We are witnessing the loss of biodiversity at rates never before seen in human history. Nearly a million species face extinction if we do not fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world, according to the most comprehensive assessment ever undertaken of the world's ecosystem.
The newly published Global Assessment of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) provides unequivocal evidence that biodiversity is key to human survival and wellbeing. It involved 500 biodiversity experts from over 50 countries, and was approved by over 130 governments.
The findings are set to influence world leaders who are meeting in China next year and aim to reach a new global agreement on biodiversity. The world is currently on track to miss most of the global targets (known as the Aichi targets) set under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
China Dialogue asked leading experts and authors of the report why global efforts to save biodiversity are failing and what new approaches are needed.
Culture is key to conservation
Lu Zhi, professor of conservation biology at Peking University, executive director of the Peking University Centre for Nature and Society, and founder of the Shanshui Conservation Centre
We are all somewhat disappointed at the implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity. On the one hand, many of its targets can’t be quantified, which makes the convention harder to implement; on the other, biodiversity conservation has not been “mainstreamed”. Given this, everyone hopes to see the IPBES assessment use more quantitative data even if some data is still imprecise.
Currently there is more awareness of climate change than biodiversity. But ultimately, much of the impact of climate change on humanity will be via its impact on biodiversity. Making this clear will aid the mainstreaming of biodiversity targets.
The report also points out that biodiversity is decreasing more slowly in areas inhabited by indigenous peoples – and that is very important for our understanding of the value of local knowledge and values in conservation. The environmental Kuznets curve indicates that environmental protection only becomes a matter of concern once people become well off. But in ethnic minority areas such as Tibet, people have high levels of awareness and participation in conservation even when living standards are low. After heavy snows in Yushu [on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau] this year, many herders hauled fodder up mountainsides to feed wild animals. They were not driven by financial incentives or legal requirements but by values, and that should provide inspiration for our conservation efforts. Culture is key to conservation.
Xie Yan, deputy researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Zoology
The IPBES assessment shows the urgency of the global ecological crisis and the huge impact the degradation of nature has on human wellbeing. Revolutionary changes are needed to prevent further ecological degradation.
Most countries fail to recognise the importance of biodiversity to the long-term survival of their populations. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) stresses the international duties of all nations, but we need to make national leaders aware that the conservation of biodiversity ensures the ecological security of their own people if we are to create political will at the national level.
China has seen important progress since 2017, both in developing the system of nature reserves and in protection of endangered species. The Ministry of Natural Resources has been created, various types of nature reserve have been brought under one system, provincial ecological redlines have been set, oversight of nature reserves is stricter than ever before, and much successful experience of biodiversity conservation has been acquired.
China should use those achievements to boost political will in other countries, in particular through the Belt and Road Green Development Partnership and sharing its experiences at the CBD conference in 2020.
People hate it when you put a value on biodiversity, but you have to do it.
Kathy Willis, professor of global biodiversity at Oxford University, former director of science at Kew Botanical Gardens and lead author of Chapter 5 of the IPBES report
We need to move beyond [the focus on] protected areas. Protected area targets are great theoretically but they really don’t start to make the links between nature and benefits to humans. They are still very much focused on a baseline state we need to keep static.
I wish we could come up with really meaningful targets that we can actually achieve. For example, conserving our crops’ wild relatives – the ancestors of the crops we have – is absolutely vital. Some of these have survived multiple climatic regime shifts and they have those resilient genes.
[Another] area lots of people are now moving into, particularly the economists, is saying that if we remove nature we’re going to have to replace its benefits with technological solutions that are much more costly and less effective. People hate it when you put a value on biodiversity, but you have to do it. If you don’t have trees in this street incidences of asthma will increase greatly. That is a very stark reality and there is a very strong evidence for this.
China is very keen to bank their seeds for important trees, shrubs and herbs, but they are also keen to work out which plants should be planted where to make sure you get all those important benefits – such as carbon sequestration. Some really nice work has been done in cities about plants that can sequester pollution and this has been led in China. China also has an incredible knowledge of plant-based medicine that should be enhanced.
We are the last generation able to save biodiversity
Wang Huo, deputy secretary of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation
We are the last generation able to save biodiversity, and it is not yet too late to act. Action should be focused on biodiversity in populated areas, and innovating forms of nature reserves. Rather than size – having a certain percentage of land under protection – we should look at quality – what is protected, and how effectively? Conservation of biodiversity cannot be solely about creating reserves in remote and sparsely populated areas and separating people and nature.
Meanwhile, we need to take systematic steps to ensure the next ten-year biodiversity targets are met. The post-2020 biodiversity framework is not a matter for the Convention on Biological Diversity alone. It will require coordination and synergy across various international bodies and treaties, including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Nandini Velho, field biologist and government advisor working with communities on forest biodiversity conservation in the eastern Himalayas of India’s Arunachal Pradesh
The lack of political will to prioritise environmental protection is the main reason for our collective failure. And a lack of an ear to the ground is another reason.
There have been some recent and heartening tipping points – from Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and others who are pushing climate change concerns up the political agenda. With matters related to biodiversity protection the articulation is slightly tougher, but it’s essentially a subset of the same fight for human wellbeing.
A [new Indian] government will be elected in May and there needs to be a serious agenda for biodiversity protection: from a clear agenda to secure existing protected areas as well as outside protected areas, to critically evaluating new infrastructure projects, to understanding coastal and marine issues, to protecting the rights of people living around forest and coastal areas.
How China deals with illegal wildlife trade is extremely important given that we are losing a lot of species rapidly. Both India and China can be leaders in deciding socially and environmentally conscious investments in overseas infrastructure projects, especially in many countries in Africa.
Ana di Pangracio, deputy executive director of Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales in Argentina, and the president of the South American Committee of the International Union for Conservation of Nature
There were important advances following the Aichi targets, such as the entry into force of a protocol on access to genetic resources [so local communities can share the benefits of utilising biodiversity], the increase of the percentage of land and marine areas under protection, the higher awareness of the biodiversity crisis and the fact that almost all countries have adopted national biodiversity strategies. But the advances have not been enough to reach all the goals and address the threats.
This is due to the lack of political commitment, insufficient financing and lack of attention to the structural causes that cause the loss of biodiversity: corporate power, infrastructure megaprojects, agriculture and industrial livestock, exacerbated consumerism, among others.
There should be a political commitment from all the countries, with effective and timely actions to address the urgent situation, a mobilisation of the necessary financial resources to achieve the goals set, the establishment of participatory and informed processes on the matter, and the creation of compliance mechanisms that hold countries accountable.
China should adopt socio-environmental safeguards for projects and investments made in other countries, many of them mega diverse in terms of biodiversity. [China should] also comply with human rights and commit cash resources so that developing countries can take actions to protect biodiversity.
Eric Dinerstein, director of biodiversity and wildlife solutions at RESOLVE and lead author of a new paper, A Global Deal for Nature
We will probably not make the Aichi targets set for 2020, which included protecting 70% of the terrestrial realm and 10% of marine life, but it’s important to understand these targets were political in nature; they were not based on any kind of scientific underpinning of what was needed. I think we’re looking towards the CBD [in Kunming in 2020] for the opportunity to set robust targets that are based on science. That’s why we’re calling for 30% of strictly protected areas by 2030 and 50% by 2050 as climate stabilisation areas, which provide vegetative cover and prevent land emissions.
Some Chinese scientist colleagues published a paper a few months ago outlining how China could actually achieve 50% protection in its southern territory. That would be an amazing achievement if the government endorses that and shows the rest of the world how this can be done. Another area where China could be a massive leader is reforestation works with native species.