COP15: Key outcomes for nature loss and climate change from UN talks in Geneva


Preparatory talks for a major UN biodiversity summit, COP15, came to a close in Geneva on Tuesday evening, with countries agreeing to meet again in Nairobi in an attempt to solve issues surrounding a global deal to reverse nature loss.

Negotiators from 164 countries worked well into the night for two weeks to try to reach consensus on the vast array of targets to be included in the post-2020 global biodiversity framework (GBF) – often referred to as the “Paris Agreement for nature”.

The ultimate aim of this framework is for people to “live in harmony with nature” by 2050. Many of its targets will have implications for efforts to tackle climate change, ranging from the role for nature-based climate solutions to the removal and redirection of fossil fuel subsidies.

Countries are due to adopt the GBF at COP15, which is expected to take place in August in Kunming, China, after being delayed several times since 2020 amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

But with just months to go until COP15, countries left Geneva without resolving many of the key elements of the GBF. And in the final plenary session, developing countries issued a surprise demand for richer nations to provide at least $100bn a year for biodiversity, rising to $700bn by 2030.

Observers said the talks moved at a “glacial pace”. Some raised concerns that countries are “heading for Copenhagen” – a reference to the 2009 climate summit that was widely perceived to have ended in failure. 

Others said parties were not entirely to blame for the slow progress, pointing to the two-year pause of in-person discussions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the shadow cast by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as possible contributing factors.

Carbon Brief was in Geneva to take in the negotiations, side events and corridor chatter. Below is a summary of the key outcomes for biodiversity and climate change.

What is COP15?

The Convention on Biological Diversity, or the CBD, is an international treaty that entered into force in December 1993. The CBD opened for signatures at the 1992 Rio Conference, also known as the “Earth Summit”, which also gave rise to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. It has been ratified by every UN member state except for the US.

There are three key aims of the CBD: to conserve biodiversity, to ensure the sustainable use of the “components” of biodiversity – that is, ecosystems and species – and to develop fair and equitable ways of sharing the benefits of “genetic resources”, such as drugs and technologies derived from nature.

The CBD (pdf) recognises the “sovereign right” of states to “exploit their own resources”, but stresses that states also have a responsibility to ensure that their activities “do not cause damage to the environment of other states or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction”.

The treaty also lays out some general principles for conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. It calls on member states to develop national strategies for conservation, to monitor biodiversity, to promote the protection of habitats and ecosystems and to commit to sustainable development, among other things.

As with the UNFCCC, the CBD is governed by a Conference of the Parties (COP) – a meeting of representatives from the governments and regional bodies (such as the EU) that ratified the treaty. Since 1996, the CBD has held a COP on even-numbered years. COP15 was originally scheduled to be held in Kunming in China in 2020, but has been postponed multiple times due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Ultimately, COP15 was split into a two-part conference, with the first part commencing in October 2021 in a hybrid virtual and in-person format. China Dialogue reported at the time that that session’s goal was “to inject new political ambition, rather than to get into real negotiations”. 

During the first part of COP15, China officially assumed the COP presidency from Egypt, who hosted COP14 back in 2018. The major document to come out of the October summit was the Kunming Declaration (pdf), which reiterated the signatories’ commitments to upholding the components of the CBD. The declaration also included 17 commitments, including to “accelerate and strengthen the development” of national biodiversity strategies.

The second part was meant to begin in late April 2022, but is now expected to take place in late August, Carbon Brief understands. 

Ahead of the second part of the COP, three groups met in Geneva during 14-29 March: the CBD’s scientific advisory body (Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice, or SBSTTA); its body for how the convention should be implemented (the Subsidiary Body on Implementation, or SBI); and an open-ended working group on the post-2020 GBF (WG-2020). These were the first in-person biodiversity talks since the Covid-19 pandemic began. 

The groups were meeting to attempt to agree on the details of the GBF. This framework – if successfully negotiated – will be formally adopted during the second portion of COP15. 

In Geneva, the SBSTTA was focused on creating an approach to monitor biodiversity, including marine biodiversity, invasive species and the interplays between biodiversity and agriculture and biodiversity and health. The SBI was attempting to complete its work on “key inputs” to the GBF, which include scaling up finance, monitoring and reporting mechanisms, capacity building and public outreach to support action on biodiversity. 

