Negotiating a perfect storm

Biodiversity story is as depressing as the climate change saga

Negotiating a perfect storm

TOO LITTLE: The outcome of the G20 summit at Rome, held on the eve of the climate summit, has been disappointing. Reuters

Shyam Saran

Former Foreign Secretary and Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research

THE Climate Change summit in Glasgow (October 31-November 12) is probably the last chance for the assembled leaders of the world to avoid catastrophic and irreversible climate change. They will have to negotiate a safe passage for our threatened planet through a perfect storm that is building up round the corner. These negotiations will have to be approached in a new spirit, where each leader comes as a maximalist, not displaying the minimalist mind-set that we are familiar with in international negotiations. The latter is guaranteed to deliver the least common denominator outcome and the time for that is long past. The outcome of the G20 summit at Rome held on the eve of the climate summit is mostly disappointing in this respect.

We must create a world where a tree in the forest has more value than one which is cut down and sold as timber.

What is at stake is the fundamental question of how humanity relates to nature. For many centuries, Indian sages and philosophers taught us to revere nature as a mother, as a source of nurture, never to take from her what she, even in her plenitude, could not replenish. But that message of harmony with nature has become a barely audible whisper in our own ravaged landscape. And yet it is in our own redemption that we could nudge the world on a different path from the dead-end that awaits it on its present trajectory.

There has been virtually no coverage in national and international media of another major conference related to ecology, the 15th Conference of Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biodiversity, the first part of which was convened in the Chinese city of Kunming from October 11-15. But if we are talking about the relationship between humanity and nature as the very heart of the challenge that confronts us, then the outcome of the Kunming meeting should have demonstrated a modicum of the ambition that we all expect from Glasgow. We cannot be ambitious on climate change but remain indifferent to the relentless and growing loss of biodiversity which is taking place across the planet. Climate change and biodiversity loss are symptoms of the same ecological degradation that is taking place across our world. You cannot arrest climate change while ignoring the accelerating loss of biodiversity. Think of the growing clamour to sign on to net-zero emissions by 2050 as the key goal for the Glasgow summit. Net zero implies that emissions by that date will be offset by carbon sinks in the shape of forests, the oceans and technological fixes, as yet unviable, of carbon capture and storage. Forests of the world are getting depleted at historically unprecedented rates, so how much of this green sink will still be available to absorb emissions by 2050? The oceans are getting clogged with plastic waste and other hazardous material being dumped into them. There are several dead zones devoid of any marine life as a result of chemical runoff from chemical fertilisers and toxic pesticides being used in agriculture upstream of rivers. The oceans’ capacity to absorb carbon emissions is depleting. With increasing biodiversity loss, is there any credibility to the goal of net zero in 2050?

The biodiversity story is as depressing as the climate change saga. In 2010, the Aichi Declaration listed 10 biodiversity targets to be achieved by 2020. The summit at Kunming acknowledged that not one of the 10 targets had been met. Let me just cite one of the targets: ‘By 2020, the rate of loss of all natural habitats, including forests, is at least halved and where feasible, brought close to zero and degradation and fragmentation is significantly reduced.’

The ambition was not even to stop the loss of forests but to try and halve the rate of loss! And we are now putting our bets on there being enough forest cover by 2050 to serve as a massive carbon sink.

There is a draft of a Framework Process for post-2020 goals which is expected to be finalised when the 15th COP meets again at Kunming from April 25 to May 22, 2022. It is likely to end up with vague but high sounding goals but with little focus on implementation and financing. The declared objective is to ensure that ‘biodiversity will be put on a path to recovery by 2030 at the latest.’ It will seek to bring about a ‘transformation in society’s relationship with biodiversity and ensure that by 2050, a shared vision of living in harmony with nature is fulfilled.’ Here is another goal for 2050. But if humanity really learnt to live in harmony with nature by mid-century, would there be need for a net-zero emission goal? The reality is that we need a broader ecology convention which incorporates commitments on both biodiversity and climate change, since both are enmeshed together.

The Kunming Declaration is entitled somewhat grandly as ‘Ecological Civilisation: Building a Shared Future for All Life on Earth.’ But the label camouflages the lack of substantive action. It has been estimated that in order to implement the proposed post-2020 Framework Process, a $700 billion annual financing gap will have to be filled. When we are unable to get even $100 billion a year for climate change action by developing countries, how likely is this sum for biodiversity conservation will be raised?

India has been right in advocating a global climate change regime which will advance, not diminish, its developmental prospects. But the time has come to define our developmental objectives aligned to our civilisational values of respect for nature. There is no space in the world for another China. We must reorient our development strategies towards an ecologically sustainable pathway. It must be based on a different concept of affluence, one which values fresh water to drink, clean air to breathe and a green earth to walk on. We need to help create a world where a tree growing in the forest has more value than one which is cut down and sold as timber. In this alone lies hope for future generations.

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