9 December 2022

No time for a Winter's tale

Dr Nick Atkinson

Chief Science Officer

4 min

BeZero's Chief Science Officer Dr Nick Atkinson looks at the aims of COP15 on biodiversity in Montreal and asks if loss and damage can make way for restoration and gain.

When cosmic full time is called on planet Earth millions of years from now, intergalactic pundits will no doubt ask how a single species was able to score so many own goals. In the space of a few millennia, humans have brought themselves and pretty much every other living thing on the planet to the brink of not just one but two existential crises. Some people might think it’s all over, but it doesn’t have to be.

Much was said of loss and damage at the COP27 gathering in Sharm El Sheikh. As the desert dust settles, attention moves to Montreal for the 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The meeting should deliver the next iteration of the actions and indicators needed to arrest and reverse the self-inflicted decline in wildlife that threatens our own future. What can those discussions in Egypt of compensation for past climate harms tell us about the profound debts we owe Nature?

Over the last few centuries, with accelerating scale and ever deadlier precision, we have wreaked havoc upon all other known life in pursuit of mineral wealth; gold, oil and lately, lithium. Underground, a layer of nuclear isotopes and microplastics clearly marks the beginning of the Anthropocene, the first epoch driven by a single species. Vulnerable nations at least have a voice: what would the million-plus species facing extinction at our hands be telling us, if only they could?

Might they be saying that we literally depend on them for everything? We eat other species. They regulate and cleanse the air we breathe and the water we drink. Sustainable homes are built from them. They hold back the deserts, the floods and the tides. Benevolent species provide the source of medicines that protect us against malevolent ones.

In righting past wrongs we could look beyond our own species (of course that’s “we” in the sense of those who have done the most harm and gained the most at others’ expense as a result).

If the cost of ecological restoration feels expensive now it’s because there’s been too much freeloading going on for too long. The only way that “we” are going to stop global warming and the collapse of global ecosystems is if we pay up. The longer it’s left the more it’s going to hurt.

Where COP27 faltered, COP15 could succeed, but the challenges are all too familiar. For example, the United States of America has never ratified the CBD, objecting on grounds of fears over corporate intellectual property rights and that it might subject the US to the legal authority of an international body. Whilst its own domestic protections in many ways mirror the CBD’s intentions they are vulnerable to political influence that can variously see environmental protection as a necessary good or a barrier to economic progress.

Taking place over two years late, due to the Covid19 pandemic, the COP15’s objective is to update the Aichi Targets, a series of indicators intended to guide and track progress towards arresting the global decline in biodiversity. According to the UN’s own analysis, none of the 20 indicators has been fully met. Do they need updating or overhauling?

The Montreal conference aims to install a new set of targets based around addressing the major drivers of loss of nature:

  • changes and fragmentation of land use, driven mainly by agriculture and urban sprawl;

  • overexploitation of natural resources, such as deforestation and overfishing;

  • pollution from agriculture, industry and transport;

  • invasive non-native species, which disrupt and overwhelm ecosystems;

  • unsustainable consumption and production, which themselves are driving the other drivers.

There are hopes that market solutions will arise. We already see the use of project co-benefits within the Voluntary Carbon Market (VCM) helping to support higher prices for credits: buyers seem to value these extras. Project co-benefits are often the primary reason why the project happens in the first place. For example, in the provision of cleaner cookstoves there are often local outcomes that relate directly to the health and wellbeing of communities.

To go beyond philanthropy and into the world of markets we need tradable units. Those units need to be measurable against a recognised standard, which then makes them fungible to enable trading. Carbon dioxide is a relatively straightforward example of such a unit. It exerts more or less the same impact anywhere on the planet. Other greenhouse gases can be converted into multiples, called carbon dioxide equivalents, that facilitate the construction of markets to address global warming mitigation.

Nature, red in tooth and claw, is an altogether more complex animal.

Biologists have spent decades debating how to capture meaningful indices of nature. Should we focus on the diversity of species? If so, at what scale? How about the abundance of life? If so, how might we prioritise common and rare species? Recent efforts target understanding whole ecosystems, in particular the interactions between species and identification of those that are vital to the function of the ecosystem, without which it collapses.

One thing is very clear, it is much easier to observe what has been lost than to appreciate what has not. By not attaching a financial value to nature, the argument goes, we have plundered its resources without thought to sustainability: the impact of the loss of habitat has not factored on the corporate balance sheet. There are signs of that changing, but the technical barriers to merely quantifying biodiversity are merely a precursor to the challenges of creating a market for it.

Winter in the global North is a time of both death and renewal. As the last delegates leave Montreal the nights will begin to draw out once more. Let’s hope there will be hope.

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