Public concern about climate change has rather eclipsed concerns about biodiversity loss in recent years – and for obvious reasons. But the two challenges are intimately connected. As reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have made clear, one of the malign impacts of a warmer world will be the accelerated extinction of plant and animal species. So the timing of the next fortnight's United Nations biodiversity convention in Japan – and the spotlight it will throw on the destruction of a swath of natural life on the planet – has to be welcome.
Whether the summit will achieve anything more substantial, however, is doubtful. Ever since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, the United Nations has been trying to galvanise governments into action to protect biodiversity, but to little avail. A UN world summit on biodiversity in 2002 set a clear target of reducing the rate of global biodiversity loss by 2010. But that target has been comprehensively missed. The UN's recent Global Biodiversity Outlook report indicated that, despite some progress in a few regions, the overall trend was still downwards. The earth is losing species at a rate of more than 1,000 times the historical average. A fifth of the ocean's coral reefs have been destroyed. And tropical rainforests are still being cut down at an alarming speed in Africa and South America. The outlook in 2010 is as bleak as ever.
A new approach is needed, one which recognises the human roots of this phenomenon. There is a clear conflict between economic development and biodiversity preservation. Millions of hectares of rainforests have been cleared for cattle farming in Brazil, for logging in the Congo and to make room for palm oil plantations in Indonesia. These clearances are having catastrophic consequences for the animals that live in these habitats, from the orang-utans of Borneo, to the poison dart frogs of South America.
Developing nations need much stronger incentives to regard their biodiversity as wealth to be preserved, rather than a resource to be processed in the pursuit of growth. This is where the climate change agenda needs to reinforce the biodiversity agenda. Fiscal transfers need to be made from wealthier nations to developing nations that preserve their forests. Forests are crucial because they are not only absorbers of carbon emissions but are also the home of much of the planet's biodiversity. These fiscal transfers should be partially funded by a carbon tax in the rich world.
A recent UN study put a financial estimate on the annual economic damage being done to the natural world. For 2008 they put the cost at £1.3 trillion. Whether one accepts that precise figure or not (and there is no simple way of measuring such costs) it is clear that mankind has an economic interest in preventing further degradation of our biosphere.
But fiscal transfers to developing nations are not sufficient in themselves. There needs to be a greater understanding in all nations, developed and developing alike, of the reality that flourishing biodiversity is not only a good in itself, but is crucial for all future human economic development. From our reliance on wild fish stocks for food, to the bees that pollinate our crops, to the coral reefs that protect coastal communities from flooding, to the forests that create the rain that nourishes our farm land, we depend on the natural world to a much more significant degree than most of us realise.
We also need to recognise that the resources of our biosphere are finite and that without careful stewarding, we will lose them altogether. International co-operation on biodiversity and climate change can help – but without a revolution in human attitudes to the natural world the outlook will remain bleak.