Witnessing a landmark biodiversity agreement: Reflections on COP15 and the Kunming-Montréal Global Biodiversity Framework

Monday, February 6, 2023
by Emma Kirke
Masked person in to the side of two rows of desks and chairs with the UN confence logos on screens at the front

Emma Kirke inside the UN COP15 conference chamber.

In December 2022, I joined nearly 20,000 delegates in Montréal representing 190 countries at the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. With the luck of having no final exams, my extended Christmas break was somewhat different than I had pictured. I had not expected to wear business casual and meet with people in my field that I have looked up to for years, including David Suzuki.

A tower in the style of a jenga game made with boxes

As a youth delegate with the United Nations Association of Canada, my role during COP15 was to listen and learn, while bearing witness to what many hope will be the defining moment to halt biodiversity loss and spur monumental efforts to restore what has already been lost. With an academic background in SERS, I enjoyed the opportunity to witness much of what I have learned about in class, including power dynamics between different actors and discussions about the monitoring aspect of the implementation of the agreement.

COP 15 marked the second half of a gathering that was intended to take place in 2020 in Kunming, China. Because of the COVID-19 restrictions in China, it was decided that Montréal would instead play host to the occasion. In large part, the conference responded to the success and failures of the Aichi biodiversity targets, which laid out the framework for the last decade.

While many goals mirror those in the Aichi targets – albeit with increased ambition – the post-2020 framework also takes a page from the Paris agreement, with countries required to report on their progress annually. This accountability mechanism helps meet countries where they are and recognizes the plurality of challenges on the path to global success. In addition, there is a significant improvement in ensuring that targets are measurable with markers of success. However, with a lack of a mechanism to ensure that governments increase their ambition over time, the agreement's success will rely on domestic pressure within nation-states to hold governments to account for the promises made in Montréal.

Between attending many civil society side events and participating in discussions with other youth delegates, I had the chance to attend various portions of the negotiations, including a dramatic moment during a negotiation on the monitoring framework. A coalition of representatives from countries from the global South walked out over a stalemate from the previous evening on the financing needed to support the implementation of the Global Biodiversity Framework in the least developed countries.

I left the conference with mixed emotions. On the one hand, there was landmark recognition of Indigenous peoples' rights and their critical role in protecting biodiversity. Despite accounting for only 5% of the world's population, Indigenous people steward 80% of the world's biodiversity. Canada also announced unprecedented funding for Indigenous-led conservation.

I felt the conference came up short regarding the importance of ocean conservation. It is a challenging area to address, given that most of the ocean is beyond national jurisdiction and commercial fisheries often heavily influence negotiations. While oceans are estimated to contain 80% of the world's biodiversity, it is only mentioned twice in the final agreement. I am looking forward to attending the International Marine Protected Areas Conference (February 2023) as a youth delegate with the Sustainable Ocean Alliance, where these issues will be further discussed.

A snowman and a snow-child. The child wears a sign saying: Biodiversity is a priority. Mankind is endangered and your grandchildren too.

Throughout the conference, I gained a new appreciation for the degree of freedom I have in Canada as an advocate in the biodiversity sphere. Participating in civil society events and sessions with the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment David Boyd, I heard from activists from the global South who face risks to their personal security by simply protecting their basic rights to drink safe water or breathe clean air.

Participating in an event on such a large scale in my field was an incredible opportunity. I left feeling uplifted by my interactions with other youth from across the world who work despite great odds to safeguard the places they call home.