In this interview, AIQ catches up with Tanzanian biodiversity leader and lawyer Elizabeth Maruma Mrema about the threat of biodiversity loss, the recent Kunming Declaration and missed Aichi Biodiversity Targets, as well as the role of finance in protecting nature.

Read this article to understand:

  • The threat of biodiversity loss and how to measure it
  • What came out of the Kunming Declaration made at COP15 last year
  • The role finance can play in protecting biodiversity

Nature and the climate are inextricably linked: solving the crisis in one is impossible without solving the other. Unfortunately though, somewhere along the line, nature and climate got separated in policymakers’ minds.

It wasn’t always this way. The original Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings in the 1990s put nature and biodiversity front and centre. We need to rekindle some of that ethos and think about environmental challenges more holistically.

Elizabeth Maruma Mrema is the executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity and co-chair of the Task Force on Nature-related Financial Disclosures. She is hopeful lessons can be learned from the failure to meet any of the 2010 Aichi Biodiversity Targets and argues that progress was made, and a solid foundation has been laid that can be built upon. With more rigorous monitoring and accountability frameworks – as well as a healthy dose of hope and optimism – the necessary changes can be made to protect the diversity of live on Earth and many people’s livelihoods.

How great a threat does biodiversity loss pose to human societies and economies?

It poses a real and significant threat. We know that biodiversity is the foundation of life. It provides us with the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. It sequesters carbon and yields many other benefits.

In economic terms, biodiversity is a global asset with tremendous value

We also know that in economic terms, biodiversity is a global asset with tremendous value, for both present and future generations. Studies have clearly shown our economies are highly dependent on nature and ecosystem services. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), half of global GDP or $44 trillion of economic value, is highly or moderately dependent on nature or the services it provides. The livelihoods of over 70 per cent of people living in poverty worldwide depend on natural resources: 2.6 billion people derive their livelihoods fully or partly from agriculture, 1.6 billion from forests and 250 million from fisheries.

Economies are therefore exposed to risks due to biodiversity loss. Estimates suggest the cost of inaction on biodiversity could rise to at least $14 trillion, or seven per cent of global GDP, by 2050. But equally, there are benefits which can be harnessed, and market opportunities that cannot be ignored. The WEF has estimated an economy centred on sustainable development can unlock at least $10.1 trillion of business opportunities.

How do we measure biodiversity and biodiversity loss? What are the key challenges involved?

Over the last decade, we have made tremendous progress on collecting and processing biodiversity data. Satellites are collecting hundreds of terabytes of data every day, allowing us to better map terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Over two billion species occurrence records are now available in the open-access Global Biodiversity Information Facility database.1 Cloud computing and data science have also advanced, allowing analysis of those datasets.

Many countries have limited capacity to access biodiversity data and to assess it in a way that is contextual and relevant to them

In terms of challenges, the data available is not equitably distributed across countries. Many countries have limited capacity to access this data, and even where data is available, to assess it in a way that is contextual and relevant to them. The greatest concentration of data is in North America and Europe, as opposed to other places with higher biodiversity. Neither is the data equitably distributed across species; there is more data available on some species, including so-called “charismatic species” such as birds, than on others.

That’s why the post-2020 global biodiversity framework will adopt a strong monitoring approach, with national reporting on indicators of biodiversity and biodiversity loss, including direct and indirect drivers. Challenges will remain in terms of implementation because countries need support to build that capacity, particularly in terms of underlying monitoring systems. But there is an opportunity here to build better information systems and help countries and other stakeholders target their interventions and achieve the vision of living in harmony with nature in the future.

Part one of COP15 took place in October. What are the elements of the Kunming Declaration that came out of the conference?

The work is incomplete without COP part two. But COP part one enabled us to build momentum and get confirmation of the political will among governments.

The Kunming Declaration urges countries to recognise the importance of biodiversity in human health. Signatories to the Declaration have committed to work across governments to continue to promote the integration and mainstreaming of biodiversity values in their policies, regulations, planning processes, disaster risk reduction plans and economic accounting, as well as to strengthen cross-sectoral coordinating mechanisms on biodiversity. They have committed to improve the effectiveness of area-based conservation measures to protect species and reduce threats to biodiversity.

Kunming Declaration signatories have committed to increase the application of ecosystem-based approaches

They have also committed to step up efforts to ensure fair and equitable benefit-sharing from the use of genetic resources, including acknowledging the importance of traditional knowledge in the context of ongoing emerging developments in technology. They have committed to increase the application of ecosystem-based approaches, or nature-based solutions, to address the loss of biodiversity, to restore degraded ecosystems, to boost resilience, to mitigate and adapt to climate change, to support sustainable food production, and to promote health and other benefits across the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. In addition, they have committed to ensure post-COVID recovery policies contribute to conservation and the sustainable use of biodiversity.

Over 120 ministers attended the conference (virtually) and made these commitments, which led to adoption by acclamation of the Declaration, so clearly there is worldwide support.

