Climate action without bold biodiversity protection is an illusion of progress

By Dr. Nicole de Paula

The most disturbing risks of our times result from the unprecedented human impact on our planet, our only home. Protecting the biological, ecological, and genetic diversity that sustains life on Earth is the core mission of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Unfortunately, this is a Herculean task that many decision-makers and researchers often inadvertently overlook when working for sustainability and health. 

The  Global Risks Report 2021 from the World Economic Forum (WEF) reminds us that biodiversity loss is one of the top global risks society faces, along with infectious diseases, the failure of climate action, and other environmental issues. The threats from uncontrolled biodiversity destruction are far-reaching and with dangerous implications for human health and wellbeing. Loss of habitats for species that maintain our environment balanced is one problem aggravated by deforestation. Desertification is fast occurring due to poor land management, aggravated by climate variation. In addition, increasing wildlife trade, legal and illegal, contributes to rising risks of pandemics as it facilitates the spread of zoonotic diseases. Global wildlife trade is estimated to be over $20 billion annually, according to the WEF Report. 

Connecting the dots for a healthy future

Countries now have a second chance. They need to connect the dots and recognize that time is not on our side. No strong climate action can be carried out without bold commitments towards the post-2020 global biodiversity framework (GBF), an action plan that builds on the vision of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 of life in harmony with nature, to change society’s relationship with biodiversity, adopting a whole of society approach that generates transformative change, thus contributing to the objectives of the both the UN CBD and UNFCCC.  

In June 2021, CBD Parties met virtually to negotiate several aspects of the biodiversity multilateral agenda. These negotiations took place under the CBD Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) & Subsidiary Body for Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA). In times of Zoom diplomacy, re-imagining bold action is not as swift as needed. After following countless hours of online negotiations, it is undeniable that progress has been insufficient. This is something that should alarm all of us, not only negotiators. With several traditional rifts between North and South re-emerging, these virtual sessions left many issues unresolved.

Photo by Juanma Clemente-Alloza on Unsplash

The continuous and alarming loss of biodiversity worldwide suggests that nearly no country can claim leadership “by example”, with Costa Rica often considered an exception. Agreed in 2010, the so-called Aichi Biodiversity Targets – a ten year set of 20 conservation targets – should have been met by 2020. The hard truth is that not a single one of the goals were met in full.

As with everything in life, if we look at solutions narrowly, there are high chances of failure. Climate policies cannot be conducted without addressing unintended consequences deriving from interference with migratory species and habitat destruction, for example. To shed light on relevant synergies between climate and biodiversity, the Report of the IPBES-IPCC co-sponsored workshop on biodiversity and climate change shared essential lessons on these relevant synergies. Some of the most relevant messages worth highlighting are that:

  1. Reducing deforestation and forest degradation can reduce human-caused greenhouse gas emissions by a wide range from 0.4-5.8 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent every year.
  2. Restoration of nature is essential to continue offering vital ecosystem functions such as flood regulation, coastal protection, enhanced water quality, reduced soil erosion, and ensuring pollination. The good news is that this is the cheapest and quickest nature-based solution that could create jobs while respecting the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.
  3. Sustainable agriculture and forestry practices (i.e. agroforestry and agroecology) must be scaled up, as they help us adapt to climate change while increasing carbon storage. For example, the Report states that soil conservation and reduction of fertilizer use can offer an annual climate change mitigation potential of 3-6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.
  4. To ensure the habitability of our planet, the report stresses the potential to enhance the number of protected areas while coordinating this with climate plans. Currently, protected areas represent around 15% of land and 7.5% of the ocean. Options to improve the positive impacts of protected areas include more significant resourcing, better management and enforcement, and improved distribution with increased interconnectivity between these areas. Beyond protected areas, conservation action deserves to be increased to improve migration corridors in a changing climate and observing the need to integrate people with nature as an effort to assure equity of access and use of nature’s contributions to people.
  5. As in the case of fossil fuels, eliminating subsidies that support local and national activities harmful to biodiversity (i.e., deforestation, over-fertilization, and over-fishing) is equally urgent for policy coherence.  In addition, there are several climate mitigation and adaptation measures that could harm biodiversity, including the deployment of vast monocultures of bioenergy crops to replace fossil fuels; planting exotic trees and undertaking reforestation with monocultures, which could displace local communities and negatively impact food production due to biodiversity loss; and, increasing irrigation capacity through dam construction in a way that fuels new water conflicts and soil degradation due to salinization.

Planetary Health Diplomacy is the future ​

For years, I have expressed one single message to policymakers: Human health cannot be taken care of without equal efforts to protect our natural world. At first glance, this message sounds evident and straightforward. However, after years of circulating in the corridors of power, I learned that this idea could sound revolutionary to some crucial actors in the global community.

The drivers of the current climate and biodiversity crisis are both found in human activities. Neither of these crises can be solved in isolation or in one single country. International cooperation and a functional multilateralism are vital ingredients for achieving integrative solutions. That is why planetary health diplomacy is the future. It is time for the UN to think and “deliver as one” – but this will only happen when countries and negotiators feel more comfortable with co-creative approaches that give multiple stakeholders an authentic voice to help all of us to break mental silos, above all. 

About the author: Dr. Nicole de Paula is the Founder of the Women Leaders for Planetary Health and an Affiliate Scholar at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS-Potsdam) in Germany. She holds a PhD in International Relations from Sciences Po Paris.

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