A crash course on COP15
Less than a month after the United Nations wrapped up its climate conference in Egypt, delegates from around the world are packing their bags for a colder destination next week. The UN biodiversity conference, COP15, will kick off in Montreal this coming Wednesday with the goal of creating a brand-new roadmap for nature conservation across the globe. Several of my Canada's National Observer teammates will be there on the ground, following both the negotiations and the role Canada plays in them.
So this week, I figured it would be best to put together a primer on this conference and why it matters (with lots of help from my colleagues heading to Montreal, of course). Scroll down to read up on biodiversity, COP15 and what’s at stake, and stay tuned for more CNO coverage coming out of the conference. You can follow along with our latest stories from the UN climate and biodiversity conferences here.
As always, you can let me know what you think of this newsletter by emailing me at [email protected].
Have a great weekend and stay safe!
— Dana Filek-Gibson
Looking for more CNO reads? You can find them at the bottom of this email.
Hang on — what's biodiversity?
Biodiversity is the variety of all living things on this planet, from bats to bullrushes, hippos to humans, zebras to zinnias. There are millions of plant, animal, insect, bacteria and fungi species that make up life on Earth, and each one has a part to play in helping ecosystems thrive. Our complex relationships with one another are what make nature tick. As reporter Natasha Bulowski says, “We depend on the earth's systems, which are made possible by biodiversity, for everything from the air we breathe to the food we eat.”
But this precious biodiversity is under serious threat. Over the last half-century or so, the number of animals on Earth has dropped by half. Up to one million species are currently on the brink of extinction, some within decades. And even though we’ve already altered three-quarters of the Earth’s land and roughly two-thirds of its waters, that rate is climbing. Scientists say we’re seeing the sixth mass extinction on our planet — a sudden dying off of most of Earth’s species — and humans are the cause.
Cutting down forests and clearing wetlands for farming, housing and industrial activities like mining and oil and gas drilling put species living nearby under strain. Unsustainable hunting and poaching — on land and in the water — puts more pressure on ecosystems already stressed by pollution and climate change. Add to that our growing human population and the global shipping lines that criss-cross the Earth, and we wander our way into just about every ecosystem on the planet, threatening to upend the delicate balance that keeps it livable.
To save our planet and stop the damage we’re doing, “we need to accept and truly understand that humans do not exist outside of the natural world,” says my colleague John Woodside, who was also on the ground in Egypt last month. “We are dependent on ecosystems that can sustain life.”
Not to be confused with its climate counterpart, COP27, the United Nations biodiversity conference — also known as COP15 — is a global summit that brings together 196 countries from around the world to hash out a plan for protecting Earth’s biodiversity. This year, it takes place in Montreal from Dec. 7 to 19, and delegates have a serious goal to achieve: create a new 10-year plan to protect the planet’s biodiversity. To reach a deal will require agreement from all 196 nations, and there are some serious sticking points already. Here are some of the major issues on the table:
Canada has pledged to conserve 30 per cent of its lands and waters by 2030 and is urging other countries to do the same — though where the money comes from to achieve that goal is an open question for some nations. Poorer countries are calling on their wealthy counterparts to put up some money for this in much the same way they have pushed for funding to combat climate change.
At home, Canada has protected just shy of 14 per cent of its lands and waters so far, with its next target — 25 per cent — due in three years.
“Provincial and territorial governments have primary jurisdiction over land and natural resources and will need to step up” for Canada to reach its goal, Natasha says.
“The federal government has brought funding to the table to try and incentivize provinces and territories to protect land and water — in Budget 2021 the feds invested $2.3 billion over five years to support work with other governments, Indigenous groups and non-profit organizations that furthers the 30 by 30 goal and improves the country’s natural environment. Some provinces, like Quebec, are stepping up, but many others are not.”
Paying up for biodiversity
Biodiversity doesn’t just support the circle of life. Humans also rely on nature for some life-saving ideas: 70 per cent of cancer drugs, for example, are either natural or made from synthetic materials inspired by nature. Biopiracy is set to be a sticking point for the COP15 agreement, Natasha explains.
“African countries seem to say any deal must include a financial mechanism to compensate them for discoveries using digital forms of their biodiversity. (Think of situations where a pharmaceutical company develops a vaccine or something using the genetic sequence of plants, animals or other biological matter and then benefits from that genetic product and countries where),” she says.
While this issue has received little attention in Canada, she adds, “African, Latin American and Caribbean countries have expressed concern at loopholes that allow pharmaceutical companies to avoid sharing profits created from their flora, fauna and other forms of life.”
Empowering Indigenous Peoples
Around the world, Indigenous Peoples are major players in halting biodiversity loss, and advocates are pushing for their rights and title to be included in the COP15 agreement.
“If Canada is serious about biodiversity, it must look to Indigenous Peoples,” says reporter Matteo Cimellaro, who covers urban Indigenous communities in and around Ottawa. “Indigenous communities protect upward of 80 per cent of the world's biodiversity, and when Indigenous Peoples have held the pen in Canada over their lands, they protect up to 60 per cent of it.”
