Contrasting Energies: Reflections on the UN Biodiversity Conference

The United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15) was held December 7-19  in Montreal. Having studied environmental issues for both my bachelor’s and master’s degree, COP (Conference of the Parties) has been part of my vocabulary for years. I have always learned about the outcomes, especially from the climate COPs, but this time, I was fortunate to attend COP15 and track the negotiations for the Global Biodiversity Framework, the agreement debated on by government representatives before it was handed over for final debate by ministers, in addition to watching events that centered around topics of faith-based work, ecosystem restoration, finance, and empowering the youth.

Although I cannot speak for previous COPs, I found this one to be iridescent. The negotiations. The plenaries. The pavilions. I thought it would be bureaucratic and intense all the way through, but each space carried different tones. The atmosphere in the pavilions was robust and active with big ideas and aspirations. It was alive with conversation between old friends and the creation of new networks and partnerships. This vibrancy melted away as soon as I walked through the door into the negotiations. There the atmosphere was aloof, tense and at times combative. The windowless room was silent as observers watched delegates fight to keep or eliminate text — words that seem trivial and arbitrary on the screen, but could determine the difference between a 1.5 degrees Celsius world or not. For me, the contrasting energies of the two spaces was indicative that we have a long way to go before we reach the ultimate goal of the framework of living in harmony with nature. 

We have a long way to go before we reach the ultimate goal of the framework of living in harmony with nature.

To ensure that ecosystem health is improving and is being maintained, metrics are crucial. This information is essential for transparency and accountability. A valid concern is that without understanding how to measure impact, initiatives and strategies may be implemented and cause more harm than good. We currently have metrics that involve the use of a variety of tools such as aerial imaging, spatial datasets and population genetics, which are tested and cataloged, to gain insight to the diversity of species within an ecosystem. Despite the range of metrics, there was an overwhelming consensus to develop standards for data collection, curation and accessibility. Company disclosures on nature-related risk were at the forefront of the framework negotiation; more than 300 businesses voiced support for this provision that would get companies to assess how their operations are impacted by nature and vice versa. Organizations like the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures are leading the charge on science-based guidance for this type of disclosure, but it is not fully developed yet. However, we cannot wait for metrics to be perfect because they will never be. A good faith effort needs to be made with our current metrics while still being conscious that both innovation and refinement needs to occur.

To protect and restore our ecosystem, we need to think carefully about the strategies we employ and who we are involving in the work. We need in-depth knowledge of the landscape, like what kinds of species live and flourish in it. Local and Indigenous communities can contribute the best information to the restoration process due to lived experience and when combined with science, the tools and plans that emerge are effective and tailored to the location. Additionally, ecosystem restoration can help revitalize and uplift community and culture, creating a self-sustaining feedback loop that maintains ecosystem health.

Even though I had expected finance to loom over discussions, I was still shocked by how much of a dominating force it became. Funding has continuously been the weakest link of environmental agreements and as a result, almost every event at COP15 echoed the urgency of closing the financing gap and injecting money into research, conservation and restoration efforts. The impact it would have on GDP and economic growth was often flagged as a reason to do so. Although monetizing biodiversity loss helps us gain perspective that we depend on nature, we need to be wary of connecting the importance of nature solely to the economy. If we retain this mindset, we miss the entire point of this biodiversity conference. Nature is not a means to an end. Humans are a part of nature and without understanding, accepting and changing our behaviors, we will not survive. Many times, financiers explained that funding ecosystem restoration projects was unpopular because many investors are risk-averse. I truly cannot imagine anything riskier than depriving ourselves of our natural resources, the plants, the animals and the ability to live.

Alyssa Ng (left) with Executive Director Karenna Gore and Director of Sustainability and Global Affairs Andrew Schwartz at COP15 in Montreal, December 14, 2022.

Along with finding a common ground on metrics, a major conversation throughout COP15 centered on scaling up “nature-positive” investments and solutions. While “nature positive” is a noble phrase or ideal, there was no consensus on what it  actually means. Letting it remain a buzzword is a disservice because it distracts us from creating meaningful change. It will open the door for those who put profit over nature to greenwash and continue on business as usual. It also prevents projects from having targeted solutions as they do not know what they are striving for. Collaboration across different sectors is needed to create a concrete definition. Almost every time the term nature-positive was used, it was acknowledged that national or global policy would provide clarity and guidance. This is a reason why the Global Biodiversity Framework is a catalyst for progress. That said, the lack of definition should not be an impediment to limit and reverse destructive activities. 

While “nature positive” is a noble phrase or ideal, there was no consensus on what it actually means.

The framework was officially adopted on the last day of the conference. Throughout the tense negotiations, it was unclear whether countries would be willing to approve it. The ambition level exhibited in these sessions paled in comparison to that in the pavilion space. Following the fierce debate over bracketed text was a seesaw of emotions. Any word or phrase inside brackets is a point of contention for delegates. As the negotiations occur, brackets can be dropped, kept or added. If the text is released from the brackets, that means that the delegates have reached a consensus on keeping it. When there is ardent opposition to a bracketed statement, the content within the bracket may be eliminated. If a phrase is added to replace existing text or as a condition to accept another debated phrase,  it will be bracketed until it is agreed upon. The goal is to not have as little or no brackets before it is handed over to the ministers for the final verdict. Each bracket that was eliminated from or kept in the treaty felt like a personal defeat or victory. It was simultaneously the most disheartening and encouraging process I ever had to bear witness to.

Even as my fear of losing momentum for the framework swelled, I found solace in the passion and enthusiasm shown by fellow attendees at COP15. Every person, no matter what organization they were from or the role they were in, was there because they cared about the environment and our future.It took courage to be in a space where we openly care for each other, for animals, for plants and for the planet. It also takes a great leap of faith to trust the process and work towards a better tomorrow. 

Now that the pathway has been forged, almost 200 countries must align their policies to achieve the 23 targets and four goals. The framework is non-binding, so there are no legislative consequences if they break their obligations. However, very real and tangible consequences transcend borders. None of the past 20 targets set in Aichi, Japan, in 2010 were fully achieved, and the world has taken notice of how its failures have contributed to the drastic loss of species, food insecurity and more degraded land. Countries have acknowledged that another failure is unacceptable. A monitoring framework will be developed by the next CBD COP meeting so progress on the new targets can be tracked, and the EU already proposed the nature restoration law, which will be a major step towards reaching some of the targets. If passed, the law will establish specific targets for restoration measures and each member state will prepare national restoration plans. It is being presented to the European Parliament now.  

Every UN member state has signed onto the Global Biodiversity Framework except for the United States. Although elements of President Biden’s domestic policy about conservation, like his goal to conserve 30% of land and waters by 2030 and the promotion of nature-based solutions, are similar to that of the framework. Having full international cooperation on a nature treaty would have strengthened it, especially in regard to financing conservation and restoration projects in developing nations. 

There is no shortage of work to be done. As Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”