Biodiversity COP: 6 things you need to know

Leaders from across the world are convening this week as part of the UN COP15 biodiversity conference, which kicks off with high-level talks aimed at setting global targets to reverse biodiversity loss. Here’s what you need to know.

Leaders from across the world are convening as part of the UN COP15 biodiversity conference. Photograph: Ravinder Kumar / Getty Images Leaders from across the world are convening as part of the UN COP15 biodiversity conference. Photograph: Ravinder Kumar / Getty Images

1. Opening talks have begun

This week sees the opening talks of the much delayed UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) - COP15. While leaders are meeting this week, largely online, the majority of negotiations have been delayed to May 2022, when China will host the in-person conference. Between this week’s talks and next year’s negotiations, world leaders will decide on the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, which will lay out the plan to reverse the decline of biodiversity around the world, and the targets each country will need to meet by 2030. 

2. The targets set at the last CBD were not met 

The new framework will replace the ‘Aichi targets’, decided in 2010, which were universally missed by all nations, including the UK. Official estimates said that the UK failed 14 out of 20 Aichi targets, but RSPB analysis showed that in fact the government may have failed on 17. The government said it had achieved the target to protect 17% of land and in-land water for nature - however this claim was challenged by conservation groups, and recent research into how the government defined ‘protected areas’ has also cast doubt on whether the UK really met this target. The CBD has published its first draft of the global biodiversity framework, which includes a target to protect 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030, a pledge the UK has already committed to. The draft framework also includes a target to reduce nutrients lost to the environment by at least half, pesticides by at least two thirds, and eliminating the discharge of plastic waste, all by 2030. 

3. Not everyone thinks the UK is being ambitious enough yet 

Earlier this year, the Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee (ECCC) wrote a letter to the environment secretary saying that based on current indications, COP15 “will not deliver what is needed for the world at this critical moment of opportunity”. The committee chair Baroness Parminter urged departments from across government to be “far better aligned”, and added in the letter that following the summit, the government must ensure that the environmental land management schemes (ELMS) “live up to expectations” as they are rolled out. NGOs have also raised concerns about accountability in the framework, with RSPB’s senior international policy officer Georgina Chandler previously telling ENDS that the issue with the Aichi targets was that they were not legally binding, and there was no robust way to hold nations to account. 

4. Businesses have written to world leaders ahead of this week’s talks

In an open letter, the chief executives of Unilever, H&M and nine other companies have called on world leaders to take meaningful action on the collapse of ecosystems or risk “a dead planet”. The Business for Nature letter calls for ​​all governments to “embed the value of nature in decision-making and disclosure” as well as “eliminate and redirect all harmful subsidies”, align all financial flows towards a nature-positive world, and ensure production and consumption footprints are within ecological thresholds. “We must understand that while it is critical for tackling climate change, nature represents more than simply a climate solution”, reads the letter. 

5. The UK’s ecological health is well below safe levels, says new data 

The fact that the UK is one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries in the world is well recognised in the scientific community, but it has been confirmed again in new research out from the Natural History Museum (NHM) which puts the UK in the bottom 10% globally and last among the G7 group of nations. The new data has been produced through a new biodiversity intactness index (BII), which rates nations for how well their ecosystems have kept their natural diversity of animals, plants, and fungi - and researchers hope it will aid the COP15 negotiations. The world’s overall biodiversity intactness is estimated at 75% by the NHM researchers, with the UK’s coming in at just 53%. The researchers say a 90% intactness rating indicates good ecological health - which puts the UK far below that threshold. However, responding to the NHM research, Professor David Hill, chairman of the Environment Bank, said: “I don’t believe we should set a ‘safe’ limit for biodiversity - the figure should always be 100%, otherwise we will see death by a thousand cuts as governments, society and individuals think it is OK to exploit nature to a certain level.” 

6. Campaigners are calling for backing from the Treasury 

Funding is likely to be at the heart of the COP15 negotiations, with green NGOs having repeatedly called for the UK and other developed nations to put “the money on the table”. Campaigners say that this, and tangible, legally-binding domestic goals in the Environment Bill would send a message to other countries. Richard Benwell, director of NGO coalition the Wildlife and Countryside Link has also said on social media that the upcoming Spending Review by the Treasury “is essential”, and referred to a 2020 report by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) which showed that in 2018/19, £473 million of UK public sector funding was allocated to biodiversity in the UK, which amounts to a real-term decrease of 33% over the last 5 years.