A week ago today, Monday 9th August 2021 saw a long-awaited and terrifying assessment report land on the desks of scientists, politicians and industrial leaders around the world. The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) AR6 report[i] is the culmination of years of work, thousands of scientific papers and represents the global scientific consensus on global warming and its consequences. The findings are dire. The language was blunt and direct; the conclusions do not need interpretation. That we are seeing changes in the earth’s climate that are “unprecedented” and already affecting every inhabited region across the globe is beyond doubt.[ii] In the IPCC’s own words, human activity is “unequivocally” the cause of these rapid changes, and only rapid and drastic reductions in greenhouse gases in this decade can avoid climate breakdown. As Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general stated, the IPCC’s conclusions are a “code red for humanity. The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable”.[iii] But it is not just humanity that is being affected; the way we live is increasingly impacting all life on our planet, with devastating consequences for the earth’s biodiversity.
While the clock ticks on for policymakers bartering climate action with short term electoral and economic cycles, there is another very immediate existential threat to the world around us: time is running out for much of what we call ‘life’ on this planet. The threat that humankind’s business-as-usual practices pose to the world’s biodiversity is every bit as disturbing as our effect on greenhouse gases and climate change. Indeed, the two are so tightly linked it seems we cannot speak of one without the other. Yet climate change dominates the headlines while life on land and below water traditionally does not. Although the IPCC’s latest report has grabbed the headlines, the 2019 IPBES general assessment report on biodiversity[iv] was no less shocking in its direct use of language concerning the damage that has already been done to nature, and the future trajectory for non-human life on the planet.
The IPBES report, also the result of around 7 years of work by hundreds of scientists, came to similar conclusions as the IPCC: the business-as-usual scenario will be incredibly harmful for the planet, and only with major changes can we hope to reach some of the targets in the SDGs[v] and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.[vi] The report found that three quarters of land-based and two thirds of marine-based organisms have been significantly affected by human action, and that one million species now face extinction. In similarly stark terms to the IPCC report, IPBES reported that the scale of this damage is ‘unprecedented’ and that a number of direct drivers such as land use change (mainly for agriculture) and pollution show ‘unequivocally’ that human activity is “eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide”.[vii] Finally, the IPBES assessment warned that even with major changes to the way we currently live, biodiversity decline will carry on beyond 2050 and that only truly transformative change can hope to avert the worst consequences. The IPBES’ work-plan for 2021 includes a long-awaited assessment of the determinants of transformative change required to address this biodiversity loss.[viii]
The IPBES report was stark reading when it landed in 2019 and has only become more urgent. However, it did not have the same dramatic headline-grabbing impact as the IPCC report has had, possibly because climate targets are thought to have a more direct impact on global economies, but also because discussion of the findings and reporting against biodiversity targets did not taken place in a global setting soon after its publication due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 15th Meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), known colloquially as COP15 and originally scheduled to take place at the end of 2020, will now be held in October 2021.[ix] Like the Climate COP in Glasgow, countries will meet to review progress against a set of targets – in this case the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, and review the delivery of CBD’s strategic plan for 2011-2020. Most importantly, the CBD will set new targets beyond Aichi (which expired in 2020) and establish a series of goals for 2030 as well as a longer term vision for biodiversity.[x]
The vision of COP15 is certainly ambitious – some have said that the CBD is charged with finding a new plan to save all life on earth.[xi] The CBD itself is more muted on the matter, referring to an overall vision of “living in harmony with nature” by 2050.[xii] Either way, the goal that the convention has set itself is significant and at least equal in ambition to the climate targets that will be discussed in Glasgow. There is also the spectre of past failures haunting these talks – none of the 2020 Aichi targets have been met,[xiii] making setting more ambitious targets even more difficult, despite the growing need. There is also disagreement among experts of whether a single apex target – such as the Paris Agreement’s 1,5C target – could inspire the focus needed to accelerate action on biodiversity conservation and reclamation by being clear and simple to communicate,[xiv] or whether such targets detract from a vision which is multifaceted and complex, and therefore cannot be captured in a single metric.[xv], [xvi]
What we do have agreement on, including increasingly from policy-makers, is the belief that the world’s biodiversity is a priceless asset that must be protected, and that the scale of the challenge is huge. That much is beyond doubt. Reporting tactics such as WWF’s living planet index[xvii] and WRI’s data lab[xviii] mean that access to metrics on nature loss are easier than ever to reach, and easy to understand. The public has been captivated by nature in recent years, illustrated by a huge upsurge in interest for nature documentaries.[xix] Meanwhile, spending patterns on nature-damaging goods have not changed. UK consumers spent greater amounts on clothing each year from 2005 to 2019.[xx] Private finance and the banking industry also show scant efforts to redress the damage, with investment into sectors that drive biodiversity loss totalling $2.6 trillion in 2019.[xxi] By comparison, UK ODA spending for biodiversity in 2018-19 was just $195 million.[xxii] Clearly, strong and meaningful leadership is needed to begin to reverse these trends.
