We Can Tackle the Climate and Biodiversity Crises Together
Keith Martin MD, PC,
Executive Director, Consortium of Universities for Global Health
The COP26 meeting in Glasgow is an opportunity to address not one, but two existential crises: climate change and the global loss of biodiversity. The latter is arguably an even greater threat to humanity than climate change. After all, extinction is forever. The good news is that both challenges are inextricably connected, driven by common, human activities that are destroying the foundation of life on Earth.
According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), 1 million of the planet’s 8 million species are threatened with extinction. Bees, birds, and other pollinators, important to the reproduction of 75% of the food we eat, are being decimated. Fresh water levels, essential to life are being rapidly depleted. The wetlands, tropical forests and grasslands that regulate water cycles and are natural carbon sinks that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and release the oxygen we breathe are being wiped out at unprecedented rates. Through degradation, deforestation, pollution, overuse, and the burning of fossil fuels we are literally destroying our own life-support systems.
The international community has been fully aware of this for decades. A dizzying array of declarations targets and commitments have been agreed to. All have failed. The Paris Accord 6 years ago for carbon emissions (too low and not achieved). In 2010, in Achi, Japan the world agreed to 20 biodiversity targets. A decade later, none were met. Our failure to address these threats has now brought us to the edge of a precipice. As Inger Andersen, the Executive Director of UNEP, and Achim Steiner the Administrator of UNDP have both said: the window for action is closing fast. The good news is that both global warming and the extinction crisis can be addressed together.
The following are some concrete actions that will achieve this if they are included in the final COP26 agreement.
First, targets must be deep, achieved in the short term and obligatory. History has shown us that voluntary commitments do not work. Without penalties for failing to meet those commitments, it is just too easy to ‘kick the can down the road’. Penalties could be tariffs applied to imports from countries that fail to achieve their agreed targets. Since 75% to 80% of carbon emissions are released by just 20 nations, this tariff system could be agreed to and applied to just these top emitters. Alternatively, the top 20 emitters could agree to financial penalties based on the degree to which they exceed their emission ceiling. These funds could be used to help low income nations, which contribute little to the problem but bear the largest costs, adapt to the effects of global warming.
Second, protect ecosystems. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has a Red List of endangered ecosystems worldwide with extremely high rates of biodiversity. These areas are also carbon sinks which will pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. Many of these areas fall within the traditional territories of indigenous peoples who could receive funds to support their needs as they apply their deep knowedge to stewarding the protection of these ecosystems.
Third, change requires funding. According to a 2021 report by J Urpelainen and E George from the Brookings Institute, governments spend more than $500 Billion on subsidies for fossil fuels every year. These subsidies should be stopped and redirected to support efforts to decarbonize economies and fund the protection of critical ecosystems.
Keeping global temperatures from rising beyond the 1.5°C ceiling or stopping the extinction crisis is now a matter of political choice. To move politicians and the public towards effective action we also need to personalize the problem and the solutions differently. We need to define nature in our communication efforts as to what it really is: our life-support system that provides the food, clean water, and oxygen that sustain life. We need to communicate our destruction of the planet’s ecosystems through climate change and biodiversity losses as direct threats to our very lives. COP26 is a critical moment for the international community to neutralize these threats before we pass the point of no return.
Keith Martin MD is the Executive Director of the Washington DC based Consortium of Universities for Global Health, the world’s largest consortium of academic institutions working to improve planetary and human health (www.cugh.org). He was a Member of Parliament in Canada for 6 terms and founded Canada’s First All Party Conservation Caucus.