Nature

Explainer: COP15, the biggest biodiversity conference in a decade

An updated guide to the intergovernmental negotiations taking place in December 2022 in Montreal, Canada, that have a crucial role to play in halting biodiversity loss and restoring nature
<p>A jaguar on a fallen tree in the Pantanal, Brazil (Image: Alamy)</p>

A jaguar on a fallen tree in the Pantanal, Brazil (Image: Alamy)

Biodiversity encompasses the full variety of life – all genes, species and ecosystems – and it is in danger. That means we are too. As this article explains, a major conference in December 2022 could have a big impact on our collective fate by helping to end biodiversity loss and restore nature.

What does COP15 stand for?

Editor’s note

This article was updated on 11 August 2022 to reflect updates from the pre-COP15 process and the new schedule for COP15.

COP15 is shorthand for the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). In fact, COP15 includes meetings of parties to three international agreements: the CBD and its two subsidiary protocols, namely the Cartagena Protocol on biosafety and the Nagoya Protocol on access and benefit-sharing.

The CB-what?

The CBD was agreed at the Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992. It has three objectives: the conservation of biodiversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources. Some 195 countries and the European Union are now parties to the CBD. The United States is the only member state of the United Nations that has not ratified the agreement. The CBD’s Cartagena Protocol has 173 parties and its Nagoya Protocol has 137.

Why is biodiversity important? 

Our fate is inextricably linked to that of the rest of nature. In 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) made this clear when it warned that nature loss is accelerating at an unprecedented rate, with grave impacts for human wellbeing, and that a million species face extinction.

When will COP15 take place – and where?

COP15 was meant to take place in the Chinese city of Kunming in October 2020, but it was delayed four times because the Covid-19 pandemic prevented in-person meetings. To maintain momentum, China officially opened COP15 in Kunming in October 2021, a largely online event at which parties to the CBD adopted the non-binding Kunming Declaration. With Covid-19 restrictions still in place in China, the CBD Secretariat announced in June 2022 that the main part of the COP15 meeting would take place in Montreal, Canada, on 5–17 December 2022. China will remain the official President of the meeting.

Skyline of Montreal, Canada, where COP15 biodiversity talks will be held in December 2022
Originally planned for Kunming in southwest China, the final phase of the COP15 biodiversity talks will now be held in Montreal, Canada, this December (Image: Joe Passe / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

What is the intended outcome of COP15?

Among other things, a new plan to save life on Earth. COP15 is meant to adopt something currently being called the “Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework”. It will outline what countries need to do, individually and collectively, in the next decade and beyond, to set humanity on course for achieving the CBD’s overall vision of “living in harmony with nature” by 2050.

Haven’t we been here before?

Sadly, yes. In 2002, parties to the CBD committed “to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss”. They failed. So in 2010 they met in Japan and agreed on a new plan, which included the 20 Aichi Targets. But not one of these targets was fully met by the 2020 deadline. With each failure, the task grows ever harder.

What’s different this time?

The post-2020 framework’s goals will be more “outcome-oriented” than before, with clearly articulated and time-bound aims underpinned by targeted actions to address the drivers of biodiversity loss.

How is the plan shaping up?

A CBD working group co-chaired by representatives of Canada and Uganda is developing the text of the post-2020 framework for CBD parties to finalise and agree at COP15. The latest version has four long-term goals for 2050 and 22 targets to achieve by 2030.

The four goals focus respectively on conservation, sustainable use of biodiversity, fair benefit-sharing, and adequate means of implementation – meaning money, as well as technical capacities. The targets cover a wide range of topics, from expanding protected areas and reducing pollution to ensuring that food production is sustainable and phasing out billions of dollars of public subsidies that harm nature.

But already two years late, the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework is still far from complete. Square brackets surround much of the text, meaning that parties have not agreed on the wording or whether even to include the subject. The working group’s fourth meeting in Nairobi in June 2022 was meant to be its last. But it made so little progress that an extra meeting will take place on 3–5 December in Montreal, just before COP15.

Does the CBD need an apex target (like the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C)?

Scientists, nongovernmental organisations and parties to the CBD are split about whether or not to have a top-level target to be achieved by 2030, such as an overall biodiversity status or global rate of extinction. Some believe it would help. Others say it would distract from the work of implementing the post-2020 framework and that it is impossible to capture the complexity of ecosystems and species with a single metric.

Who leads the talks and why is this significant?

China holds the rotating Presidency of the Conference of Parties to the CBD. Its minister of ecology and environment, Huang Runqiu, will preside over the talks in Montreal. It is the first time China has overseen major intergovernmental negotiations on the environment. This provides China with an opportunity to showcase its efforts to protect biodiversity both at home, through its vision of “ecological civilisation” and use of “ecological redlining”, and abroad, through greening its Belt and Road Initiative. But COP15 also presents a significant challenge to China. It will need to work hard and creatively to bring other nations together and achieve consensus on an ambitious agreement.

