Galina Jönsson is a Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet DTP postgraduate research student at the Grantham Institute and the Natural History Museum researching long-term biodiversity trends. She is a member of the Imperial College London’s delegation to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) and, here, she discusses the importance of simultaneously tackling global biodiversity loss and climate change.
United Nations Party representatives have gathered in Glasgow for the 26th Conference of the Parties, referred to as COP26, to discuss the implementation of the Paris Agreement. Impacts of COVID-19 caused the climate summit to be postponed by one year and a global summit for biodiversity to go almost unnoticed. During this time, the devastating effects of global biodiversity loss became ever so clear.
Our societies dependent on biodiversity because ecosystems provide vital recourses and services (the air we breathe, freshwater, pollination, etc.). However, human activities are responsible for causing one million species to be at risk of extinction and a recent study by the Natural History Museum found that a mere 75% of global biodiversity is currently intact, well below what the authors say is a ‘safe limit’ of 90%.
Intact ecosystems help to tackle climate change because over time they naturally absorb globally warming greenhouse gases and store them safely away from the atmosphere – losing or degraded ecosystems leads to the reverse. A rapidly changing climate worryingly creates conditions that increase the risk of biodiversity loss, species extinction and ultimately ecosystems collapsing. In other words, the two issues are deeply intertwined.
Treating the climate crisis and global biodiversity loss as separate issues is often inefficient and can, at worst, exacerbate both problems. Yes, we need to drastically reduce emissions but that is only part of the solution. Biodiversity loss drives climate change and vice versa, and so the solution to both can often be the same; providing an opportunity for climate mitigation and adaptation through nature-based solutions (NBSs).
NBSs simultaneously tackle climate change and biodiversity loss through, for example, ecosystem restoration. However, in order to be successful they need to be well-informed and appropriately implemented. UK subsidies encouraging commercial forestry led to large-scale degradation of another type of ecosystem: peatlands. Intact peatlands can hold and capture around five times more carbon than forests, whilst degraded peatlands release carbon into the atmosphere. Today, 87% of UK peatlands are degraded and release 5% of total national emissions. Although the damaging subsidies have been replaced by new plans to restore UK peatlands, this is an example of poorly implemented legislation that quite literally fuelled climate change and further endangered unique peatland species.
What about the other COP?
Biodiversity is finally beginning to gain real recognition as a key tool for tackling climate change, and yet, international policy frameworks largely treat biodiversity loss and climate change separately.
Climate change and global biodiversity loss have their individual UN conventions with their own scientific bodies providing the information upon which goals and targets are based: the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). With UNFCCC’s COP26 underway, phase one of the other COP, CBD’s 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) took place 11-15 October this year, but largely went unnoticed by media and the public (COVID-19 caused the conference to be delayed by a year and then split with the first half being held virtually and the second half in person).
Phase two of COP15 will be taking place April-May 2022 in China and it is then that international agreement on the final framework for urgently stabilising biodiversity loss by 2030 will be decided. COP15 is equally important for biodiversity as COP26 is for climate, especially given the backdrop of previous failures; not one of the 20 biodiversity targets set for 2020 was achieved. But what concerns me most is that if these two UN conventions are not communicating, we risk finding ourselves with divergent goals and targets that should be tackled under one banner.
A window of opportunity that cannot be missed
At some point in the future, the lucky among us will look back and remember the first year of COVID-19 as a time when we remained locked inside our homes, binge watching series and subscribing to too many streaming services. However, a significant number of unlucky individuals will remember a time of raging wildfires, droughts, hurricanes, and/or floods destroying homes and communities in the midst of a global pandemic. Climate change has moved from the realms of science fiction, to a horrifying reality. A recent study estimates that 85% of the global population have experienced the impacts of climate change, forcing us to face the reality of the crisis.
COP26 and COP15, coupled with unprecedented public awareness, presents the momentum needed for our world leaders to finally get on the same page and agree on integrated global policy agendas for biodiversity and climate change. We cannot afford to miss this window of opportunity and further delay action. The monetary price tag of not taking action to both global biodiversity loss and climate change doubles if we wait ten years. The cost would be far reaching and devasting and gets even darker as it depends on the value put on the human lives and livelihoods that would be affected by delayed action. In other world, the stakes of the coming COP26 negotiations could not be any higher.
Dr Rikki Gumbs, who completed his PhD at Imperial in 2020 and now works with the Zoological Society of London to prioritise biodiversity for conservation action, discusses the current status of global biodiversity policy, providing insight on recent failures and successes of biodiversity conservation.
Siobhán Stack-Maddox considers what legal action involving states means in the context of net zero carbon pledges and commitments to reduce emissions.