People in the UAE and in the UK care about nature. This passion is there in our culture and our laws. Decades ago, our leaders Prince Charles (as he was then) and the UAE Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, were far ahead of their time, calling for us all to cherish the riches of the natural world. From my recent role heading wildlife conservation NGO, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), I saw extraordinary collaborations between the two countries – re-introducing oryx into the wild, dramatically increasing the size of mangrove plantations and supporting ocean sustainability. And from Liwa to London, the biologist and natural historian David Attenborough is revered and respected as the authoritative voice on the state of our planet.
By contrast, international negotiations about biodiversity have never really got the passions up. Technical experts lead the discussions and, without a good head for acronyms, you wouldn’t have a clue what is going on. Somehow, years of depressing data from scientists, and days of extraordinary documentaries charting humanity’s impact on nature, don’t translate into global political action. So the UK’s Cop26 presidency achieved something quite remarkable last year when it got nature-based solutions onto the world’s political radar at Glasgow, placing nature at the heart of discussions about climate change, almost for the first time. The launching of the Forest and Climate Leaders’ Partnership was just one example of this nature focus continuing through the Cop27 negotiations under Egyptian leadership. I was also delighted to visit the UAE last week to engage on the Emirati vision for nature as a key element within their presidency of Cop28 next year.
The reason bringing nature into these discussions matters is because we are losing biodiversity across the globe at a terrifying rate. ZSL’s Living Planet Index charts the drivers of biodiversity loss – the bottom line is that people are the culprits because of the way we change land use (think: palm oil plantations replacing forests in the Amazon), human-caused climate change and the illegal wildlife trade. Cambridge professor Partha Dasgupta did a brilliant review of the Economics of Biodiversity – he put a price tag on the cash cost of nature, setting out compellingly how the biodiversity crisis is as existential a threat for the survival of our species as climate change. But somehow, little of this filters into international politics.
One way I believe it will is at the nature equivalent of the climate Cop, which started this week. Cop15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity is all about getting a grip, at a planetary level, on the biodiversity crisis. This is about time; as a global community, we agreed a raft of nature targets in 2010 and failed to deliver fully on any of them. Like tackling global warming, solutions to biodiversity loss require complex, systemic changes – simultaneous actions by governments, businesses and societies in ecosystems across the planet. Making that happen needs political will and international action that has just not been sufficiently evident up to now.
At Cop15, we need that to change. A hundred and ninety-six governments are meeting in Montreal to negotiate a new Global Biodiversity Framework. We already have 115 of them joining a High Ambition Coalition to protect 30 per cent of the planet’s surface, whether land or ocean, by 2030. There is a plan for bridging the financing gap on nature. And many of us share the ambition to make now the moment when the world commits to halt and reverse biodiversity loss globally by 2030.
Cynics might question what a meeting like this can really deliver. I was there at Cop26 in Glasgow, representing an NGO, and was blown away by the passion and commitment of all those working to deliver wins for climate, nature and people. I know that same energy will drive an ambitious agenda for biodiversity in Montreal. And I am confident that the UAE will tap into this at Cop28 next year to ensure we achieve the changes needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C. No one country or continent can tackle the twin crises of biodiversity and climate on their own; we need these moments of coming together – to set ambition, to show support and to hold each other to account.
Sheikh Zayed spoke many years ago of “the need to conserve [nature], to take from it only what [is] needed to live, and to preserve it for succeeding generations”. The meeting in Montreal is the moment for the UAE, the UK and the nations of the world to come together to secure that legacy for the future. Our children depend on it.