What an ecologist learned observing COP15

This is a guest post from occasional contributor Emma Despland. If you’re like me, you know that UN conferences like COP15 (more formally, the 2022 United Nations Biodiversity Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity) are, but you’re a bit mystified about what goes on at one. Here Emma gives an ecologist’s perspective on both the process and the product of COP15. The agreement (provided that it’s followed, of course) has huge implications both for our planet and for our academic field. Read on for Emma’s impressions.

Last month, I attended COP15 in Montreal as part of my university’s delegation. I volunteered mainly out of curiosity and didn’t really know what to expect. It took me a while to figure out, since the United Nations system is not very transparent, and the websites are difficult to navigate, opaque for the uninitiated.  It turned out to be an opportunity to sit in as observer at the formal negotiations between member states and at side-events.  Overall, I learned a great deal.

To begin, it’s clear that biodiversity science has made impressive advances, and we now know more than I imagined about the extent of biodiversity loss, the direct causes and underlying indirect drivers, the implications for climate stabilization and what is needed to restore biodiversity and ecosystem function at the level required to stabilize climate warming at +1.5˚C.

It might seem strange, but I also felt buoyed up by positive energy.  It was a pleasant change to be surrounded by knowledgeable, smart people who take the biodiversity crisis seriously and are talking about concrete, evidence-based steps to move forward. We often see anxiety, despair, denial, resignation, cynicism or head-in-the-sand avoidance in relation to talking about the environment.  Here, there was an atmosphere of pragmatism, laying out the scientifically-based evidence of where we stand and planning concrete solutions. This fits with recommendations that the best remedy for climate anxiety is first to get support for one’s feelings and next, meaningful transformative action.

I know I’m probably being naive here. I’m sure there were a lot of hidden agendas I didn’t understand (notably, I didn’t pay much attention to any of the events about financing), but it was still refreshing to hear people talking about solving the biodiversity crisis as if they meant it. I don’t necessarily mean that I trust political leaders to act on their commitments; it’s more that once a commitment is publicly made, it becomes easier for citizens to hold them to it.

I was also really impressed by the skill of negotiators, particularly of the meeting chairs. I’ve participated in far too many meetings – some well-chaired, some poorly-chaired. The negotiations I witnessed were extremely well chaired; especially considering the difficulty of getting close to 200 people to agree on exact wording, in a context where the stakes are a lot higher than any decision-making process I’ve participated in. I admired the professionalism and constructive approach, which unfortunately contrasted with too much of my own experience.

As an example: when delegates from several developing countries walked out partway through talks over an inability to reach agreement on funding, the media presented this as a breakdown in talks, threatening any possibility of an agreement, often using emotional, dramatic language. The walk-out happened at 1 AM, which in my opinion is high time to end any meeting and get some rest.  Back in the meeting hall the next morning, I heard delegates reaffirming their commitment to reaching agreement, and to the importance of equitable financing. They then set up a new structure to open up new avenues to move the discussion forward. I wasn’t present at the last moments of the talks at 3:30 AM when objections from the major rainforest country in Africa appeared to have been ignored in order to seal the agreement (those objections were later dropped). Nonetheless, the parts of negotiations I did witness were much more calm, rational and goal-oriented than it seemed from the outside.

So what did member countries sign on for at COP15, and what are implications for us as ecologists?  The first draft of the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), the text negotiated at COP15, was built on recommendations from the scientific community – notably the 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services from IPBES (the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services).  This 1148-page document (there’s a 56-page summary, fortunately) with 350 contributing authors is the most comprehensive scientific appraisal of life on Earth and what it means to people.  It draws upon various disciplines and knowledge systems, includes unprecedented participation of Indigenous peoples, and makes specific recommendations.

