World leaders set new biodiversity targets at COP15

What’s happening? Nearly 200 countries have signed an agreement at the COP15 biodiversity summit in Montreal. The deal aims to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. (The Guardian)

Why does this matter? The natural world is under immense pressure – experts believe that humans may have already triggered a sixth mass extinction event. A recent report by WWF found that wildlife populations have declined by an average of 69% between 1970 and 2018, while one million plant and animal species are facing extinction.

Halting and reversing the damage caused by centuries of urbanisation, unsustainable levels of resource extraction and pollution is viewed as an imperative to ensuring a sustainable future for humanity. It is also important for the economy – approximately 55% of the world’s GDP, equivalent to $41tn, is reliant on high-functioning biodiversity and ecosystem services.

The key points – This was the second stage of a two-part conference, with the first hosted virtually in Kunming, China, in 2021. The goal of COP15 was to adopt the Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework and set a number of ambitious targets to stop the ongoing destruction of natural habitats.

On 19 December, 196 parties finally agreed on the new Kumming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), comprising a set of four overarching goals and 23 action-oriented targets. The most prominent one is called “30×30” and aims to conserve 30% of the world’s lands, seas and inland waters by 2030. Currently, only 17% of land and 10% of the ocean fall under some form of protection, leaving a sizable majority at risk.

Within the framework, an emphasis is placed on conserving areas with “particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services” while “recognising Indigenous and traditional territories”. This has been welcomed by human rights groups and Indigenous activists, who were concerned about the impact of new conservation initiatives on local communities (an issue we have previously written about).

Other targets in the GBF to be met by 2030 include halving food waste, phasing out or reforming $500bn in environmentally-damaging subsidies each year and mobilising $200bn a year for conservation initiatives. The Chinese presidency also announced that the Global Environment Facility would set up a special fund, the Global Biodiversity Framework Fund, to support the implementation of the GBF.

Are there any shortcomings? While some have hailed the GBF as the Paris Agreement for biodiversity, there are still some weaknesses in the framework. To begin with, the framework is not legally binding. The GBF also does not set country-specific targets and has faced criticism for not including stricter goals. WWF’s UK chief executive Tanya Steele said the unambitious language in the framework’s overarching targets, for example on reducing extinction risks by 2050 instead of 2030, is unacceptable.

Another issue is the inclusion of the term “sustainable use” in the 30×30 goal. This means that the sustainable use of key ecosystems is permitted, assuming it is appropriate and in line with conservation outcomes. Some fear this will be used as a loophole to allow continued development in the world’s most precious ecosystems.

One party was missing – The US is the only major economy that has not signed the GBF since it is not a member of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. The absence of a country that accommodates a range of ecosystems – from temperate rainforests and swamps to coral reefs – and is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases may limit the GBF’s ability to galvanise international action.

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