For many years, the climate and the biodiversity crisis have been seen as separate issues, with separate solutions. But in reality, the two are interconnected, and the degradation of one also affects the other. As highlighted this week at the COP27 United Nations climate summit in Egypt, is that there’s no way of limiting global warming to 1.5°C or 2°C without urgently protecting and restoring the natural world.
Climate change is often regarded as a single problem -- when in fact it is a complex problem and an accelerator for other problems. In other words, when the climate change crisis started, it also accelerated other crises, like pollution or ecosystem destruction. Similarly, when ecosystems and biodiversity suffer, climate change is exacerbated. So it doesn't really make much sense to treat one individually, we have to look at these problems holistically.
Conversations at COP27 have addressed the biodiversity problems -- all the more since the United Nations biodiversity conference COP15, to be hosted in Canada, is right around the corner (scheduled in December). The summit is supposed to deliver a new global framework for biodiversity action.
This biodiversity plan is hailed as the “Paris Agreement for biodiversity,” in reference to the landmark climate pact signed by governments in 2015. There was already a biodiversity deal in place in the past, which included a set of 20 targets to be met by 2020. However, none of these were fully met. In the meantime, the natural crisis has continued to worsen. There is hope that a new international, unitary plan could coalesce efforts into a more coherent and impactful strategy.
The biodiversity crisis
Wildlife populations have plunged globally by 69% on average since 1970, according to the Living Planet report by scientists at WWF -- and other reports are equally, if not more damning. The biggest threat to nature has been land use change, which destroys and fragments the habitats of plant and animal species. But the climate crisis is now on track to become the main cause of biodiversity loss.
Elizabeth Mrema, the head of the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD), the UN organization in charge of biodiversity, said at COP27 that while there are still divergences between countries over the new nature agreement, she is still optimistic over a comprehensive treaty that matches with the ambition of the climate Paris deal.
“I have mixed feelings about the progress of the negotiations. The text of the agreement is very solid but a lot of work still has to be done on it. Finance to implement it is the main issue between countries,” she told ZME Science. “This is the last chance we have. We can’t go back to business as usual. We need a world that lives in harmony with nature.”
At COP27 in Egypt, the so-called architects of the Paris Agreement on climate change released a statement to urge world leaders to reach an ambitious deal for nature at the COP15 conference in December. The upcoming biodiversity summit will be an “unprecedented” opportunity to turn the tide on nature loss and act, they said.
Christiana Figueres, Laurence Tubiana, Laurent Fabius, and Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, who helped design the Paris agreement, asked leaders to secure an “ambitious, science-based and comprehensive” biodiversity agreement. Countries should “pledge and ratchet up their action” in line with the size of the challenge, their statement reads.
“Only by taking urgent action to halt and reverse the loss of nature this decade, while continuing to step up efforts to rapidly decarbonize our economies, can we hope to achieve the promise of the Paris agreement,” the statement says. “It must be inclusive, rights-based and work for all. And it must deliver immediate action on the ground.”
Figueres, Tubiana, Fabius, and Pulgar-Vidal said humanity’s “accelerating destruction of nature” is severely affecting its abilities to provide services such as climate mitigation and adaptation. And, as with climate change, it is the most vulnerable communities the ones who suffer the most from biodiversity loss, such as the effects on food security.
While it will be hosted in Montreal, China will be the conference president of COP15. The summit was supposed to be held in China but it was moved to Canada after many pandemic-related delays. No world leaders have been invited to the summit, which has raised concerns among civil society about the chances of success of a biodiversity deal. This already does not bode well -- just like Egypt, the host of the climate talk, is a climate laggard, China is one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss.
But scientists and activists are hopeful.
Marco Lambertini, head of WWF, said in a press conference at COP27 that the state of the world’s climate and the natural world are equally dangerous to the future of our civilization. Leaders have to take ambitious action now not only because of their ethical duty but also because if they don’t we’ll all later pay the price, he added.
“On climate we all agree we are not moving fast enough. We need the same clarity on nature. COP15 is an unmissable opportunity for leaders to reach a nature agreement,” Lambertini said. “While it may be enough for climate, net zero doesn’t work for nature. We need a nature positive economy that delivers more biodiversity in the near future.”
The role of indigenous leaders
Another important part of this biodiversity meeting is incorporating more indigenous strategies for biodiversity stewardship.
Helena Gualinga from the indigenous community Sarayaku in Ecuador told ZME Science that the world has a once-in-a-decade opportunity with the upcoming biodiversity conference. We can address the biodiversity and climate crisis together but leaders are abstaining from their responsibility by not planning to attend COP15, she added.
Gualinga, who travelled to COP27 to speak out for indigenous communities, said 80% of the world’s biodiversity is located in indigenous communities’ territories. Looking across the world, we can see that the places with the most biodiversity protection are indigenous territories, she said, asking for them to be part of the climate and biodiversity conversations.
“We know the answer to the mitigation of climate change is nature itself. We need to protect biodiversity, especially the Amazon, one of the world’s most important carbon sinks,” she added. “We should be looking more at nature-based solutions. Indigenous communities have a philosophy of a living forest, everything on the forest is a living being and has rights.”