McGill scholars respond to COP15 Biodiversity Conference

McGill delegates to the COP15 conference on biodiversity reflect upon their respective takeaways

The 2022 United Nations Biodiversity Conference of the Parties (COP15) was held in Montreal on December 7-19, 2022. The conference’s outcome agreement, known as “30×30” means the protection of 30 per cent of land and oceans by 2030. A delegation of McGill scholars and representatives, and professors and students from a variety of departments and disciplines attended COP15, including Professor Andrew Gonzalez (Department of Biology), who served as scientific observer at the conference. Also in attendance were several McGill staff members, including those running the McGill COP15 booth, which introduced attendees to McGill’s work on biodiversity and organized campus tours. Instead of handing out pens, brochures or bags, the booth offered a QR code, which for every scan raised $1 for the Bayano-McGill Reforestation Project in Panama.

From the perspective of McGill’s representatives, some key takeaways from the conference included the need for Indigenous community-led actions to preserve biodiversity, mainstream awareness of biodiversity issues, focuses on oceans and waterways, global cooperation—and, above all, cautious hope.

Biodiversity and Indigeneity

“Most interesting and compelling was the emphasis on recognizing Indigenous sovereignty and land rights as being a critical component of just biodiversity conservation,” says Professor Anna Hargreaves (Department of Biology). “The best session I went to was on Indigenous perspectives on biodiversity conservation in Quebec. It was an important call to action to all of us who live in southern Canada to pressure governments to live up to treaty obligations: Indigenous communities must have the right to say no to resource developments in their traditional territories.”

“Seeing how different sectors, from finance to NGO, were able to agree on the same resounding issue of biodiversity loss was encouraging,” says Victoria Glynn (PhD Candidate in the Department of Biology and the Redpath Museum). “However, from attending the Biodiversity Can Only Exist with ‘Land Back’ session, organized by Indigenous Climate Action, and in reading the final agreement, there is more to be done regarding Indigenous sovereignty. Indigenous-led conservation needs to be prioritized, as approximately 80 per cent of biodiversity hotspots are on the lands of Indigenous peoples. And still, Indigenous delegates were not given decision-making status during COP15. If Indigenous peoples are going to be lauded as stewards to our environment, they need to be given an actual seat at the table.”

Mainstreaming biodiversity

“I have attended a total of eight COP meetings and the number of attendees in Montreal was unprecedented, as was the amount of media coverage and public interest it generated,” says Professor Timothy Hodges (Institute for the Study of International Development). “The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has suffered from a relative lack of interest, and I believe COP15 finally marks the beginning of ‘mainstreaming’ biodiversity. The level of commitment and engagement by stakeholders was truly impressive and bodes well in terms of action. Unfortunately, it is clear to me that the level of distrust in the CBD—predominantly, between the Global North and the Global South but also within regions and even within countries (e.g., national governments vs. Indigenous Peoples and local communities)—remains high and works against consensus decision-making.”

Oceans and waterways

“Oceans are under especially intense pressure from human and climate impacts, a great deal of action must be taken from all sectors to protect and restore our coastlines,” explains PhD Candidate Kate Sheridan (Department of Biology). “Many representatives of science-based groups were skeptical that the targets would be sufficiently ambitious to bring about ‘transformative change.’ While many of the final targets were close to the assessment provided by IPBES, the agreement lacks sufficient accountability metrics and funding for implementation. I also met a lot of very motivated people who rightfully anticipated this outcome and are working towards even more ambitious marine restoration and biodiversity goals directly with affected communities.”

Professor Anthony Ricciardi (Redpath Museum and Bieler School of Environment) praises COP15’s consideration of inland waters. “Rather than perpetuate the old ‘land and sea’ categorization that has traditionally ignored lakes, rivers and wetlands, the COP15 framework explicitly recognizes that the biodiversity and ecosystem functions of inland waters must be conserved. This is a welcome change, given that freshwater ecosystems are disproportionately diverse and threatened compared to terrestrial and marine systems.”

On the topic of invasive species, Ricciardi notes: “The COP15 framework correctly identifies invasive alien species as a major driver of global biodiversity loss, and calls for rates of invasion to be reduced by at least 50 per cent by 2030. This is a very ambitious target that will require innovative risk assessment, monitoring and management of the pathways of alien species introduction.” He adds, “Cooperation among nations, policy makers, scientists and industry will be crucial for meeting this target.”

Global cooperation and the need for equity

30×30 will require new forms of cooperation, not just between nations, but all facets of society, including government bodies, NGOs, and the private sector. A talk by the Uruguayan environment minister on improving the sustainability of livestock production was particularly interesting,” says Economics and Psychology U2 student Oban Lopez-Bassols. “I’ve been very interested in reducing meat consumption and dubious of ‘sustainable practice’ for doing so, mostly because of high land use and the fact there’s been limited success in reducing CO2 emissions. This gave me an opportunity to see the firsthand experience of governments working with NGOs and local farmers to increase biodiversity and make it profitable. After the meeting, I also spoke to him and learned about the strict accreditations that can signal to buyers the validity of their sustainable practices.”

“I was impressed entirely that each state tried to reflect both their own interests and the common good in international society at the same time,” comments PhD Candidate Kaito Suzuki (Faculty of Law). “It appeared optimistic that the governments seemed ready to some extent to compromise for the common good of humanity rather than their interests. However, they were very cautious as well in illustrating their engagements as they tried to stress that the outcome documents were not legally binding.”

“I found it wasn’t a very LGBT+ friendly space, especially in terms of gender,” notes Kate Sheridan. “Every speaker was explicitly referred to with a ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’ title, even those who should be ‘Dr.’ I couldn’t find any organization even suggesting allyship or mentioning what they were doing to support queer community members—fundamentally linked to the idea that a full picture of biodiversity is only possible when diverse values are taken into account. This is especially true as it intersects with human-limited ideas of gender as the natural world is very, very queer and not particularly binary.”

Hope and caution

“I came away from COP15 with a renewed respect for humanity, hearing from people in such different sectors, from all around the word, agreeing that biodiversity is humanity’s life-support system,” says Professor Jennifer Sunday (Department of Biology). “I felt optimism mostly when hearing about how parties are going to finance biodiversity protection, build capacity, and maintain sustainability of the protection. It was refreshing to have spaces for that kind of realism, even if it isn’t fully worked out. However, I think we are not quite at a transformational relationship with nature, and that leaves lots of space for parties to not reach the commitments, and this is of course the fear.”

“I had a generally positive impression, particularly with the biodiversity knowledge of the parties and politicians,” says Professor Laura Pollock (Department of Biology). “I think getting 30×30 through was hugely significant as this area-based target was one of the main Aichi targets that made progress previously, though I was sad to see many numbers stripped out of the final Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF).”

PhD Candidate Flavio Affinito (Department of Biology), by contrast felt that “the hope and optimism has given way to frustration and disappointment in our global leaders and their commitment to protecting the planet we all live on.”

“Scientists are offering very actionable plans backed with real data and showing clearly how we can deliver, but this is landing on deaf ears,” says Affinito. “Some businesses have offered to share their data publicly which is a positive but many so called nature based solutions are mostly buzz words, unfortunately.”

“I am cautiously optimistic,” concludes Victoria Glynn, “As from seeing who was in the room and able to cast a vote, we run the risk of further marginalizing those communities who most closely rely on our surrounding environment and have the most to lose with declining biodiversity. Simply saying ‘30 per cent of earth will be protected’ does not denote what areas will be prioritized and to what end and with what tools it will be protected—a stronger equity lens needs to be adopted across the board.”