Enter your email to read this article
Read news on any topic, in one place, from publishers like The Economist, FT, Bloomberg and more.

Cop15 is an opportunity to save nature. We can’t afford another decade of failure

Vegetation regrowth in land destroyed by bushfires in Kulnura, New South Wales Australia, January 2020
Vegetation regrowth in land destroyed by bushfires in Kulnura, New South Wales, Australia in January 2020. Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

Saying you’re a biodiversity reporter doesn’t mean much to a lot of people. “What do you actually write about?” they ask. And this is exactly why there should be more journalists on this beat. The nature crisis continues to fly under the radar.

In 1992, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, there was a wave of enthusiasm about tackling the great environmental problems, and so governments set up three UN conventions to deal with climate change, biodiversity loss and desertification. Since then, the climate crisis has been treated as separate to the biodiversity crisis, yet there is huge overlap between the two.

Some people think separating them was an error. Both crises have carbon in common. Releasing it as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is driving the climate crisis, but the main building block of biodiversity on our planet – in soil, forests, wetlands, plants and animals – is also carbon. Dealing with each requires us to store carbon in healthy ecosystems, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. You fail on one, you fail on both.

Governments are slowly starting to treat them as one issue. Many commentators said the Cop26 UN climate talks in 2021 marked a new era, with ambitious pledges to protect forests, which store not only vast amounts of carbon but are rich in biodiversity, too.

Mapping has revealed must-not-destroy ecosystems that cannot be lost if we are to avoid catastrophic climate breakdown, including carbon-rich forests and peatlands, from Brazil to Britain.

The Guardian set up its biodiversity desk, the age of extinction, at the end of 2019, in anticipation of the UN Biodiversity Conference (Cop15), a once-in-a-decade opportunity to create targets to stem the collapse of ecosystems globally. Some refer to it as the nature crisis, or the wildlife crisis, but they are all ways of explaining that our ecosystems are in freefall, being destroyed at alarming rates. Indigenous communities, who are key to the survival of many ecosystems, are also under threat, with record numbers being killed in recent years.

We write about three pieces a week, which could be reports, features, investigations, podcasts or videos. The Guardian was way ahead of its time in this, and during the three years we have been covering biodiversity loss, we’ve seen a gradual increase in content by other publications. In February 2020, the Guardian was the only mainstream publication in attendance at the end of pre-Cop15 negotiations, then earlier this year, the BBC put coverage of talks in Geneva on its homepage.

We like to think we’ve paved the way, with extremely close coverage of the lead-up (and many delays) to Cop15 – which takes place in Montreal, Canada in December – as well as laying out the basics of what drives biodiversity loss, and what we can do about it.

Phoebe Weston ask the panel a question at the IUCN World Conservation Congress 2020, Marseille, France, 4 September 2021
Phoebe Weston asks the panel a question at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille in September 2021. Photograph: IISB

Science tells us that the biodiversity crisis is as urgent as the climate crisis, so we hope in the years to come other newsrooms will have dedicated biodiversity reporters alongside climate, health and politics reporters – which would also mean more job security for my fellow age of extinction reporter, Patrick Greenfield, and me.

If we are expecting new forests to suck up a chunk of excess emissions by 2050, knowing how to plant trees, restore wetlands and peatlands is going to be absolutely key. We have looked extensively at farming, forests, soils and all the complex ways land can absorb carbon, because none of this is simple, and even scientists are still grappling with some of these issues.

Tackling biodiversity is a global challenge, but it is made up of local stories. Readers often ask how they can contribute, and we’ve enjoyed writing about people’s local nature projects and parklets. There is a never-ending love for hedgehogs, bees and beavers. People who do decide to act, often find that wildlife returns quickly, rewarding them for their efforts. One man has built enough nest boxes to house half the UK’s swift populations.

All of this snowballs into bigger things. Watching people protest for our planet makes the hairs on the back of our necks stand on end. They give us hope for the future.

But the broader picture is bleak. Unlike the climate crisis, it is hard to see any sort of roadmap out of the biodiversity crisis. Wildlife is being annihilated from every corner of our planet at faster rates than ever. Successive heatwaves and droughts – like the kinds we saw this summer – are cumulatively hammering the natural world. I feel increasingly concerned that our response to the biodiversity crisis is not nearly enough.

The world failed on all of its previous UN biodiversity targets, but we cannot afford another decade of failure. Targets are pointless unless you take them seriously, and we must take this seriously because we depend on nature to survive. We are focusing on Cop15, but our reporting will continue after this milestone event, and we will be holding governments to account on their promises.

In 2020, I interviewed Ron Finley, the ‘‘gangsta gardener” who is revolutionising attitudes to gardening in inner-city areas of Los Angeles. He told me governments and municipalities need to put money into things they claim to care about (in this case, getting people to grow their own food). I asked him if he was hopeful (this is a classic thing for me to ask at the end of a bleak interview).

His answer has stayed with me. He said: “I don’t like to use ‘hope’. I like to use the word ‘opportunity’. To hell with hope. It’s not for hope to change it. It’s the opportunity to make shit happen.” Cop15 is an opportunity. We have to use it.

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features

Related Stories
What is a wetland? An ecologist explains
Wetlands are areas of land that are covered by water, or have flooded or waterlogged soils. They can have water on them either permanently or for just part of the year.
From analysis to the latest developments in health, read the most diverse news in one place.
Eco-farming 'to undo harm'
As the agricultural sector is responsible for over a quarter of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, environmental experts say the best solution to reverse the crisis is by reforming the farming system to encourage more eco-farming.
More than 1,700 environmental activists murdered in the past decade – report
Figures likely to be an underestimate, says Global Witness, as land defenders are killed by hitmen, crime groups and governments
Half of world’s bird species in decline as destruction of avian life intensifies
State of the World’s Birds report warns human actions and climate crisis putting 49% in decline, with one in eight bird species under threat of extinction
Prince Harry wildlife NGO under fire after elephants kill three in Malawi
African Parks, of which the royal is president, is one of three parties accused of rushing a mass translocation of the mammals
One place to find news on any topic, from hundreds of sites.
From river-cleaning tech to bee corridors: 10 projects and technologies that aim to protect the planet
The breakdown of our climate is clear to see, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t fighting to help preserve the natural world – as these 10 inspiring developments highlight …