‘Sleepwalking through extinction’: China urged to end delays to Cop15 summit

China has been urged to name a date for a key UN nature summit this year, amid growing frustration with Beijing and concerns among experts that we are “sleepwalking through this cataclysmic climate extinction”.

After two years of delays, governments had been scheduled to meet in Kunming, China, for Cop15 in late April to negotiate this decade’s targets to halt and reverse the rampant destruction of ecosystems and wildlife crucial to human civilisation. It had been hoped the summit would be a “Paris moment” for biodiversity, with China holding the presidency for a major UN environmental agreement for the first time.

But after successive pandemic-related delays, and now a Covid-19 outbreak the Chinese government is struggling to control, there is no date for the summit despite dire scientific warnings about a human-driven sixth mass extinction of life on Earth.

At a bureau meeting of the UN convention on biological diversity on Thursday, China was again unable to provide a date for the event, which it had previously indicated might take place at the end of August.

Oscar Soria, campaign director of the activism site Avaaz, said: “It’s unbelievable that China is not able to provide any answers [about the date for Cop15]. It sends the wrong message – that this is not important, and can be postponed, even though we are in an ecological emergency and this cannot wait.

“The outcomes of this convention will impact the next 10 years. We’re seeing very pessimistic signs that this Cop is going nowhere,” he said. “The logistics of the Cop are as important as the substance of the Cop – a badly organised Cop means the delegates are in a bad mood and it won’t be productive.”

With big Chinese cities under lockdown and strict border restrictions still in place, holding a large international event in Kunming, in China’s south-western Yunnan province, appears unrealistic.

The UN will now draw up a range of alternative venues for Cop15 and make a decision before the final round of pre-Cop15 negotiations in Nairobi at the end of June. The UK, France, Canada and Turkey are all possible destinations if the event is moved, the Guardian understands, although China would retain the presidency of the summit.

One person at Thursday’s meeting, who did not want to be named, said the potential relocation raised the prospect of an unprecedented clash if China did not agree that the event should be moved outside its borders.

Draft targets for the biodiversity agreement to be negotiated at Cop15 include proposals to protect 30% of land and sea, cuts to chemical runoff from agriculture and restoring at least a fifth of degraded freshwater, marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

Doug Flynn, a biodiversity financing specialist, said: “The political process feels as though it’s being ignored – not treated with the seriousness it deserves. Every time you push it down the road, you weaken it because you’ve got less time to actually action it and make it real … The political process is essential because it sets the playing field. Policy is the most powerful tool we have in this fight.

“For someone working in the sector for so long, it feels like we’re sleepwalking through this cataclysmic climate extinction,” he said. “The deafening silence of collapsing ecosystems seems to be matched by the deafening silence of global action, and that has to change.”