The discussions of the open-ended working group centred on the actions needed to achieve the 2050 Vision for Biodiversity laid out in previous iterations of the GBF and “ultimately determining how success will be defined”. 

What is the ‘post-2020 global biodiversity framework’ and what does it mean for climate change?

The GBF has often been likened to a Paris Agreement for nature, and aims to reverse biodiversity loss globally in the same decade that Paris sets out to halve global emissions: from 2020 to 2030. 

The last time the international community set decadal goals for biodiversity was in Japan in 2010, barely a year after fraught climate talks in Copenhagen. Nearly 200 countries formally adopted the UN’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 through the CBD, agreeing to 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets. 

Named after the Aichi prefecture of which host-city Nagoya is the capital, the 20 Aichi targets included at least halving the loss of natural habitats, “eliminat[ing]” subsidies that are harmful to biodiversity, as well as expanding nature reserves to 17% of the world’s land areas and 10% of marine areas.

In September 2020, a CBD report reporting on progress towards the Aichi Biodiversity Targets found that governments had collectively failed to meet even a single one of these targets.

The report, however, cautioned against losing momentum, saying that “it is not too late” to “bend the curve of biodiversity decline”. It added that a turnaround will require actions “fully consistent with, and indeed crucial components of, the goals and targets set out under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement”.

Planning for what this “turnaround” would look like began in November 2018 at COP14 in Egypt. Parties decided to develop the post-2020 GBF and have a “dedicated open-ended intersessional working group” help with its preparation. On 6 January 2020, the working group presented its zero draft of the framework, which was updated in August the same year after “seven months of extensive consultations and input”. 

The existing first draft of the framework – published in July 2021 – follows virtual meetings of the working group as well the CBD’s technical and implementation bodies.

As it stands now, the GBF builds on the past decade’s Aichi targets and Strategic Biodiversity Plan, with 21 targets and 10 “milestones” for how to get there by 2030, en route to the overarching goal of “living in harmony with nature” by 2050.

Throughout the COP15 process, technical bodies and states have been working out the specifics of these targets, coming up with standards to report on progress for a measure as tricky to characterise as global biodiversity, as well as developing implementation mechanisms at all levels. 

One of the most significant targets in the GBF is Target 3, which calls on states to ensure that at least 30% of land and marine areas globally are conserved through “equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas” and other area-based conservation measures. 

Target-3-Global-Biodiversity-Framework

From a climate standpoint, especially significant is Target 8, which seeks to not just “minimise the impact of climate change on biodiversity”, but also “contribute to mitigation and adaptation through ecosystem-based approaches, contributing at least 10GtCO2e [gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent] per year to global mitigation efforts, ensur[ing] all mitigation and adaptation efforts avoid negative impacts on biodiversity”.

Other targets do not directly refer to climate change, but have adaptation and mitigation benefits implied.

For example, Target 10 speaks to the sustainable management of all areas under agriculture, aquaculture and biodiversity. Target 11 talks about maintaining and enhancing “nature’s contributions” to protection from hazards and extreme events. Meanwhile, Target 12 asks parties to increase the area and access to green and blue spaces in urban areas, known to have mitigation and cooling benefits. 

Financial targets spelt out in the framework could have a significant overlap with climate. For example, Target 18 envisions that biodiversity-harming subsidies be repurposed or eliminated “in a just and equitable way”, “reducing them by at least $500bn per year”.

Target 19 calls for biodiversity finance from all sources to be increased to at least $200bn per year – “including new, additional and effective financial resources” – as well as increasing financial flows to developing countries “by at least $10bn per year” along with capacity-building, technology transfer and scientific cooperation to meet the framework’s goals. 

What were the key issues discussed in Geneva?

One of the flagships of the GBF is Target 3, which calls on countries to ensure that at least 30% of the world’s lands and marine areas are protected for nature by 2030 – often referred to as “30 by 30”. (Research shows restoring and protecting natural ecosystems will be key to tackling both biodiversity loss and climate change.)

By the end of the Geneva talks, 91 countries had signed up to the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, a group led by Costa Rica and France that champions the “30 by 30” proposal. This is up from 50 countries in January 2021. And Carbon Brief understands that in the lead up to – and at the fringes of – the talks, more countries in the Caribbean, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America privately expressed their support for the target.

