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World forum pushes biodiversity to the top of the world agenda — at its own Davos


Dane McDonald is a former biodiversity scientist (MSc) and former journalist (BPhil Journalism). He is now a combination of the two and is still seeking a useful label.

The climate crisis topped the agenda at this year’s World Economic Forum gathering in Davos, and one of the pledges was to plant a trillion trees. But a much lower-key event in Davos highlighted as great a threat – the threat to Earth’s biodiversity. And planting a trillion trees could be part of that.

In the last week of February 2020, the world’s foremost minds in biodiversity science met at the Swiss ski resort of Davos to chart the way forward for biodiversity.

Globally, “Davos” is synonymous with the annual World Economic Forum (WEF). In fact, a Google search for Davos brings up the WEF as the first out of 48,500,000 results – search engine optimisation on steroids.

The highest town in Europe just a month ago saw about 3,000 of the world’s most powerful (mostly men), meet to discuss issues of global concern affecting corporate bottom lines.

The inaugural biodiversity iteration, aptly named the World Biodiversity Forum (WBF), was much more low-key. About 500 delegates were in attendance. There were probably no private jets. The security budget was certainly not upwards of R120-million.

You would have been unlikely to bump into a billionaire at the WBF where one month ago, 119 of those rare human beings gathered in close proximity – it probably won’t happen again anywhere on the planet until next year’s WEF.

It might be cynical to say that the WBF attempted to clean up the mess left by the WEF, but it’s an irresistibly tempting view.

A recent report slammed 24 banks who regularly grease the corridors of the “World’s Finest Meeting Place” for providing $1.4-trillion (about four times the size of South Africa’s 2017 GDP), in financial support for fossil fuels since the Paris agreement set new emissions reductions goals in 2015.

Throwing money at the problem

In spite of the status quo, the 2020 WEF could be commended for its focus on climate change (one could also argue that it did not have a choice), and giving young activists a voice at the high-profile event.

These included, among others, Greta Thunberg and South Africa’s 18-year-old Ayakha Melithafa from Eerste River in Cape Town, who was cited in the President’s SONA 2020.

Within the context of SONA 2020, the challenges facing biodiversity in South Africa was demonstrably low on the government’s list of priorities, and understandably so given the prevailing economic crisis.

However, the disproportionate attention given to climate change to the exclusion of related issues needs to be addressed – a more nuanced communications approach is needed, as recommended in a 2018 Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution study.

The narrow focus of the climate crisis has become a media phenomenon – a situation which ensures that it stays high up on the policy agenda.

The unfortunate reality is that we could reach net-zero emissions and still have a planet that is unable to sustain human and other life forms. The current approach seems to be one of “if we solve the climate crisis, everything else will fall into place”.

This is mirrored by the same spurious economic logic touting Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the indicator of how a country performs across the board, even the WEF finds it “gross” of late.

Inasmuch as climate change is often framed as an externality with significant impacts on the integrity and health of biodiversity systems, it is a dynamic system which is inextricably linked and moves in both directions.

This foundational scientific fact seems to have been lost not only on some quarters here at home, but also on the WEF and its partners who recently made a flamboyant proposal to plant a trillion trees this decade.

The idea is to offset carbon emissions, but seems more like a typical case of “we’ll just throw money at the problem”.

Money grows on trees

The jury is still out as to the viability of “one trillion trees”. A large group of scientists have warned that planting all those trees could potentially cause more harm than good. Others have gone as far as to call it a scandal.

The World Biodiversity Forum convened a session titled “Nature-based solutions for adapting and mitigating climate change”. In their description, the convenors were unequivocal that the climate crisis and biodiversity loss should be addressed together.

“Climate change has received far more attention than the biodiversity crisis. Moreover, certain mitigation and adaptation responses to climate change pose risks to biodiversity and ecosystem services. For example, afforestation efforts for carbon sequestration may promote the establishment of monoculture plantations at the expense of diverse grasslands,” they say.

