Just over two weeks after the UN climate summit in Egypt, the leaders of the world’s countries are meeting again, this time to address another acute crisis facing humanity – the loss of biodiversity. The issue is less well-known than the climate crisis and no framework corresponding to the Paris agreement is in place – something that many people hope the December summit in Montreal will rectify.
It is sometimes called the sixth mass extinction, the loss of biodiversity about which researchers are sounding the alarm. Seventy-five per cent of the Earth’s land surface is clearly impacted by human activity and one million species are so threatened that they risk extinction within the next few decades according to IPBES, the UN’s expert panel on biodiversity. Looking back in time, the populations of wild mammals decreased on average by 69 per cent during the period 1970-2018, according to the Living Planet Index.
The loss of species is one of the acute issues that will be discussed when politicians, researchers and other participants meet after a long Covid-19 interruption at COP15 in Canada, 7-19 December, in order to – it is hoped – negotiate a new international framework for global biodiversity following the expiry of the previous one in 2020 (see the fact box).
“The situation for biodiversity is urgent. Previously set targets have not been met. This is both a moral problem – does humanity have the right to exterminate species? – and a threat to our future welfare. Species contribute to natural ecosystem functions that provide us with different services. In a changing world, we do not know which species may be important in the future. The only sustainable strategy is therefore to preserve biodiversity – including both common and rare species,” says Henrik Smith, professor of Animal Ecology at Lund University and a member of the Swedish Climate Policy Council and the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency’s Scientific Advisory Board for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. He is one of three Lund researchers with accreditation for the meeting and will participate online or in person.
“What is now at stake is finding an agreement that is sufficiently strong to manage biodiversity and which contains clear targets for countries to live up to. Something that corresponds to the Paris Agreement for the climate.”
The proposal for a new framework contains four overall goals for preserving biodiversity including the setting aside of large land and ocean reserves, sustainable utilisation of natural resources and ecosystem services and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources (the Nagoya Protocol), as well as funding and implementation.
The equitable perspective is central
“If you want to reverse the negative trend for biodiversity it requires ambitious conservation goals, but also agreements which mean that the conditions for meeting the targets are, and are perceived to be, fair. In the industrialised countries, we have already degraded a lot of our nature and can hardly expect that poorer countries shall accept strongly increased nature protection without reasonable financial compensation,” says Henrik Smith.
Aysegül Sirakaya, researcher at the Faculty of Law in Lund and a specialist in the Nagoya Protocol, considers that the imbalance between what is called the Global North, with a strong economy, and the Global South, countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America with rich biodiversity, makes it difficult for the world’s leaders to agree. She will participate in COP15 to follow the discussions about an equitable sharing of benefits from genetic resources, featuring a method that she developed in her research. For example, the benefits could consist of the profit made by a company or research results.
“Regarding the Nagoya Protocol, the background is that the Global South does not want the Global North, which has technology and money, to take genetic resources from the South and earn money from it without giving something back. So, the issue of equitable sharing of benefits is not new, but something must be done about the imbalance between those that provide the genetic resources and those that strengthen their science and economy by using them. There is still a lack of trust between the North and South,” she says, and considers that this makes it difficult to advance on the issue.
Whose land is to be protected and who will cover the costs?
The imbalance between the rich and poor is evident regarding the setting aside of land for the protection of diversity, says Maria Blasi, researcher at the Centre for Environmental and Climate Science (CEC) at Lund University, who will also attend COP15. According to the proposal on the agenda, 30 per cent of oceans and land are to be protected by 2030. The issue is controversial and expected to lead to discussions.
“Who is to decide what is to be protected? Who is to set aside or refrain from using land? And who is going to pay for it?” she asks and emphasises the importance of listening to indigenous populations in the process.
Maria Blasi also stresses the importance of measurable targets in order to achieve pervasive change, and that regional and national perspectives are included – biodiversity is an important issue on so many levels.
Explaining the biodiversity crisis is more difficult
The biodiversity crisis has received a lot less attention than the climate crisis. Maria Blasi, who underlines how entwined the issues are, thinks it is because biodiversity is much more difficult to communicate.
“It’s very complex, it’s not like mathematics, where one plus one equals two. It concerns interactions and relations – how different species are reliant on each other. Climate change is easier to communicate because we can follow how carbon dioxide is increasing in the atmosphere and see how temperatures are rising. Regarding biodiversity, it’s not so simple,” she says.
The research of Thomas Hickmann, a political scientist at Lund University, focuses on how norms och and regulations push our behaviour in a more sustainable direction. He also considers that the climate crisis is probably “simpler” to manage (i.e. transition to renewable energy and renewable fuels) than the biodiversity crisis, and that this may make it more difficult to communicate. He also thinks that in their everyday lives, people do not notice the biodiversity crisis in the same way, or perhaps how dependent humanity is on various ecosystem services. We are too far away from nature, he considers, and sees early education of children and young people and, equally, the political will come to grips with it as key issues for solving the biodiversity crisis. He thinks that a norm shift is necessary.
“We need an understanding that we are a part of nature and cannot exploit it forever,” he says.
The crises are linked
Thomas Hickmann does not think the time is ripe for a Paris Agreement on biodiversity – several years of negotiation are required. Henrik Smith is thinking along the same lines.
“There will probably be an agreement, but there are clear risks that the level of ambition is diluted. There are many other crises vying for our attention at the moment. However, the hope is that awareness increases about the link between the climate and biodiversity crises – and that they must therefore be solved at the same time,” he says.
The researchers call it a double crisis, or a triple crisis if you count pollution.
Torsten Krause, senior lecturer in Sustainability Studies at Lund University, also emphasises how connected the issues are. His research focuses on, among other things, Amazon deforestation and policy issues relating to biodiversity. He is critical about the fragmentation of policies and governmental institutions that are responsible to enforce laws.
“We perhaps think that we can protect islands of biodiversity through an agreement at COP15, but pollution and a changing climate will inadvertently also affect these areas. Everything is connected,” he says.
The setting aside of land also risks of exacerbating and causing new conflicts, he predicts, and surrounding unprotected areas will be utilised even more intensively, facing larger pressures. He would instead like the focus to be on what he considers is the “elephant in the room” – economic pressures and underlying driving forces such as our production and consumption patterns.
“The question remains, why do people cut down forests and convert natural ecosystems to other uses? It’s not because they enjoy it but because there is an economic rationale behind it and money to be made. As long as this underlying rationale is not addressed environmental degradation will continue,” he says.