Why is there another COP happening?

Yet another COP talking-shop is taking place. Not even three weeks after the end of COP27, the United Nations’ climate summit in Egypt, many of the same people are congregating in Canada for COP15. Confused? This UN meeting is about biodiversity; last month’s was about climate change. So what is a biodiversity COP?

Delegates’ main objective in Montreal is to agree on a new set of rules to protect ecosystems, with goals that must be met by 2030. The aim is to prevent plant and animal species from dying out and thus protect the ecological, genetic and biological variety on which life on Earth depends. That is a mammoth task. Optimists hope that the summit will produce something akin to the Paris agreement, the 2015 accord which saw almost every country promise to increase efforts to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and mitigate against climate change. Pessimists note that nothing close to that has been achieved in three decades of international biodiversity negotiations.

Bold action is sorely needed. Healthy ecosystems provide raw materials for food, medicine and buildings. They also offset some of mankind’s environmental excesses. Humans emit about 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year, as well as other greenhouse gases. By absorbing carbon, plants sequester 11bn tonnes annually, while releasing oxygen. Another 10bn tons of carbon dissolves into the oceans. The World Bank estimates that the degradation of ecosystems—through land-clearing, pollution and climate change—could cost $225bn a year by 2030, about 0.2% of global GDP. If certain “tipping points” are passed the cost could be more than ten times that.

In 1992, a huge “Earth Summit” held in Rio de Janeiro produced a trio of UN conventions to address a triptych of environmental calamities: climate change, biodiversity and desertification. In carving up these issues, the architects of the conventions may have hoped to give each the attention it deserves. But the problems are interrelated. Deforestation destroys ecosystems and speeds up climate change, for example, by eliminator carbon sinks. Work on all three fronts has been painfully slow, but in recent years the climate crisis has received the vast majority of attention.

Biodiversity has been neglected. Delegates at the tenth biodiversity COP, held in Aichi, Japan in 2010, set 20 big targets and 60 smaller ones to be achieved by 2020. Countries promised to include biodiversity in their national policies, reduce pollution, half habitat loss and much more besides. Not a single target was met. On many fronts things have got worse.

The Aichi targets were vague and unrealistic. The lack of clear, measurable rules on protecting biodiversity has hindered progress for years. Not having had its “Paris moment” also means that businesses do not yet focus so much on biodiversity. Compare this with cutting emissions, which most started to attempt seriously after global net-zero targets were introduced. The pandemic made things worse. COP15 was originally scheduled to be held in China in 2020, but was delayed and later moved because of covid-19 restrictions.

But even with the summit underway, it is unclear what it may achieve. The 196 parties (195 countries, plus the European Union) want all different things. Among the most popular proposals is a commitment to protect 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030, though its details remain elusive. Some delegations are pushing for a collective commitment by rich governments to provide $100bn a year until 2030 to help poor countries reach their biodiversity goals; Others want to do away with “environmentally harmful subsidies”, including those for agriculture, fisheries and fossil fuels. China is against a deadline to phase out the use of pesticides and fertilisers, which many other countries favor.

Delegates acknowledge that action on biodiversity and climate change should be better integrated, but cannot agree on how to do this. And America has not even ratified the underlying convention on biodiversity because successful governments have failed to achieve a two-thirds majority for it in the Senate. The outlook is not promising. “We are already too late, but better late than never,” said Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the UN’s biodiversity chief, this year. “The time to act is now,” she adds—a refrain heard at virtually every environmental summit in the past decade.

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