As national governments and non-governmental organisations gathered in Sharm-el-Sheik this month for the 14th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity (COP14), a not so quiet revolution seems to be underway. Long regarded as primarily an issue concerning the natural world, advocates for biodiversity and its conservation have found themselves confronting the urban century. At the same time, as subnational governments and their partners come to engage with the challenges of meeting climate change and the sustainable development goals they are increasingly looking to nature-based solutions.

Over this past week in Egypt, it seems that COP14 has come to be something of a meeting point and a crossroads on these journeys. The Convention and its constituents are grappling with how to reach their ‘Paris moment’ – of reaching the political momentum needed to achieve their overarching goal of bending the curve of biodiversity loss. Key advocates suggest that doing so requires moving towards a New Deal for Nature and People as well as mainstreaming concerns for biodiversity across the landscape of global environmental governance and engaging new agents of change. The 6th Global Biodiversity Summit of Local and Subnational Government captured a new wave of momentum for galvanising the role that municipal governments and their partners must play if such ambitions are to be realised. Speaking to the gathered masses of COP14, ICLEI Vice President Cathy Oke called on the Convention to “strengthen the catalytic role of all levels of government to contribute nature-based solutions” to “accelerate and enable our full participation in preparing National Biodiversity Strategies and associated action plans” and to “unlock available resources, capacity building and knowledge transfer to support, mainstreaming biodiversity actions in our regions and our cities”.

This meeting of minds is ever more significant as COP14 seeks to pave a way forward for governing biodiversity after 2020, when the current commitment period ends. While there appears to be widespread agreement that such a framework should be transformative how and what this might mean for nature and biodiversity is subject to intense debate. As cities enthusiastically join this caravan towards the 2020 Beijing Biodiversity Summit, it is worth reflecting on what a transformative agenda for biodiversity governance might mean for cities and what cities can do to realise this ambition.

This is far from straightforward, for at the interface of urbanisation and the biodiversity agenda, what it is that cities mean for nature is at the least ambivalent and often contested.

For some, the critical agenda for biodiversity is to be found at the urban edge, as urbanisation encroaches on surrounding land and rapid expansion takes place it appears as if valuable nature – that which is to be found in protected areas – is becoming increasingly urban. The Nature in the Urban Century report, released in the run-up to COP14 by The Nature Conservancy and their partners, suggests that by 2030 40% of strictly protected areas will be within 50km of urban areas. While largely considered as a threat to the status and quality of such spaces of conservation, urbanisation may also provide an opportunity by bringing communities into closer contact with the kinds of environment that need their protection. Yet the report’s headlines are strangely silent on what living on the edge of environmental degradation might mean for the city itself – its watershed, air quality, access to resources, and food availability.

Elsewhere, the urban challenge is one of enabling and accelerating the use of nature-based solutions. Here, nature is to be found within the city and can be put to use to achieve wider sustainability goals for cities and their communities. Driven in part by the H2020 programme of the European Union, of which NATURVATION is part, nature-based solutions are seen to be a means through which ambitions for realising an agenda where nature can meet social needs as well as by a desire to integrate the biodiversity agenda with climate change and the SDGs. While there is growing interest across the Convention in what nature-based solutions might be able to achieve in terms of mobilising support for action by engaging diverse constituencies, it is less evident that urban nature of this kind is seen to have any value in and of its own right and a general assumption that such forms of nature, restored or newly created, can really be regarded as a means through which to achieve its own goals for biodiversity conservation.

The idea that cities could indeed provide a sanctuary for nature, through providing safe havens for endangered species through new landscapes or by restoring and preserving biodiversity currently finds little traction in the negotiation halls or the corridors and pavilions where side event discussions are taking place. Viewing cities as sanctuary spaces which are part of a connected landscape, such that their actions to preserve and sustain vital flows and corridors for rivers, coastlines, migration and ecosystem connectivity could provide a means through which to negotiate the tensions between seeing cities as a threat or an opportunity for nature. Yet evidence that cities could play such a role and that they might be able to support such an approach remains largely anecdotal.

Equally absent from the discussion on cities and nature to date is the role that urbanisation plays in shaping patterns of consumption that drive shifts in nature and biodiversity transnationally. Such forms of consumption include of course demands from growing urban populations for food, water, energy and material consumption, but also for the resources involved in building cities and their economies – from concrete and steel, to rare earth metals for batteries and solar panels. Long neglected in the climate change arena, engaging with how cities can start to tackle this consumption challenge will be critical if the goals for nature and biodiversity so long championed in the Convention are going to be within reach this century.

A transformative agenda for cities and nature will require that these different framings of the urban challenge and its opportunities are taken into account. Regarding cities only as a threat to biodiversity is likely to yield little by way of engagement at the urban level; yet championing only the opportunities that nature gives to cities will be too little, and too late, for our natural world. Working through the ambivalence and contestation of urban nature is a critical agenda for the post-2020 biodiversity governance framework and the new deal for nature and people that it seeks to advance.

Harriet Bulkeley is a Professor in the Department of Geography, Durham University and Project Co-ordinator for NATURVATION.