On Dec. 7, 2022, the United Nations will meet in Montréal to set targets to prevent mass extinction. It is the most important meeting you’ve likely never heard of. The decisions that will be made at the 15th U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (abbreviated as COP-15 or CBD) in Montréal will alter, and could even save, all of life on Earth. And yet some nations are trying to weaken the targets.
Human survival and global economies depend on a complex, interconnected web of millions of nonhuman species. Sea otters double the amount of carbon sequestered by ocean kelp forests by snacking on sea urchins that eat kelp. Elephants knock over trees and shrubs that feed other animals while creating corridors that contain the spread of wildfires. Woodpeckers eat disease-spreading pests that other animals cannot reach, protecting the health of forests that capture and store carbon. Prairie dogs aerate the soil and improve irrigation in the American Midwest, where over one-fifth of U.S. food production is now at risk due to drought. We rely on bees and other insects to pollinate three quarters of our crops. Mangroves sequester four times the amount of carbon as tropical forests but are mowed down by commercial shrimping and developers of luxury beachfront hotels.
All these species, and countless more, remain endangered or under threat due to unchecked human industrial activity, deforestation, invasions of non-native species, industrial fishing, poaching, and human-caused climate change. A football field-sized area of forest is cut down every second. According to the Living Planet Report, we’ve lost an average of 69% of all vertebrate populations since 1970. 150 species are lost every day, and one million species could vanish in the coming decades. The sixth mass extinction event is now well underway.
The main platform for global action on this issue is the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity. Unlike annual U.N. climate talks to reduce emissions (the most recent being COP27 in Egypt), negotiations to protect biodiversity happen only once every two years and get far less attention despite being as critical to tackling climate change as curbing our extraction and combustion of fossil fuels. Our forests, oceans, and soils can capture and store vast amounts of this carbon. Protecting these ecosystems, and the millions of plant and animal species that animate them, is imperative if we are to meet the U.N.’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. Many parties, from Costa Rica and France to the United Kingdom and United States, have been calling for a “30×30” target—protecting only 30% of lands and oceans to be protected by 2030—but it’s simply not enough.
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In 2020, scientists analyzed the world’s remaining natural lands in a landmark report, concluding that “…50% of the terrestrial realm, if conserved, would reverse further biodiversity loss, prevent CO2 emissions from land conversion, and enhance natural carbon removal.” Numerous subsequent studies have landed on a target between 40-50% as necessary to preserve biodiversity and the ecosystem services upon which the entire world relies. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (through the Motion 101 initiative), the International Panel on Climate Change, and several parties of the CBD (including the Vatican), have called for a global target of 50% that safeguards the rights of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs). A recent report by the ICCA, a global association supporting recognition of indigenous and community conserved territories, found that over 40% of land vital for biodiversity is governed by IPLCs. When combined with existing government protected areas, the world is already protecting and conserving 34% of the world’s land. With the current mass extinction crisis, it’s clear that a far more ambitious target is necessary.
The job of the U.N. member countries is to set policies to protect global security and peace, not by settling for what industry lobbyists have deemed “possible,” but by uniting to achieve what is necessary. The cold, hard scientific truth is that we must set more ambitious, urgent targets to protect half of our lands and oceans, and in a faster timeframe than 2050. Over 100 Indigenous groups, a large coalition of civil society organizations, and over 3 million people worldwide have called for global leaders to commit to this 50% target. We need even more people to join this growing chorus in the lead-up to CBD.
Funding for developing nations to protect their biodiversity continues to be a major point of division in U.N. negotiations, but it shouldn’t be. Many of the world’s most biodiverse regions are in under-resourced nations who will need support from wealthier nations to meet the targets set in Montréal. According to U.N.’s 2021 State of Finance for Nature report, committing just 0.1% of global GDP would avoid the breakdown of life-sustaining ecosystems. However, current funding commitments from developed nations leave a $4 trillion gap, putting targets to protect half of nature well out of reach.
It is in developed nations’ economic and security interests to support developing countries with adequate funding to meet global biodiversity targets. Because natural ecosystems and human economies are interconnected, biodiversity loss in even one part of the world can quickly cascade into an economic crisis for us all. Half of global GDP depends on healthy biodiversity, from medicine and food supply to clean air and water, and a stable climate.
If CBD negotiations continue to happen out of the public spotlight, polluting industries, multinational corporations, and bad actors have seemingly free reign to shape the future of our lands, our oceans, and our climate. We need more climate activists to take U.N. biodiversity talks as seriously as we take U.N. climate talks, and we need more climate journalists to cover these negotiations to hold our world leaders accountable.
The decisions made in Montréal this Dec. may be the most consequential in human history. Everyone should pay attention.
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