity Conference, instead sending the environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, in his stead. This came after seven members of his own party wrote private letters to Sunak, begging him to attend. Sunak does not have the best track record for his commitment to the environment, originally declaring that he wouldn’t be attending the COP27 Climate Conference in November last year, before making a U-turn when he learned that his predecessor Boris Johnson would be in attendance. His seeming disregard for what the government’s chief nature adviser, Tony Juniper, described as the ‘best and last chance’ to halt and reverse the decline of nature doesn’t bode well for the UK’s future green policies.

The ‘best and last chance’ to halt and reverse the decline of nature.

The United Nations Biodiversity Conference, colloquially known as COP15, was a two-week summit held on the 7th of December 2022 as an attempt to put an end to this destruction. Policymakers from 196 countries met to discuss the massive collapse of biodiversity. This meeting is colloquially known as COP15, which is shorthand for the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, or CBD. The CBD is a landmark international agreement that sets out how to safeguard plant and animal species and ensure that natural resources are used sustainably. 196 countries have ratified the CBD, and are therefore parties to the COP. Notably, the US is an outlier as the only UN member state not to have ratified the treaty, despite being one of the greatest contributors to climate destruction. COP15 was supposed to take place in the Chinese city of Kunming in October 2020, but was delayed four times due to COVID-19. Therefore, it’s location was moved to Montreal, Canada, though Huang Runqui, the Chinese Minister of Ecology and Environment, still led the talks.

The summit had an impressive outcome, with the countries striking a historic deal to protect and restore nature. It ended with the adoption of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which aims to guide global action on nature until 2030. The aims of this Framework are to address biodiversity loss, restore ecosystems, and protect indigenous rights, with an overall goal of reversing biodiversity loss by 2030. It is comprised of four overarching global goals to protect nature. An example of one of these is to reduce the rate of extinction of all species tenfold by 2050. It also consists of another 23 targets to be achieved by 2030, including the restoration of 30% terrestrial and marine ecosystems, halving global food waste, and putting 30% of the planet and 30% of degraded ecosystems under protection by 2030. These are ambitious targets indeed, and successfully achieving them will go a long way toward protecting the planet. However, making this commitment is all very well. The more important question is whether the countries will successfully implement the policies.

The outcome of the previous biodiversity conference, COP10, which occurred in 2010, doesn’t bode well for COP15. At the conference decadal goals for biodiversity were set. 10 years later, in 2020, a CBD report found that governments had collectively failed to meet even a single one of these targets. This has foreboding implications for the targets set last year. However, on the bright side, the outcome of COP10 meant that at Montreal, negotiators were under intense scrutiny to put strong implementation measures in place to ensure the achievement of the new targets. We can only hope that the desperately-needed progress is made in the coming decade.

Image description: a group of people at a conference

Image credit: Luis Quintero