Global conservation communities pinning their hopes on new agreement to save nature
Humanity is driving at full speed towards the “abyss of ecosystem collapse”, from local freshwater systems to the global climate, but is blindly ignoring the “warning lights and crash barriers” continuing to ramp up business as usual, says environmental futurist Professor Nick King.
As the web of life unravels across the planet, many in the global conservation community are pinning their hopes on a new agreement to save nature - and humanity itself.
Touted as a Paris-style accord to halt the collapse of nature, the draft UN Global Biodiversity Framework sets out a global plan to safeguard nature through 2030, under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).
But King, a global change analyst and strategist, is sceptical.
“We keep setting non-binding goals and targets, change little by way of policies and incentives to meet them, miss them widely and then spend extraordinary amounts of time and efforts setting new ones, all to no avail as they don’t address the underlying causes of loss.”
The decline of nature is driven by other sectors, such as the extractives sector, as evidenced in the 2019 Global Resources Outlook report of the UNEP's Integrated Resources Panel, “thus the ‘biodiversity’ sector cannot address them without a fundamental shift in governance structure and authority within governments and globally”.
King served as co-chairperson on the science and policy advisory panel of the report, which shows how over 90% of biodiversity loss and freshwater stress, as well as more than 50% of greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change, are from the extractives sector, including agriculture
Since the 1970s, the global population has doubled, the use of natural resources has tripled and global GDP has grown fourfold, the report shows.
These trends, says King, have gobbled large amounts of natural resources to fuel economic development and improvements in human well-being.
But they have come at a “tremendous cost to our natural environment, ultimately impacting human well-being and exacerbating inequalities within and between countries”.
In May, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) warned how one million assessed plant and animal species face extinction, perhaps within decades, more than ever before in human history.
“All our recent global assessments such as from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPBES and GEO6 talk of the need for ‘transformative change’. This is recorded in the zero draft (of the Global Biodiversity Framework),” says King. “Without this transformative change in our values, consumptive way of life, ‘economic growth at all costs’ idiocy, unlimited population growth, etc, we will not address the causes.”
It is physically impossible for the Earth’s natural resource base to maintain itself - and meet humanity’s demands. “So, frankly, another set of targets, couched yet again in all the same wonderful rhetoric of how much we depend on nature’s bounty etc, is, at best, simply meaningless in terms of actual change, and at worst, it allows politicians and others to believe everything is fine, under our control and no further actions are needed.
“This very dangerous complacency is exacerbated by the fact that, globally, almost no politicians have any sort of qualifications in environmental science and are incapable of actually understanding the dire straits we’re in, let alone setting policies to address this. As humanity, we have and are incurring enormous ecological debt and very soon, nature is going to invoice us for repayment.”
In 2010, parties to the CBD adopted the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, and its 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets but experts say these have failed to halt nature's precipitous decline.
This week, over 190 nations met in Rome to continue negotiations on the zero draft of the post-2020 framework, which will eventually be agreed at the UN Biodiversity Conference in Kunming, China, in October.
The draft global plan is “hopelessly weak and inadequate”, believes Friends of the Earth International, noting how it fails to address the root causes of the collapse of nature - the “over-consumption of resources by wealthier countries, industrial agriculture and an economic system that drives further destruction and greater inequality”.
The draft will not halt damaging practices such as mining, commodity crops or pesticide use. “The main failure of the existing plan was that governments mostly ignored it without repercussions It allows for nature to be destroyed as long as it is saved elsewhere, which would lead to corporations putting a price on nature and offsetting their damage by paying to save it in another place. This will inevitably lead to a financial market in saving and destroying biodiversity.”
The draft, it says, ignores the vital role of indigenous peoples and local communities in “defending ecosystems”.
Professor Belinda Reyers, of the Future Africa unit at the University of Pretoria, points out the zero draft is a very early draft, “with a fair way to go” before it is negotiated by the world’s governments and finalised in Kunming.
The previous biodiversity framework was "not what one would call a resounding success as we have largely not made progress to most of the targets it set.
"There is a lot of concern, that just like that 2020 framework, this post-2020 framework seems to focus more on what we are losing, than why we are losing it. By focusing on things like extinction rates, or areas of ecosystems lost we are really just documenting the decline of the natural world.
"Goals a, b, and c in the draft framework fall into this basket of targets which focus our attention on the decline, but not on the causes of the decline. Even under these goals in their action targets the focus appears to be on pollution or invasive alien species, which while important, recent research has shown are really not the major culprits of biodiversity loss."
The main causes at a global scale are land use and sea use change through agriculture and aquaculture expansion and intensification, for example, climate change and over-exploitation of species for food, trade or other uses, Reyers points out.
