The UN Biodiversity Conference is the regular meeting of the countries who have signed (and are therefore ‘parties to’) the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the international agreement for conserving biodiversity with the vision of “living in harmony with nature by 2050”. The convention was adopted at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, and the first Conference of the Parties to the convention (COP 1) took place in 1994 in Nassau, Bahamas.

The Conference of the Parties (COP) is the arena for international governments to meet and review progress on the convention and establish new measures needed to support its goals. For example, a new ‘post-2020 global biodiversity framework’ is expected to be finalised at the next in-person meeting (COP15) in December 2022. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called this conference an opportunity to “call a ceasefire” on the human-inflicted destruction of ecosystems, which he has labelled a “suicidal war against nature”.

Why is a global biodiversity conference, and convention, needed?

Biodiversity refers to the complex web of varied and interdependent ecosystems that sustains all life on Earth. Human activity is driving changes to biodiversity globally, the greatest direct causes being changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution and invasion of alien species. These are indirectly reinforced by societal values and behaviours, including consumption patterns, which lead us to overuse the Earth’s biocapacity – the natural resources that it produces – by at least 56%, according to one report.

The scale of destruction to interconnected natural and human systems as posed by biodiversity decline requires international, coordinated action. As communities and economies are built on and are dependent on natural resources, the objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity encompass both social and economic aspects: (i) the conservation of biological diversity; (ii) the sustainable use of its components; and (iii) the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits of biological diversity.

While biodiversity goals are needed in the interest of protecting species and ecosystems, they also have consequences for how we deal with climate change. In 2021, COP26 – the UN climate change conference, that year held in Glasgow – marked the first time that biodiversity and climate change were linked at an international level. Climate change is expected to become an increasingly important driver of biodiversity loss and it will not be possible to protect nature and biodiversity, and all the essential goods and services they provide, unless global temperature rise is capped in line with the Paris Agreement goals. The majority of UN Sustainable Development Goals also depend on biodiversity.

What has been achieved so far?

Thirty years on from the establishment of the Convention on Biological Diversity, damage to ecosystems has continued, and even accelerated, with as many as one million species threatened with extinction over the coming decades to centuries.

Areas of progress in biodiversity conservation include: the incorporation of biodiversity values into national accounting systems; a decline in the rate of deforestation globally of about one-third in 2020 compared with the previous decade; the expansion of protected terrestrial and marine areas and areas of particular importance for biodiversity; an increase in available data and information on biodiversity; and a doubling of financial resources available for biodiversity through international flows.

However, a progress report from the UN following publication of the 2011–2020 strategic plan of the CBD noted that none of the 20 ‘Aichi’ biodiversity targets for 2020 were achieved globally, with just six “partially achieved”.

The conferences have also seen the adoption of supplementary agreements, including the 2000 Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, on managing the movement of living modified organisms from one country to another and the 2010 Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-Sharing, which aims to ensure that the benefits of genetic resources – which refers to living organisms with perceived value – are managed or distributed in a fair and equitable way.

Which countries are part of the convention?

A total of 196 countries are party to the Convention on Biological Diversity – although the United States is notably absent. Each country is required to set national biodiversity strategies and action plans (NBSAPs) detailing how the principles of the conservation and sustainable use of biological resources will be integrated into their country’s national policies. To date, 99% of the parties have developed at least one national action plan, but how far they align with aspects of the convention varies, and achieving successful implementation remains a challenge.

The 2020 UN progress report on the convention found that, on average, one-third (34%) of all national targets set by countries are on track to be met, 3% are expected to be exceeded and for half (51%), progress is not sufficient to meet targets. Only 11% of national targets show no significant progress while 1% are moving in the wrong direction.

What will happen at COP15?

COP15 has been split into two parts, the first held online in October 2021. The second part, to take place in person, is happening in December 2022; this is two years later than planned, following Covid-related delays and a location change from Kunming in China to Montreal in Canada.

It is expected that the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework will be agreed at the conference. This is the highly anticipated successor to the 2011–2020 Strategic Framework for Biodiversity and its Aichi Targets, and it will be critical to the safeguarding of nature over the next decade and beyond.

The first draft of the framework states the need for immediate action to reverse the drivers of biodiversity loss by 2030, followed by a period of natural ecosystem recovery by 2050. The targets for 2030 include: expand protected areas to at least 30% of the world’s land and sea cover; reduce invasive species by 50%; reduce pesticide use by two-thirds; use ecosystem-based approaches to mitigate climate change; reduce economic incentives to harm biodiversity by US$500 billion per year; and increase finance flows towards biodiversity goals by US$200 billion per year.

But even before being ratified, the draft framework has been criticised for not being “ambitious” or “urgent” enough. Some experts have pointed out the enduring biodiversity knowledge gaps from underrepresented groups and regions, and how these perspectives would recommend different solutions and priorities to those put forward in the framework.

One of the most important questions of COP15 is whether it can move from aspiration to action. The recognised failure of the previous set of global biodiversity goals has given increased focus to how the new targets and plans can be implemented more successfully.

This Explainer was written by Natalie Pearson with review by Sabrina Muller.

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