Chinese minister for ecology and environment Huang Runqiu (centre) holding hands at the first phase of COP15 biodiversity summit in Kunming, 2021
Chinese minister for ecology and environment, Huang Runqiu, will preside over what are arguably the most important biodiversity negotiations in history (Image: Li Xin / Alamy)

Which other countries will be key to the talks?

Costa Rica and France co-chair the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, which includes more than 100 countries that support the goal of protecting 30% of land and ocean by 2030. Separately, leaders of 93 countries and the European Union have endorsed the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, committing to reversing biodiversity loss by 2030. The members of these alliances come from all world regions and include rich and developing countries. But there are some notable absences, including Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa. These countries hold a large share of the world’s biodiversity, so they are influential players in the COP15 talks. Among other things, they will want to see firm commitments of finance from industrialised countries before they consider agreeing to other proposals.

What sticking points can we expect?

Much of COP15 will focus on the final content of targets in the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. In these negotiations, nothing will be agreed until everything is agreed. While many countries want to include the target of protecting 30% of the planet, others will seek changes in other parts of the framework before agreeing to that. Argentina and Brazil, for example, are likely to resist targets that restrict agriculture. And while the EU strongly supports a target on pesticides, other parties are less interested. The overall outcome of COP15 will therefore depend on how parties trade off demands in some areas of the framework against concessions in others.

One of the most significant topics the COP15 negotiators must grapple with concerns digitally stored information on genetic sequences. Companies could profit from such information, such as by developing new medicines without needing physical access to the species in question. This means they could avoid having to comply with CBD rules on sharing with the country of origin the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources. While some parties say digital sequence information is beyond the remit of the CBD’s Nagoya Protocol on access and benefit-sharing, others say a failure to address this issue could render the protocol useless.

As mentioned above, a major sticking point will be about “resource mobilisation”; in other words, how to fund activities to implement the new framework and, specifically, how much richer countries will provide to help poorer ones to conserve their biodiversity. Brazil and 22 other countries have called for the rich world to provide at least US$100 billion a year until 2030. That figure is in the latest draft of the post-2020 framework, but like much of the rest of the text, it remains up for debate in Montreal in December 2022. The big question is, will countries build on the draft and raise ambition or water down what is there?

Who will attend COP15?

Thousands of delegates, including representatives of all 196 parties to the CBD, will be there. The event is not a summit, so few, if any, heads of state are likely to attend. The “high-level” segment on 13–15 December will instead attract environment ministers, though not all countries will send theirs. The remainder of COP15 will involve negotiating decisions that all parties can agree to by the conference’s end. Civil society groups, indigenous peoples, scientists, businesspeople and others will participate as observers and through side events. Hundreds of journalists will cover the talks.

What do the talks mean for endangered species?

COP negotiations rarely mention individual species, but there is a proposed goal of reducing extinctions and increasing population sizes. Decisions made at COP15 will therefore have a bearing on the fates of everything from pangolins and jaguars to coral reefs and monkey puzzle trees – and our own species too.

A critically endangered Chinese pangolin at a rescue centre in Qingdao, China. Rather than focussing on protecting individual species, the overall aim of COP15 is to create a globally agreed framework for “living in harmony with nature”.
A critically endangered Chinese pangolin at a rescue centre in Qingdao, China. COP15 won’t focus on protecting individual species. Its overall aim is to create a globally agreed framework for “living in harmony with nature”. (Image: Alamy)

Can the UN climate change talks influence COP15?

Yes. There is a growing overlap between the agendas of the UN treaties on climate change and biodiversity. This reflects an increasing understanding of the linkages between the two issues and the need for integrated solutions. Just two weeks before COP15, Egypt will host COP27, the next session of negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. What happens in Egypt will influence the negotiations in Montreal, for better or worse. A positive signal for COP15 is that Egypt has designated one day in its COP27 host agenda – 16 November – for discussions focused on biodiversity.

Will COP15 succeed?

There have been high hopes that COP15 would impel countries, businesses and citizens to act on biodiversity loss in the same way that the Paris Agreement has increased action on climate change. But “the process has reached a crisis point” according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, Greenpeace, Avaaz, the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity and other organisations.

In June, they wrote an open letter to the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, and the heads of state of parties to the CBD, decrying “a notable absence of the high-level political engagement, will and leadership to drive through compromise and to guide and inspire the commitments that are required”. The letter calls for Guterres and the governments of Canada and China to convene world leaders before COP15 to rectify the situation.

But with COP15 finally in sight after two years of delays, there is very little time left for political breakthroughs – and much of the world’s attention is elsewhere. The public pressure and media coverage that could tip the balance are also lacking. In this respect, the decision to hold COP15 at the same time as the 2022 FIFA World Cup may turn out to be an own goal.