Will COP15 Be the ‘Paris-moment’ for Nature?

8 December 2022 14:30

Human well-being, our economies, and the ability to reach our climate goals are heavily dependent on biodiversity. Yet, economic activities continue to cause massive damage to nature. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s 15th conference, COP15, presents a timely opportunity to set targets to reverse the global loss of biodiversity and ecosystems as part of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. However, negotiations leading up to COP15 have been slow and many issues are yet to be resolved. In this article, we briefly outline the setup of COP15, discuss what’s on the table and why, and stress the unique position financial institutions are in to reverse global biodiversity loss and capitalize on nature-positive opportunities.

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A lake in the shape of the world's continents in the middle of untouched nature. A metaphor for ecological travel, conservation, climate change, global warming and the fragility of nature.3d rendering

It’s been called “the most important global meeting you have probably never heard of”[1] and “the most important United Nations Biodiversity event of the decade”[2]. With COP27 still fresh on people’s minds, December 7 will see the start of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) fifteenth meeting of the Conference Of the Parties (COP15) in Montreal, Canada. COP15 will present a timely opportunity for governments to agree on targets to reverse the global loss of biodiversity and ecosystems. Although none the of the previous (Aichi) targets on reversing the loss of nature have been met, businesses, financial institutions and governments are now more aware than ever of the importance of biodiversity. There is hope that COP15 might be the pivotal moment for the conservation of nature, in the same way that COP21 in Paris was for climate action. Failure to reach an agreement on halting biodiversity loss could have catastrophic consequences for human well-being, our economies and reaching net zero climate goals.

In this article I will briefly outline the setup of the COP15, discuss what’s on the table and why this is important, and stress that financial institutions are in a unique position to reverse the global loss of biodiversity and capitalise on nature-positive opportunities.

[1] The most important global meeting you’ve probably never heard of is now (2021). The New York Times.

[2] Financial sector guide for the convention on biological diversity (2021)

What Is COP15?

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was created at the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, together with two other conventions: one on climate change, the other on desertification. Its main objectives are:

The conservation of biological diversity The sustainable use of the components of biological diversity (Cartegena Protocol) The fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources (Nagoya Protocol)

COP15 was originally planned in October 2021 in Kunming, China, but was postponed several times due to the Covid pandemic. After much deliberation, it was decided that COP15 would take place in two parts: a virtual part from October 11-15, 2021, and a face-to-face meeting in Montreal, Canada between December 7 and 19.

What Is Biodiversity and Why Does It Matter?

Biodiversity is short for ‘biological diversity’ and refers to the variability of all life on earth, ranging from the very small (bacteria) to the very large (mammals). It means not just diversity between species, but also genetic diversity within species, which is important for adaptation, as well as diversity in ecosystems. This complex organisation of species on multiple scales is essential for nature to thrive and provide us with so-called ecosystem services, i.e. the benefits people derive from nature. Clean air and water, wood, healthy soils, crops, pollination. All of these services depend on functioning ecosystems. Besides the massive contribution to human wellbeing and global food supplies, the economy also depends on biodiversity. It is estimated that more than half of global GDP is dependent on nature[3].

However, the number and abundance of species, and the integrity of the ecosystems in which they live, have declined dramatically in the last few decades, putting all of these benefits at risk[4]. Currently, 25% of all species of plants and mammals are at threat of extinction, natural ecosystems have declined in extent and condition by 47% relative to their earliest estimated state, and the biomass of wild mammals has declined by 82% since prehistoric times. Five direct drivers are responsible for biodiversity loss: land and sea use change (e.g. deforestation), direct exploitation (e.g. hunting and fishing), climate change, pollution and invasive species. Most of these drivers can be linked to human consumption and production.

Our ability to limit the effects of climate change are also at risk if declines in biodiversity continue at current rates: healthy ecosystems such as forests and wetlands hold enormous potential as carbon sinks that sequestrate CO2 from the air, limiting the effects of global warming; mangrove forests provide a natural buffer against coastal flooding; while intact ecosystems are much better at absorbing and distributing large amounts of water, reducing the risk of flooding and soil erosion. Recent estimates suggest that the economic benefits obtained (or damage avoided) by protecting the earth’s land and oceans outweigh the costs by 5-to-1[5]. Protecting and restoring nature and ecosystems by halting biodiversity loss is therefore not only necessary to ensure human wellbeing, it is also the most cost-effective way to help with climate change mitigation and adaptation.

[3] Nature Risk Rising: Why the Crisis Engulfing Nature Matters for Business and the Economy (2020). World Economic Forum.

[4] IPBES (2019): Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. E. S. Brondizio, J. Settele, S. Díaz, and H. T. Ngo (editors). IPBES secretariat, Bonn, Germany. 1148 pages.

[5] Waldron et al. (2020). Protecting 30% of the planet for nature: costs, benefits and economic implications.

What’s on the Table?