Will Lockhart, joint head of international environment negotiations at the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), told Carbon Brief that Costa Rica had emerged as a “natural leader” for this flagship initiative – rather than COP15 host country China, which he described as playing a “positive role” in “creating a collaborative space for parties”.

Despite growing momentum for the target, it is being received with trepidation by some NGOs and observers.

In a letter to delegates, the campaign group Avaaz pointed out that a recent landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded with high confidence that “maintaining the resilience of biodiversity and ecosystem services at a global scale depends on effective and equitable conservation of approximately 30 to 50% of Earth’s land, freshwater and oceans”.

The letter argued the IPCC’s findings indicated that the 30% target was “too low” and urged countries to instead aim for the top range of 50%.

The campaign group also drew on research finding that reversing biodiversity loss and climate change through ecosystem protection requires some countries to preserve more of their land than others.  

Rainforest canopy at La Selva Biological Station, Sarapiqui, Costa Rica
Rainforest canopy at La Selva Biological Station, Sarapiqui, Costa Rica. Credit: Adrian Hepworth / Alamy Stock Photo.

This research found, for example, that coalition leader and nature hotspot Costa Rica should protect 71% of its natural landscapes under its scenario for tackling climate change and biodiversity loss. Meanwhile, Brazil and Argentina should protect 51% and 42% of their land, respectively. The UK, one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth, must protect a third of its land, the research added.

Oscar Soria, campaign director at Avaaz, told Carbon Brief on the sidelines of the conference:

“The science tells us that it is not the total percentage of area protected that is important, but how and where this conservation is carried out.” 

At a press conference, Guido Broekhoven, head of policy research and development at WWF International, added that it was important that the target to protect land is “made conditional on securing the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities”.

The issue of international finance for addressing biodiversity loss remained a thorny topic at the talks.

In a similar vein to UN climate negotiations, the need for developed countries to provide financial support to developing countries has long plagued UN biodiversity summits – with many citing a lack of agreement on finance as the chief reason for the failure of the 2020 Aichi targets.

During the conference’s final plenary session, a group of developing countries issued a demand for richer nations to provide at least $100bn a year for biodiversity, rising to $700bn by 2030.

Gabon, speaking on behalf of a group of like-minded developing countries on biodiversity and development – including the African Group, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, India, Pakistan and Venezuela – told delegates:

“Our countries are repositories of most of the biological diversity of the world that we are committed to conserve and sustainably use as part of our compliance with the CBD.

“Without the means of implication, the achievement of developing countries…will be hindered, as we saw in the non-fulfilment of the Aichi targets due to the lack of such cooperation. As developing countries we refuse to let that happen again.

“We call on developed countries to commit to a goal of mobilising and providing jointly at least $100bn annually initially and rising to $700bn annually by 2030 and beyond.”

This money must be “new and additional” and “distinct” from financing linked to UN climate talks and the Paris Agreement, the group added.

The announcement came after countries made little progress on agreeing on financing provisions in Geneva, with high levels of disagreement between developed and developing countries.

Speaking at a press conference, Florian Titze, policy advisor at WWF Germany, said “more intersessional work” would be needed ahead of COP15 if countries are to move forward on financing. He told reporters:

“Parties need to be meeting face to face to build more trust and understand each other better, especially on the sensitive and political issue that is the financing component. They also need to delve more into ‘the technical’.

“One thing that cannot happen is we leave Kunming agreeing on an outcome, but not also agreeing on the financial aspects and resource mobilisation – and that includes the strategy for resource mobilisation.”

Lockhart told Carbon Brief that the UK was aiming to lead on the issue of resource mobilisation as countries work towards COP15, with a hope of drawing on the country’s work on securing “ambitious outcomes” for climate finance at COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021.

A related issue to finance is the role that “harmful subsidies”, such as those for intensive agriculture and fossil fuels, play in driving biodiversity loss – and whether these should be redirected to instead fund its recovery.

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The first draft of the GBF includes a target to reduce harmful subsidies by at least $500bn a year by 2030. (Ahead of the meeting, NGOs called for this target to be strengthened to eliminate all harmful subsidies by the same date.)

Again, countries failed to reach consensus on this issue in Geneva, with many holding diverging views on how the target should be implemented.

