Australia to push COP15 conference commitments aimed at reversing the mass extinction crisis

Australia heads to this week’s UN Global Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Montreal seeking other nations to join a pact to protect 30% of the world’s land and seas by the end of the decade.

“[Australia] has already committed to protecting 30% of our land and oceans by 2030. We will be calling for other countries to do the same,” says Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, who will lead Australia’s negotiations in the second week of the conference.

Plibersek’s role at the negotiating table will come on the back of her delivering a response to last year’s final report of the Samuel Review, which makes 38 recommendations to reform and modernise Australia’s environmental laws.

Among the recommendations awaiting response are the adoption of legally-enforceable national environmental standards, respectful consideration of the views and knowledge of Traditional Owners, a review of national heritage protections, and the implementation of an independent Environment Assurance Commissioner.

Plibersek will then fly to Montreal where she will join other national environment ministers at the conference’s final negotiations.

Been hearing a lot about COP? There’s a reason for that…

COP stands for Conference of the Parties – a name attached to many of the United Nations’ major conventions where countries flock together to negotiate globally important issues.

COPs have been in the headlines recently due to COP27 – held last month in Egypt – which was the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference. 

But COP15 is about biodiversity, and is run by a separate United Nations authority – the UN Environment Programme.

It’s been consistently in the news for the last three years. That’s because (as well as being a major global conference for biodiversity decision-making) it’s finishing more than two years behind schedule.

The conference was originally scheduled to be held in Kunming, China in October 2020, but was postponed due to the pandemic. Organisers instead opted to split the event into two sittings: one in Kunming last year, and this month’s major sitting in Canada.

So what is COP15 about?

Parties will convene at COP15 to set out the Convention of Biological Diversity post-2020 global biodiversity framework (GBF).

This is the biggest conference since the COP10 biodiversity conference in Nagoya, Japan set out the first 20 global targets to improve biodiversity a decade ago. None of those targets have been met.

At its heart, the GBF aspires to reverse the trend of species and environmental loss across the globe before 2030 and live ‘in harmony’ with nature by 2050. It’s the biodiversity equivalent of the Paris Agreement’s net zero by 2050 target.

“It’s a road map that will take governments from here until the end of 2030 and address some of the challenges we’re faced with [in terms of] biodiversity,” says David Ainsworth, spokesperson for the UN Secretariat for the Convention on Biological Diversity.

“It’s meant to address the conservation of biodiversity, its sustainable use and the equitable sharing of its benefits.

“The GBF is meant to create goals and targets that all national governments will integrate into their own activities. By doing this they will halt biodiversity loss and reverse it.”

The GBF consists of 21 individual targets and 10 milestones to achieve by the end of this decade.

Broadly, these targets aim to reduce threats to biodiversity, enact a more sustainable relationship with the environment and get the world’s governments, private sector and people to better coexist with nature.

One target – protecting 30 percent of the world’s land and sea areas – is expected to be a hotly contested topic.

Even Australia, which has committed to this target, has a poor record in terms of land protection.

A 2022 report from Australian Conservation Foundation investigators found over 200,000 hectares of land occupied by threatened species had been cleared for approval in the last decade. Most of those approvals took place in the last five years.

Australia is also considered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to be the fourth worst country in the world for animal extinctions, and eighth for all species.

“The GBF is meant to create goals and targets that all national governments will integrate into their own activities. By doing this they will halt biodiversity loss and reverse it.”

David Ainsworth

Another target, connected to the UN’s climate change work, seeks to “reduce pollution from all sources to levels that are not harmful to biodiversity and ecosystem functions.” Among these measures are the elimination of plastic waste, cutting pesticide use by two-thirds and using “ecosystem-based approaches” to mitigate the impact of climate change on biodiversity.

Those themes – biodiversity loss, climate change, and waste and pollution – have been described by UN Environment Programme’s executive director Inger Andersen as the “three prongs of a triple planetary crisis”.

Speaking at the recent climate COP in Egypt, Andersen pointed to the importance of nature preservation as doing a significant proportion of the work required to meet the Paris Agreement’s climate targets.

“[Nature and biodiversity] holds the key to helping vulnerable nations and communities adapt to climate impacts – because nature, for millennia, protected people from weather extremes, until we started destroying it,” said Andersen. She will be a key figure at COP15.

Un environment programme’s executive director inger andersen in kenya.
UN Environment Programme’s executive director Inger Andersen in Kenya. Credit: UNEP/Nayim Ahmed Yussuf

Why is biodiversity important?

Human impacts on ecosystems and the species inhabiting them – including plants, animals, fungi and microorganisms – have been described as the Anthropocene, or ‘the age of humans’. Here, the use of fossil fuels to drive industry for the last 300 years has increased concentrations of heat-retaining molecules like carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere which, in the former’s case, could take hundreds of years to dissipate.

The impacts on ecological systems are starting to be seen, as increasing temperatures interact with biological processes in some species. For instance, warmer sands during sea turtle egg incubation can create disparity between the numbers of male and female turtles born, while changes in blossoming time may mean pollinators – bees and other insects – are not around to perform their important ecological services. Such consequences could lead to reduced reproduction for plants, lower crop yields for agriculturalists, and potentially starve insects if there aren’t enough flowers to provide food.

Scientists have been warning about the impacts of Andersen’s ‘three prongs’ on humans and the environment with greater urgency in the lead-up to COP15. 

The Kunming Declaration signed in 2021 as part of the first phase of COP15 recognises this, stating the “main direct drivers” of biodiversity loss are “land [and] sea use changes, overexploitation [of environmental resources], climate change, pollution and invasive species”.

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How does the conference play out?

To achieve agreement on the new GBF and other biodiversity-protecting measures, delegations from 196 national governments – ‘the parties’ – will converge on Montreal for two weeks of negotiations.

They’ll be joined by other observers, including scientists, civil society and indigenous groups and youth and the business sector.

Like other UN conferences, the final statement that emerges from the event is almost always one of compromise – a document that all parties are happy to agree to.

These top-level discussions will be negotiated between world environment ministers, including Australia’s Tanya Plibersek. Smaller issues will be discussed at side events.  

Before the formal commencement of COP15, the open-ended working group on the post-2020 GBF lays the groundwork for the conference which, following an opening ceremony on December 6 (local time), will see two weeks of formal negotiations run from December 7-19, starting at 10:00am each day and running through until 8:00pm or longer, depending on the nature of meetings.

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