Efforts to combat climate change and biodiversity loss are inseparable as new mass extinction looms

Jan 31, 2023
Climate change from drought to green growth.

Recently, I had a catch-up conversation on climate change and November’s UN climate change conference (COP27) in Sharm el-Sheikh with one of Hong Kong’s most conscientious students of the subject.

As we began to wind up, I asked what we should be taking away from the UN Biodiversity Conference in Montreal – confusingly called COP15 – that was held immediately after COP27. “I don’t know,” he sighed. “My brain has been too hard-pressed wrestling with COP27 to focus on the biodiversity stuff.”

I was not surprised given the awesome scope of rigorous scientific detail underpinning the international debate and the increasingly technical policy discussion over how to keep us from the brink of catastrophe as temperatures rise. At the same time, though, I was perplexed. How is it possible to separate the climate crisis and what some are calling “biological annihilation”, the threat of a sixth mass extinction or “bugpocalypse”.

Elizabeth Mrema, executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, noted that climate change is “a primary driver of biodiversity loss. And yet, that same climate change depends on biodiversity as part of the solution. So clearly the two are linked and cannot be separated.”

Analysis of the cause and effect of global warming tends to focus on atmospheric causes. Biodiversity loss is providing a massive body of evidence about the effects – not just on whether humans are capable of surviving as temperatures rise but on the essential balanced linkage with nature that has made it possible for humans to thrive in the past 200,000 years.

In short, global warming and biodiversity loss are two sides of the same coin. Neither side can be understood or managed without taking account of the other. Neither can they be managed without understanding the central significance of the the “Anthropocene” era – the massive explosion of the human population in the past 150 years and the overconsumption that has taken us out of equilibrium with the rest of the natural world.

In other ways, the meetings in Sharm el-Sheikh and Montreal shared remarkable similarities. Both provided sites for nail-biting negotiations over the challenging but urgent imperatives to halt global warming and reduce species extinction. Both concluded with long and detailed “to-do” lists. Also, scepticism was rife that these high-minded commitments would ever materialise.

Consider the COP15 Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which included Kunming because the meeting would have been held there had the Covid-19 pandemic not got in the way. Among other things, participants agreed to halt human-induced extinctions; protect at least 30 per cent of the world’s land, sea and fresh waterways by 2030, with priority given to areas of high biodiversity importance; restore 30 per cent of the terrestrial and marine ecosystems that have degraded; halve global food waste; reform subsidies that harm biodiversity and cut them by US$500 billion a year; and provide US$200 billion a year to fund commitments.

Many conservationists left the meeting fearing this would remain a “long list of waffle” – not without reason, since the Aichi Biodiversity Targets agreed in 2010 contained similar commitments, few of which have been fulfilled. As The Washington Post’s Dino Grandoni said in his summary of the summit: “Nations now have the next eight years to hit their targets. With few legal mechanisms for enforcement, they will have to trust one another.”

These commitments were made against the alarming backdrop of estimates that 40 per cent of the world’s forests have been lost in recent decades, with around 10 million hectares still being lost every year. The International Union for Conservation of Nature “red list” says about 37,000 of the 134,000 animal and plant species it assesses face direct extinction threats. About a quarter of the world’s 20,000 bee species, essential for pollinating food crops worldwide, are feared to have been lost since 2016.

The World Wide Fund for Nature’s Living Planet Index, which has tracked more than 5,200 vertebrate species since 1970, says species populations have fallen by an average of nearly 70 per cent during its tracking period, with the severest losses in Latin America and the Caribbean. Freshwater species particularly face extinction because of intensive fishing, pollution and damming rivers.

While global biodiversity is threatened by habitat destruction – 80 per cent of which is for agriculture – there are many other major threats. They include over-exploitation of wild species, pollution, climate change, invasive species and diseases, all of which have population growth and overconsumption as key drivers.

Meanwhile, as our political leaders continue to procrastinate, a growing number of scientists focused on global biodiversity are talking anxiously about the imminence of a sixth global mass extinction. Supporting evidence could take some time as a mass extinction is defined as 75 per cent of species disappearing over a geologically short time – which means about 2 million years. The last such mass extinction occurred around 65 million years ago and saw the end of dinosaurs.

The difference with the Anthropocene is that the mass extinction threatens to occur over decades, not millennia. Since humans are the primary direct cause, it could end up exterminating us rather than driving the rest of the natural world to mortal danger. For our own sakes, the sooner we make peace with nature, the safer we will be.


First published in The South China Morning Post January 16, 2023

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