Will the 2021 UN Biodiversity COP Stem the Tide of Species Loss?

With as many as a million species set to vanish, biodiversity urgently needs a global monitoring system – and a higher political profile

by Stephen Leahy

Artwork by © Sarah James

Imagine you are travelling in space and start to see bits of your spacecraft break and spin off into the endless void. Inside the spacecraft everything seems fine but no astronaut would ignore what they saw. After all, only one part failed in the more than 2.5 million parts that comprised the Challenger space shuttle that disintegrated 73 seconds after its launch.

The spacecraft in which humanity is traveling through space is comprised of an estimated 8.7 million species. These “parts” provide our food, clean water, the air we breathe, and much more. Species, and the ecosystems they create, are the very foundations of human life and well-being. And yet the first global assessment of the status of these “parts,” completed in 2019, found that as many as a million of them may vanish in the coming decades.

Countries only began to be seriously concerned about the loss of species some 30 years ago. In 1992, they created the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Headquartered in Montreal, the CBD is a formal international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.

Although conservationists and biologists have long been concerned about species extinctions, the term “biological diversity” wasn’t commonly used in science until the 1980s. The word biodiversity was only coined in 1985. The first scientific journal to use it in its name was Canadian Biodiversity, in 1991.

The CBD has 196 member states and holds Conference of the Parties or “COP” meetings, much the same as the betterknown UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

At the biannual COP meetings, countries make decisions about how to sustain biodiversity. These decisions are informed by advice and recommendations from scientists and other experts from various countries on a special committee called the “Subsidiary Body for Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice” or SBSTTA.

In the early 1990s, there wasn’t a great deal of scientific advice to be had on the world’s biodiversity. The CBD was a key catalyst in driving more biodiversity research and raising awareness about its importance.

There were more questions than answers at the beginning but those questions sparked a great deal of scientific meetings and investigations, said Basile van Havre, director general of Biodiversity Policy & Partnerships for Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Member states would ask how species could be restored or protected and what the implications might be. “Simply trying to define what protection means led to very interactive dialogues amongst scientists,” said van Havre, who’s been involved for nearly 30 years and is also a co-chair of a CBD working group.

Therein lies our biggest issue with biodiversity: Its extraordinary complexity.

Science hasn’t even identified most of those 8.7 million species, never mind figuring out their life histories. Studying each in isolation doesn’t get you very far either, just as studying a human in a glass box won’t tell you much about human culture and social organization. The number of possible interactions species have with each other and their environment is nearly infinite, especially in a time of climate change.

“It’s always been a struggle between what science says should be done and what is politically feasible.”

When a policymaker asks what must be done to protect her country’s biodiversity while sustaining the health and well-being of its citizens, there is nothing like a simple answer.

An enormous amount of fundamental science has been done since the CBD was created to try and find answers to those questions. This included the creation of an independent scientific body, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). It’s a kind of IPCC for biodiversity, meaning that it collects and synthesizes all of the current science, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) does.

In 2019, IPBES produced the Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report that concluded one million species were at risk of going extinct. That report will be the base from which countries will make a new round of commitments to protect biodiversity at the planned COP 15 in Kunming, China, tentatively scheduled for October 2021.

However, countries made a series of ambitious commitments back in 2010 during COP 10 in Nagoya, Japan. Known as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, no country fully met any of the 20 targets by the 2020 deadline. One target was to phase out harmful subsidies in fisheries and agriculture. Another was to protect 17% of terrestrial and inland water, and 10% of coastal and marine areas.

Some countries, including Canada, came very close to meeting the 17% land and 10% ocean protection, says David Cooper, the CBD’s Deputy Executive Secretary. However, Cooper notes not all of these protected areas are the best sites from a biodiversity perspective, nor are they always well-managed.

At the same time as humanity continues to fail to deal with climate change, increasing plastic and pesticide use, and their impacts, we’re inventing new potential impacts on biodiversity such as geoengineering, undersea mining, and synthetic biology.

As for subsidies, a 2019 report by the Food and Land Use Coalition estimated that US$600 billion a year in public subsidies for agriculture and fisheries has financed the overuse of fertilizer, deforestation to expand agricultural frontiers, cattle production, and overfishing.

It’s always been a struggle between what science says should be done and what is politically feasible, says Cooper.

That struggle will continue as countries meet this year at COP 15 to set new biodiversity targets. Chief among those targets is for each country to protect 30% of their land and 30% of their ocean territory by 2030. The Biden administration committed to conserve 30% of US land and water in early May. Canada previously committed to conserving 25% of Canada’s land and oceans by 2025.

Monitoring what’s happening on the ground to provide regular feedback is essential if countries are going to make their new targets. However, in most instances, human impacts such as resource consumption can be difficult to measure, let alone monitor. At the same time as humanity continues to fail to deal with climate change, increasing plastic and pesticide use, and their impacts, we’re inventing new potential impacts on biodiversity such as geoengineering, undersea mining, and synthetic biology.

Not only is more biodiversity science needed, there is a growing need for a global biodiversity monitoring system. Perhaps the greatest need is for biodiversity to have a higher political profile for its essential importance to human well-being. Continuing to lose more “parts” of our life support system entails ever great risks to us all.


Stephen Leahy is an environmental journalist based in Ontario, Canada.

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