According to leading scientists, the “fate of the entire living world” will be decided at the Cop15 UN biodiversity summit.
They said the gathering of the world’s nations, which began Wednesday in Montreal, was “much more important than Cop27,” the recent high-profile UN climate meeting. “We say this because of the many dimensions of anthropogenic global change … the most critical, complex and challenging is that of biodiversity loss,” the researchers said.
The current rapid loss of wildlife and natural places is seen by many scientists as the beginning of the sixth mass extinction and is destroying the life support systems on which humanity depends for clean air, water and food. Protecting the natural world, such as rainforests, is also vital to ending the climate emergency.
Cop15 aims to protect 30% of the planet by 2030, as well as divert $500 billion in agricultural subsidies that support the destruction of nature.
The scientists’ warning came in an editorial in the journal Science Advances, written by Professor Shahid Naeem of Columbia University, USA; Prof Yonglong Lu from Xiamen University, China; and Professor Jeremy Jackson at the American Museum of Natural History.
They said an earlier 10-year plan, known as the Aichi Biodiversity Goals, failed to meet any of its targets by the 2020 deadline, despite being backed by 196 countries. “This time, failure is not an option as terrestrial, marine and freshwater systems begin to collapse under pressure to meet the needs of a global population that will soon approach 10 billion,” the researchers said.
However, they added that there are some reasons for optimism, including widespread and growing support for the 30×30 conservation plan and the fact that the drivers of biodiversity loss are well understood, providing a clear direction for action.
The destruction of wild places for agriculture and mining is a key cause of biodiversity loss, along with the overexploitation of wildlife on land and in the seas and pollution. The climate crisis and the spread of invasive species around the world are also contributing factors. The head of the UN environment, Inger Andersen, called these drivers “the five horsemen of the biodiversity apocalypse”.
The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, opened the summit with a strong message: “Without nature, we are nothing.” Nature is our life support system, and humanity seems hell-bent on destruction.
“With our endless appetite for uncontrolled and unequal economic growth, humanity has become a weapon of mass extinction,” he said. “[Cop15] is our chance to stop this orgy of destruction, to move from discord to harmony.”
In addition to the “30×30” goal, other draft targets for the Cop15 agreement include reducing the rate of invasive species introduction by 50%, reducing the use of pesticides by at least two-thirds, stemming the flow of plastic pollution and making it mandatory for large companies to disclose their impact on nature.
In an editorial, Naeem and his colleagues said: “A comprehensive body of scientific evidence has highlighted how global change, including climate change, is ultimately linked to biodiversity conservation.” For example, they said, healthy forests and oceans can absorb vast amounts of climate-warming carbon dioxide.
They said a leading study on the effects of Covid-19 lockdowns showed how “reductions in traffic, industrial noise and pollution, as well as human-wildlife contact have led to a wide range of positive impacts on nature around the world”, with “animals rapidly responding to the reduction of human presence”. However, the reduction in conservation work has also led to illegal hunting and habitat destruction.
“The take-away message was that halting biodiversity loss can be achieved not only by reducing human pressures, but also by improving human activities in research, restoration and conservation,” the researchers said.
They said the Cop15 agreement would need to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples and secure long-term funding from wealthier nations to achieve the goals, as many of the most biodiverse places are in low-income countries.
French diplomat Laurence Tubiana, architect of the Paris climate agreement, said: “We need a global target to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. This will direct targets, laws, policies and funding at all levels and regions, similar to 2015.” The Paris Agreement has begun to work for climate action. Seven years on, the momentum is clearly visible. We need the same momentum to protect all life on Earth.”
Professor Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, said: “We need a ‘Paris moment’ in Montreal.” Only by protecting and regenerating Earth’s nature can we truly protect Earth’s climate.”