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COP15: A global summit to safeguard nature – Expert Reaction

Governments from around the world will convene in Montreal this week for the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) from 7 – 19 December 2022.

The conference will convene governments from around the world to agree to a new set of goals for nature over the next decade through the Convention on Biological Diversity post-2020 framework process.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the current state of biodiversity decline in terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems, both worldwide and in Aotearoa. We also asked what they hoped the summit will achieve and why.

Associate Professor Nathan Cooper, Te Piringa – Faculty of Law, University of Waikato, comments:

“This week’s biodiversity COP risks being overshadowed by the recently concluded COP27 on climate change, and by the soccer World Cup, but its importance cannot be overstated. Ecosystems breakdown and biodiversity loss are accelerating, with devastating consequences. The global climate crisis makes more headlines than does biodiversity. Yet both are inextricably linked, and our chances of avoiding catastrophic climate breakdown depend in many ways on how effectively we protect and restore Earth’s biodiversity. Framing biodiversity as a crucial component of climate stabilisation could help raise the profile of COP15, sending a message that biodiversity isn’t a ‘green’ issue, it’s simply about ensuring a habitable planet.

“The Convention on Biological Diversity, and its COPs, have so far lacked a clear target similar to the climate change goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. This might change at COP15. Expect particular focus on ‘30×30’, a push to protect 30% of land and sea for nature by the end of this decade. Also expect more noise around ‘Nature-positive’ solutions and mandatory nature disclosures (requiring large businesses to assess and disclose their impacts and dependencies on biodiversity), as well as more emphasis on the human right to a healthy environment, for which biodiversity is essential. Each of these has potential to galvanise global leaders into urgent action.

“China’s leadership and ambition will be crucial to COP15’s success. This is the first time China has held the presidency of a major international environmental treaty. Their ambitious theme, ‘Building a shared future for all life on Earth’, now needs to be matched by an agreement containing bold and substantive commitments. Plus, sufficient financial assistance for developing states must be made available, to ensure that commitments are implemented.”

No conflict of interest

Professor David Hayman, School of Veterinary Science, Massey University, comments:

“COP15 is an opportunity to start to change the way we consider humans and biodiversity and their interactions. Modern humanity has been built on the consumption and the destruction of more wild and diverse ecosystems. But we are increasingly seeing the negative impacts of this destruction.

“A notable impact is the emergence of infectious diseases, like Covid-19, Ebola virus disease and monkeypox. As we encroach in increasing numbers into the most biodiverse places, we are providing increasing opportunities for viruses to emerge and spread. Moreover, people depend on biodiversity yet mostly do not know it. Most lifesaving drugs come from nature, and we still mostly rely on traditional ecological knowledge to help us find them. We depend on upon the availability of fresh water and food, which itself is dependent on complex interactions of the diversity we can see and the microbial diversity we cannot. We are also increasingly recognising the mental health benefits of people living in healthy environments. Studies in New Zealand have provided some of the first epidemiological support for the reduced risk of non-infectious diseases among people with greater contact to biodiverse environments.

“Recently there have been some significant pieces of work, which will be informing some discussions at COP 15, including an IPBES report on the linkages between pandemics and biodiversity, soon to be followed up by an IPBES thematic assessment of the interlinkages among biodiversity, water, food and health. But a particularly relevant one is the agreement between the quadripartite – the Food and Agriculture Organization, United Nations Environment Programme, World Health Organisation, and World Organisation for Animal Health – that human, animal and environmental health are linked (‘One Health’) and their recently announced Global Plan of Action on One Health; this is a statement of intent that must be acted upon and COP 15 is another opportunity to improve the health of the planet and our futures.”

No conflict of interest declared 

Associate Professor Stephen Hartley, Director, Centre of Biodiversity & Restoration Ecology, School of Biological Sciences, Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“The UN has declared this the decade of ecological restoration, recognising the urgent need to conserve biodiversity and restore ecosystem function for the well-being of the planet and all human livelihoods. This is a momentous challenge, on par with the scale and imperative for tackling global climate change, yet ecological restoration is recognised as one of the most cost-effective, beneficial steps we can undertake to address a whole raft of the UN sustainable development goals. The IPBES 2019 report also pointed out that land and wildlife managed by Indigenous Peoples is under pressure, but is generally declining less rapidly than in other areas. Only a holistic approach to our planet’s and people’s perils has any chance of succeeding.”

