The Present and Future of Biodiversity – summary of the COP15

EarthzineBiodiversity, United Nations

Biodiversity is a sign of ecosystem health, and also critical for humans. The COP15 convention in 2022 discussed the importance of biodiversity and the threats to it in detail.

21 Sep, 2023

Afzalbek Fayzullaev

Biodiversity is one of the key signs of health in an ecosystem. It is clear that all wildlife play a role in the stability of the ecosystem, whether they are “photosynthesizers, decomposers, herbivores, carnivores or pollinators” [2]. Moreover, biodiversity also acts as a form of insurance. The diversity of wildlife ensures that the ecosystem is sustainable and able to withstand any disturbances like pollution, climate change, or human activities [1]. Taking disease, for instance, if one species were to be severely impacted by an illness and effectively wiped out, another species may be able to take its place, a royalty that only biodiversity gives. [2]

Biodiversity is also critical for humans. To start off, it is clear that the wide selection of vegetable and animal products is achievable solely due to biodiversity. However, in recent years, there have been stark drops in the diversity of plants – for example, in Asia and other places in the world, the number of rice varieties have dropped from “thousands to a few dozen”[3]. As stated previously, a diversity reduction leaves the environment susceptible to disease and extinction, negatively impacting “food security, nutrition, and health”[3]. An article by the World Health Organization, made it clear that “loss in biodiversity may limit discovery of potential treatments for many diseases and health problems” [4]. Traditional as well as modern medical practices are inspired by and actively use plants and nature in general. To conclude, there is an abundance of evidence which proves that biodiversity is vital for both ecosystems, and society as a whole

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In Montreal, Canada, from December 7-19, 2022, the 15th meeting of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity took place with one topic of concern: threats to biodiversity. Attendance at the Conference of the Parties (COP15) included representatives of 196 governments with stakeholders from a wide variety of groups like scientists and Indigenous peoples, making it one of the biggest biodiversity conferences in a decade [5]. During COP15, the “Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework” (GBF) was adopted which included 4 overarching goals as well as 23 targets for achievement by 2030.

Overarching Global Goals from the GBF

Goal A:

  • Maintaining the integrity and resilience of all ecosystems by 2050
  • Tenfold reduction in extinction rate of all species 
  • Genetic diversity is maintained in order to protect their adaptive potential

Goal B:

  • Nature’s contributions to people (both ecosystem function and services) are not only maintained but enhanced
  • Support the achievement of sustainable development

Goal C: Use of genetic resources are to be shared equitably with indigenous people and local communities

Goal D: All Parties should have adequate resources (financial resources, capacity-building, technology etc) to implement the frameworks of the GBF.

The white tiger is one of the species threatened with mass deforestation

The white tiger is one of the species threatened with mass deforestation

In addition to the 4 main goals of the GBF, there were 23 targets set out to be achieved. For instance, Target 5 was to ensure that the use, harvesting, and trade of wildlife were sustainably managed and to prevent overexploitation. Target 7 hoped to reduce the pollution risks and negative impacts of pollution. Target 23 aims to ensure gender equality where “all women and girls have equal opportunity and capacity to contribute to the three objectives of the Convention” [6].  It was emphasized multiple times throughout COP15 that a “whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach” is needed in order to implement the goals of the GBF.

However, since biodiversity is critical for Ocean health and to humanity’s survival, some believe that more can be done and more should have been done at COP15 to sustain the diversity of the Earth’s ecosystems. Guy Standing, a British labor economist, is one of these people. To start off, Standing proposed that countries should lessen subsidies that are set aside for industrial fisheries, “£22bn of which contributes to overfishing and illegal fishing, devastating fish populations, and marine food chains” [7]. To add to this, Standing further emphasized the need to protect marine life by calling for a ban on bottom trawling, which is a fishing practice that captures ground animals by towing a net along the sea floor. Standing also believes that COP15 should have urged rich countries to double the proportion of development assistance given to Ocean protection. Similar to Standing, Amy Lewis, the Vice President of Policy and Communications at WILD Foundation described COP15 as “Necessary but not Sufficient” and stated that calling the proposals of COP15's agenda a "high ambition" is a bit of a misnomer" [8].

In 2019, accepting an invitation from the CBD, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) prepared a global assessment of biodiversity and ecosystem services building. Firstly, it is important to note that the purpose of the reports provided by IPBES is to supply up-to-date information to influence “policy decisions and actions at the local, national, regional, and global levels”[9]. The assessment included key messages about the contributions that nature brings to humanity, changes that have negatively impacted nature in the past 50 years, and what needs to be done in order to use nature sustainably.

