Henry I of England died after eating a “surfeit of lampreys”, or so the urban myth goes. Will the world choke similarly on the surfeit of biodiversity/climate related COPs to be held in the 2 months between October 17 and December 19? Covid-19 had many reverberations, but perhaps the most significant has been the changing (postponing) of dates for the various environmental convention Conferences of the Parties (COPs). 

Normally the international calendar is well-planned years in advance to avoid clashes, but in the next two months there will be five COPs, starting in mid-October with the bi-annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (Portoroz, Slovenia), followed in short order by COP 14 of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (5-13 November, opening virtually in Wuhan, China, and then mostly in Geneva), and COP 19 of CITES (14-25 November, Panama city). 

In parallel, COP 27 of the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will meet from 6-18 November in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, and, to finish, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) COP 15 from 7-19 December, opening in Kunming and then in Montréal. The Ramsar Convention and CBD meetings have unusual arrangements as China is the host, but unable to allow free movement of delegates, so, following protocol, the meetings will be held at, or close to, the location of the secretariat. 

At a time of great global uncertainty, environmentally and politically, we need these meetings to be successful in real terms, not in the commonly produced nicely worded press releases covering over the failures. Perhaps the most important meeting is the (supposedly) final meeting to establish the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), to be held in Montréal 3-5 December. This GBF has been in progress for over two years and was already due for finalisation at a meeting in Nairobi in June. That meeting failed to reach agreement, leaving a text full of square brackets (disputed wording) yet to be resolved.

Essentially, the GBF is the set of goals and targets that should enable the CBD to be successfully implemented. Two previous decadal strategies failed to achieve this, and much hangs on agreeing – and implementing- a successful GBF, as it will set not only the framework for CBD, but all biodiversity-related agreements, and increasing is influencing the UNFCCC. A recent report prepared by IPBES showed the clear links between changes in climate and biodiversity and it is no longer possible to say CBD is only about biodiversity, and UNFCCC only about climate. But conversations across and amongst these conventions needs to be against a sold framing that helps them (and the world at large) understand what is at stake, and what needs to be done. 

So, will that solid framing be the GBF? Kim Friedman, with a range of other authors (disclosure: including me), recently published a paper in People and Nature on this issue, and an Early View copy is here.  The paper’s key conclusion was that, unless the GBF process re-oriented to take account of six key areas, it is unlikely to be any more successful than the previous two decadal strategies, signed off in 2002 and 2020.  These six key areas are:

  • reframing of the narrative of people’s relationship with the rest of nature;
  • going beyond a focus on endangered species and spaces;
  • supporting a diversity of top-down and bottom-up governance processes for people and biodiversity;
  • embracing new technologies to make and measure progress on the rate and direction of change for biodiversity;
  • linking business better with biodiversity; and
  • leveraging the power of international agencies and programmes.

Of course, these areas are linked – and key areas one and two are paramount. Yet too much focus in the past, which continues, relies on simply increasing the extent of protected areas and attempting to save species already in deep decline. The “30-by-30” process endorsed by the G7, and many other countries is an example of this. Simply adding more protected areas without understanding what their contribution to biodiversity will be in the future is a dangerous approach. Further, without ensuring sufficient finance to manage these new (not to mention existing) areas appropriately biodiversity conservation may well go backwards. An important viewpoint on this from the worlds Indigenous peoples is a concern that, yet again, this means a significant grab of their lands, waters, and seas.

Key areas five and six are likely to be addressed by two ongoing and potential IPBES assessments on the nexus assessment (Thematic assessment of the interlinkages among biodiversity, water, food, and health) and on business and biodiversity. Yet waiting 3 years for an assessment is also a challenge – there is a real need for IPBES to reform its process to become a transformative agent, rather than a reactive bureaucratic body. Of course, that is difficult to achieve in a world where consensus is everything. Yet the world must try to find new innovative ways to solve the interlinked crises of climate and biodiversity change and their increasing impact on human well-being and health.

It is not over-egging to say that the GBF that emerges in the CBD COP will be a vital part of humanities’ future. As the paper notes “A successful framework is vital not just for the convention’s future, but, linked with successful climate actions, is critical to making the earth a safer place for people and the rest of nature in the coming decades, centuries, and millennia.”