No conflict of interest declared

Associate Professor Huhana Smith, Head of School, Whiti o Rehua School of Art, Massey University, comments:

Note: Huhana Smith engages in major environmental, trans-disciplinary, kaupapa Māori and action-research projects. She has just opened Te Au: Liquid Constituencies at Govett Brewster Art Gallery – an exhibition featuring art works by Te Waituhi ā Nuku: Drawing Ecologies group – all centred on active kaitiakitanga of Māori land holdings and spreading the benefits of biochar.

“Tuia ki runga
Tuia ki raro
Tuia ki roto
Tuia ki waho
Tuia te muka tangata me Te Taiao
Ka rongo te po
Ka ronga te ao
Tihei mauri ora

“Nothing is more urgent today than to enable plans for urgent large-scale biodiversity protection, which are thus activated by substantial efforts to reforest and revitalise vital ecosystems across the planet.

“All actions must be deeply grounded upon Indigenous peoples’ intricate knowledge of place and all that exists therein. All action-orientated plans must be embedded in Indigenous peoples’ understandings of intricate interrelationships and interdependencies that exist between humans and the environment. Any implementable planning must ensure that the grounding is right with Indigenous peoples from the outset, so that the associated flow-on effects benefit them, and by association – all communities. Indigenous people are the determinators, the activators and catalysers of transformative change. In promulgating and supporting a generous commitment from other participants, they must transform themselves to fully recognise Indigenous people as the critical stewards, healers of, and leaders with nature.

“As attested in the opening karakia here, Indigenous leaders are already rebinding intricate human/environmental relationships together again. They are leading these processes, not only to overcome damage exacted upon biodiversity within their diverse regions, but to benefit their own communities, and therefore, to benefit all.”

No conflict of interest declared

Dr Julie Deslippe, Rutherford Discover Fellow and Senior Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences, Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington; Bioprotection Aotearoa Centre for Research Excellence, comments:

“New Zealand’s unique biodiversity is core to our health, economy, cultural and spiritual wellbeing as Kiwis. From mountain tops to dep sea trenches we are blessed with a wealth of plants, animals, fungi and marine creatures that occur nowhere else on Earth: 86% of shellfish, 80% of plants and insects and 60% of vertebrates are unique to our shores. Despite our carefully crafted Clean and Green image, we only need to call-to-mind the moa or huia to grasp the extent our loss: when it comes to extinctions New Zealand ranks among the worst countries on Earth.

“Of course we are not alone: the global extinction rate is estimated to be up to 1000 times higher than the natural rate of extinction. More than 40,000 species are eminently threatened with extinction, and because most species are still unknown to science, estimates suggest that the real number could be as high as 1 million. We know the drivers of species extinctions: land use change, climate change, direct exploitation, pollution and invasive species top the UN’s lists. There is also growing understanding that these drivers can combine, speeding species to the brink.

“Climate warming leads to the spread of invasive weeds and mammalian predators in grasslands, forests and alpine areas in Aotearoa. In our marine environments, the combination of ocean acidification and marine heatwaves drive declines in reef-building algae that provide critical habitat for other native species.

“The examples are adding up. In the past few years major reports from the United Nations, International Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the International Panel on Climate Changes (IPCC) have sent clear and unanimous messages to policy makers: Urgent action is needed. This is why this week’s COP15 UN Biodiversity Conference is such an important event. COP15 is an opportunity to for nations come together to set goals to reverse biodiversity loss. Aotearoa must engage in this process, but we must do more than make promises: the COP15 agreement must translate to law and policy reform in Aotearoa.

“For too long we have eroded Nature – our ultimate capital. One IPBES media release summed the situation aptly: “Decisions Based on Narrow Set of Market Values of Nature Underpin the Global Biodiversity Crisis”. In Aotearoa this means we need a broader vision of prosperity that includes all of its denizens: including the rooted, finned and winged. It will require strong leadership and stronger partnerships: particularly with mana whenua Māori who have a wealth of resource management expertise bespoke to this place. Institutions and governance structures must shift to facilitate adaptation to new climate norms and sufficient funding and resources must be mobilised to enable the transformative actions that are urgently required to offset catastrophic losses of our biological heritage.”