So far, Matteo says, the federal government has taken steps to invest in programs like Indigenous Guardians, which gives First Nations greater sovereignty over their ancestral territories, and Indigenous Protected Conservation Areas, where Indigenous governments are the primary decision-makers when it comes to conservation. But provinces don’t necessarily have the same enthusiasm for these kinds of programs, he explains.
“From the birth of the nation till now, there remain land disputes over what is Crown land and what is a First Nation's ancestral land,” Matteo says. “Many of those disputes are now occurring north in the boreal forest, the largest intact forest on the planet. It's not an exaggeration to say reconciliation and land back in particular will have implications for not only Canada but, it seems, for the future of the planet as well.”
Why should I care about protecting biodiversity?
Because it’s not just the key to maintaining a vast array of species on our planet, it’s part of protecting the planet itself: biodiversity is a critical part of the battle against climate change, and without it, we risk losing ecosystems and species that are valuable allies in that fight.
“Over 80,000 species in Canada depend on the nature around them to survive,” explains associate podcast producer Zahra Khozema, who will produce a CNO panel discussion at COP15 alongside managing podcast producer Sandra Bartlett. “The protection and conservation of nature impact everything from the quality and quantity of food to the air we breathe. It also helps keep diseases at bay.
“Moreover, Canada’s Indigenous populations are on the front line of environmental degradation. Drastic declines in salmon and caribou, for instance, have impacted First Nations’ food security. Indigenous people have centuries of knowledge on how to care for their land and species, and they are leading the conservation charge in this country. As members of the global community, Canadians should feel an overwhelming responsibility to be part of the decision-making process when it comes to protecting biodiversity.”
What we'll be covering at COP15
Biodiversity finance and diplomacy
“So-called ‘nature based solutions’ are severely under-financed, and there is a major policy challenge of how to make hundreds of billions of dollars flow toward protecting nature rather than extracting a raw material from it. Our current economic system is not well suited to putting money on the table without seeing a profit, making this a big issue in the biodiversity space.”
Canada’s biodiversity promises
“I'll be monitoring what Canada is saying to the international community and whether it matches up with our national actions and goals domestically, especially on forest conservation. I'll also be keeping an eye on a technical but critical issue around how benefits from genetic materials are shared (biopiracy)… trying to make the connection between climate change and biodiversity loss because the two issues are inextricably linked and threaten our collective future.”
Indigenous rights and title
“I'll be paying close attention to Indigenous voices standing up and demanding a leadership role when it comes to biodiversity. Based on my conversations, the final agreement has already expelled much of the language around Indigenous rights and title. Indigenous groups were pushing for Indigenous rights and title to be recognized in each article of the agreement, now it seems they will be fighting for just one article. There is worry that the recognition of Indigenous rights and title will be removed to make the document more palatable for nation states, in order for an agreement to be made on Kanien’kéha territory in Montreal. It makes sense: many nation states may see Indigenous sovereignty a threat to state sovereignty, particularly around resource development.”
Listening in at COP15
Sandra Bartlett and Zahra Khozema
“The podcasting team will produce and launch a panel discussion between international leaders at COP15. We are keeping an eye on how our country will take charge and what roadblocks we might face in reaching a Paris-of-sorts agreement after the conference. We want to see how leaders can further and support Indigenous voices and what parties will bring money to the table for the countries that need recovery resources. Lastly, we’ll surely be watching for possible lobbying or greenwashing tactics by mining or lumber companies.”
More CNO reads
“My pay is going into this destruction.” Ontario teachers are not happy with one of their pension board's newest members — a former oil and gas exec who currently sits on the boards of four different fossil fuel companies, Natasha Bulowski reports.
The commission is over, but the ‘Freedom Convoy’ rolls on. Paul Rouleau may have wrapped up his inquiry into the occupation of downtown Ottawa, columnist Max Fawcett writes, but that doesn't mean convoy protesters will let go of the beliefs that inspired the protest.
Where are Canada's moose? Populations of the animal are falling in many provinces, Marc Fawcett-Atkinson reports, posing a problem for both Indigenous Peoples and non-Indigenous Canadians in rural communities.
Ontario Greens want an integrity inquiry into Doug Ford's plans to develop the Greenbelt. Party leader and MPP Mike Schreiner says "the people of Ontario are rightfully suspicious," Morgan Sharp reports.
How two Manitoba communities came together to build a road toward reconciliation. In Valley of the Birdtail, co-authors Douglas Sanderson and Andrew Stobo Sniderman recount the story of a First Nation and a rural town that joined forces to educate youth in both communities, Matteo Cimellaro reports.
“It takes a lot of courage to be a whistleblower.” Lawyer Karen Mirsky, president of the BC Civil Liberties Association, was not surprised to learn an officer quit the RCMP task force that deals with resource extraction protests over concerns about “unjustifiable” police behaviour, Rochelle Baker reports.