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Why the United Nations Conference on Biodiversity is so important


As 20,000 heads of government, journalists, activists and celebrities from around the world prepare to descend to Glasgow for a crucial climate summit to begin later this month, another high-level international meeting on the environment has kicked off this week. The problem it seeks to solve: A rapid collapse of the species and systems that collectively support life on earth.

The stakes of the two meetings are equally high, say many leading scientists, but the biodiversity crisis has received far less attention.

“If the global community continues to see it as a side event, and continues to believe that climate change is now the thing to really listen to, by the time it wakes up to biodiversity, it may be too late. “said Francis Ogwal, one of the leaders of the task force charged with shaping an accord among nations.

Because climate change and biodiversity loss are intertwined, with the potential for both win-win solutions and vicious cycles of destruction, they must be addressed together, scientists say. But their world peaks are separate and one eclipses the other.

“Awareness is not yet where it should be,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, a biologist and climate researcher who has helped lead international research on the two issues. He calls them “the two existential crises that humanity has unleashed on the planet”.

Aside from the moral reasons why humans care about other species on Earth, there are practical reasons. At the most basic level, people depend on nature for their survival.

“The diversity of all plants and animals, they actually make the planet work,” said Anne Larigauderie, an environmentalist who heads a leading intergovernmental group on biodiversity. “They ensure that we have oxygen in the air, that we have fertile soils.”

Lose too many players in an ecosystem, and it will stop working. The average abundance of native species in most major terrestrial biomes has fallen by at least 20 percent, mainly since 1900, according to a major report on the state of global biodiversity released by Dr. Larigauderie’s panel of experts , the intergovernmental scientific and political platform on biodiversity. and ecosystem services. It is estimated that a million species are threatened with extinction, he said.

Climate change is only one of the drivers of biodiversity loss. For now, the main culprit on earth is habitat destruction by humans through activities such as farming, mining and logging. At sea, it’s overfishing. Other causes include pollution and introduced species that drive out the natives.

“When you have two simultaneous existential crises, you can’t choose one to focus on – you have to tackle both, no matter how difficult,” said Brian O’Donnell, director of Campaign for Nature, a group of defense of rights. “It’s the equivalent of having a flat tire and a dead battery in your car at the same time. You’re still stuck if you only fix one.

This week, environmental officials, diplomats and other observers from around the world gathered online and a small group met in person in Kunming, China for the reunion, the 15th Conference of Nations United Nations on Biodiversity.

The United States is the only country in the world outside the Vatican that is not a party to the underlying treaty, the Convention on Biological Diversity, a situation largely attributed to Republican opposition. US officials are participating on the sidelines of the talks, as are environmental groups and other organizations.

Due to the pandemic, the conference was split into two parts. While this virtual part was largely aimed at building political will, nations will meet again in China in the spring to ratify a series of goals to tackle biodiversity loss. The goal will be to adopt a pact for nature similar to the Paris Agreement on climate change, said Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the executive secretary of the convention.

Officials last year reported that the world’s nations largely fell short of the targets of the previous global biodiversity accord, reached in 2010.

If the new commitments do not translate into “effective policies and concrete actions,” Ms Mrema said at the meeting this week, “we risk repeating the failures of the past decade”.

The working draft includes 21 goals that serve as a blueprint for reducing biodiversity loss. Many are concrete and measurable, others more abstract. None are easy. They include, in summary:

  • Create a plan, across the land and waters of each country, to make the best decisions about where to conduct activities such as farming and mining while keeping areas untouched.

  • Ensure that wildlife is hunted and fished in a sustainable and safe manner.

  • Reduce agricultural runoff, pesticides and plastic pollution.

  • Use ecosystems to limit climate change by storing the carbon that warms the planet in nature.

  • Reduce subsidies and other financial programs that harm biodiversity by at least $ 500 billion a year, the estimated amount governments spend to support fossil fuels and potentially damaging farming practices.

  • Protect at least 30% of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030.

Looking ahead to the conference, this latest move, pushed by environmentalists and a growing number of nations, has received a great deal of resources and attention. Last month, nine philanthropic groups donated $ 5 billion to the effort, known as 30×30.

“It’s eye-catching,” said EO Wilson, influential biologist and professor emeritus at Harvard University. He said he hoped 30×30 would be a step on the road to one day conserving half the planet for nature.

Indigenous groups watched with hope and concern. Some welcome the expansion, calling for more than 30 percent, while others fear losing use of their land, as has historically happened in many areas set aside for conservation.

The debate underscores a central tension running through the biodiversity negotiations.

“If this becomes a purely nature conservation plan, it will fail,” said Basile van Havre, a leader, along with Mr. Ogwal, of one of the convention’s working groups. “What we need is a plan for nature and people.”

As the world’s human population continues to increase, scientists say transformational change is needed for the planet to support us.

“In fact, we have to see every human enterprise, if you will, through the prism of biodiversity and nature,” said Dr Larigauderie. Since everyone depends on nature, she noted, “everyone is part of the solution.”