Another issue that caused tension in Geneva was “digital sequence information” (DSI), a relatively new and highly technical topic concerning how countries should share the benefits from the use of genetic resources.

DSI is an evolving concept that prompts a lot of questions. For example, if a multinational company discovers the genetic material needed to develop a new drug or technology in a developing country, should that country benefit from the sales? If so, how?

As it currently stands, the draft GBF includes a goal to ensure “the benefits from the utilisation of genetic resources are shared fairly and equitably, with a substantial increase in both monetary and non-monetary benefits shared, including for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity”.

Debate on this topic swallowed up a lot of negotiating time in Geneva, with countries spending more than an hour in the final plenary session putting forward their diverging views on the issue. Such conversations are set to continue in Nairobi.

An area where some progress was made in Geneva was on how the views of marginalised and most-affected groups, such as Indigenous peoples, women and young people, should be included in the GBF.

Geneva saw parties adopt a “gender plan of action” to “promote the gender responsive implementation” of the targets in the GBF.

And parties proposed the addition of a 22nd target to the GBF, to “ensure women and girls equitable access and benefits from conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, as well as their informed and effective participation at all levels of policy and decision-making related to biodiversity”.

It came amid a growing body of research showing that women and girls often hold unique knowledge on how to preserve biodiversity, but are less likely to be included in decision-making. (Similar findings have been made for climate change.)

Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the executive secretary of the CBD, told Carbon Brief in an interview that there had been “a lot of pressure” to ensure that “women, Indigenous peoples and local communities” were engaged in the process in Geneva. She added:

“The good thing about the CBD, once the NGOs, local communities [and] those that are not parties speak, they only need to get one party to support that recommendation and it is taken on board. And I don’t think any of their recommendations in the last two weeks here have not been taken on board.”

However, not all marginalised groups felt satisfied with their level of involvement in the Geneva talks.

José Gregorio Diaz Mirabal, general of the ​​Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (Coica) – a group representing 511 Indigenous peoples in the Amazon – said that he felt less included at this UN summit than the last one he attended, which was COP26 in Glasgow. In an interview, he told Carbon Brief:

“This place is completely different [to COP26]. It’s a lot more technical and they speak inside there – [he gestures to the plenary hall] – and we’re somewhere else. There’s very little opportunity to speak or to actually have dialogue with governments.”

His views were echoed by the representatives of the Global Youth Biodiversity Network. In their closing statement, the group said they “watched as our pleas for an inclusive, rights-based, and transformative GBF were slowly trapped between brackets” of negotiating text.

As well as featuring as a theme in many of the key topics discussed in Geneva, climate change was also discussed separately for its role in driving biodiversity loss.

The first draft of the GBF includes a target that calls on countries to “minimise the impact of climate change on biodiversity” by 2030.

This target adds that countries must “contribute to mitigation and adaptation through ecosystem-based approaches, contributing at least 10bn tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year to global mitigation efforts”.

The Earth Negotiations Bulletin reported that this target sparked “lengthy discussions” on the first Saturday of the conference.

In particular, countries expressed divergent views on whether the term “ecosystem-based approaches” or “nature-based solutions” should be used in regards to climate mitigation – and whether a numerical target for CO2 removal should be included at all.

Mrema, the CBD executive secretary, told Carbon Brief that the sections of text referencing nature-based solutions remained unresolved, prompting the need for more negotiations. She added:

“We know climate change has embraced nature-based solutions fully, but biodiversity is yet to embrace it as fully as climate change.

“The biodiversity community needs to understand what these kinds of nature-based solutions are. Because they also know, if we are not careful, some of the nature-based solutions can be harmful to biodiversity. So that balance needs to be considered.” 

(Read more about nature-based solutions in Carbon Brief’s in-depth explainer.)

What was behind the ‘glacial pace’ progress in Geneva?

Despite discussion in key areas, countries left Geneva still largely divided on many of the fundamental aspects of the GBF.

Throughout the conference, NGOs and other observers sounded the alarm on the slow nature of the talks.

Towards the end, several NGOs – WWF, RSPB, Nature4Climate, the Nature Conservancy and Birdlife – issued a statement saying there was a “desperate need” for more action. The statement read:

“Nowhere near enough progress is being made ahead of the high-level summit scheduled to take place in Kunming, China, later this year. Unless things change, the success of that summit is in jeopardy.

