COP15: what might come out of the biodiversity summit for nature and net zero?

COP15 has been delayed for two years and time is ticking.

By Tricia Curmi

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If you thought that the end of COP27 was the end of COPs for 2022, you’d be mistaken. Another COP begins this week in Canada - the Convention on Biological Diversity - COP15.

Governments are now gathering in Montreal to discuss biodiversity. But this is crucial to climate change as well. The planet’s chances of tackling climate change hinge on a strong deal for nature.

18% of all global emissions come from agricultural soils and land. Whereas forests hold vital stores of carbon. Peatlands are even more important - they cover only 3% of the world’s land, but hold 25% of all carbon stored in soils. Each year forests absorb around 16 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, but about half is cancelled out when carbon is released by deforestation.

COP15 has been delayed for two years and time is ticking. China holds the presidency but – because of Covid – didn’t want to host the meeting, so the process has stalled since then Finally, Canada agreed to host, but the 2020 targets have expired and leaders will need to thrash out a new deal for nature with targets to meet by 2030.

COP27 in Egypt was meant to be a staging post for this biodiversity summit. Many hoped a reference to the meeting would appear in the final deal text of COP27, providing a more concrete link between the two. It did not. Many also hoped world leaders would show up for COP15, but it looks like that won’t happen either.

But the final agreement at COP27 did make the first ever mention of ‘nature-based solutions’ a clear signal that we can’t solve climate change without thinking about land, trees and biodiversity.

Nature and net zero

Nature and land play a key role in climate change. Over the past decade our natural world has given us a “50% discount” on climate change by absorbing half of all the greenhouse gases we emit.

But nature is being lost and - with it - this vital protection.

The single biggest cause of the loss of forests is agriculture. Farmland also drives the loss of species and a reduction in biodiversity. As food and farming were a key focus at COP27, they will be at COP15 too.

Nature and land are vital to achieving net zero, with past studies estimating they could contribute one third of all the emissions savings needed. This would come through a combination of more sustainable agricultural meaning farmed soils store more carbon, reducing the loss of carbon-rich habitats like rainforests, and restoring these habitats – like forests and peatlands - to wider areas.

However, there there are over-estimates of how much land can be used to absorb carbon. Many individual countries are banking on land to offset some of their emissions. But the some total of the land included in all these targets is huge. This could both delay efforts to cut emissions today (assuming that nature can re-absorb carbon in the future instead) and there is only so much land out there, especially alongside other uses like growing food.

What to look out for

Like COP27, there will be a few focal issues on the table at COP15. They may not even sound that different to those discussed at COP27.

Finance: countries with large swathes of natural forest are pushing for the finances to protect it. Whether there will be sufficient funding to save and restore forests is a key question for this summit. More and more financial institutions, in the public and private sectors, are building nature and biodiversity into their strategies. But the funding gap remains big - $700 billion more are needed every year to restore nature.

Targets: this summit will likely set out a whole range of new targets for 2030. As we know from climate conferences, this helps give governments and the private sector a degree of confidence that we are making progress on the preservation and restoration of nature.

Roadmaps: there have been strong nature targets in the past. The 2020 goals were ambitious. The problem was, they were missed. Government accountability is weaker for biodiversity targets than under the UN climate process.

What will the UK do for nature?

The UK is known internationally as somewhat of a leader on nature. It spearheaded the global Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, and helped launch the Forest and Climate Leaders’ Partnership of 26 countries plus the EU to protect the world’s forests.

Back home the UK’s land releases more carbon than it absorbs. But the government taking some steps to address this. A new farming system will incentivise farmers to manage soils more sustainably, cut emissions, and restore trees and hedgerows. There are action plans for peatlands and forests to help grow these areas. But while ambitious plans are in place, delivery has not kept pace, and there’s a risk of them being weakened, meaning the UK could fall behind on nature restoration.

Restoring soils, hedges, trees, and peatlands not only captures carbon but also helps us adapt to climate change. In good health, they can hold water, reducing both drought and flooding at different times of year.

Farming and land play a vital role in reducing emissions. If the government’s delay in implementing its own biodiversity plans drags on, it could put the UK at risk of not meeting its own climate goals.

As with Michael Gove’s decision to permit a new coal mine in Cumbria - even though the UK has spear-headed a global campaign to ‘power past’ the most polluting of fossil fuels - what the UK does at home matters abroad. Not walking the talk gets noticed and dampens international enthusiasm for ambition.