As the opening ceremonies of the Convention on Biological Diversity kick off in Kunming, China, Jane Lawton, Forum’s Chief Development and Communications Officer, and Dhaval Negandhi, Associate Director for Climate, call out the critical need to connect the international debates and action on nature and climate, and advocate for three critical shifts that will ensure we can solve for the key challenges of our time.

We are all painfully aware of the existential nature of the climate crisis, and all eyes will soon be on the progress made at COP26 in Glasgow.

But how many people know about the critical discussions around nature that have been launched this week - with the opening ceremonies of the 15th Conference of the Parties for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)? And how many people have even heard of the CBD? We’re willing to bet not many. 

And that’s a problem.

Climate change and biodiversity loss are critical challenges of our time. Unprecedented changes in both areas, driven by human actions, have combined to threaten well-being and livelihoods across the world. Meanwhile, the two crises are exacerbating each other with a suite of tipping points that accelerate losses of nature and drive corresponding increases in carbon emissions. 

They also share many of the same direct and indirect drivers, with food and agriculture systems at the nexus, and about 25% of GHG emissions coming from land clearing, crop production, and fertilisation. 

We now know that stabilising our natural systems is the best hope we have of solving for the climate crisis, with the potential to sequester carbon in soil being one of the cheapest and most effective ways to reduce emissions. At the same time biodiversity will play a critical role in supporting climate adaptation, minimising heat stress, reducing the risks of climate-related increase in zoonotic disease, and alleviating impacts of storm surges and sea-level rise, among others. 

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, you find it attached to the rest of the world.” conservationist John Muir.

Yet, the connections between how we address and deal with these two issues are nowhere near as strong as they need to be. 

This is reflected in key structures. The two issues are dealt with by separate research communities, international conventions (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity), intergovernmental bodies (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), and even often by separate government ministries. 

That makes it impossible to adequately address the deep interconnections, and to guard against possible unintended consequences of actions adopted with a siloed approach. For example, ill-sited renewable energy projects that threaten biodiversity, mega dams for hydropower that increase environmental destruction, or the impacts of large scale planting of bioenergy crops on biodiversity. Or vice versa - when a conservation solution focused on conserving a single species has unintended consequences at a landscape level and undermines the resilience of an entire ecosystem and its ability to sequester carbon.

It’s clear that a number of critical shifts will be needed to address what is in essence not two, but one, existential crisis: 

1. Ensuring integration and interconnectedness

It is essential that we fully integrate the climate agenda with the post-2020 Biodiversity Framework, and leverage the mutually reinforcing synergies between them. Some organisations are already doing this well - Business for Nature, IUCN and others are calling for integrated approaches, and ensuring their constituencies do the same. But there is a critical need for policy makers to lead the shift - providing the integrated regulatory frameworks that will then drive businesses to do the same.

2. Ratcheting up levels of ambition

Increasing levels of ambition on nature are a no-brainer, because they will automatically help to achieve climate targets - through avoided deforestation, restoration, conservation agriculture and others, and often at significantly lower cost than many of the other climate actions being considered. In fact, nature-based interventions can provide up to 37% of the emission reductions needed by 2030 to keep global temperature increases under 2°C.

However, on both the climate and nature agendas, we know the level of ambition simply hasn’t been commensurate with the challenge. On biodiversity, we have fallen far short of the Aichi targets which drove global action to 2020. And disappointingly, the goals and targets proposed in the draft post-2020 Biodiversity Framework also fall well short of what is needed to halt and reverse the biodiversity crisis. We need the new framework to be bolder, measurable and unequivocal about reversing the loss of biodiversity to achieve a nature-positive world.

There have been various demands to dial up the ambition, such as a call for a Global Deal for Nature which targets 30% of the Earth to be formally protected and an additional 20% designated as climate stabilisation areas by 2030. Some scientists are even calling for more, with the Nature Needs Half campaign advocating the protection of 50% of the planet in various forms - not just in protected areas that exclude people, but also including land that is accessed and managed for nature by communities, well-managed urban biodiversity areas, and areas that have been set aside for restoration.

Across much of the highly biodiverse tropics, 32 million hectares of primary or recovering forests were lost between 2010 and 2015 - which roughly equates to clearing an area the size of a football field every five seconds. 75% of the Earth’s land surface has now been significantly altered, 66% of ocean area is experiencing increasing cumulative impacts, and 85% of wetlands (area) have been lost. The population sizes of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles have seen an alarming average drop of 68% since 1970.

3. Ensuring just transitions

In the same way that the drivers for the climate and biodiversity crises are very similar - the impacts of both will also disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in society.  Communities that are dependent on nature will be on the frontlines for climate impacts and for loss of livelihoods and in some cases their cultural and spiritual identities, as ecosystems degrade.

As we move down the path of transitioning to a world with new forms of energy, and new forms of agriculture and land use, we must ensure that these communities benefit from the transition, rather than just paying the price. This concept of the just transition needs to be incorporated into new targets for biodiversity, and considered across all spheres, including new ways of thinking about land use and land tenure. The new biodiversity and climate frameworks need to be based on an expansive socio-ecological biodiversity governance model that isn’t implemented in a top-down manner, but rather driven by a place-based approach to foster a just transition for all communities.

There is no question that urgent action is needed to solve for both the biodiversity and climate crises. 

For this action to succeed, however, it is critical that more decision makers understand the interconnectedness of the challenges and the solutions - that they rebalance focus on climate and nature, and ensure the two challenges are addressed simultaneously in a joined-up way. And that they also consider how action on climate and nature provides us an opportunity, and an imperative, to address inequality.

The next few weeks have the potential to be among the most significant of the decade, perhaps of the century, with critical decisions being made by global leaders that will affect the future of the planet and its inhabitants for centuries to come. There is only one option moving forward - these decisions must set us on the path to a deep transformation that will deliver a just and regenerative future for all.

And while the solutions aren’t easy, ensuring we raise our heads and make a concerted effort to take a holistic, systems-oriented view across climate and nature will be a significant step in the right direction.