INTERVIEW: The pressing question of biodiversity

Mohamed Al-Kazaz, Tuesday 25 Oct 2022

Elizabeth Mrema, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, talks to Al-Ahram Weekly on the need for cross-sectoral approach to promote environmental rule of law to limit biodiversity loss



During your many years at UNEP working on the development of environmental laws, what has been the most important achievement at this level locally, regionally, and globally?

I would have to say the Montevideo Environmental Law Programme. It was a significant part of my work during my time at UNEP, including director of the Law Division.  

Since 1982, UNEP has conducted its environmental law activities on the basis of sequential 10-year Montevideo Programmes for the Development and Periodic Review of Environmental Law. The latest Montevideo Environmental Law Programme was adopted by the UN Environment Assembly in March 2019 for the period January 2020 to December 2029.

The programme promotes the development and implementation of environmental rule of law, strengthens the related capacity in countries, and contributes to the environmental dimension of the 2030 Agenda.

Since its inception, the Montevideo Programme has successfully led to the adoption of regional and global multilateral environmental agreements, the development and implementation of national framework laws, accompanied by sector specific regulations, and the establishment of national environmental authorities and other institutional arrangements.

The programme has been instrumental in building and enhancing capacities of different stakeholders on environmental law issues such as judges/magistrates, prosecutors, legal NGOs, the private sector, national legal officers, etc.

Biodiversity is being lost globally at an alarming rate, so is nature facing a crisis? If so, how do we deal with that crisis?

Our planet is indeed in crisis and we are seeing unprecedented rates of biodiversity loss. It is estimated that humans have altered over 97 per cent of ecosystems worldwide, to date. And as ecosystems suffer, so do the ecosystem services on which our society relies on. Since those services normally include climate and freshwater cycle regulation, nature loss is unfortunately amplifying the effects of climate change.

We will have our chance to face it head on, this December in Montreal, Canada. Parties to the convention will have the responsibility of agreeing on, and adopting, the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, an international set of policy goals and targets, which will form the basis for a transformation of our relationship with biodiversity. Once the global biodiversity framework is adopted, it will have to be implemented. This is our best course of action. This is how we fight to halt and reverse biodiversity loss and all the devastating global impacts that accompany it.

With over 75 per cent of the land, 66 per cent of the ocean, 85 per cent of wetlands [suffering biodiversity loss] and over a million species going into extinction within this century, clearly, urgent action is needed now, and business as usual from previous decades is no longer an option.

Societies do not realise that the loss of biodiversity is dangerous. How can awareness of the importance of this diversity, and the risks of losing it, be amplified?

You are correct when you say that biodiversity loss is dangerous and has serious effects. While awareness of this has increased over recent years — the Covid-19 pandemic brought attention to the linkages between biodiversity loss and animal and human health — there is still much work to be done.

Thanks to the IPCC and IPBES, we know that the adaptive capacity of most ecosystems and social-ecological systems to deal with climate change is there but is limited. Still, climate change is pushing those crucial ecosystems beyond that threshold.

All while our need for healthy natural ecosystems to deal with climate change impacts increases. Without addressing both cohesively, effectively and immediately, we run the risk of catastrophic impacts for many people and communities around the world, especially in developing countries and other vulnerable states, many of which depend on biodiversity for their livelihood and resilience.

The level of awareness of biodiversity really varies according to the specific circumstances of people. People in rural settings are typically more aware of the role of biodiversity in their lives than urban dwellers. Directly interacting with biodiversity has created the conditions where they see and realise its crucial role. Urban dwellers are another matter. Because the population will continue to increasingly urbanise in the future, this is where we need to work harder. In this regard, creating a biodiversity-positive urban transition can create greater awareness.

This means more visible incorporation of biodiversity protection, conservation, restoration and sustainable use into city planning, urban development, parks, and infrastructure, to make the importance of biodiversity visible to city residents. It also means highlighting the role of biodiversity in food and food systems, from the choice of their food or diets to where people buy their food in stores and urban markets, and even the recipes that are passed from generation to generation.

It means reminding people that the things they consume — clothes, furniture, other consumer objects, have an impact on biodiversity. This is the job not only of government, but also of businesses, all stakeholders — including us as individuals.

In addition to this, high level support for the implementation of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework will be critical in terms of awareness. True transformation cannot happen without a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach.

What are the most prominent extinction rates around the world and what impact does this have on our lives and futures? What are the economic costs of these threats?

WWF’s Living Planet Report 2022 states that monitored wildlife populations, including mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish, have seen a devastating 69 per cent decrease since 1970.

The Living Planet Report also states that Latin America and the Caribbean regions have seen the largest decline of monitored wildlife populations globally, with an average decline of 94 per cent between 1970 and 2018.

IPBES reports that over a million species of animal and plant life are currently threatened with extinction — more than any other time in human history. The impact of these harsh realities is detrimental to our planet and to all of humankind.

Our economies are embedded in natural systems and depend considerably on the flow of ecosystem goods and services, such as food, other raw materials, pollination, water filtration and climate regulation. With over $44 trillion of assets globally, over half of the world’s GDP is dependent on nature and thus is at risk from nature loss. The loss and decline of biodiversity does, and will continue, to impact us all. And the effects are not just economical; biodiversity loss affects human health, wellbeing, livelihoods, development, and resilience.

What is happening in our seas and oceans and what is needed to change our relationship with nature? How can we stop this loss? Are there good models we can follow?

