Light streams through the canopy of a rainforest

COP15 will discuss how to protect and restore environments such as the Amazon rainforest as part of its aim to safeguard global biodiversity. Image © achiaos/Shutterstock

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COP15 explained: What is the biodiversity conference and why is it important?

An agreement which will define the future of the world's biodiversity is set to be concluded in Montreal, Canada, between 5 and 17 December later this year. 

But what is going to be discussed at COP15? And didn't we just have COP26? We explain what you need to know about this important summit. 

What is COP15?

The 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, or COP15, is the latest meeting in which the nations of the world will come together to discuss the world's biodiversity

These discussions cover all forms of life from microscopic viruses to enormous whales, as well as conservation, knowledge-sharing and financial policies associated with these organisms, their protection, and their use.

The first meeting took place in 1994 in the Bahamas, and COP15 is the latest. Due to delays associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been split into two halves. The first part took place virtually in 2021, while the concluding part is set to take place later this year. 

This was also originally due to take place in Kunming, China, but amid ongoing uncertainty due to COVID-19, this meeting has been moved to Montreal, Canada.   

Leaders sitting on stage during a press conference at COP26

COP26 focused on climate change, while COP15 is concerned with biodiversity.  Image © UNclimatechange, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

How is it different from COP26?

While they are both Conferences of the Parties, and numbered similarly, COP15 and COP26 are not the same. While COP15 relates to biodiversity, COP26 was concerned with climate change.

At COP26, which was held in Glasgow, UK, nations around the world agreed to a range of measures, including new funding commitments, accelerated efforts to phase down the use of coal, and pledges to end deforestation by 2030.

However, the wording of the agreement has led to criticism, after last minute interventions from fossil fuel producing nations.

The agreement did, however, link biodiversity loss and climate change at an international level for the first time. While both conferences are separate, COP15's aim to improve the world's biodiversity will have consequences for how we deal with climate change. 

What is the Convention on Biological Diversity?

This strand of COP meetings were established by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). It is a landmark 1992 international agreement that set out how to utilise and protect the world's natural resources. It has been adopted by every UN member state except for the USA, which has signed but not ratified the treaty.

Since being adopted, two additional protocols have also been added, but these have been adopted by fewer nations than the CBD itself. The first, the Cartagena Protocol, deals with protecting biodiversity from genetically modified organisms, while the Nagoya Protocol relates to the sharing and use of genetic information.

One of the most crucial aspects of the convention is its focus on fairness. It emphasises that all the nations of the world should share resources, information and finances to ensure the effective protection and enhancement of nature.

However, these aspirational goals have been challenging to implement, with issues such as disagreement on if and how wealthier countries should fund lower-income nations to preserve their biodiversity.  

A bleached coral reef

Marine biodiversity is often less well understood than terrestrial diversity, but also faces threats. Image © Ethan Daniels/Shutterstock

Why is COP15 important?

As part of the CBD, COP15 aims to protect and restore the Earth's biodiversity, which is a measure of all life on this planet, as well as its interactions with the physical world. 

Biodiversity is vital to our daily lives, as well as the health of Earth's ecosystems. Processes such as the nitrogen and carbon cycle are impossible without a variety of organisms at every stage, while ecosystem services such as pollination and flood prevention are also inextricably linked with life on Earth.

Losing species reduces the impact of these ecosystem services and makes life for all organisms much more difficult. It is estimated that the world's biodiversity intactness is around 75% overall, significantly below the 90% threshold scientists believe is safe.

COP15 aims to continue bringing biodiversity loss under control and start to turn things around.

What's happened at COP15 so far?

After being scheduled to be held in Kunming, China, in 2020, COP15 has been pushed back a number of times. The first part of the meeting eventually took place online in October 2021, where the nations of the world agreed the Kunming Declaration.

As part of the declaration, they committed to put the world's biodiversity on a path to recovery by 2030. This included pledges to improve the effectiveness of conservation, strengthen environmental law, and reform financial incentives for protecting biodiversity. 

There were also a number of financial pledges, including China establishing the Kunming Biodiversity Fund with the equivalent of £180 million. There was also agreement from a number of nations that funding to combat climate change should also go towards protecting and restoring biodiversity. 

The second part of the meeting was subsequently moved from Kunming to Montreal, Canada, where it is scheduled to take place in December 2022. Though the location may have moved, China will retain its presidency of the meeting. 

A fountation in the middle of stairs around a large pool in the Centre de Commerce Mondial in Montreal

COP15 will take place in the seat of the Convention on Biological Diversity Secretariat in Montreal, Canada. Image © Denis Jacquerye, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

What's on the agenda at COP15?

Ahead of the second part of COP15, the organisers have laid out what they see as the key objectives of the meeting. Top of the list is working towards finalising the global biodiversity framework for the conference, including discussions over biodiversity targets, finance and benefit sharing.

Other priorities include increasing the role that Indigenous peoples and communities have in dialogue over knowledge sharing and benefitting from biodiversity, and discussing how information from genetic sequencing can be more fairly shared.

Following COP26, the meeting also hopes to highlight how biodiversity can help mitigate the impacts of climate change and assist communities around the world in adapting to a warmer planet.

What can I do about biodiversity loss?

While not everyone can be at the international negotiations in Montreal, there are a variety of steps that everyone can use to find out more about biodiversity loss and how to combat it.

Changing how we live is the most important way everyone can have an impact. Intensive agriculture is one of the most significant causes of biodiversity loss globally, so eating a less intensively farmed diet, including cutting down on meat and dairy, is one way to protect species in the UK and around the world.

Other ways we can live more sustainably include growing insect-friendly plants, mowing the garden less frequently, and reducing the amount of waste we produce.

You can also get involved more directly to make the world a more biodiverse place, such as getting involved in community science projects or calling for change from decision makers.