Opening-plenary-2022-fourth-meeting-of-global-biodiversity-working-group-convention-on-biological-diversity-e1670351285730-min

‘We have to be ambitious’: Canada’s lead biodiversity negotiator on what’s needed at COP15

As the number of plants and animals declines faster than at any other point in human history, Tara Shannon will head Canada's seat at the COP15 negotiating table

Getting 196 countries to agree on a new global framework to halt the destruction of nature and save biodiversity doesn’t happen quickly.

The final negotiations — set to take place over the next two weeks at COP15, the United Nations biodiversity summit in Montreal — are the culmination of a multi-year process involving teams from almost every country in the world.

For the past 18 months, the Canadian team has been led by Tara Shannon, the senior official in charge of the Canadian Wildlife Service at Environment and Climate Change Canada.

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Biodiversity is disappearing faster than at any other point in human history. But the average person doesn’t necessarily understand just how serious this crisis is, Shannon explained. 

“I think Canadians understand the climate crisis really well,” she said. “I want the person on the corner to understand the importance of addressing the biodiversity [crisis] just as much as addressing the climate crisis, because they’re so interlinked.”

She pointed to caribou as an example. Caribou are important to many Indigenous communities and are even featured on the Canadian quarter. But caribou have been severely affected by the climate and biodiversity crises, putting an “iconic species” at serious risk of disappearing — an issue Shannon would like to see Canadians be more aware of.

caribou mother calf Klinse-za maternity pen
Logging and other resource extraction has fragmented critical habitat for caribou, spotted owls and other species at risk. Photo: Ryan Dickie / The Narwhal

The next two weeks represent a pivotal moment for nature. The new global biodiversity framework could set the stage for decisive action to reverse biodiversity loss over the course of this decade, securing a future for life on Earth. Failure could see the world continue down a path dangerous for plants and animals — and humans too.

As the lead negotiator, Shannon, who grew up in southern Alberta, will be splitting her time between overseeing the process — making sure Canada has enough enough negotiators in the right rooms at the right times for instance — and stepping in herself at key moments. She also represents Canada at regional meetings and at meetings involving the heads of delegations.

In the lead up to the summit, Shannon shared her tips for getting through the marathon meetings at COP15: “you grab food when you see it, you drink water when you can and you go to the bathroom when you’re passing by.”

Her backpack, she said, will be stocked with granola bars — that’s “very important” — and she’s happy to share.

Shannon spoke with The Narwhal by Zoom. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why should the average person care about the negotiations for the global biodiversity framework?

Climate change and biodiversity are two existential crises of our time — and they’re linked. They’re two sides of the same coin. We will not be able to adequately fight climate change without nature. And for Canada, it’s really important. We’re in a really interesting position. We are a developed country, but we are also a large, biodiversity-rich country. So we have a big role in contributing our own biodiversity protection to the world.

I was looking at some stats before this, and one that’s interesting is Canada’s number two on a list of 20 countries that contribute 94 per cent of the remaining wild areas in the world. We have some of the largest peatlands. We’re in a very unique position to demonstrate leadership on addressing the biodiversity crisis. And there’s been significant investments domestically in biodiversity. We’ve made investments in nature-based solutions, investments in species at risk and Indigenous conservation. I think we really are in a unique position to show significant leadership on a number of questions including, importantly, the role of Indigenous people in conservation.

n 2021, the Gitanyow announced immediate protection of 54,000 hectares of land and water in Gitanyow territory, in northwest B.C., including Strohn Creek, pictured here
Indigenous leadership is critical to Canada meetings its conservation targets. In 2021, the Gitanyow announced immediate protection of 54,000 hectares of land and water in Gitanyow territory, in northwest B.C., including Strohn Creek, pictured here. Photo: Ryan Dickie / The Narwhal

The global biodiversity framework is set to be adopted at COP15, but it has yet to be finalized. What are the key sticking points from your perspective?

I don’t know if I would describe them as sticking points. What I would speak to is Canada’s objectives in the negotiations. For Canada, it is critically important that we have a framework that commits to halting and reversing biodiversity loss by 2030, with a full recovery by 2050. That’s really ambitious, we’re in 2022, but I think we have to be ambitious in order to achieve the needed results.

And then we have the goal of conserving 30 per cent of the world’s lands and oceans by 2030. That’s a live discussion in negotiations. When I hear other parties, it’s about ‘how do you implement that?’

