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World leaders have 2 weeks to agree on a plan to save nature

At COP15 in Montreal, officials will try to hash out a deal to protect animals and ecosystems. It won’t be easy.

A green sea turtle swimming off the coast of Western Australia.
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Benji Jones is a senior environmental reporter at Vox, covering biodiversity loss and climate change. Before joining Vox, he was a senior energy reporter at Insider. Benji previously worked as a wildlife researcher.

One of the most important events for life on Earth, ever, is now underway. This week and next, delegates from more than 190 countries will come together in Montreal, Canada, for a conference known as COP15, or the UN Biodiversity Conference, to hash out a plan to halt the decline of ecosystems, wildlife, and the life-supporting services they provide.

If the term “COP” sounds familiar, that’s because there was another UN conference last month called COP27. But these two events are different. COP27 was about climate change — a conference of countries “party” to the UN’s major climate pact. COP15 brings together nations party to another major treaty called the Convention on Biological Diversity.

I know this is a lot of jargon, but these agreements are worth understanding. They’re arguably the most important tools the world has to protect the planet and, in the case of the biodiversity conference, underappreciated. Many experts call COP15 the last chance to reverse the decline of nature.

“Our planet is in crisis,” Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, said in a press conference before the event. More than a million species are threatened with extinction, she said, and populations of most major animal groups have declined by an average of 69 percent. “Clearly, the world is crying out for change,” she said.

During COP15, which officially starts December 7, negotiators are expected to finalize and sign a document called the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. You can think of it as the Paris agreement but for biodiversity — a strategy with nearly two dozen measurable targets designed to conserve ecosystems and the benefits they provide, such as food and plant-derived medicines.

One of the splashiest and most contested targets is a commitment to conserve at least 30 percent of Earth’s land and water by 2030. The target is referred to as 30 by 30. The agreement also addresses another controversial topic: Who will pay for all of this? This is especially relevant for poorer nations and Indigenous communities, which harbor most of the world’s remaining biodiversity.

Finalizing the biodiversity framework at COP15 will be a major challenge. There’s a noticeable rift between rich and poor nations, which could stall the talks. No heads of state are attending as of yet, other than Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. And negotiators, who have to agree on specific terms, are already exhausted from COP27. Meanwhile, the World Cup is drawing attention elsewhere.

But if and when the framework is signed, it will be a huge moment for conservation — and it could help stave off an apocalyptic-like future, where even our most basic needs like clean water and food are hard to meet. Here’s what to expect in the coming days.

The Convention on Biological Diversity, briefly explained

The UN oversees hundreds of global treaties on everything from human rights to outer space. They’re essentially contracts between a bunch of countries that stipulate how they should behave, and they’re legally binding. One of them is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — that’s what sprouted the Paris agreement and the goal to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

A related treaty is the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which dates back to the early ’90s. It lays out three primary goals:

  1. To conserve biodiversity, which includes species, ecosystems, and genetic diversity.
  2. To use its components, like wild animals, in a sustainable way.
  3. And to share the various benefits of genetic resources fairly. Those resources might include medicines derived from bacteria or genes that produce desirable traits in crops, such as drought tolerance.

Parties to the CBD normally meet every two years at events known as the Conference of the Parties, or COP, to check in on progress and update the terms of the contract. That’s what’s starting now in Montreal (COP15 was supposed to begin in 2020, but it got delayed several times due to Covid; the first part of the event took place last year in Kunming, China).

Every country in the world is a party to CBD except the Holy See (a.k.a. the Vatican) — and the United States. Why?

The gist is this: In the US, treaties need to be ratified in the Senate by a two-thirds majority, and conservative lawmakers worry that joining global agreements puts American sovereignty at risk. (In the case of CBD, it doesn’t.)

That said, the US will still have a large presence at COP15. Although it can’t formally vote on language in the framework, it will still send a delegation to Montreal and ultimately help shape the outcome, given the sheer size of its economy and abundance of wildlife.

A performance at the opening ceremony of COP15 in Kunming, China, on October 14, 2021.
Chen Yehua/Xinhua via Getty Images

Unlike the big climate COPs, heads of state usually don’t show up at CBD conferences, which environmentalists decry. “This is a very concerning situation considering this critical conference seeks to agree on a pathway to curb the collapse of our entire planetary life support system,” Campaign for Nature, an environmental group advocating for 30 by 30, said in a statement last month. “Having government leaders there is essential to elevate this crisis to the level it deserves.”

One reason their attendance is so important, the campaign says, is that it signals to investors and shareholders that countries are united in the effort to protect the planet.

But COP15 is still drawing more attention and attendees than perhaps any other UN biodiversity event before, said Brian O’Donnell, who leads the Campaign for Nature. Almost 18,000 participants have registered, according to CBD. “This is going to be a much bigger deal than we’ve ever seen,” O’Donnell said, compared to other biodiversity COPs. “The amount of participants is bigger, the amount of media attention is bigger, the stakes are higher.”

What COP15 aims to achieve

Averting the worst effects of climate change is, in a sense, pretty simple: Keep warming below 1.5°C by limiting the emission of greenhouse gases. Protecting the integrity of ecosystems, however, is a bit more complicated — as is what countries will try to accomplish in Montreal.

A major goal of the biodiversity talks is to figure out how to protect remaining natural environments, restore those that are damaged, and get corporations to stop further destruction. Simple, right? You won’t hear as much chatter about “net-zero emissions” in Montreal as terms like “nature-positive” — a buzzword typically referring to a future with more intact ecosystems, compared to today — and “nature-based solutions.”

