While an estimated one million species face a risk of extinction, a United Nations biodiversity summit being held in Montreal this week says it’s working on a plan to preserve life on Earth. 

Inside a downtown conference centre, thousands of representatives from civil society and governments are debating the details of a sprawling set of proposals spanning resource extraction, genetic engineering, and controversial financing schemes. Outside, thousands are sounding the alarm to denounce an approach they say in effect will fuel corporate profits but degrade biodiversity globally.

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was signed in 1993, and has been adopted by 196 countries. The United States is one of only four UN member states that has not opted in. 

The CBD holds Conference of Parties (COP) meetings every few years, where decisions can influence legislation worldwide. The current COP session will run until December 19.

Experts and civil society groups denounced the CBD’s reliance on financing schemes like offsets, and worry that the growing presence of corporate lobbyists will result in loopholes, watered-down targets and dead-end technofixes. Critics also say parts of the framework ignore Indigenous title and create a “perverse conflict of interest” for governments who are heavily invested in resource extraction. 

As many as 35,000 Montreal post-secondary students have voted to hold a one-day strike to protest the summit. Civil society groups are also mobilizing for demonstrations outside, amid a historically-heavy police presence.

The biodiversity framework being negotiated will try again where two previous sets of targets failed. 

A new set of 21 targets for 2030 includes protecting 30 per cent of land and sea areas globally, halting or mitigating the spread of invasive species, and a major reduction in pesticides and plastic pollution. 

Observers are skeptical in light of previous failures, but many point to alarming elements that could accelerate ecological destruction.  

Students demonstrate for an end to fossil fuel subsidies in Toronto in 2019. Subsidies to extractive industries are estimated to total around US$500 billion. Photo: 350.org

Fewer corporate subsidies, more corporate dependence?

Subsidies to extractive industries that erode biodiversity—fossil fuels, agriculture and fisheries—amount to nearly US$500 billion each year, according to a recent analysis.

The CBD’s new biodiversity framework suggests that, in light of a global emergency, a significant portion of these subsidies should be shifted to biodiversity. It calls this the biological “finance gap.”

One target aims to increase “all sources” of revenue for conservation efforts by US$200 billion per year. At least US$10 billion of that $200 billion is sought from northern countries pressured to up their financial flows to the Global South. 

New sources of financing for conservation sounds positive on the surface, said Simone Lovera, executive director of Global Forest Coalition, one of the NGOs participating in the convention. But the emphasis on “leveraging private finance” set out in the framework transfers responsibility from governments to the private sector.

“It will make biodiversity institutions dependent on private sector interests,” said Lovera, who travelled to COP15 from Amsterdam and previously worked in Paraguay. 

“It’s a perverse conflict of interest.”

An open pit mine run by Teck Resources in British Columbia (left) and the Next Creek Watershed, which is run by the Nature Conservancy and was bought with funds from Teck. Biodiversity offsets “don’t make any sense” scientifically, critics say. Photos: MissoulanVideo Youtube and Teck Resources Limited press kit.

‘Nature-based solutions’

A heavy emphasis on private sector financing schemes for conservation will backfire, observers are warning as discussions get underway.

Many “nature-based solutions” being advanced at the COP are actively destructive to the environment, Global Forest Coalition’s Lovera told The Breach.  

Most of them boil down to policies equivalent to carbon offsets, she said, when a company buys “carbon credits”—making up for greenhouse gas emissions by paying someone else to plant trees or invest in green energy.

“Biodiversity offsets” could allow credits for the preservation of an existing wetland in one location to “offset” the destruction of another. Wetland compensatory mitigation offset programs have existed in the U.S. since 1990, and in the province of Alberta since 2013. 

“Scientifically it doesn’t make sense because you can’t simply compensate a wetland on one side of the country for conserving a forest on the other side of the country,” Lovera said. “You’re talking about totally different ecosystems.”

This summer, Vancouver-based mining corporation Teck Resources Limited announced it will conserve three hectares for every one hectare destroyed by its mining activities through a partnership with the Nature Conservancy of Canada. Teck donated $2 million for the Conservancy to purchase and manage the nearly 8,000-hectare Next Creek Watershed in the West Kootenays of British Columbia.  

The Nature Conservancy of Canada—which profits from the sale of carbon credits from forest preservation projects like Darkwoods in southeastern B.C.—is part of the Canadian delegation present at COP15.

“It’s really based on trying to keep business running as usual even though it’s very destructive,” Lovera said. “This biodiversity crisis is so serious that we cannot afford those harmful projects anymore.”

The continued reliance on fossil fuels, justified in part through carbon markets, is also a leading contributor to biodiversity loss, with each degree of warming linked to an increase in the risk of species extinction

A 2021 report by a panel of experts for the convention has also pointed out the limitations of private finance, writing they “will never be sufficient for meeting all of the challenges of achieving the post-2020 global biodiversity framework.”

