The Irish Times view on the UN Biodiversity summit: can meaningful action follow more talking?

The summit has a chance of raising awareness of biodiversity in the way that Cop21 did in Paris for climate change. But the initial signals are mixed.

Bioodiversity seemed a remote concept to many people until quite recently. However, there are now encouraging, if belated, signs that concern about the global trend towards the mass extinction of species has moved biodiversity into mainstream public discourse.

The Dáil declared a “climate and biodiversity emergency” in 2019. This had little impact on the Government policies that so often accelerate, rather than reverse, biodiversity collapse. But it did suggest a shift.

This was dramatically confirmed by the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss last month – a world first – which suggests that the public are well ahead of politicians in grasping the urgency of the crisis.

The assembly called for the protection of nature to be enshrined in the Constitution. It also highlighted the State’s “comprehensive” failures on biodiversity, and stressed the need for ecosystem restoration. It proposed a thorough revamp of our national biodiversity management, which surely reflects poorly on the reforms undertaken by Government to date.


But these outcomes give heritage minister Malcolm Noonan a strong mandate to argue for more effective biodiversity management at home, and also for a really strong new Global Framework for Biodiversity when he attends the UN Convention on Biodiversity conference (CBD Cop15), which runs until December 19th in Montreal.

There are big ambitions that this meeting should create a “Paris moment” for biodiversity, putting the restoration of the natural world on the international agenda as prominently as COP21 did in 2015 with the climate crisis.

The UN has already declared the 2020s as its Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Success ought to be assisted by the growing understanding that flourishing ecosystems, composed of diverse species, are not an optional extra for humanity, but the essential basis for economic and social survival.

The compelling evidence that many biodiverse ecosystems also sequester and store carbon, and are thus key elements of any climate mitigation strategy, has also heightened interest.

However, the auguries are not good. The conference was to be held in China in 2020, but was delayed due to the pandemic. While China remains the formal host, Beijing is seen as having put little energy into its preparation. Earlier UN targets on biodiversity are not being met.

It is proposed that the new framework will have a 30x30 target: 30 per cent of land and marine systems should be protected by 2030.

But protection on paper is not protection on the ground. This conference will have its work cut out not only to agree a viable programme to restore species populations and ecosystems, but especially to make that programme work in practice.