Opinion | Energy & Environment

To sustain humanity COP26 must lead on both climate and biodiversity

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

A recent UN Biodiversity Conference set the task of "putting biodiversity on a path to recovery is a defining challenge of this decade."

The climate change and biodiversity crises impact each other and must be considered together. Climate change is a significant cause of biodiversity loss, but even if climate change was contained today, the biodiversity crisis would still proceed, though more slowly, for its fundamental cause is the consumption of the natural environment for economic gain by a population too large for the world's finite natural resources.

Sadly, a report from the World Wide Fund for Nature named eastern Australia among 24 global deforestation fronts - the only developed nation on the list. Australia has failed to understand the complexities and urgency of this issue with inadequate environmental laws that do not prevent land clearing for agriculture and for timber export.

Given the upcoming UN climate conference COP26, there are two issues relevant to the preservation of biodiversity applicable to the U.S., along with iwth Australia and indeed to the world.

Firstly, new bipartisan legislation in the U.S. could help stop illegal deforestation abroad.

The Fostering Overseas Rule of Law and Environmentally Sound Trade (FOREST) Act, from U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) as well as U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Penn.), would deter commodity-driven illegal deforestation for agriculture around the world by restricting access to U.S. markets of commodities from this land. Since this destruction is mainly in poor countries the bill would provide financial and technical incentives for alternative development.

It would seem that Australia will be immune from this pressure because the timber trade is mainly with China and very few agricultural exports resulting from land clearing enter the United States. However, the impact of the diplomatic and economic pressure on Australia over its lack of effective climate policy indicates such pressure will be effective on environmental issues.

Secondly, the international acceptance of natural capital accounting in the world's economic system is an issue that will be discussed at Un climate conference COP26 and it is vital that the U.S. offers leadership. A Review commissioned by the UK government on the "Economics of Biodiversity" contends that Gross Domestic Product (GDP)  no longer fits  the  purpose when it comes to judging the economic health of nations for it is  "based on a faulty application of economics" that does not include "depreciation of assets" such as the degradation of the biosphere. Nature has to be valued and placed in the national accounts at the heart of government.

Currently, as we produce GDP, we extract resources from nature and dump waste back into it. When extraction and dumping exceed nature's capacity to repair itself, natural capital shrinks as do essential environmental services.

The UK review gives the simple example of a woodland destroyed to build a shopping centre, GDP records an increase in produced capital, but no depreciation of the "natural capital" that absorbs carbon, prevents soil erosion, creates a habitat for much-needed pollinators, and provides direct benefits to us - from recreation to purified air - that reduce burdens on health services.

Society has much to gain from this approach for human health and the natural environment are indivisible. Doctors have documented the many adverse health consequences of land clearing and the health benefits of maintaining native vegetation.

The challenge presented to the economic beliefs and practice of nations would seem insurmountable. There are two reasons.

The Economist notes that between 1992 and 2014 the value of the world's produced capital,  such as machines and buildings roughly doubled, that of human capital (workers and their skills) rose by 13 percent, while the estimated value of natural capital declined by nearly 40 percent. This has continued. To stop natural capital declining by 2030 while maintaining current growth trends would require growth in efficiency of an impossible 10 percent a year instead of the current 3.5 percent.

Consequently, the value of natural capital must be estimated but the practice is in its infancy. Currently about 90 countries have implemented accounts consistent with the UN System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA), which commenced in 2012 and states "Natural capital accounting is essential for integrating biodiversity considerations into measures of national performance and policy appraisal." Some simple facts about SEEA are here.

However, the majority of accounts are still incomplete and only 34 countries have developed ecosystem accounts. Furthermore, natural capital is not given equal weight to economic data.

What progress has Australia made toward SEEA? Very little; the U.S. is still planning to implement this approach but has not done so yet.

One could speculate the likely GDP of our two countries if the demise of natural capital was accounted for. Australia with a current GDP of 4.5 would likely have a negative GDP taking into account our appalling environmental record. That for the U.S. would be interesting.

The economic struggles caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have made it difficult for governments to focus on the climate change and biodiversity crises. To Australia's shame there is barely an admission of crises or the need for collective responsibility.

Leadership offered at COP26 by the U.S., the UK and Europe must focus on achievable climate and environmental goals for 2030; a surge of renewable energy and the cessation of fossil fuel development and use, particularly methane; the cessation of forest and all other land clearing for agriculture and development with adequate technical and finance for developing countries; rapid progress to nature accounting systems which will educate governments and each of their ministries about a new economics.

COP26 must be successful; there may be no second chance.

David Shearman (AM, Ph.D., FRACP, FRCPE) is a professor of medicine at the University of Adelaide, South Australia and co-founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

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