But the world has set out biodiversity targets before, notably at the 2010 Aichi Convention, and subsequently missed them. Why will it be different this time?

Indeed, although progress was made in some areas, none of the 2010 Aichi Biodiversity Targets were fully met. But the non-fulfilment of those targets provides lessons which can be learned in the new framework, to ensure it is transformative and effective.

Governments alone cannot lead on global biodiversity loss

For instance, there was an expectation that implementation of the Aichi Targets was the responsibility of governments. Over the last decade, we have learned governments alone cannot lead on global biodiversity loss. What is needed is cooperation of all stakeholders; an “all-of-society”, “whole-of-government” approach that brings economic, social development and environmental plans into the discussion. The delays related to the pandemic have provided additional time for the co-chairs responsible for the development of the post-2020 framework to consult different stakeholders, including indigenous peoples and local communities, youth groups, business, civil society and the financial sector. All stakeholders can see themselves in the current draft framework and that gives them a sense of ownership.

We also want to reduce the time lag between the planning and implementation of biodiversity strategies. The Aichi Targets are still relevant today and the biodiversity strategies and action plans that were already in progress mean countries should be able to immediately begin implementation of the post-2020 framework when it is adopted, and then adjust.

What other lessons can we learn from the failure to meet the Aichi Targets?

The Aichi Targets lacked monitoring, review and reporting mechanisms to enable countries to measure progress. This time, there will be an accountability framework that incorporates these mechanisms.

The commitments show the importance of financial resources for implementing the global biodiversity framework

The previous strategic plan also lacked the resources needed for implementation. The post-2020 framework recognises that $500 trillion is spent every year on harmful subsidies for agriculture and fisheries, and that if this capital is redirected into cleaner, nature-positive activities, then a lot of the money is already there to close the financing gap. The commitments being made, not just by governments, but also by businesses and financial institutions, show a clear understanding of the importance of financial resources for the implementation of the framework.

Another lesson learned since 2010 is that we cannot deal with biodiversity loss without solutions to climate change, just as we cannot have climate change solutions without paying attention to the loss of biodiversity. Addressing climate change means looking at nature-based solutions to adaptation and mitigation. Resources to stop deforestation were announced at COP26.

These lessons from the past give us optimism that this time will be better – especially if governments take a holistic approach and involve all stakeholders in implementing the framework, from national government to local actors to the economic sector and society in general.

You are co-chair of the Task Force for Nature-related Financial Disclosures. Can you elaborate further on the role finance can play in addressing the biodiversity crisis?

The financial sector is an economy’s main mechanism for allocating resources and distributing risks, and it therefore has a critical role to play in addressing the global biodiversity crisis. Alignment of financial flows was one of the goals set out in the Paris Agreement. Bringing financial flows into alignment with global biodiversity goals is equally important and will be crucial to the success of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework and the second part of COP15.

Disclosure of nature-related financial information will have implications for improved economic stability

Financial disclosure has a major role to play in enabling all investors, from banks to insurance companies, to integrate nature-related risks, and to incorporate into their investment decisions the impacts on nature of the operations they finance. As a result, we hope the financial sector will not only better manage the risks and the impacts, but also identify opportunities to shift from nature-negative financial flows to nature-positive flows. The disclosure of nature-related financial information will also have implications for improved economic stability.

Until recently, climate change and biodiversity loss were looked at as two different entities and climate change was ahead of biodiversity loss. The data on financial mechanisms were more developed for climate change than biodiversity and nature. But we now have a chance to catch up.

Your background is in is environmental law. We have seen increasing litigation against companies causing climate change. Do you think we'll start to see more litigation related to the impact of biodiversity loss as well?

I would not be surprised to see an increase in litigation related to biodiversity loss. We’ve seen youth groups pushing governments to take actions on the commitments that have made for nature. We’re already starting to see some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) asking companies and financial institutions exactly what they are doing on biodiversity risks, in terms of impact management. We know this will become even more important with the post-2020 framework, as new commitments will be adopted.

We are also seeing stricter regulations. For instance, Article 29 of the latest French law on energy and climate requires the financial sector to disclose information not just on climate, but also on biodiversity.

Looking at the figures on the mass extinctions of wildlife and destruction of nature, it's easy to become discouraged. How can we stay optimistic?

Nature is so important for our day to day lives. We need to remain optimistic and positive if we are to contribute to the actions needed. We need to come together to solve these common global issues.

People recognise the importance of biodiversity for human wellbeing

More than ever before, people recognise the importance of biodiversity for human wellbeing. Attention is now focused on an issue that, in the past, was probably seen as secondary to climate change. But we cannot solve climate change without also addressing biodiversity loss. Recent reports demonstrate healthy ecosystems can provide 37 per cent of the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions necessary to tackle climate change – 37 per cent is not a small statistic.2

We need a social contract for nature that depends on new global and national governance models, with rights, rewards and responsibilities. My hope is that the post-2020 global biodiversity framework will play a meaningful role in building the resilience we need in the face of growing environmental health and development challenges.

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