Time for governments to take biodiversity loss as seriously as climate change

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Wild flowers along agricultural fields to increase biodiversity as part of biological farming. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

Together with climate change, the world is also facing a biodiversity crisis, which has failed to capture the same attention. But efforts made by governments to tackle the climate crisis show that action is possible when there is sufficient political will, writes Janice Weatherley-Singh ahead of a UN convention on biological diversity.

Dr. Janice Weatherley-Singh is the director of EU strategic relations for WCS EU, a Belgian NGO affiliated with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

In the past decade, the impact of the climate crisis has become clear — with rising temperatures, droughts, powerful storms, and floods, causing harm to local communities and economies. Increasingly, people understand why we must cut carbon emissions. Yet the global biodiversity crisis has failed to capture the same political attention and public concern.

The loss of species often takes place away from urban areas where most people live. A recent article highlighting the species that went extinct during 2020 included 32 orchids, 22 frogs, and a number of mite species. Their loss has gone largely unnoticed.

Yet governments, including EU member states, are currently preparing for the next meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP) of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), at which they will set global biodiversity targets for the next 10 years. These new targets can’t come soon enough.

A 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) revealed that one million plant and animal species face extinction. Subsequent media coverage of wildlife caught in Amazonian and Australian fires and plastic spilling out of beached whales, is elevating public awareness of the biodiversity crisis.

The scale of the problem is now revealing the major challenges for human well-being caused by biodiversity loss. More than a quarter of mangrove forests were lost in the last 50 years, limiting their ability to act as buffers against the physical impacts of storms.

Many species that pollinate crops face dramatic declines, threatening food security. Even the loss of mites will negatively affect many ecosystems because of their vital role in decomposition and soil building.

The vast majority of global biodiversity lies in the tropics, often in low-income countries with already overstretched resources (exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic). These countries must also contend with the drain on natural resources from unsustainable trade and consumption by rich, consumer countries.

Successful CBD negotiations therefore depend on financial commitments by donor governments to protect biodiversity in the world’s poorest countries.

According to a report published this year by the World Economic Forum, more than half of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (approximately €37 trillion) is highly or moderately dependent on nature. Redirecting even a small proportion of public finance towards tackling biodiversity loss would make a huge difference and bring a significant return on investment.

Governments have already done this for climate. Thirty percent of the new seven-year EU budget (which began in January 2021) for example, will aim to tackle climate change. Investing in nature will likewise help to achieve climate targets, with more than 25 percent of emissions removed by intact forests and other ecosystems each year, with potential for additional actions that would result in a further 30 percent of emissions reductions.

The COVID-19 outbreak, with its disastrous impacts on societies and economies worldwide, has placed a spotlight on the dire consequences of our broken relationship to nature.

The degradation of once-intact places has increased human contacts with wildlife that, combined with the commercial trade in wildlife for human consumption, poses the threat of further zoonotic disease spillover and pandemics.

Conserving the world’s last remaining intact ecosystems (and restoring degraded ecosystems) will help us confront the looming global biodiversity crisis while also tackling the threat of climate change and pandemic disease.

And governments need not always find new money. The importance of biodiversity for health, agriculture and climate, means that public finance already dedicated to these and other sectors should be required to bring biodiversity benefits.

The EU is taking positive steps in this direction. In their agreement on the new seven-year EU budget, the European Parliament and Council committed to spending 7.5 percent of the budget on biodiversity from 2024, increasing to 10 percent from 2026. This new target could have a significant impact if truly integrated within relevant EU funding programmes.

Spending at least 10 percent on biodiversity and ecosystems in the new EU Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI), for example, would go a long way towards reducing the damage done in partner countries by the EU’s unsustainable consumption and trade practices. It could also inspire financial commitments from other donor governments.

While sustained collective action to tackle the biodiversity crisis has so far been lacking, efforts made by governments to tackle the climate crisis shows that action is possible when there is sufficient political will.

As governments prepare for the upcoming CBD meeting, strong political action is needed to achieve a post-COVID green recovery, beginning with ambitious global biodiversity targets supported by strong financial commitments.

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