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11 October 2021

Why success at COP26 is also vital to stem biodiversity loss

Ecosystems we rely on for survival are being destroyed – and unlike climate change, there has been no real international response.

By Nick Ferris and Michael Goodier

The fact thousands of delegates will flock to Glasgow for COP26 in November hoping for concrete action on climate change is no secret to anyone. But few are aware that another COP starts today (11 October) that is just as important for determining the future of humanity.

The fifteenth meeting (COP15) of the UN’s flagship biodiversity conference was first scheduled to take place in Kunming, China, in October 2020, but was postponed several times because of the Covid pandemic. A few days of online discussions are beginning, with the main in-person event taking place in April 2022. 

Draft plans would see global protected areas increase to 30 per cent of the Earth’s surface, pesticide use cut by two-thirds and food waste halved. The targets are challenging, but the problem is huge: studied animal populations have declined by an average of 68 per cent over the last 50 years. However, even if agreed, it is unclear how much difference such goals would make – none of the previous 20 global biodiversity targets agreed in Aichi, Japan, in 2010 have been met.

Unmet promises come despite some 75 per cent of the land’s surface and 66 per cent of the sea now being classified as “severely altered” by humans, says the UN. While the area of forest lost each year has declined since its 1990 peak, recent years have started to see an increase in net deforestation, shows UN data, and 31 per cent of surviving forests are under “some form of observed human pressure”.

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This ecological crisis is not just bad news for animals. Scientists warn that by pushing nature too far, we threaten the natural systems that humans depend on for survival. 

“Nature is like a tapestry,” says biologist Cristián Samper, chief executive of the NGO Wildlife Conservation Society. “There are only so many threads you can pull until the whole thing collapses. Every one of those threads, every one of those species, has an ecological function that humans benefit from. For example, pollinating insects sustain trees, which sustains water flows, which we depend upon to survive.”

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Climate change and biodiversity loss are “two sides of the same coin”, says Mark Wright, director of science at WWF. When politicians talk about reducing emissions to get to grips with climate change and stop dangerous levels of global heating, the focus is on slashing the greenhouse gases emitted from burning fossil fuels through cleaner sources of energy. Little mention is made of the fact around 50 per cent of emissions are absorbed by the world’s land and oceans. 

Mangrove swamps, for example, take up less than 1 per cent of the Earth’s surface, but store the equivalent of 22 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. The world’s forests, meanwhile, absorb a net average of 7.6 billion tonnes of CO2 annually – almost 1.5 times more carbon than the US emits every year. Such natural systems rely on complex networks of animals, fungi, microbes and plants to function effectively. Destroy these natural systems and they are unable to play their role in sponging up emissions.

Worryingly, the biosphere is becoming a source of emissions itself as habitat destruction releases carbon that has been locked away for thousands of years. Between 2010 and 2018, the Amazon rainforest emitted more CO2 than it absorbed – a trend exacerbated since Jair Bolsonaro became president of Brazil in 2019. He has openly encouraged deforestation. During the 2000s, deforestation substantially declined in Brazil, reaching a low point of 4,571 square kilometres in 2012. This figure reached 10,000km² in 2019, an area larger than Cyprus and around the same size as Lebanon. Between August 2020 and July 2021 alone, the rainforest lost 10,476km² – an area nearly seven times bigger than greater London and 13 times the size of New York City.

Scientists warn that disruptions to rainfall patterns could see the Amazon soon cross a “tipping point” that would see it unavoidably transition from rainforest to open savanna.

Human’s use of the land can act as a sink or a source of emissions, and is tracked by scientists through the metric LULUCF, or “land use, land use change and forestry”. Net LULUCF emissions fell 75 per cent between 1990 and 2010 – but have since crept upwards, suggesting human activities are becoming more damaging.

Scientists continue to insist the world can change course. “The damage we cause is evidence of how much power we have,” says Mark Maslin, professor of Earth system science at University College London. “We can become custodians, rather than exploiters, of the planet.”

Even if broader trends are downward, there are specific success stories that show how things can be turned around, says Anika Terton, a policy adviser at the International Institute for Sustainable Development think tank.

The Chinese government, for example, has been working on its “Great Green Wall of China” project since 1978 to reduce soil erosion and improve the wider environment. Data shows tree coverage in China increased by 64 million hectares between 1990 and 2020, while it declined in the tropical river basins of Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo by 92 million (an area just smaller than Germany and France) and 24 million hectares respectively.

For those involved in COP15 biodiversity discussions, there are also hopes that apathy may be subsiding. “The pandemic reminded us that we are part of nature and that we need to reset our relationship with nature,” says Samper. He believes a near doubling of protected sea and land since 2010 shows that ambitious targets at COP15 are achievable.

However, much is likely to rest on what happens in Glasgow in November. “If talks at COP26 are successful, hopefully leaders can see that achievements in biodiversity are also not out of reach,” adds Maslin.

[See also: Emissions tracker: How countries compare ahead of COP26]

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