Will December 2022 be remembered as a turning point in the fight against biodiversity loss?
The eyes of the world may have been on Sharm el-Sheikh for the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference last year, yet another, equally important conference seemed to fly under the radar. With a decided paucity of high-profile delegates or front-page headlines, few people were aware of the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity. The decisions made in Montreal, during a snowy fortnight in December, may have far-reaching implications for the future of the planet’s biodiversity.
A grand total of four goals and 23 targets were agreed by the 195 countries represented at the conference. Ecologists were particularly pleased to see delegates making renewed commitments to reduce levels of pollution to levels that are “not harmful to biodiversity” by 2030. Ammonia emissions are a particular source of concern as they can cause eutrophication. When leached into the environment through poor agricultural practices, the associated increase in nitrogen levels can lead to some species, such as algae, flourishing at the expense of others - to the detriment of the wider ecosystem.
Possibly the most important decision to come out of the conference, however, was a commitment to protect 30% of the world’s "lands, inland waters, coastal areas and oceans" by 2030. Although this would represent a significant improvement over today’s figures, some scientists argue that the goal is an overly simplistic one and doesn’t account for the uneven distribution of biodiversity across the world. Instead, it has been argued that conservation efforts should concentrate on biodiversity ‘hotspots’, such as the Amazon, rather than trying to protect larger areas with lower levels of biodiversity, such as the Sahara Desert.
Yet not everyone is convinced that the conference was a success. Scientists have raised concerns that the commitments agreed are non-binding, vague and, occasionally, unambitious. Professor Andy Purvis, a researcher at the Natural History Museum, believes that the targets set at Montreal are less pioneering than those set at previous summits. At the Aichi Conference in 2010, for example, governments committed to halting biodiversity loss by 2020 - a target that, like almost all the others set at the conference in question, was not met. The wording of targets set at Montreal, on the other hand, only state an intention to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2030 - suggesting an apparent weakening of global ambitions.
Perhaps even more controversially, a formal objection by the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s chief negotiator was dismissed on a technicality by the conference president, Huang Runqiu, who also serves as China’s environment minister. Although eventually persuaded to back the agreement, the DRC initially argued that many countries in sub-Saharan Africa could not afford the costs associated with conservation and had been pushing for a new fund for biodiversity - a proposal that was roundly rejected by richer countries who would have had to contribute the most to it. Despite the backing of other African nations, including Uganda and Cameroon, many international observers swiftly accused the DRC of hypocrisy and extortion, arguing that its government has condoned oil drilling in many of its protected areas, including patches of rainforest home to some of Africa’s last mountain gorillas.
Most significantly of all, a ‘Nature Positive’ pledge - a commitment to work towards a world where biodiversity is increasing, not decreasing - was dropped from the wording of the final agreement at the last minute. This pledge, which had been drawn up as the conference’s answer to the ‘Net Zero’ framework that underpins international policy on climate change, would have been the cornerstone of COP 15. The omission of any reference to phrase in subsequent documents worries Dr Andrew Terry, director of conservation at the Zoological Society of London, who is concerned that the watering down of this target may stall the momentum of the international conservation bandwagon.
It seems that hopes that COP 15 would prove a ‘Paris moment’ (a reference to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, which led to a groundbreaking agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions) for biodiversity may well have been overly optimistic. However, there is little doubt that there is an increasing international recognition of the need for bold action to solve the biodiversity crisis. Intriguingly, perhaps it is HSBC who have hit the nail on the head. In a statement, the banking group commented: “We think COP15 did a lot to raise awareness of biodiversity – with follow-up actions required for governments, businesses, and investors alike. However, we do not think the new GBF reached the ambition levels it could have…COP15 was a Montreal moment, not a Paris moment.”