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The COP15 agreement on biodiversity – how has it been received?

The United Nations Biodiversity Conference, COP15, concluded in mid December in Montreal, Canada with an ambitious and historic global agreement among 196 of the almost 200 countries in attendance, though not including the United States. 

The agreement – a new “global biodiversity framework” – containing various goals and targets, requires all nations to dramatically increase their efforts for protecting and restoring nature. The centrepiece is the “30 by 30” ambition, which commits governments “to ensure and enable” that, by 2030, at least 30 percent of land and sea is “effectively conserved and managed through ecologically representative, well-connected and equitably governed systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures”.



The agreement is extremely significant moment for conservation and our planet’s biodiversity (the myriad species with which we share our world) because, though not legally binding, it represents a goal. This goal will focus ambition, effort, action and assessment in a similar manner to the 1.5C goal in the Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation and adaptation. In fact, many delegates at COP15 described it as a “Paris moment” for the world’s animal and plant life.

Being a global goal, it means that the world’s most biodiverse countries have committed to protecting areas seen as the “lungs of the planet” – the tropical forests of the Amazon, the Congo basin and Indonesia. Thirty percent is a significant increase because, as The Guardian reports, only 17 percent of terrestrial and 10 percent of marine areas are currently protected globally, with Australia protecting 22 percent of its land areas and listing 17 percent of its waters as marine sanctuaries. 

The framework also reaffirms the rights of Indigenous peoples and ensures they have a voice in any decision-making. It explicitly recognises Indigenous Peoples’ rights, roles, territories, and knowledge.

Named the Kunming-Montreal pact, because COP15 has essentially been split into two parts in China and Canada, the full agreement consists of four goals and 23 targets ranging from increasing protected areas, to reducing pollution, to eliminating and mitigating the effects of invasive species. In combination, the targets mean counties have committed to “urgent management actions to halt human induced extinction of known threatened species” by 2030.

It responds to evidence that, despite ongoing efforts, biodiversity is deteriorating worldwide at rates unprecedented in human history. The vision of the framework is a world living in harmony with nature where: “By 2050, biodiversity is valued, conserved, restored and wisely used, maintaining ecosystem services, sustaining a healthy planet and delivering benefits essential for all people.” 


The agreement in summary

Carbon Pulse summarises the pact’s goals and targets as being to:

  • maintain, enhance, or restore the integrity, connectivity, and resilience of all ecosystems by 2050, substantially increasing the area of natural ecosystems by that year,
  • protect at least 30 percent of terrestrial, inland water, and coastal and marine ecosystems by 2030, and ensure that loss of areas with high biodiversity importance is close to zero by 2030,
  • take urgent action to ensure the end of human-induced species extinction by 2030,
  • ensure safe trade of wild species and eliminate, minimise, or reduce the impacts of invasive species,
  • reduce pollution risks from all sources,
  • ensure the fair and equitable sharing of benefits that arise from the utilisation of genetic resources via the establishment of a multilateral fund, which will be finalised at COP16 in Turkey in 2024,
  • ensure the full integration of biodiversity into policy-making processes,
  • take measures to encourage and enable business to regularly report on their risks, dependencies, and impact on biodiversity,
  • reduce incentives, including subsidies, that are harmful to biodiversity by at least $500 bln globally by 2030, and
  • raise at least $200 bln per year from all sources including the private sector by 2030, and at least $20 bln per year by 2025 and $30 bln by 2030 from developed countries.


The agreement also commits governments to minimise the impact of climate change and foster positive impacts of climate action in relation to biodiversity. It also ensures that large and transnational companies and financial institutions regularly monitor, assess, and transparently disclose their risks, dependencies and impacts on biodiversity throughout their operations, supply and value chains and portfolios. It also imposes an obligation for national governments to monitor or report on a set of headline indicators at least every five years, which include the percentage of land and sea they have conserved, as well as the number of  national companies that published regular reports on their biodiversity impacts and dependencies.


Criticisms and shortcomings

Despite the never-before achieved level of international commitment and cooperation for the animals, plants and ecosystems of the world, the momentousness of the occasion has been tempered with caution from conservation, scientific and some government corners, particularly in relation to the absence of certain quantitative targets. The contention is that, without specific numbers to aim for, it is harder to assess and make countries accountable.

For example, Stuart Butchart, the chief scientist at BirdLife International was much quoted as saying that a commitment to significantly reduce extinction risk by 2030 was important and very welcome, “though we would have liked to have seen a quantitative target here as for other targets.” An Lambrechts, head of the Greenpeace delegation at COP15, agreed, adding that it was ”stripped-down, without essential qualifiers that exclude damaging activities from protected areas.”

The Australian delegation, led by Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, pushed for many of the critical inclusions in the pact – including the 30 percent protection goal – but was unable to secure a global commitment that would reflect the domestic zero-extinctions policy it announced in October, which is shared by New Zealand and a number of European countries. 

Australian Conservation Foundation chief executive Kelly O’Shanassy stated that, “Many of the world’s threatened species, including Australia’s, are on a pathway to go extinct well before 2050 …it is not acceptable for a framework on biodiversity to allow for extinctions to continue for another 28 years. Australia has a goal of no new extinctions – that’s a goal the world should have supported.”

Many have also pointed out that the agreement contains loopholes, weak language and timelines around actions that don’t adequately address the scale of the crisis.

Brendan Wintle, an expert in conservation ecology at the University of Melbourne, told The Age, “We have a general sense of positivity that the agreement signals an important shift in terms of government and business interest, but we still hold significant concerns about the pace of change.” 

The final text of the agreement also removed targets intended to halve business impacts on biodiversity, and limited disclosure of impacts from large and transnational companies.

Another common criticism is that there is little detail on the $30 bln which is to flow from developed countries to poorer countries – particularly given that disadvantaged nations were calling for the figure to be $100 bln – and that it is not legally binding.

Writing in The Conversation, a group of eminent scientists observed that,”…language on the ‘circular economy’, didn’t make it in, and explicit targets were removed from earlier drafts regarding the regulation of plastics and pollution, instead replaced with generic language of ‘prevent’ and ‘reduce’.”


So – what now?

However, regardless of the shortcomings, the fact that an agreement has been struck between such a large and unprecedented number of countries in relation to nature conservation is ground-breaking. It is widely considered to be a very positive starting point, despite the flaws identified by various parties. It is also generally viewed as a moment from which action can and must begin.

In this regard, on Twitter, EU Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, said, “I welcome the historic outcome of COP15. The world has agreed on unprecedented and measurable nature protection and restoration goals and on a Global Biodiversity Fund. And investing into nature also means fighting climate change.”

Marco Lambertini, Director General, WWF International provided perhaps one of the neatest summations: “The agreement represents a major milestone for the conservation of our natural world, and biodiversity has never been so high on the political and business agenda…Agreeing a shared global goal that will guide collective and immediate action to halt and reverse nature loss by 2030 is an exceptional feat for those that have been negotiating the Global Biodiversity Framework, and a win for people and planet. It sends a clear signal and must be the launch pad for action from governments, business and society to transition towards a nature-positive world…”


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