Will the world wake up from sleepwalking to extinction?

Cop15′s hopes for ‘Paris agreement for nature’ face big obstacles

An attempt will be made in coming days at a global summit in Montreal to forge what has been billed as “a Paris agreement for nature”.

This mission is a biodiversity equivalent of that landmark pact agreed in 2015 that set the course of climate action for much of this century. It would be the guiding light for decades to come on restoring nature and degraded landscapes and arresting accelerating species loss, informed by science.

When almost 200 countries gather and attempt to come to a common position, however, politics always has a way on interfering – this will especially so on this occasion.

The geopolitics


Like climate Cops (Conferences of the Parties), the UN holds a biodiversity gathering under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The 15th gathering – Cop15 – was due to take place in Kunming, China, in 2020. After a series of Covid-related postponements, it was relocated to Montreal this month.

It grew out of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio with agreement on halting biodiversity loss by 2010. That goal was missed. At the 2010 CBD Cop in Japan, a 10-year strategic plan including 20 “Aichi biodiversity targets” was agreed – none of which were fully met, Ireland being a case in point.

Negotiating teams will seek consensus on a post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) for living in harmony with nature, incorporating Indigenous rights and equity. Critical to the once-in-a-decade meeting will be the role of Canada as host and China as chair of negotiations – two unlikely partners, given strained relations and mutual mistrust of late over trade issues and cybersecurity, amid allegations of espionage. If Cop15 is to be successful, they must park animosity.

We haven’t slowed the destruction in the slightest. Our planet’s biodiversity is now in desperate peril as a result

—  Andrew Terry, Zoological Society of London

Ambitious targets are essential to restore habitats, arrest the demise of tropical rainforests, rebalance agriculture and avoid mass extinction, while recognising nature is essential to addressing an overheating world – not just as a vast store of carbon in land and oceans, but as the sustainer of human life. Absence of urgency and effective collective action suggests lack of understanding that nature is our best ally in tackling the climate crisis.

Compounding difficulties is a disconnect with biodiversity. It is not only about protecting bees and trees – it’s about saving life support systems. Healthy biodiversity means healthy people, food and water security.

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Irish Wildlife Trust campaigns officer Pádraic Fogarty, an observer at Cop15, believes “our dysfunctional relationship with the natural world” is at the heart of the interlinked climate and biodiversity emergency – and that there was a fatal mistake in allowing the issues to be considered separately. “That disconnect has been a massive blockage to progress ... It took so long to get the required attention for climate change. Biodiversity is very far behind.”

The indicators

Ratcheting up of ambition is critical given WWF’s 2022 Living Planet Report, which highlighted some of the starkest effects humans have had upon life on Earth.

Because of human pressure, 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, many within decades, the UN-backed panel known as IPBES reported in 2019. There is nothing to suggest any improvement since.

Human society is in jeopardy from accelerating decline of the Earth’s natural life-support systems. From coral reefs disappearing to rainforests desiccating into savannahs, nature is being destroyed at a rate tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past 10 million years. Extinction rates have worsened due to the climate crisis, habitat loss and exploitation through hunting and overfishing, threatening the livelihoods of billions who rely on wild species for food, fuel and income.

And there is no comfort on the home front. Ireland’s temperate rainforest has almost vanished completely. Its vast peatlands are sources of emissions rather than storing carbon and enhancing biodiversity. Species loss matches that of the wider world, with 63 per cent of Ireland’s bird species in decline – and in some cases it is even worse. There is no “strictly natural place” left on the island of Ireland.

It has less than 1 per cent of its original vegetation, confirms TCD ecologist Prof Yvonne Buckley. Moreover, 85 per cent of threatened and highly protected habitats have “inadequate” or “poor” status, with no slowing down in their decline.

We’re losing species faster than at any point in the last 10 million years

—  Minister for Heritage Malcolm Noonan

Cop15 parties will review progress over the past 12 years. “It will be an easy assessment to make,” Andrew Terry, director of conservation at the Zoological Society of London, told the Observer. “Absolutely no progress has been made. Populations have continued to decline at a rate of around 2.5 per cent a year. We haven’t slowed the destruction in the slightest. Our planet’s biodiversity is now in desperate peril as a result.”

