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World Leaders Gathered at the 15th UN Biodiversity Conference in Kunming to Address Global Biodiversity Loss

After being postponed three times, the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Fifteenth meeting, known as COP15, was held between October 11 and 15 in Kunming, China. 

The convention behind the meeting, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was initially opened for signature at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro on June 5, 1992, and entered into force on December 29, 1993. It has three main objectives: the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of the components of biological diversity, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources. The CBD clearly expressed its goals, but how do these conferences help achieve those goals? 

The Conference of the Parties is the governing body of the Convention and it advances the implementation of the CBD through the decisions it takes at its periodic meetings. To date, the Conference of the Parties has held 14 ordinary meetings, and one extraordinary meeting. The extraordinary meeting was held in two parts to adopt the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. This Biosafety Protocol is an international agreement that aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health. It was adopted on January 29, 2000, and entered into force on September 11, 2003. From 1994 to 1996, the Conference of the Parties held its ordinary meetings annually. Since then, these meetings have been held less frequently. A change in the rules of procedure in 2000 ensured that the meetings will be held every two years. Since the CBD announced it would hold COP15 on May 17, 2021, in Kunming, this Chinese city got the world’s attention. 

Heads of states took many actions to slow down the speed of biodiversity loss. At the tenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties, held from October 18 to 29, 2010 in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, countries adopted a revised and updated Strategic Plan for Biodiversity, including the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets, for the 2011-2020 period. The Aichi biodiversity targets aim to protect coral reefs, remove governmental subsidies that harm the environment, and reduce pollution. The targets are broken down into 60 separate elements to monitor overall progress. However, no country has achieved any of the Aichi biodiversity targets to date. It was the second consecutive decade that governments failed to meet these targets. As a result, global biodiversity is still under threat. 

In April 2021, Dr. Michelle Lim, a Senior Lecturer at Macquarie Law School, who was a fellow on the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment, presented the negative outcomes that the lack of action has generated. In fact, the current extinction rates are 10 to 100 times higher than any time in the last 10 million years. 75 percent of land surface and 66 percent of oceans have been significantly modified by human activity. In the last 50 years, the earth lost 80 percent of wetland cover and 50 percent of coral cover. With other factors impacting biodiversity, including climate change and human activity, biodiversity loss will continue if there is no initiative to push for change. The IPBES Global Assessment predicts that one million species could go extinct in the next 20 to 30 years. The earth is in danger, and the process of biodiversity loss will accelerate if people do not spearhead to push for change. 

Given this dire situation, what were the goals that countries hoped to achieve at COP15?  Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a keynote speech. He said, “biodiversity makes the Earth full of vigor and vitality and lays the foundation for human survival and development. Protecting biodiversity helps protect the Earth, our common homeland, and contributes to humanity’s sustainable development.” Officials including French President Emmanuel Macron, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, President Vladimir Putin, and Britain’s Prince Charles delivered remarks via video. 

There were two notable firsts at COP15 that would support biodiversity. First, President Xi stated that China will donate 1.5 billion yuan (US$232.5 million) to set up a new fund to help developing countries protect the variety of plant and animal life in the world. Second, China announced a new national parks project that would bring 230,000 square km (88,800 square miles) of land under stronger state protection. This project includes a national park on the Tibetan plateau, the giant panda national park in Sichuan Province, and a Siberian tigers national park. China started the pilot national park program in 2015. It learned this strategy to protect the environment from the United States. National parks provide the highest level of protection for biodiversity and wildlife. It is a way to show the harmonious coexistence of humans and nature. While conserving biodiversity, it also has economic benefits because national parks might boost tourism in some areas.

One of the goals that countries aimed to achieve was to finalize the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF). This framework is a new plan to save the earth’s biodiversity. It will outline tasks that should be completed individually and collectively in the next decade and beyond, encouraging people to achieve the CBD’s overall vision of “living in harmony with nature” by 2050. Although progress has been made towards finalizing the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework at the first phase of COP 15, the real negotiations around the GBF will only be concluded at the next phase of COP15, which will take place in Kunming from April 25 to May 8, 2022.

The core of this framework is the 30 by 30 targets: countries expected to reach an agreement over targets to protect the natural world, including proposals to conserve 30 percent of the world’s oceans and land by 2030. The target has been endorsed by the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, which is a group of over 70 countries led by Costa Rica and France, with the UK as the ocean co-chair. 

Although with global support, 30 by 30 was not referred to in the Kunming Declaration as a commitment for action. The Kunming Declaration, or the Declaration from the High-Level Segment of the UN Biodiversity Conference 2020, is the main outcome of the conference. On October 13, 2021, the Kunming Declaration was adopted by over 100 countries at the first part of COP15 to the CBD. Since countries tend to contribute differently, 30 by 30 was not a one-size-fits-all target, so no collective commitment to it was made at COP15. Countries are expected to finalize the 30 by 30 targets at the next phase of COP15 as well. 

Prior to COP15, countries hoped to introduce controls on invasive species and reduce plastic pollution. As a result, the Kunming Declaration recognizes pollution and invasive species are some of the main drivers of biodiversity loss. The Declaration states, “recognizing also that the main direct drivers of biodiversity loss are land/sea use change, overexploitation, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species”. 

In conclusion, COP 15 successfully facilitated international cooperation to address challenges faced by the natural world and raised awareness of biodiversity loss. Indeed, there are still many challenges ahead. Countering the loss of ecosystems and wildlife requires countries to keep demonstrating tenacity, global mindedness, and care for the planet.

 

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