A photo of mother earth
A photo of mother earth. Credit: NASA / Unsplash

Some are calling the December 2-19 ”Global Nature Summit” — formally known at the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP-15) – the “last chance for Mother Earth.”

The UN Secretariat for the CBD, based in Montreal, expects the meeting to involve roughly 10,000 participants: 3,000 accredited delegates from 196 nations, 4,000 observers, additional security and support staff, and media.

Some will be in the “blue zone” — Montreal’s Palais des congrès — which will be transformed into an international space for the event. Others will look on.

Numbers will swell near the end of the two and a half week meeting when environment ministers and other high-ranking elected officials will arrive with their staff and try to bring the meeting to a successful conclusion – or to derail it.

Biodiversity – the variety of genes, species and ecosystems – is declining at a staggering rate.

Like the climate change convention, the CBD emerged from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. A global biodiversity science body called “IPBES” is similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The March 2022 IPBES global assessment report notes that nature is often viewed only as a source of economic inputs, intensifying resource extraction, industrialization, urbanization and global trade.

The 2018 IPBES land degradation report was even more blunt: “high consumption lifestyles in developed countries, coupled with rising consumption in developing and emerging economies, are the dominant factors driving land degradation.”

Over 40,000 registered participants attended last fall’s Glasgow climate summit.  Climate change gets far more attention than biodiversity loss. Yet the two are inextricably linked, with similar causes and common solutions.

IPBES is calling for transformative change: a new vision of a good life that does not entail ever-increasing material consumption.

The prospects for transformative change emerging from Montreal are slim. Countries will spend countless hours massaging their “decisions” so that they have no impact on economic growth.

As Thomas Homer-Dixon observes in Commanding Hope, global treaties are “simultaneously too elaborately technocratic and too blandly anodyne to truly motivate us.”

Politicians tend to frame decisions on biodiversity in terms of what percentage of the land and sea should be “set aside” in protected areas. This effectively severs the link between people and nature.

According to IPBES, lands managed by Indigenous peoples – nearly a quarter of the global land surface – generally show far higher levels of biodiversity and less rapid biodiversity declines, but they too are facing growing pressures.

In Canada this means new mines, oil and gas projects, roads and pipelines.

There are countervailing forces. Cities and local governments are mobilizing to protect and restore nature, helping fill the void left by national governments. They will hold their own “summit” halfway through the Montreal meeting.

There will also be a parallel summit on nature and culture – an effort to realign modern cultures with the ancient reverence for Mother Earth. This is framed as a step towards the CBD vision of “living in harmony with nature” (although the 2050 target date for achieving this vision is ridiculously far off).

Indigenous peoples from around the world will be speaking in Montreal – but will they be heard?

In one sense, what happens in Montreal will matter little. A failure of countries to agree on a “Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework” could garner more public attention and mobilize more action than a weak consensus outcome.

Follow-up actions by national and sub-national governments and civil society will have far greater impact. Ultimately, reversing the downward spiral of life on earth requires many small actions by ordinary people – naturalizing yards, changing consumption habits, etc.

If you love your Mother, you may want to follow developments in Montreal later this year.

Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson is an ecologist, a former federal research scientist, and chair of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation's national conservation committee.