The ocean and the life therein are facing a growing range of pressures, increasingly impacting the ability of marine ecosystems to provide the range of services that underpin a healthy, well-functioning planet and society.

Climate change and other human-driven changes are having enormous impacts. Approximately half of the live coral cover on coral reefs has been lost since the 1870s. Marine plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, affecting at least 267 species, including 86 per cent of marine turtles, 44 per cent of seabirds and 43 per cent of marine mammals. Nearly 3,400 square kilometres of mangrove forests were lost between 2000 and 2016.

There are few parts of the ocean that we have not affected and overall 66 per cent of the ocean area is experiencing increasing cumulative impacts from multiple pressures. Recent estimates indicate that more than 10 million tons of plastic waste are currently entering the oceans every year, endangering fish, seabirds and other taxa. Under a ‘business as usual’ scenario, the rate at which plastic pollution enters aquatic ecosystems is projected to increase by 2.6 times the level of 2016 by 2040. And the amount of fish stocks at biologically sustainable levels has decreased by roughly 90 per cent since 1974. These numbers are not just alarming, they are catastrophic.

The interconnected nature of the ocean means that impacts on marine biodiversity are not constrained to one place, but rather they affect the global community as a whole. Unfortunately, these impacts are felt most deeply by vulnerable communities, particularly developing countries and Small Island developing States (SIDS). The remote nature of many ocean areas also makes it difficult to research and monitor the ocean, and to effectively enforce regulations in the ocean. The ocean is also valued and used in many different ways, and these uses are not always sustainable and compatible.

Furthermore, our financial models and patterns of production and consumption exacerbate these challenges. For example, the value of harmful incentives as a proportion of all fishing subsidies increased between 2009 and 2018. Of the more than $35 billion provided as fishing subsidies in 2018, some $22 billion was spent on subsidies linked to overfishing.

This underlines the urgent need for ocean action to not only focus on improving the scale and effectiveness of ocean protection, but also to better engage various users of biodiversity in actions for conservation and sustainable use. For too long, various ocean stakeholders have worked in silos, limiting our ability to address the underlying drivers of biodiversity loss and to capitalise on the various strengths of different sectors and stakeholders.

The good news is that positive steps have been taken. Marine Protected Areas (MPA) coverage has increased significantly between 2000 and 2020 from about three per cent to at least seven per cent. And, when robust cross-sectoral approaches have been undertaken, they have generated clear positive benefits for biodiversity and people. We need to scale these approaches up and better engage broader groups of stakeholders in positive action for marine ecosystems.

How are we working to achieve the Bonn Challenge target, what are the challenges facing biodiversity at the COP27 Sharm El-Sheikh summit, and has the world succeeded in investing in biodiversity or are there still obstacles?

We are very pleased to see the successes of the Bonn Challenge, which was launched in 2011, in light of the Aichi Biodiversity Target 15. Its aim was to bring 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested landscapes into restoration by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030. According to progress reports, there are currently 210 million hectares in the process of restoration, which remains an important contribution towards Aichi Target 15 though not reached by the end of 2020.

The Global Biodiversity Outlook 4 (GBO 4) assessed that, despite many restoration and conservation efforts, Aichi Target 15 was not achieved, with a net loss of forests, and a major global carbon stock. Unfortunately, data was lacking to indicate whether 15 per cent of degraded lands were restored. Looking forward, the GBO 5 examined the promise, progress and prospects for interdependent transitions on issues, including for land and forests, to collectively move our societies into a more sustainable coexistence with biodiversity. The post-2020 global biodiversity framework, to be adopted in December 2022 by the parties to the CBD at COP 15, will address these issues.

For far too long, we have looked at these challenges — climate change and biodiversity loss — as separate issues and have tried to deal with each crisis individually and retroactively. But these crises are intrinsically linked. Climate change is pushing many ecosystems to their adaptation limits and provoking an unprecedented rate of biodiversity loss which, in turn, threatens our food security.

At the time we desperately need biodiversity to help mitigate and adapt to climate change, it is being lost at up to 1,000 times the natural rate due to multiple drivers and stressors. But there is not one “fix all” solution. We must understand the connection and know that we cannot address one without considering the other. That is how we will find tangible solutions and ensure biodiversity safeguards are put in place.

The role of biodiversity is increasingly being recognised in the deliberations within UNFCCC, at COP26 last year in Glasgow and now at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh. While this is all very positive, still more needs to be done. We are seeing more and more synergistic policy development that recognises how these two crises are linked and must be addressed together. The challenge is action on the ground and scaling it up from small-scale projects to nation- and region-wide interventions.

A major obstacle that still needs to be overcome is the global investment into biodiversity. As an example, in 2019, major investment banks provided an estimated $2.6 trillion, the entire GDP of Canada or the UK, to sectors which governments and scientists agree are the primary drivers of biodiversity destruction. 

Public subsidies harmful to biodiversity range from $345 billion in agriculture from 54 countries in 2018, to up to $542 billion in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sectors only in 2019, not to mention an estimated $395 billion to $478 billion of subsidies to fossil fuel production. These figures obliterate the total financial flow into biodiversity conservation globally, estimated at between $124 billion and $143 billion.

However, at the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity will seek agreement on increased mobilisation of resources from all sources to fund biodiversity protection, including redirecting negative biodiversity incentives to positive and green biodiversity incentives and the mainstreaming of biodiversity within and across sectors.

This is necessary for the successful adoption of the post-2020 framework moving us into a transformational decade — a decade marked by meaningful collaboration and concrete action towards the delivery of the set goals and targets.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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