A roadmap to restoring nature: Key takeaways from COP15

Colourful sign outside COP15 conference venue

Last month, the West Coast team attended the UN Biodiversity Conference (aka COP15) in Montreal, where we pushed for meaningful action from our governments to better respect and protect nature. After two weeks of negotiations, nearly 200 countries agreed on the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, a landmark agreement that commits Canada to 4 overarching goals and 23 targets for protecting and restoring biodiversity and ensuring fair access to natural resources.

The Framework is the strongest global biodiversity agreement the world has seen, despite the fact that its text was weakened over the course of negotiations. Canada showed strong leadership at the conference, which it hosted (but did not chair), and made some promising announcements.

The Framework is past the finish line, but the true test for COP15’s success will depend on its implementation. To ensure a restorative relationship with nature, we need strong legal, policy and financing frameworks; we need governments of all stripes to stay true to their commitments, uphold Indigenous rights and jurisdiction, and support Indigenous-led conservation.

As Doug Neasloss, Chief Councillor and Stewardship Director for the Kitasoo/Xai'xais Nation, said during a presentation about Indigenous-led marine conservation, “Lines on a map don’t protect places. People do.” Agreeing to the Global Biodiversity Framework commitments is just the beginning; investing in real people on the ground to ensure proper stewardship of places needs to happen now.

Growing recognition around Indigenous-led conservation was a major theme at COP15, as more people witnessed the importance of Indigenous governance and stewardship in halting and reversing biodiversity loss. It was inspiring to connect with others doing this work, and to support our RELAW (Revitalizing Indigenous Law for Land, Air and Water) partners as they shared with the world how they are revitalizing their laws to protect their territories and preserve abundant ecosystems for generations.

We felt energized by a few key domestic announcements made at COP15 as well – such as $800 million in Canadian government funding for Indigenous-led conservation initiatives (including the Great Bear Sea Marine Protected Area Network); a new national Indigenous Guardians Network; and Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault’s proposition for a federal biodiversity accountability law.

Now, with the signing of the new global agreement to protect 30% of the world’s land, water and ocean by 2030 – including explicit recognition of Indigenous peoples’ territories and rights – we’re ready to bring this energy into our work in BC and Canada. In the year ahead, we’ll continue holding decision-makers to their commitments to ensure that these big promises to safeguard nature are backed by law.

Advancing ocean protection
Stephanie Hewson, Staff Lawyer

At COP15, West Coast’s marine team was focused on the commitment in Target 3 of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework to protect 30% of land and ocean by 2030 (often referred to as “30x30”). The new framework builds on previous agreements and plans under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) – an international treaty first signed in 1992 to conserve biodiversity around the world.

The marine conservation targets in the CBD’s previous Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 have driven ocean conservation efforts in Canada and globally for the last several years, but until the final agreement was reached at COP15, the 2030 conservation target for the ocean was never guaranteed. Early in the COP15 negotiations, it appeared possible that the ambitious target of 30% protection by 2030 might be reduced, or the timeline for ocean protection pushed out to 2045. Securing a clear commitment to 30x30 for the ocean in the final text was a huge win, and Canada played a leadership role in ensuring the target was upheld, and that it clearly referred to the coast and ocean.

The new Target 3 is much stronger in its recognition of Indigenous-led conservation than in earlier CBD agreements. Target 3 also recognizes Indigenous and traditional territories, and their rights over these territories, which was not present in previous agreements.

During COP15, and even before the Global Biodiversity Framework was finalized, the Government of Canada demonstrated its intention to follow through on Target 3 – announcing an unprecedented $800 million in funding for four Indigenous-led conservation efforts across the country, including the new Marine Protected Area Network in the Great Bear Sea.

We were also encouraged to see that the final Global Biodiversity Framework reflects several new or emerging legal principles in environmental law. The Framework identifies the human right to a healthy environment, rights of nature, and the principle of intergenerational equity as grounding concepts. The Framework also introduced significantly stronger language on Indigenous rights and territories.

