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Can the COP15 biodiversity summit help the wider global climate emergency?

OPINION: The biodiversity summit in Montreal should be viewed in the global context of climate breakdown

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
9 December 2022, 6.34pm
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau at the biodiversity summit opening ceremony

The Canadian Press / Alamy Stock Photo

The two-week UN COP15 biodiversity summit started this week in Montreal. The meeting takes place in the shadow of COP27, and its dismal failure to tackle the crucial climate issue of decarbonisation.

This failure means we now need greater changes in behaviour than ever to reduce emissions and avert the most dangerous temperature rises. It’s here that the issue of biodiversity could perhaps play a key role: if the loss of nature, which people have been aware of for decades, can be linked to the wider context of the climate emergency and decarbonisation in the public imagination.

COP15 has a hugely complex agenda, with 20,000 participants and over 150 states involved. Many areas of considerable difference between the attendees are already evident and there is not too much hope of progress.

But the organisers have identified four key aims.

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Firstly, and arguably most importantly, is the adoption of an equitable and comprehensive framework matched by the resources needed for implementation. This refers to what is commonly called the ‘Paris Agreement for Nature’, known more formally as the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF).

The second and third aims – introducing clear targets to address overexploitation, pollution, fragmentation and unsustainable agricultural practices, and a plan that safeguards the rights of Indigenous peoples and recognises their contributions as stewards of nature – offer some degree of breakdown for achieving the first.

And lastly is finance for biodiversity and alignment of financial flows with nature to drive finances towards sustainable investments and away from environmentally harmful ones – a reminder that so much depends on funding.

One of the GBF’s key elements is the ‘30x30’ concept, shorthand for achieving protection for 30% of ocean and land areas by 2030. This would be a substantial step in the right direction towards fulfilling the requirements of the GBF, but is a very tough aim that faces plenty of opposition. A recent investigation by openDemocracy has discovered that the UK is set to miss its own key 30x30 target.

A serious attempt to achieve 30x30 would come up against the reality of highly profitable ‘extractivism’, the wholesale removal of resources – especially but not only fuel and non-fuel minerals – from the Global South to the North. This amounts to the extraction of wealth from the poor to the rich, as the price paid for these raw materials is usually too low to compensate for their loss.

It parallels the deteriorating terms of trade seen across the Global South in the early post-colonial era in the 1960s. Then, primary commodity prices fell as those of much-needed industrial imports rose, seriously limiting development chances for many of the weakest former colonies.

If there is any progress in Montreal, and few participants have high expectations, it is also best seen in the context of a wider perspective of global environmental challenges. On the issue of climate breakdown and the need for rapid decarbonisation, the recent COP27 in Egypt was a straightforward failure. This means that the one very obvious challenge of reducing fossil carbon pollution by around 60% by 2030 is going nowhere unless there is a near-revolutionary change in political attitudes and behaviour.

If climate breakdown can be persistently and correctly linked with biodiversity loss, it could really make a difference in terms of public support

Just how big would the behavioural shift have to be? If we had gone for the UN-recommended 7% per annum reduction from 2020 through to 2030, we might have been on course, but the first three years of the decade have actually seen an increase in emissions. It would now require an unprecedented 10% per year drop, starting from next month, to achieve anywhere near a 60% cut over the remainder of the decade.

On present trends there is no chance of that, so what could change attitudes? We already know of some welcome sources of optimism. Public awareness of climate breakdown has intensified at a remarkable rate, especially among younger people, and the climate science and wider meteorological communities are far blunter in what they say in public than they were prepared to be even four or five years ago.

Persistent warnings of extreme weather events are now widely publicised, but perhaps the most surprising and unexpected change has been the rapid fall in the costs of energy from renewable sources, meaning that rapid decarbonisation makes economic – as well as political and moral – sense.

But even that might not be enough, given the strength of the fossil carbon producers, especially as COP28 will be held in that heartland of oil and gas production, Abu Dhabi, no doubt with fossil carbon lobbyists to the fore. The experience of local and regional climate catastrophes might change that, but is there anything less disastrous that might speed up the process?

One way to improve the impact of campaigns is to recognise that the reality of climate breakdown has only recently become embedded in public discourse, whereas many different examples of biodiversity loss have been present in that discourse for decades. If climate breakdown can be persistently and correctly linked with biodiversity loss, it could really make a difference in terms of public support.

It all goes back to the original thinking on limits to growth around the time of the first-ever global environmental summit in Stockholm in 1972. It may not be anything like enough but in the face of the global risk of climate chaos, every little helps.

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