“The pace of the Geneva talks has been glacial. There is a yawning gap between the deal we need to secure a nature-positive world, and the current text on the table.”

On the same day, Linda Krueger, director of biodiversity and infrastructure policy for the Nature Conservancy, added that “if we don’t change course, we will be heading for ‘Copenhagen’”. Her words were a reference to the 2009 climate summit that is widely perceived to have ended in failure.

But what was behind the slow progress? Observers expressed a variety of views to Carbon Brief.

One observer familiar with both climate and biodiversity talks said that countries had “kicked the can down the road”, leaving the majority of the substantive issues in the GBF for COP15.

“This process has so far been ill-designed and underwhelming,” they said, adding that they believed the CBD had long been plagued with “deep-rooted” structural issues, ranging from a lack of political drive to language and communication barriers.

Some observers expressed to Carbon Brief that the decision to hold meetings for three groups simultaneously (the SBSTTA, the SBI and the open-ended working group for the GBF) had significantly hamstrung progress.

Other observers pointed to a lack of general leadership from COP15 host country China.

A red panda in Chengdu Panda Base, China
A red panda in Chengdu Panda Base, China. Credit: Ryszard Laskowski / Alamy Stock Photo.

“China is missing in action,” said Soria, who has followed UN biodiversity negotiations for more than a decade.

But he added he had seen many delegations trying earnestly to achieve progress – and that many had suffered from their host countries’ attention being taken up by other issues, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He told Carbon Brief:

“What I have seen is people doing their best without a mandate. There is no clear mandate from governments to guide parties. The only countries that have a mandate are Brazil and Argentina, which is: ‘Let’s protect the agribusiness.’” 

Another close observer of the UN biodiversity talks agreed, telling Carbon Brief: 

“Delegates have reached the limits of what their mandates are going to let them negotiate. For things to change, political players are going to have to get involved.”

Many other stakeholders, from NGOs to those involved directly in the negotiations, expressed to Carbon Brief that a lack of political interest in both biodiversity loss and the work of the CBD was crippling progress.

Francis Ogwal, co-chair of the open-ended working group for the GBF, expressed that he would like to see world leaders give UN biodiversity talks the same attention that they give to UN climate talks. At the fringes of the summit, he told Carbon Brief:

“When you look at the climate change COP, you have heads of states from developed countries attending – the US, France, UK, Germany – they are there in person. What do you expect from that? It definitely increases the visibility and urgency for climate change.

“When you look at biodiversity, when there is a COP, who is there? It may be the head of state for the host country. Why don’t we have the same powerful heads of states attending CBD meetings to help raise the profile of biodiversity?”

Lockhart was one of several to point out that the two-year pause in face-to-face negotiations may have also played a role in the perceived slow pace of negotiations.

This was a viewpoint shared by the CBD executive secretary, who told Carbon Brief:

“The fact that we’ve been able to meet in person after two years is a success by itself. We had many meetings online. We made progress but not so much because parties were insisting: ‘I need to see the person I’m negotiating with before we can reach compromises.’

“More progress of course needs to be done. Most of the recommendations negotiated here have many brackets, not few.”

What happens after Geneva on the road to COP15?

Towards the end of the conference, on the evening of Monday 28 March, countries decided to meet again over 21-26 June in Nairobi to try to advance progress on the GBF.

The decision was formally adopted on Tuesday – with countries also stating this meeting should provide a platform for continued discussions on DSI.

More informal discussions, both online and in person, are also expected to continue.

However, some observers told Carbon Brief they have concerns that the meeting in Nairobi will not provide a sufficient platform for reaching consensus on the GBF.

Specifically, there are fears that this meeting will focus on refining language of goals and targets rather than solving the trickier problems of DSI and finance.

In the longer term, COP15 is currently expected to take place in Kunming from late August to September – although the dates have not yet been confirmed, according to the CBD executive secretary. She told Carbon Brief: 

“[It’s] definitely taking place in China unless something really critical happens with Covid…The fact that we met in Geneva, we will meet in China.

“The firm dates are yet to be confirmed by our host [China]…We hope it will be announced so that we can all prepare and block our calendars for the COP.”

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