Surprise! This environmental story is actually not depressing.
The biodiversity crisis, explained
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MONTREAL — On a busy street downtown is a life-size ice sculpture of a polar bear. It’s melting, revealing a fearsome-looking bronze skeleton underneath. Designed by artist Mark Coreth, the display is not a decoration but a warning: Climate change is killing wildlife like polar bears, which depend on sea ice.
Gloomy messages like this appeared all over Montreal in the last two weeks, as officials from more than 190 countries met in the city for a conference known as COP15. It’s the UN’s big meeting on biodiversity, where governments hashed out a historic plan to halt the decline of ecosystems. At the venue itself, not far from the melting bear, a 20-foot-tall Jenga tower was meant to signify the risk of ecosystem collapse; pull one block out and the whole tower crumbles.
These displays are a bit bleak, and they’re rooted in reality. Scientists estimate that around 1 million species are at risk of extinction, some within decades, and populations of major animal groups, including birds and fish, have declined on average by nearly 70 percent in the last half-century. A new study, appearing in the journal Science Advances, found through modeling that the planet could lose as much as 10 percent of its plant and animal species by 2050.
But while it’s hard to ignore the warning signs, there are plenty of reasons to still have hope for our planet’s future — starting with what happened at COP15. In Montreal, I asked roughly a dozen experts, from Western scientists to Indigenous leaders, about what’s inspiring them.
The term “biodiversity” isn’t perfect. And like much of the jargon in the environmental movement, it tries to encapsulate too much — in this case, the world’s species, the ecosystems they’re a part of, and the diversity of genetic material they contain.
But more and more, people are talking about this word, and that’s a good thing in itself, said Masha Kalinina, a senior officer for international conservation at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “The fact that we’re having a conversation about the environment as a whole, and not just climate, is a huge success story,” she said.
Delegates are also calling COP15 — which brought together more than 17,000 people and officials from 190 countries — the biggest and most important meeting for biodiversity, ever. “Nature has never been higher on the political or corporate agenda,” Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International, said at a press conference last month.
One reason is that people are starting to understand that what harms nature also harms humans.
It can be hard to convince everyone to care about animals like birds, said Amanda Rodewald, senior director of the Center for Avian Population Studies at Cornell’s Laboratory of Ornithology. If that was her objective, she “would not feel particularly optimistic,” she told me. “However, when we look at what needs to be done for birds, it’s the same things we need to be doing for human health and well-being,” she said.
Restoring wetlands in coastal New York, for example, benefits the threatened saltmarsh sparrow, but it can also minimize the damage to homes and buildings during storms, Rodewald said. Regrowing coral reefs around Miami and the Florida Keys can also protect beach-side towns from severe hurricane impacts. Meanwhile, many scientists point out that protecting forests reduces the risk that zoonotic diseases will spill over into human populations.
The bottom line: Even people who couldn’t care less about wildlife can be motivated to help restore nature, Rodewald says, because it benefits them. (That’s the idea behind “nature-based solutions,” an increasingly popular buzzword, which often describes how nature can provide solutions to human problems.)
“Our well-being has always been aligned with conservation,” Rodewald said.
The primary goal of COP15 was to get countries that are party to the Convention on Biological Diversity, a UN treaty, to agree to more than 20 environmental targets. But even if they do, they then have to measure success or failure.
One way to do that is to figure out whether the number of animals or plants in a given area is increasing or decreasing over time. And to that end, scientists have developed several new technologies to count species, especially over large areas.
Popular among them is a tool called eDNA, or environmental DNA. It allows scientists to detect bits of an animal’s genome in small samples of water, as well as in soil and air. To figure out how wildlife is changing in, say, a pond or river, researchers can now simply collect a small amount of water from one year to the next and analyze it for wildlife DNA — instead of having to physically collect different species across a wide area.
There are also emerging AI technologies to detect birds, frogs, whales, and other animals simply by listening to sounds in the environment, kind of like Shazam for wildlife. Plus, researchers are increasingly using imaging devices on satellites and in airplanes to monitor how forests are changing over time, such as in areas prone to wildfires and illegal cattle ranching.
