Nature and Biodiversity

What's the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) and why is it important for nature?

The UN’s COP15 talks aim to give biodiversity and ecosystems the same international protection as the climate.

The UN’s COP15 talks aim to give biodiversity and ecosystems the same international protection as the climate. Image: Unsplash/Juanma Clemente-Alloza

Simon Read
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Nature and Biodiversity

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • The UN’s COP15 talks aim to give biodiversity and ecosystems the same international protection as the climate.
  • Biodiversity loss is ranked as one of the biggest threats facing humanity.
  • Experts say the rate at which species are becoming extinct is accelerating.
  • Governments will be asked to support a 10-year strategy which will change our relationship with nature.

The race to protect the natural world and its biodiversity reaches a critical milestone this December as countries gather for the United Nations’ COP15 meeting.

The stakes for the summit - in Montreal, Canada - could hardly be higher. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres says: “We are losing our suicidal war against nature”.

COP15 aims to give biodiversity the same levels of international protection as the climate.

The UN’s three environment COPs

COP stands for “Conference of the Parties” – the nations who have signed up to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

Montreal will be the 15th time they have met.

It’s one of three UN COPs: the other two are the Climate COP which last met in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2021 and the Environment COP which deals with desertification.

The CBD confronts the threats to the survival of species and ecosystems around the world. It dates back to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and has been ratified by 195 countries and the European Union, but not by the United States or the Vatican.

Two infographics. One showing extinctions since 1500, and another showing declines in species survival since 1980
The rate at which we are losing species is accelerating. Image: Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Global Assessment Report

Extinctions and the destruction of ecosystems were a clear threat when the Convention was agreed – but things are far worse now.

Biodiversity loss is one of the biggest dangers we face, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2022.

A million species under threat

Human activity threatens to wipe out more species now than ever before, says the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Around a million species are threatened with extinction unless action is taken, IPBES research shows. The rate of extinction is at least “tens to hundreds of times” higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years, it says.

Species of birds, plants, mammals, reptiles, fish and insects are all under threat.

Biodiversity threatens economies, too

The unprecedented destruction of nature is a matter of human self-preservation, says a report from WWF. Biodiversity and healthy ecosystems are essential to providing our food, water and energy, as well as regulating the climate, the charity says.

Biodiversity loss hits the world’s economies too, with catastrophic results for people across the globe. Some countries risk bankruptcy as a result.

The alarming increase in extinctions is leading many scientists to call for ambitious action at COP15.

Building a life in harmony with nature

Biodiversity loss is just as catastrophic as climate change,” says Professor Andy Purvis, from the UK’s Natural History Museum. “Muddling through as we currently are doing is nowhere near enough to halt, let alone reverse, this devastating decline in biodiversity.”

So when representatives of governments from around the world gather in Montreal, they will be under pressure to deliver results.

“What needs to happen first and foremost is the adoption of … a 10-year strategy to engage the entire world in the task of protecting nature and building a future of life in harmony with nature,” says Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Executive Secretary of the CBD.

Actions to protect biodiversity

The heads of state and environment ministers meeting in Montreal will decide whether to back the commitments in the Post-2020 Global Diversity Framework.

The framework commits governments to a series of actions designed to protect biodiversity and restore ecosystems.

It includes 21 targets for urgent action in the next 10 years, including stopping discharges of plastic waste, reducing the use of pesticides and ensuring that at least 30% of land and sea areas are protected.

Missed targets

There will be big obstacles to overcome before agreement is reached, with finance being a major issue.

The leaders of some developing countries are expected to argue they need more money if they are to protect larger parts of their territories and grow their economies sustainably, reports The Guardian.

Governments have a dubious track record on biodiversity commitments, too.

In the history of the CBD, governments have failed to meet any of the targets which have been agreed, says the newspaper.

Venue change

COP15 has been organized differently because of the disruption caused by the pandemic.

The first talks were held virtually in 2021, and they were due to conclude in Kunming, China this year. But due to China’s ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, the event is being moved to Canada.

Despite the venue change, China will still hold the presidency, for a summit which has the potential to mark a crucial change in our relationship with the natural world.

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