This post is by Robbie MacPherson, APPG co-ordinator and political adviser at Green Alliance.
With the chance of an England or Welsh World Cup victory over, we should turn our thoughts from Qatar to Montreal in Canada where the most important political moment for nature in a decade is underway.
The UN Convention on Biological Diversity, or COP15, acknowledged as our last chance to save nature, opened last week. Unlike UN climate conferences (like the recent COP26 and COP27) which begin with a world leaders’ moment, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was the only head of government to attend COP15, others were not invited by China, the summit president. Despite pressure from UK parliamentarians on Rishi Sunak to engage with other world leaders throughout the negotiations, he has failed to do so.
So, in the absence of high level political attention, COP15 has had more of an autumn party conference feel about it than the air of a major global summit tasked with saving the world’s nature. I know, I was there.
After several days in Montreal during the first week of COP15, this is what I learnt.
Partnership with indigenous people must be central to tackling biodiversity loss
Indigenous people account for only five per cent of the world’s population. Yet they are responsible for 80 per cent of remaining global biodiversity which exists within their homelands. Without recognising their role as guardians of the oceans, rainforests, savannahs, and many other ecosystems we will continue to lose species at between 1,000 and 10,000 times the natural rate.
One of the most inspiring moments was the protest led by indigenous people from the Tla’Amin Nation during Justin Trudeau’s opening remarks. Their loud calls were applauded by delegates on the floor. The following day, he announced £510 million new funding to support indigenous people led conservation projects, starting a ‘story of reconciliation’ with them, who for too long have been excluded from decision making processes, following centuries of marginalisation and oppression.
At the Indigenous Village, hosted by the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, on the side–lines of COP15 and visited by the Canadian environment minister, I heard first hand the stories, wisdom and demands. Whether from Africa, Siberia, the Pacific or even Finland and California, the messages were the same. Without a true partnership, between them, governments and businesses, that recognises traditional ways of existing and conserving nature, COP15 will fail.
The UK needs to act at home to claim leadership on the world stage
Domestic ambition on the environment matters. In the UK we can be proud of the public awareness and importance afforded to green issues. Equally, our unique political consensus on the need to reduce emissions and protect nature, which helped secure the world’s first ever legally binding Climate Change Act in 2008, 2050 net zero goal in 2019 and the landmark Environment Act in 2021. As one Mexican MP told me in Montreal, the UK is an inspiration for other countries to push their own governments to do more.
Worryingly, since 31 October, the UK government has been in breach of a legal requirement of the Environment Act, as it missed the statutory deadline to set targets on nature recovery, with concerns that the targets may fall short of the ambition needed. And we are one of the most nature depleted countries in the world with only half of our natural biodiversity left.
Rishi Sunak’s decision to approve the first coal mine in a decade, during the period of the summit, sparked international backlash, such as from the Fijian Prime Minister which did not help the UK’s international standing. To continue to be a trusted partner on the environment and help steer the world towards a more secure, positive future we have to lead by example at home.
All parliaments need environmental champions
We are fortunate that, in the UK, parliamentarians from both the Houses of Commons and Lords are committed to promoting ambitious environmental policies. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Environment, for example, includes more than a hundred parliamentarians from all parties who have spent the past year pressuring the government – through parliamentary debates, roundtables, and joint letters – to make COP15 a success.
It was great to be in Montreal to join the UK’s cross party parliamentary delegation in various meetings with the British Consulate General, Defra’s negotiating team, NGOs, and MPs from other countries, including Brazil. What was obvious in those meetings was how particularly engaged our MPs are. In a meeting with legislatures from other countries, it was clear that polarisation and special interests make the environment a wedge issue for many. This is something that needs to be overcome, as parliaments around the world will have to set the policies to protect us all from devastating nature loss. UK parliamentarians have a vital role in supporting their international counterparts over the coming years.
Now is the time for the tough decisions
When I arrived at COP15 there were still hundreds of brackets in the negotiating text signalling unresolved disputes between parties. In the past week there has been progress, but tough decisions are ahead. The endgame has started, with environment ministers from all over the world now descending on Montreal to finish the negotiations, but their task will be difficult. By next week they need an agreement which recognises indigenous rights, protects 30 per cent of land and sea by 2030 and much more. Failing to create a moment at this point for nature, like Paris was for climate in 2015, will, in no uncertain terms, spell disaster for the natural environment.
There is still the chance that COP15 will arrive at an agreement with people and nature at its heart. For that to happen we need political courage. Let us hope that in the next few days it appears from somewhere. And many want to see it from 10 Downing Street.