COP15: The Agenda

Can world leaders take the ambitious steps needed to save life on Earth?

The COP15 "Symbiosis and Harmony"  flower bed at Jinbi Plaza in Kunming.

The COP15 "Symbiosis and Harmony" flower bed at Jinbi Plaza in Kunming. /CFP

The COP15 "Symbiosis and Harmony" flower bed at Jinbi Plaza in Kunming. /CFP

Nearly two years after it was originally due to happen, the agenda for the the COP15 summit remains similar, with plans to discuss targets of conserving 30 percent of the world's oceans and land by 2030, introducing controls on invasive species and reducing plastic pollution.

Officials insist that they can agree ambitious plans to transform our relationship with biodiversity and ensure that by 2050, we attain a shared vision of living in harmony with nature. But last year the world was stunned when the United Nations reported that world leaders had failed to meet a single biodiversity target agreed in Aichi in 2010 and scientists claimed that humans are causing the sixth mass extinction event in the history of planet Earth.

In 2021, The International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List report showed that 28 percent of all assessed species on the planet are threatened with extinction. So, with so much at stake and so little achieved what are the goals for COP15 and how realistic are they?

Meet the boss

The COP15 "Divine and Birds Talking Together" flower bed at the Haigeng Hall of Kunming.

The COP15 "Divine and Birds Talking Together" flower bed at the Haigeng Hall of Kunming. /CFP

The COP15 "Divine and Birds Talking Together" flower bed at the Haigeng Hall of Kunming. /CFP

Clearly, it's not ideal that the COP15 conference has been delayed, with so many species facing extinction.

But the person leading the summit – Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biodiversity – says she's confident that real progress has already been made in the desire to build a shared future for life on earth.

Who is Elizabeth Maruma Mrema?

Quite simply, the world's leading voice on biodiversity. As the Executive Secretary of the UN's Convention on Biodiversity, the Tanzanian will be leading the COP15 talks. Before taking her current position, Mrema worked as the Director of the Law Division at the United Nations Environment Programme in Nairobi, Kenya. She is also the former Executive Secretary of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals.

While COVID-19 may have delayed face-to-face meetings, Mrema insists she and her colleagues have been working around it as best they can. "We're dealing with an unprecedented situation," she tells CGTN Europe. "That's why the secretariat has continued to work hard with our parties and other stakeholders to ensure that our work continues through a variety of online discussions and negotiations. And this way, we've been able to maintain momentum on the importance of biodiversity issues."

She remains confident she can get agreement for a Kunming declaration "underlining political commitment on the importance of biodiversity and the need for the global community to take action to halt and reverse biodiversity loss."

However, she admits that members of the public can remain skeptical when none of the biodiversity targets set in Aichi in 2010 were met. "Expectations [in Aichi] probably were high, but the infrastructure put in place for the implementation of the Aichi targets in a strategic plan were not commensurate with that expectation."

Mrema insists that the same mistakes won't be made this time – and that the COVID-19 delay may in fact end up having a positive impact: "We know that today biodiversity crosses borders. You cannot deal with biodiversity issues just depending on government without the engagement of all other stakeholders. You need the indigenous people, the local communities, you need the women, you need the youth, the business, the financial sector, all stakeholders."

All that, she says, takes time. "There have been a number of consultative processes which have taken place during this period of COVID-19. And that's what probably the positive aspect of the COVID-19 has been – the additional time it gave us to prepare for a tangible framework for everyone out on stage, all different stakeholders."

In Namibia, elephants have been auctioned due to drought and lack of supplies.

In Namibia, elephants have been auctioned due to drought and lack of supplies. /People's Vision/CFP

In Namibia, elephants have been auctioned due to drought and lack of supplies. /People's Vision/CFP

The biodiversity of Dianchi Lake, in Kunming's Laoyu River Wetland Park.

The biodiversity of Dianchi Lake, in Kunming's Laoyu River Wetland Park. /CFP

The biodiversity of Dianchi Lake, in Kunming's Laoyu River Wetland Park. /CFP

Polar bears seen in Alaska's Chuckhi Sea. Many have gone hungry because of melting Arctic glaciers and ice sheets.

Polar bears seen in Alaska's Chuckhi Sea. Many have gone hungry because of melting Arctic glaciers and ice sheets. /CFP

Polar bears seen in Alaska's Chuckhi Sea. Many have gone hungry because of melting Arctic glaciers and ice sheets. /CFP

The long struggle

Specimens have long been kept in the Palm House at Kew Gardens in London.

Specimens have long been kept in the Palm House at Kew Gardens in London. /Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP Photo

Specimens have long been kept in the Palm House at Kew Gardens in London. /Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP Photo

Kew Gardens 2021.

Kew Gardens 2021. /CGTN Europe

Kew Gardens 2021. /CGTN Europe

Kew Gardens 2021.

Kew Gardens 2021. /CGTN Europe

Kew Gardens 2021. /CGTN Europe

Even if it is sadly more important than ever, stocktaking and safeguarding the world's species is nothing new. In 1759, Princess Augusta, whose son George would the following year become King George III of Great Britain and Ireland, founded a nine-acre botanic garden at Kew in London.

