"The loss of biodiversity poses an existential threat to us humans, our livelihoods and prosperity," says Member of the German Bundestag Jan-Niclas Gesenhues. He is the environmental spokesperson for the Bündnis 90/Die Grünen parliamentary group in the German Parliament. Before the upcoming UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) in Montreal, we asked him a few questions about the interconnection of the climate and biodiversity crisis, economic models that consider social and ecological well being and more sustainable consumption patterns.
In early December 2022, Montreal will host the Biodiversity Conference COP 15. The dramatic extinction of species is well documented. Currently, 1 million species are in peril of extinction. What are the key impulses you expect from the conference, especially regarding a new UN agreement on biodiversity conservation, which is to be adopted in Montreal? What are the goals and agreements that Germany and the EU want to push for, in particular?
I am glad that the World Conservation Conference is finally taking place this year, after multiple pandemic-related cancellations. It is one of our very last chances to formulate a global response to the second major ecological crisis of our time before it is too late. Of the eight million animal and plant species worldwide, one million are in peril of extinction. This is a dramatic figure that will have fatal consequences because every species has its place in nature. Entire food chains and ecosystems are threatened by species extinction. This loss of biodiversity also poses an existential threat to us humans, our livelihoods, and prosperity.
In the face of this dramatic situation, we need a “Paris moment” for nature to happen in Montreal. We simply must succeed in forging an ambitious global agreement to protect biodiversity. At the United Nations in New York, Germany has already pledged to roughly double its funding for global biodiversity protection to 1.5 billion Euros annually by 2025. This is a strong signal to the global community, and I hope that other countries will now follow suit and make ambitious funding commitments. Another goal in Montreal will be to declare 30% of the world’s land and ocean surfaces as protected areas by 2030. In particular, we also depend on the knowledge and support of indigenous communities, whose lands are home to much of our biodiversity. By living in harmony with nature, these communities have already shown us many ways we can preserve biodiversity.
The biodiversity crisis is forcing the entire international community to act collectively. At the same time, geopolitical tensions make effective multilateral action difficult. This year's COP 15 is presided over by China. How can we reach an ambitious agreement and an implementation concept in times of multilateral fragmentation?
Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine or China’s often aggressive policy of interests at the expense of human rights show us that our multilateral and value-based world order is, at best, teetering. This does not make international negotiations any easier. At the same time, biodiversity loss is a global problem, so a joint effort to solve it ought to be in the interest of any rational-minded person. Not only the Chinese government knows very well that 70% of all new infectious diseases that emerge in humans were originally transmitted from animals. The recent Covid-19 lockdowns in China are yet another reminder that to protect biodiversity also means to protect populations. If we can drive home the idea that we share the same destiny and thus also manage to share responsibility equitably, we can reach a strong common biodiversity agreement, even in an unstable world.
A few weeks ago, in a speech to the German Bundestag, you used the example of the Antarctic Weddell Sea to illustrate the interconnection between climate and biodiversity crises, since climate change triggers destructive chain reactions in ecosystems, and changes in ecosystems have an impact on the climate. Nevertheless, the climate crisis seems to eclipse the biodiversity crisis in terms of how much public attention it garners. How can we better integrate these two issues and also draw more political and social attention to them?
In my speech to the Bundestag, I used an example to describe how the climate and biodiversity crises are closely intertwined. Global warming leads to further acidification of the oceans, which, in the Antarctic Weddell Sea, can kill off large krill populations. This, in turn, results in the death of fish and even whales, causing entire food systems to collapse. This shows how the climate crisis is also exacerbating the biodiversity crisis, as the species extinction catastrophe continues to grow worse.
On the other hand, the death of krill also causes the so-called carbon pump to fail. Normally, krill eat small carbon-containing microalgae in the water, metabolizing them and letting them sink to the seafloor, where they are sequestered as carbon for decades. 35% of all carbon dioxide from the water is bound long-term via this biological carbon pump. So now, with the climate crisis, krill are dying due to acidification, the oceans’ carbon storage mechanism is failing, and the uncontained carbon continues to heat the planet. We are thus dealing with twin crises that reinforce each other. One cannot be solved without the other. We need to achieve a strong species conservation agreement in Montreal that can break these fatal, mutually reinforcing spirals.
When the 2015 Climate Conference produced the Paris Climate Agreement, it was a historic moment that captured the world’s attention. The biodiversity COP in Montreal is a great opportunity to bring the biodiversity crisis into the public spotlight. Many people are now aware of the catastrophic consequences of the climate crisis. In our debate about biodiversity protection, however, it often feels like we are a decade behind, at the point where the climate change debate was when people became aware of the loss of polar bear habitats. However, protecting biodiversity is not just about some of our beloved species, but ultimately also about our own survival.
