China hosts UN summit seeking to curb crisis of global biodiversity

Countries must address species loss and ecosystem deterioration, says UN official

A Wild Card campaign petition, signed by 100,000, is delivered to Buckingham Palace, London, calling on the royal family to rewild their estates. Photograph: PA

Countries throughout the world must invest much more and raise the scale and speed of its commitments to protect nature and prevent accelerating species loss, according to a leading United Nations representative on biodiversity.

The call from David Cooper, deputy executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, was made on the eve of a new round of global biodiversity talks in Kunming, China.

The first part of the twice-postponed COP15 biodiversity negotiations begin with the aim of generating momentum for an ambitious post-2020 agreement to reverse decades of habitat destruction caused by human encroachment and an interlinked climate crisis.

Mr Cooper told a briefing that ministers attending virtual meetings this week needed to show more ambition and give "clear political direction" to negotiators, who will thrash out a final deal in Kunming next May – Ireland's Minister for Heritage Malcolm Noonan will address the gathering on Tuesday.


Environmental groups say there is no time to lose when it comes to protecting habitats and slowing extinction rates, especially after governments failed to complete any of the 2020 biodiversity targets agreed in Aichi, Japan, a decade earlier.

“Currently, most countries are spending orders of magnitude more funds subsidising activities that destroy biodiversity than we are spending on conserving it – this will have to change,” warned Mr Cooper.

The UN wants countries to commit to protecting 30 per cent of their land by 2030, a pledge agreed to by the US and others. China has not yet made the commitment, despite implementing an “ecological protection red line” system that already puts 25 per cent of its territory out of the reach of developers.

Mr Cooper said it was important all countries protected more of their ecosystems, but that would not be enough in itself to fix biodiversity loss; more commitments were required to manage the other 70 per cent.

The global pandemic had injected new urgency into biodiversity protection, but he warned this was not yet reflected in “business-as-usual” post-Covid-19 stimulus measures.

Grim UK analysis

Separately, a report has found the UK is one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries – and may not have enough biodiversity to prevent an ecological meltdown.

The UK, which is hosting the COP26 climate talks in November, has an average of only 53 per cent of its biodiversity left, well below the global average of 75 per cent, according to analysis by the Natural History Museum released on Sunday.

Both figures are lower than the 90 per cent average, which experts consider the “safe limit” to prevent the world from tipping into an “ecological recession” – a future in which ecosystems do not have enough biodiversity to function well, leading to crop failures and infestations that could cause shortages in food, energy and materials.

On COP15, Prof Andy Purvis who is based at the museum, said: "This is our last best chance for a sustainable future."

He highlighted the need for action that recognises developed countries have a stable but low level of biodiversity intactness, while developing countries have a high level that is reducing fast – a “global levelling up”.

He added: “Biodiversity loss is just as potentially catastrophic for people as climate change, but the solutions are linked. Stopping further damage to the planet requires big change, but we can do it if we act now, together.”

Meanwhile, environmental campaigners on Saturday urged Britain's Queen Elizabeth and other royals to commit to rewilding their vast estates; from planting more trees to going organic.

Conservationist Chris Packham along with several hundred schoolchildren marched to Buckingham Palace to deliver a petition signed by 100,000 people. "We are very politely . . . asking them to change their [estate management] practices and if they could announce that before COP26 it would send out a brilliant message across the world," he told Sky News. – Additional reporting Reuters

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

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