When Elizabeth Maruma Mrema took to the stage last night inside Kew Gardens’ grand, Victorian glass house in London, the trace of shadows were visible under her eyes. Two weeks of gruelling negotiations in Geneva had taken their toll on the UN’s executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Yet in her speech thanking Kew for presenting her with its International Medal for her conservation efforts, she also expressed her commitment to the challenge at hand: “We are already too late, but better late than never,” she warned of the urgent need to reverse global nature loss. “The time to act is now.”
Considering the magnitude of the climate emergency, governments are understandably focused on fixing the world’s broken carbon budget. The consequences of increased climate stress, however, which takes the form of wildfires, heatwaves and floods, are only part of the reason why one million known species are threatened with extinction by 2050; ever-escalating habitat destruction, overfishing, pollution and poaching are also key. If allowed to continue, this could reportedly result in the sixth mass extinction of life on earth – on humanity’s watch.
It is hoped that a new global biodiversity framework could give our ecosystems a fighting chance. Often referred to as a “Paris Agreement for nature”, the aim is to announce a deal at the Cop15 summit in Kunming, China, that can rival the ambition of the existing treaty on climate. Provisions could include protecting 30 per cent of land and sea by 2030, as well as safeguards for indigenous rights and targets for financial support.
But whether 2022 will finally be the year that sees a breakthrough international treaty to save nature is still in doubt. Covid-19 has seen the summit (now set for late August) repeatedly postponed and progress at this week’s pre-talks in Switzerland was painfully slow. Bernadette Fischler Hooper, the head of international advocacy at WWF UK, told the New Statesman that the two weeks of negotiations had improved from a “snail’s pace” to that of a “turtle”, but that they really need to be travelling at “falcon speed”.
Tellingly, the biodiversity talks are stalling over similar issues to those holding up progress on reaching net zero: namely, developing nations’ need for financial support. On 29 March, a group of countries including an African bloc, Brazil and India called for the developed world to provide at least $100bn (£75bn) of new biodiversity funding a year. Importantly, the money must be separate from the $100bn of already promised (and short-falling) climate finance, the group demanded.
The same nations have called for such finance to rise still further by 2030 – to $700bn a year (still less than 1 per cent of global GDP). This echoes the sum the Nature Conservancy has described as the minimum amount needed to fill the funding gap, much of which the NGO suggests could come from redirecting funds from environmentally damaging schemes. “Annual government spending on agricultural, forestry and fisheries subsidies that degrade nature is up to four times higher than spending that benefits nature,” it has calculated.
Accusations of biopiracy are another sticking point. With the genetic data from plants and animals used to manufacture everything from HIV therapies and drink sweeteners, many nature-rich nations are demanding compensation for future breakthroughs. Without such compensation for the use of the digital sequence information, they warn, pharmaceutical companies and others can avoid paying for the very conservation of nature that they profit from.
Yet reservations about such compensation mechanisms not only come from business. According to Alexandre Antonelli, the director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, it is a “race against the clock” to document the world’s disappearing species, and overly restrictive regulations could impede research.
Furthermore, Antonelli reminds, simply setting targets doesn’t equal delivering them, as demonstrated by the world’s failure to meet any of its 2020 biodiversity targets. Nor does increasing the quantity of protected land ensure quality of conservation, with many protected sites around the world currently in dire condition (including in the UK).
Robert Cowie is the co-author of a paper which argues that the sixth mass extinction is already underway. He similarly fears that the outcome of the Kunming negotiations will be a “nice document with optimistic goals” which will not ultimately be followed up with sufficient action.
An extra meeting has been arranged in June in Nairobi, Kenya, to attempt to reach a greater stage of consensus before the main UN Cop15 biodiversity summit which is still currently scheduled to take place in China, despite rising Covid cases.
Meanwhile, next week, the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change will release its sixth assessment report on efforts to mitigate climate change across the globe. It is expected to advise rapid investment in nature-based solutions – such as planting (the right) trees (in the right places), promoting nature-friendly agriculture, and restoring natural carbon sinks like peatlands and bogs.
Such links between nature conservation and the successful mitigation of climate change are so great they can no longer be ignored. In fact Mrema said she believes that if the famous 1992 Earth Summit in Rio was taking place today, there would no longer be separate frameworks created for the two siloed challenges.
“The intrinsic connection is now understood,” she encouraged. “We’ve come late, but I think the catching up will be fast.”