UN Secretary General Guterres gives a speech at the COP15 opening ceremony.
Guterres’ language of “humanity as a weapon of mass destruction” has to be critically engaged with. | Photo: UN Biodiversity via flickr | CC BY 2.0

Stopping the Biodiversity Apocalypse: Existential Threats and Ecological Justice at COP15 in Montreal

Global biodiversity is in a deep crisis. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres spoke of a “biodiversity apocalypse” and of “humanity as a weapon of mass destruction”. The COP15 gathering in Montreal from 7-19 December is tasked with finding a new global framework for effectively protecting global biodiversity. Despite of the scale and speed of biodiversity deterioration, the language of security obscures the key aspect of ecological injustice: not all of humanity is causing environmental destruction but specific modes of economic development and the inequitable distribution of environmental benefits and burdens between Global North and South, as well as non-human nature.     

Last week United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres gave a dramatic speech in which he warned of a “biodiversity apocalypse”. He spoke of an “orgy of destruction”, a “war on nature”, of the fact that “humanity has become a weapon of mass destruction”, committing “suicide by proxy” because “nature is our life-support system.” Guterres gave this speech at the opening of the COP15 conference on biodiversity in Montreal where he challenged the participants with “urgent task of making peace […] to forge a peace pact with nature”.

The Existential Threat of Global Biodiversity Loss

This language of war, security and peace is very drastic indeed, but the scale and speed of global biodiversity decline is very dramatic also: about one quarter of all plant and animal species are currently driven to extinction through habitat loss and land use changes, in what some scientists call the human-made sixth mass extinction. Species die out quicker than they can be discovered. Further, 75 percent of the land surface has been significantly altered, 66 percent of the ocean area is affected and over 85 percent of wetlands have been lost.

Loss of diversity among ecosystems, species, as well as genetic information on this scale is not just tragic as such, but of existential relevance for humanity as well. Biodiversity and ecosystem services provide us with fresh water, medicines, and food security. Biodiverse ecosystems also provide soil fertility, detoxify and decompose wastes, control pests and diseases, moderate the climate and provide recreational, cultural and spiritual benefits. Of all new and emerging human infectious diseases, around 75 percent are of zoonotic origin, as was the case with Covid-19. Further, the number of pathogenic microorganisms jumping from other animals to people is increasing due to unsustainable human activities, such as unsustainable agricultural intensification and the increased use and exploitation of wildlife. Around 55 percent of the global GDP rely on high-functioning biodiversity and ecosystem services and the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2020 lists biodiversity loss as one of the top 5 risks over the next 10 years. Despite this knowledge and all efforts to date, biodiversity continues to deteriorate worldwide – not a single one of the previously agreed Aichi biodiversity targets from 2010 was met in the last decade.

Still, Guterres’ language of “humanity as a weapon of mass destruction” has to be critically engaged with. It is not humanity or humans as such causing the sixth mass extinction, but certain organised behaviour by certain human groups: benefits from environmental “goods” such as access to clean and healthy air, water, and soil are enjoyed by very few globally privileged mostly in the Global North, while those who carry the burdens of environmental “bads” such as pollution, waste, decay, and destruction are vulnerable populations in the Global South, often directly living from the land and ocean. The global biodiversity and climate crises are both driven by the current modes of economic development that exacerbate existing global inequalities and inequities, including for non-human nature and future generations. Effective biodiversity governance will have to reckon with these global injustices.

Finding a New Framework for Biodiversity Protection

Against this backdrop, the COP15 conference, the fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD), is the most important gathering on the issue in a decade. The conference is chaired by the People’s Republic of China and, because of previous COVID-19 related postponements and China’s ongoing Zero Covid-policy, held in Montreal, Canada. Noteworthy is also that the United States is not a signatory to the convention, but US President Biden has still sent a delegation after previously pledging to protect more US land and coastal waters. Some hope that at the end of the conference there will be a new globally shared 10-year framework for protecting nature, equal in stature to the Paris Agreement on climate.