"If we focus attention on these only we will really only be 'managing the decline of the natural world', rather than the ambitious plan that is needed to halt biodiversity loss and restore it to some of its former glory. This is what was meant by transformative change: fundamental changes or reconfigurations in the economic, political, social and value systems and structures that have caused the high rates of biodiversity loss we are witnessing.
"So, a framework that focuses on ecosystems, extinction rates and protected areas, is really not ambitious enough to counteract and influence the larger drivers of biodiversity loss including large scale drivers of change on the planet from agriculture, energy, trade, urbanisation, climate change, inequality."
While there are small hints of this in the draft framework, "calls right now are to make these hints more central and ambitious in the framework".
A key challenge, as always, she says, is that so many of these drivers of biodiversity loss and levers or areas of transformative change lie outside the biodiversity and environment sector.
"Hence the limited focus on protected areas and use of wild species which fall more within the remit of the biodiversity sector. Setting targets that lie far outside the sector, will prove challenging for the environmental sector to actually implement and make progress on. This is a core tension at the heart of the framework: targets you have some say over as a sector vs. targets that will make a difference."
Reyers points to the unsophisticated way that biodiversity is linked to outcomes for people in the draft framework. "There is so much evidence of the critical role that biodiversity plays in almost all aspects of social and economic development from food production, sources of income, protection from natural hazards, mitigation of climate change, and a myriad of spiritual, cultural, aesthetic, health and recreational benefits that South Africans are very familiar with from our mountains, beaches, game reserves, forest and rivers.
"And yet this framework which sets itself up as a having a 'mission to put biodiversity on a path to recovery for the benefit of planet and people' only lists nutrition, water and disaster resilience as benefits to people."
This has two major implications. "First, this narrow focus will miss out on changes in biodiversity that have real consequences for people. Second, at a time when we need all the support we can get to put biodiversity on this 'path to recovery' from across all sectors of society and the economy, failing to make clear why this mission is important to these other sectors from health, to education to rural development is a misstep."
Morné du Plessis, the chief executive of World Wide Fund for Nature-SA, says 2020 is being punted as a “Super Year” for nature.
This presents “the opportunity to adapt and renew international targets for three interdependent issues: the Sustainable Development Goals, nature (with three major international gatherings on biodiversity coming up) and climate, in particular the resilience that needs to be built into the system.
“We are looking at a planetary level emergency when it comes to nature loss, with major economic and social costs. This includes fragmentation and under-delivery of nature-related conventions and the need to connect nature with the economy and climate. Among the many challenges we are facing are the need to provide food and water for 9 billion people by 2030, in the face of biodiversity loss and a rapidly changing climate.”
A new narrative that positions healthy, diverse and functional natural systems as the foundation for social and economic development, stability and security, as well as individual well-being is needed.
“We’re looking for an agreement that is in the same league as the Paris climate agreement and are pushing for heads of state to buy into a concept of setting nationally determined contributions similar to the climate agreement.”
Individual governments must develop and implement their own ambitious national action plans to contribute to these targets, and then report back to the CBD on their progress regularly.
“This then enables all governments to work together to identify global implementation gaps and increase their ambition where necessary until the collective effort is aligned to the ambitious targets.”
A movement of non-state actors working with governments, in particular the private sector, will be critical.
Globally, South Africa is recognised as a “biodiversity superpower”, says Du Plessis. “By the majority of measures we fall within the top 10 most biologically diverse countries. With this statistic comes not only pride, but the obligation of care through legally binding global commitments that we have signed up to.”
Ambitious plan to stabilise loss of nature by 2030
Biodiversity, and the benefits it provides, are fundamental to human well-being and a healthy planet, says the zero draft of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, but it is deteriorating worldwide.
The framework “sets out an ambitious plan to implement broad-based action to bring about a transformation in society’s relationship with biodiversity and to ensure that by 2050, the shared vision of living in harmony with nature is fulfilled”.
It is built around a “theory of change”, which recognises that urgent policy action globally, regionally and nationally is required to transform economic, social and financial models so the trends that have exacerbated biodiversity loss will stabilise in the next 10 years and allow for the recovery of natural ecosystems in the following 20 years.
It presents five long-term goals for 2050, with 20 targets for 2030 meant to contribute towards achieving these goals.
The draft plan proposes, among others, placing around a third of land and oceans under some form of protection, and cutting pollution from plastic waste and excess nutrients and biocides by 50% by 2030, and restoring freshwater and marine ecosystems.
“I know that the world is eagerly waiting out there for demonstrable progress towards a clear, actionable and transformative global framework on biodiversity," Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the acting executive secretary of the CBD, said in a statement.
"They want a framework that can be implemented at all levels, namely, at global, regional levels, national and subnational levels. They want a framework that builds upon the existing Biodiversity Strategic Plan 2011-2020 and its accompanying Aichi Biodiversity Targets and a framework that aligns with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development."
