What is COP 13 (yes, 13)?


On 4 December 201, COP 13 opened in Cancun (Mexico), and will last until 17 December. A month after COP 22 in Marrakech, are you rather confused by all these acronyms? Here’s a quick reminder about the purpose of this event, crucial for the preservation of biodiversity.
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The protection of biodiversity: an existential issue for the planet

“COP” stands for “Conference of the Parties”. COP 13 is the 13th conference bringing together the countries signatory to the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). This international agreement, adopted in 1992 at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, has three main goals: biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources. The CBD, signed by 168 countries, became effective on 29 December 1993. Today it involves 196 parties. And its action is more crucial than ever, now the Earth is undergoing its sixth mass extinction event – caused this time by human activity. According to the 2016 Living Planet Index published by the WWF and the Zoological Society of London, the number of wild species could have fallen by two-thirds between 1970 and 2020, and the IUCN red list of threatened species lengthens each year, reaching 20,000 species in 2016. The consequences are potentially extremely serious for the balance of ecosystems, and in the long term, the survival of the human race. Questioned in 2010 on the perils of this erosion of biodiversity, the eminent American biologist Edward O. Wilson, who introduced the very term “biodiversity’”, came up with a disturbing list:

“Loss of many of the biological « genetic encyclopedias » millions of years in the making is one consequence. Loss or erosion of ecosystems due to destabilization caused by erasure of links in food webs is another. Also, loss of opportunities in medicine, biotechnology, and agriculture; and not least, loss of a major part of the greatest national and global natural heritage, permanently.”

As a practical example, according to a study recently published in Nature, the disappearance of pollinating insects threatens food security (potentially meaning 1.4 million additional deaths each year) and the jobs of 1.4 billion people throughout the world.

Governing the international effort

The Conference of Parties is the highest governing organ of the CBD: this is where decisions are negotiated, treaties drafted and agreements signed. COP 1 was held from 28 November to 9 December 1994 in the Bahamas. Since then, various decisions have been made. They include endowing States with the legal means to control and prevent biotechnological risks arising from GMOs (the Cartagena Protocol, in force since 2003); aiming for the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources and combating biopiracy (the Nagoya Protocol, in force since 2014), and rolling out a global strategic plan for biodiversity (adopted during COP 10 in Nagoya).

Mainstreaming biodiversity

COP 13 involves around 10,000 participants, including representatives of the party countries, observer countries and international organizations, who will negotiate a series of treaties and agreements together.
One of the main issues of COP 13 is to pinpoint a way of integrating the protection of biodiversity into human activities. In other words, how can we continue with our farming, fishing, forestry and tourist activities without contributing to the erosion of species?

agriculture and forestry use and maintain landscapes, environments, races and varieties that have arisen from a long history of domesticating nature, and of developing and using the territory

As emphasized by the French Minister of Agriculture, “agriculture and forestry use and maintain landscapes, environments, races and varieties that have arisen from a long history of domesticating nature, and of developing and using the territory.” The farming sector thus has a vital role to play in protecting biodiversity: a topic also explored by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which is preparing a report for early 2017 on the State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture.
As the CBD is a product of the United Nations, its purpose is also to contribute to meeting the sustainable development goals (SDG) set by the United Nations in 2015, particularly in terms of the climate and food security.

Lastly, the signatory States need to commit to the actions laid down in the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, which was redefined during COP 10 in Nagoya (Japan) in 2010, based on the vision of « living in harmony with nature « . The idea is that between now and 2050, biological diversity should be restored, preserved and « used wisely ».

This implies respecting ecosystems and the populations that inhabit them, together with the planet’s health. The plan lists 20 practical objectives for achieving this by 2020, also known as the “Aichi targets”, after the name of a prefecture in Japan. These targets, which have a very broad scope, include the sustainable management of zones devoted to agriculture, aquaculture and forestry; the preservation and restoration of local ecosystems essential to the health, food and well-being of native and local communities and a particular focus on the needs of more vulnerable populations and the introduction of hard-and-fast measures to facilitate access to sustainable consumption.

The participants in COP 13 are thus basing their new decisions on these already existing goals and commitments. In 1992, the contracting parties stated in the preamble to the Convention on Biological Diversity that they were “aware of the intrinsic value of biological diversity” and “concerned by the fact that biological diversity is being seriously depleted because of certain human activities.” Fourteen years on, the need for powerful and effective commitments on behalf of biodiversity is more pressing than ever.

Picture from Pexels.