Relocation of Kunming biodiversity talks ‘a missed opportunity’

China’s government agencies, NGOs and the general public reacted with mixed feelings to the decision to move this year’s UN biodiversity negotiations from Kunming to Montreal.

The decision was made public on Tuesday. “With China in the Chair as President, the 15th Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will reconvene Dec. 5 to 17 in Montreal, Canada, where a new world agreement to safeguard nature is expected to be adopted,” the CBD’s secretariat announced in a press release. The negotiations aim to conclude the overdue global framework for protecting nature in the years 2021–2030.

China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) followed with its own announcement, citing “the pandemic control situation in and outside China” as the main factor behind the relocation. It also stated that China, which remains the conference’s president, will “lead the substantive and political affairs of the COP”, despite its hosting in Canada.

The global pandemic and China’s strict Covid-control measures have posed severe challenges to the gathering of thousands of participants from across the world. The Kunming COP15, originally scheduled for October 2020, was first postponed to May 2021, and then split into two phases. The first phase, made up of non-negotiation agenda items, was held last October with virtual attendance by most international participants. The second phase was due to take place around May this year.

In a statement following the decision, Li Shuo, policy advisor to Greenpeace East Asia, said “it’s time for the world to refocus its attention on the matters that will decide the success or failure of this COP”. He pointed to key issues at the core of the negotiations, including the 30×30 target – to protect 30% of Earth’s area by 2030 – the adoption of agreed targets at national levels, and financing. “China should set a bottom line for what must be achieved at the conference,” Li said.

Some observers consider this a missed opportunity for Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan province. “Yunnan has lost the chance to experience a true naturalist awakening,” wrote local conservationist Liu Guangyu. “It also failed to use COP15 to ignite nationwide enthusiasm for biodiversity.” The province boasts a rich variety of flora and fauna and is home to some of China’s most magnificent wildlife, such as the snub-nosed monkey. Hosting a UN biodiversity conference could have greatly raised public awareness of issues of nature, Liu believes. He lamented that “we will have to wait a long time for another shot like this”.

Read Li Shuo’s recent commentary for China Dialogue on the steps to success at COP15.