Leading up to the UN Summit on Biodiversity, 70 world leaders endorsed a Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, committing to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030.
This took place, virtually, at the UNDP Nature of Life Hub at the end of September, with many leaders submitting video endorsements from their home countries. This is a pressing issue, with scientists arguing that we are currently experiencing a sixth mass extinction; so will this pledge lead to action?
Just another UN agreement of intention?
Like most recent UN documents on climate, this pledge is a goal-oriented commitment which defines an overall target without having signatories commit to specific regulation or policy. This allows endorsing leaders to make changes which are suited to their nations’ specific social, economic, and environmental context.
However, it also means that endorsing this pledge does not guarantee immediate action. The promises of reversing biodiversity loss need to be operationalised through significant policy changes to have an impact. Boris Johnson emphasised this in his video pledge, saying that “This pledge can be only the beginning… we must turn these words into action.”
The pledge does contain some interesting specifics though. Beyond the overall target of reversing biodiversity loss in the next 10 years, it outlines ten guidelines, including thematic areas that the signatories will prioritise working on: food systems, supply chains, fisheries and aquaculture, energy systems, deforestation, and habitat fragmentation.
The document also outlines several promising commitments to how these changes should be implemented: moving towards circular economies, ensuring a green recovery from Covid-19, listening to Indigenous knowledge when designing policies, and restructuring financial incentives to encourage promotion of the SDGs.
Biodiversity challenges across the world
So, who signed the pledge? Endorsing nations include Bangladesh, Canada, Costa Rica, France, Germany, Kenya, and the UK. A notable absence among the participants is the US, although this has become somewhat of a trend, starting with their exit from the Paris Agreement in 2017.
Overall, the mix of regions represented is positive, as ecosystem quality is an issue which spans across both the Global North and the Global South.
Data from the World Bank and the Environmental Protection Index indicate that rich and poor nations contribute to biodiversity loss in distinct ways; richer countries generally have higher greenhouse gas emissions per capita, contributing disproportionately to global warming. They also contribute to environmental destruction outside their territories through unsustainable supply chains. However, they often have large domestic nature conservation areas, sometimes, but not always, promoting high biodiversity in these spaces.
Conversely, poorer countries generally emit less CO2 per capita, but have less effective policies to protect local environments. As such, they are vulnerable both to the internal pressures from local populations as well as from national and international companies who benefit from the exploitation of poorly protected ecosystems. This is one reason why the commitment to sustainable supply chains is a promising aspect of the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature.
Why focus on biodiversity in the first place?
Popularised through the work of scientists like the famous biologist Edward O. Wilson, biodiversity generally describes the number and variety of plant and animal species either within an area or globally. It can also describe the genetic variety within species and the number and variety of habitats and ecosystems themselves. While measuring biodiversity is more complicated than other conventional climate change measures such as CO2 concentrations, it serves as a crucial indicator of ecosystem health.
Biodiversity is key because it can tell us about the performance of ecosystem services, which are foundational for human well-being. From the provision of fresh water, to soil formation and flood mitigation, healthy ecosystems – which to a large degree can be identified by having high biodiversity – are key to human survival and prosperity.
The UK and a ‘green recovery’ from Covid-19
The first of the ten commitments in the pledge is “to putting biodiversity, climate and the environment as a whole at the heart both of our COVID-19 recovery strategies and investments”. So how does the current UK commitment to a green recovery compare to other European nations?
Analysis undertaken by Oxford’s Smith School measures how money spent on green initiatives as part of the recovery stimulus compares to the total amount spent on Covid-19 recovery in a territory. The EU average is 30% of spending classified as green, with nations such as France coming in slightly higher (35%) while others like Germany coming in below (21%). The UK sits at just 8%.
As David Attenborough’s film and book, ‘A Life on Our Planet’ have highlighted, biodiversity loss is at the heart of our environmental problems, and thus, whilst the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature marks has potential, it is clear that the world’s governments must take global action if biodiversity is to be protected and restored in the coming decades.