This initial “zero” draft was based on extensive consultations, advice from governments, scientists, indigenous peoples, NGOs and others, gathered through dozens of meetings and hundreds of written submissions.
It was developed in response to the 2019 IPBES assessment.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature, in a position paper, says that while it welcomes the draft framework, the proposed draft action targets will not deliver the goals outlined, and “will not therefore halt the net loss of biodiversity by 2030. It follows that the framework will not deliver the required transformative change”.
If 30% of the land area is conserved in tropical regions in Latin America, Africa and southeast Asia, the extinction risk facing vascular plants, birds and mammals could be halved.
A new study published this week in the journal Ecography, authored by 21 global biodiversity and climate change scientists, finds that increased conservation efforts together with efforts to limit global warming to 2ºC offers the best chance to slow species loss.
Avoiding extinctions results in healthy ecosystems that provide many services critical to people, including maintaining key carbon stores that prevent runaway climate change.
Do your bit:
What is biodiversity?
The variety of plant and animal life in the world or in a particular habitat, a high level of which is considered to be important and desirable.
SA’s rich biodiversity:
The number of South African animal species is estimated at 67000 and more than 20400 plant species have been described.
Approximately 7% of the world’s vascular plant species, 5% of mammal, 7% of bird, 4% of reptile, 2% of amphibian, 1% of freshwater fish and 16% of shark, skate and ray species are found in the country.
It is home to nearly 10% of the world coral species and almost a quarter of the global cephalopod species such as octopus, squid, cuttlefish.
Some terrestrial invertebrate groups have high richness relative to global statistics - 13% of the world’s sun spiders and nearly 5% of butterflies occur in the country.
Around half of the country’s species of reptiles, amphibians, butterflies and freshwater fish are endemic. Almost two-thirds of plant species are endemic - mostly linked to the unique Cape Floristic Region.
Approximately 40% of South Africa’s estimated 10 000 marine animal species are endemic, the vast majority invertebrates.
Did you know?
South Africa is ranked in the top three countries globally when it comes to plant and marine species endemism (species found nowhere else on earth).
The diversity and uniqueness of its species and ecosystems makes the country one of the world’s 17 mega diverse nations - countries that together contain more than two-thirds of the world’s biodiversity.
The economy is highly dependent on this biodiversity. For example, biodiversity tourism demand generates a direct spend of about R31 billion in the economy annually, and its 2 000 medicinal plant species contribute to the African traditional medicine sector worth around R18bn a year.
How biodiversity benefits people:
- Nearly invisible insect pollinators are essential for the production of nutritious fruits and vegetables.
- SA’s plant and animal species are used for food and medicine; Aloe ferox, for example, is 95% wild-harvested and used in over 140 cosmetic and complementary medicine products.
- Healthy estuarine and marine ecosystems supports 22 commercial fisheries sectors, about 29 000 small-scale fishers and 700 000 recreational fishers.
- Interacting with nature brings measurable emotional, mental and physical benefits, influences our cultural and spiritual development, and provides R31bn per year to the tourism economy.
To help protect biodiversity:
- Consider what you eat: consume foods from local sources that are sustainably produced.
- Think before you buy: minimise purchasing of items that have only a single use (plastic straws, food in single-use packaging), and buy locally-made items to reduce your carbon footprint.
- Reduce your waste: recycle all packaging, reduce your energy and water consumption, and make sure you don’t waste them, dispose of any other waste appropriately.
- Become involved: support local initiatives that protect, restore and study nature - like coastal clean-ups, biodiversity citizen science projects, alien plant hacking, and more. Source: SA National Biodiversity Institute
SA’s role in Rome
Albi Modise, the spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Affairs, says South Africa took part in the discussions in Rome this week and was engaging through the Africa regional group.
Modise says: “The African priorities that SA is advancing as chair of the AU are related to ecosystem protection and restoration, management and enhancement of freshwater, marine and terrestrial ecosystems, thus supporting associated socio-economic activities; management of invasive alien species; access and benefit-sharing with associated traditional knowledge, impact assessment aligned to Article 14 of the Convention on Biological Diversity; mainstreaming biodiversity into relevant sectors; natural capital accounting; biosafety; climate change and biodiversity and poaching and illegal wildlife trade.
“These elements would need to be supported by means of implementation focusing specifically on financial resources, scientific co-operation and technology transfer as well as capacity building.
“The zero draft of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework has been drafted by the co-chairs on the basis of the extensive consultations that have been undertaken and the inputs that have been received.
“It provides a basis on which the key elements can now be developed for further negotiations. The focus of the meeting is to identify areas where further preparatory work or consultation is required
“Future meetings will then focus on addressing the levels of ambition and setting targets. It seems too early and unjustifiable to judge the current draft as ‘hopelessly weak’ for parties to commence with focused and structured engagements.”