The final text agreed upon in December 2022*, the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, has mostly been welcomed by IPBES authors, despite some watering-down and removal of quantitative milestones.  The text calls for “urgent action to halt and reverse biodiversity loss to put nature on a path to recovery for the benefit of people and planet by conserving and sustainably using biodiversity, and ensuring the equitable sharing of benefits from the use of genetic resources”.**

The agreement includes four long-term goals for 2050:

A. increase area of natural ecosystems and slow extinction rate;

B. value nature’s contributions to people and use biodiversity for sustainable development;

C. Share equitably all benefits from genetic resources, digital sequences*** and traditional knowledge; and

D. develop adequate means of implementation, including financial resources and scientific cooperation.

The path to achieve these goals is laid out through 23 action-oriented targets to be achieved by 2030. The targets in Goal A are directly concerned with ecological science, and can be summarized as follows:

  • Ensure that all areas are under participatory integrated biodiversity inclusive spatial planning
  • Ensure that by 2030 at least 30 per cent of areas of degraded terrestrial, inland water, and coastal and marine ecosystems are under effective restoration
  • Ensure and enable that by 2030 at least 30 per cent of terrestrial, inland water, and of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services, are effectively conserved****
  • Ensure urgent management actions to halt human induced extinction
  • Ensure that the use, harvesting and trade of wild species is sustainable
  • Eliminate, minimize, reduce and or mitigate the impacts of invasive alien species
  • Reduce pollution risks and the negative impact of pollution from all sources
  • Minimize the impact of climate change and ocean acidification on biodiversity and increase its resilience


There is more, of course, but these are the basic measures that countries have agreed to in order to halt biodiversity loss. What does this mean in practice? As an ecological scientist, I wonder  what this means for our community, for the research and teaching that we will do between now and 2030 and in particular for early-career researchers and students embarking on careers in ecology (research or otherwise).

Biodiversity monitoring is an obvious contribution from the scientific community required to meet the GBF targets, but there are many other passages calling for different types of ecological expertise. For instance, Target 7 explicitly mentions ‘integrated pest management, based on science’ – a clear requirement for IPM entomologists, weed specialists and other agricultural scientists.  Target 10 requires countries to ‘Ensure that areas under agriculture, aquaculture, fisheries and forestry are managed sustainably’ – if this is taken seriously, it will imply a huge need for many different areas of ecological expertise. Similarly, target 12 requires mainstreaming biodiversity in urban decision-making –more opportunities for urban ecologists. It’s perhaps less obvious how the ecological community will be able to respond. It’s not that we’ll be reluctant to step up – but one has to wonder, will there be new resources on offer?

Finally, Goal D includes research collaboration, especially between the global North and South (Target 20 calls for “joint scientific research programmes for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and strengthening scientific research and monitoring capacities”) and scientific communication (Target 21 states “Ensure that the best available data, information and knowledge, are accessible to decision makers, practitioners and the public”).  Again, these are goals most of the ecological research community will share! There’s also an entire section on Communication, education, awareness and uptake (Section K. Point 40) with such requirements as ‘Enhancing communication, education, and awareness on biodiversity’, ‘Increasing awareness on the importance of conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity’ and ‘Integrating transformative education on biodiversity into formal, non-formal and informal educational programmes, promoting curriculum on biodiversity conservation and sustainable use in educational institutions and promoting knowledge, attitudes, values, behaviours and lifestyles that are consistent with living in harmony with nature’. This highlights the need for good ecology teachers at all levels as well as science communicators.

If I had to point to something disappointing, it would be the relatively low profile of active researchers in ecology (although there are certainly exceptions, such as Andy Gonzalez and Tony Ricciardi). The science was often presented by people working at the interface with policy. Such folks are important, of course – but I’d prefer to see more researchers join them.

The COP15 agreement contains an ambitious programme, lining out clearly what needs to be done, but the exact details still need to be worked out at the local level and ecologists will be much needed to provide the necessary expertise. There’s a lot here for our planet, and for our field too.

© Emma Despland  January 16, 2023

Other guest posts from Emma: “Covid-19, Mystery Novels, and How Science Works“; “The Other Crisis of 2020”; and Remote Conferences and Flying Less

Image: COP15 opening, © UN Convention on Biodiversity via Wikimedia.org CC BY 2.0

*^Comparing the draft and final texts shows an unfortunate example of what happens when the edits of close to 200 co-authors need to be accepted.

**^This is a specific example of a sentence that appears cumbersome (well, is cumbersome), yet where every word has been weighted and is there for a reason.

***^“Digital sequences” means sequences in GenBank: the question is how to ensure that biodiversity-rich countries in the global South and indigenous communities share in the benefits from genetic resources harvested from their territories.

****^This is the 30-30 that has been making headlines.


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