Nature

Explainer: COP15, the biggest biodiversity conference in a decade

A brief guide to the talks, originally scheduled for this year in Kunming, China, which have a key role to play in halting biodiversity loss and restoring nature
A jaguar on a fallen tree in the Pantanal, Brazil (Image: Alamy)
A jaguar on a fallen tree in the Pantanal, Brazil (Image: Alamy)

Biodiversity encompasses the full variety of life – all genes, species and ecosystems – and it is in danger, which means we are too. As this article explains, a major conference in China could have a big impact on our collective fate by helping to end biodiversity loss.

When is COP15?

It’s unclear at this point. The UN Biodiversity Conference was scheduled to take place in the Chinese city of Kunming on 15-28 October. However, the fifteenth meeting of the conference of parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) – also called COP15 – was postponed on 23 March because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The CB-what?

The CBD was agreed at the Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992 and has three objectives: the conservation of biodiversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources. Some 195 countries and the European Union are now party to the agreement. Only the United States and Vatican City have not ratified the CBD.

What is the expected outcome of the CBD?

A new plan to save life on Earth. COP15 is meant to adopt something currently being called the “Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework”. It will outline what countries need to do, individually and collectively, in the next decade and beyond, to set humanity on course for achieving the CBD’s overall vision of “living in harmony with nature” by 2050.

How is the plan shaping up?

A CBD working group co-chaired by Canada and Uganda has produced an initial “zero” draft of the framework. It has five long-term goals for 2050, with intermediary milestones, and 20 targets to achieve by 2030. The draft will be refined in the months ahead through two meetings of the working group and other CBD processes. The aim was to produce text that all parties would approve in October. The big question is, between now and the conference, will countries build on the draft and raise ambition or water down what is there?

Why is biodiversity important? 

While climate change has captured public attention and risen up political and corporate agendas, biodiversity has lagged behind. That is changing with the growing realisation that our fate is inextricably linked to that of the rest of nature. In 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services made this clear when it warned that nature loss is accelerating at an unprecedented rate, with grave impacts for human wellbeing, and that a million species face extinction.

Does the CBD need an apex target (like the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C)?

Parties to the CBD are split pretty evenly about whether or not to have a top-level target to be achieved by 2030, such as an overall biodiversity status. Some believe it would help. Others say it would distract from the work of implementing the new post-2020 framework, and that it is impossible to capture the complexity of ecosystems and species with a single metric.

Who leads the talks and why is this significant?

Until COP15 begins, the CBD process remains under the leadership of Egypt, which hosted COP14 in 2018. When China takes over, in Kunming, its minister of ecology and environment, Li Ganjie, will likely preside over the talks. There are some fears that China will prefer to facilitate dialogue towards any agreement rather than drive ambition towards a strong one and risk failing. “There is a real danger of parties agreeing something mediocre and celebrating it as a success,” says Georgina Chandler, senior international policy officer at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Which other countries will be key to the talks?

Costa Rica is pushing hard for a strong outcome. The Seychelles, United Arab Emirates, Monaco, Gabon and Mozambique have joined its High Ambition Coalition. Other parties that tend towards ambition include the EU, Norway and Canada. African nations are also usually key participants, particularly on ensuring fair sharing of benefits arising from the commercialisation of genetic resources. Looking forward, Turkey will host the next COP and will want to inherit a process with positive momentum. Meanwhile, some other countries may try to block ambition. There are concerns, for example, that Argentina and Brazil will resist forest-related targets that restrict agriculture.

What sticking points can we expect?

A COP can reach dozens of decisions. Some are uncontroversial. Others are highly contested, such as how benefits from the use of biological resources are shared. A related issue concerns how countries or companies could profit from digital information on genetic sequences, without needing physical access to genetic resources. Those using digital sequence information could potentially avoid having to comply with CBD rules on sharing benefits. While some parties say this is beyond the remit of the CBD’s Nagoya Protocol on access and benefit-sharing, others say a failure to address it could render the protocol useless. Another big issue in Kunming will be the final content of targets and indicators in the post-2020 framework, and how ambitious they are. Also key is “resource mobilisation”, in other words how much money countries will pledge to fund action to implement the new framework. The overall outcome of COP15 will depend on how parties trade off demands in some of these areas against concessions in others.

