Defend Truth


Biodiversity loss and climate change are humanity’s biggest issues: COP15 is a critical precursor to COP26


Kate Handley is an environmental attorney and co-founder of the Biodiversity Law Centre, a non-profit organisation that seeks to use the law to reverse the catastrophic decline of biological diversity in southern Africa.

Biodiversity loss is reaching catastrophic levels globally, and along with climate change is one of the most pressing issues facing humanity. We cannot talk about climate change without talking about ecosystem restoration and preservation. That’s why this month’s COP15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity is a critical precursor to COP26 in Glasgow.

Findings in a recent co-sponsored workshop report compiled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) record that biodiversity loss and climate change are two of the most pressing issues facing humanity. While there is recognition in both scientific and policymaking circles that the two are interconnected, says the report, in practice they are largely addressed in their own domains.

Against this backdrop, it is perhaps surprising that amid the clamour in the build-up to COP26 (Conference of the Parties) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Glasgow later in 2021, Part 1 of COP15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity, held from 15 to 18 October 2021, went by with comparatively little notice.

COP15 was postponed from October 2020 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and has been scheduled to take place in two parts: Part 1 (a largely virtual gathering) and Part 2 which will take place in Kunming, China from 25 April to 8 May 2022.

Despite being overshadowed by its climate change counterpart, the outcomes of COP15 are no less critical, since it is at this COP that parties will negotiate and adopt a post-2020 global biodiversity framework as a stepping stone towards the 2050 Vision of “Living in harmony with nature”.

A decade ago, parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity came together to formulate a strategic plan for protecting and conserving natural systems for 2011 to 2020. The plan comprised 20 targets, the Aichi Targets, which aimed to address the causes of biodiversity loss and reduce pressures on ecosystems and their services, improving the status of biodiversity globally and enhancing its benefits for all.

Despite its noble ambitions, the plan has largely failed to curb the unprecedented loss of biodiversity globally, with only six of the 20 targets having been partially achieved. This is a significant indictment of our species’ treatment of nature, especially given how fundamentally dependent human beings are on biodiversity and ecosystem services for our health and wellbeing, economic growth and sustainable development.

Biodiversity loss is reaching catastrophic levels globally. An IPBES Global Assessment Report released in 2019 records that 75% of land surface globally is significantly altered and an average of about 25% of species in assessed animal and plant groups are threatened, suggesting that about one million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken to reduce the intensity of drivers of biodiversity loss.

From a domestic perspective, South Africa is one of only 17 megadiverse countries (countries that harbour the majority of Earth’s species and are rich in biodiversity and associated indigenous knowledge). Human activities are putting this exceptional species richness and endemism at extreme risk. The 2018 National Biodiversity Assessment concluded that of 1,021 ecosystem types assessed, almost half are categorised as threatened. From a species perspective, 14% of plants are threatened, as are 12% of all animals.

This month at COP15, nations pledged to bolster protection of their natural environments, paving the way for an ambitious and transformative global strategy beyond 2020 which aims to achieve what the Aichi Targets could not, and more. The Kunming Declaration, “Ecological Civilisation: Building a Shared Future for All Life on Earth”, adopted during Part 1 of COP15, reflects key commitments made by governments towards the full realisation of the 2050 Vision of “Living in Harmony with Nature”. Most notably, states committed to:

  • Ensuring the development and adoption of an effective post-2020 global biodiversity framework, that includes provision of the necessary means of implementation (including technical and financial capacity building);
  • Eliminating perverse incentives that are harmful to biodiversity, thereby channelling financial flows to support positive conservation efforts and people in vulnerable situations;
  • Promoting the integration, or “mainstreaming” of biodiversity into cross-sectoral decision-making;
  • Increasing protected areas and improving their management;
  • Enhancing the global environmental legal framework;
  • Ensuring recognition of the role of indigenous peoples and local communities in conservation and stepping up efforts to ensure the fair and equitable benefit-sharing from the use of genetic resources, including associated indigenous knowledge;
  • Increasing the application of ecosystem-based approaches to address biodiversity loss, and (among other things) mitigate and adapt to climate change and boost resilience;
  • Ensuring that post-pandemic recovery policies, programmes and plans are oriented towards biodiversity conservation; and
  • Further enhancing collaboration and coordinating actions with ongoing multilateral environmental agreements, such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

One cannot talk about climate change without talking about ecosystem restoration and preservation. Well-functioning forests, wetlands, oceans and grasslands serve as significant carbon sinks, thereby mitigating climate change impacts, as well as augmenting climate adaptation and resilience. The functional separation of biodiversity and climate change stands to risk incompletely identifying, understanding and dealing with the connections between the two (IPCC-IPBES Report). The Kunming Declaration recognises this and the commitment to enhancing coordination of actions under the two treaties is thus not only welcome, but necessary. 

Climate change and biodiversity are interconnected and solutions to climate change alone will not help reduce changes in climate if biodiversity loss is not considered. Limiting global warming to ensure a habitable climate and protecting biodiversity are mutually supporting goals, and their achievement is essential to protecting development gains, and moving towards a more healthy, sustainable and equitable world for all. This is aptly recorded in the IPCC-IPBES report which concludes:

“Only by considering climate and biodiversity as parts of the same complex problem, which also includes the actions and motivations and aspirations of people, can solutions be developed that avoid maladaptation and maximise the beneficial outcomes.”

COP26 in Glasgow is on the horizon and is widely seen as the last chance for countries to commit to robust emission-reduction targets that will limit global warming to 1.5°C. With all the (entirely justified) hype around COP26, attention has perhaps been unduly shifted from COP15 and the biodiversity gains it seeks to secure for the next decade. This should not be the case. Rather, the proximity (in time) of the two COPs should be leveraged to enhance synergies between biodiversity and climate change ambitions, moving us closer to a 2050 Vision of truly living in harmony with nature. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Wendy Dewberry says:

    The difficulty, as always, is linked to the economic regime. Biodiversity is opposed by large scale industrialisation of food and resources. The power that corporations have over governments give rise to astonishing occurrences, the latest revelations that some Countries with ties to oil and industrial beef industries are trying to manipulate the IPCC scientific reports. Its absurd, but the economy dictates it.

    Unless humans reduce and get back to locally scaled economies, it seems that the beast of biodiversity loss and anthropomorphic climate change mitigation is just far too big to slay.

  • Biff Trotters says:

    Seems to me we have one hugely problematic monoculture that needs severe curtailment of numbers – Homo sapiens. Or, considering that homo sapiens means ‘wise man’, perhaps we need more. Perhaps the human rights of fertility and procreation need some revisiting before those rights ultimately push us all over the cliff. Yes, I know these are horrible words, and there’s so much more to the picture, and the wealthy are doing proportionally more damage etc etc, but if we were any other species we would have been culled a very long time ago, for being totally out of whack.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider
Elections24 Newsletter Banner

On May 29 2024, South Africans will make their mark in another way.

Get your exclusive, in-depth Election 2024 newsletter curated by Ferial Haffajee delivered straight to your inbox.