In an essay titled The Sense of Wonder, American ecologist Rachel Carson suggested two questions to make us think more deeply about our natural environment. “What if I had never seen this before?” What if I knew I wouldn’t see him again?
Published in 1955, Carson’s call for mindfulness was influential in the nascent post-war environmental movement. But despite activists’ best efforts, the sense of danger lurking in his second question is now acute. Wildlife populations are declining each year by approximately 2.5% due to habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, climate change, overfishing and overhunting. Since 1970, overall numbers have declined by 69%. Livestock and the humans who raise them now make up 96% of all mammals on Earth. The Sumatran tiger, the Bornean orangutan and the hell master salamander are among the one million plant and animal species deemed dangerously close to extinction.
In Canada this week, conservationists will try to persuade governments around the world to show the will to tackle this crisis. Like the climate emergency, it is the direct consequence of human activity, but has nothing to do with the same notoriety. The Cop15 summit in Montreal – which begins on Wednesday – is part of the broader Cop process launched in 1992, when the United Nations established three separate conventions on climate change, biodiversity and desertification. But since then, despite 196 nations signing up to take action, the biodiversity toll has been one of dismal failure. Of the 20 goals set at the last major summit in Japan in 2010 – ranging from tackling pollution to protecting coral reefs – none have been fully achieved. In the recent words of Andrew Terry, director of conservation at the Zoological Society of London, “absolutely no progress has been made” in slowing the rate of species attrition.
There is no going back after extinction, so Montreal is an opportunity the planet cannot afford to miss. But a paradigm shift is needed to make progress. For too long, governments have treated biodiversity as a secondary and separate issue, focusing their energy on global warming. In fact, as the images of polar bears on the shrinking ice illustrate, the two crises overlap. Ecosystems that maintain natural variety also help regulate climate. The world’s forests, coral reefs and mangroves, home to a dazzling array of species, are capturing carbon that would otherwise contribute to rising temperatures. Rapacious economic activity and environmental indifference thus destroy the natural balances that also protect us. To break out of this catastrophic loop, a global conservation and restoration project is urgently needed.
This will in theory be the goal of a post-2020 global biodiversity framework that will be discussed in Montreal. Draft goals include protecting 30% of the world’s land and seas from unsustainable use and cracking down on pesticides, plastic waste and invasive species. Companies can be asked to produce biodiversity impact assessments and mitigation plans. The richest countries will be pushed to finance the conservation of biodiversity in the countries of the South.
A breakthrough is desperately needed. In Paris in 2015, a legally binding treaty committed the nations of the world to action to tackle the climate crisis. Something similar is required in Montreal. But a roadmap won’t be worth much if governments don’t accept that investing to protect global biodiversity isn’t an option. Sadly, no heads of state are expected to attend this week’s summit – in stark contrast to the Cop27 climate talks in Egypt last month. It’s not good enough. Our human destiny is ultimately tied to nature and the countless species that are hurtling towards extinction. Recognizing it has become an existential necessity.
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