The most important global meeting you’ve never heard of is now
By Catrin Einhorn
As 20,000 government leaders, journalists, activists and celebrities from around the world prepare to descend on Glasgow for a crucial climate summit starting late this month, another high-level international environmental meeting got started this week. The problem it seeks to tackle: A rapid collapse of species and systems that collectively sustain life on earth.
The stakes at the two meetings are equally high, many leading scientists say, but the biodiversity crisis has received far less attention.
“If the global community continues to see it as a side event, and they continue thinking that climate change is now the thing to really listen to, by the time they wake up on biodiversity it might be too late,” said Francis Ogwal, one of the leaders of the working group charged with shaping an agreement 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 global summits are separate, and one overshadows 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 into both issues. He calls them “the two existential crises that humankind has elicited on the planet.”
Why biodiversity matters
Apart from any moral reasons for humans to care about the other species on Earth, there are practical ones. At the most basic level, people rely on nature for their survival.
“The diversity of all of the plants and all of the animals, they actually make the planet function,” said Anne Larigauderie, an ecologist who directs a leading intergovernmental panel 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%, mostly since 1900, according to a major report on the state of the world’s biodiversity published by Larigauderie’s panel, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. An estimated 1 million species are threatened with extinction, it found.
Climate change is only one driver of biodiversity loss. For now, the major culprit on land is humans destroying habitat through activities like farming, mining and logging. At sea, it’s overfishing. Other causes include pollution and introduced species that drive out native ones.
“When you have two concurrent existential crises, you don’t get to pick only one to focus on — you must address both no matter how challenging,” said Brian O’Donnell, director of the Campaign for Nature, an advocacy group. “This is 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.”
How it works
This week, environment officials, diplomats and other observers from around the world gathered online, and a small group assembled in person in Kunming, China, for the meeting, the 15th United Nations biodiversity conference.
The United States is the only country in the world besides the Vatican that is not a party to the underlying treaty, the Convention on Biological Diversity, a situation largely attributed to Republican opposition. U.S. representatives participate on the sidelines of the talks, as do scientists and environmental advocates.
Because of the pandemic, the conference has been broken into two parts. While this virtual portion was largely about drumming up political will, nations will meet again in China in the spring to ratify a series of targets aimed at tackling biodiversity loss. The aim will be to adopt a pact for nature akin to the Paris Agreement on climate change, said Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the executive secretary of the convention.
Last year, officials reported that the world’s nations largely failed to achieve the targets of the previous global agreement on biodiversity, made in 2010.
If the new commitments are not translated into “effective policies and concrete actions,” Mrema said this week at the meeting, “we risk repeating the failures of the last decade.”
The working draft includes 21 targets that act 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 entire land and waters of each country, to make the best decisions about where to conduct activities like farming and mining while also retaining intact areas.
— Ensure that wild species are hunted and fished sustainably and safely.
— Reduce agricultural runoff, pesticides and plastic pollution.
— Use ecosystems to limit climate change by storing planet-warming carbon in nature.
— Reduce subsidies and other financial programs that harm biodiversity by at least $500 billion per year, the estimated amount that governments spend supporting fossil fuels and potentially damaging agricultural practices.
— Safeguard at least 30% of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030.
In the lead-up to the conference, that last measure, pushed by environmentalists and a growing number of nations, has received the most attention and resources. Last month, nine philanthropic groups donated $5 billion to the effort, known as 30x30.
“It’s catchy,” said E.O. Wilson, an influential biologist and professor emeritus at Harvard University. He said he hoped 30x30 would be a step on the way to one day conserving half of the planet for nature.
Indigenous groups have watched with hope and worry. Some welcome the expansion, calling for a higher number than 30%, while others fear that they will lose the use of their lands, as has happened historically in many areas set aside for conservation.
The debate underscores a central tension coursing through the biodiversity negotiations.
“If this becomes a purely conservation plan for nature, this is going to fail,” said Basile van Havre, a leader, with Ogwal, of one of the convention’s working groups. “What we need is a plan for nature and people.”