A new deal for nature? FERN’s Coverage of the UN Biodiversity Conference

The COP15 biodiversity conference, in Montreal, Dec. 15, 2022. Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press via AP.

By Bridget Huber

Over the last two weeks at the UN Biodiversity Conference in Montreal, I roamed the halls of the Palais des Congrès where delegates from nearly 200 countries hammered out a landmark plan to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030.  I listened to environmentalists, farmers and scientists talk on panels and attended numerous press conferences where the scope of the crisis, as well as solutions, were discussed.

I heard many people say that food systems are to biodiversity loss what fossil fuels are to climate change.

With more than 1 million species at risk for extinction, the biodiversity crisis is staggering. Food systems are the key driver of species loss worldwide — responsible for 70 percent of the decline of terrestrial species and half the decline of freshwater ones. Healthy food systems depend on biodiversity, too, from the plants and meats on our plates to the microbes that keep soil fertile, from pollinating insects to the wild plants researchers will need to breed future climate-resilient crops. At the conference, I heard many people say that food systems are to biodiversity loss what fossil fuels are to climate change. All of which explains why FERN is interested in this story.

Yet, the extinction crisis gets much less attention than climate change, despite the fact that the two problems are interlinked. Species are already crashing as a result of global warming, and if the world doesn’t quickly address the causes — like emissions from fossil fuels and livestock and meat production — it’s predicted to become the leading cause of extinction. Many of the things that contribute to  global warming, like meat production and clearing land, also harm biodiversity, and many of the potential solutions to limiting and adapting to climate change involve protecting ecosystems like marshes, forests, grasslands and oceans that both sequester carbon and temper the effects of extreme weather. And mounting evidence shows that animals themselves, both in their own bodies and because of the way they affect ecosystems, sequester a significant amount of carbon too. I could go on, but the upshot is that the two crises are entangled and one won’t be solved without the other. 

Heading into the biodiversity conference, the hope was that it would yield a “Paris moment” for biodiversity — one that would amplify and focus the fight against nature loss in the same way that the Paris Accords have propelled the fight against climate change. For many days, as the conference rolled on, it was unclear that would happen; there were disagreements over who would pay to put the agreement into practice, whether wording in the working draft would be watered down, and what role groups funded by billionaires like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos should play in the process, if any at all.  

But after lengthy and contentious negotiations, an accord was finally reached at around 3 a.m. on the final day of the meeting. And there was the sense among many delegates and environmental groups that they largely succeeded. On Monday, nations agreed on an ambitious plan, called the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, that lays out how they will reverse biodiversity loss by the end of the decade. Under the pact, nations agreed to conserve 30 percent of land and sea by 2030, and to restore another 30 percent of degraded ecosystems. 

Food issues are threaded throughout the framework. Nations agreed to reduce the risks to plants and animals from pesticides and nutrient runoff and collectively cut $500 billion in subsidies, often to fishing and farming, that harm nature. They will also reduce humanity’s ecological footprint, halve food waste and reduce overconsumption.

The U.S. did not sign the agreement, because it, along with The Vatican, are the only two countries in the world that have not ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity. Still, the U.S. sent a delegation to Montreal and was actively involved in the negotiations and supportive of its mission. The Biden administration is also taking a number of actions to address biodiversity loss: the U.S. has committed to protecting 30 percent of its land and water by the end of the decade, and is planning a national nature assessment that seeks to quantify and understand the plants, animals and ecosystems within U.S. borders.

Now that the conference is over, the real work begins. Countries will have to develop their own strategies to meet the goals laid out in the Montreal-Kunming framework. And they don’t have much time — just seven years to transform the way they use their land and feed their people. But despite the daunting task ahead, there was a sense, as the Montreal talks wound down, that a big step had been made toward what UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called “a peace pact with nature.”

Read all of  FERN’s coverage of the COP 15 UN Biodiversity Conference here:

As UN Biodiversity Conference opens, a plea for ‘a peace pact’ with nature

Food-system reform is crucial, but controversial, piece of biodiversity deal

As ecological ‘triple threat’ looms, U.S. envoy urges action on biodiversity

Countries agree on sweeping plan to protect nature, biodiversity by 2030

Advocates looked for a ‘Paris moment’ at biodiversity talks. They think they got it.