The global target in the Biodiversity Framework will keep Canada’s federal government on track to meet its own target of protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030. While commitments are good and inspire action, they require hard work and financial investment to come to fruition. West Coast will continue working to put the legal tools in place to ensure that the 30% target is met through high-quality, equitably governed and long-term protected areas, to protect the ocean for years to come.

Amplifying Indigenous-led visions of nature protection to be included in the new global biodiversity framework
Rayanna Seymour-Hourie, Staff Lawyer & RELAW Manager

This great challenge we are in, the biodiversity crisis, will test our ability to live, but with strength and courage of knowing who we are, we will be able to meet this challenge.

Miles Richardson, citizen of the Haida Nation

The connection Indigenous peoples hold with their territories must be part of conservation initiatives, as it brings responsibility-based action to the plans (whether they are climate adaptation, restoration, conservation or otherwise). Frank Brown, member of the Heiltsuk Nation from Bella Bella, stated that “humanity has to stop the war on nature; we must recognize our interconnection with the natural world.”

Valerie Courtois, Innu, Director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative told us that 90% of protected areas created in Canada in the past two decades were led by or in collaboration with Indigenous nations. Similar sentiments relating to Indigenous peoples’ leadership in conservation were shared by Canadian politicians as well. Minister Steven Guilbeault, of Environment and Climate Change Canada, said that the only way Canada can reach its targets is by partnering with Indigenous nations.

There was a lot of movement at COP15 to ensure that the Global Biodiversity Framework would recognize and respect the rights of Indigenous peoples. Fortunately, the framework does recognize this and has considerations for “different value systems” for nature. Making space for different worldviews and understandings of “biodiversity, ecosystems, Mother Earth, and systems of life” hopefully ensures that it is not only the western-scientific worldview of nature dominating restoration and conservation initiatives around the world.

Hon. Ethel Blondin-Andrew, Shútao’tine (Mountain Dene), who was the first Indigenous woman elected to Canada’s House of Commons, spoke powerfully when she stated that “we have given, we’ve donated, we’ve given everything. But we haven’t seen much or anything back in return.” Recognizing this truth, the burden of financing conservation initiatives should not be the sole burden of Indigenous peoples. Target 19 in the Biodiversity Framework commits to “Substantially and progressively increase the level of financial resources from all sources… including domestic, international, public and private resources … enhancing the role of collective actions, including by indigenous peoples …” A good start was made by Canada with the $800 million in funding for four Indigenous-led conservation efforts, and frameworks such as Project Finance for Permanence (described below).

Rayanna Seymour-Hourie and RELAW partner Laurent Terbasket at a COP15 event, speaking to Indigenous law and how standing in solidarity and the active and collaborative process of Indigenous law revitalization reshapes our collective story. Photo: Stephanie Hewson.

Supporting Indigenous-led conservation initiatives
Georgia Lloyd-Smith, Staff Lawyer

It was abundantly clear on the ground at COP15 that Indigenous governments are leading the much-needed conservation push in Canada. I witnessed presentation after presentation by Indigenous leaders across Turtle Island sharing details of their visionary and grounded conservation work with the world. From safeguarding vital herring spawning habitat in Kitasoo Xai’xais territory to protecting vast swaths of diverse, rich landscapes in Kaska Dena territory, these efforts are gifts to us all and should be wholeheartedly embraced as such.

It was exciting to witness the federal government announce significant funding for some Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA) projects – which will be delivered through Project Finance for Permanence, a funding model aimed at securing long-term conservation financing through contributions from Indigenous communities, various levels of government and the philanthropic sector. We also celebrated the launch of the national Indigenous Guardians Network and supported the passing of the Global Biodiversity Framework, which includes recognition of Indigenous territories and rights.

