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La vue de Montreal: Biodiversity gets its moment at COP15

Will increased business support at COP15 help galvanize action on nature and biodiversity?

COP 15 sign in Montreal

Ocean preservation and regeneration, human-wildlife conflict and soil health have been among the topics central to discussions at COP15 in Montreal. Photo by Pete May/GreenBiz

Ah, Montreal. A walkable and charming city — if a bit chilly in December. 

In the second-biggest francophone city in the world, I figured my French would come in handy. I can now say my comprehension of Quebecois is a work in progress. I did improve the last few days — and picked up some colorful words. Calice! (Go look that one up.)

I was in Montreal for COP15, the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). By its advocates, COP15 is being viewed as the "Paris moment" to set goals and galvanize action to, simply, preserve and restore nature. 

Like COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, COP15 is a sprawling two-week negotiation among 193 countries. It is an assemblage of different actors: governments, businesses, investors, NGOs and activists across dozens of sub-events and side events. A global village, one hears myriad languages in the hallway — and a fair share of funny moments and random interactions. One woman came up to me and said, "Are you Danish?" I responded, "Uh, no." She said, walking away: "You look it. And that’s a good thing." OK. There was also word that the Mexican delegates to COP15 were offering bottles of tequila to all those who agreed to the painstaking changes in languages needed in one of the negotiating sessions. 

Beyond the fun and frivolity, there’s serious business at COP15. The goal for negotiators is to come up with a final agreement, known as the post-2020 biodiversity framework, by Dec. 19. The framework sets out an ambitious plan to transform society’s relationship with biodiversity. The "30x30" aspirational goal for 2030 — to protect 30 percent of lands and seas by then is challenging; the goal to become "nature-positive" by 2050 is even more challenging and nebulous. Ocean preservation and regeneration, human-wildlife conflict and soil health are among the topics up for discussion.

Across the speakers at the event and the conversations in the hallways, some themes have emerged:

The human cost of biodiversity lost 

A key group of stakeholders at COP15 are Indigenous peoples. They constitute 6 percent of the world’s population — and are stewards of 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. 

On my first day in Montreal, I attended the World Biodiversity Summit. I was struck by a panel on Biodiversity Solutions for All, which tried to get at the real human cost of biodiversity lost. 

Most moving was the story told by Domingo Peas Nampichkai, an Indigenous leader and coordinator of the Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative.

Domingo Peas Nampichkai and Pete May at COP15 in Montreal

Domingo Peas Nampichkai (right) and Pete May at the World Biodiversity Summit in Montreal.

Growing up in a place where nature is so pervasive there is no single word for "nature," Nampichkai has a lifetime mission to protect his native lands from destruction by extractive industries — and fashion a new economy built on pillars such as ecotourism, eco-medicines and more. He has worked to protect more than 4 million acres of pristine rainforest in Ecuador and Peru, and he aims to protect a bigger area encompassing sacred headlands in the Amazon.

Another dynamic Indigenous leader at COP15 was Steven Nitah. Raised by his great-grandparents on the land along the East Arm of Great Slave Lake, in Canada’s Northwest Territories, Nitah has served as chief of the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation and as an active member of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative (ILI), helping advance Indigenous-led conservation across Canada. 

He has a new role leading Nature For Justice (N4J). N4J’s mission is to use nature to address the social justice needs of vulnerable populations confronting the climate crisis around the world. N4J aims to bridge the pristine lands of Indigenous communities with the ability to sequester carbon and bring livelihood and protection to these marginalized communities.

Nitah says the forests and other ecosystems in the Northwest Territories can sequester so much carbon as to make them "globally significant. Let’s invest in what’s proven: nature. And let’s recognize the responsibility that Indigenous people have exercised while fighting for their rights and to preserve their lands."

As adept at turning a phrase as he is navigating his native woods, Nitah says: "The Boreal forests of the North are among the great lungs of the planet. We are nature, the life-giving force of planet Earth."

Biodiversity is complex

Economist Jeffrey Sachs noted in his COP15 keynote about the biodiversity accord: "If you think the energy transition is hard, I’m afraid this one is even harder. Less clarity of what to do, and a range of issues." Unlike the climate issue, there may not be a "1.5 degrees," one simple overarching goal.

The coalition Business for Nature has a good concise phrase: Hold and reverse. That is, minimize our negative impacts through 2030 and then reverse course to generate net more nature and more biodiversity by 2050.

Expectations for an expanded agreement coming out of COP15 are muted. Getting 193 nations to agree on anything is tough, let alone a topic as complex as biodiversity, and in the shadow of last month’s exhausting COP27 negotiation. At the conference I heard speakers say repeatedly it’s less important how perfect the agreement is, than just having one that emerges.

Business support is rising and creating momentum

At COP14 in 2018, there were 30 businesses present. This year by one estimate, more than 1,000 corporate and finance institutions were represented at COP15. This included Global 2000 corporate policy and sustainability leaders, new corporate leaders from companies such as Holcim, H&M and Michelin with new roles such as "head of nature" and "biodiversity lead" and a raft of asset owners, pension fund managers and other investors.

Michael Torrance, chief sustainability officer for BMO Capital, said: "The private sector is sending positive signals by engaging positively here at COP15. Not quite as strong as COP27; not every business is here, but business plays a big role in pushing government to set clear policy direction."

No. 15: A key target for businesses at COP15 

Negotiators wrestled with 23 target areas at COP. A pivotal one for the business and finance community is Target No. 15, focused on setting mandatory disclosure requirements for business and financial institutions. 

Business for Nature, which helped bring hundreds of business and finance leaders to COP15, aimed for an ambitious Target 15, which would require business and financial institutions to transform their business practices. Key points: include effective mandatory requirements for large business and financial organizations to assess and disclose dependencies and impacts on biodiversity; and incentivize them to accelerate business action to reduce negative impacts by half by 2030.

At the time of publication, it appears that negotiators were making some progress coming to at least a baseline Target 15. 

Nature, climate and people: All inextricably linked

As at COP27, the human and social element was a point of emphasis in discussions. Cristina Romanelli, biodiversity program manager at the World Health Organization, said it succinctly: "Ecosystem health links to human health. Our approach needs to be more inclusive of both. My ask of negotiators: Don’t just focus on biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake but the benefit to people through a planetary approach."

It’s understandable that observers of COP 27 and COP15 may be fatigued by two parallel massive environmental negations within a month — particularly at a time when the global economy is taxed by war and food and energy crises.  

But as several speakers noted, you can’t solve one without the other. And solving the biodiversity crisis is fundamental to solving the climate crisis. 

Whatever agreement emerges from COP15 will be incomplete, ambiguous and arguably insufficient to address our planet’s existentially destructive path. Still, a wave of momentum in Montreal has finally started to finally address our biodiversity crisis. Et ça c’est une bonne chose.

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