No conflict of interest

Professor Hazel Chapman, School of Biological Sciences, University of Canterbury / Founder and Director Nigerian Montane Forest Project, comments:

“The UN Convention on Biodiversity Diversity, first signed in 1992, has since been ratified by around 195 countries with the overall aim of protecting the World’s plant and animal species and ensuring the sustainable and fair management of natural resources. World leaders and experts in the field meet every 10 years to re-negotiate goals for biodiversity protection.

“Forests are rich in biodiversity and are vital to our wellbeing, they are also key to slowing climate change. Forests capture and store huge amounts of carbon – about 1.5 times more carbon than the USA emits annually. Forests act as water and air filters, they help reduce erosion and are home to ecosystem services providers such as birds which control insect pests and insects which pollinator crops. Over 1.6 billion people rely on forests for livelihoods.

“Today forests cover about a third of the Earths habitable land area, yet despite our dependency on them and our increasing understanding of their value to our life on Earth, the rate of forest destruction continues to accelerate. Since 1990, about a billion acres of forest have been destroyed, mostly in Africa and South America where incredibly, the rate of deforestation is still increasing. Forest clearance for cattle grazing and agriculture is by far the greatest threat to forests globally.

“COP15 is an opportunity for the World leaders to come to agreement on targets for reducing and reversing forest loss. Associated with this will be increasing recognition of indigenous peoples as forest protectors and managers. I hope too, that attention is paid to reducing subsidies which harm forests – eg. such incentives for clearing forest to plant palm oil or soy beans in Asia and South America.

“I also hope that the nature value of forest fragments will be recognised. Native forest fragments are worth a whole lot more in terms of biodiversity than pine plantations, so it is not just forest area that matters, but types of forests protected. This is of direct relevance to New Zealand; while we are not losing forest area per say, we are carbon offsetting (compensating for the carbon dioxide and methane we emit by contributing to tree planting schemes aimed at reducing equivalent amounts of gasses in the atmosphere). Often these planting schemes comprise pine trees. Instead. we need to focus on both protecting and regenerating the native forest we have, even if as small fragments. It should become unacceptable for businesses operating in New Zealand to compensate any loss of native forest by planting less species diverse ecosystems.”

No conflict of interest

Dr Christopher Cornwall, Lecturer in Marine Biology, School of Biological Sciences, Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“Climate change threatens marine species, especially habitat forming seaweeds. We presently have more than 1200 species of seaweed in New Zealand, many of which play important ecological roles. For example, the are important as food, habitat, and as a settlement substrate for larvae and spores of other species. However, they are threatened by climate change in the form of ocean warming, ocean acidification, and increasing frequencies of marine heatwaves. Some of these rarer species or those with small ranges will likely go extinct over the next century, but detecting their loss will be difficult due to a lack of funding to monitor and understand the biodiversity and ranges of many marine species.”

No conflict of interest declared

Dr Don Morrisey, Senior Coastal Scientist, Cawthron Institute, comments:

“In the run up to the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) in Montreal, which aims to adopt a global framework to address drivers of biodiversity loss, what does the current status of marine diversity in Aotearoa New Zealand look like, what are the threats to it, and what might we hope for from COP 15? Describing biodiversity in the marine environment is more challenging than assessing it on land, or even in fresh water. In all environments, most types of plants and animals are small, cryptic and often less- than-charismatic but in the sea they are also hidden by water. Consequently, assessing the status of marine biodiversity is difficult. For example, the Department of Conservation classifies 11 species of marine invertebrates as ‘Threatened’ and a further 324 as ‘At Risk’ (declining, recovering or naturally uncommon), which sounds even worse when you consider that the 415 species included in this assessment represent only 5% of Aotearoa’s known marine invertebrates. In the case of seaweeds, of 938 species considered, seven were classified as ’Threatened’, 120 as ‘At Risk’ but for more than 600 species there was insufficient information to assess their abundance and distribution. Even in the case of the relatively well-known marine mammals, 30 of the 57 species that occur in the waters of Aotearoa could not be assigned a status because of lack of information.

