Fight club: Who wins when climate change takes on biodiversity?

By Tierney Smith

Biodiversity and climate change are often described as two sides of the same coin.

Protecting biodiversity is often the best answer to both mitigating and adapting to climate change – oceans and forests absorb carbon while mangroves can protect coastal regions from storm surges and rising sea levels.

On the flip side, biodiversity is under increasing threat from advancing climate change.

And if we look at some of the figures on biodiversity loss we see our natural world is deteriorating just as quickly as our climate.

REDD+ negotiations in India focused on the role the CBD could play in supporting the work of the climate convention

The world is losing species at a growing rate. 13% of birds, 25% of mammals, 33% of corals and 41% of amphibians are currently under threat.

So when I arrived in Hyderabad, India for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) biannual conference, I was shocked to find so little interest in biodiversity loss – particularly compared to the interest I saw at the UN climate convention (UNFCCC) talks in Durban, South Africa last year.

Very few journalists, a small youth activist constituency and a smaller venue all helped to make the last two weeks a much quieter affair.

But are people really less interested in biodiversity? If so, why?

Biodiversity loss is an abstract concept for most people. While most of us would notice if the woods we enjoy walking in were chopped down, we would not necessarily equate this to a global problem.

And while we understand deforestation, for example, the degradation of the oceans or the loss of wetlands are much harder issues for us to comprehend, particularly in the developed world.

A public consultation organised by the Danish Environment Ministry in 25 countries found 70% of respondents had little idea of what biodiversity meant. But when the study was over, 84% of those taking part believed that most people are seriously affected by biodiversity loss.

So perhaps it is not that people do not care about biodiversity; maybe we just do not know enough about it.

“I think it is about how tangible the issue is to people. In the climate convention the discussion is about reducing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” Trevor Sandwith, Director of IUCN’s Global Programme on Protected Areas told me. “You can put a very specific number to that in the sense that this is the emission level, this is where it needs to go and this is the rate of change.

“When you talk about protected areas globally and how they have to represent biodiversity we have literally hundreds of thousands of things to measure – all the threatened species in the world and how they are doing.”

All about climate change

Along with the UN Convention on Desertification, the CBD and the UNFCCC make up the three Rio Conventions. Established at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, they each tackle a different aspect of sustainable development.

The CBD and the UNFCCC have both existed for 20 years and in many respects work on the same issues; forests, oceans, agriculture. But the climate change convention has been raised to a prominence the CBD seems unable to match.

Even the term Conference of the Parties is now so associated with the UNFCCC – particularly since COP15 in Copenhagen – that when I told people I was heading to India for COP11 I was met with blank faces.

Climate change at the CBD

REDD+, geoengineering, biofuels and agriculture are all topics discussed in both UN forums.

But rather than the conversation at the CBD building on those already had, conversations seemed stuck on concerns that work under this convention could somehow counteract the work done in the climate discussions.

Patrick Mulvany from the CBD Alliance, a collection of NGOs following the work of the convention, says the conventions both play a vital role but he warned the crossover between the two is wasting time.

“It is essentially counter-productive; it uses up a lot of negotiating time,” he said. “What may be achieved in one forum could get lost in another. The transaction cost of doing all of these discussions become significant and really reduces the opportunity for finance for implementation.”

While certain topics seem to move between one convention and another, a more joined up approach could provide positive results.

David Ainsworth, Information Officer at the CBD warned that while a lot of work had already been done on connecting the science between the two conventions, the politics need to be strengthened.

“It is the policy interface we have to work on. We share the same data but how do we make sure that the same ministries are involved in both discussions?” he said.

Take REDD+ as an example. Brazil were particularly vocal when discussing the biodiversity safeguards of this much-hyped mechanism.

In the years since the last CBD meeting, countries had met twice under the climate convention, and had discussed the safeguards of REDD+ within this forum. In some ways this made the discussions taking place in India outdated.

Brazil also raised concerns that by limiting forestry discussions within the convention to REDD+ – essentially a climate change initiative looking at forests for their carbon stocks – they could ignore what should be a much deeper discussion on forests in terms of biodiversity and the drivers of deforestation.

While REDD+ is limited to the developed world, deforestation is a global issue and focusing too much on the REDD+ initiative could see this forgotten.

With climate change the issue at the forefront on the global environment debate, there’s a worry that the biodiversity conference could become a second climate conference. Some attendees at this year’s meeting warned it had already become the climate adaptation conference.

If all ecosystems are reduced to their role in storing carbon, or holding back rising sea-waters, there is a danger all the other vital services that these natural environments have been playing in the world for thousands of years will be forgotten.

Hope for biodiversity

But there is a note of hope for biodiversity. While the latest conference was small, the COP10 meeting in Nagoya, Japan two years ago had gained more interest from around the globe.

Mulvany said these talks – which were tipped as the talks where a new deal on biodiversity would be agreed – received much more attention. As countries look towards implementation, interest has died back.

We must also be careful not to mistake a huge turn-out for productive involvement.

It is so easy to be swept up in the circus of the UN climate convention. And while civil society engagement is vital in holding governments and negotiating teams to account, the large numbers of participants does not necessarily mean they are taken any more seriously than a smaller group.

Mulvany said that while the participation in India may have been smaller than in Durban, their was a positive feeling of cooperation between governments, civil society and the CBD Secretariat.

Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme said he felt there was a growing interest in biodiversity.

The Rio+20 summit in June saw the concept of ecosystem services – the role natural environments play in our lives – given a lot of attention, as delegations and observers alike looked at how to better value out natural world.

“This convention is one that for quite a while was viewed as a long side climate change as being sort of a convention focusing on second priorities,” Steiner said. “I think the world is coming very close now to realising in fact how dramatic the loss of biodiversity and ecosystems is.

“I think the insertion of an economic perspective – the TEEB work but also the green economy discussions – have elevated a scientific phenomenon into a very practical set of risk and opportunities to minimise those risks.”

Balancing act 

With climate change and biodiversity so intrinsically linked, the lack of a joined up approach between conventions is worrying. Combating climate change would be impossible with tackling biodiversity loss and vice versa.

The growing presence of the climate change in the CBD discussions could be both a good and bad thing. On the one hand it could help raise the issue in people’s consciousness.

On the other hand it is important that we do not get too swept up in the climate discussions and forget biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake.

Maybe it is time for negotiators at these conferences to take a step back and remember the overarching aims of all three of the Rio Conventions. With the next climate conference now just a month away, countries should make sure those negotiators heading out to Doha, Qatar take the lessons from India with them.

Finally just because people do not attend biodiversity conferences in large numbers, it does not mean that there is a large constituency of interested parties.

Sandwith believes that while many people may feel the only way to deal with the climate change issue is to lobby their government to make the significant changes needed – by reducing the emissions of all of the major polluting sectors – with biodiversity there is so much more they could be doing on the ground.

“The energy of people involved in climate discussions is to put pressure on the people who can make these decisions,” he said. “What is so interesting in the biodiversity world is that everybody can do this, you can go in your own town and look at the stream belt or go and protect your forest…there is a much greater sense of empowerment on the real issues.”

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