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during an event at Central Park Zoo in New York City ahead of the COP15 conference, on September 20.
Monica Schipper/Getty Images for WWF International

So what’s the plan? The biggest to-do at COP15 is for countries to agree on a number of targets that they can achieve by 2030. That’s what’s in the biodiversity framework, which experts have been working on for a few years now. There are currently 22 of them (though it’s more like 23, because one of them is split into two), and that number could change.

The targets cover a lot of territory and are pretty specific. Target 2, for example, calls on countries to restore 20 or 30 percent of degraded lands and waters, target 3 proposes conserving at least 30 percent of the planet (such as by limiting development and other harmful activities), and target 7 suggests cutting the use of pesticides or the risks of them by half or two-thirds. There are also targets related to invasive species, harmful subsidies, and plastic waste.

(You can find a complete list of targets starting on page 9 here, though, again, keep in mind it’s still a draft.)

In addition to hashing out the framework, negotiators at COP15 will also devise — and this is key — a mechanism to measure progress toward those targets. It’s easier to do for some than for others. For target 3, for example, about conserving at least 30 percent of the Earth, there are already databases of protected areas, showing how much land is formally conserved (though even this measuring tool has some issues).

If this all sounds like ... a lot, that’s because it is. The meeting is just two weeks long, so it will be a race to finish, and many experts suspect it could go into overtime.

The major sticking points

Today, the biodiversity framework — the key document of COP15 — is very much just a draft. The text has more than 700 brackets surrounding phrasing that delegates don’t agree on, making it hard to even read.

“The draft is not in good shape,” said Elsa Tsioumani, an international lawyer, during a COP15 press conference hosted last week by the Earth Negotiations Bulletin. “There’s so much cleaning to be done.”

Just five of the targets are now mostly finalized, which pertain to conserving nature in cities, sharing advances in technology and information, and including Indigenous communities and women in decision-making. (The website Carbon Brief is tracking the full set of targets and how close parties are to agreeing on them.)

Many more remain controversial.

One such target is 30 by 30, or target 3. Some Indigenous people and local communities worry that efforts to conserve more land could impinge on their rights, according to Viviana Figueroa, a legal expert at the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity.

These concerns are rooted in a very real and dark history: Western environmentalists once thought of “conserved” nature as something pristine and devoid of human life, and they used that thinking to expel Indigenous people from their land. In reality, Indigenous people are the most effective stewards of the planet’s ecosystems.

“We want recognition of what we are doing — what we have been doing for millennia,” Figueroa said, of Indigenous conservation.

The agreement will likely acknowledge the importance of Indigenous tribes and their rights, environmental advocates told me. But it’s not clear if their lands will “count” toward reaching the 30 by 30 target, partly because there’s still no universal understanding of what “conserved” means. (There’s a whole other debate about whether 30 percent is enough to protect the integrity of ecosystems, which I delve into here.)

Tension also surrounds funding for conservation and the phase-down of subsidies. Developing countries have called on richer nations to put at least $100 billion a year into a fund for poorer countries, but “we’re nowhere near that right now,” O’Donnell said of funding. Existing pledges for biodiversity financing total about $7 billion a year. (This debate echoes similar conversations at COP27.)

There’s also an ongoing debate about who should be administering the money, according to Helen Tugendhat, a program coordinator at the nonprofit Forest Peoples Programme.

Beyond that, delegates are also somewhat stuck on targets 2 (restoration), 7 (pollution), 10 (agriculture reform), and 15 (the role of corporations), experts say. “Almost all targets still have multiple brackets and multiple options,” said Guido Broekhoven, who leads policy, research, and development at WWF International. “It’s really difficult to see how these will be played out.”

A great gray owl.
Getty Images

So can COP15 actually do anything?

First, the bad news: The Convention on Biological Diversity doesn’t have a great track record. More than a decade ago, its member countries agreed to a similar but much vaguer set of 20 targets — known as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets — to protect ecosystems by 2020. They included things like reducing impacts on coral reefs and preventing the extinction of threatened species.

Yet the world didn’t meet a single one of them. (Some models also point out that it’s impossible to reverse the decline of nature by 2030, regardless of diplomacy.)

So what will make these new targets different? They’re certainly no less ambitious.

These targets need to be more specific and measurable, Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International, said at a press conference last week. “This is a key element that we’re really advocating for in the new GBF,” he said. In other words, countries need to have clear goals and a way to track their progress against them — so, not just “make farming more environmentally friendly” but “reduce X farming chemicals by X amount,” and so on.

Countries will also need to agree on a rigorous approach to monitoring progress toward the framework’s targets. Broekhoven of WWF suggests that, after four years, for example, nations should review their progress and then potentially make even bigger commitments, following the monitoring framework of the Paris Agreement.

But perhaps the biggest reason to think that this time will be different is that people — world leaders, business executives, and the general public — are paying more attention to what’s happening to nature, to the erosion of ecosystems, than ever before. “Nature has never been higher on the political or corporate agenda,” Lambertini said. That means more eyes are watching and there will be more accountability.

“We already have lost half of the forests, half of the coral reefs, 80 percent of the wetlands,” Lambertini said. “All this will only get worse unless we change the way we live, produce, and consume — in other words, unless we rebalance our relationship with nature. Failure in Montreal is not an option.”

Update, December 7, 10:45 am ET: This story was originally published on December 4 and has been updated to reflect the start of COP15.

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