Biodiversity summit: countries gear up for a last chance to protect nature

A group of white-faced capuchins in Manuel Antonio National Park in Quepos, Costa Rica. The IUCN has listed it as a vulnerable species. (Geneva Solutions/ML)

After two years of delays due to Covid, countries will gather from 7 to 19 December in Montreal, Canada, for the long-awaited biodiversity summit where they are expected to hatch what many hope will be a Paris-like agreement for nature.

Negotiators will spend the next couple of weeks addressing the sticking points from the so-called post 2020 biodiversity framework and trying to remove around 1,000 brackets that remain in the draft text. The agreement was meant to be finalised two years ago to succeed its preceding Aichi targets, but talks have repeatedly stalled, and divergences remain.

“The framework will be a blueprint for action (...) for socio economic recovery, to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity, to achieve the sustainable development goals and to achieve our 2050 vision of living in harmony with nature,” Elizabeth Mrema, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, said at a briefing on Wednesday, urging countries to “come together”.

What’s at stake. Biodiversity is a key regulator of the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat, and billions of people depend on nature’s resources including for work, materials, and medicines, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

But biodiversity is rapidly declining, with roughly one million animal and plant species at risk of becoming extinct, according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The expert body has identified five key pressures on the natural world: land-use change, climate change, pollution, use and exploitation of natural resources and invasive species.

As global temperatures continue to rise due to human-related greenhouse gas emissions, climate change is disrupting marine, terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems. Agriculture has been said to be one, if not the main driver, of biodiversity loss.

What to look out for. The conference consists of three different meetings among the parties to the CBD, as well as parties to the Cartagena protocol on biosafety and to the Ngoya protocol on access to genetic resources.

Negotiators will be tackling key issues from conservation to agriculture to harmful subsidies. But the main objective will be to finalise the post-2020 biodiversity framework and set around 20 goals to achieve by 2030.

One of the key targets environmentalists are pushing for is preserving one third of the Earth’s lands and waters. The goal is supported by a large number of countries, but some are still on the fence over certain technicalities, including whether they will receive financial support.

“It is a global target, meaning that we think and everybody recognises that parties will have different capacity to implement the targets according to national circumstances,” Basile van Havre, co-chair of the CBD’s working group for the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, said at the briefing.

Countries will also be discussing a wide range of proposals, including curbing pesticides, slashing subsidies for activities that are harmful for nature, and ramping up finance for conservation.

Another other issue that is still up for debate is how indigenous land rights, and human rights in general, will be featured in the text. Van Havre assured that there was “a lot of support” for the recognition of a rights-based approach in the text,  namely participation of indigenous peoples and consideration of their land rights.

Read more: ​​‘Biodiversity goals impossible without indigenous peoples’

Who’s going. From over 12,000 participants registered to attend in person and online, a huge chunk come from the private sector. This has raised questions whether the meeting will be overflowing with company lobbyists seeking to foil attempts at an ambitious deal that comes with strict rules for industry like it has been the case for climate summits.

For van Havre, the situation is different from climate Cops: “The biodiversity private sector is very wide, diverse, and basically is a force that pulls us up in terms of ambition.”

Eva Zabey, executive director of the coalition Business for Nature, said that while there was growing recognition from companies of the need to protect the natural resources they depend on, biodiversity loss was still a relatively new concept for businesses and they still had “a long way to go”.

Zabey said that 330 companies had signed their petition calling for an ambitious target to “make it mandatory for all businesses and financial institutions to assess and disclose their impact and dependencies on nature”. These include Nestlé, BNP Paribas, Unilever and Holcim.

“It will help the information flow through our whole accountability system so that regulators, capital markets, investors and consumers are getting the information they need to be able to manage pressures and share natural resources properly.”

Paris or Copenhagen moment. Marco Lambertini, director general of the World Wide Fund for Nature International (WWF), which has been closely following talks, said that civil society was going to Montreal with mixed feelings of excitement and anxiety.

“Montreal could be either the Paris or the Copenhagen for nature,” he said at the event. The climate summit held in Copenhagen in 2009 failed to reach an agreement to keep global warming below the 2ºC limit, while the meeting in Paris in 2015 brought countries together behind the 1.5ºC target. “We need Montreal Cop15 to do the same for nature. We've been missing that direction, measurable, clear and compelling, for too long, and that has led to a lot of actions in an uncoordinated way,” he added.

Sonia Peña Moreno, director of the international policy centre at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) warned that “we cannot let perfect be the enemy of the good”.

“If we want to lift the nearly 1,000 brackets or whatever number of brackets are left in the text (...) we have to find ways that bring us closer to that middle ground or to that consensus,” she said, noting that it shouldn’t mean watering down the ambition.

Zabey warned of the risk that “if the outcome falls short, nature will fall back down the business, finance and political agenda”.

On a more optimistic note, Van Havre pointed out that he expected the outcome of the climate summit held last month in Egypt to have a positive influence on negotiations in Montreal as negotiators, particularly for the loss and damage fund, left with the sentiment of “being heard”.

“They will be coming with an attitude open to compromise and with trust in the system which will be very important.”