Skip to content

COP15 — the Canadian summit trying to stop a global extinction crisis

Nearly 200 countries will attend COP15, held in Montreal from Dec. 7-19, in an effort to ratify a 10-year plan to halt and reverse the largest extinction crisis since the disappearance of the dinosaurs.
As of 2018, two males, L41, left, and J1, fathered more than half of all sampled offspring born to the southern resident killer whale population since 1990. Prey abundance, disturbances from boats and pollution are among a number of pressures that have left the southern resident population among Canada's endangered species.

From afar, it’s easy to glaze over yet another international conference wringing its hands over yet another slice of the planet at risk of annihilation. 

But look past the acronyms, platitudes and false promises, and the stakes couldn’t be higher — the planet’s entire life support system is on the line. How should humanity respond?

“Here’s my wild idea: don’t choose extinction,” one talking CGI dinosaur suggested to the UN General Assembly in a viral video last year.

In reality, the planet is loosing species faster than at any time since the dinosaurs went extinct roughly 66 million years ago. By one estimate, global wildlife populations have plummeted by nearly 70 per cent since 1970 — a product of habitat destruction, exploitation by humans and a shifting climate.

“The climate emergency and the extinction crisis are part and parcel — you cannot do one without the other,” said Aerin Jacob, director of science and research at the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

In 2016, leaders from 194 nations agreed to limit global warming under the Paris climate accords. But there is no such sweeping agreement to stem what some are calling the “sixth extinction.”

Many hope to change that between Dec. 7 an 19, when representatives from nearly 200 countries will descend on Montreal in an attempt to hammer out a deal that would protect nature and all the living things that inhabit it. 

The United Nation’s 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) of the Convention on Biological Diversity has been delayed for two years due to the pandemic, and was originally supposed to be held in Kunming, China, before strict COVID-19 measures forced its relocation to Canada. 

It is the first time in over a decade countries have negotiated global biodiversity targets. When governments met at COP10 in Nagoya, Japan, in 2010, they pledged to cut habitat loss in half and expand the planet’s nature reserves by 17 per cent. 

A decade later, a UN progress report found signatories of the 2010 agreement had only partially achieving six of 20 targets.

This time around, some are heralding COP15 as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to do for nature what Paris did for climate. 

From who to watch to what could be achieved, here’s what you need to know about COP15.

What is in the COP15 draft agreement?

Canada was among 90 countries that signed a draft target for COP15 to deliver a “set of clear and robust goals and targets, underpinned by the best available science, technology, research as well as Indigenous and traditional knowledge.” 

The pledge, signed in June, includes measures to reform everything from supply chains to fishing and farming practices, all backed up by a “strong monitoring and review mechanism.”

Other proposals would limit the spread of invasive species and introduce mandatory disclosures for all large businesses that would show their impacts on biodiversity. 

Likely the biggest headlines that will come out of the summit will revolve around the goal to “halt and reverse” the destruction of nature by 2030. To do that, 110 countries part of the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People have backed a plan to protect 30 per cent of all land and sea by the end of the decade — hence the “30 by 30” target. 

“COP15 is a big deal,” said Jacob. “But it needs to be specific, and it needs to be measurable.”

Why should I care about COP15?

Global ecosystems are more than a collection of species. Together, they act as a biological support system that allows life to flourish on planet Earth. 

Take the economy: more than half of global gross domestic product depends on healthy and well-functioning levels of biodiversity, yet a fifth of countries are at risk of ecosystem collapse, according to the insurance firm Swiss Re.

Traditional and modern medicine, meanwhile, use 50,000 and 70,000 plant species. And some energy experts say that without stopping deforestation it will be impossible to limit global warming to 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels — the threshold beyond which scientists say humanity will face devastating consequences.

Many of those consequences will come during extreme weather events.

Jacob, who used to ride the school bus through Sumas Prairie, B.C., as a child, said the 2021 flooding of the region directly affected a lot of her friends.

“One of the things that it really shows me is the importance of living within nature's limits,” she said. 

A global agreement could leave a local footprint in a number of ways, such as prioritizing work to open up a river’s floodplain, so riverine ecosystems can absorb the seasonal ebb and flow of floodwaters. 

The benefits of nature don’t end along at the city’s edge. Urban tree canopies and green spaces provide a vast array of benefits, from regulating extreme temperatures to preventing flooding and improving mental and physical health. 

“People who live in cities are extremely dependent on biodiversity,” Jacob said. “The water that you use to make your coffee this morning, the air that you breathe, and the dinner you're gonna have tonight, it was all dependent on biodiversity. They all depend on healthy functioning ecosystems.” 

“It just often comes from farther away.” 

What hurdles stand in the way of success at COP15?

Beyond the 30 by 30 target, there are unresolved questions over where money will come. 

Food systems produce 30 per cent of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions and agriculture is responsible for 80 per cent of global deforestation. 

According to a recent UN report, by 2025, it will cost $384 billion every year to better manage the world’s ecosystems. Another analysis suggests that to reverse the decline of biodiversity, the world needs to spend an annual average of US$711 billion per year between now and 2030.

Outside of the circle of delegates, some experts have warned the goal to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030 is “unrealistic” and could take 80 years rather than eight to achieve. Others say that even if the 2030 targets are successful they only represent a midway point in the fight to preserve what’s left of the natural world.

“What's ultimately needed to conserve biodiversity is to protect at least half of the Earth's land and ocean ecosystems,” Sandra Schwartz, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said last week at a press conference in Ottawa. 

What delegates should we look out for at COP15?