To start off, the IPBES tries to portray the imbalance that human action causes in the ecosystem. Deforestation, in order to increase food supply and other human gains, causes severe decreases in the ability of the ecosystem to regulate climate and water quality. Another side-effect is the decrease in opportunities for learning and inspiration. An additional example of human activity harming ecosystems, and eventually causing harm to humanity has to do with medicine. 'The global assessment states that it has been well-established that nature is able to provide medicine and clean water; nature also has the ability to reduce air pollutants, and to improve mental and physical health. To focus further on health, the IPBES also states that “The deterioration of nature and consequent disruption of benefits to people has both direct and indirect implications for public health” [9]. In order to further establish the importance of nature and genetic diversity in ecosystems, it has been well-established that a diet with a higher diversity of foods is able to reduce the risk of diseases that cause 20% of premature mortality globally [9]. Shifting focus on animal life, the assessment makes it clear to the public and policymakers that the extinction rate is at least tens of hundreds of times higher than the average extinction rate over the past 10 million years and is still increasing. Marine life and ecosystems have also been significantly harmed by human actions; so much so that in 2014, it was stated that only 3% of the ocean was free from human pressures.

Corals are being destroyed by overfishing, tourism practices, pollution and climate change

Corals are being destroyed by overfishing, tourism practices, pollution and climate change

The IPBES goes on to focus even more on the direct and indirect effects of human activity on the Earth over the past 50 years. The largest impact on both land and freshwater ecosystems is land-use change, while the largest impact on the Ocean is the exploitation of fish and seafood. Focusing on the exploitation of fish, it was reported that “illegal, unreported, or unregulated fishing” represented one-third of the world’s catch [9]. However, action is being taken as the amount of marine protected areas has increased. Expansion of infrastructure has increased drastically over the last 50 years, causing “deforestation, habitat fragmentation, biodiversity loss, land grabbing, population displacement and social disruption, including for indigenous peoples and local communities”[9]. However, it must be noted that the potential positive impacts of infrastructure are critical. The environment can potentially benefit from infrastructure depending on how investments are apportioned and used. Focusing even more on the potential positive work that has been done in the last 50 years, the assessment credited some policies that maintain nature’s contributions to people. Nonetheless, subsidies towards certain actions, such as deforestation and overfishing, cause severe harm to the environment and Ocean. Although some action is being taken by governance around the Earth, there is potential for more to be done.

The High-Level Segment of COP15

The High-Level Segment of COP15

According to IPBES projections, goals that were made for conserving and achieving sustainable use of nature cannot be achieved by 2030 unless there are massive changes across “economic, social, political, and technological factors” [9]. The assessment firstly commented on the progress that has been made, and the work that must be done to achieve more. Many of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets were stated during these sections of the assessment. The 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets were made by the CBD in hopes of protecting the biodiversity that so strongly supports global food security, health, and clean water. Assessing each of the 20 targets that were made, the IPBES pointed out that although notable progress towards 4 of 20 targets has been made and decent progress for 7 others, there are still 6 targets that have not been firmly worked towards. To name a specific example, Aichi Target 6 which focused on avoiding overfishing was not met as unsustainable fishing is still increasing globally [9]. Other conversation actions have been proven to be successful. Efforts to address the illegal capture and trade of species have led to the reduced “extinction risk for mammals and birds in 109 countries” [9]. Looking into the future, IPBES urges that for Sustainable Developmental Goals and the 2050 Vision for Biodiversity to be met, the impacts of climate change must be taken into account. The drastic effects of climate change on both individual species and environments as a whole call for a reassessment of conservation objectives. Logically, the assessment also states that limited global warming, below 2°C, would have positive benefits for both “nature and nature’s contribution to people and quality of life” [9].

To focus on working towards a future with sustainable use of nature, IPBES created six foci for achieving Sustainable Development Goals which have been summarized below [10].

Six Complementary Foci for Achieving Sustainable Development Goals

Focus 1

In order to be able to feed humanity while conserving and sustainably using nature, there must be a transformation in production, supply chains, and demand sides of food systems.

Focus 2

Climate goals, such as the Paris Agreement, must be met while also maintaining and restoring nature.

Focus 3

Achieving nature conservation, including more protected areas, while also contributing to human well-being

Focus 4

Maintaining fresh water for nature and humanity without disturbing natural flow regimes.

Focus 5

Biodiversity in the Ocean must be protected by expanding marine protected areas as well as setting restrictions on fishing efforts.

Focus 6

Sustaining cities, but not at the cost of the local and regional ecosystems and their biodiversity.

Image credits:

  • “Protecting Our Wildlife: the White Tiger” by United Nations
  • "Coral at Jarvis Island National Wildlife Refuge" by USFWS Headquarters
  • "COP15 16 December 2022 HLS Nagoya Protocol" by UN Biodiversity”