A clear red flag on “one trillion trees” is that notorious climate change denier, US President Donald Trump, has thrown his weight behind the initiative. Meaning that he denies climate change is happening, but supports an initiative that seeks to mitigate climate change. Strange for us, but normal in the world of Trump.

And what is the world of Trump? It appears to be a world where money grows on trees. In his book, “The Deals That Made the World”, Jacques Peretti says the Earth’s climate crisis has emerged as the biggest business opportunity in the history of the planet. Business has woken up to the fact that there is “more money to be made from saving the planet than … killing it”.

One report indicates that the US restoration economy alone generated $9.5-billion in annual economic output in 2015 and created an additional $15-billion in indirect and induced output, while the ecological restoration industry employed 126,000 Americans in 2014, exceeding jobs in coal mining by 59%. This is the tip of the iceberg.

The big money appears to be in the new technology set to assist (or even carry out), reforestation in the future, which reads like something out of a science fiction novel: “BioCarbon Engineering uses drones to plant trees. Sensors aboard a fixed-wing drone observe ground topography, biodiversity and obstructions to create an optimised planting pattern. A planting drone that can cover one hectare in 18 minutes deploys 300 biodegradable seedpods, then monitors growth.”

Yet, the biggest question mark is around some of the planet’s most decorated NGOs and more tree-tailored newcomers like AFR100 standing in line for funding to plant trillions of trees without a solid, agreed upon, scientific basis – while at the same time playing a part in the “self-perception” laundering of multinational corporations.

The biodiversity disconnect

As far as biodiversity is concerned, it can be argued that the onus is on scientists, among others, to show the connection between biodiversity, functioning and well-protected ecosystems – and climate-resilient and sustainable societies. A South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) expert recently said that scientists could do better at “showing the link”.

Within this context, the World Biodiversity Forum has an important role to play. It is not clear as to whether the forum is going to be an annual feature at Davos like its economic counterpart.

The WBF is hosted largely by the University of Zurich. Unlike at the WEF, where the relative influence of the South African (and broadly African), business contingent was negligible, this first WBF’s agenda was to a great degree defined by South African participants.

South Africa at ‘Bio-Davos’

One of the main organisers, Dr Cornelia Krug, attached to Zurich University, spent nine years of her career doing research in South Africa and produced high-impact biodiversity-related science during this period.

It might be a stretch to equate her to WEF founder Klaus Schwab, but who knows how things may turn out in the next 50 years of the Davos scene within the context of a “burning planet”.

To cover the massive extent of the biodiversity field and to explore its complexities, the forum was divided into over 40 thematic sessions, 18 interactive workshops, five debates and science communication/media training workshops.

But the gold standard at these events are generally the plenary sessions – to be attended by all participants who would otherwise meet in the aforementioned smaller groups.

Here, 20% of the speakers were South African or would have contributed to global biodiversity research through a South African institution.

And it is not hard to see why South African biodiversity science is punching above its weight. South Africa’s biodiversity heritage is nearly unparalleled globally, and its high-calibre researchers are perpetually working at the interface of the natural environment and a (purported) developmental state.

A typical example of developed-world science in a developing country.

Show the link

To put things into perspective, Africa as a whole attracted very little interest at WEF 2020, while South Africa, in particular, found it hard to convince the crowd that it was a place worth investing in.

A high-level panel on “Africa in 2020”, was poorly attended. The session was allocated the biggest venue (800-seater) at the Davos Congress Centre with only about 60 people in attendance – 80% of whom were Africans.

From a global point of view, one can only hope that South Africa will continue to command increasing interest and influence in the sphere of biodiversity as its related issues steadily climb higher on the global agenda (for example: United Nations 2020 super year for nature and biodiversity).

It is encouraging to think that Schwab’s founding WEF in 1971 hosted 444 participants. This gives reason to be optimistic about the WBF (with 500 participants in 2020), but the biodiversity sector will have to make the case and show the link between biodiversity and sustainable, climate-change resilient societies, economic development, job creation and food security. DM


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