More needs to be done to protect biodiversity

Interview with the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, Dr. Cristiana Paşca Palmer

In November of this year, governments from around the world will meet in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for the UN Biodiversity Conference. At this crucial meeting, delegates will discuss enhanced actions needed to protect the biodiversity that underpins sustainable development and life on Earth. They will also agree on the shape of the negotiations that will lead, in 2020, to a new Global Deal for Nature – the post-2020 framework for biodiversity.

In this interview, Dr. Cristiana Paşca Palmer, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, tells us what is at stake in the negotiations. She also outlines some of the key elements of a new relationship between societies, economies and nature.

The UN Biodiversity Conference will take place in Egypt in November. Why is this meeting so important?

Biodiversity and the essential services that nature provides are essential for life on Earth. Biodiversity is the basis of our food, medicines, fuel and livelihoods. It is the source of our cultural and spiritual enrichment. By conserving, restoring and sustainably using biodiversity, we ensure that we have viable solutions to present and future challenges, including climate change, water scarcity, food security, sustainable development, and peace and security.

For example, protected and restored ecosystems and the biodiversity they support can help mitigate climate change and provide increased resilience to communities in the face of disasters. Water quality and availability is ensured by well-functioning ecosystems – forests, grasslands, soils, rivers, lakes, streams, wetlands, aquifers, estuaries and coastal waters. In so many ways, the sound management of biodiversity and ecosystem services is the basis for economic and social development and thus contribute to the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The UN Biodiversity Conference, scheduled to take place in Egypt in November, is a unique opportunity for the global community to lay the groundwork for action on biodiversity over the next ten years. Governments will agree on the process of developing the successor to the current global framework for biodiversity – the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020. The timing is crucial: as we know from the reports of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released in March, while there are strong actions being taken, more needs to be done to protect biodiversity. At the conference in November, governments must send a clear message that safeguarding biodiversity and the health of the planetary ecosystems is fundamental to our survival and the social and economic well-being of everybody, everywhere.

Photo by Dirección de Asuntos Ambientales 

Despite existing challenges in protecting biodiversity worldwide, what makes you hopeful about the future?

All 196 Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted the 2050 vision of “Living in harmony with nature.” They have made a lot of progress towards this goal. We have to remember that the ‘road to 2050’ has several important milestones, including the design of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework along with the SDG implementation, which have 2030 as deadline.

Fortunately, governments are already starting to work on developing an ambitious post-2020 framework for biodiversity. We expect that governments and other relevant stakeholders from the business sector and civil society will make specific and strong commitments towards implementing the post-2020 agenda.

I see an increasing recognition of the need for urgent action to protect biodiversity. Companies and people are becoming more interested in shifting to new ways of production and consumption. There is an increasing awareness of the need to reorient economic development pathways towards an “economy within ecological boundaries” and to move away from business-as-usual approaches. Conversations about mainstreaming biodiversity into development planning, resource mobilization, governance and decision-making are also gaining momentum.

Nature and biodiversity are in a worrisome state. What do countries need to do to tackle biodiversity loss?

Before moving forward, there are several roadblocks that countries must overcome. First, the current global economic and development model does not account for natural capital and the ecosystem services provided by biodiversity. We need to shift to an economic model that accounts for the fact that we operate within a closed system – planet Earth – and that our economic growth is limited by the ecological limits of the planet, also known as “planetary boundaries.”

The second roadblock is the ‘short-termism’ embedded in current political decision-making processes. Many environmental and conservation actions are of a long-term nature, going beyond the usual political and election cycles. We need long-term planning for the way we use nature’s capital. Long-term vision grounded in solid science and short-term, practical, implementation action needs to be at the heart of our decision-making.

And the third major roadblock is the dominant concept of human separation from and supremacy over nature. This misconception sits at the root of people’s disconnect from nature and the fragmentation we see in environmental governance and policymaking. Significant changes are required in our mindset – as decision makers, producers, and consumers.

You’ve called for a systems approach in how we address the way we conserve and sustainably use biodiversity. Going forward, how can systems thinking help engage, catalyze and accelerate the required transformative changes?

It is perfectly clear that we cannot halt the biodiversity crisis by working in isolation, cocooned in our own little world with like-minded people. Working in silos to solve systemic problems simply doesn’t work. The complexity of the interdependencies between human, social and economic systems, and the natural Earth’s systems requires interconnected measures and solutions. We also need to acknowledge that our economic model is rooted in unsustainable consumption and production patterns, and neglects to incorporate the costs of losing natural capital and the benefits we all derive from nature.

Because biodiversity and ecosystems provide the essential infrastructure supporting life on Earth and human development, it should come naturally that biodiversity is placed at the centre of economic and social assessments, as well as political decision-making. We need to build a strong scientific and economic case to demonstrate the relevance of biodiversity to ministers of finance and the investment and business community. At the Secretariat, we have started to reach out increasingly to these key actors because we recognize that, without their buy-in and involvement in addition to top government and political decision makers, we will not see a sea-tide transformative change in the way decisions and actions that impact ecosystems are taken and implemented.

What role can business play in supporting the biodiversity conservation?

Businesses play a decisive role. Business operations depend on biodiversity and ecosystem services, and biodiversity loss is therefore likely to have a significant negative impact on business operations. On the other hand, business operations have a significant impact on biodiversity and ecosystems services. Businesses can therefore make an important contribution to the implementation of the Strategic Plan and to leading transformative change in the decade post 2020.

Transforming our economic model by moving towards sustainable consumption and production can also generate significant benefits to businesses, through more reliable supply chains, cost savings and enhanced protection against natural disasters. In the context of the Convention, more and more businesses are committing to deliver such contributions, as reflected in the global Business and Biodiversity Pledge opened for signature at the Global Business and Biodiversity Forum in Cancun, Mexico, in 2016, as well as in the pledges at the national level, including through the Convention’s national and regional business and biodiversity partnerships.

Given how biodiversity interconnects with other global priorities, how can other multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) and global processes contribute to the post 2020 global biodiversity framework and the 2050 Vision on Biodiversity?

As we move towards 2050, it is important that we all speak with one voice on nature, in alignment with the SDGs and the Paris Agreement on climate change, backed by science-based targets for an ambitious strategy to catalyze change. No single body alone can address the challenges that lie ahead in achieving the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. By its very nature, biodiversity is cross-cutting, and we need the full engagement of all MEAs and indeed all stakeholders. As noted by the Japanese writer Ryunosuke Satoro: “Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.”

While the Convention interacts with a wide range of UN organizations and agencies as well as other international and regional institutions, we need to strengthen partnerships with other relevant organizations, like the Rio Convention secretariats, the UN Development Programme, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs and others to make sure biodiversity is fully integrated in the development agenda. We also need enhanced engagement with financial institutions, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, regional development banks as well as the World Health Organization, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

We also need to find more effective ways of communication. We need to craft new narratives that connect biodiversity with broader development objectives and broader global challenges such as climate change. We must move from negative messaging, which simply leads to anxiety and paralysis rather than action, and pitch messages that resonate with, and are meaningful to, both the average person and decision-makers.

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