“Habitat protection is, therefore, particularly critical for preserving and restoring marine biodiversity. If the habitat is protected, so are its species, known and unknown. Protected habitats include areas of particularly high biodiversity and productivity, such as rocky reefs and kelp forests, shellfish and seagrass beds, and other places where animals and plants create their own diverse habitat (‘biogenic’ habitats). Many of these habitats are biologically diverse not just on their own but because they act as nursery areas for species that live elsewhere as adults, including many fish species. Habitats that are widespread and not at risk of disappearing are also of great importance because of the role they play in nutrient recycling, primary (plant) and secondary (animal) production, and in exporting these to other habitats and levels of the food web. These widespread habitats include the large areas of mud and sand that make up much of the coastal seabed of Aotearoa New Zealand.

“The Global Biodiversity Framework that COP 15 aims to adopt contains a pathway to managing these threats. It includes targets for integrating management of changes to use of the land and sea in ways that protect biodiversity, and for restoration and protection of marine areas. Implementation of these targets in Aotearoa covers familiar topics—better management to reduce nutrient discharges to the coast from livestock, fertilisers and wastewater, control of soil erosion, and improved management of fisheries. These efforts are also critically important considering the looming threat of climate change, which will only increase erosion and run-off, raise sea temperatures and cause ocean acidification. From an objective viewpoint, it’s difficult to understand why we wouldn’t want to do any of these things but, in the face of short-term gain for the few, long-term benefit for the many requires stronger regulation and enforcement by local and central government.”

No conflicts of interest declared

Dr Robin Holmes, Team Leader, River and Lake Ecology, Cawthron Institute, comments:

“Aotearoa / New Zealand is blessed with an abundance of rainfall and expansive tracts of native forest and tussock lands. Much of our watershed headwaters are protected by a conservation estate which covers around a third of the county. Yet, in common with the rest of the word, our freshwater biodiversity is under threat from multiple interacting stressors.

“NZ has over 675 species of freshwater invertebrates and despite deficient data many are considered to have declining or threatened populations. There are about 50 species of native freshwater fish (and still counting), with 92% of these found only in New Zealand. Over 70% of these fish species are at risk or threatened with extinction, an alarming percentage by global standards. A feature of our freshwater fish fauna is a high degree of diadromy – around a third of species spend part of their lives at sea. This means our fish populations are especially vulnerable to habitat fragmentation from hydro-power dams and smaller scale passage barriers such as weirs and culverts.

“However, our most significant freshwater biodiversity challenge is addressing ongoing and legacy effects of intensifying landuse around our lowland freshwater habitats. Historically these habitats harboured the majority of our freshwater biota. Over 90% of NZ’s wetlands have been lost and abstraction affects most lowland waterways. Compounding on these habitat reductions are increased fine-sediment and nutrient loads (primarily) from agriculture. Reduced habitat area and increased agricultural pollutants are now interacting with warming waterbodies and changing river flow dynamics under climate change, meaning the future of our freshwater biodiversity is uncertain.

“Despite these challenges, only one native freshwater fish is recorded as extinct so far (the NZ grayling), so much of our biological heritage is redeemable. Improving freshwater health is now high within the public consciousness and this has resulted in recent sweeping freshwater policy reforms that are curbing the excesses of landuse intensification and improving fish passage. Any global agreement on protecting biodiversity needs to consider ways to address the ecological degradation caused by agriculture. Ecologists have been working on the challenges of native biodiversity loss for near a century now; indigenous practitioners even longer. The knowledge needed to ‘bend the curve’ of species loss is ready to be used. It is important that global agreements acknowledge and empower local solutions based on local knowledge to restore local freshwater ecosystems. With sufficient resourcing collectively these solutions will scale to create positive global impacts.”

No conflicts of interest declared

Dr Peter Buchanan, Mycologist, Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, comments:

“Considerable publicity surrounded the conference named COP27, held in Egypt last month as a global response to the worsening climate crisis. Grabbing public attention for the upcoming conference named COP15 in Montreal, Canada, 7-19 December, is not helped by the reasonable assumption that 15 precedes 27! So might COP15 be old news? Not at all! While the name COP refers to ‘Conference of the Parties’, there are different streams of COPs depending on the topic. COP15 is the 15th global summit addressing the urgent need to respond to biodiversity loss. As a more saleable name, how about Biodiversity COP15?

“The coming fortnight of meetings is of great significance for the future of this planet’s biodiversity, that needs our protection, conservation, and measurable national commitments to globally pull back from the destruction of life around us. That life deserves our kaitiakitanga (guardianship and protection), and sustains our ecosystems, our soils, our climate, and our human existence.