“The $10 billion is a pittance and will hardly do anything to shift the broader structural patterns that cause biodiversity loss and poverty,” said Jessica Dempsey, an associate professor in environmental politics at the University of British Columbia. 

National debt and tax avoidance are major barriers for countries in the Global South who are unable to invest in conservation. She supports calls for wording in the framework for debt cancellation. 

“Both debt and tax justice start to chip away at the political economic conditions that drive biodiversity loss,” Dempsey said. “They are a start towards changing the resource drain that leaves countries struggling to pay for public goods like climate adaptation, biodiversity protections, health care, education and so on.”

Civil society and student groups are preparing to protest outside COP15. Photo: Coalition anticapitaliste et écologiste contre la COP15

Students hold strike votes, civil society mobilizes

Many in Quebec’s civil society oppose the post-2020 framework completely, arguing financial mechanisms like biodiversity offsets that are being proposed at COP15 only serve to “greenwash dirty capitalist politics” and promote the status quo. 

Over 35,000 post-secondary students from French-speaking colleges and universities in Montreal will be on strike for at least one day this week to denounce COP15, skipping class to protest outside the convention. That number could reach as high as roughly 67,000 depending on the outcomes of coming strike votes.

“It follows a vision of nature that is completely absurd, it’s not going to really solve the issue,” said George Thretiault, a social sciences student at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) who will be on strike from December 7 to the 9th. 

He’s involved with an anticapitalist coalition in Montreal calling for the end of police-protected extractivism on Indigenous lands at home and abroad, such as in Fairy Creek and Wet’suwet’en, and the Land Back movement more generally. 

Activists with the coalition reject the notion that biodiversity loss is a monolithic problem that can be resolved with a neat set of ambitious targets written by a centralized body. Alongside the free market solutions offered up, this is, they say, historically why COPs fail.

CollectifCOP15, representing 100 groups across Quebec civil society, said Indigenous peoples should be the ones to govern the conservation of their land instead of colonial governments.

“The place of Indigneous Peoples’ rights in particular, in particular the right to protect the land, when it comes to targets for conservation, that is critical,” said Eddy Pérez, a spokesperson with the collective who also works with the Climate Action Network.

Pérez also stressed the need to find solutions for local biodiversity loss crises, but thinks it’s unlikely COP15 will “go deep into those details.”

“What will come out of this deal is a call of action so that governments then very quickly in 2023 put forward their own plans aiming to implement what has been agreed,” Pérez said.

So far Canada has set a commitment to conserve 25 percent of lands by 2025 and 30 per cent of waters by 2030. Currently it protects just 13.5 per cent of land and 13.9 per cent of its water.

A local struggle to preserve a wetland highlights the challenges to preserving biological diversity on the ground. 

The Technoparc wetland—threatened by new industrial developments north of Montreal’s airport—is home to over 200 species of birds and Monarch butterflies that thrive across the 215 hectares. Katherine Collin, a third generation birdwatcher, says she’s still holding out hope after federal officials expressed interest in turning it into a national park. 

“There are 25 separate municipal and borough resolutions that were passed unanimously speaking in favour of protection of the site,” said Collin, part of conservation group Technoparc Oiseaux. “To our knowledge that hasn’t been this kind of bi-partisan, unanimous support like that for a conservation issue in the greater Montreal area.”

Like most biodiversity issues, the wetland’s fate will turn on the government’s willingness to go against the desires of a property developer.

Protesters in Burkina Faso oppose the testing of gene drive organisms in Africa. Photo: ETC Group

Changing genes and corporate influence

A dangerous new technology for editing the genes of wild species is also stoking a debate about the CBD’s approach to risk.

“Gene drives,” a topic of heated discussion at COP15, create the possibility of genetically modifying—or eliminating—wild populations by introducing dominant traits that transfer to all subsequent generations. Some groups have advanced proposals to preserve biodiversity by rendering invasive species infertile, but civil society groups say that the big money behind the technology has its eyes on industrial agriculture.

COP15 is the source of regulations governing genetically-modified organisms, said Jim Thomas of ETC Group, which monitors the impact of emerging technologies. 

Until now, CBD discussions have been based on the precautionary principle, Thomas told The Breach. 

“And that is language that the biotech industry wants to cut out.”

“They talk about something called the innovation principle instead of the precautionary principle,” he said, noting industry stakeholders such as CropLife Canada will be at the convention.

Using gene drives to modify wild populations of organisms that eat crops—like fruit flies—could create dangerous precedents and have unpredictable effects on the stability of ecological systems, Thomas said. 

“This has huge ecological implications,” he said. “Gene drives are an example where the precautionary principle says you just don’t go ahead with that.”

CollectifCOP15’s Pérez also shared concerns over the increasing presence of stakeholders from corporations that are the culprits in biodiversity loss. 

“We’re not in this mess because it just happened out of nowhere, we’re in the mess because there has been complacency in the way in which governments regulate business, in this case agro-business, fossil fuel companies, and mining companies.” 

“If COP15 becomes a mining convention or a deforestation convention then it does not serve our purposes.

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