‘Fate of the living world’ will be decided at Cop15, say scientists

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The “fate of the entire living world” will be determined at the Cop15 UN biodiversity summit, according to leading scientists.

They said the gathering of the world’s nations, which began on Wednesday in Montreal, is “vastly more important than Cop27”, the recent high-profile UN climate meeting. “We say this because of the many dimensions of anthropogenic global change … the most critical, complex and challenging is that of biodiversity loss,” the researchers said.

The current rapid loss of wildlife and natural places is seen as the start of a sixth mass extinction by many scientists and is destroying the life-support systems on which humanity depends for clean air, water and food. Protection of the natural world, such as rainforests, is also vital in ending the climate emergency.

Cop15 aims to ensure the protection of 30% of the planet by 2030, as well as the redirection of $500bn in agricultural subsidies that support the destruction of nature.

The warning from scientists came in an editorial in the journal Science Advances, written by Prof Shahid Naeem at Columbia University, US; Prof Yonglong Lu at Xiamen University, China; and Prof Jeremy Jackson at the American Museum of Natural History.

They said an earlier 10-year plan, known as the Aichi iodiversity targets, failed to meet any of its goals by its 2020 deadline, despite being backed by 196 nations. “Failure is not an option this time as Earth’s terrestrial, marine, and freshwater systems begin to collapse under the pressure to meet the needs of a global population that will soon approach 10 billion,” the researchers said.

However, they added that there were some reasons for optimism, including wide and growing support for the “30×30” protection plan and the fact that the drivers of biodiversity loss are well understood, giving clear direction for action.

The destruction of wild places for farming and mining is the key cause of biodiversity loss, along with the overexploitation of wild animals and plants on land and in the seas and pollution. The climate crisis and the spread of invasive species around the world also contribute. The UN’s environment chief, Inger Andersen, has called these drivers the “the five horsemen of the biodiversity apocalypse”.

The UN secretary general, António Guterres, opened the summit with a stark message: “Without nature, we are nothing. Nature is our life-support system, and yet humanity seems hell bent on destruction.

“With our bottomless appetite for unchecked and unequal economic growth, humanity has become a weapon of mass extinction,” he said. “[Cop15] is our chance to stop this orgy of destruction, to move from discord to harmony.”

Along with the “30×30” target, other draft goals for the Cop15 agreement include reducing the rate of introduction of invasive species by 50%, cutting pesticide use by at least two-thirds, halting the flow of plastic pollution and making it compulsory for big businesses to disclose their impact on nature.

Related: Making sense of Cop15: what to look out for in Montreal

In the editorial, Naeem and his colleagues said: “A comprehensive body of scientific evidence has highlighted how global change, including climate change, is ultimately tied to biodiversity conservation.” For example, they said, healthy forests and oceans can absorb huge amounts of climate-heating carbon dioxide.

They said a leading study of the effect of Covid-19 lockdowns showed how “the reduction in traffic, industrial noise and pollution, and human-wildlife contact led to a wide range of positive impacts on nature around the world”, with “animals quickly responding to the reductions in human presence”. However, a reduction in conservation work also led to illegal hunting and habitat destruction.

“The take-home message was that stemming biodiversity loss can be achieved not only by just reducing human pressures but also by enhancing human activities in research, restoration and conservation,” the researchers said.

They said the COP15 agreement would have to recognize the rights of Indigenous peoples and secure long-term funding from wealthier nations to achieve the targets, because many of the most biodiverse places are in low-income countries.

French diplomat Laurence Tubiana, an architect of the Paris climate agreement, said: “We need a global goal to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. This will direct targets, laws, policies and funding at all levels and regions, much like the 2015 Paris agreement has started doing for climate action. In seven years, the momentum is clear to see. We need the same momentum to protect all life on Earth.”

Prof Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, said: “We need a ‘Paris moment’ in Montreal. Only if we protect and regenerate Earth’s nature, can we really protect Earth’s climate.”

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