Saving nature: why 2022 is key for biodiversity
The UN is leading a global effort to seal an agreement to conserve and harness biodiversity over the next decade.
Efforts to protect and sustain the natural world are just as crucial as global action on climate change – and are similarly beset by a lack of concerted decision-making.
The natural world is in trouble. Some 40 per cent of the world’s amphibians, 25 per cent of mammals and 14 per cent of birds are threatened by extinction. Many more species in less-studied groups such as insects, fish, fungi and plants are also at risk. The greatest threats come from overexploitation of natural resources, such as overhunting, overfishing and deforestation, as well as agriculture and human development.
“We are losing our suicidal war against nature. Our two-century-long experiment with burning fossil fuels, destroying forests, wilderness and oceans and degrading the land has caused a biosphere catastrophe,” says UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
The world does have a plan to address and reverse this loss. The UN is leading a global effort to seal an agreement to conserve and harness biodiversity over the next decade. It’s an ambitious project, with an overarching goal to see the world “living in harmony with nature” by 2050. It also aims for human exploitation of biodiversity to be “valued, maintained or enhanced through conservation and sustainable use”.
But progress is slow. A formal plan – called the Convention on Biological Diversity – was agreed back in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit. It has three objectives: conservation of biodiversity; sustainable use of its components; and fair sharing of benefits that arise from the use of genetic resources. Since then, countries have been working out how to convert those grand pledges into concrete actions that can be measured and verified.
Thirty years on, the result is a draft action plan, called the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. The framework sets 21 targets, including that of conserving 30 per cent of land and sea through protected areas, reducing nutrients lost to the environment by at least half, and pesticides by at least two thirds, and eliminating the discharge of plastic waste.
It also aims to reduce invasive alien species by 50 per cent. The often unintentional introduction of outside species can devastate ecosystems and food chains. For example, ship ballast water has helped to spread the European green crab across the world, where they compete with other shellfish, disturb sediment and destroy eelgrass, which is an important habitat for native crabs and fish.
After two years of delays caused by Covid-19, followed by a preparatory meeting in Geneva in March to discuss outstanding issues, countries are scheduled to finalise the international agreement at a key meeting in Montreal, Canada, later this year. The Post-2020 effort is “as important as the talks on climate change”, says Jane Memmott, President of the British Ecological Society. “We are dependent on the natural world for our food, wellbeing and prosperity, and the current rate of loss of species is seriously worrying.”
As with action on climate change, access to finance and action from business will be crucial if the biodiversity framework is to succeed. Recognising this, the agreement includes several targets for companies and financial institutions, including a demand for all businesses to assess and report on their dependencies and impacts on biodiversity. As the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has put it: “All our investments, both public and private, must be aligned with the aims of the Post-2020 Framework, meaning their impact on nature must be either null or positive.”
The framework also calls for full accounting of so-called ecosystem services: how healthy ecosystems provide people with a range of goods and services, including economic growth, food and water security and a stable climate. For example, a new study shows that five ecosystem services generated by the 400 tree species in the USA total $114bn annually. Carbon storage in tree biomass comprised 51 per cent of the net annual value, whereas preventing human health damages via air quality regulation contributed to 37 per cent of the annual value.
Lina Barrera, Vice President of International Policy at Conservation International, says some aspects of the agreement must be strengthened before it is signed off, including recognition of the rights of indigenous people and local communities. “There is no time for incremental action,” she says. “But there is hope. If the world can rally around a nature-positive goal and focus our collective attention on the places most important for our survival and the survival of all species, we can flip the script from nature loss to nature gain this decade.”