COP15: Nature’s new deal must also be a Paris moment for food

Monday, 5 December 2022

Authored by the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU) 

After two years of delays, online meetings and a change of location, COP15 – the UN’s fifteenth global biodiversity conference – is finally upon us. Hosted by China but taking place in Canada, the 12-day summit will convene governments from around the world to negotiate a new set of goals for nature, to be laid out in the long-awaited Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

With an estimated one million species facing extinction and a $4.1 trillion funding gap to finance their recovery, COP15 is truly a fork-in-the-road moment for the fate of life on Earth, and conservationists will be arriving in Montreal next week with their eyes set on nothing short of a breakthrough. But with 21 goals to negotiate and 193 parties to please, granting nature its long overdue “Paris moment” is something of a moonshot, and sceptics are concerned that the conference’s arrival at the height of a global cost of living crisis could result in a weak-willed outcome, similar to that agreed for climate at the UNFCCC’s COP in Copenhagen, 2009.

Precisely what happens in the negotiating rooms at COP15 is anybody’s guess, but if one thing is certain it is this: if Montreal is going to provide a credible pathway for putting humanity back in harmony with nature, it needs to address the food systems elephant in the room.

Food systems have long been a blindspot in the fight for a liveable planet, despite their role in driving 70% of terrestrial biodiversity loss, 80% of deforestation and the degradation of nearly a quarter of the world’s land. They are also considered a silent killer in nature’s decline, given their 34% stake in global greenhouse gas emissions, and role in driving forward its most existential threat in the next 100 years – climate change.

But beyond their encroachment into the planet’s safe operating bounds – which has, for the most part, seen a 69% decline in wildlife populations over the last fifty years – what is perhaps most alarming about our food systems is their failure to deliver for humanity. Currently, 828 million people face hunger, and a further 3.2 billion are unable to afford a healthy diet. Within this number the poor and marginalized face the worst impacts, with women and girls in low-income countries bearing the brunt of food insecurity and malnutrition.

None of this is new news, however, so the dilemma we are facing heading into COP15 concerns not so much the what needs to change, but the how to change it and, critically, in a way that works for all lifeforms, both human and non-human. In summary, given that food insecurity and malnutrition are projected to increase under biodiversity loss and climate change – and given that we need a healthy and well-nourished global population to achieve our nature, climate and hunger goals – how can COP15 unlock the bold new era of integrated action we so urgently need?

A major piece of the puzzle is finance. The UN Environment Programme estimates that over $536 billion will be needed annually to meet global climate, biodiversity and restoration targets by 2050, representing a fourfold increase on the current investment rate. The picture is complicated by the fact that many of the world’s biodiversity-rich lands are located in low-income countries who have often played little role in driving the crisis, but are both the first and worst hit by its impacts, including food insecurity, malnutrition, lost livelihoods and health epidemics caused by pollution and zoonotic spillovers. Both wealthy nations and the private sector will need to step in and support those on nature’s frontlines if they want to reap their share of the $4.5 trillion that sustainable food systems could unlock by 2050, especially the latter group who currently take just 14% of the NbS investment burden.

But, while gaping, the hole in nature’s pocket is far from the only obstacle standing between us and a liveable planet, and there are equivalent gaps in accountability and reporting that COP15 will need to address too. A shortcoming of the Post-2020 GBF’s predecessor, the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, was that many of its goals lacked quantifiable metrics for tracking progress. The result saw countries submitting action plans that reflected ambitions rather than achievements, and not a single global biodiversity target was met across the period. While it would be reductionistic to expect nature’s new deal to grant countries a single numerical “guiding star” like 1.5C for climate, it will need to provide them with clear benchmarks to set and chart their commitments against. Critically, it will need to provide strong mechanisms for embedding food systems in biodiversity goals and measuring the true costs of nature-targeted interventions on climate, nutrition, food security and livelihoods.

On top of everything comes political will, and to shift that juggernaut into gear, we need evidence. Fortunately, as was made clear by the farmers, Indigenous communities, businesses, activists and civil society groups in their hundreds at the UNFCCC’s 27th climate change conference, COP27, in Egypt last month, there is no shortage of proof that the road to planetary prosperity requires transformative action on food, and there is a real opportunity in Montreal to strengthen this case.

Critical, as we transition from one COP to the next, will be a continuation in momentum to bring the full suite of solutions to the fore, including those that lack a direct link to climate and restoration, such as tackling food loss and waste or scaling nutrition through school meals programmes. While The Food and Land Use Coalition and nearly 100 other organizations who pushed for this outcome at COP27 may be disappointed by the final cover decision’s narrow focus on production, we left Egypt more confident than ever that the seeds for a more holistic approach to the food, nature and climate triple-crisis are in place. Starting with Montreal this week, we must seize every opportunity ahead of COP28 to nourish their roots, in hope that those with the power in their hands will wake up and – in the Earth’s hour of need – join the dots.

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