Most major wildlife stories of the last decade were about animals in decline — 23 species declared extinct in the US, one-fifth of reptiles under threat, big boats killing whale sharks — but there are a number of species that are starting to recover, according to Caleb McClennen, president of the nonprofit group Rare.
“There are some species that have been declining our whole lifetime and we’re finally hearing that these populations are beginning to come back,” he told me.
Tigers are a good example, he said. In the last decade or so, India and Nepal have doubled their wild tiger population. River otters have returned to parts of the Midwestern United States. There are some lesser-known species, like the Saint Lucia parrot, that have recovered, too, McClennen said. (The California condor, American alligator, and humpback whales are other examples of species that have recovered to an extent.)
“We don’t emphasize enough that there are success stories out there,” he said.
Many ecosystems, more broadly, are recovering, too. A report published last week, for example, found that, across 18 countries, 14 million hectares (about 35 million acres) of land, roughly the size of Greece, are being restored. A new website, called Restor, is also building a repository of restoration projects around the world. (One of my favorite examples of restoration is in Florida, where scientists are planting corals to bring back reefs, in part by hacking coral sex.)
Roughly half of the world’s total economic output is dependent on ecosystems and wildlife in some way, according to the World Economic Forum. Insects pollinate commercial crops, wetlands purify water, and natural services like these help drive economic growth. So what happens as nature declines?
That’s a question that major financial institutes are finally asking. With a large presence at COP15, banks, hedge funds, and other investors are beginning to push their companies to measure “nature-based risks” — how, say, the collapse of some insect populations might affect a company that sells insect-pollinated foods.
Meanwhile, governments, private investors, and foundations are funneling more money into conservation than ever before. The EU, for example, said it will put 7 billion euros (about $7.4 billion) toward international biodiversity conservation between 2021 and 2027. Other major economies including Japan and the Netherlands also announced substantial international funding commitments at COP15.
Nonprofits that work on protecting nature are also attracting more money, as more foundations — such as the Bezos Earth Fund — begin to fund conservation, according to Brian O’Donnell, who leads an advocacy group called the Campaign for Nature. Foundations that haven’t historically funded environmental issues are now “starting to recognize how important biodiversity is,” he said. “We’re seeing huge opportunities in philanthropic support.”
A statistic that comes up over and over again at COP15 is that Indigenous people protect 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity.
It’s a stunning data point that underpins a major shift in the environmental movement. Historically, some Indigenous groups were kicked off of their land by environmentalists who saw nature as a pristine wilderness, absent of human life. Now, however, most environmental advocates acknowledge that Indigenous groups are often the best conservationists — and that nature and people can coexist.
A key agenda item at COP15 was figuring out to what extent Indigenous territories and lands governed by local communities — who have a deep connection to their land — count toward conservation goals. “You have a recognition globally about a new paradigm for conservation,” O’Donnell said. “It’s a partnership between Indigenous peoples, donors, NGOs, and governments. That gives me hope.”
But perhaps the largest reason for hope is that, in the final days of the COP15 conference, more than 190 countries adopted a global deal to halt the decline of species and ecosystems. It commits them to 23 targets including 30 by 30, a goal to conserve at least 30 percent of the world’s land and oceans within the decade.
The deal, known as the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, also commits rich countries to pay developing nations $30 billion a year by 2030 for conservation — a tripling of existing aid. The funding pledge is part of a broader financing commitment of $200 billion a year by 2030.
(You can learn more about the landmark deal here.)
The agreement is not legally binding like the Paris climate accord (which seeks to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius). It also leaves out a handful of numeric targets that environmental advocates say are essential for stemming the unprecedented rates of extinction. Yet the deal is still historic, according to Brian O’Donnell, director of the research and advocacy group Campaign for Nature.
“I am still kind of taking this all in,” O’Donnell, a key force behind the 30 by 30 pledge, told me in Montreal right after the agreement was adopted. “It seemed impossible just a couple of years ago — and now we have a global agreement.”
Update, December 20, 12:30 pm ET: This story was originally published on December 18 and has been updated with details about the global deal reached at COP15.
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