The Biodiversity Crisis Needs Its Net Zero Moment



October 2021 was an important month for crisis meetings. There was the big one, COP26, where decisionmakers descended on Glasgow to spend two frenetic weeks figuring out how to achieve the goals set out in the Paris Climate Agreement and keep global heating under 1.5 degrees Celsius. But earlier that month, a different crisis meeting took place that almost completely slipped below the radar—a meeting that will have huge implications for the future of every living thing on our planet.

The world is in the middle of a biodiversity crisis. Birds, mammals, and amphibians are going extinct at least 100 to 1,000 times faster than they did in the millions of years before humans began to dominate the planet. In the last 500 years alone, human activity has forced 869 species into extinction, according to data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). If things continue at their current rate, we’re on track for a sixth mass extinction—the first since that infamous dino-ending catastrophe 65 million years ago, which sparked an extinction event that eventually knocked off 76 percent of all species. 

This time around, there’s no giant asteroid to pin the blame on. Humans have transformed the planet, turning half of all habitable land into agriculture and replacing wild animals with livestock. In the oceans, we are continuing the trend our ancestors began on land tens of thousands of years ago—hunting large species to the point of collapse and leaving mostly smaller species behind. In other words, biodiversity is in desperately bad shape.

“There is a gradual realization that there are two big crises going on, and we should better act on both of them,” says Almut Arneth, a biologist at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany. On October 11, the delegates at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference had gathered virtually to do just that. They were trying to agree on a new set of global targets that can arrest the dramatic drop in global biodiversity—a Paris Agreement-style plan to reset our relationship with nature. These targets will be debated and finalized at a second meeting due to take place in Kunming, China, in April 2022.

The last time the parties of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity got together to set a global biodiversity agenda was in Japan in 2010, where they came up with the Aichi targets, a set of 20 goals aimed at reducing a range of environmental harms including habitat loss, overfishing, and pollution over the subsequent decade. But those goals were difficult to measure, and countries weren’t required to report their progress in any definite way. In September 2020, a UN report revealed that none of the Aichi targets were fully achieved, and only six of them were partially achieved.

The Kunming meeting is an attempt to get the world’s biodiversity targets back on track. “It’s a decisive moment,” says Henrique Miguel Pereira, head of the Biodiversity Conservation research group at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research. The first draft of what is called the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework was released in July and sets out four major goals to be achieved by 2050, along with 21 more specific targets that will be assessed in 2030. While the Aichi targets tended to be a little vague, these post-2020 targets add some numerical pizzazz.


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