UN’s COP15 biodiversity summit in limbo as Omicron uncertainty threatens date

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Question marks hang over a summit in China viewed as critical to protecting the Earth’s plant and animal life, with its planned date in doubt because of the pandemic.

Chinese environment ministry spokesman Liu Youbin said on Monday that the second phase of the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15), which was supposed to be held in April and May in the southwestern city of Kunming, was likely to be delayed.

Liu said the expected postponement was a knock-on effect of changing the date of an in-person meeting originally expected to take place this month in Geneva.

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The Geneva meeting has been moved to March, prompted by uncertainties posed by the emergence of the Omicron variant and resulting travel restrictions, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity said.

Time would then be needed to complete consultations on a post-2020 global biodiversity framework before the second phase of COP15, Liu said, adding that new dates and organisational arrangements would have to be negotiated.

The Convention’s secretariat did not immediately respond to email inquiries.

COP15 is seen as the most critical biodiversity summit in a decade, with natural species declining at unprecedented rates in human history.

However, the summit has been postponed three times because of the pandemic and was split into two phases. The first phase took place virtually last October, and the second phase was expected to be a face-to-face meeting in Kunming at which world leaders could conclude negotiations on a framework.

Li Shuo, a global policy adviser for Greenpeace East Asia, said that there were great challenges to be overcome to produce such an outcome.

“Time is very tight,” he said. “We only have two in-person meetings – about five weeks’ negotiation altogether – to deal with so many issues.

“The process is not smooth, because of the impact of the pandemic and many other factors. The lack of will in many countries is also a problem.”

The first draft of the post-2020 framework, released by the United Nations in July, called for protection of at least 30 per cent of global land and sea areas by 2030.

Its targets also included reducing the use of pesticide by at least two-thirds by 2030, eliminating plastic waste and increasing financial resources dedicated to biodiversity to at least US$200 billion a year.

The key issues to be discussed at this year’s COP15 summit include financing and implementation.

At the summit’s first phase, China announced that it would donate 1.5 billion yuan (US$232.5 million) to set up a new fund to help developing countries protect the variety of the world’s plant and animal life.

The Japanese government announced a US$17 million extension to its Japan Biodiversity Fund, while Britain and France said that portions of their climate funds would be used for biodiversity, although this entailed reallocating existing budgets.

The second phase of COP15, however, is in limbo. If it were to be hosted in Kunming this year, China would need to create a “bubble” much larger than that used for the Winter Olympics to isolate thousands of government officials and delegates from more than 190 countries, assuming its zero-Covid strategy remains in place.

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