UN nature pact nears its ‘Copenhagen or Paris’ moment

Cop15 biodiversity negotiations in Montreal next month will determine how the world halts and reverses nature loss

The endangered Banggai cardinalfish (Pic: Stavros Markopoulos/Flickr)


Montreal, Canada will hold a “once-in-a-generation” summit in December to finalise a global deal to protect nature.

After a two-year delay and a change of location, the UN biodiversity summit aims to halt nature loss by 2030 and restore ecosystems. It could either be a success like the signing of the Paris Agreement or a dramatic failure like the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen.

“Anything can happen. It would be terrible if we had a ‘Copenhagen’ because we would lose a golden opportunity to protect nature,” said Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, CEO of the Global Environmental Facility, the largest funder of biodiversity protection. 

Countries are set to define targets to stop biodiversity loss for the next ten years, with a coalition of more than a hundred nations calling to protect 30% of all land and ocean ecosystems by 2030. Big forested countries such as China, Brazil and Indonesia are yet to join the coalition.

A draft prepared in the lead up to the event remains disputed. Initially the text was “technically quite good” said Brian O’Donnell, director of the advocacy organization Campaign for Nature. But “we’ve had two years of online negotiations. What started as a very good framework has ended up almost all in square brackets” – indicating a lack of consensus.

Leadership vacuum

The meeting was originally scheduled to take place in 2020 in Kunming, China, but was repeatedly delayed over Covid concerns. Eventually Montreal offered to take over as host city. China keeps the presidency of the talks.

China has not officially invited world leaders. It fell to UN biodiversity chief Elizabeth Maruma Mrema to urge them to attend the event instead of the football World Cup, which is taking place in Qatar at the same time.

Scientists warn that a million species are threatened with extinction, due to the climate crisis and other threats like pollution and deforestation.

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Addressing the issue, however, is also a form of climate action, said Kiliparti Ramakrishna, senior advisor on ocean and climate policy at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “Nature-based solutions are directly connected with biodiversity and yet we treat [climate and biodiversity] separately. That is not good,” he said.

There were some signs of that changing when Cop27 talks concluded in Egypt on Sunday. In a first for the UN climate process, the Sharm el-Sheikh Implentation Plan encouraged countries to consider “nature-based solutions or ecosystem-based approaches” to climate action.

In the past decade, countries agreed to a ten-year plan called the Aichi targets, aimed at halting biodiversity loss. A UN summary report shows countries failed to meet a single one of those targets.

“(Countries) set these strategies only once a decade. The past strategy failed and so this is the time to get it right. Biodiversity is declining too rapidly,” said O’Donnell. 

Funding gap

Rodríguez explained the lack of sufficient funds was one of the main reasons for the failure of the Aichi targets. That will be key this time around, both in setting up the agreement but also in its implementation.

Even if an agreement is reached, “it’s still just paper”, said Rodriguez. “Implementing (the targets) requires public policies and strong institutions. But many countries require investments to build those capacities in the first place,” he added.

The latest draft includes the target of mobilizing $200 billion per year, “including new, additional and effective financial resources”. To Ramakrishna, the Montreal summit “could be a Paris moment if we get the resolution on finance”. 

Crucially, a deal on finance must phase out subsidies for nature-destructive practices, Rodriguez said. This was also one of the Aichi targets, but “relatively few countries have taken steps even to identify incentives that harm biodiversity,” the UN summary report says. 

“Harmful subsidies far outweigh positive incentives in areas such as fisheries and the control of deforestation,” adds the report. The draft deal includes the goal of reducing these subsidies by $500 billion per year.

Other critical issues remain contested, among them the use of genetic resources. African countries have called on developed nations to pay for genetic information on their biodiversity, which is used in industries such as pharmaceutical companies.  

However, in the preliminary round of negotiations in Nairobi this year, countries did not agree on this issue.

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