Delegates in Montreal grapple with biodiversity, extinction and existential questions like can you put a price on nature?
More than 10,000 scientists, government officials, and activists are gathering for COP15 in Montreal this week to discuss nature. But hold on. Wasn’t COP just in Egypt? And wasn’t it about climate? What exactly is the difference between nature and climate?
Here is all the information you need on COP15 that you were afraid to ask because you thought you’d look silly. You would not. The United Nations does not make this easy for the layman, or frankly, anyone who did not participate in Model UN in high school.
COP stands for “Conference des Parties,” an elegant French diplomatic term for a “supreme” governing body of an international convention or treaty.
At the United Nations, there are actually three ecology-related COPs. There was COP27 that was just held in Egypt and focused on climate change. Three weeks ago in Panama, there was COP19, which focuses on animals but is also known as the World Wildlife Conference. This brings us to COP15, or the Convention on Biological Diversity. It’s the world’s most important biodiversity conference. And for the next two weeks, national delegates will gather in this most European of North American cities to finalize a deal to stem habitat loss worldwide and preserve sensitive ecosystems.
COP15 is the collective effort to try to get a grip on the mass extinction of animals and plants across the planet — primarily because of the impact of humans. More than one million plant and animal species face extinction.
“Muddling through is nowhere near enough to halt, let alone reverse, this devastating decline in biodiversity.”
Once considered a separate issue from climate change, biodiversity loss is now regarded as an equally urgent crisis, and its connection to climate adaptation and mitigation is increasingly understood. Businesses are also beginning to recognize their dependencies on biodiversity, raising interesting questions on whether one can put a price on nature. “Muddling through as we currently are doing is nowhere near enough to halt, let alone reverse, this devastating decline in biodiversity,” says Andy Purvis from the UK’s Natural History Museum.
Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future, the muddling UN is the best forum to grapple with these existential issues. So over the next two weeks, delegates will finalize and sign the “Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.” It’s a kind of Paris Agreement for biodiversity that sets out dozens of ways to measure how we are, or are not, conserving our non-atmospheric environment.
Climate’s second cousin
The conference’s stretch goal is to conserve at least 30% of Earth’s land and water by 2030. It’s known by the catchy term 30-by-30.
Despite being focused on mass extinction, the conference does not have the same PR razzle-dazzle as the climate COP. No world leader will attend the meeting — it clashes with the football World Cup in Qatar, and conference leader China is in a simmering feud with conference partner Canada over something.
The U.S. is not even a delegate. The UN treaty is hostage to the U.S. Congress, which must approve all treaties. Republicans don’t like the bill despite ominous scientific warnings about the health of the planet and the consequences for human civilization. Yet, in the puzzling world of American politics, many Republicans still claim they are not climate deniers but actively oppose efforts to halt nature loss, prevent species extinction, and reduce pollution.
“It’s not easy to explain that…cycles that convert ocean water into rain for the bread baskets of Asia can be disrupted by deforestation and methane-emitting cows in the Amazon region.”
Part of the issue is just how stunningly complex trying to understand, much less “manage” biodiversity. As Carter Roberts, the U.S. head of the World Wildlife Fund. tells the Financial Times (FT), biodiversity is one of the two horsemen of the apocalypse. “One is climate change, and one is nature.”
Anyone who has taken high school biology knows that nature is not easy to understand and is subject to profound differences of interpretation. How an indigenous person thinks about nature is very different from how a Wall Street Banker does. Or as Roberts tells the FT, “It’s not easy to explain that hydrological cycles that convert ocean water into rain for the bread baskets of Asia can be disrupted by deforestation and methane-emitting cows in the Amazon region.”
Putting a price on nature
As challenging as it is to monetize and put a price on nature, it remains a high priority. That was a topic of our regular column this week. Cambridge University professor Partha Dasgupta studies how to translate the concerns of scientists and ecologists into the language of orthodox economics. He is an expert in the Task Force on Nature-related Financial Disclosures, whose efforts to deliver a risk management and disclosure framework for companies on nature-related issues like extinction will be in the spotlight in Montreal this week.
To offer a taste of the diversity and complexity of the issue this conference tackles, we gathered comments from some leading academics on biodiversity as the world kicks off COP15.
Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity
“Our planet is in crisis” with more than a million species threatened with extinction and populations of most major animal groups have declined by an average of 69 percent. “Clearly, the world is crying out for change.”
Professor Yadvinder Malhi, Professor of Ecosystem Science at the University of Oxford.
“Threats to climate and biodiversity are not separate ‘issues’ to be approached from different directions. They are intrinsically linked. By integrating climate and biodiversity policies, the full potential of biodiversity can support climate action. Nature-based solutions can help mitigate climate change: They are available now but need massive investment to work at the scale required.World leaders must ensure integrated climate and biodiversity policies.”
Scientist Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research
“Nature is crucial to keeping global heating within 1.5C of pre-industrial levels. But 1.5C is not a goal. It is a biophysical limit. Nature is one of the best climate solutions for remaining within that limit and to buffer against the worst impacts of climate change.”
Kyle Elliott is an Associate Professor at McGill University’s Department of Natural Resource Sciences and the Canada Research Chair in Arctic Ecology. He runs two long-term ecological stations near the southern Sub-Arctic range limit of Northern seabirds. In his lifetime, over 100 000 species have gone extinct.
“At current rates, Arctic ecosystems will cease to exist in the next century. As our planet warms, species move poleward, squeezing out Arctic species at the top. As one of the Circumpolar Nations, it is imperative that Canada takes the lead in preserving Arctic biodiversity — before it’s too late.”
Andrew Gonzalez, Professor, Department of Biology, McGill University
“The agreement is a call to all of society — time is running out to avoid a mass extinction event and ecosystem degradation on a planetary scale.”