State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


We Can’t Separate Climate and Biodiversity

This is the seventh of a continuing series of essays and interviews from Earth Institute scientists on the prospects for a global climate-change treaty. Check with us daily for news and perspectives, and to make comments, as events unfold throughout the Copenhagen meetings.

Red-eyed Tree Frog
Red-eyed Tree Frog

In 1940, after Copenhagen was occupied by Nazi Germany, many of its Jews were saved when Danes and Swedes cooperated to spirit them at night across the narrow strait from the Danish town of Helsingør to the Swedish town of Helsinborg.  On the Danish side of the strait, there is now a monument, lit at night, so that the Swedes can see this symbol of eternal thanks. I learned this bit of history one night in 1991 when my then mentor Tom Fenchel, a leading Danish ecologist, showed me the monument. I confessed to him that I found it deeply moving; it said to me that nations can work together to confront a common enemy.  Prof. Fenchel pointed out that it had not always been this way. “You know,” he said, “in the past, as barbarians, whenever the strait would freeze, either we or they would cross the ice and wage battle.”

This year, Copenhagen is being invaded again, by negotiators from around the world, but they may have trouble cooperating like the locals did. The roots go back to 1992, when most of the world’s nations came together in Rio de Janeiro to confront the common enemies of poverty, social inequity and environmental degradation.  It was there that both the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change—the basis of this month’s summit—and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity were born. It was already then apparent that the benefits of the industrial and green revolutions had come at enormous cost to the natural world. The climate system was warming as we razed forests and burned through fuels, and ecosystems were straining as species rapidly disappeared.  These two conventions were aimed at two sides of a single problem: achieving environmental sustainability.

The parties have not turned out to be a truly willing coalition.  On one side, developed nations are outraged at what they perceive as unchecked population growth by developing countries, which indeed account for 90% of population increases.  On the other side, developing nations are outraged at what they perceive as unchecked consumption by the developed nations—which indeed consume energy and natural resources, and produce wastes, at 32 times the rate of developing countries.

This standoff lead has led to inaction.  In the 17 years since Rio, humanity’s consumption has increased steadily, and has long since surpassed Earth’s long-term carrying capacity. Over the last decade, species on the endangered “red list” of the International Union for Conservation of Nature have increased from 10,533 to 17,291. In that same decade, the average annual increase in atmospheric CO2, has gone up 20 percent. It’s like no one ever met in Rio.

The problem is the separation of the conventions on climate and biodiversity.  The bulk of Earth’s remaining biodiversity resides in developing countries, which have much to lose if developing nations attempt to enforce preservation of biodiversity.  And, the bulk of fossil-fuel consumption is in developed nations, which have much to lose if their consumption is forcibly curtailed.

The meeting of the G8 nations’ environmental ministers in Siracusa, Italy, this year spelled out why it makes no sense to consider biodiversity separate from climate change.  In their Carta di Siracusa on Biodiversity, the ministers called attention to the fact that biodiversity preservation is key to climate change adaptation and mitigation; that combating illegal logging is critical for increasing carbon storage and sequestration; and a concept known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) to promote biodiversity conservation is also an important mechanism for tackling climate change.

This year in Copenhagen is the Fifteenth Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. So far, rather than uniting against the common enemies that brought them together in Rio, both developed and developing nations seem to be taking this as an opportunity to continue waging battle against one another.  Already, several nations have indicated that a treaty is unlikely to emerge, given the basic divide.

Yet, I still think back to Prof. Fenchel’s history lesson in Helsingør, and I feel hope.  Many participants in Copenhagen this year will be there to give the message that we need to keep the principles of the Convention on Biological Diversity integral to the discussions of climate.  The success, or failure, of the conference will rest on how successful these parties are. Biodiversity conservation and action on climate cannot be seen in isolation. Together, they are the means for finding solutions that promote the common agenda of sustainability for all nations.

naeem_profile_85Shahid Naeem is director of science at the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation and chair of Columbia’s department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology.

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