Over the subsequent quarter of a millennium, the Royal Botanic Gardens has become a world-famous center of expertise which recently took the world record for the largest collection of living plants at a single-site botanic garden – there are examples of almost 17,000 species there.

However, some of them are now endangered. Around the globe, 40 percent of the world's plant species are threatened with extinction. Changes in land use, deforestation and climate change have devastated the planet.

With extinction fears growing, Kew's Director of Science, Alexandre Antonelli spoke about the true scale of the problem, and what needs to come out of the COP15 meetings if we are to save the world.

Who is Alexandre Antonelli?
Since 2019, biodiversity professor Alexandre Antonelli has been the Director of Science at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London, where he leads a team of more than 300 scientists. His passion is nature, and his mission is to stop biodiversity loss. To tackle this major challenge, he studies the distribution and evolution of species and develops methods to speed up scientific discovery.

"We are facing a huge and unprecedented crisis," says Antonelli. "We're talking a lot about the climate crisis and the challenge that humanity is facing – but at the same time, we have now about two in five plant species threatened with extinction, about one million species that could go extinct over the next few decades."

He's very clear about what's causing this possible catastrophe: "Although climate change is a major concern for society, it's actually the change in land use that is really the major driver of extinction and risks to species today – the conversion of forests into agricultural land."

Asked what needs to be done at COP15, Antonelli echoes much of what other stakeholders are saying. "We had targets that covered the period between 2011 to 2020. The targets were actually pretty good, but we didn't meet any of them," he says. "I really hope for COP15 in China that we have ambitious targets, but we also have a concrete plan of how to achieve them."

The chances of success, he says, will largely come down to one thing: money. "It boils down to the interest and willingness of our policymakers and politicians to really invest as much as is needed," he insists.

"We know it is going to be expensive, we know we need substantial increases in funding to achieve some of those biodiversity targets. We need a commitment and a plan that is going to work in each country. 

"It's about finding the mechanisms by which there'll be a legal enforcement of, for instance, how much of our land can be protected. We are talking about an ecocide, massive destruction of ecosystems now. And that language needs to be clear in those agreements as well."

Antonelli says this has to be a global effort, which involves us all: "It's not about politicians making decisions and then individuals going about their normal lifestyles – we have to see a transformation across all levels of society," he warns.

"It's about the consumer choices we make. Every day we go to the supermarket, what we buy for food – are we contributing to the deforestation of the Amazon, our destruction of natural habitats? 

"It's about what furniture we buy. It's about the choices we make for our children in terms of pollutants and chemicals, pesticides. It's also about what's happening in our schools, in our councils, and the pressure we can exert on them."

A success story

Giant pandas, like these at a Chengdu research base, have been helped back from the brink of extinction.

Giant pandas, like these at a Chengdu research base, have been helped back from the brink of extinction. /CFP

Giant pandas, like these at a Chengdu research base, have been helped back from the brink of extinction. /CFP

It might seem curious to celebrate the publication of a list which reveals that more than a quarter of all known species are currently threatened with extinction – a level unprecedented in human history.

That's the news from the latest Red List from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and it reveals the size of the task ahead. But it also tells some stories of success.

Giant and Red Pandas were, until very recently, heading towards extinction. Now, however, thanks to the efforts of the Chinese Government, international agencies and scientists, they're off the endangered list – and professor Wei Fuwen, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Zoology, can explain just how that happened.

Who is Wei Fuwen?
Wei Fuwen is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Biology at the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Science. He's also the executive Vice Chair of China's Endangered Species Scientific Commission. He has spent more than 30 years assessing the past, present and future status of endangered species in China, with a focus on Giant and Red Pandas.

"The Giant Panda is a big mammal with a very specialized diet – bamboo," says Wei. "Conserving this kind of species is a challenge."

But it's a challenge the Chinese government met head-on with a number of initiatives, reeled off by Wei: "Banning poaching, establishing some 67 natural reserves, restoring habitats, conducting breeding programs and creating reintroduction projects, as well as advancing research to provide science-based conservation management."

The panda may now be off the critically endangered list, but that doesn't mean there is no threat to its survival, Wei warns. The fragmentation of its habitat is a real issue, but an issue that could have an impact well beyond just pandas. They are now a flagship species, and protecting them and their habitats could have a halo effect on other species – like Golden Monkeys – and even provide clean water and cleaner air for humans.

(BELOW: WEI VIDEO, WHEN CRUNCHED)

Qinling Giant Panda Newborn Baby celebration event at the Qinling Giant Panda Breeding Research Center of Shaanxi Academy of Forestry 2019. /CSP

Qinling Giant Panda Newborn Baby celebration event at the Qinling Giant Panda Breeding Research Center of Shaanxi Academy of Forestry 2019. /CSP

The China Giant Panda Conservation and Research Center will breed 15 pandas with 24 cubs in 2021. /Zhong Xinshe Shouqi

The China Giant Panda Conservation and Research Center will breed 15 pandas with 24 cubs in 2021. /Zhong Xinshe Shouqi