Human activity is threatening over 1 million species with extinction according to a landmark UN report. This should hardly be surprising as 75% of the land surface has been significantly altered from its pristine past.
Biological diversity (biodiversity) loss can be attributed to five major causes: habitat loss, invasive species, overexploitation, pollution, and climate change. Food security and medicine are just two areas that will be jeopardised if further significant losses are witnessed.
To curb this trend the UN introduced a series of meetings – the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). However, despite this year seeing the 15th CBD, governments have never met a target set in the history of these conferences. Could the significant traction the biodiversity crisis has gained with public help correct this?
Why is biodiversity important?
The Earth is experiencing a sixth mass extinction event. It is estimated that 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles have been driven to extinction by humans since 1970. This ecosystem damage is predicted to take up to 7 million years to recover were destruction to cease now, and due to the intrinsic relationship between species, all life is affected.
The biodiversity crisis is not only an issue in terms of environmental stewardship but also one of our way of life as we rely on the preservation of ecosystems. An IUCN report estimates that ecosystems provide US$33 trillion per year globally as goods and services. However, the benefits are not just economic. We depend on biodiversity for a wide variety of things including food production, flood protection, and medication. For example, modern medicines require the harvest of at least 50,000 different plant species.
Consequently, this is arguably the most important CBD in terms of achieving sufficient protective measures for biodiversity before tipping points are crossed for many essential species.
What is CBD?
The 1992 Earth Summit set out with an aim to address the deteriorating state of the environment. One outcome was the introduction of three new conventions on climate change, desertification and biodiversity. The salient aim of the CBD is to conserve life on Earth, and it is adopted by every UN member state with the exception of the USA.
Anytime the member states of a convention meet it is called a Conference of the Parties (COP). As such this year will see both COP15 (the 15th CBD) and COP27 (the 27th climate change conference, see our guide to COP27 here). The biodiversity convention is held every 2 years and sets new goals every 10 years, unlike the climate change COP which is held annually.
There are also two ancillary objectives of the CBD, but these are backed by only some member states. These are the Cartagena Protocol, which aims to protect biodiversity from genetically modified organisms, and the Nagoya Protocols, which concerns sharing and using genetic information.
What is COP15?
The 15th biodiversity convention was originally planned to be held in October 2020 in Kunming, China. However, due to the pandemic, the convention has been pushed back 4 times and will now start on the 7th of December this year.
The number of delays has caused the convention to be split into two – the first having been held virtually last year – and have its venue changed to Montreal, Canada. But whilst the location has changed, China still has the presidency of its first UN environmental agreement.
As this year’s convention would have occurred 10 years after the announcement of the 20 Aichi biodiversity targets, it will see leaders negotiate new goals. For this reason, it marks an occasion with the potential to kickstart the convention towards one of action and impact.
Nevertheless, since the convention starts only a few weeks after COP27 and concludes around the time of the World Cup final, there are concerns that the timing will shift attention away from the biodiversity convention.
Why is COP15 important?
COP15 not only provides a platform for new targets to help curtail the continuing extinction of vital species, but it could be the last opportunity before biodiversity-related tipping points are crossed.
These tipping points occur on a regional scale, causing ecosystem state shifts. One example is the changing state of coral reefs, which sees them turning into low-biodiversity, algae-based ecosystems with lower productivity.
A popular metaphor likens ecosystems to that aeroplanes, and species to rivets. While a plane can fly with a few rivets missing, there is a point where it becomes too destroyed to continue to fly. This is precisely the issue with species extinctions, eventually, ecosystems will no longer be able to maintain their current state.
Therefore, COP15 is of unprecedented importance in preventing ecosystem collapse, and the need for achievable, but ambitious, conservation goals is only increasing.
What has happened so far?
COP15 marks the first occasion for new biodiversity targets since the Paris Agreement. As such, there is a sense of optimism for a Paris-level success despite the long history of missed targets.
After fears that China’s zero-COVID policy would interfere, the convention was split in two. The first part saw the signing of the Kunming Declaration. This agreement means nations are committed to instigating global biodiversity recovery by 2030, which includes pledges to improve conservation efforts and strengthen environmental law.
Ahead of the start of the second phase, a list of key objectives has been compiled which includes: finalising the global biodiversity framework and ensuring that information from genetic sequencing is shared. As well as this, COP15’s theme has been announced – Ecological Civilisation: Building a Shared Future for All Life on Earth.
What would we like to see as conservationists?
While the 21 draft targets include ambitious proposals, such as eliminating plastic pollution and halving the introduction rate of invasive species, the history of CBDs suggests there needs to be a change of tactics.
An easy-win approach may be more successful. One suggestion is to provide a financial incentive for restoration, which could see the convention meet conservation goals. Another idea is for the introduction of a single clear target similar to the 2°C targets set by the Paris Agreement.