- The underlying drivers of climate change and biodiversity loss are different, though the line between policy to mitigate climate change and biodiversity loss is not always so distinct.
- The blurring of lines between climate and biodiversity policy is seen at sea, particularly in coastal areas where mangrove forests, coral gardens or saltmarshes are present.
- Progress towards governance and protection of the high seas for the sake of biodiversity conservation will also benefit our fight against climate change.
In the spring of 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when Europe, North America, Oceania, the Middle East and many parts of Asia went into lockdown, greenhouse gas emissions plummeted and air quality improved in some of the world’s most polluted cities. There were also reports of normally reticent wildlife frequenting the now-quieted cities of the world, a point in time cleverly referred to as the “anthropause”. Both developments served as beacons of hope during an otherwise alarming global crisis that is still far from over.
At that time, I was heartened by the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, but as the Managing Director of the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, I was more suspicious about claims that biodiversity was somehow benefiting from the COVID-induced restrictions on the movement of people.
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My simultaneous optimism and pessimism were born from the understanding that the underlying drivers of climate change and biodiversity loss are different. Climate change is caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels – an activity that was substantially reduced during the lockdown but is now returning to pre-pandemic levels – whereas biodiversity loss is caused not only by climate change, but also significantly by habitat loss (such as the conversion of land to agriculture), pollution, overharvesting, and the spread of invasive species – few of which abated during the pandemic. In fact, some drivers of biodiversity loss increased.
Policies to mitigate climate change and biodiversity loss
Appropriate policy in mitigating climate change is to promote renewable energy, carbon capture and circular economies, among others. Appropriate policy to reduce the loss of biodiversity is to establish protected areas, reduce pollution, control invasive species and reduce overharvesting. During the lockdown we literally saw how clean air and reduced carbon emissions could result from operating fewer internal combustion engines. It gave us hope that climate change policy might eventually work. Yet the presence of wildlife in our cities did not mean that the fate of biodiversity was being reversed. Endangered species did not suddenly become more prolific than before the pandemic.
However, the line between policy to mitigate climate change and biodiversity loss is not always so clearly distinct. The two sets of policy are indeed related, and addressing both simultaneously is possible and an important step, especially for biodiversity conservation. The points of connection can be understood across land and sea. Agriculture contributes to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions from engines and cattle, as well as the conversion of forests into agricultural land. At the same time, this conversion destroys habitats and their biodiversity. The blurring of lines between climate and biodiversity policy is also witnessed at sea, particularly in coastal areas where mangrove forests, seagrass meadows, coral gardens or saltmarshes are present, but also in forested terrestrial areas along the coasts.
Today, mangroves cover almost 140,000 square kilometres of the Earth’s surface. It was only 50 years ago that mangroves covered almost 190,000 square kilometres – indicating a loss in covered area of 25%. Mangroves serve several ecosystem services, not least of which are the capacity to sequester carbon and to serve as breeding grounds and nurseries for wildlife. It is estimated that in the year 2000 mangroves sequestered 6.4 billion metric tons of carbon and that between 2000 and 2015, up to 122 million tons of this carbon has since been released due to mangrove forest loss. Such precise estimates do not exist for wildlife lost, but we can cite the IUCN Global Marine and Polar Programme, which reported that “scientists have been able to directly link offshore abundance (or lack) of the adult [Goliath Grouper] with the abundance (or lack) of mangroves” and “the higher the local abundance of mangroves, the larger the landings of commercial catches.” Similar ecosystem services related to climate change and wildlife have been attributed to saltmarshes and seagrass meadows.
While the United Arab Emirates, which I am a proud to call home, is known for its vast deserts, it is also home to large areas of mangrove, seagrass and saltmarsh. Along our 1,300 kilometres of ocean coastline, 300 kilometres are designated as saltmarsh and growing along it are also 3,000 hectares of mangrove. Not far from shore in the western region of the UAE you will find more than 5,500 square kilometres of seagrass meadows. The Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi has established significant portions of these critical marine ecosystems as protected areas. In fact, Abu Dhabi, the largest of the seven emirates in the UAE encompassing almost 90% of its total territory, has set a near-term target of protecting 20% of its marine territory. Protecting these critical ecosystems is as much for the species that depend on them as it is for their contribution to mitigating climate change.
The high seas
While coastal areas are great examples of where climate change policy and biodiversity policy can be mutually beneficial, the open oceans – the high seas – are also a significant opportunity. Although I strongly believe that the protection of biological diversity is best done locally and the mitigation of climate change is best accomplished globally, as demonstrated in the examples of protected areas and wildlife management, this is not always the case. I am delighted that progress is being made towards governance and protection of the high seas for the sake of biodiversity conservation, as I believe this will also benefit our fight against climate change. But it will be challenging to effectively protect areas that are so far from land, and over which there is no accepted jurisdiction.
What's the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?
Our ocean covers 70% of the world’s surface and accounts for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can't have a healthy future without a healthy ocean - but it's more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.
Tackling the grave threats to our ocean means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.
The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.
Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.
Is your organization interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.
To move forward, we have an opportunity to in the coming months at both the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Kunming and the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow. We must recognize the co-mingling of agendas for both reversing biodiversity loss and mitigating climate change. Although these two issues of global importance have different drivers and pressures, some solutions, particularly the establishment of protected areas near coastal zones, are of high importance and proven effectiveness.