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COP15 reaches ambitious plan for nature, now countries must accelerate action

© Cristina Mittermeier/sealegacy

In a powerful commitment to nature, nearly 200 countries have signed a sweeping agreement to protect a third of Earth’s land and oceans by 2030.

The pact reached at the United Nations biodiversity summit in Montreal, COP15, comes at a critical time: More than 1 million species are at risk of extinction, jeopardizing the life support systems that underpin human well-being and defend against climate catastrophe. 

So, what’s next? Conservation News sat down with Jill Hepp, Conservation International’s senior director of international policy, to discuss what it means for biodiversity, how it will be funded and what sets this agreement apart. 

What does this agreement mean for biodiversity?

Jill Hepp: The Montreal summit had been called the ‘last chance’ to prevent major ecological collapse. I went there telling my kids that the world is trying to make a plan to save nature — and now we have one. That’s a significant accomplishment. 

The headline agreement is a very ambitious goal to protect 30 percent of the planet by 2030, known as ‘30x30.’ That means conserving nature at a scale we haven’t seen before. Currently only 17 percent of land and 10 percent of oceans are considered protected.

Notably, the agreement also formally recognizes the rights and contributions of Indigenous peoples, who are stewards of 80 percent of Earth’s biodiversity. In the past, they’ve often been sidelined from environmental efforts. Given the long history of colonialism and policies that in some cases have removed Indigenous peoples from their lands in the name of conservation, this recognition is critical.  

Another key target commits countries to encourage large companies to disclose their impacts on the environment — an important step given that more than half of global GDP depends on nature, according to the U.N.

In all, delegates agreed to 23 different targets — from better managing ecosystems like wetlands, rainforests and coral reefs, to reducing risk from pesticides and toxic chemicals by at least half. This wasn’t an easy race to the finish line, but we got there.

Funding was expected to be a sticking point. How will they pay for these targets?

JH: Currently, there is an estimated $700 billion gap for funding biodiversity protection. One source of financing would come from reallocating about $500 billion in subsidies that harm biodiversity. The new agreement looks to eliminate, phase out or reform those subsidies. The idea is to stop spending taxpayer money on practices that we know contribute to biodiversity loss.

That leaves a smaller funding gap, which will come from a variety of sources — including a new global biodiversity trust fund to be set up in 2023. The fund will be able to receive money from all sources, including governments, the private sector and philanthropy. The agreement specifically commits $30 billion a year by 2030 from developed countries to developing countries — however, financial commitments are not legally binding.

Protecting 30 percent of the planet is big, but is it enough? 

JH: That was the most high-profile target of the summit and it’s important. It’s also important to ensure the other 70 percent of the world is sustainably managed. Unfortunately, the agreement missed the opportunity to include text that focuses specific attention on areas of the world that are critically important to human well-being, our climate and nature. 

Recent research from Conservation International finds that areas that provide the most direct benefits to people are also home to at least 60 percent of all terrestrial vertebrate species — mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians — and overlap with more than 80 percent of Earth’s critical carbon reserves. With so little time to meet this goal, focusing governments’ efforts and resources is important. 

The good news is that prioritizing the places most important for meeting human needs was widely supported by countries from all over the world. Even though it didn’t make it into the final text, there is an appetite for applying this targeted approach to conservation. 

How will this agreement be enforced? 

JH: We always say these targets are a beginning — there’s a global agreement, then the work is done in countries and regions. 

One positive development to come out of this summit is that national action plans will now align with the global biodiversity framework. That didn’t used to be the case. Countries could have a national plan that didn’t align with the global strategy. The lack of a robust monitoring framework contributed to the failure of targets set for the previous decade at the U.N. biodiversity summit in Aichi, Japan in 2010. Learning from that mistake, this agreement includes a monitoring framework that will periodically assess whether enough action is being taken to reach its goals. 

Further reading:

Mary Kate McCoy is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Also, please consider supporting our critical work.