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COP 15 UN Biodiversity Conference, Montreal Canada

In December I attended the COP (conference of the parties) 15 UN Biodiversity Conference in Montreal, Canada as an observer (academic/research) and part of the Durham University delegation. At COP15, 198 world governments were meeting to agree on the new Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) which focuses on protecting the world’s biodiversity.

It was great to see that a key outcome was a commitment to protect 30% of the land and oceans by 2030 and targets to reduce biodiversity loss, but will this be sufficient to ‘halt and reverse biodiversity decline’?

I witnessed how the public negotiations between country representatives progressed and evolved over the conference. I noticed quite a lot of time was spent by the delegates discussing issues such as the wording of ‘nature-based solutions’ or an ‘ecosystem approach’. There was concern from representatives of indigenous peoples that ‘nature-based solutions’ is a western-derived term that separates people and nature, which contrasts with indigenous worldviews which see biodiversity as linked and interdependent.  Such projects might be ‘top-down’, rather than ‘bottom-up’, even if developed with good intentions. This contrasts with the ‘ecosystem approach’ which is broader and more explicitly recognises humans as an integral part of many ecosystems. The final agreed Framework Convention on Biodiversity included reference to both approaches. There was also focus on getting major developed nations to pledge enough biodiversity funding to developing nations to protect key ecosystems, which was a key challenge.

Above: Palais des congrès de Montréal

For me, the side-events at COP 15 were the most engaging, as debate and discussion among all was encouraged. The buzzword cycling around COP 15 was ‘transformative’ and I would say that the combined work of NGOs, academics, business, indigenous peoples and youth really did give the side-events and pavilions (a zone where debate is encouraged) a really positive feel, where momentum was building. During these events it was easy to believe that change is possible, biodiversity can be protected and policymakers were being actively influenced.

There was much talk about marine ecosystems and marine connectivity. When marine protected zones (MPZs) are created, they need to consider habitat pathways, essentially marine underwater ‘swim-ways’ for marine organisms and create cetacean (whales, dolphins, porpoises) migration corridors. We need to ensure we protect the right areas, not just easiest areas. There were also talks on seabird migration and tracking, including how datasets can be synthesised and integrated to provide the greatest benefit to decision-making. The networking of policy-makers with scientists at these side-events was very positive, as encouraging greater use of data and expertise will surely lead to better decision-making.

The relevance of MPZs in the Southern Ocean, specifically with regards to the Weddell Sea, also emerged at the conference. Overfishing for krill and toothfishes around Antarctica – combined with cumulative impacts of climate change “jeopardises” the future of life in the Southern Ocean. I was able to learn how CCAMLR (Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources) are now working towards the three potential MPAs currently under negotiation (Weddell Sea, East Antarctic and western Antarctic Peninsula), and how a special intersessional meeting on advancing MPZ implementation will be held in the first half of 2023.

Reflecting on my time at COP 15, I have greatly valued the experience and now understand how global agreements evolve, are formulated and debated among parties.  Numerous side-events broadened my links between science and society. As part of the cryosphere and polar research community I feel that there is much potential for future iterations of the GBF to include more relevance to these unique and sensitive environments, especially through the extension of globally agreed MPZs.

Mark Stevenson, January 2023

Above: Making my biodiversity pledge at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)