The United States never signed the original 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, the original Nature COP that sought to conserve biological diversity, use nature sustainably, and ensure everyone on the planet shared the benefits of genetic resources. 

Even 30 years ago, Jacob said the people who met in Rio de Janeiro knew the planet was in trouble due to growing extinction rates, pollution and climate change.

In addition to the U.S., delegates pushing to sign up more nations to an ambitious agenda will have to convince big countries with big environmental footprints, such as China, India and Russia.

Among several submissions released before the summit, Bolivia, Ecuador and South Africa are asking for developed countries to up their investments in preserving nature, while Japan is among the rich countries that has pushed back against such calls. 

A handful of countries have also come out against halting and reversing biodiversity loss by 2030, while other big agricultural producers, like Argentina and Brazil, have opposed limits on pesticides.

What does COP15 mean for Canada?

As host nation, Canada has a “huge role to play,” both at home and internationally, says Jacob.

“We have a big global responsibility to biodiversity,” she said. “We have some of the most carbon storage in the world. We have the longest coastline in the world. We have a huge amount of water. We have a lot of intact land.” 

Some of the most threatened ecosystems in Canada are in the country’s south where there’s a rich tapestry of species and where humans have driven the most extinction. 

According to a sweeping survey released last week, at least one-fifth all assessed species in Canada are at some risk of extinction, with thousands close to the brink. A lot of the species most at risk of extinction can be found around urban greenbelts, said Rémi Hébert, the scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada who coordinated the report. 

In B.C., some of the hardest hit regions include the Lower Mainland, southern and eastern Vancouver Island, the Okanagan, and around the western flank of the Rocky Mountains. 

On the other hand, in northern B.C. or Canada’s Arctic where ecosystems remain relatively intact, there’s a good chance of preservation, Jacob said.

To do that, critics say many provinces still need to step up and match the federal government's commitment to protect 30 per cent of the country’s lands and waters by 2030.

Whatever treaty Canada ratifies later this month will ostensibly influence how the country moves to safeguard the natural world for the next decade, she told Glacier Media.

“It’s up to Canada to figure out what does signing that treaty mean for the whole country,” Jacob said. 

What will happen at COP15? 

The core of the conference will revolve around the decisions of country delegates. But there will also be several side meetings involving environmental groups, industry and Indigenous peoples, among others.

Jacob, whose organization will be part of the Canadian delegation in Montreal, is personally attending meetings between artists and scientists like her. The idea, she said, is to find ways to work together and inspire conservation action. 

While she describes herself as “a stick figure kind of person,” Jacob says she's been drawn to narrative storytelling as a way to speak to people unmoved by statistics.

In the lead up to the conference, she helped gather stories from other scientists across Canada, asking questions like, what does it mean to witness extinction firsthand? And how do you go on after that?

“What's at stake is a healthy, prosperous future for all of us, all of our children and all of the other creatures on planet. It can't be overstated,” Jacob said.

Where will Indigenous people fit into COP15?

Roughly 80 per cent of global biodiversity is overseen by Indigenous people, despite making up only six per cent of the global population, according to the World Bank.

That combined with a vast pool of local knowledge makes Indigenous groups a vital player in any effort to halt and reverse damage to ecosystems. 

But a submission from Canada's Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) ahead of the summit raised concerns many states “continue to block or hamper” the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

The letter, written by CAP's director of environment Joshua McNeely, also criticized Canada for taking actions contrary to the minimum standards of the declaration, and to all parties of COP for “rushed discussions” amid “substantial disagreement.” 

“For too long, the groups most affected by biodiversity loss and who have the most knowledge about biodiversity have been marginalized by both a lack of funding and the inability to direct funding to effectively address local issues,” wrote McNeely. 

Canada has made its own calls to the world to follow its national biodiversity targets and put Indigenous guardians at the core of conservation planning.

But according to some younger Indigenous leaders, that's not enough.

Ta’Kaiya Blaney, an advocate from the Tla’amin Nation and part of an Indigenous delegation in Montreal, said she came to this year's summit to address the impacts industrial forestry and other extractive industries have had on her people's territories. 

“Our people don't regard land and life through the lens of biodiversity. We regard land and life through our relationships that are ancestrally rooted, that are contained within our DNA and span back thousands of years,” she said.

When it comes to big international conversations on preserving nature, Blaney said Indigenous people are “simultaneously tokenized and overlooked.”

“I don't feel like our people need recognition. We just need respect,” she said. “We need the invasion of our territories to end.”

Money to steward biodiversity matters, she added, but can't come from a place where “signing on the dotted line” means “giving up more of what we have.”

What could success look like?

Close your eyes and picture success, says Jacob: see bridges that allow wildlife to migrate across highways; see a massive expansion of protected forests, grasslands and coastal waters managed by Indigenous guardians; see a farmscape and vegetable aisle where pesticide use has been cut by two-thirds. 

And see cities that show the value of nature as a line item in their budget. 

“All of the benefits we get for free, like flood protection, you know, places to recreate, spiritual fulfilment, and aesthetic beauty, tourism — all of these things together, need to be on the balance sheet,” Jacob said.

It will be a race against a natural world that is in the process of reorganizing itself as the climate changes, she said.

In such a world, billions of dollars would also flow from wealthier countries — which in the past have enriched themselves by exploiting poorer countries’ ecosystems — to poorer nations and Indigenous peoples trying to save what they have left, said Jacob.

“Some countries will have to pull more weight to achieve these targets. That’s just the nature of the beast,” she said.