Biodiversity is political

As we approach COP15, Victor Anderson calls for action on biodiversity, the other environmental crisis

A lot was said about COP26 last year, the 26th Conference of the Parties signed up to the UN Climate Change Convention. But what about COP15, which is this year?

COP15 is the 15th Conference of the Parties (i.e. the governments) to the UN Biological Diversity Convention, originally signed at the same time and place as the Climate Convention: Rio de Janeiro in 1992, at the Earth Summit. Neither treaty has been a success: if the world had changed course then, 30 years ago, solutions, rather than a string of disasters, would now be in sight.

Frequently these days, there is a spotlight shone on the climate emergency and the failure of the Climate Convention, but still relatively little political attention is being given to the parallel and interlocking emergency taking place in the field of biological diversity.

Twelve years ago (the gap was supposed to be ten but coronavirus got in the way), the Biodiversity Conference, held in Japan, set out a list of targets, ‘the Aichi targets’, supposed to be reached in 2020. According to the UN, none has been fully achieved, six partially achieved, and the other 14 nowhere near.

Now the governments are preparing to meet again, in Kunming, China, from 25th April to 8th May*. They will review the targets, report on the failures, and almost certainly decide on a new set of targets. Many NGOs are campaigning for the next targets to be more ambitious; but, of course, targets are no good without policies, institutions, information, and finance to implement them. There also needs to be consistency when the governments represented in biodiversity talks are in other international forums, such as those on economics and trade. However, the focus of the new conference is likely again to be on debating which targets to set.

The climate emergency is now located at the heart of economic and political life: it concerns the most powerful economic sectors, the financial and legal arrangements governing what companies are allowed and incentivised to do, and geopolitical questions about foreign policy alliances and military intervention. It is therefore completely clear that climate is not an obscure peripheral issue of interest only to scientific specialists.

In contrast, decline in the natural world is still generally seen in the West as strictly non-political, not only in a political party sense, but also as not being relevant to the central issues of the economy – a matter only for experts and hobbyists, a minority of TV viewers and perhaps a lot of children, and as being very specifically about wildlife issues, such as alien species, the wildlife trade, and conservation projects on the ground.

Biodiversity and wildlife organisations themselves very often reinforce this impression, finding they can raise funds most efficiently by keeping away from anything controversial, avoiding drawing any conclusions regarding the economy or how people in the West live our lives. Many useful conservation projects have been funded as a result.

That approach has become increasingly misleading and has now begun to be counter-productive. This is because the biodiversity question is much more like the climate issue than it has generally been presented as being.

Many factors cause loss of biological diversity, but the principal one is land use change, and increasingly that is being joined in importance by changes in the climate. We already know that changes in climate have economic causes, being driven largely by the ways in which energy is generated and consumed. Then what is included under the heading of ‘land use change’? When, for example, forest is cut down to make way for agriculture, mining, roads, and industry, that is ‘land use change’. If that important fact is traced back and spelled out, it means that biodiversity loss is caused by the way food is produced, the way materials are mined and used, and the quantity and nature of transport and manufacturing.

It is time to tell the truth about the destruction of the biosphere, and the threats which that poses to food supply, carbon absorption, and the maintenance of good quality air, water, and soil. Biodiversity loss, like excess carbon emission, is really a central feature of our current ways of life and methods of social and economic organisation.

Although many people will be sad to see the disappearance of some spectacular species of animals, it is probably through food shortages – meaning starvation in poorer countries and food price inflation in richer ones – that the biological diversity crisis will really hit public awareness and political agendas. Water shortages, soil degradation, pollinator decline, the dangerous narrowing down of variety within key food crops, together with climate change too fast for species to adapt or move, all point to food supply crises. At that point, sadly, COP15 in Kunming will not look as obscure as it does today.

*EDIT 22/4/22: Since this article was originally published, COP15 has been delayed until the 3rd quarter of 2022.

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