The main goal of COP15 is for governments to agree on the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF). This framework replaces the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, which was agreed at COP10 in Nogoya, Japan. The framework is built on a ‘theory of change’ and focuses on a series of targets to be reached in 2030 and a long-term 2050 Vision for Biodiversity to live ‘in harmony with nature’[6]. A few of the more noteworthy targets are:

expanding the global area of protected areas on both land and sea to 30%, which is currently estimated at 15% and 10%, respectively; reducing the amount of nutrients lost to the environment by half, pesticides by two-thirds, and eliminating the discharge of plastic waste; redirecting or eliminating USD 500bn of subsidies that harm the environment; and contributing 10 Gt CO2eq to climate mitigation through ecosystem-based approaches.

These targets are meant to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2030 and put nature on a path to recovery by 2050.

[6] First draft of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework (2021). Open Ended Working Group on the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

Current Negotiations and Potential Pitfalls

Although many of the framework’s targets can rely on support in principle, negotiations on the final text of the framework are moving at a slow pace. After four rounds of discussion by the Open-ended Working Group on the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, there is still much uncertainty in the phrasing, scope and details of the targets[7].

Then there are issues which, not unlike the recent COP27 talks, seem to divide the global north and south. The first of these issues concerns the allocation of money: developing countries have indicated that they need more money if they are to expand and monitor protected areas and grow their economies in a more sustainable way. Most biodiversity is located in low and middle income countries and a lack of funding likely contributed to failure on the Aichi targets. There is a call for richer countries to pledge USD 100bn per year until 2030 for this purpose. There is also concern that the widely supported 30x30 target (expanding the coverage of protected areas on both land and sea to 30%) doesn’t sufficiently respect the rights of indigenous people, who often rely on nature for sustenance. However, perhaps the most hotly debated point leading up to Montreal, has been about the lack of compensation that developing countries receive for genetic information obtained from their ecosystems – often referred to as DSI (Digital Sequence Information). Africa has proposed a 1% levy on all products that use this type of genetic information, which are widely used in biotechnological solutions, and the revenue being used to fund biodiversity conservation efforts. While such proposals are likely to be met with heavy resistance, particularly by the global north, the Namibian negotiator for Africa has stated that they will not agree to a framework that does not include an agreement on DSI[8].

The working group will hold a fifth and final meeting from December 3 to 5, where it will finalize a draft framework for adoption by the COP. If these issues are not addressed swiftly and adequately, there is genuine concern that negotiations will get bogged down, as was the case for the COP27 loss and damage fund. This would be a huge opportunity cost at the expense of refining the biodiversity targets themselves.

[7] Report on the fourth meeting of the Open-ended working group on the post-2020 global biodiversity framework (2022). Open-ended Working group on the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

[8] Biopiracy row at UN talks in Geneva threatens global deal to save natur e (2022). The guardian.

The Role of Finance in Halting Biodiversity Loss

Governments are also calling on financial institutions to ramp up their efforts to halt biodiversity loss. Given that biodiversity loss is largely caused by economic activities, the decisions on where and how financial institutions allocate capital have tremendous potential to reduce the harm caused by unsustainable means of production and consumption. Furthermore, more money is needed for nature conservation. The annual funding for biodiversity currently lies between USD 124bn to USD 143bn, while it is estimated that at least USD 722bn to USD 967bn is necessary; putting the annual biodiversity funding gap at USD 711bn, on average[9]. Nature-based solutions (NBS) – projects that work with nature, rather than against it – are primary targets for such investments.

Financial institutions have a unique opportunity to be agents of change, and reallocate capital from unsustainable activities towards nature-positive investments. Not only would this mean a huge step in halting biodiversity loss, it also reduces the capital risks of investments that depend on biodiversity (this interplay of impacts and dependencies is often referred to as ‘double materiality’). Many financial institutions have answered the call for action, which has led to initiatives like the ‘Finance for Biodiversity Pledge’ which is signed by 111 financial institutions with over USD 16.3 trillion in assets[10]. The pledge commits signatories to assess their own biodiversity impact, set targets and report on biodiversity matters by 2024. In support of this, the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) are developing a framework for financial institutions to assess and disclose impacts and dependencies on nature[11].

[9] Deutz, et al. (2020). Financing Nature: Closing the global biodiversity financing gap. The Paulson Institute, The Nature Conservancy, and the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.

[10] Finance for Biodiversity Pledge

[11] Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD)

Will COP15 Deliver?

The somewhat disappointing outcome of COP27, the slow pace at which current negotiations are progressing, and the failure to reach any of the targets set in 2010, might leave one less than hopeful that parties will agree on anything of substance. Yet, I also think that there is reason to be optimistic. First, the current science on the state of our planet, the drivers that are destroying it and its underlying socio-economic causes has never been more clear or complete. Second, the lack of progress on the Aichi targets has led to current goals being formulated with much more precision, making them easier to monitor and hold governments accountable when they fall short. Last, biodiversity has been mainstreamed to a much greater degree among the private sector and financial institutions than ten years ago. It is now widely recognized that massive global and coordinated action is necessary in order to halt biodiversity loss. In two weeks’ time, we will know whether COP15 will have delivered on that promise and whether we can honestly speak of a ‘Paris-moment’ for nature.

If you want to know more about what is happening at COP15, you can follow #COP15 on twitter