Originally scheduled for June 2020, then postponed to a still unknown date due to the ongoing health crisis worldwide, the World Conservation Congress organized by France and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is expected to be held in Marseille in 2021. More than 1,300 governmental, civil society and indigenous peoples' organizations that are members of the IUCN will gather, as they do every four years for the past seven decades, to define biodiversity priorities and guide the nature conservation actions of the international community. Marguerite Culot-Horth, 2020 Mobilization Project Manager at the French Biodiversity Office and Civil Society Mobilization Advisor to the French Ministry of Ecological Transition, explains in this interview the details of this major event for ecological diversity, ahead of the COP15 on biodiversity that should take place in China next year — with stakes higher than ever for the survival of the living.
What are the goals of the next edition of the World Conservation Congress?
This edition of the congress is a bit special because it should be held before the COP15 on biodiversity which will take place in China next year, if the calendar allows it. It aims to redefine the international framework for the preservation of biodiversity, which must be much more ambitious than the one established during the COP10 in Nagoya [Japan], which had set out a roadmap to halt the erosion of biodiversity, and even regain it — but those objectives have hardly been met so far. Its objective is also to provide a framework for high-level meetings between heads of state, economic leaders, business leaders and mayors or governors of major cities, so that they can agree on a much more ambitious and single line of action ahead of the COP15, especially on subjects that are controversial within the scientific community, in order to lead to concrete actions that will promote the transformative change called for in the latest report of IPBES [the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, the IPCC's equivalent on biodiversity issues]. This congress is all the more important since it will take place almost at the same time as other conventions scheduled for the end of 2021, such as the Glasgow COP on climate. It is essential to forge links between these different events which ultimately have the same objective — the transformation of society to fight climate change, to regain biodiversity and to combat desertification.
The decline of biodiversity continues to accelerate. What is the real impact of this congress?
The congress aims to gather in one place biodiversity experts and IUCN members, who work on scientific topics related to ecology — which species have been discovered, how ecosystems function and the impact humans have on nature. Their work is similar to that of IPBES. We know the causes of the erosion of biodiversity, or its collapse. The international scientific community has been warning us for years that we are going in the wrong direction, that our societies and our way of consumption, production and life are going against the interests of a living planet, as stated in the latest report of the World Wildlife Fund. The goal of these researchers and biodiversity stakeholders gathered at the IUCN congress is to exchange best practices, new species or our ecosystems are working and, like lights in the dark, to highlight possible ways to address the current challenges — such as nature-based solutions, which work nicely under certain conditions. These are recommendations for the international community; but the congress is not a COP — it cannot control governmental action; its role is not to change our production and consumption systems. That is the role of governments, territories, businesses and citizens.
What are the themes of this edition?
They are fairly broad and recurrent themes that come up in every, as biodiversity issues often require long periods of time to be dealt with, such as landscapes, oceans, fresh water, climate change, governance — even if each edition focuses on current issues as well. In this edition, for example, we will be reflecting on the challenges of economic and financial systems, because we know that they really need to be reoriented, and that financial markets, banks and insurance companies need to change their mindset a little to take biodiversity into account — similarly to what has recently been done with climate issues. Another new theme in this edition is knowledge and technological innovation, because we can see that it is becoming increasingly important for biodiversity, particularly in terms of mobility, public policies and business models.
What are today’s most pressing challenges for biodiversity?
I think the most pressing challenge is to change agriculture. We know that the agricultural sector is one of the most harming sectors for biodiversity, whether in France or abroad. According to the IPBES, for instance, land use change is one of the drivers of biodiversity erosion. Of course, these systems are different in France than in an African country, where agriculture is more family-based. The greatest impact comes from our intensive post-war agricultural models, often based on monocultures and where mass production takes place, whether in the United States, Brazil or France — and those need to be transformed. Because by limiting ourselves to a single type of crop, conceived as the most productive, we push our farmers to use phytosanitary products when a disease affects the plants, and we impoverish the soils and the agricultural varieties that existed previously and that are the basis of our ecosystem and our biological diversity.
Speaking of disease, which has been Covid-19’s impact on biodiversity?
In a way, thanks to the health crisis, we have opened our eyes a little bit to how our system works, especially regarding agriculture, and to the fact that we are nibbling away natural spaces, especially wetlands and primary forests, and that we are doing more and more intensive breeding with the same species of livestock, which are prone to diseases. The link between deforestation, how we treat ecosystems and wildlife habitats that are vectors of viruses, and the spread of these viruses to humans has been widely documented. This crisis has also underlined the pitfalls of our agri-food model, and of society in general. Within the framework of the congress, we have been working for a long time on the links between health and biodiversity, but it is true that the topic has returned to the agenda of the congress precisely because of the health crisis, in order to be able to answer the questions that both civil society and public authorities are asking themselves on this subject. Everyone has realized, first with the fires in Australia in 2019 and then with this pandemic, that the planet can do very well without us, but we humans need to preserve nature in order to survive.
Have businesses also become aware of the role they have to play in biodiversity conservation efforts?
We need them, of course, but we must not hide from the fact that there is a majority of companies that find themselves in complicated situations, especially with this health crisis, and who think that preserving biodiversity or taking it into account in their business models is more of a constraint than an opportunity. Whereas to take an interest in biodiversity, to take into account the notion of natural capital in their accounting, for example, is a real opportunity. Today, some insurance companies that take ecology into account refuse to insure businesses that are not respectful of biodiversity. Some banks are trying to redirect their financial flows — even though most still finance activities that impact biodiversity or the climate. But we have to start somewhere. I hope that there will be an acceleration of these commitments for both climate and biodiversity. Perhaps in 2021.
What would make this edition of the congress a great success?
In addition to the traditional forum, where researchers and decision-makers meet, and the IUCN Members' Assembly, the congress will include new spaces open to the general public — the Generation Nature spaces. Citizens will be able to come and learn about biodiversity issues, understand how they impact biodiversity on a daily basis and how they can, also on a daily basis, take action. The congress will be a success if, three months after, biodiversity has become as important as climate in the minds of citizens, and if they know that they can act, how they can act in their daily lives, whatever their initial level of commitment.
This article has been written as part as a series of stories produced for open_resource by Sparknews, a French social enterprise that aims to foster new narratives that can help accelerate a social and environmental transition to tackle our world’s most pressing issues.