The impact of the 15th Conference of the Parties on biodiversity (COP 15)
In December 2022, nearly 200 countries (excluding the United States) signed an agreement to control the loss of biodiversity on the planet. According the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP):
“The United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15) ended in Montreal, Canada, on December 19, 2022 with a historic agreement to guide global action on nature through 2030. Representatives of 188 governments gathered in Montreal over the past two weeks for the important summit… COP 15 culminated in the adoption of the Global Framework for biodiversity of Kunming-Montreal (GBF) on the last day of negotiations. The GBF aims to combat biodiversity loss, restore ecosystems and protect indigenous rights. The plan includes concrete measures to halt and reverse the loss of nature, including putting 30% of the planet and 30% of degraded ecosystems under protection by 2030. It also contains proposals to increase funding for developing countries. development – a major sticking point in the talks. ”
When the conference was in progress, I was struck by the lack of media attention it attracted and the contrast with the media circus surrounding the Climate COPs. It is remarkable how much attention the climate issue has received and how it has become almost synonymous with the issue of environmental sustainability. Climate is a critical issue, but frankly, it’s no greater threat than the loss of biodiversity or the presence of toxic man-made chemicals we’ve released into our air, land and water. Climate change is easier to understand than these other problems and its solution is relatively simple. The problem is that climate change mitigation will take a long time to implement due to the importance of energy in modern economic life. Other environmental issues also pose economic trade-offs, but none seem to be as clear and central as climate and energy. However, the climate is far from the only environmental threat we face.
These UN conferences are valuable because they raise awareness of the issues they face, although few have been as significant as the climate COPs. I worry about the expectations raised by these meetings, despite the lack of authority of the UN. In the case of biodiversity, I also fear that this crucial issue will be ignored because it is not perceived as an “existential” threat to humanity, a label often attributed to climate change. As I wrote last December:
“I always find the coverage of these conferences fascinating as journalists and delegates come together and pretend they are participating and covering a large global decision-making arena. In fact, whatever is agreed – if anything is agreed – cannot be applied in a world of sovereign nations. Any resemblance to operational reality may well be purely coincidental. Perhaps even worse: it seems that no one is paying attention. I know that when they are in a hurry, many at COP 15 will admit that the true aims of the meeting are far less dramatic than the stated aim of preventing species extinction and maintaining biodiversity.Like their older and more popular sibling, the COP Climate, they hope to draw the world’s attention to a critical environmental issue. Their goal is not climate change but ecological well-being. The United States will attend the meeting but is not a party to the convention. Biodiversity and ecology are not at the center of global diplomacy or national policy-making. If this is a media extravaganza, it is decidedly understated. The loss of biodiversity is not a new story, it has been in the making for centuries.
While the European Union and the US Securities and Exchange Commission enact rules requiring companies to disclose their carbon emissions and climate risks, measuring biodiversity loss has yet to hit the political agenda. Nevertheless, it seems that some companies are starting to pay attention to their impact on biodiversity and are slowly taking action. It reminds me a bit of the beginnings of ESG reporting a decade ago. Write in the the wall street journal last week, Joshua Kirby reported that:
“Six months ago this week, nearly 200 countries signed a historic agreement in Montreal to protect biodiversity. Although mandatory nature reporting is still a long way off, for some companies measuring their impact on nature makes good business sense. Managing reputations, minimizing costs and ensuring their own survival are among the reasons given by these pioneering companies to get a head start on analyzing and reporting nature-related risks such as deforestation, pollution and agricultural overexploitation.
Kirby’s article notes a small movement by some companies to focus on these issues, particularly companies that depend directly on the functioning of ecosystems to produce what they sell, from tobacco to bourbon. One of the problems is the complexity of the impacts on biodiversity. Ecosystems, by definition, are highly interdependent, and the relationship between a human impact and a set of specific ecosystem changes can be difficult to monitor and understand. According Kirby:
“…assessing the impact on the natural world remains more delicate than measuring greenhouse gases. Emissions can be calculated in metric tons and companies use common rules that allow comparisons between companies, even if the reports remain uneven and are partly based on estimates. Biodiversity impact, on the other hand, remains a more nebulous concept, with widespread uncertainty about what to measure and how to measure it.
The amount of financial resources devoted to the study of ecology and biodiversity is far from the scale needed to make substantial advances in scientific understanding. Funding for medical research dwarfs the funding available to study our natural environment. Current ecosystem measures need to be refined. We use population and species extinction as a sort of proxy measure of ecosystem health. If a living creature is dying, we usually take this development as an indication that the ecosystem supporting the creature is in trouble, but we don’t always understand Why It happens. Ecological relationships are more like a web of interconnections than a linear linear pattern of cause and effect. Data collection can be difficult in some ecosystems, and the cost of field observation and analysis can be prohibitive. I have some hope that the use of drones, automation and artificial intelligence could reduce the cost of research and facilitate faster understanding of threats to biodiversity.
The political challenges presented by climate change at the beginning of the 21st century can increase our understanding of the political importance of biodiversity. The problem with climate change as a political issue in the year 2000 was that, compared to issues like air and water pollution, it was difficult to directly experience the causes and effects. The causes and effects of air pollution could be seen and felt; you could often tell where the dirty air was coming from and where it ended up. In contrast, climate change has been caused everywhere, and its impact would not be apparent until the future. For climate change, that future has arrived and everyone is experiencing the warmer world we live in. Biodiversity losses may be too subtle for the casual observer to visualize. We can see when our old campground was turned into a strip mall. In this case, the loss of natural systems is evident. But if the forest remains and no shopping centers have been built, but the bird population has been cut in half, we may not be able to see the damage. Although we notice the loss of birds, we don’t know what caused it.
21st century environmental issues like climate change and biodiversity loss are not as visible and local as air, water, waste and toxic substances. Conferences like COP 15 can improve their visibility and increase their understanding. But we must remember that the agreements reached are largely symbolic. The real action is at the national, community and organizational level. All change is guided by self-interest. The key to successful environmental change is to advocate for enlightened self-interest and mobilize public resources to stimulate cost-effective allocation of private capital to maintain and rebuild threatened ecosystems. Our wealth and our well-being depend on the functioning of ecosystems. We are, after all, organic, living creatures, part of the natural world and not separate from it.