Delegates from COP15. Adoption of the Kunming Montreal Framework.

National negotiators inked a deal to protect nature in the early hours of 19 December in Montreal.Credit: Julian Haber/UN Biodiversity (CC BY 2.0)

Montreal, Canada

Despite earlier signals of possible failure, countries around the world have cemented a deal to safeguard nature — and, for the first time, the agreement sets quantitative targets for biodiversity. In this sense, they are similar to the one that nations set seven years ago to limit global warming to 1.5–2 ºC above pre-industrial levels.

In the early hours of 19 December, more than 190 countries eked out the deal, known as the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, during the COP15 international biodiversity summit in Montreal, Canada. A key target that it sets is for nations to protect and restore 30% of the world’s land and seas globally by 2030, while also respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples, who depend on and steward much of Earth’s remaining biodiversity. Another target is for nations to achieve a 90% reduction in the extinction rate for all species by 2050.

Steven Guilbeault, the Canadian environment minister, described COP15 as the most significant biodiversity conference ever held. “We have taken a great step forward in history,” he said at a plenary session where the framework was adopted.

At several points during the United Nations summit, which ran from 7 to 19 December, arguments over details threatened to derail a deal. In the final hours of negotiations, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) objected to how the framework would be funded. Nonetheless, Huang Runqiu, China’s environment minister and president of COP15, brought the gavel down on the agreement.

Negotiators from several African countries that are home to biodiversity hotspots, but that say they need funding to preserve those areas, thought that China’s presidency strong-armed the deal. Uganda called it a “fraud”. A source who spoke to Nature from the African delegation, and who asked not to be named to maintain diplomacy, said that the negotiating process was not equitable towards developing countries and that the deal would not enable significant progress towards stemming biodiversity loss. “It was a coup d’état,” they said. However, a legal expert for the Convention on Biological Diversity — the treaty within which the framework now sits — told COP15 attendees that the adoption of the framework was legitimate.

Concerns and disappointments

Scientists and conservation groups have welcomed the deal, emphasizing that there has never been an international agreement to protect nature on this scale. Kina Murphy, an ecologist and chief scientist at the Campaign for Nature, a conservation group, says, “It’s a historic moment for biodiversity.”

COP president from China during COP15.

Huang Runqiu, China’s environment minister and president of COP15, brought the gavel down on the biodiversity deal, despite objections from representatives of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.Credit: Julian Haber/UN Biodiversity (CC BY 2.0)

But some concerns and disappointments remain. For one, the deal lacks a mandatory requirement for companies to track and disclose their impact on biodiversity. “Voluntary action is not enough,” says Eva Zabey, executive director of Business for Nature, a global coalition of 330 businesses seeking such a requirement so that firms can compete on a level playing field. Nevertheless, it sends a powerful signal to industry that it will need to reduce negative impacts over time, says Andrew Deutz, an environmental law and finance specialist at the Nature Conservancy, a conservation group in Arlington, Virginia.

Furthermore, the deal is weak on tackling the drivers of biodiversity loss, because it does not specifically call out the most ecologically damaging industries, such as commercial fishing and agriculture, or set precise targets for them to put biodiversity conservation at the centre of their operations, researchers say.

“I would have liked more ambition and precision in the targets” to address those drivers, says Sandra Diaz, an ecologist at the National University of Córdoba, in Argentina.

The deal is not legally binding, but countries will have to demonstrate progress towards achieving the framework’s goals through national and global reviews. Countries failed to meet the previous Aichi Biodiversity Targets, which were set in 2010 and expired in 2020; scientists have suggested that this failure occurred because there was no mechanism for accountability.

With the reviews included, the framework “is a very good start, with clear quantitative targets” that will allow us to understand progress and the reasons for success and failure, says Stuart Pimm, an ecologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and head of Saving Nature, a non-profit conservation organization.

A long time coming

Scientists have estimated that one million species are under threat because of habitat loss, mainly resulting from the conversion of land for agriculture. They have warned that this biodiversity loss could threaten the health of ecosystems on which humans depend for clean water and disease prevention, and have been calling for a renewed international conservation effort.

The COP15 agreement has taken four years to resolve, in part because of delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic (the summit was supposed to have taken place in Kunming, China, in 2020), but also because of arguments over how to finance conservation efforts. Nations finally agreed that, by 2030, funding for biodiversity from all public and private sources must rise to at least US$200 billion per year. This includes at least $30 billion per year, contributed from wealthy to low-income nations. These figures fall short of the approximately $700 billion that researchers say is needed to fully safeguard and restore nature, but it represents a tripling of existing donations.

Low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), including the DRC, had called for a brand-new, independent fund for biodiversity financing. Lee White, Gabon’s environment minister, told Nature that biodiversity-rich LMICs have difficulty accessing the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the current fund held by the World Bank in Washington DC, and that it is slow to distribute funds.

But France and the European Union strongly objected to a new fund, arguing that it would take too long to set up. The framework instead compromises by agreeing to establish a trust fund by next year under the GEF. The final agreement also calls on the GEF to reform its process to address the concerns of LMICs.

Progress without drastic change

Another sticking point during negotiations was how to fairly and equitably share the benefits of ‘digital sequence information’ — genetic data collected from plants, animals and other organisms. Communities in biodiversity-rich regions where genetic material is collected have little control over the commercialization of the data, and no way to recoup financial or other benefits from them. But countries agreed to set up a mechanism to share profits, the details of which will be worked out by the next international biodiversity summit, COP16, in 2024.

Overall, the deal marks progress toward tackling biodiversity loss, but it is not the drastic change that scientists say they were hoping for. “I am not so sure that it has enough teeth to curb the activities that do most of the harm,” Diaz says.