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Will our species be a winner or a loser?

By W. JOHN KRESS | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-12-19 07:49
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Resolve and actions required to ensure success of Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework

A recently published scientific paper documents the imminent decline of thousands of species of plants as a result of the degradation and deterioration of natural environments caused by human greed and recklessness. As one of the co-authors of that paper, I worked to compile and analyze mountains of data on every species of plant for which we could find information about its current status on the planet.

We categorized each species as a "winner" or "loser" according to how it has responded to the "Lords of the Biosphere," as our own species has been called by John McNeill, a professor at Georgetown University. Plants that are useful to people, such as crops and plantation timber trees, or take advantage of environments altered by humans, such as invasive species, stand a good chance of surviving the current perils facing the biosphere, which include relentless habitat destruction, out-of-control climate change, rampant pollution and escalating diseases. Such species will be the "winners" that survive the hazards of the Anthropocene to flourish once again in the future, perhaps hundreds or thousands of years from now, when humans will have less impact. Species that are not useful to people and inhabit threatened ecosystems or are exploited for their useful properties, such as wild medicinal plants, will be the "losers".These species will succumb to human-dominated habitats, will decline in number, and may eventually go extinct.

Although our final results were not what we were hoping for, we were not surprised by what we found: among the tens of thousands of plant species we analyzed, the losers by far outnumbered the winners. This outcome will not be good for nature, nor for humanity. In fact, the result is extremely discouraging and another indicator that humans, the world's biodiversity, and the planet are on a dangerous and tragic trajectory if we do not change it fast.

Just months after the publication of this paper, thousands of international delegates and concerned observers gathered in Montreal, Canada, to attend the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. The first phase of this large and important international meeting hosted by the Chinese government was held in October 2021 in Kunming, China. The long-anticipated meeting is really three separate meetings taking place at the same time: the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 15); the 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CP-MOP-10); and the meeting of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-sharing. (NP-MOP-04). The events, taking place over a two-week period, concluded on Saturday. The meetings aimed to facilitate long-term discussions on how to prevent further loss of biodiversity while at the same time making the benefits of nature sustainably available for human well-being long into the future.

The new plan discussed and debated in Montreal, called the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, carries the vision of "Living in Harmony with Nature by 2050" and is being prepared for ratification by the 196 participating signatory nations of the Convention (which include China but not the United States).The goals are to enhance the integrity of ecosystems, reduce the rate of extinction, safeguard the genetic diversity of species worldwide, value nature's contribution to people, make sure that the benefits of biodiversity are shared equitably, and secure resources to accomplish the long list of specific targets. Reading through these targets, which include everything from increasing protected areas, restoring degraded ecosystems, improving ex-situ conservation, reducing the introduction of new invasive species, reducing pollution, and minimizing climate change, to enhancing natural areas in urban environments and expediting the use of genetic resources to benefit all (especially indigenous peoples and local communities), one begins to feel a bit hopeful. I am struck by the fact that the "loser" species of plants I documented in the scientific paper I wrote would have to be re-evaluated and perhaps re-assigned to the "winners" column if all of the objectives of the new CBD framework are actually achieved.

Unfortunately, the last such attempt by the CBD to layout an attainable framework to protect and use the Earth's biodiversity, called the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, ended up after a decade of effort with not a single one of the 20 targets accomplished. Formulated and adopted at the 10th Conference of the Parties in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan, in 2010, the "Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020" outlined more or less the same goals and targets currently being debated and revised in Montreal. To its credit, the Strategic Plan clearly raised global awareness of the immense problems currently faced in protecting nature. However, the actions required to relieve the pressures and reduce the threats present when the plan was enacted have not been materialized.

Today, more habitats are being converted to degraded ecosystems, more species of plants and animals are threatened with extinction, and more carbon dioxide is being pumped into the air than in 2010. In addition to the exacerbation of all the same environmental issues present at that time, the societal challenges of economic inequality, racism, social injustice, and increased political strife and warfare have increased by a magnitude. The United Nation's efforts through the CBD and the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, via the hard work of the Secretariat and all the delegates and observers, who are toiling away in Montreal, could not come at a more critical time. They must be commended and appreciated now more than ever. Their battle is a never-ending one, but they cannot give up. And they will not, even though the odds against them are formidable. The efforts of our Chinese colleagues in offering to host the Convention and to serve as leaders in biodiversity conservation around the world must be applauded as well. This global meeting would not have happened without their leadership.

I am ready to move as many of those plant species that I analyzed as possible from the "losers" column to the "winners" box. However, I do not see that happening unless we as a species make some major changes to our lifestyles, our governance, and our economies. It requires all of us as individuals and as citizens of the Earth to do so if we are to succeed.

The author is co-chair of Earth BioGenome Project and distinguished scientist and curator emeritus at the National Museum of Natural History at Smithsonian Institution. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.

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