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

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 11 October 2021 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

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This year's COP26 UN climate talks have been in the limelight, but COP15 - the biodiversity conference tasked with agreeing a new deal to protect nature - will be equally critical

By Laurie Goering

LONDON, Oct 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - By now you've probably heard of COP26 - the shorthand name for the next major U.N. climate summit, rescheduled for November in Glasgow after being delayed a year by the coronavirus pandemic.

But another big "Convention of the Parties" (COP) starts a month earlier - one that is far less talked about but also critically important. That is COP15: the two-part U.N. biodiversity summit that kicks off online on Oct. 11 and will finish next May in the southern Chinese city of Kunming.

Efforts to protect the natural world have yet to achieve the same high profile as those to limit climate change, despite advocacy by 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.

So what is COP15, and what does it hope to achieve?

What is the 'Convention on Biological Diversity'?

Originally signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and later ratified by about 195 countries not including the United States, it is designed to protect diversity of 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, soy 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 vanish, 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 to halt and reverse losses of the planet's plants, animals and ecosystems at the two-part COP15 U.N. summit.

The difficulty of meeting face to face because of the COVID-19 pandemic meant the summit has been postponed three times and then split into two, with the first virtual session scheduled for October and preparatory discussions now underway.

The final part of COP15 is now scheduled for April 25-May 8, 2022, in China.

The summit hopes to set both long-term 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. No wonder in 10 years' time we discover none of those targets are fully fulfilled," said Li Shuo, a senior climate and energy policy officer for Greenpeace China.

Who's leading the push?

Countries pushing for greater ambition on nature protection include Canada, the European Union, Costa Rica, Colombia and Britain, according to Georgina Chandler, an international policy expert with 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 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 in November, British officials have launched a big diplomatic push to clear potential roadblocks and win new commitments to climate action before the meeting begins.

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

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

Despite a series of online negotiating sessions this year before the main conference, more big issues could be left to be settled at the end of the process, experts said.

China has managed some diplomatic wins, however, including tamping down resistance by some countries to holding virtual negotiations as the coronavirus pandemic has continued, they said.

What needs to come out of COP15?

Not only clear targets to boost nature protection are required, but also commitments of finance to help nature-rich, developing countries achieve them, and clear ways of comparing and measuring efforts by different countries, political leaders and analysts have said.

Until now, the Convention on Biological Diversity "can be understood as the Paris Agreement with the 1.5 degree target but no rule-book, no finance," said Li of Greenpeace China.

Any new targets set at COP15 need to be "smart and measurable" rather than "fluffy and ever-extending", with standardisation across countries so they can be compared, 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 might also be set to eliminate harmful agricultural, fishing and logging subsidies, and repurpose that money to benefit nature, an additional way of raising needed cash. 

What are the connections between COP15 and COP26?

There has been a push for closer links between the two largely separate nature and climate political agendas, with scientists explaining how efforts to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss must be approached in a coordinated way for the best results.

Politicians have also started to join the dots, with Latin American leaders at a "pre-COP" meeting on Aug. 30, hosted by Colombia, issuing calls for a holistic approach to the protection of forests, oceans and other ecosystems that can both limit global warming and stop the loss of wildlife and vital natural services.

"Biodiversity is collapsing - and we are the losers," U.N. chief Antonio Guterres said in a speech to the event, noting further destruction would hike the risk of new pandemics emerging, curb access to medicine and food, and undermine the ability to avoid dangerous temperature increases. 

He called for an ambitious new global biodiversity framework that would inspire action by governments, business and citizens.

"We need everyone to act on the understanding that protecting nature will create a fairer, healthier and more sustainable world," he emphasised. 

This article was updated on Oct. 11 to reflect the start of the summit

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 @lauriegoering and Megan Rowling; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)