Joseph Lewis, Ethny Childs
August 2021

COP15 delay: is nature being pushed out of the queue?

Now that the COP15 UN Biodiversity Conference has been delayed for a third time due to the ongoing pandemic, questions remain about what this will mean for key efforts to protect biodiversity and nature worldwide. The IES has been championing the importance of transformative action on a global scale to address the complex social and natural systems which are threatening biodiversity, and we want to make clear that, despite the delay in the scheduling of the Conference itself, action to tackle the challenge ahead must continue.

What's the big deal with COP15?

It is clear that we are currently facing an ecological emergency, with habitats and ecosystems under threat all over the world. While we are beginning to see increasing recognition and work to address that challenge, we are just at the beginning of action at the scale needed to achieve necessary change. In particular, it is vital that we go beyond marginal or incremental changes: we must address the systems of consumption and production which are threatening nature and biodiversity. In order to do so, we need to think about the complex systems which shape our interactions with nature on a daily basis, as the IES recently noted in the context of nature-based solutions to climate change.

Many of those systems are global, and they will often require global solutions. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity seeks to provide a framework for negotiations between countries so that those solutions can become a reality, and COP15 was due to be the latest meeting under that Convention. When COP15 does take place, it will play a crucial role in reviewing progress towards global targets and considering how biodiversity will be addressed at a global level. There was also an expectation of greater clarity and agreement on technical issues, particularly around the processes, monitoring, and high level ambition which conservation practitioners rely on to realise the full transformative potential of their work.

With hopes that COP15 would lead to a Paris-style agreement between parties, particularly following reports that Aichi targets had been largely missed in 2020, it is vital that ambition is not dampened by ongoing delays. 

How can we tackle biodiversity loss while we also face the climate crisis?

Although we are faced with multiple environmental crises which require our attention and focus, it is important to remember that they are interlinked, and often related to the same unsustainable systems which contribute to environmental degradation. By placing climate action within the wider agenda of protecting the natural world we will be able to take advantage of the synergies between them. It is only through holistic, systemic action that we can align our ambition for both climate and nature, and ensure that the actions we implement are complementary and reinforcing. 

Nature-based solutions offer one way in which we can work towards the goal of supporting ecosystem restoration at the same time as acheiving climate action. Here at the IES we have been highlighting the importance of nature-based solutions and their role in protecting biodiversity and supporting climate action. 

In May 2021, the IES also teamed up with RSB and CIEEM to discuss both COP15 and the equivalent COP26 on climate change, drawing together the challenges facing nature and the climate with the potential for solutions offered by the prospect of global action. At the time, the IES noted that the short timeframe between the two conferences would ensure that policy makers had both issues in mind as they engaged in discussion, increasing the potential for a joined-up response which reflects the systems we are dealing with. With COP15 delayed to 2022, it will be vital that those considerations are not lost. With a strategic approach which utilises systems thinking, we can simultaneously address climate change and biodiversity loss to the benefit of people, nature, and the planet.

With COP15 delayed, what comes next?

With the main COP15 negotiation delayed until 2022, it will mean more time spent without action on an already tight timeline, and more ambiguity about where ambitions for nature recovery, restoration, and protection will be met with tangible action. Protecting biodiversity and nature is a fundamental part of achieving ambitions related to climate action, as well as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and the UN Decade on Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. The complementary goals between these different agendas reflects the myriad ways in which human well-being is intricately linked with biodiversity and nature, and highlights the importance of placing their protection at the heart of environmental ambition and action. 

Therefore, it is vital that the action which would have begun in earnest at the Conference still takes place. This cannot be an excuse for a delay or a reason to send nature to the back of the queue. Governments need to continue to take proactive steps now, and practitioners and environmentalists should seek to raise the importance of systems thinking wherever possible. The IES is already doing its part to speak up on these issues, and will continue to scrutinise the global direction of movement over the coming months as we prepare for COP15.

If the international community takes this delay as the opportunity that it is, hopefully COP15 will now be the second step in a renewed push for action, rather than the first.