And still we know there remain persistent barriers that stand in the way of Indigenous nations achieving their conservation goals for their territories, including a lack of recognition of Indigenous law and authority, ongoing industrial activities occurring without Indigenous consent, and a lack of legal tools for the Crown to align its laws and decision-making with Indigenous governance of IPCAs. Indigenous nations should not have to spend precious time, energy, and money overcoming these barriers to advance IPCAs that we all urgently need.

Crown governments in Canada will need to step up to remove these barriers to ensure the targets set out in the Global Biodiversity Framework are achieved. We are working hard to make sure this happens.

Holding BC accountable to the promise of biodiversity legislation
Whitney Lafreniere Vicente, Staff Lawyer

The COP15 experience on the ground was filled with both positives and negatives. I was impressed with the work done by the Canadian delegation and, in particular, the Canada Pavilion, which did a great deal in centering Indigenous and youth voices as well as showcasing the positive conservation initiatives happening around the country. I applaud Canada’s presence at the negotiations and events. I was delighted to feel the weight of Indigenous voices and the work done through Indigenous-led conservation. Through the work done by the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, it was clear that Indigenous governments are leading a great deal of the conservation work in this country and this province.

However, I was very disappointed in the lack of presence from the BC government. While many BC Indigenous nations and governments turned up and highlighted the critical work they are doing, the Province seemed to be missing in action at COP15. BC had an opportunity on a global stage to show any concrete progress in their commitments to protect nature – which include achieving a paradigm shift in how we manage forests, and plans for overarching biodiversity and ecosystem health legislation. The province made no such announcement and took no action during the conference.

While we’re hopeful about the energy behind national commitments and international action, BC remains in a state of promise with no follow-through. In the months ahead, West Coast will be working to change that, to ensure that ecosystem health is a priority for the provincial government.

Ensuring the federal government helps us meet our biodiversity goals
Anna Johnston, Staff Lawyer

We went to COP15 with two main hopes for federal implementation of the Global Biodiversity Framework: a commitment from the federal government to establish a biodiversity accountability law, and a biodiversity “test” that would prevent “death by a thousand cuts” in project decisions affecting nature. We made great strides towards the first, but unfortunately seem no closer to the second.

Regarding a biodiversity accountability law, during COP15 Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault stated that an accountability act is required to enshrine our nature targets in law. Like the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, a federal biodiversity accountability law should require the federal government to establish legally-binding nature targets, establish detailed plans for meeting those targets, and report on progress, with course-correction if we are not on track.

Staff Lawyer Anna Johnston presenting on how to ensure that projects like mines align with Canada's biodiversity targets and goals being negotiated at COP15.

While we have a federal Species at Risk Act, it takes a species-by-species approach focused on protecting endangered and threatened species. A biodiversity accountability law could take an ecosystem approach to protecting all species and their habitats, and should include mechanisms for establishing co-governance agreements with Indigenous peoples. It could be the most important nature law passed in decades, and we hope that in the coming months Minister Guilbeault’s proposition turns into action.

Whether or not we will secure a framework for ensuring that decisions about natural resource projects like mines and pipelines better consider and protect biodiversity remains unclear. The Global Biodiversity Framework sets out four overarching goals and 23 action-oriented targets that parties like Canada must immediately implement and achieve by 2030, including targets related to spatial planning, terrestrial and marine protected areas, reducing extinction risk, managing invasive species and reducing pollution. However, these targets are at a national scale, while the greatest threat to nature is the incremental, cumulative harm that occurs on a project-by-project basis.

For Canada to meet its biodiversity obligations, the government will need to come up with a biodiversity lens that ensures that all decisions – whether they are about natural resource projects, federal programs or spending initiatives – align with progress towards meeting the four goals and 23 targets set out in the Framework. Fortunately, they have us to help them do that.

Top photo: Rayanna Seymour-Hourie

Anna Johnston – Staff Lawyer
Georgia Lloyd-Smith – Staff Lawyer
Rayanna Seymour-Hourie – Staff Lawyer & RELAW Manager
Stephanie Hewson – Staff Lawyer
Whitney Lafreniere Vicente – Staff Lawyer