Can We Save Nature?
World leaders are not yet done negotiating the future of the planet this year. Another crucial environmental meeting is about to start, and there is hope that the world could agree on an official plan to protect nature.
A big question: Can the planet’s biggest predator save what’s left of our struggling ecosystems?
The challenge is immense. One example: An assessment that monitors populations of vertebrate animals found that since 1970, these populations declined more than two-thirds on average. (That estimate has some caveats, which my colleague Catrin Einhorn explained here.) The decline is mainly a result of humans taking too much of planet from them, and climate change will profoundly worsen the crisis, too.
At this week’s U.N. meeting in Montreal, known as COP15, leaders will have an opportunity to change this path, by setting goals for each country to work toward through the next decade and beyond. Targets could be expanding protected areas, getting rid of subsidies to industries that harm nature or agreeing on funding strategies for conservation.
Stakes are high. At the conference’s opening news conference this morning, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the United Nations executive who oversees the treaty on biodiversity, stressed that none of the goals established at an earlier meeting a decade ago to protect nature were achieved.
“The scientists underlined to us that this is our last chance to act,” she said. “Unfortunately we have no planet B.”
I talked to Catrin, who will be heading to Montreal soon, to understand why this matters and what we can expect.
Manuela: Scientists say the decline of biodiversity can become an existential threat. Why is that, and how bad is the situation now?
Catrin: We depend on ecosystems for the water we drink and the food we eat, and ecosystems are built from biodiversity. All life-forms, from bacteria to bears, each play a role in its ecosystem. People play a role too, but recently there are so many of us living such resource-intensive lives that we are knocking nature out of balance. Because of us, unfortunately, biodiversity is declining at rates that are unprecedented in human history. Lose too many species, and you risk ecosystem collapse.
Scientists don’t know which species or sets of species are most essential to sustaining healthy ecosystems. Some, like oak trees, play an outsized role in supporting other life. One ecologist, Walter Jetz at Yale, recently told me that he thinks of biodiversity loss like playing Russian roulette, because you don’t know which extinctions will end up doing you in.
Many scientists say the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis are two sides of the same coin. Why is that?
They’re both big problems that people have unleashed by using the planet’s resources unsustainably.
But they have a connection that’s even more fundamental, or should I say elemental: carbon.
The same element that warms up the planet when we burn fossil fuels is a building block of nature, part of the very tissues of plants and animals. It makes sense when you consider that fossil fuels come from old dead plants and plankton.
What that means is intact nature can help keep carbon out of the atmosphere. In fact, scientists have determined that land and water ecosystems are already storing half of human-generated emissions. But on the flip side, destroying forests and peatlands unleashes carbon emissions.
To tackle climate change, policymakers are increasingly turning to what are called nature-based solutions: Preserving and restoring mangroves, for example. These measures can help a lot, but not enough to let us keep burning fossil fuels at anything but drastically reduced rates.
So who wants what at this COP? Why is it important?
The goal of this COP is to come away with a new 10-year global agreement to tackle biodiversity loss. Negotiators will be debating a series of about 20 targets that collectively set out a path for a more sustainable relationship with nature.
This gathering has been delayed several times by the pandemic, and it’s getting off to a rocky start. An outsized portion of the text of the agreement is still up for debate, when they should be focused on narrower outstanding issues by now. Organizers tacked on an extra mini-meeting ahead of the actual COP to try to make some last-minute progress, but even Mrema, the U.N. executive and seasoned diplomat, bluntly told press this morning that less was achieved than needed or expected. Advocates are also lamenting the absence of presidents and prime ministers, who they believe could prompt movement.
The potential target that’s gotten the most fanfare is known as 30 by 30, which would have the world protect 30 percent of land and water by 2030. But that’s just one. Overall, the question is whether nations of the world will be able to come to an agreement that’s ambitious enough to tackle the problem.
Related: Carbon Brief tracked what each country is after in Montreal.
Tell us about your climate discoveries in 2022
As the year comes to an end, we’d like to hear what you learned about climate in 2022. It could be a personal trick or tip. Or an unexpected fact. Or just about anything. We’re especially interested in knowing how this new knowledge will shape your thinking for the year ahead. So, please send us your thoughts. We’ll share a few responses in a future newsletter.
Essential news from The Times
A crusade against climate action: A Texas nonprofit is shaping laws, running influence campaigns and taking legal action to promote fossil fuels.
Fighting for credit: A huge new electric car plant in Georgia may be one of the biggest achievements for Senator Raphael Warnock, who is facing a runoff election Tuesday. Republicans disagree.
Foraging in war: Hunting for mushrooms is a favorite hobby for Ukrainians. But picking them after the Russian invasion means facing a forest full of land mines.
Targeting the war chest: Europe and the United States on Monday started enforcing a measure to limit the price of Russian oil to $60 a barrel.
Assessing the damage: An Australian agency will investigate if what was once one of the most profitable mines in the world abused human rights in Papua New Guinea.
Shifting away from fossil fuels: Renewable energy is expected to surpass coal as a source of electricity generation by 2025, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency.
Green and trendy: Companies in the scent industry are using biodegradable casing, cardboard tubes and plant-based perfumes to try making luxury sustainable.
Before you go: Saving kelp forests
The Steller’s sea cow, an extinct five-ton relative of the manatee, was best known for its incessant appetite. The epic greed, it turns out, played a major role in making kelp forests in Northern Pacific waters more resilient, according to a new study. The behavior may hold clues about how to protect the ecosystem from climate change.
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Claire O’Neill and Sarah Graham contributed to Climate Forward. Read past editions of the newsletter here.
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