The agenda

The summit hopes to set 2030 targets and nature-protection goals for 2050. The EU is pushing for protection of at least 30 per cent of land and oceans by 2030 (“30 by 30″); to restore 3 billion hectares of land and oceans and to halt species extinctions. This includes addressing unsustainable agriculture, forestry and fisheries and tackling drivers of biodiversity loss such as pesticides, invasive alien species and plastics.

The EU comes with a strong biodiversity strategy and nature restoration law, Buckley believes, but Cop15 targets must be supported by a strong monitoring and review process.

Diplomatic omens

As Cop president, the Chinese government sent out invitations to ministers and NGO heads only, raising the prospect of no world leaders attending. Chinese president Xi Jinping is not expected, raising concerns of an attempt to downplay Cop15 and divert attention from his absence. Domestic unrest over Covid restrictions is another unhelpful distraction.

This suggests an attempt to give this Cop less relevance than it should have, according to activist Oscar Soria of Avaaz. “China has denuded its global leadership. Leaders have to show to the world that the highest level of international politics care about ecological collapse.”

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau (who will attend) has with other leaders highlighted the importance of a Paris-style agreement for nature. He may still invite presidents and prime ministers to a side event, raising the prospect of a clash with China.

Fogarty is not optimistic. “It’s very hard to be enthusiastic unless we see radical actions in the short-term.” But he says he would not be going if he believed it was an impossible ask.

Minister for Heritage Malcolm Noonan will lead the Irish side along with experts from the National Parks & Wildlife Service. He hopes Cop15 will set “an ambitious new GBF that will halt the loss of nature and move us into an era of restoration”.

These Cops, 27 and 15, are implicitly important, because all of the science is saying to us that we are very close to the point of no return

—  Environmentalist Chris Packham

“We’re losing species faster than at any point in the last 10 million years. The overwhelming majority of the world’s ecosystems are showing rapid decline. Some scientists say we’re entering a sixth mass extinction – the fifth was the dinosaurs,” he adds.

It’s absolutely vital, Noonan says, that Ireland uses its voice in concert with colleagues across Europe to call for high ambition, particularly on protected area targets and restoration, “and that we back that call by taking bold action at home as well”.

The narrative across Government that speaks to the opportunities that conserving and restoring nature presents for people all across the country is taking hold, he insists. “I’ll keep working to ensure Ireland is doing everything it can to address the biodiversity crisis. What we need now at the global level is a ‘Paris Agreement’ for nature.”

Informal discussions between 25 countries took place in Montreal in an effort to simplify the draft final text. Divisions over targets on money, protected areas, biological piracy and implementation persist. Countries in the Global North want ambitious targets, but the Global South, including many of the most vulnerable biodiversity hotspots, want more money and guarantees on commercialisation of their resources.

Since the CBD came into effect, experts estimate the extinction of up to 70 birds and mammals have been prevented, so conservation efforts have not been failing but urgent and robust implementation is lacking.

“The largest risks are distracted global leaders, some outright opponents of ambitious action on biodiversity, and the failure of wealthy nations to provide adequate financing to implement an agreement,” noted Brian O’Donnell, director of Campaign for Nature. “Several wars and regional conflicts, energy price spikes, inflation and budget challenges have drawn attention and leadership away from nature.”

TV presenter and environmentalist Chris Packham urged UK prime minister Rishi Sunak to attend Cop15 “to [help] protect the planet for the sake of his great-grandchildren”.

“Environmental care isn’t about the next five minutes, it’s about the next 500 years,” he told the Guardian. “And that’s what none of these numpties can grasp, or want to grasp. Because all they can see is short-termism, which is about making short-term fixes so that they can get another short term of power, if they can possibly get their grubby hands on it ... These Cops, 27 and 15, are implicitly important, because all of the science is saying to us that we are very close to the point of no return.”

There is a horrible sense of deja vu. Just as global warming is pushing the world to tipping points with impacts that will be irreversible and ultimately catastrophic, the biosphere is facing the same fate, unless Cop15 can somehow divert the course of ever-declining nature.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times