January 27, 2023

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World leaders have 2 weeks to agree on a plan to save nature

A green sea turtle swimming off the coast of Western Australia. - Getty Images

At COP15 in Montreal, officials will try to hash out a deal to protect animals and ecosystems. It won’t be easy.

One of the most important events for life on Earth, ever, is about to begin. This week and next, delegates from more than 190 countries will come together in Montreal, Canada, for a conference known as COP15, or the UN Biodiversity Conference, to hash out a plan to halt the decline of ecosystems, wildlife, and the life-supporting services they provide.

If the term “COP” sounds familiar, that’s because there was another UN conference last month called COP27. But these two events are very different. COP27 was about climate change — a conference of countries “party” to the UN’s major climate pact. COP15 will bring together nations party to another major treaty called the Convention on Biological Diversity.

I know this is a lot of jargon, but these agreements are worth knowing about. They’re arguably the most important tools the world has to protect the planet and, in the case of the biodiversity conference, underappreciated. Many experts call COP15 the last chance to reverse the decline of nature.

“Our planet is in crisis,” Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, said in a press conference earlier this month. More than a million species are threatened with extinction, she said, and populations of most major animal groups have declined by an average of 69 percent. “Clearly, the world is crying out for change,” she said.

During COP15, which starts Wednesday, negotiators are expected to finalize and sign a document called the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. You can think of it as the Paris Agreement but for biodiversity — a strategy with nearly two dozen measurable targets designed to conserve ecosystems and the benefits they provide, such as food and plant-derived medicines.

One of the splashiest and most contested targets is a commitment to conserve at least 30 percent of Earth’s land and water by 2030. It’s known as 30 by 30. The agreement also addresses what is perhaps the most hotly debated topic: Who will pay for all of this? This is especially relevant for poorer nations and Indigenous communities, which harbor most of the world’s remaining biodiversity.

Finalizing the biodiversity framework at COP15 will be tough. There’s a noticeable rift between rich and poor nations, which could stall the talks. No heads of state are attending as of yet, other than Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Negotiators, who have to agree on specific terms, are already exhausted from COP27. Meanwhile, the World Cup is drawing attention elsewhere.

But if and when the framework is signed, it will be a huge moment for conservation — and it could help stave off an apocalyptic-like future, where even our most basic needs like clean water and food are hard to meet. Here’s what to expect in the coming days.

The Convention on Biological Diversity, briefly explained

The UN oversees hundreds of global treaties on everything from human rights to outer space. They’re essentially contracts between a bunch of countries that stipulate how they should behave, and they’re legally binding. One of them is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — that’s what sprouted the Paris Agreement and the goal to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

A related treaty is the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which dates back to the early 90s. It lays out three primary goals:

  1. To conserve biodiversity, which includes species, ecosystems, and genetic diversity.
  2. To use its components, like wild animals, in a sustainable way.

And to share the various benefits of genetic resources fairly. Those resources might include medicines derived from bacteria or genes that produce desirable traits in crops, such as drought tolerance.

Parties to the CBD typically meet every two years at events known as the Conference of the Parties, or COP, to check in on progress and update the terms of the contract. That’s what’s happening this week in Montreal (COP15 was supposed to begin in 2020, but it got delayed several times due to COVID; the first part of the event took place last year in Kunming, China).

Every country in the world is a party to CBD except the Holy See (a.k.a. the Vatican) — and the United States. Why?

The gist is this: In the US, treaties need to be ratified in the Senate by a two-thirds majority, and conservative lawmakers worry that joining global agreements puts American sovereignty at risk. (In the case of CBD, it doesn’t.)

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