What’s At Stake as Nations Gather To Stave off the Global Biodiversity Crisis

The decade's most important negotiations to protect nature and wildlife kick off this week in Canada. Ambitious goals are on the table, but success is not guaranteed.
In 2022, the U.S. State of the Birds report identified 70 "tipping point" species, including the Rufous Hummingbird. Each has lost 50% or more of its population in the past 50 years. Photo: Jace Stenersen/Audubon Photography Awards

With half of all bird species worldwide declining in population and 1 in 8 bird species threatened with extinction, this week marks a critical moment for global efforts to halt biodiversity losses—not only among birds, but also struggling animals, plants, and intertwined ecosystems across the planet. The most significant international negotiations in a decade kick off in Montreal, Canada, today, with up to 20,000 delegates meeting in hopes of striking a long-delayed deal to safeguard a far greater portion of the planet’s biodiversity by 2030.

At the two-week COP15 meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity, negotiators face a daunting but urgent challenge to finalize a text, known as the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, that 196 signatory nations will support. “The benchmarks that will be decided collectively at this meeting are the ones that will guide how government budgets related to biodiversity and conservation will be allocated for years to come,” says Jeff Wells, Audubon's vice president for boreal conservation. “That’s where the rubber really hits the road.” 

One important proposal—a headline goal to protect at least 30 percent of the world’s lands and sea by 2030, known as “30 by 30”—is backed by a growing body of scientific research and a grouping of more than 110 governments that make up the High-Ambition Coalition for Nature and People. Going into the summit, however, an unusual number of issues and details remained to be hammered out in the framework’s text, a situation that has been exacerbated by two years of remote meetings and postponed negotiations. COP15 was originally scheduled to be held in China in 2020. “It’s a huge lift for countries to get done,” says Brian O’Donnell, director of the Campaign for Nature, a partnership of conservation advocates championing the 30 by 30 goal at COP15.

A key sticking point revolves around financing for conservation in developing nations. More intact habitat and biodiversity survives today in developing nations, but deforestation, pollution, and other destructive activities—often fueled by consumption and resource demand from richer nations—threatens these regions. While estimates vary, wealthy nations now devote roughly $10 billion a year to supporting biodiversity protection in developing nations, says O’Donnell. A 2030 agreement would ramp that up, but how much is at issue. Proposals range from an additional $10 billion a year in the draft text to the $100 billion a year sought by a coalition of developing nations. Going into the negotiations, new funding commitments fell short of even the lower number, though announcements are likely over the next two weeks.

The Łutsël K’e Dene First Nation worked with the Canadian government to create the Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve in 2019. It's now one of the biggest protected areas in Canada, which has set a goal to protect 30 percent of its lands and oceans by 2030. Photo: Pat Kane

Attendees are also still debating other basic elements of the agreement—for example, what exactly counts as a protected area, as well as how to measure and monitor how these areas are managed. Beyond that, many Indigenous peoples and other communities from around the world are calling for the framework to recognize their rights within the context of global conservation goals. Indigenous groups make up 5 percent of the global population but steward an estimated 80 percent of its remaining biodiversity. However, conservation initiatives have a history of trampling on Indigenous land rights and ways of life. Many other details of the agreement, from limiting the spread of invasive species to curtailing financial subsidies that accelerate habitat destruction, will also be negotiated at the summit.

The 2030 agreement is set to replace a set of 20 targets from the past decade, covering a period from 2011 to 2020. Taken together, the world failed to meet each of those 2020 targets, though the decade marked progress for creating more land and marine protected areas and doubling conservation funding, among other milestones. Still, this overall poor track record raises the stakes for countries to commit to a strong agreement now. “We had a decade of failure, and then we had an additional two years of negotiation because of COVID delays,” O’Donnell says. “This is a critical moment not just for this framework— and for 30 by 30—but for the entire Convention. Can this be an effective venue for addressing the biodiversity crisis?”

The success or failure of the Convention on Biological Diversity, a treaty ratified in 1993, to stem biodiversity loss affects more than just wildlife. An estimated 55 percent of the world’s gross domestic product depends on high-functioning ecosystems and biodiversity to, for example, pollinate crops, control erosion and floods, provide timber and clean water. Healthy ecosystems also soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and ameliorate the direct impacts of global warming. Such “nature-based solutions” to climate change are increasingly recognized under a separate treaty, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which met for annual talks in November in Egypt. But climate change negotiators fell short of directly calling for ambitious biodiversity targets to protect nature at December’s COP15 meeting —a result of “antiquated thinking” that divides two intertwined, high-stakes issues, O’Donnell says. 

While a bevy of world leaders attended the climate talks in Egypt, few are expected to show up at the COP15 biodiversity negotiations in Canada—even in this key year. Another major difference between the two treaties: The United States has never ratified the underlying Convention on Biological Diversity, and therefore will only take part in the COP15 negotiations as observers—though its positions still hold sway on the outcome of the talks.  

In the United States, loss of sagebrush habitat has fueled decades of steep Greater Sage-Grouse population declines. The struggling species has been at the center of long-running negotiations and court cases. Photo: Evan Barrientos/Audubon Rockies

In an interview with Audubon magazine, Monica Medina, the Biden Administration’s special envoy for biodiversity and water resources, said a “rather large delegation of U.S. observers” will be at COP15 in force, with the goal of helping to move talks across the finish line. “The framework has to be grounded in science—we think we have a lot to add there—and we know that we need to include some ambitious targets that get us to the 30 percent,” she said. “We also want to make sure that Indigenous peoples and local communities are included in the decision-making process.”

Even if COP-15 results in a global 30 by 30 agreement, it does not necessarily commit any individual nation to protect 30 percent of its own domestic lands or waters—national actions and financing will be required, and international treaty talks are opportunities to advance such efforts. In the United States, President Biden signed an executive order committing the U.S. to its own 30 by 30 goal, now called the America the Beautiful. If achieved, it could more than double the roughly 12 percent of land and freshwater ecosystems that are under some level of domestic protection today, but how this will be accomplished is a political challenge. In Canada, which also has its own 30 by 30 goal, Wells hopes to see the federal government and COP15 co-host commit additional support for existing Indigenous-led conservation efforts in the nation’s vast boreal forests, the summer home to billions of migratory birds.

Despite the world’s collective past failures to meet previous biodiversity protection goals, science-backed targets for 2030 hold immense value as leverage for conservation efforts around the world, Wells says. These are metrics against which governments can be held accountable, pushed towards, and compared alongside one another—and this planet’s future depends on meeting them. “Without that, well, it’s not clear what you have at all,” he says. Whatever happens over the next two weeks at COP15, it’s clear there is a lot of work ahead.