State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


The Impact of the 15th Biodiversity Conference of Parties (COP 15)

In December 2022, nearly 200 countries (not including the United States) signed on to an agreement to control the planet’s loss of biodiversity. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP):

“The United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15) ended in Montreal, Canada, on 19 December 2022 with a landmark agreement to guide global action on nature through to 2030. Representatives from 188 governments have been gathered in Montreal for the past two weeks for the important summit… COP 15 resulted in the adoption of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) on the last day of negotiations. The GBF aims to address biodiversity loss, restore ecosystems and protect indigenous rights. The plan includes concrete measures to halt and reverse nature loss, including putting 30 per cent of the planet and 30 per cent of degraded ecosystems under protection by 2030. It also contains proposals to increase finance to developing countries – a major sticking point during talks.”

When the conference was underway, I was struck by the lack of media attention it was attracting and the contrast to the media circus that surrounds the Climate COPs. It is remarkable how much attention the climate issue gets and how it has become almost synonymous with the problem of environmental sustainability. Climate is a critical issue, but frankly, it is not a graver threat than either the loss of biodiversity or the presence of the human-made toxic chemicals we’ve let loose in our air, land, and water. Climate change is simpler to understand than these other problems and its solution is relatively straightforward. The problem is that the mitigation of climate change will take a long time to implement due to the importance of energy to modern economic life. Other environmental issues also pose economic trade-offs, but none seem to be as clear and central as climate and energy. Nevertheless, climate is far from the only environmental threat that we face.

These U.N. conferences are valuable because they raise awareness of the issues they are addressing, although few have been as prominent as the Climate COPs. I worry about the expectations raised by these meetings, despite the U.N.’s lack of authority. In the case of biodiversity, I also fear that this critical issue is being ignored because it is not seen as an “existential” threat to humanity, a label often assigned to climate change. As I wrote last December:

“I always find the coverage of these conferences fascinating as reporters and delegates gather and pretend that they are participating in and covering a great arena of global decision-making. In fact, whatever is agreed to—if anything is agreed to—cannot be enforced in a world of sovereign nations. Any resemblance to operational reality may well be purely coincidental. Perhaps even worse: it appears that no one is paying attention. I know that when pressed, many people at COP 15 will admit that the real aims of the meeting are far less dramatic than the stated goal of preventing species extinction and maintaining biodiversity. Like their older and more popular sibling, the Climate COP, they are hoping to focus the world’s attention on a critical environmental problem. Their focus is not climate change but ecological well-being. The United States will attend the meeting but is not a party to the convention. Biodiversity and ecology are not at the center of global diplomacy or national policymaking. If this is a media extravaganza, it is decidedly low-key. Biodiversity loss is not a new story, it is centuries in the making.”

While the European Union and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission are promulgating rules requiring corporations to disclose their carbon emissions and climate risks, measuring the loss of biodiversity has not yet reached the political agenda. Nevertheless, it appears that some companies are beginning to pay attention to their impact on biodiversity and are slowly moving toward action. It reminds me a bit of the beginning of ESG reporting about a decade ago. Writing in the Wall Street Journal last week, Joshua Kirby reported that:

“Six months ago this week, nearly 200 countries signed a landmark agreement in Montreal to protect biodiversity. While mandatory reporting on nature may still be a long way off, for some companies, measuring their impact on nature makes good business sense. Managing reputations, minimizing costs and ensuring their own survival are among the reasons these early-mover companies give for making a head start on analyzing and reporting on nature-related risks such as deforestation, pollution and over farming.”

Mr. Kirby’s piece notes a small movement of some companies to focus on these issues, particularly firms that depend directly on functioning ecosystems to produce what they sell, from tobacco to bourbon. One problem is the complexity of biodiversity impacts. Ecosystems, by definition, are highly interdependent, and the relationship of one human impact to a set of specific ecosystem changes can be difficult to monitor and understand. According to Kirby:

“… assessing impact on the natural world remains trickier than measuring greenhouse gases. Emissions can be calculated in metric tons, and companies use shared rules that enable comparisons between businesses, even if reporting remains patchy and partly based on estimates. Biodiversity impact, on the other hand, remains a more nebulous concept, with widespread uncertainty about what to measure and how to measure it.”

The amount of financial resources devoted to the study of ecology and biodiversity is nowhere near the scale needed to make substantial progress in scientific understanding. The funding devoted to medical research dwarfs the funding available to study our natural environment. Current ecosystem measures need refinement. We use species population and extinction as a sort of surrogate measure of ecosystem health. If a living creature is dying off, we typically view that development as an indication that the ecosystem supporting the creature is in trouble, but we don’t always understand why this is going on. Ecological relationships look more like a web of interconnections than a straight-line linear model of causes and effects. Data collection may be challenging in some ecosystems, and the cost of field observation and analysis can be prohibitive. I have some hope that the use of drones, automation, and artificial intelligence might reduce the cost of research and facilitate a more rapid understanding of threats to biodiversity.

The political challenges presented by climate change at the start of the 21st century can increase our understanding of the political salience of biodiversity. The problem with climate change as a political issue back in the year 2000 was that when compared to problems like air and water pollution, it was difficult to directly experience cause and effect. The causes and effects of air pollution could be seen and smelled; you could often tell where dirty air came from and where it ended up. In contrast, climate change was caused everywhere, and its impact wouldn’t be apparent until the future. For climate change, that future has arrived, and everyone experiences the warmer world we now live in. Losses of biodiversity may be too subtle for the casual observer to visualize. We can see when our old campground has been developed as a strip mall. In that case, the loss of natural systems is clear. But if the forest remains, and no mall was built, but the bird population has been cut in half, we may not be able to see the damage. Even if we notice the bird loss, we do not know what caused it.

Twenty-first-century environmental issues like climate change and biodiversity loss are not as visible and local as air, water, waste, and toxic substances. Conferences like COP 15 can enhance their visibility and increase understanding. But we need to remember that the agreements reached are largely symbolic. The real action is at the national, community, and organizational level. All change is guided by self-interest. The key to successful environmental change is to build the case for enlightened self-interest and to mobilize public resources to stimulate the profitable allocation of private capital to maintain and rebuild endangered ecosystems. Our wealth and well-being depend on functioning ecosystems. We are, after all, organic, living creatures—a part of and not divorced from the natural world.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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