On Monday, 19 December 2022 the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), a lesser known “sister” treaty to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, concluded with the adoption of what many have hailed a historic deal to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity, on whose preservation the viability of life on this planet depends. And yet this meeting and its momentous outcome received only a fraction of the attention devoted to climate change and the recently held COP27 in Egypt. Why is that the case? And why do we take such a compartmentalised approach to dealing with this planetary and global crisis? What are the implications of this approach?
There are several reasons. First, the impact of climate change is easier to explain, with rising temperatures and sea levels, increasingly frequent and extreme weather events and changes in rainfall patterns. The ramifications of these events for our society are visible and tangible: mudslides, water crises, forest fires. The scientific models are sophisticated enough to describe different scenarios based on a variety of assumptions. The correlation between these events and societal consequences is easy to draw. We understand heat, irregularity and excess.
On biodiversity, however, we do not have the same cognitive and conceptual clarity. This concept, which refers to the enormous variety of all life forms on Earth, including genes, species and ecosystems, is harder to grasp. Biodiversity operates as a complex web of interactions in which all life forms are interdependent and whose full range of combinations ensures the “right conditions” that allow life, our life as we know it, to thrive. How we as human beings depend on biodiversity and how its loss can impact our lives is much harder to explain. A good approach is to use the anthropocentric concept of “ecosystem services”, which describes the many and varied benefits to humans provided by the natural environment and healthy ecosystems. Biodiversity underpins these services, which include the availability of clean air, water and food, as well as climate regulation, not to mention cultural, recreational and spiritual value. As we lose biodiversity, we lose these benefits.
How biodiversity loss affects us is complex. Losing species is like a game of Jenga (the game in which you remove blocks from a wooden structure until it collapses): you may lose a few species and not see a change in ecosystem services before the system collapses. The effects of biodiversity loss are often felt at a distance and long after the trigger or destructive event took place. For instance, the removal of riparian vegetation around rivers and its impact, namely loss of quality and quantity of water supplied downstream, represent cause and effect on a timescale that dilutes our capacity to perceive causality.
Moreover, we are failing to come up with an integrated perspective on the environment. In the same way that we are dealing with three different conventions, one on climate, one on biodiversity and one on desertification, we are compartmentalising our understanding of the problem and how we approach it. In some cases, each convention addresses the same issues and renegotiates very similar concepts. This is not only logistically inefficient but also conceptually wrong since it essentially leads us to adopt views of the problem that are not necessarily focused on the integrated solution that we need to develop in order to effectively maintain life on this planet.
Finally, we are also falling very short in terms of the need to understand how critical the current moment is. The UN Secretary-General is running out of superlatives and analogies to galvanise us into action, since we do not have an option B. We conceive of the problem in silos, and address it in that way, behaving as if the problem will adapt to our sense of urgency, debating methods, wording and timelines. It is a collective ostrich effect amplified by our faulty global and local governance systems. Unless we truly reverse current trends, our liveable environment will be no more, as a direct consequence of humanity’s actions. Solving the climate change conundrum without addressing biodiversity loss will not get us anywhere and, likewise, even the most effective biodiversity regime, if we do not address climate change, will yield the same net outcome. We are failing to realise that the changes in our living environment are already causing damage, creating conditions that exacerbate fragility, conflict and security issues everywhere.
What happened at COP15 in Montreal? What will happen next?
The negotiation process “started” with 14,000 brackets – which indicate text that parties do not agree on – although these brackets were clearly nothing new since the negotiations had been ongoing for many years. For most of the duration of the meeting, the discussions and negotiations progressed at a snail’s pace. In the last two days, the negotiations made surprising progress, as was expected would occur once the ministers arrived over the weekend, with the addition of the magical effect of deadlines, lack of sleep, drama and adrenaline on human beings. A deal was then reached at 4.00 a.m. on Monday. This deal is called the Global Biodiversity Framework – essentially the Paris Agreement for biodiversity.
Just as with the Paris Agreement on climate change, signatory countries will now have to develop national biodiversity plans and report their progress in meeting targets. What makes this deal historic is the effort to establish a global plan to save biodiversity. However, targets existed before and they were not met – the Aichi Targets, for instance, which expired in 2020. We cannot risk another global failure on biodiversity.
From a more macro perspective, we need to ask ourselves whether this approach to organising ourselves into action is truly one that will help us design and deliver the appropriate actions within the necessary space of time. The world is being destroyed and the viability of life as we know it is being reduced every day. It is very hard to square that tight timeframe with the actions and commitments that emerge from these conferences and the broader dynamic engagement they entail. They are clearly positive actions moving in the right direction, but they might not get us to the point we need to reach in time.
About the authors:
Vivian Valencia is an assistant professor and interdisciplinary scientist utilizing perspectives and methods from the natural and social sciences to investigate the socio-ecological processes that shape agricultural landscapes and food systems and the consequences for food security, ecosystems and biodiversity.
Diego Osorio is a Senior Advisor on Climate Security at the Dept of Global Affairs Canada. He is a Canadian diplomat with many years of experience in public administration and international experience covering the UN, NATO, the World Bank, Canadian diplomacy, and private sector ventures. His previous positions included Senior Peacekeeping Officer and Senior Advisor on Mediation, Negotiation and Peace processes at Global Affairs Canada. Find Diego’s LinkedIn profile here.
Published on January 19, 2023.
Photo credit: Chris Abney