Roundtable: How can the world stem global biodiversity loss?

A major new report warned of the existential threats to humans of biodiversity loss, so what can be done?

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Latin America and the Caribbean is home to several of the most ‘megadiverse’ countries in the world (image: Santiago Ron)

We are witnessing the loss of biodiversity at rates never before seen in human history. Nearly a million species face extinction if we do not fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world, according to the world’s most comprehensive assessment undertaken of the global ecosystem published this week.

1 million

species currently face extinction.

The Global Assessment of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) provides unequivocal evidence that biodiversity is key to human survival and wellbeing. It involved 500 biodiversity experts from over 50 countries, and was approved by over 130 governments.

The findings are set to influence world leaders who are meeting in China next year and aim to reach a new global agreement on biodiversity.

The world is currently on track to miss most of the global targets (known as the Aichi targets) set under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

chinadialogue asked leading experts and authors of the report why global efforts to save biodiversity have failed so far and what radical new approaches we need.

Wang Huo, deputy secretary of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation

We are the last generation able to save biodiversity, and it is not yet too late to act. Action should be focused on biodiversity in populated areas, and innovating forms of nature reserves. Rather than size – having a certain percentage of land under protection – we should look at quality – what is protected, and how effectively. Conservation of biodiversity cannot be solely about creating reserves in remote and sparsely populated areas and separating people and nature.

Meanwhile, we need to take systematic steps to ensure the next ten-year biodiversity targets are met. The post-2020 biodiversity framework is not a matter for the Convention on Biological Diversity alone. It will require coordination and synergy across various international bodies and treaties, including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

We are the last generation able to save biodiversity, and it is not yet too late to act

Ana di Pangracio, deputy executive director of Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (FARN) in Argentina and the president of the South American Committee of IUCN

There were important advances following the Aichi Targets, such as the entry into force of a protocol on access to genetic resources, the increase of the percentage of land and marine areas under protection, the higher awareness of the biodiversity crisis and the fact that almost all countries have adopted national biodiversity strategies. But the advances have not been enough to reach all the goals and address the threats.

This is due to the lack of political commitment, insufficient financing and lack of attention to the structural causes that cause the loss of biodiversity: corporate power, infrastructure megaprojects, agriculture and industrial livestock, exacerbated consumerism, among others.

There should be a political commitment from all the countries, with effective and timely actions to address the urgent situation, a mobilisation of the necessary financial resources to achieve the goals set, the establishment of participatory and informed processes on the matter, and the creation of compliance mechanisms that hold countries accountable.

China should adopt socio-environmental safeguards for projects and investments made in other countries, many of them mega-diverse in terms of biodiversity. [China should] also comply with human rights and commit cash resources so that developing countries can take actions to protect biodiversity.

Lu Zhi, professor of conservation biology at Peking University, executive director of the Peking University Centre for Nature and Society

We are all somewhat disappointed at the implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity. On the one hand, many of its targets can’t be quantified, which makes the convention harder to implement; on the other, biodiversity conservation has not been “mainstreamed”. Given this, everyone hopes to see the IPBES assessment use more quantitative data even if some data is still imprecise.

Much of the impact of climate change on humanity will be via its impact on biodiversity

Also, the report highlights the threat of climate change to biodiversity. Currently there is more awareness of climate change than biodiversity. But ultimately, much of the impact of climate change on humanity will be via its impact on biodiversity.

The report also points out that biodiversity is decreasing more slowly in areas inhabited by indigenous peoples – and that is very important for our understanding of the value of local knowledge and values in conservation. The environmental “Kuznets curve” indicates that environmental protection only becomes a matter of concern once people become well off. But in ethnic minority areas such as Tibet, people have high levels of awareness and participation in conservation even when living standards are low. Culture is key to conservation.

Kathy Willis, professor of global biodiversity at Oxford University and lead author of Chapter 5 of the IPBES Global Assessment report

We need to move beyond [the focus on] protected areas. Protected area targets are great theoretically but they really don’t start to make the links between nature and benefits to humans. They are still very much focused on a baseline state we need to keep static.

I wish we could come up with really meaningful targets that we can actually achieve. For example, the importance of conserving our crop wild relatives – the ancestors of the crops we have – is absolutely vital. Some of these have survived multiple climatic regime shifts and they have those resilient genes.

[Another] area lots of people are now moving into, particularly the economists, is saying that if we remove nature we’re going to have to replace its benefits with technological solutions that are much more costly and less effective. People hate it when you put a value on biodiversity, but you have to do it. If you don’t have trees in this street incidences of asthma will increase greatly. That is a very stark reality and there is a very strong evidence for this.

Some really nice work has been done in cities about plants that can sequester pollution and this has been led in China. China also has an incredible knowledge of plant-based medicine that should be enhanced.

People hate it when you put a value on biodiversity, but you have to do it.

Obdulio Menghi, head of Fundación Biodiversidad and a former scientific coordinator at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild (CITES)

The crisis is very serious. The ridiculous way humans treat our only home perplexes those few who still fight for it. Latin America and the Caribbean is a region that is home to several of the most ‘megadiverse’ countries in the world. The loss and degradation of our natural and cultural heritage hurts, and the inexplicable inability of those to live up their commitments [to protect biodiversity] has worldwide implications.

The extinction of some endangered species will occur in 2020. Some successful measures have staved off the extinction of a few bird and mammal species.

The role of China is not very different from that of the other countries that are part of the CBD. All have a big responsibility to communicate biodiversity goals to the wider population, along with the strategic plan of the CBD, the Paris Agreement, public policies and the materials developed under the Convention.

There is a considerable lack of knowledge of the CBD and the Paris Agreement and their contents, and this is very much goes against their effectiveness and [possibilities for] compliance. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to strengthen the internal communication of the CBD and make the Paris Agreement much more known as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

Xie Yan, deputy researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Zoology

The IPBES assessment show the urgency of the global ecological crisis and the huge impact the degradation of nature has on human wellbeing. Revolutionary changes are needed to prevent further ecological degradation.

I think most countries fail to recognise the importance of biodiversity to the long-term survival of their populations. The CBD stresses the international duties of all nations, but we need to make national leaders aware that the conservation of biological diversity ensures the ecological security of their own people if we are to create political will at the national level.

China has seen important progress since 2017, both in developing the system of nature reserves and in protection of endangered species. The Ministry of Natural Resources has been created, various types of nature reserve have been brought under one system, provincial ecological redlines have been set, oversight of nature reserves is stricter than ever before, and much successful experience of biodiversity conservation has been acquired.

China should use those achievements to boost political will in other countries, in particular through the Belt and Road Green Development Partnership and sharing its experiences at the CBD conference in 2020.