Too much talking, too little action on biodiversity and climate change

That was the overall message from a lecture last night by Peter Bridgewater, at the Linnean Society. Peter Bridgewater, Chair of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) has a long and distinguished career in international policy, providing support to a great many international conventions concerned with biodiversity. During his fascinating presentation, entitled ‘Seeing REDD: Science, Policy and Politics in Biodiversity and Climate Change’, Peter reflected on many years of negotiations and deliberations regarding environmental issues. Peter illustrated how governments, and the societies they represent, seem to be repeating themselves through endless deliberations, taking far too little action to tackle the threats to ecosystem integrity, and human well-being, which climate change and biodiversity loss pose.

Peter provided an overview of the development of the very many conventions which concern biodiversity. Prior to 1972, very few governments had environment ministries, he said, but 1972 saw the first major environmental conference, bringing together Heads of State. This was followed twenty years later by the World Conference on Environment and Development, in Rio de Janeiro (1992), which saw the drafting of major conventions, including the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The 2002 Conference of the Parties (COP) to the CBD in Johannesburg then agreed the 2010 target, to significantly reduce rates of biodiversity loss, whilst the ‘Rio + 20’ event in 2012 will once again discuss biodiversity issues. Peter’s point was that rather than being like ‘the hare and the tortoise’, with governments slowly making progress, they were in fact like ‘hamsters in a wheel’, running round and round, achieving little.

This point was illustrated most vividly by the recent climate change negotiations in Bangkok, which concluded on 8th April, in preparation for the COP to the UNFCCC in Durban at the end of this year. After days of deliberations, negotatiators reached a decision at the very last minute on the final day, agreeing ‘an agenda to lay the foundations for agreements at the annual meeting’. The run up to the COP on the UNFCCC in Cancun (2010) was equally inconclusive. Sub-groups met in Bonn, in June and August, and in Tianjin later in the year. At the June meeting in Bonn, attended by 2900 people, the Aliiance of Small Island States requested a technical paper on how global average temperatures could be limited to two degrees centrigrade. This was opposed by oil-rich states and no conclusion was eventually reached. Similarly, no conclusion was reached at the second meeting in Bonn, attended by 1650 people. An official at the meeting in Tianjin (2500 people in attendance) commented that this meeting ‘got us closer to a structured set of decisions to be discussed in Cancun….[including a decision on] what may need to be left until later’.

As well as failing to demonstrate significant progress, international conventions on biodiversity and climate change also currently lack synergy – which is a fundamental flaw. The first UN General Assembly meeting at Head of State level on biodiversity took place last year. One of the conclusions from this meeting was the need for biodiversity, forest degradation and climate change to be tackled together, with greater cohesion between the CBD, the UN Forum on Forests and the UNFCCC. However, the meeting also declared that biodiversity loss caused by climate change should be addressed through the UNFCCC, illustrating the disconnect which currently exists between these conventions.

Peter suggested that the outputs from the 2010 Nagoya COP meeting on the CBD did offer some cause for optimism. The CBD Strategy had been agreed, with 20 headline targets, whilst clear steps had also been outlined to increase the co-operation between all of the environment (Rio) conventions in advance of the ‘Rio + 20’ meeting. The meeting had also affirmed the role of the CBD in reducing emissions through the REDD+ mechanism (Reducing Emissions through Deforestation and Carbon Degradation, where the ‘+’ represents biodiversity conservation). Peter expressed concerns about REDD+ however, as much of the funding would flow to countries where governance was not as it should be, making it hard to assure that logging of forests would cease in return for payment to these nations. Peter also outlined concerns expressed by an Indian delegation to the Nagoya COP, that by monetising forests governments would become a primary stakeholder in their management, reducing the positive role of communities in forest protection.

Localism and community action was the key, Peter suggested, to tackling climate change and environmental degradation. Knowledge and responsibility must be put into the hands of those who have this knowledge and responsibility at the local level. In the context of the UK, Peter suggested that better management of existing protected areas should be a priority for action, with these patches managed with the guidance and assistance of local communities. We should not be afraid to manage for, not resist, change in our protected areas, and Peter suggested that the Ecosystem Approach, set out in the CBD, was the tool to allow us to do this. Amongst the twelve principles of the Ecosystem Approach are that the management objectives for protected areas/ our environment are a matter of societal choice; that management should be decentralised to the lowest level and that management must recognise that change is inevitable. The UK’s environment must be managed at a systems, not a species, level, recognising that protected areas are a major source of ecosystem services and that managing these sites better can promote ecological resilience.

Overall, Peter suggested, the role of people and communities over the next few years, to the culmination of the 2020 biodiversity targets, is to ‘keep governments honest’. People need to challenge governments to ensure that they are delivering on their commitments under the CBD, putting pressure on them from below to lead by example when at the negotiating table for international conventions. Governments are not ‘they’, but ‘us’; we put them there as our elected representatives and we have a duty and a responsibility to hold them to account for missing declared targets with respect to biodiversity and climate change, and to urge them to ‘stop talking and start doing’. Regardless of decisions taken, or not, at the national and the international level, Peter made it clear that there is much that can be done at a local level to conserve biodiversity, and that it is all our responsibilities to make a start.