“Our generation’s responsibility”

Climate change and the loss of biodiversity go hand in hand, and both affect poor countries in particular. Achim Steiner, the head of UNEP, assessed the interrelated nature of the two phenomena in our interview, spelling out the urgent need for action.

[ Interview with Achim Steiner ]

What is the link between climate change and the loss of biodiversity?
Climate change is happening in the atmosphere, but its greatest impacts are on the biosphere. Rising temperatures and unusual patterns of precipitation mean disruption and instability in the biosphere. The implications for humanity are serious, because we depend on the resources the biosphere generates. Just consider food. We also depend on the biosphere’s services, for instance in terms of carbon storage in forests, without which climate change would be even worse. As species are disappearing or being displaced, ecosystems are becoming less resilient.

So the loss of biodiversity is compounding the problems of climate change?
Yes, indeed. The two phenomena are mutually re­inforcing. Dwindling biodiversity means that eco­systems become more fragile and less capable of absorbing shocks. At the same time, ecosystems matter in the sense of stabilising the climate. The Amazonian forests, for instance, regulate rainfall and, as a consequence, water resources in general throughout South America.

Nonetheless, action to protect biodiversity seems to be at least as inadequate as action on climate change.
It is true that scale and scope of human action are clearly not in sync with what needs to be done. We are struggling with the dilemma of imperfect knowledge. It is impossible to tell what exactly will happen because we are dealing with very complex systems. We do know, however, that great changes are underway and that they will become the more devastating and chaotic the longer we wait before doing what needs to be done. UNEP’s Green Eco­nomy Initiative is designed to help governments to reshape and refocus policies. Investing in energy efficiency, for instance, obviously makes economic sense. In view of the dramatic risks relating to climate change, it would be irrational simply to wait and see.

But aren’t there scientific doubts?
Not about the general trends. They are well documented, understood and no longer disputed in the scientific community. Climate science, moreover, is getting better. In order to get the political ­leadership to act, I think it is important to con­sider the economic implications. Nicholas Stern and his team provided a chilling overview of the economic consequences of climate change four years ago. UNEP is hosting an intiative called The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) which is preparing a similar report to the Stern Review, assessing the economic consequences of the loss of natural systems.. It was requested by de­velopment ministers from the G8 and developing countries. It is supported by countries including Germany where Chancellor Merkel has taken a lively interest.. The report will be launched in Nagoya in October at the meeting of the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD).

Can you tell me something about those consequences?
We know, for instance, that forestry makes up about five to seven percent of India’s GDP. We also know, that forest resources account for up to two thirds of poor people’s livelihoods in India, and there are 400 million desperately poor people in that country. The clear message is that poor people depend on natural resources more directly than the well-off. Wealthy communities are able to find alternatives when they get into trouble, poor communities typically do not have such options. They cannot simply make sure a pipeline system is ­built to procure water from far away when local resources are depleted due to environmental

But, as a result, the fight over resources will become more intense at the regional, supra-national and even global levels.
Yes, of course, and that is why we must act fast. We must bear in mind, moreover, that the wealthier parts of the world, due to their development path in the past 150 years, have already depleted their biodiversity. Their model is plainly not sustainable, and certainly not at the global level.

Are the least developed countries in a position to actively protect biodiversity or do they need support from the rich nations?
Well, in the past 15 years, some 70 % of the world’s new protected areas were in developing countries. That was one result of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. At that time, however, the idea was that the rich nations would contribute to protecting humankind’s natural heritage. Today, their support in this specific sector only amounts to around $ 1 billion. It is important to understand that this is not about aid, it is about burden sharing for the sake of the common good.

So what needs to be done?
It is vitally important that the international community establish systems that make economic sense. So far, those who benefit from destroying nature aren’t bearing the true costs. That must change. It must become economically attractive to protect ecosystems, and we know how that can be done. For instance, the discussions on REDD – Reduceing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation – have advanced quite a bit in the context of international climate diplomacy. Implementing REDD can raise funds for conservation from wealthier economies to support developing ones for the services they are pro­viding to the global economy while in turn assisting in their development efforts including meeting the Millennium Development Goals.

But don’t the REDD talks hinge on the Kyoto Protocol, which seems to be in diplomatic trouble?
It is true that REDD certainly makes sense in the context of the Kyoto Protocol, but the policy does not hinge on its extension. There can be a meaningful ­legal framework for REDD without consensus on the Protocol. There is no reason why the climate summit in Cancún in December should not take this and ­other key issues forward.

But didn’t you say pretty much the same before the failed summit in Copenhagen last year?
I increasingly feel that these are issues of our generation’s responsibility. We have the technology to act, and we can mobilise the necessary funds. What is missing, so far, is the political will, the shared determination to act. Unless the international community’s leaders reach viable agreements on these urgent matters and take decisive decisions, later generations will wonder at the lethargy that allowed the world to slide into a morass of what should have been preventable disasters of global proportions.

Questions by Hans Dembowski.

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The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.