Earth to Glasgow: Biodiversity is fundamental to a healthy climate

All eyes are on the climate COP, but there’s an equally critical biodiversity COP process.

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Siddarth Shrikanth is a joint MPA/MBA candidate at Harvard and Stanford. Gretchen C. Daily is the co-founder and faculty director of the Stanford Natural Capital Project. This guest essay represents the views of the authors, not those of Canary Media.

As the great and the good gather at the COP26 climate conference, Glasgow is abuzz. Governments are making and missing commitments; companies and investors are scrambling on board the net-zero train; activists are rightly, and loudly, calling on participants to be bolder and cut the greenwash.

Whatever the shortcomings, COP26 has one thing going for it: The world’s eyes are on it. Even if talks fail to deliver breakthroughs, the wall-to-wall coverage at least offers the hope that we might make good on part of the ambitious emission-cut pledges that have been made so far.

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The same cannot be said for the biodiversity crisis. The climate COP’s overlooked cousin, the COP15 biodiversity conference, came and went earlier in October with nary a turn of the head from the same leaders who now rub shoulders in Glasgow. A second phase, slated for Kunming, China next year, looks set to meet the same fate. Previous biodiversity COPs have set meek targets and missed them — the difference is that hardly anyone has noticed.

Perhaps the world doesn’t need two distinct COPs on two intertwined issues — indeed, Glasgow’s opening days have seen bold pledges made on deforestation, ocean protection and the like. But keeping alive the spirit of that forgotten conference on nature at the rest of this unforgettable one on climate will be vital to following through on those pledges and securing a livable planet.

Leaders are belatedly realizing that we won’t solve the climate crisis without mending our broken relationship with nature. If the roughly 10 metric gigatons of annual fossil carbon emissions is hard enough to trim, it pales in comparison to the 650 metric gigatons stored in trees and other vegetation, or the colossal 1,700 metric gigatons locked away in the permafrost. Releasing even a small fraction would more than negate the monumental effort it will take to clean up electricity, transport and industry. Ambitious climate targets will mean little when entire ecosystems burn, as California found out last year when wildfires erased two decades of hard-won progress on reducing its annual emissions.

But there’s more to life on earth than carbon. And until the next asteroid hits, it’s humanity, more than any other force, that will determine the future course of all known life. Our survival hinges on securing biodiversity: that spectacular, tangled web of life on which we utterly depend. 

One way to appreciate our dependence on nature is to imagine setting up a happy life on the moon. Which earthly companions would you bring along? Millions of species, large and small, make soils fertile; pollinate crops; cycle clean, plentiful water; protect coastlines from storms; cool cities; stimulate physical activity and health; and nourish our bodies and minds. From the material basics to the ethereal senses of belonging and spirit, humanity is utterly dependent on nature. But we’re creating an ever more sterile moonscape here on earth: 96% of the mammals on earth, by weight, are humans, and our domesticated companions, as well as virtually all bigger wild animals, are expected to go extinct on our watch. We must recognize nature as a vital engine of prosperity and drive investments in its protection and regeneration before it’s too late.

Hope, however, springs from corners that may be surprising to those steeped in the climate world. China, despite its undisputed position at the top of the emissions tables, has done more than most large nations to integrate natural capital into the country’s development. In a quest to transform its industrial society into an ecological civilization,” it is identifying crucial areas for securing nature and its vital benefits to people. With 50% of the country now zoned to limit human activity, China is paying over 200 million rural people to restore ecosystems and their cascading benefits through innovative policies that connect downstream beneficiaries to upstream suppliers.

Halfway across the world, Costa Rica moved from being a poster child of planetary destruction (with the highest deforestation rate in the world through the 1990s) to a miracle of reforestation and green, inclusive development. Through similar financial transfers, it invests in rainforest restoration and now, like China, is succeeding with net reforestation.

Across the Caribbean, where a succession of hurricanes has devastated coastal communities, resilience is the top priority. Seawalls won’t save those communities; instead, investments in green infrastructure are protecting and restoring mangroves, coral reefs and other ecosystems to protect people and property. The approach also led to ambitious nature-based climate commitments by Belize and other countries in preparation for COP26, supported by a commitment by multilateral banks at Glasgow to mainstream nature throughout their financing operations.

A quiet revolution has also been building in the frameworks and tools we have to value nature — both for carbon and for those other ecosystem services that are often overlooked. The concept of gross ecosystem product” — a high-level index for communicating the benefits of nature to the public, guiding financial investments and tracking progress — is taking root from China to Colombia, and soon to Sri Lanka, Mongolia, and beyond. As mundane as they may sound, frameworks — from carbon budgets to national greenhouse gas inventories — are what ultimately laid the groundwork for robust agreements on climate.

Glasgow may not end in a historic deal. But the platform it provides still matters, perhaps more than it ever has, particularly set against the obscurity of its Kunming counterpart. So as welcome as those first few eye-catching nature-related climate commitments might be, we cannot afford to let them meet the same fate as past commitments to preserve the natural world. Those at the COP26 table must elevate the COP15 agenda and press for tangible, transparent action on nature as well as carbon — or risk losing the very things that make our living planet worth living for. 

Siddarth Shrikanth is a joint MPA/MBA candidate at Harvard and Stanford.

Gretchen C. Daily is the co-founder and faculty director of the Stanford Natural Capital Project.