“Biodiversity, perhaps even more so than climate, touches all of our lives”

The state of the climate and that of biodiversity are closely linked. “They are also linked to crucial issues such as justice, values, and the well-being of all,” says Unai Pascual, member of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), Professor of the Basque Centre for Climate Change (BC3), and Associated Senior Research Scientist at CDE. But people have widely varying views on this and on human–nature relationships. “The urgent changes needed to protect the environment must respect this diversity – beyond the existing power imbalance between the global North and South.”

“The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us that health, the economy, and the environment should not be treated in a siloed way”: Unai Pascual.

Interview: Gaby Allheilig

Last autumn you expressed your disappointment with the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. You complained that the UK government had done too little in the run-up to the conference to motivate the participating countries to actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What are your thoughts now, regarding the preparations for the upcoming Biodiversity Conference in Kunming?

Hosting a global summit is a challenge for any country, and not only in terms of logistics, as the host country is responsible for guiding negotiation processes towards successful outcomes. The pre-summit negotiation phase is critical, and any domestic or international – say, geopolitical – issue could derail the negotiation process. China is operating within a difficult context, not least because of Covid-19 and repeated delays.

From the outside, it’s difficult to know how China is manoeuvring in the diplomatic sphere to ensure a successful summit. What seems clear is that, despite all the preparatory work for the conference, the geopolitical context is complicated and quite volatile. Hopefully, China will be able to insulate the conference from any geopolitical challenges that may be ignited over the next weeks or months.


“I think we may be losing precious political momentum”


China is apparently trying to convince the countries of the global South to pursue a weak agreement. Under these circumstances, what can we expect from the negotiation rounds?

Biodiversity, perhaps even more so than climate, touches all of our lives, directly or indirectly. The global South is still the planet’s main reservoir of biodiversity, but – as with climate change – it is much more vulnerable to biodiversity loss than the North, because a great share of its population depends directly on nature. Besides, we long know that much of the pressure experienced by the South in terms of underlying causes of biodiversity loss is linked to international rules – like those of international trade, for example. These rules tend to be dictated by the North.

The global institutional context is in part responsible for the fact that the global South is forced to grow at the expense of its natural resource base. It’s a perverse situation. And if the agreement achieved in Kunming is weak, the global South will find itself locked even more tightly into this situation. Overall, I think we may be losing the precious political momentum that was created, for example, after the publication of the IPBES Global Assessment Report in May 2019.

(For details regarding the reports and articles mentioned, see box at the end of the page.)


“We’ve been working in silos for far too long”


Climate and biodiversity are very closely related. While this is now being taken into account in the negotiations, the relevant global conferences are still largely taking place in their respective “silos”. Does that make sense?

This is something that has long preoccupied scientists. I think science is pushing in the right direction by highlighting the very close interactions between the climate and the biodiversity crises, pointing up their common underlying drivers, and showing how these interlinkages are compounding the negative social impacts. It also helps when scientists call for interventions that can serve as “positive tipping points” capable of enabling transformational changes across all spheres of society. That said, of course we could make a huge step forward if the climate and biodiversity summits and their respective architectures began to take account of the science around biodiversity–climate interactions. We’ve been working in silos for far too long. This is an issue that should be addressed by policymakers at all levels.


“Land is at the centre of the solutions”


The way we use land is the most significant cause of biodiversity loss and also a very important driver of global warming. Land is thus key to addressing these crises. Do the conferences sufficiently reflect this?

Land is at the centre of the mechanisms directly and indirectly driving the interrelated biodiversity and climate crises. But land is also at the centre of the solutions to these crises. It is thus paramount to pay attention to how land is being used and what plans exist for its future use. Importantly, we need to look at who is making those plans, who will benefit from them – and who is going to suffer most from potentially negative consequences. Land faces many competing uses, from the idea of pristine conservation at one end of the spectrum to massive development at the other end – for example, in the context of urbanization or of large development infrastructure like dams or mines.

But there is so much in between these two extremes. Land use decisions taken today may have implications for nature and people that can lock us in for many decades. We need more focus on this. An important report was published recently by 50 land system scientists from the global South and the global North: The report calls for land to be put at the centre of the biodiversity–climate–society nexus (see box).


“Solutions to the mutually reinforcing climate and biodiversity crises will not come from a magic bullet such as a technological breakthrough”


At the end of 2020, experts from IPBES and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) held a joint workshop. Will joining forces enable science to achieve the breakthrough that has so far failed to materialize?

This was the first workshop to be co-sponsored by the IPCC and IPBES. It encouraged actors at the science–policy interface to view biodiversity, climate, and society as a nexus. I was part of this workshop and of the subsequent workshop report, which points a promising way forward. I would suggest that scientists and policymakers start to use this nexus framing and reflect seriously on the main findings that arise from its use (see box).

The workshop identified concrete levers for change. One lever was the need to consider different visions of what constitutes a good quality of life for all. Why is this important in terms of addressing the climate and biodiversity crisis?