Among the targets defined in the draft agreement are the reduction of agricultural pollution, the elimination of the most harmful subsidies for biodiversity, as well as the enshrinement of the value of traditional knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous peoples and local communities. The last point is especially important in context of the sharing of benefits from genetic data in digital form or digital sequence information (DSI), for example in medical biotechnology and life science research. Indigenous people in particular fear “biopiracy” or the commercialisation of their knowledge and African countries also have been pushing for financial compensation mechanisms, for example, through a 1 percent levy on profits generated from biodiversity-related products.

A key feature of the new framework agreement will be the so called 30 by 30 initiative, with the goal to protect 30 percent of land and oceans by 2030. For an effective protection of species and ecosystems, these conservation areas will have to include territories with biodiversity hotspots, which has not always been the case in the past. As many of the biodiverse rich areas are located in the Global South, the funding for this and other conservation measures has been very contested, however. China launched the Kunming Biodiversity Fund last year in order to support developing countries in this regard. Importantly, many indigenous groups and human rights activists voiced their concern that the 30 by 30 conservation initiative could lead to land grabs, displacement, violence and “fortress conservation”. While only around less than 5 percent of the world population, indigenous people protect around 80 percent of global biodiversity.

The Big Picture: We Are Not All in this Together in the Same Way

Several of these justice-related objections came to the fore at the opening of COP 15 in Montreal already: when the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the delegates, he was interrupted mid-sentence by a group of indigenous protesters in the room beating drums and holding up a banner that read “Indigenous genocide = ecocide. To save biodiversity, stop invading our lands.” This protest illustrates clearly how conservation and nature protections questions are deeply entangled with larger questions around political and economic power, as well as legacies of colonisation, exploitation and violence.

The global biodiversity crisis does indeed pose dramatic and concrete human and ecological security risks but, similar to discourses about climate emergencies, the language of security and war itself can lead to risk and dangers, namely the reinforcing of colonial domination in the name of an environmental cause or Neo-Malthusian ideas about how overpopulation in the developing world is supposed to be the root of all environmental problems, and not overconsumption in the developed parts of the planet. Biodiversity loss is clearly not just an existential security issue related to the very basics of food to health, but also at the core about the highly unequal distribution of environmental goods and bads in the past and maybe also in the future. While the language of security can point to the urgency and scale of the global biodiversity crisis in the present, there is thus a need to engage different future imaginaries organised around ecological justice, applying principles of social justice to understanding and managing human-environment interactions.

Alternative Visions for Just and Effective Biodiversity Futures

In addition to the necessary albeit slow and all too often ineffective multilateral COP processes, there is a value in exploring different imaginaries of human-nature relations in order to achieve sustainable and just biodiversity futures. Alternative visions can motivate and direct emotions – fear, hope, anger, grief – and empowering agency towards alternative futures and thus contribute to the nurturing of “anticipatory capacity to get ahead of the curve, rather than react to crisis.

This will also have to mean a political and economic reckoning in the Global North with our history of reaping environmental benefits while putting – often violently – the unprecedented and existentially threatening burden on communities in the Global South, on non-human nature as well as on future generations. Ecological justice is a call not only for the respect of our planet’s biosphere, its various ecosystems, flora and fauna, but also for the implementation of worldwide conditions of justice, equality and dignity for the people excessively impacted, those yet to be born included.

Patrick Flamm

Patrick Flamm

Dr. Patrick Flamm ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter der HSFK im Programmbereich „Internationale Sicherheit“. Seine Forschung konzentriert sich auf das Verhältnis zwischen Umwelt, Frieden und Sicherheit im „Anthropozän“ sowie auf polare Geopolitik. // Dr Patrick Flamm is a Senior Researcher at PRIF in the research department “International Security”. His research focuses on the relationship between the environment, peace and security in the “Anthropocene” as well as on polar geopolitics.

Patrick Flamm

Dr. Patrick Flamm ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter der HSFK im Programmbereich „Internationale Sicherheit“. Seine Forschung konzentriert sich auf das Verhältnis zwischen Umwelt, Frieden und Sicherheit im „Anthropozän“ sowie auf polare Geopolitik. // Dr Patrick Flamm is a Senior Researcher at PRIF in the research department “International Security”. His research focuses on the relationship between the environment, peace and security in the “Anthropocene” as well as on polar geopolitics.

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