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This week, leaders from around the world will gather to talk about biodiversity loss and set targets for the conservation and sustainable use of Earth’s biodiversity. Here, we’ve answered some of the most important questions about biodiversity and COP-15. 

An underwater image of a school of silvery fish swimming over yellow coral.

What is COP-15? 

COP-15 is the fifteenth meeting of the ‘Conference of the Parties’ to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, which takes place December 5-17, 2022, in Montréal, Canada.   

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was created at the United Nations Earth Summit conference in 1992 and sought to create an international treaty on how to best use and protect life on Earth.  

At COP-15, the world’s nations will set a new Biodiversity Framework and come together to discuss the reversal of biodiversity loss of all life on Earth, both on land and in the ocean – from microscopic bacteria to gigantic whales.  

What is biodiversity? 

Biodiversity (a combination of the words ‘biological’ and ‘diversity’) is a term that refers to the variety of life on Earth. Diversity is calculated by measuring both ‘species richness’ (the number of different species in a defined area) and species composition (the relative proportions of these species). In addition, the ‘abundance’ of a population or a species (the total number of individuals) is also commonly considered when evaluating diversity changes. 

What is the Biodiversity Framework? 

The global Biodiversity Framework (United Nations Environment Program, UNEP) has 21 targets covering the conservation and sustainable management of biodiversity and ecosystems for the next ten years. 

The Framework recognizes the need for urgent policies to transform economic, social and financial models that exacerbate biodiversity loss. 

What’s the difference between COP-15 and COP-27? 

COP-15 is directly concerned with biodiversity while COP-27, which took place in November 2022 in Egypt, relates to climate change. However, while COPs 15 and 27 are two distinct events, they follow the 2021 Glasgow COP-26 climate treaty where, for the first time, the world’s nations agreed that biodiversity loss and climate change are intrinsically linked. 

Why does biodiversity matter? 

Complex ecosystems are formed by the interactions of many different species, with every organism playing its part in the overall ecosystem structure. In a delicate balancing act, these ecosystems replenish the air and water, and their functions contribute to stabilizing the climate, enabling Earth to support more life, including that of humankind.  

A biodiverse ecosystem is a healthy ecosystem. Within the ecosystem each species plays a role, like predators keeping populations in check by weeding out weak and sick animals, or like plants and trees that provide oxygen, food, and shelter for other animals, including humans. These contributions from the natural world are known as ‘ecosystem services’ and if the biodiversity of the ecosystem is depleted or a species go extinct, ecosystem services are lost too.

We depend on biodiversity for the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. But humanity currently uses the equivalent of 1.6 ‘Earths’ to support our way of life (#Generation Restoration, UNEP).  

If organisms continue to be removed from ecosystems at the current rate through human-induced habitat loss, degradation, pollution, and the unsustainable exploitation of nature for food, the ecosystems may collapse. This would lead to mass extinctions and worst-case scenarios for climate change (UNEP). We are already seeing evidence of this across the world.

Why does marine biodiversity matter? 

While tropical rainforests have long been considered ‘the lungs of the planet’, far more of the planet’s oxygen (estimated 50-80%) comes from photosynthetic marine organisms (NOAA).  

As well as contributing to the air we breathe, the ocean plays a role in stabilizing the climate. Seawater evaporates, condenses into clouds, and makes rain and snow that irrigate the land. The ocean and the biodiversity within it, play key roles in capturing and storing carbon dioxide. Mangroves and kelp forests protect shorelines and coastal communities from storms and erosion.  

The ocean is central to human lives and livelihoods and provides much of the food we eat. Fish is the primary form of protein for more than a third of the global population and wild fisheries provide a livelihood for 60 million people worldwide (UN FAO). 

Marine biodiversity is essential because it allows nature to continue being self-sustaining, productive, resilient, and adaptable to environmental changes.

Why is marine biodiversity under threat? 

Marine ecosystems are more inaccessible and expensive to research than ecosystems on land. However, it is scientifically acknowledged that human-induced climate change and marine biodiversity loss are currently happening and having an increasingly profound impact on marine ecosystems. 

Human activities including overfishing and habitat destruction, cause disruptions to the climate, marine ecosystems, and food webs. Overfishing has resulted in decreased abundance of some targeted fish species and impacts bycatch species. Increased atmospheric carbon concentrations have led to rising ocean temperatures and acidification, threatening the life cycles of marine animals around the world. Destruction of sensitive coastal and seabed habitats further threatens marine life and may also play a role in reduced carbon sequestration. 

How does climate change affect marine species? 

Climate change and rising ocean temperatures are impacting seasonal life events of marine animals and plants, like the migratory patterns of fish, the location of spawning grounds, and the timing of breeding seasons.  

As the ocean warms, marine animals migrate to cooler waters. This can mean fish move into different jurisdictions, away from traditional fishing grounds, which has a direct effect on the fishers who depend on them for their families and income.  

Changing of migratory routes frequently results in Endangered, Threatened and Protected (ETP) species, e.g., sharks, turtles and marine mammals, crossing the paths of fisheries’ target species. This puts such species at risk of being accidentally caught as bycatch.  

Seasonal change in water temperature is normally a signal for many marine animals to begin their migrations or relocation to spawning grounds. Now with waters warming or cooling at different rates and at different times, some marine animals are either delaying departure or not leaving at all. This may increase competition for resources or put them in the path of incoming predators they would have previously avoided.  

For many marine species including fish and reptiles like turtles, the water temperature even affects their offspring’s sex, resulting in an imbalance that may affect population abundance and the genetic resilience of subsequent generations. 

What other threats are there to marine biodiversity? 

Overfishing or ‘overexploitation’ has been found to be among the three biggest threats to biodiversity loss by unsustainable reduction of stock abundance. Since the 1970s, the percentage of overfished stocks has increased from around 10% to 35.4%. When a stock is fished beyond biologically sustainable levels, i.e., past the point of it being able to replenish itself, it is not as productive as it could be. Under even stronger fishing pressure, it may even collapse, with detrimental consequences to local and global economies, and to the wider ecosystem. 

A biologically diverse marine ecosystem is vital for ocean health, our planet and humanity’s survival. Highlighting the need to curb overfishing as a driver of biodiversity loss, the MSC Fisheries Standard for sustainable fisheries management was cited in the 2010 Aichi Biodiversity Targets as a credible, measurable, science-based indicator for efforts to maintain marine biodiversity. 

What is COP-15 doing about marine biodiversity loss? 

The new Post-2020 Framework to be agreed at COP-15 aims to update the Aichi Targets and to halt biodiversity loss by 2030 and achieve recovery by 2050. For governments, the UN, and other organizations that commit to delivering the targets, the CBD encourages them to use various official “indicators” or tools by which they can measure their progress. 

Data from the MSC is particularly relevant for two of the draft Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework targets (Target 5: Ensuring that the harvest, trade, and use of wild species is sustainable, and Target 14: Integration of biodiversity values into policies, accounts, and assessments of impacts in all sectors of the economy). 

It is widely acknowledged the Framework’s goals cannot be achieved unless the world also meets the goals set out to limit climate change. The MSC hopes that governments will reach an agreement for biodiversity that is as ambitious, science-based, and as comprehensive as the Paris agreement is for climate change.