Biodiversity crisis a red alert for planet’s future
Next Monday’s International Day for Biological Diversity is perhaps the most important ever, with an increasing number of scientists suggesting the planet is facing a possible sixth mass extinction event.
The UN now estimates we have as few as three years left to preserve the hospitality of our world and the diversity of the species that inhabit it. This requires nothing less than a radical change in our relationship with nature.
The UN’s latest global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services highlights the responsibility of human activities in the massive loss of biodiversity. Not only are an estimated 1 million plant and animal species now on the verge of dying off, monitored wildlife populations have plummeted by an average of about 70 percent in the past half-century.
The fact that this cannot go on is increasingly recognized not just by governments and campaigning groups, but also by the private sector. More and more businesses are aware that at least half of global gross domestic product is estimated to be critically dependent on healthy, functioning ecosystems. This is either directly, from the use of water resources, pollination processes or soil health conditions, or via indirect activities that rely on those natural processes.
In this context, the reason why this year’s International Day for Biological Diversity is so important is not only because of the crisis in the natural world. In addition, there may now be a precious window of opportunity to arrest and hopefully reverse the huge range of challenges that are fueling the biodiversity crisis, including climate change, invasive species, the overexploitation of natural resources, pollution and urbanization.
This window has opened because of the agreement at last year’s UN COP15 summit in Montreal — the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. This is why the theme of Monday’s big event is “From Agreement to Action: Build back Biodiversity.”
The UN now estimates we have as few as three years left to preserve the hospitality of our world and the diversity of the species that inhabit it
The Montreal agreement is important for multiple reasons, including the phasing out of environmentally harmful subsidies. It is estimated that $1.8 trillion of subsidies — equivalent to about 2 percent of global GDP — are provided to industries that are driving nature loss and climate change. Nations had already committed at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow to “phase down and out” all “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies. Nature-harming subsidies were the next step with this discussion in Montreal.
Another important discussion in Montreal centered on corporate reporting. The intent here was to ultimately require governments to lay out plans for firms, beginning with the largest businesses in sectors with the most negative impacts, to disclose their biodiversity commitments and dependencies.
However, as important a breakthrough as Montreal was, it now needs to be delivered speedily with the goal of making the treaty as consequential for stemming biodiversity loss as the 2015 Paris Agreement still might be for action on climate change. The need is particularly pressing, as Montreal came, tragically, after countries failed to meet a single one of the targets set over the previous decade.
More than 20 targets were created by a UN working group in the years leading up to COP15. Delivering on them now will be as difficult, and possibly even more so, as agreeing them in Montreal last year during painstaking negotiations, in which there were several key sticking points, including how ambitious the new plan should be, how it will be financed and how to ensure progress is measured.
It is critical for governments to transpose into domestic law all the key commitments agreed in Montreal
With the stakes in play so high, it is critical for governments to transpose into domestic law all the key commitments agreed in Montreal. The country commitments put forward there will be most credible — and durable beyond the next set of national elections — if they are backed up by national legislation that is difficult to roll back.
One key challenge here is that so few heads of government were at the Montreal event. This reflects the fact that even a significant number of those governments that have sought to show leadership on key environmental issues such as climate change have not yet extended this to the fight to protect biodiversity.
One way to change this might be to ensure there is greater discussion of biodiversity issues at other global forums, including the upcoming Japanese-chaired G7, the Indian-hosted G20 and the Dubai-chaired COP28 climate summit. The Dubai global warming event appears particularly relevant given that climate change is increasingly accelerating the loss of biodiversity and key ecosystems, including biodiverse forestry, which may well sound the death knell for the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
So, with the Montreal deal now badly needing implementation, the world is at a crossroads. Failure to deliver speedily will be a disaster, yet success still holds the possibility of a powerful new framework for nature that becomes a foundation of sustainable development for billions of people across the world throughout the 2020s and beyond.
- Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.