COP15 |

The World Looked to Egypt, but Canada May Decide the Planet’s Fate

The UN’s COP15 conference in Montreal is seeking more ambitious targets for preserving biological diversity, even though failures of the past continue to haunt it

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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The Ottawa River Singers, a group of Indigenous musicians, welcome delegates to the United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15) on Saturday.
The Ottawa River Singers, a group of Indigenous musicians, welcome delegates to the United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15) on Saturday.Credit: ANDREJ IVANOV - AFP
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

The 15th Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) opened this weekend in Montreal while being almost completely ignored by the media and world leaders. But in existential terms, this meeting can be seen as just as important as last month’s COP27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh – and its results are expected to significantly impact life on Earth.

The COP15 conference brought together delegations party to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which was signed about 30 years ago at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The convention’s purpose is to act for the conservation of flora and fauna and the natural resources that enable them to exist.

In an editorial published last week in the journal Science Advances, editors stressed that enacting the decisions made at COP 15 is even more important than fulfilling those made at the COP 27 climate conference.

If the treaty isn’t implemented, they warned, the effect will be far-reaching – first and foremost with the destruction of the world’s ecosystems.

The goal of the current summit, attended by representatives from more than a hundred countries that are signatories to the convention, is to try to reach an agreement that will establish a new framework for cooperation to replace the one agreed upon at a meeting in Japan in 2010.

Among other things, the attendees approved decisions to slow the rate of extinction for plant and animal species within a decade, help developing countries to preserve nature and increase the proportion of protected areas. Other measures were supposed to be taken in China two years ago, but because of the coronavirus, the conference was postponed and ultimately moved to Canada.

Huang Runqiu, Minister of Ecology and Environment of China, delivers remarks during the opening ceremony of COP15 in Montreal, on Tuesday.Credit: Paul Chiasson /AP

The implementations of the decisions made a decade ago have been very disappointing. No real progress has been made in slowing the rate of plant and animal extinction, and ecosystems all over the world continue to disappear.

One of the factors responsible for these failures is the pressure from large corporations to develop more areas for agriculture and mining. Governance problems in developing countries, whose territories include some of the world’s most important ecosystems, have made it harder to resist these pressures.

For example, multinational corporations have exploited the complex political situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in order to win mining concessions. Another contributor to these failures is the accelerated economic development across East Asia and the developed world, whose demand for all kinds of natural resources continues to grow.

The meeting in Montreal is supposed to set more ambitious goals, which are not only concerned with curbing the destruction of nature, but also support conservation and rehabilitation measures. The conference is also supposed to define the economic tools which will be used to achieve these objectives.

It is hard to be optimistic considering the many failures of past environmental summits. Still, setting targets is a necessary condition, and we can only hope that, at least in this respect, progress will be made.

About 120 countries from around the world, including Israel, have already agreed to incorporate into the new agreement a target to confer protected status to at least 30 percent of the planet’s land area by the year 2030. In the previous agreement, the target was a mere 17 percent – and even though this goal was met successfully, it was too modest.

People take part in a march during COP15, the two-week UN Biodiversity summit in Montreal, on Saturday.Credit: CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/ REUTERS

Other targets include decreasing pesticide and fertilizer use by 50 to 75 percent by the year 2050 and a reduction in subsidies that harm nature – such as incentives to cut down rainforests in favor of cattle breeding or funding groundwater pumping in areas with sensitive ecosystems. The money used for these subsidies will be redirected toward helping developing countries in their nature conservation efforts. Measures are also being formulated to preserve a million species that are in danger of extinction and in urgent need of protection.

The deliberations in Montreal will continue into next week, and it’s still not clear which of these targets will be adopted by the conference participants. Among the scientists who are trying to influence the conference decisions are those affiliated with the Leibniz Research Network Biodiversity, which has published a list of 10 measures that can be taken to protect nature.

The network’s scientists – which includes several academic institutions in Germany and other European countries – have recommended, among other measures, that in addition to defining protected areas, 20 percent of the earth’s surface should be defined as areas necessary for climate stability. In these areas, ecosystems can be preserved or rehabilitated, and even help with carbon sequestration or flood mitigation.

There is a clear causal relationship between climate change and biodiversity. Global warming threatens the ecosystems, but their preservation contributes to preventing this warming or dealing with its consequences.

However, there is an inherent conflict between the two crises. The development of renewable energy sources is the most effective way to address climate change – but these resources may harm nature due to the large amounts of land required for their creation, like for wind turbines and solar farms.

Coping with environmental crises requires far-reaching changes in the way we produce food, energy and the planning and development of infrastructure and housing. In addition to all of the above, it also requires a new division of resources among the world’s countries. All of this has brought environmental organizations, scientists and even governments to an understanding that the world needs to adopt a policy aimed at dealing with an overall environmental crisis.

Israel sent a relatively junior-level delegation of government officials to Montreal, but it nevertheless made some impressive achievements compared to those from the environmental conference in Egypt last month. Protected areas in Israel amount to nearly 25 percent and are approaching the global target. In addition, Israel has an efficient system for the protection of species that are in danger of extinction. However, these achievements may very well be eroded due to the expected increase in the population and the considerable expansion of the country’s built-up areas.

A person paddles on a board past Orot Rabin power station on the Mediterranean Sea near Hadera, Israel, in November.Credit: Ariel Schalit /AP

Israel was supposed to have formulated a national plan for the conservation of biological diversity in order to prepare for this reality. The Environmental Protection Ministry promises every year that it is working on the plan, but has failed to complete it. Implementing a plan like this will depend, to a large extent, on the adoption of comprehensive planning policies governing development, over which the ministry has almost no authority.

The government adopted such a program covering the years up to 2040, which includes a section on the preservation of open spaces. But the Interior Ministry’s Planning Administration – as well as the Finance, Construction and Housing Ministries – are delaying approval on the section concerning the open spaces, raising concerns about the future of the local biodiversity.

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