One eye on nature

Aruna Chandrasekhar argues that we need to keep one eye on the ‘other COP’.

Keeping it green: One of the activists taking part in a human chain at the 10th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP10) in Nagoya, Japan on 28 October 2010. REUTERS/ALAMY/YURIKO NAKAO

To the average person in the Northern hemisphere, November is a vibe shift: undeniable crispness in the air, pumpkin spice everything, darkness before six in the evening. To climate nerds, November is COP (Conference of the Parties) season: long-winded speeches, interminable nights filled with battles over bracketed legal text, fights over finance that seem soul-crushingly familiar. Then there’s the new generation of protesters reminding world leaders who attend the UN climate conference that they need to step up and do justice outside these corridors.

But this year there is not one, but two COPs within one month of each other: one for nature in Montreal, Canada (7-18 November); and the other for the climate in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt (7-19 December). Both the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and the Framework Convention on Climate Change were born at the iconic Rio Earth Summit of 1992, and although they later diverged with their own specialist streams of international law, science and activism, the overlap between them remains undeniable. Climate change is driving habitat destruction and more extreme weather, while biodiversity loss from human activity, such as deforestation, is exacerbating climate change.

However, in recent years it could be said that biodiversity movements have taken a backseat to climate change activism. After all, while the biodiversity crisis is largely invisible to urbanites, climate change is making its presence more acutely felt, no matter where we are, and therefore, has a much greater potential to mobilize people.

Critics of the thinly-attended UN Convention on Biological Diversity in Nairobi earlier this year are concerned that climate is dominating policy-makers’ pledges in terms of priority. While carbon removal and net-zero nature-based solutions have been mainstreamed in climate discourse, government figureheads have been all but missing from crucial biodiversity talks. Now they have the chance to return to the table with the aim of agreeing a new set of goals to guide global action on biodiversity until 2040.

Climate activists should also be active in and around these discussions. But, as I write this less than three months before the events, there is not enough attention on the ‘other COP’. Despite action on biodiversity loss being a key part of the group’s demands, Extinction Rebellion have not shown much interest in meetings where a deal to reverse extinctions is being discussed. Sustainable farming advocates are missing from discussions about cutting two-thirds of pesticide use globally by 2030. Meanwhile, governments and the private sector seem to have set their sights on reintroductions of trophy species and resurrections of some that are extinct in the wild as biodiversity silver bullets for our time.

Biodiversity may not be stealing the spotlight that remains focused on the climate, but it remains closely interlinked in our collective consciousness. Conserving pandas, orcas or the Amazon were causes championed way before cutting CO2 became street-speak. Campaigns to stop deforestation or fossil fuels have always relied on charismatic species, like tigers and orangutans, to throw spanners in the works of fossil fuel or palm oil companies.

So, what of nature, our only safety-net, repository of so many of our hopes? For these COP events to bear any fruit we will need to examine how we value nature, habitats and other species, and how much. We need to wake up to how much we take from an all-providing planet and also how we can ensure that the most vulnerable among us do not suffer as a consequence of ringfencing the nature that they revere and protect. That time of reckoning is now.