“In 1992, the same year that our Department of Scientific and Industrial Research was disestablished and replaced by separately named Crown Research Institutes (such as Manaaki Whenua), the global Earth Summit was held in Brazil and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was signed. This Convention has subsequently been ratified by 196 nations. Biodiversity COP meetings are where responses are agreed and date-bound national commitments are set… and sometimes re-set. Aspirations have not always translated into conservation outcomes!

“Names really matter when it comes to conservation. While the CBD was conceived by most contributors as safeguarding “animal and plant species” (also known as fauna and flora), this omitted whole other kingdoms of life. The Fungi are the second largest kingdom of life, more closely related to the (largest) Animal kingdom and, in terms of diversity, many times larger than the Plants kingdom. There are other kingdoms too. Life is complex, mega-diverse, and interconnected. But let’s at least embrace the better named triad: Fauna, Flora AND Fungi.

“Conservation of fungi deserves higher profile at COP15, and locally. Thankfully, some of Aotearoa’s most threatened fungi have recently been assessed and included in the IUCN’s Global Red List. And DOC has just published a significant revision of the threat status of 960 species of mushrooms and related fungi (NZ Threat Classification Series 38, Cooper et al., 2022). Recognition and names for our biodiversity precede their effective conservation, yet we estimate we have named less than half the native fungi of Aotearoa; to date mycologists (fungal scientists) have named only 6,000 native species.

“Names matter, and so does the science that discovers, classifies, and names our biodiversity. I’m super-privileged to be writing this on Te Hauturu-a-Toi (Little Barrier Island) courtesy of Ngāti Manuhiri, DOC, and the Hauturu Supporters Trust. Hauturu is an international exemplar for conservation, a beacon for COP15, and a precious taonga for preservation of Aotearoa’s fauna, flora, and Fungi.”

No conflicts of interest declared

Professor Peter J. de Lange, Professor of Biosystematics and Conservation, School of Environment and Animal Sciences, Unitec Institute of Technology / Te Pukenga, comments:

“Aotearoa / New Zealand is facing a biodiversity crisis on two levels: 1) our ability to classify, and thus know the scale and scope of our indigenous biota is hindered by the lack of biosystematists within our country; and 2) the ongoing decline in expertise at the coal face of conservation effort. Our flora is in decline, be it from the spread of novelties like myrtle rust disease caused by the invasive rust Austropuccinia psidii, or through direct predation of plants and out competition from weeds. Currently the indigenous flora of Aotearoa / New Zealand receives scant protection, effectively it is secure only where it grows, populations of plants off Public Conservation Land are not secure from development, collection or trade. Whilst our mega fauna is by and
large protected by the Wildlife Act, our flora, fungi and many of our invertebrates are not.

“The lack of protection is one issue. The decline in expertise with the skills to classify, manage and enhance our biota is another. Many tertiary institutions no longer teach taxonomy, many of our nation’s taxonomists are aging with few, if any, up-and-coming replacements. How can we protect what we don’t know or what we think we have when we haven’t full tested the validity of proposed species? At least 20% of our vascular plant flora has yet to receive a name – and the situation is worse for our mycobiota (fungi), lichenized mycobiota and invertebrates.

“Conservation in Aotearoa / New Zealand is hindered by a lack of resourcing, and declining appointments of skilled staff with the expertise and mandate to manage our biota. As a nation we pride ourselves on our successes with tieke (saddleback), kakapo, and black robin – and rightly so! However, will we be able to prevent the extinction of Metrosideros bartlettii, Frullania wairua and Lepidium rekohuense?

“As a biosystematist and conservationist I implore our nation to inject critical funding into our tertiary institutions to reactivate latent biosystematics skills before it is too late. Critical funding is also needed to restore the broad specialist skill base to the Department of Conservation that it once had. This will ensure that the novel management skills and successes of the past Wildlife Service are not our only achievements”.

Conflict of interest statement: “As far as I am aware I have none. I am however the Chair of the Chatham Islands Conservation Board, and Chair of the New Zealand Indigenous Vascular Plant, Indigenous Hornwort & Liverwort and Lichen Threat Listing Panels (three panels). These are positions appointed by the Minister of Conservation (Conservation Board) and /or the Department of Conservation.”