There is no doubt that in the UK, the government would like to demonstrate that it has started to make changes. ‘Nature’ was mentioned just twice in the Conservative manifesto back in 2019.[xxiii] In its delayed Integrated Review of Security, Defence and Foreign Policy, published in 2021, nature was referred to 23 times.[xxiv] The Dasgupta Review,[xxv] a long-awaited independent global review on the economics of biodiversity, was published in February 2021 and described nature as humankind’s ‘most precious asset’ which must be better accounted for if it is to be saved. The government, who commissioned the review, agreed with its central findings and published their response earlier this year.[xxvi] The PM has committed to spending £3bn of UK international climate finance (ICF) – a third of the ICF total budget – on nature and biodiversity over the next five years.[xxvii] The UK government has developed a deep interest in the idea of Nature-based Solutions (NbS) and is heavily invested in its potential to offer a win-win solution for both biodiversity and climate change, as demonstrated in a recent speech by the Chair of the Environment Agency[xxviii] and serial advocate for nature and NbS, UK environment minster Zac Goldsmith.[xxix]
Whether this new emphasis on nature-based efforts against climate change, in development aid funding and in domestic legislation, will translate into better outcomes for biodiversity remains to be seen. Key legislation like the Environment Bill has been working its way through parliament for some time, and campaigners are worried that it will lack some of the clout initially promised. This year’s budget, said to be a crucial test for the government on whether they would deliver a green COVID-19 recovery was met with a lukewarm at-best response from climate experts.[xxx] And the decision to maintain aid spending at 0.5% of GNI, instead of restoring it to the 0.7% level set out in the UK’s own legislation, may also affect work to protect the environment. Despite the protection of climate in the aid budget, the aid cuts send a negative signal to developing countries hoping to work with the UK on green matters,[xxxi] and makes the already difficult task of climate diplomacy all the harder.
Let’s be frank, the task here is not big, it is gargantuan. No one accuses the UK of being a laggard in terms of its work on leading environmental protection, championing biodiversity concerns and spending on climate. The fact is, to even start to make headway, we need to go further and faster than we ever have before. ICAI’s review of UK aid for halting deforestation and preventing irreversible biodiversity loss[xxxii] found that the current portfolio of UK aid programmes includes more than £580 million in commitments related to deforestation and biodiversity, with an additional £1.3 billion in climate-related programming recently announced, including a £220 million International Biodiversity Fund to protect endangered species and a £100 million Biodiverse Landscapes Fund to protect mangroves and forests. However, the review also found that the existing portfolio lacks strategic focus, and that promising pilot programmes are often abandoned before they reach scale. The review argues that a tighter focus on truly transformative, impactful and exemplary programming, such as the Forest, Governance, Markets and Climate programme (FGMC)[xxxiii] is needed in order to make the best use of budgets in this area. This finding seems to fit well with the call for transformative, rather than incremental, action at both COPs this year.
Since the publication of the IPCC report, the UK’s minister in charge of COP26 delivery has been understandably keen to make a case for the ability of governments to keep 1,5C in reach, and for raising the ambitions of developed country NDCs, reversing deforestation and increasing finance as being key to achieving this goal.[xxxiv] The UK has set itself some ambitious net zero targets, however there is mounting concern that it is not on track to meet them.[xxxv] Recognising the significance of the biodiversity and climate COPs occurring so close together this year, two House of Lords enquiries have been launched to scrutinise the governments preparations, policies and delivery at both COP15[xxxvi] and COP26.[xxxvii]
Certainly, the decade to 2030 will be a pivotal one for climate and biodiversity. At Agulhas’ Climate Hub we will continue in our efforts to use our expertise to achieve a just transition to a low-carbon future, working with research organisations, councils, donors and policy makers to chart the best route forward.[xxxviii] Our team is also contributing to the forthcoming ICAI review of UK aid’s alignment with the Paris Agreement.[xxxix] The truth is, however, that the success or failure of the next decade for the world, our climate and for the biodiversity on which we depend for survival will not be determined solely by politicians or experts, but by a much wider cross-section of the world’s population, including industry leaders, businesses, and the banking and financial sectors. It will require whole-of society transformation on a global scale. This transformation won’t be determined by politicians alone but will require politicians to engage in bold decision making, visionary leadership and activism on a scale we have probably never seen before. After all, the life of the planet hangs in the balance and to mobilise seven and a half billion people you don’t just need expertise and explanation; you also need action, and inspiration.
[xvi] It should be noted, that prior to the Aichi goals, a single CBD target of reducing the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010 was adopted in 2002, and was not met. The Aichi goals were promulgated in response to the perceived shortcomings of having a single target.