Haven’t we been here before?

Sadly, yes. In 2002, parties to the CBD committed “to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss”. They failed. So, in 2010, they met in Japan and agreed a new plan, which included the 20 Aichi Targets. All signs are that none of these targets will be fully met by their deadline this year. With each failure, the task grows ever harder.

What’s different this time?

The draft post-2020 framework’s goals are more “outcome-oriented” than before, with clearly articulated and time-bound aims – on species, habitats and benefit-sharing, for example – that are underpinned by actions (the targets) to address the drivers of biodiversity loss. However, it is too early to say how good the post-2020 framework will be, as it will be revised substantially in the coming months.

How will COP15 work?

COP15 includes meetings of parties to three international agreements: the CBD and two subsidiary protocols, namely the Cartagena Protocol on biosafety (with 172 parties) and the Nagoya Protocol on access and benefit-sharing (123 parties). As COP15 is not a summit, heads of state are unlikely to attend. The initial “high-level” segment will instead attract environment ministers, though not all countries will send theirs. The remainder of the conference will involve negotiating on decisions that all parties can agree to by its end. Civil society groups, indigenous peoples, scientists, businesspeople and others will participate as observers and through side-events.

Can the CBD influence UN climate change talks?

Yes. Despite their postponement, COP15 is still likely to end before the UK hosts COP26, the next international negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Ambition at COP15, and subsequent implementation, would support the contribution of nature-based solutions to an increase in commitments anticipated as part of COP26. One of the overall goals in the draft framework is for nature to contribute to “at least [30%]” of efforts to achieve the targets of the Paris Agreement on climate change. The square brackets show that this value is up for negotiation.

What do the talks mean for endangered species?

COP negotiations rarely mention individual species, but there is a proposed goal of reducing extinctions and increasing population sizes. Decisions made in Kunming will therefore have a bearing on the fates of everything from endangered pangolins and jaguars to coral reefs and monkey puzzle trees – and our own species too.

Why China? Why Kunming rather than the capital?

COP15 is an opportunity for China to showcase its efforts to protect biodiversity both at home, through its vision of “ecological civilisation” and use of “ecological redlining”, and abroad – through greening its Belt and Road Initiative. When China offered to host COP15, it chose Beijing as the venue but later changed this to Kunming. In terms of biodiversity, this makes sense. Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province in subtropical southwest China. The province has more plant species than any other, including more than 2,500 found nowhere else on Earth. With just 4% of China’s territory, it is home to 72.5% of the country’s protected animal species, including wild tigers and elephants.

Key stops on the road to Kunming

  • 17-20 March 
    The CBD’s Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Digital Sequence Information met online – rather than in Montreal, Canada – to form recommendations for the post-2020 biodiversity framework.
     
  • 17-22 August 
    The meeting of the CBD’s Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice team has been tentatively moved from May to August in Montreal, where it will focus on COP15 and the new framework.
     
  • 22-29 August 
    The final rescheduled Montreal meeting, is of the CBD’s Implementation team, who will focus on issues including resource-mobilisation, capacity-building and progress-monitoring in the context of the new framework.
     
  • 20 September
    The UN general assembly is scheduled to convene a Leader’s Biodiversity Summit of heads of state and government in New York to give COP15 a political boost.
     
  • To be announced 
    The CBD’s working group was due to have its final meeting in Cali, Colombia, in July, to develop a draft of the post-2020 framework for parties to consider at COP15 – but this has been postponed.
     
  • To be announced
    COP15 was scheduled to take place in October. New dates will be announced.

This article was updated on 9 April to reflect changes in the schedule due to Covid-19.