The nexus approach connects biodiversity, climate, and societal aspects. Issues such as equity, justice, and rights are affected by the governance models we put in place, which in turn are largely determined by the impacts of the interacting dynamics between climate change and biodiversity loss. At the same time, it is fundamental to realize that the solutions to the mutually reinforcing climate and biodiversity crises won’t come from a magic bullet such as a technological breakthrough. It will be key to identify – and then to activate – deep and broad societal and economic changes. For example, much more respect should be given non-hegemonic paradigms about well-being, progress, and so on, and the large diversity of values that people attach to nature. If we do so, then ideas such as prosperity without growth could flourish and make the climate and biodiversity crisis more tractable, especially in the global North.


“The legal frameworks around the world lag far behind the scientific debates”


So, biodiversity conservation means not only protecting species, ecosystems, and genetic diversity, but also transforming our economic system?

Yes. The concept of biodiversity is used strategically in different ways by different actors defending their own interests and values. Conservationists, for example, put the preservation of wild species at the top of the political agenda. Others promote economic growth at the expense of a depoliticized concept of biodiversity, viewing biodiversity just as an object, as natural capital to be optimally exploited by humans and for humans. Identifying the different ways of interpreting the concept of biodiversity is important in order to know what, and why (and for whom), we need to prioritize in terms of conservation efforts. This also implies that calls for transformative changes must recognize different views of what aspects of biodiversity matter to people for their well-being based on their values around nature. This is something we have explained in a recent article, drawing on many lengthy debates among biodiversity scientists from very different traditions in the context of the international Biodiversity Revisited project (see box).

And what about the institutions that set the legal framework?

The legal and regulatory frameworks around the world lag far behind the scientific debates and the scientific evidence. Unfortunately, there seem to be two completely different worlds. Those in the legal world are generally very detached from the growing scientific evidence on the role of biodiversity. At the same time, we scientists are not well-versed in the workings of the legal world – how it operates, or how institutions shape and reshape the legal frameworks under which all policy interventions and so forth operate. We have lots of work to do to bring these two worlds together.


“The predominant conservation movement has traditionally interpreted biodiversity using their own value lens”


In your research papers, you point out that the idea of nature conservation in the countries of the global North is still too strongly focused on the complete protection of landscapes – that is, on promoting wilderness without human influence. What’s wrong with this idea?

As I mentioned, there are many interpretations of biodiversity – what it’s for, who should benefit from it, and how the benefits should be distributed. And there are just as many different types of human–nature relations and associated values. The predominant conservation movement has traditionally interpreted biodiversity using their own value lens, without recognizing that it’s a very specific lens, which can align poorly with many other value lenses.

This has created many conflicts and injustices, mainly in the global South. With a growing disconnect between urban and rural worlds as well as between visions for nature, those who have more power to legitimize their own world views and values around nature are able to impose a discourse and a framing about why and for whom biodiversity matters. So, while in principle there is nothing wrong with wanting to protect pristine landscapes, this view needs to recognize that there are other views that don’t necessarily align perfectly with this one. The problem is that one view is imposed on others, and conservation interventions thus follow the one-view approach only.


“Indicators are not neutral tools”


Talking about different visions: Together with other researchers, you are suggesting a multidimensional biodiversity index that accounts for the diversity of values underpinning human–nature relationships. Why is there a need for yet another index?

Indicators are very important. They help us understand the status and trends of different facets of biodiversity. But given the different interests and values concerning biodiversity, we need to understand that indicators are not neutral tools. They reflect ideas about what we care about and why. So, it’s important to move towards indicators that recognize a plurality of perspectives on biodiversity. And while such indicators are more complex and challenging, they can also help us interpret the compass to navigate towards more sustainable and just futures.

Is this how we will save the world?

No indicator will be the perfect compass to save the world. Even science will not save the world. In fact, even “saving the world” is a challenging expression. Save what, and for whom? Science and all other societal actors – by which I mean stakeholders and rights holders – who care about biodiversity, climate, and social aspects like justice need to embark on deeper discussions about values of nature using a nexus framing of the type I mentioned before. The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us that health, the economy, and the environment should not be treated in a siloed way. We need to rethink the way we create knowledge, considering what questions and interests it serves and what this implies for policy.


Reports mentioned in the text

  1. Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services
  2. 10 Facts About Land Systems for Sustainability
  3. IPBES-IPCC Co-Sponsored Workshop Report on Biodiversity and Climate Change
  4. Biodiversity and the challenge of pluralism

UN Biodiversity Conference

The Convention on Biological Diversity, also known as the Biodiversity Convention, is the most important international agreement regarding protection of biodiversity. In 2010, the 10th Conference of the Parties adopted the Aichi Targets. These should have been achieved by 2020 – but were clearly missed. A successor agreement to the Aichi Agreement was to be adopted at the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15), originally planned for October 2020 in Kunming, China. However, the conference was postponed to October 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Initial negotiations were then held via videoconference, resulting in a somewhat vague declaration in which protection of 30 per cent of Earth’s surface plays a central role. Continued negotiations are scheduled for March 2022 in Geneva. The successor agreement to the Aichi Targets is planned to be adopted in a face-to-face meeting in April/May 2022 in China.

Series covering the Conference

The Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) and the Wyss Academy for Nature, University of Bern, are illuminating some of the most important aspects of the ongoing negotiations in interviews with their experts. In addition, we wish to draw attention to the presentations held at the “Swiss Forum on Conservation Biology” online conferences SWIFCOB21 and SWIFCOB22, organized by the Swiss Biodiversity Forum of the Swiss Academy of Sciences. They are available in German and French.