The report "The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review" was published in early 2021 in advance of the first negotiation round at COP 15. It makes a case for radically rethinking economics and finance, integrating natural capital into our economic calculations. The point is to find metrics of economic growth that take into account social and ecological well being. In your view, is there sufficient political debate on this and what approaches are emerging?
In addition to appreciating nature’s intrinsic value, we can also argue from an economic perspective and say that nature provides a gigantic amount of ecosystem services. Intact and biodiverse ecosystems give us fresh air to breathe and clean drinking water, they stabilize the global climate, and provide us with fertile soils for food production. A group of scientists led by Robert Costanza from the Australian National University in Canberra has attempted to calculate the economic value of all these services. For 2011, they valued global ecoservices at an incredible $125 trillion a year! In contrast, global GDP at that point was only about half that amount. Yet at the same time, as the researchers estimated, the loss of ecoservices ranged from $4.3 trillion to $20.2 trillion per year between 1997 and 2011. Humanity’s reckless treatment of nature therefore also causes enormous economic damage.
Politically, there is still a great need for action in this regard. In 2021, the United Nations proposed including ecosystem services in calculating GDPs to capture nature’s services alongside human productivity in economic output. Similarly, there are proposals to establish an international payment mechanism to benefit countries on whose ecosystems we all depend so they can use these funds for conserving these very ecosystems. But these approaches are still in their infancy. That is why we must create the instruments to ensure that ruthless exploitation of nature is simply no longer economically viable. To achieve this, the prices of goods and services must finally tell the ecological truth. There is also an urgent need to dismantle environmentally harmful subsidies, which amount to approximately $5 trillion per year worldwide. The longer we fail to do this, and the longer ecosystems continue to be degraded without consequences for the polluters, the higher the adaptation and restoration costs for our precious nature.
In many so-called “developing” countries, natural capital enables much of their economic productivity. In these parts of the world, it is often women who help maintain this capital, while also being particularly dependent on the yield. What role do "feminist environmental politics" play in this year's negotiations and what is your take on this issue?
I think that we should take a gender-sensitive view to consider all policy fields, including environmental policy. Women and girls often take on roles in society that make them more vulnerable to environmental risks. At the same time, women’s empowerment is a crucial factor in the fight against poverty, and thus in the sustainable use of resources that poor people often cannot afford. It will therefore be important to incorporate gender aspects into everything we discuss in Montreal, and use this as a baseline for a new draft of the “Gender Plan of Action” for the Convention on Biological Diversity. I am convinced that only if women’s rights, women’s access to resources and women’s representation improve worldwide, will we also find a way to use our vital resources fairly and in harmony with nature.
This year, we reached “Earth Overshoot Day,” the day when we as a global community have used the amount of resources that nature can regenerate within a year, on July 28,2022. Germany had already passed this sad date on May 4th and the US on March 13.The US, in particular, is often described as an affluent society that is centered around the idea of consumption. Where do you think responsibilities fall between individual consumers, the economy, and politics?
Everyone can make a concrete contribution to help protect biodiversity. For example, we can stop buying krill-based fish oil supplements, which further fuels overfishing of the world’s oceans, to pick up on the topic we discussed earlier.
To my mind, however, it is also clear that the main responsibility lies with politics and business. The extinction catastrophe and the climate catastrophe must be at the top of their agenda. We must create the right frameworks for political action. In a world that overwhelms us with a flood of information, I also believe that consumers often want policymakers to make decisions easier for them. If, for example, there were universal, binding environmental standards for palm oil, consumers would have one less thing to worry about when they buy a product.
On your Twitter profile, the first item in your short description says “Dad.” Our children will no longer know many species and natural spaces as they still exist today. Nevertheless, we cannot bury our heads in the sand. What motivates you personally, and is there anything that currently makes you feel hopeful about environmental and conservation issues?
When I was a child, I spent a lot of time in the meadows and forests around my hometown. To this day, I feel a deep appreciation for our diverse environment. I want us to leave our world to future generations in such a state that they, too, can experience this enthusiasm and appreciation for nature. That is where I draw my motivation.
In Germany, where we Greens are now part of the federal and many state governments and in charge of the Ministry of the Environment, among other things, I see many developments that make me feel positive. We just launched the “Natural Climate Protection Action Program,” endowed with four billion euros in initial funding. This kind of program, which combines nature and climate protection in Germany, was almost inconceivable just a few years ago. But a new awareness of our environment is emerging worldwide. Both younger and older people are bringing this awareness into parliaments. I believe environmental protection can be a unifying topic because we all depend on the earth as a functioning planet. Slowly but surely, more and more people are realizing this.