We’ll hear a lot in the next fortnight about the environment but too little about nature and biodiversity, writes Rod Oram, and the scale and urgency of that crisis can’t be handled in isolation

Strangely, our life-support system ranks well below other issues at the UN COP26 climate negotiations beginning in Glasgow on Sunday.

Top billing goes to the pledges of countries to reduce their emissions, followed by the rule book to report and police them, and rich country funding to help developing countries decarbonise and adapt to climate change. Big pushes to slash methane emissions and to phase out coal-powered electricity generation are among other initiatives on the table.

All those are crucial, and we can hope for varying degrees of progress on them. But it won’t be enough to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5C, the threshold beyond which the climate crisis will accelerate rapidly.

Yet on the COP26 agenda, nature lags well behind all those issues, even though we humans utterly depend on land, water and ocean ecosystems, and the species inhabiting them, for our survival. Oh…and for generating, directly and indirectly, half of global economic value, the World Economic Forum estimates in its New Nature Economy workstream

Worse, the way we run our economies fuels the twin, inter-linked crises of climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse. Doubly worse, we’re drastically under-utilising Nature-based Solutions (NbS) to the climate crisis which would also help to solve the biodiversity one.

“Climate change is becoming an increasingly serious driver of biodiversity loss and ecosystems degradation – and that loss threatens to worsen climate change,” Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, said in a recent interview with Reuters.

“At the national level, we should not look at climate change in isolation from biodiversity because then we end up with duplication of activities or contradiction and conflicts,” she said, pointing to projects that may help mitigate climate change but end up increasing nature loss.

Globally, NbS can reduce global emissions by one-third in cost-effective ways, while lifting one billion people out of poverty; creating 80 million jobs; adding US$2.3 trillion to the global economy and preventing US$3.7 trillion of climate change damages. Such solutions are available today, are scalable, and can transform key industry sectors, such as forestry and agriculture, reports Nature4Climate,  a collation of 19 of the world’s leading conservation, multilateral and business organisations.

Enthusiasm for NbS is growing among governments, civil society and businesses: 66 percent of governments have committed to restoring or protecting ecosystems in their Nationally Determined Contributions (their UN climate targets); 104 governments included natural ecosystems in their adaptation plans; and 27 governments described NbS in their mitigation targets. But policies, programmes, funding and progress remain modest.

Aotearoa New Zealand should be at the forefront of this. After all, we have the largest stock of natural capital per capita after the mega-oil producing states, according to World Bank data, and nature is so important to our economy and identity. But we’re struggling to develop NbS, as I examined in this column in February and this one in June

Ideally, our Government would significantly improve our UN climate pledge by making a much bigger commitment to NbS. Such action would, for example, reduce emissions in agriculture and increase biodiversity in forestry. But neither the Government nor the two sectors have much of an appetite for such beneficial transformations. So, don’t expect them to feature in the imminent release of our revised NDC.

That’s a huge missed opportunity for New Zealand, one which is retarding our response to the climate crisis and diminishing our international reputation. We’ll feel the embarrassment of both at various points over the next two weeks of COP26, particularly in negotiations on methane reductions and on capability building for NbS.

Each day of COP26 has a theme. So, watch out in particular for Saturday November 6 when nature is the focus. “Ensuring the importance of nature and sustainable land use are part of global action and a clean, green recovery,” notes the programme for the day.

While Glasgow is the 26th annual Conference of the Parties of the UN’s Convention on Climate Change, its sister Convention on Biological Diversity has just held the first leg of its 15th COP in Kunming, China. Some 2,500 delegates attended virtually, plus only 500 in-person because of Covid-restrictions.

The COP developed a draft pledge for nations to halt nature loss by 2030 and deliver a net-positive impact thereafter, so that humanity may “live in harmony with nature” in all geographies by 2050. Approval of the pledge is the goal of the second leg of the COP next March or April.

To accelerate efforts on biodiversity, the Chinese government pledged US$230 billion to create a ‘Kunming Fund’ to support projects in developing nations as well as domestic initiatives; the Japanese government committed another US$17b to its domestic biodiversity fund; the EU will double overseas funding for biodiversity initiatives by the end of the decade; and the UN said it would launch a new Global Environment Facility for biodiversity programmes in developing nations.

But the blunt truth is the nations of the world are failing on biodiversity. Collectively, the signatories to the UN convention have met none of the 16 goals they set in their 2011-2020 Aichi Targets

And, as Nature, the science journal, notes in its excellent guide to the Glasgow climate negotiations, the biodiversity money pledged in Kunming is still far short of what’s required:

“Collectively, the sums, although not insignificant, will amount to little more than a 1–2 percent increase on the roughly US$133b a year that the world currently spends on biodiversity. Well over half of this is spent by China, the EU, Japan and the United States.

“Spending on biodiversity needs to increase in all regions, according to a report by the UN Environment Programme, published in May. For comparison, money earmarked for tackling climate change totalled US$632b per year in 2019–20, according to a Nature analysis.”

The UNEP report estimated governments, investors, businesses, land owners and others need to make a total investment in nature of US$8.1 trillion from now to 2050 “in order to successfully tackle the interlinked climate, biodiversity, and land degradation crises.”

This amounts to a tripling in nature-based solutions by 2030 and a four-fold increase by 2050 from the current level. “While an increase in public funding would help plug some of the gap, there needs to be a significant increase in private sector investment in Nature-based Solutions,” the report said.

While nature will have a low priority in the political negotiations in Glasgow, it will feature prominently in the extensive programme of civil society side-events hosted by the likes of businesses and NGOs. These will run the gamut from new technologies and financial mechanisms to help foster nature’s recovery to hugely ambitious landscape-scale projects by members of the Global Rewilding Alliance

Earlier this year, the Alliance launched Survival Revolution, declaring: “Setting aside 50 percent of the planet for nature is the fastest, most efficient action we can take toward solving the twin climate and extinction emergencies, reducing the likelihood of new pandemics, and protecting the livelihoods of 1.6 billion people.”

Even the UK, the densely populated host country, has some stories to tell of nature restored. Twenty-five years ago, for example, it began planting a new National Forest on 520 sq km of abandoned coal mining country in the Midlands.

The River Don, which runs through the historic Yorkshire steel-making towns of Sheffield and Doncaster, was declared biologically dead in the 1960s. But in recent decades it has been brought back to life

And Glasgow is hosting COP26 at the Scottish Events Campus built on the city’s former Victorian docks on the Clyde, a river that’s mostly recovered from heavy pollution during the city’s long industrial history.

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