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COP15 reaches historic deal, sets new targets for biodiversity

A multi-colored sign that says, 'COP15', sitting in front of a colored glass building
The Nature Conservancy in Vermont
The COP15 summit ended its two week run in Montreal this week with "historic" results.

The COP15 summit ended its two-week run in Montreal this week with rousing applause and descriptors including "historic." Representatives from more than 190 countries agreed to a plan aimed at putting the brakes on the spiral of decline for the planet’s wildlife and ecosystems.

But is the optimism that greeted the end of COP15 warranted?

Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Heather Furman, the state director of The Nature Conservancy in Vermont. Their conversation below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: I know that COP15 was very much on your radar, why was there such a strong and positive reaction to the agreement that was reached? What were some highlights?

Heather Furman: Yeah, so this is really exciting. This is the first time that we have seen this kind of global commitment to set targets for biodiversity. More than 190 countries came together to reach this agreement. And it really sets an intention for the world. Funding commitments have been made, the 30 by 30, the 30% by 2030 targets have been adopted. So it's just really exciting to see all this work finally come to fruition.

[W]e need to protect 30% of the world's lands, waters and oceans by 2030, to allow species to continue to thrive... that was what was committed to here at COP15."
Heather Furman, The Nature Conservancy in Vermont

Can you explain a little more what you mean by that 30%, that amount that was committed for oceans? And more? Why don't you tell us a little more about that?

Sure. So let me put this in context, we are seeing the largest decline in species since the age of the dinosaur. Species are weaning out at a rate of nearly 1,000 times the rate historically, and even in the last 50 years, we've seen nearly 70% of the world species decline. And so the issue is really urgent right now. And having targets, having 30 by 30 targets, meaning we need to protect 30% of the world's lands, waters and oceans by 2030, to allow species to continue to thrive. And that was what was committed to here at COP15.

So it sets that intention for local governments, state governments and national governments to strive toward protection of our natural world. And the goal of 30 by 30 is to protect biodiversity, it is truly the first time that we have seen the world's attention on biodiversity. And it's not just about wildlife, or a particular species. It's about the interplay between plants and animals, the water, the air and our soil. It's the fabric that supports our food systems and clean water. It's literally that web of life.

As you know, this summit was huge. It was focused on this global problem that you just pointed out–the macro, but Heather, can you put into perspective, perhaps the micro view for a small state like Vermont? What were some of the practical things agreed upon at COP15 that could help biodiversity and ecosystems critical to Vermont and other New England states? 

Yeah, so we have an impulse here in Vermont to look around and kind of pat ourselves on the back and have the impression we're all good. We see trees everywhere. But the fact of the matter is that the Northeast is warming at a faster pace than the rest of the United States. We're seeing increased precipitation, we're seeing increased flooding, and our communities are really vulnerable to those impacts. You know, we're also seeing for the first time in 100 years, a loss of forest cover. Our floodplain habitats are continuing to erode.

More from Vermont Public: Poll finds most Vermonters expect major impacts from climate change in the next 30 years

So these commitments not only protect biodiversity, and Vermont has a role to play in protecting biodiversity. These are the systems that absorb and store carbon, that will help our communities remain resilient.

You know, our Climate Action Plan also speaks to the 30 by 30 goal. Conservation organizations, local communities, the Biden administration have all made commitments to a 30 by 30 goal. And Vermont uniquely sits at this crossroads of a connected and resilient landscape across the Northeast. And if we continue to do our part to protect Vermont, not only for biodiversity, but for human communities as well, we can establish a more resilient future.

However, of course, there is one big elephant in the room here. And that's the fact that what was agreed upon at COP15 is not legally binding. This was a UN-led summit. And while the world's major nations seem to have made a verbal commitment, as I understand it, only the Republic of Congo objected to some of the funding requirements saying that the bigger nations needed to put in more, there's no guarantee these nations will actually follow through. What's your take based on what you observed as to whether they actually will commit to what was agreed upon?

The important part here is setting an intention for the global community to rally behind and make commitments toward protecting 30 by 30. That's what's exciting about this summit. A number of countries have made funding commitments. And right here in Vermont, we can continue to do our part to protect biodiversity and commit funding for protection. So it's truly setting that global vision, that global objective for all of us to strive toward.

And essentially, protecting 30% of the world's lands, waters and oceans is just a first step. Let's not forget that the erosion of the web of life of biodiversity and the compounding effects of climate change is going to impact our most vulnerable communities. So really, environmental protection and protecting nature is not just about something that's nice to do, or that we think we need to do. It is absolutely essential to life. And in fact, it isenvironmental justice for those communitiesthat are most at risk.

"[E]nvironmental protection and protecting nature is not just about something that's nice to do, or that we think we need to do. It is absolutely essential to life."
Heather Furman, The Nature Conservancy of Vermont

And of course, you worked with a team of scientists and conservationists too, do they have the same kind of positive reaction that you did in speaking with them?

Absolutely. Our team is thrilled here, we had over 70 staff who work for the Nature Conservancy who are present in Montreal to see this historic agreement signed. So it's just sent a wave of energy and optimism through our staff here in Vermont and across the Nature Conservancy.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Karen is Vermont Public's Director of Radio Programming, serving Vermonters by overseeing the sound of Vermont Public's radio broadcast service. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She has produced many projects for broadcast over the years, including the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke, and interviews with local newsmakers with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb. In 2021 Karen worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
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