Another piece for us that’s really important is monitoring and reporting. It’s one thing to commit to ambitious targets, but you have to monitor the progress to those targets and report on them. So that’s another flank of our priority in the negotiations. I spoke to the importance we place on Indigenous conservation, in particular, so we want a framework that recognizes the role of Indigenous Peoples in conservation and addresses the direct drivers of biodiversity loss.

You mentioned a few times the importance of Indigenous-led conservation. How is it being considered in the negotiations?

We include, of course, on our delegation, Indigenous delegates. There are targets in the framework that speak directly to the role of Indigenous Peoples in conservation. So, we will be advocating for strong and clear targets that identify and respect the role of Indigenous Peoples in conservation. For example, sustainable use is one of the three principles of the Convention on Biological Diversity itself. And, sustainable use is an important concept to Indigenous communities, it’s about their traditional practices, respect for the environment and respect for biodiversity.

The other thing we’re doing, and it’s not within the four corners of the negotiations themselves, but there will be a Canadian pavilion at COP15 and we are prioritizing sessions by Indigenous Peoples and on Indigenous conservation.

Bella Coola Indigenous Guardians
Indigenous guardians are stewards of their territories who manage protected areas, undertake restoration work and monitor development among other things. There are 120 guardian programs across the country, according to the Indigenous Leadership Initiative. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / The Narwhal

There’s also going to be, and this is Indigenous-led, an Indigenous Village that will be taking place by the Port of Montreal. We’ll be encouraging people and delegates in Montreal to take advantage of sessions led by Indigenous communities, peoples and governments on Indigenous conservation.

The conservation history in Canada with Indigenous Peoples has not always been a good one. But I think we’ve got great partnerships now. And we have a lot that we can be speaking to — should be speaking to — but it’s important that it’s not me, Tara Shannon, speaking about that, but it’s the voices of Indigenous Peoples and communities that are engaged in conservation.

Canada is going to struggle to meet its goals to recover at-risk species and reverse biodiversity loss without action also from the provinces and territories. How do the provinces and territories play into negotiations?

All the provinces and territories are invited to be members of the delegation, and they will all be represented on Canada’s delegation at COP15. Biodiversity and species issues are a shared jurisdiction in Canada. We have a governance process, a long-standing one, with all provinces and territories on wildlife and species at risk and biodiversity. I chair a committee with my assistant deputy minister counterparts in all jurisdictions. We meet at least twice a year, if not three times. The minister meets with his counterparts in the context of this governance at least once a year. We have conversations about the COP, we have conversations about Canada’s objectives for those negotiations. And, there is a process where we share how we are approaching the negotiations.

British Columbia has the most species at risk of any province or territory in Canada, but it doesn’t have any stand-alone legislation focused on species at risk. What is the federal government doing to make sure B.C. is taking action to protect species at risk?

With each of the jurisdictions, we have ongoing engagement and conversations on species and biodiversity questions. There are active negotiations on a nature agreement with British Columbia. We are actively engaged in nature agreement negotiations with a number of jurisdictions. Nature agreements will be one of the tools in the toolbox to address questions around shared issues of species at risk, protection of various lands and territories that will better protect those species. So, I would say stay tuned.

B.C. Spotted Owl
With only a handful left in the wild, B.C.’s spotted owls have been put on life support with a captive breeding facility in Langley. Conservation organizations are now calling on the federal government to help save the species by protecting its habitat. Photo: Frank D. Lospalluto / Flickr

I understand those negotiations are ongoing with B.C. around the nature agreement. Given that you probably have some insight into those negotiations, are you feeling optimistic that we’re going to see a shift moving forward in the way that endangered species are conserved in Canada and in B.C. specifically?

Well, I would go back to my earlier comment. I’ve been in the job for 18 months and I’ve seen some signs that cause me a lot of optimism. I really do think the importance of biodiversity, which includes species at risk, is something that is gaining in prominence and understanding. So, I’m going to bring that optimism into the negotiations, not only at COP15, but in any conversation I have on the issue.

In terms of the negotiations around harmful subsidies, does Canada support including 2025 as the target year for identifying all harmful subsidies?

You refer to target 19, which is really about resource mobilization. And resource mobilization is something that requires all sources. That includes looking at issues around subsidies and I think subsidy reform certainly is something that we include as we’re thinking about the basket of what does resource mobilization mean. What we really want to get to is what we call nature positive, and nature positive means that activities have net benefits for nature — and climate for that matter. So, you know, I think that’s what I can say at the moment.

COP15 runs from Dec. 7 to 19 in Montreal, though there’s always the possibility that negotiations run long as countries attempt to reach an agreement.

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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