Why the U.N.’s Biodiversity Conference Is So Important

  • General

As 20,000 government leaders, journalists, activists and celebrities from around the world prepare to descend on Glasgow for a crucial climate summit starting late this month, another high-level international environmental meeting got started this week. The problem it seeks to tackle: A rapid collapse of species and systems that collectively sustain life on earth.

The stakes at the two meetings are equally high, many leading scientists say, but the biodiversity crisis has received far less attention.

“If the global community continues to see it as a side event, and they continue thinking that climate change is now the thing to really listen to, by the time they wake up on biodiversity it might be too late,” said Francis Ogwal, one of the leaders of the working group charged with shaping an agreement among nations.

Because climate change and biodiversity loss are intertwined, with the potential for both win-win solutions and vicious cycles of destruction, they must be addressed together, scientists say. But their global summits are separate, and one overshadows the other.

“Awareness is not yet where it should be,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, a biologist and climate researcher who has helped lead international research into both issues. He calls them “the two existential crises that humankind has elicited on the planet.”

Apart from any moral reasons for humans to care about the other species on Earth, there are practical ones. At the most basic level, people rely on nature for their survival.

“The diversity of all of the plants and all of the animals, they actually make the planet function,” said Anne Larigauderie, an ecologist who directs a leading intergovernmental panel on biodiversity. “They ensure that we have oxygen in the air, that we have fertile soils.”

Lose too many players in an ecosystem, and it will stop working. The average abundance of native species in most major terrestrial biomes has fallen by at least 20 percent, mostly since 1900, according to a major report on the state of the world’s biodiversity published by Dr. Larigauderie’s panel, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. An estimated million species are threatened with extinction, it found.

Climate change is only one driver of biodiversity loss. For now, the major culprit on land is humans destroying habitat through activities like farming, mining and logging. At sea, it’s overfishing. Other causes include pollution and introduced species that drive out native ones.

“When you have two concurrent existential crises, you don’t get to pick only one to focus on — you must address both no matter how challenging,” said Brian O’Donnell, director of the Campaign for Nature, an advocacy group. “This is the equivalent of having a flat tire and a dead battery in your car at the same time. You’re still stuck if you only fix one.”

This week, environment officials, diplomats…

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