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How COP15 can be a watershed moment for biodiversity

By December 2, 2022June 5th, 2023Agenda, COP 15, News

This month, the world will convene in Montreal to stop and reverse nature collapsing. 

After a two-year delay and a change of location, expectations for this month’s COP15 UN biodiversity summit – with China as President, but hosted in Canada – are mixed. 

But its potential should not be underestimated, because this summit could be a watershed moment for nature. It could see a global deal to halt and reverse biodiversity loss that could be as historic as the 2015 Paris Agreement for climate. 

This is critical, because nature has decisive power over our health, economy and safety. The more it’s destroyed, the harder it will be to bring global warming under control: forests have the potential to store almost a quarter of the carbon needed to keep global warming below 2°C. As natural carbon sinks like forests and peatland are stripped away, and natural buffers against extreme weather are destroyed, everybody on earth becomes less safe.   

Nature is the hidden powerhouse behind the global economy, and the foundation of public health. The Swiss Re Institute reports that 55% of global GDP depends on high-functioning biodiversity and ecosystem services. And if the current rate of biodiversity loss persists, researchers anticipate that 3.3 million people each year will die from zoonotic illnesses in the future. 

That means a lot rests on the outcomes that emerge from Montreal’s negotiation rooms. The search for a deal provides a glaring public deadline for some of the most powerful decision-makers in the world. Leaders in the real economy will be watching signals from governments closely. The promises those investors and industrialists make about their investments and operations matter almost as much as what’s in the final deal text. 

The good news is that this summit can build on promising signs of progress. A swathe of new domestic policy across the EU, China and the US promises to protect nature, while the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is now legally recognised in 155 countries. Last year, G7 leaders announced a new Compact for Nature that promises to use all the tools at their disposal – regulation, shareholdings in development banks, aid and domestic policy – to protect and restore nature.

Meanwhile, the world of finance and industry is changing too. Heavyweight economists like Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta are adding their weight behind calls to put nature at the heart of economics. Central banks and regulators in France, Netherlands, Mexico and Malaysia are looking at how their financial systems depend upon nature and biodiversity. 

Despite this, it’s far from guaranteed that the potential of COP15 will be realised. Unless it agrees a clear set of global goals, money and delivery plans to hold governments accountable, the prospect of real change could still be left on the table.  

This nature summit is a once-in-a-decade opportunity, and each group needs to play their part. 

For world leaders, the key task is simply turning up. Leaders bring an entourage of influence: their presence attracts more media scrutiny to the deal and piles pressure on their negotiators and ministers. They send a message to markets and business to anticipate action on a grand scale. If political leaders don’t take this summit seriously, we don’t stand a chance of holding powerful economic actors accountable. 

For key financial players, their role is to make sure their investments have a positive impact on nature. Decision-makers in public development finance, credit ratings agencies, insurers and pension funds all need to build on promising action, anticipate more radical moves afoot, and adopt stronger targets and timetables to stop destroying nature. 

For businesses, the task is to acknowledge their exposure and impact, then plan to address it. You can’t manage what you don’t measure, and despite some companies promising to look hard at their footprint on nature, many haven’t yet followed through. COP15’s outcomes on mandatory reporting need to be robust enough to send a strong message to business and regulators. 

With the most important actors in place, the summit needs to deliver two critical outcomes.

The first is a visible finance deal. The current finance gap for the protection and restoration of nature is USD$711 billion a year. We need a deal that makes sure public and private funding flows are nature-positive, with dedicated funding for developing countries. 

The second is strong global goals combined with a clear plan of action that helps to restore the diversity and abundance of nature. Governments need to agree standardised, transparent reporting for countries to report on their progress to make sure that these goals are met. Biodiversity targets have a reputation of never being met: they need to shake that off. 

That will only happen if we avoid brinkmanship. Countries must come to COP with the intent of getting a good deal, not diplomatic theatre. The Chinese Presidency needs to provide clarity and leadership to organise leaders and ministers to crunch through the most politically sensitive topics and get a deal.

The deal will only be meaningful if Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities are at the centre of decisions. Although they make up less than 5% of the world’s population, Indigenous Peoples have protected 80% of the Earth’s biodiversity in the forests, deserts, grasslands and marine environments in which they have lived for centuries. These communities are the most effective people on earth at protecting nature. That must be reflected in deals and finance. 

The stakes for COP15 couldn’t be higher: our health, economy, and hopes of limiting global warming all depend on our natural world. A single summit won’t solve the crisis by itself – but it could be the turning point when governments, investors and business recognise biodiversity as a global asset we can’t live without.