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COP15 in Montreal: Reasons to be cheerful?

By Catherine Bryan, Synchronicity Earth and EFN, 2nd March 2023

December in Montreal is usually very cold and snowy and not the optimal time for a visit, however the city provided a wonderfully warm welcome to the 16,000 delegates who came from all over the world to attend COP15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity as 2022 drew to a close. The police on duty around the perimeter of the conference centre were well wrapped up against the cold, and in conversation with one of them at a nearby coffee shop, he was curious to find out more about what we were all doing there. As I explained the purpose of the conference and where I had travelled from, he expressed his pride that Montreal was able to offer the conference a home at short notice (China were unable to host due to their zero-COVID policy at the time) and conveyed his hope that the negotiations would go well. Everyone has some link to nature and it’s hard to resist.

These are my personal reflections on this very important conference, which has set a course for nations to significantly step up their actions to halt the loss of biodiversity. The key question that remains to be answered is: will the new ‘plan of action’ for nature adopted at COP15 – termed the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) – succeed?

I attended COP15 as part of the delegation from Synchronicity Earth, an organisation for which I am a trustee. As a funder we wanted to learn more about how these conferences work and how we could support our grantees to engage more effectively. So, our delegation also included two of our affiliates (locally-based consultants) from the Democratic Republic of Congo, representatives from two of our DRC-based grantee organisations, a representative from a Thai-based grantee organisation, and four youth activists from various countries. This eclectic group spoke at side-events, met with government negotiation teams, took part in the two-day Nature-Culture conference and made useful new connections. Supporting the voices that are often overlooked and under-represented at these global conferences really proved its value and is certainly something we want to do again.

The importance of listening to young voices and those from indigenous cultures are two of the things that have stayed with me from my experience at COP15. We know that our prevailing governance systems and economic frameworks are failing the natural world, and therefore also failing people young and indigenous people in particular. Listening with an open mind to voices that have been absent for too many years from these international conventions is the only way forward. ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’– whoever came up with these words of wisdom (often attributed to Einstein) understood our collective inability to recognise when deep change is needed. A growing voice for cultural and land rights, and an increasing recognition of the stark contrasts that often exist between indigenous and ‘western’ cultures, became a common theme in many events at the conference. Talking across these cultural divides is a challenge, but one that needs to be faced if we are to successfully restore our natural world and we can no longer expect indigenous groups to be the people who cross this divide.

There were certain areas of serious contention that weren’t fully resolved at COP15. Many will be familiar with the so-called ‘30×30’ target – protecting 30 per cent of land and sea to safeguard biodiversity by 2030 – which was one of the headline outcomes of the conference. However, protecting the ‘right’ 30 per cent of land and sea will be a challenge. In the past, governments have chased a percentage target without ensuring that the high biodiversity areas in most need of protection are part of their plans. Here in the UK, the government has pointed to our National Parks as examples of large-scale protected areas, yet we know these landscapes often include intensively farmed areas and degraded ecosystems. Similarly, redirecting harmful subsidies to incentivise positive biodiversity outcomes – which is tackled in Target 18 of the GBF – could be a game-changer for nature, but there’s little sign from governments of real appetite to achieve this.

Throughout the conference the topic of biodiversity ‘offsets’ or ‘credits’ was hotly debated.  Working out how to bring private finance into conservation in a way that truly works for nature and people is still a highly contested question. Are governance frameworks up to the task, and how does this approach sit with indigenous cultures that have seen a market-based approach fail to protect nature? But without sufficient finance, how do countries resource the actions needed to implement the GBF? Despite a clear need for major resource mobilisation, governments only agreed to contribute $30 billion per year by 2030 towards implementation of the GBF, whilst the GBF itself commits to mobilising $200 billion per year by 2030 using government and private funding initiatives. How can private financing make up this shortfall? There were many participants from the finance sector at the conference, with an evident desire to do more, but the pathways are still not clear.

Despite the challenges left unresolved, COP15 gave me a number of ‘reasons to be cheerful’ (borrowing from the wonderful Ian Dury): the diversity of delegates, in particular the cultural richness of the indigenous groups represented; the energy and honesty (and dancing!) from youth activists; Elizabeth Mrema (Executive Secretary of the CBD and a force of nature); the fisher communities from Canada, South America and Southeast Asia calling for protection of their seas from industrial fishing; the deep sea scientists revealing more of the amazing species discovered in the dark depths of the ocean; the concept of ‘Rights of Nature’ gaining more traction, and the campaign for Ecocide to become an international crime moving closer to reality; the private sector delegates calling for mandatory disclosure of their biodiversity impacts (sadly governments didn’t deliver the same ambition in Target 15); the central bankers considering nature-related risks, and the brisk speed of development of the Taskforce on Nature-Related Financial Disclosures; the acknowledgement of the importance of including women in decision-making and implementation (Targets 22 and 23); freshwater systems finally being mentioned in the text; and the force of 16,000 delegates advocating, each in their own way, for a thriving natural world.

These are, of course, high-level and personal reflections and many others across the conservation community will have their own. However, there is no doubt that the agreed text was a huge step forward from the preceding Aichi Targets, and participation at COP15 reached new levels from across sectors. Our real challenge now is to make governments feel they are being watched and will be held accountable in delivering the new GBF targets by 2030. A great deal of work is needed to advocate for the policy and regulatory frameworks that are necessary to embed biodiversity across decision-making in governments and the private sector. COP16, due to take place in Turkey in 2024, will be another important step on this road as governments present their National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAPs) and the monitoring framework for the GBF is developed in more detail. The first report-back from countries on progress towards achieving their NBSAPs will be in 2026 at COP17, which is worryingly close to the 2030 delivery date.

As funders there are many ways we can support the work of a wide range of organisations across the globe to work towards – and advocate for – the delivery of the GBF: whether through on-the-ground conservation, building conservation capacity in high biodiversity countries, policy work, campaigning, or the development of innovative private financing approaches. Having also seen many of our more policy-focused grantees in action at COP15 – including International Rivers, the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative, ShareAction, Global Canopy and the Global Youth Biodiversity Network –  we returned from Montreal inspired to do more to keep this important treaty firmly in the spotlight. 


Catherine Bryan is a trustee of Synchronicity Earth and Chair of the Environmental Funders Network.

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