The vicious spiral of climate change and biodiversity loss
While the global focus remains on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, there is far less awareness about yet another danger staring humanity and the planet in the face: Biodiversity loss. According to a report released last month by the World Wide Fund for Nature, there has been a 69 percent average decline in the wildlife populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish across the globe in the last 50 years.
At a UN biodiversity meeting in 2010, a report warned that the world was losing its wildlife at a rapid clip of 2.5 percent every year. The final resolution at the meeting called for ending the decline in wildlife populations entirely by 2020. More than 12 years later, the UN Biodiversity Conference begins again in Montreal next month and reports say that the world is still losing its wildlife at the same rate of 2.5 percent per year. This shows that absolutely nothing has been done, even though almost all the wildlife and biodiversity loss is due to human actions and is hence within our control. The main causes are habitat loss, the introduction of invasive species and pollution.
Of late, a new cause — also mainly due to human activities — has entered the scenario: Climate change. With extreme droughts, flash floods, severe heat and cold waves becoming commonplace all over the world, the rate of loss of biodiversity in its entirety and not just in wildlife populations is increasing. With rising temperatures, forest fires have become a regular feature of summers in every part of the world, including Siberia, the Himalayas and the Canadian north. The fires do not just burn down tens of thousands of square kilometers of already-diminishing forest cover, they also kill millions of animals and a wide range of plants. In many ways, we are not even aware of what we are losing in the hundreds of forest fires that take place each year.
The flash floods and increasing erosion of coastal areas have the same impact on biodiversity, while rising temperatures in the oceans around the world lead to large-scale and mainly unseen, incalculable destruction of the vast biodiversity in the oceans around the world. Most people may have barely heard of coral bleaching due to warm waters, but it is not just the coral that dies. Each coral hosts a massive ecosystem of plant and animal life and the world is rapidly losing all of that due to human actions.
While climate change is destroying biodiversity, the loss of plant and animal life also exacerbates the impacts of climate change. For instance, due to erosion and rising warm waters — and of course due to human greed — the world is rapidly losing its remaining few mangroves. But mangroves play a crucial role in acting as effective barriers against rising sea levels and slow down the waves, curbing erosion in coastal areas and preventing flooding during high tides or extreme weather events.
While climate change is destroying biodiversity, the loss of plant and animal life also exacerbates the impacts of climate change.
Ranvir S. Nayar
Similarly, there are many other instances where the loss of biodiversity due to climate change leads to worse impacts, such as when fires caused by extreme heat burn down forests, which are needed to reduce carbon dioxide levels.
Despite dozens of meetings and hundreds of declarations, global leaders have singularly failed to address either climate change or biodiversity loss and this has propelled the Earth into a vicious downward spiral toward catastrophe, as the two phenomena continue to feed each other and in a rapidly accelerating manner.
Ultimately, the main reason for the lack of action by political leaders and corporations is money. In terms of climate change, the rich world has reneged on its promise to deliver $100 billion per year to the developing world. This is one of the main issues blocking any progress in countries meeting their climate targets.
The situation is identical in biodiversity. Already, the global financing gap for addressing biodiversity challenges has shot up to $711 billion a year. Some estimates put that figure at almost $1 trillion a year by 2030. With such large sums in play, the rich countries continue to hold back, even though corporate profitability in most countries has been at record high levels for several years now.
When the UN biodiversity summit opens, a new report will be released by the UN Environment Program that is likely to show the extent to which this gap has widened and highlight the imperative for the rich world to meet its commitments. The short-sighted, ostrich-like approach that has been on display is certain to boomerang on the rich countries and their businesses, as neither is immune to the severe impacts of climate change or biodiversity loss.
The upcoming meeting does offer a window of opportunity for the world to strike an agreement, maybe along the lines of the loss and damage fund that the Sharm El-Sheikh climate change summit came up with last week. But the bottom line there, as well as in Montreal, will be whether or not the rich countries live up to their promises on time and in good faith.
• Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group.