In a once-in-a-decade opportunity, policymakers from 196 countries are gathered in Montreal to tackle Earth’s “silent crisis” — the massive collapse of biodiversity.
The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, known as COP15, may get less attention than climate summits, but it’s just as critical: Climate change and the destruction of nature are intertwined.
Conservation News sat down with Jill Hepp, Conservation International’s senior director of international policy, to discuss what COP15 could mean for building a more sustainable relationship between people and nature.
What is COP15 and why does it matter?
Jill Hepp: It’s a global summit that brings nations together to negotiate the Global Biodiversity Framework — essentially the world’s most important tool to protect nature. The framework’s draft includes 21 targets that are a roadmap for protecting Earth’s life support systems.
It matters because biodiversity is declining at rates unprecedented in human history. One million animal and plant species are currently threatened with extinction by 2030. When we lose our forests, coral reefs and grasslands, we are losing the natural assets on which humanity’s well-being and the global economy rest. This year, a survey from the World Economic Forum ranked biodiversity loss as one of the three most potentially severe risks for the next decade — together with climate change and extreme weather.
So why don’t we hear more about this summit?
JH: Climate summits, like the one that just ended in Egypt, rightfully get a lot of attention. But the connection between climate and biodiversity is often overlooked. Earth’s biodiversity — from tiny organisms in the soil to animals that disperse seeds — gives nature its ability to effectively store carbon and slow climate change. When it’s lost or degraded, nature can’t store as much carbon or provide other benefits that people depend on, like fresh water, food or housing materials.
Biodiversity loss is known as the “silent crisis” because people don’t feel it in the same way as they experience climate change or severe weather — but it’s just as urgent. Fortunately, nature has risen to the top of the climate agenda. For the first time, governments are recognizing it as an essential solution to limiting climate change.
Read more about biodiversity:
What are the goals for COP15?
JH: The overarching goal is to negotiate an ambitious Global Biodiversity Framework — that’s the agreement which commits all the world’s governments to actions that conserve and sustainably use biodiversity.
We have several priorities: The first is to ensure that countries will prioritize action in places that are most important for human well-being. That includes areas of the world that contain vast carbon reserves and places that are particularly important for food and water.
Financing is another key priority. The world failed to meet the targets of the last biodiversity framework set in 2010 largely because of a lack of resources. Even the best ambitions and perfectly designed targets won’t matter without adequate financing.
Another priority is to protect and conserve at least 30 percent of the planet by 2030 — while ensuring Indigenous peoples and local communities are deeply involved in decisions around biodiversity. Indigenous peoples are stewards of over 80 percent of Earth’s biodiversity, but in the past they’ve often been sidelined from environmental efforts. Conserving biodiversity must be an inclusive process that respects their rights and contributions.
It’s also important to note that protecting 30 percent of lands and seas by 2030 — known as “30 by 30” — is not enough. We must also look out for the other 70 percent, or we risk ignoring the underlying problems that threaten wildlife, like pollution, invasive species, agricultural encroachment and so on.
Finally, there’s an opportunity to help reduce the risk of future pandemics like COVID-19. A study co-authored by Conservation International showed that stemming deforestation and limiting the global wildlife trade, among other practices, could significantly reduce the spread of infectious diseases. In the context of the ongoing pandemic, the Global Biodiversity Framework cannot be credible and relevant unless it addresses the links between the destruction of nature and disease outbreaks.
What obstacles do you anticipate?
JH: Mobilizing resources. There is a $700 billion a year funding gap for biodiversity. The agreement in Montreal must include a comprehensive funding package that closes that gap.
Countries must understand that boosting financial support for biodiversity is in their own self-interest. It’s an investment that creates high economic returns and avoids massive future costs. Globally, the benefits that nature provides — like crop pollination, flood protection and carbon sequestration — are worth about $140 trillion a year. That’s more than one and a half times the size of global GDP — and a major return on investment.
This is challenging stuff, what keeps you going?
JH: Policy work can be incremental and slow. Sometimes it leaves you feeling like you’re missing the big picture. A fresh perspective can come from unexpected places. At dinner last night I was explaining to my nine-year-old daughter that the world was working on a plan to save nature. She asked, “But why will it take 10 years to save it? I’ll be 19 by then. Why wouldn’t they do it faster?” She’s right. And this is the moment where the world can come together and put us on the right track.