In Conversation with UN CBD’s Elizabeth Mrema: Why Biodiversity Matters

a seated panel with four people behind a desk
The Scoop
Nairobi, Kenya
In Conversation with UN CBD’s Elizabeth Mrema: Why Biodiversity Matters

Elizabeth Mrema, executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, recently spoke with The Scoop to discuss the biodiversity crises ahead of the 15th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the CBD, scheduled to take place in Montreal, Canada in December this year.

Why is the current meeting taking place in Nairobi this week so important? 

Mrema: With this meeting we are building momentum for our journey towards the second part of COP15. There are signs of this momentum, the world has undertaken new action and inspired new partnerships at the highest level of government and business and civil society.

There is now a solid foundation for the negotiations of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework here in Nairobi, but much remains to be done to deliver an agreement that can bend the curve of biodiversity.

This week is the last meeting before the second part of COP15. And the last chance to shape not only the framework, but also many other moving parts that interact with the framework and help us achieve our goals with urgency by 2030.

Together the parties and stakeholders can demonstrate once again the power of international cooperation and multilateralism.

So much attention has been devoted to climate change, global CO2 emissions and the Paris Agreement, but biodiversity loss doesn't get nearly as many headlines. 

Mrema: So we must first understand why biodiversity and nature is important for us. Unless our population connects nature by diversity to their day-to-day life, I don't think what we do here will make any sense to them.

They need to understand that — without biodiversity, without trees, without a good environment — there will be no food, no clean water. And without it, even the clean air we are demanding and breathing will not be there. Can we imagine what kind of life we will be in?

I think this is the message that needs to go out there. If people make the connection between nature and their day-to-day lives, then what is being done here will make sense.

The climate change community is talking a lot about greenhouse gas emissions and yet we have the ecosystem absorbing and storing all that extra carbon.

The Convention on Biodiversity was signed almost 30 years ago. Why has so little progress been made?  

Mrema: This year we are celebrating 30 years since the Convention on Biological Diversity was adopted [by 196 countries]. We will be celebrating 30 years since the CBD and we are still talking of what we have not done well.

Over a million species are probably going to be extinct within this century, and biodiversity is being lost at the rate unprecedented in the history of humankind.

Probably the question should be — what have we been doing wrong over the past 30 years? And what difference then this week will make to ensure that we are moving in a better way for the future.

So all these figures are scary. However, another report from the World Economic Forum clearly indicated that 50% of global GDP is moderately or highly dependent on biodiversity or nature.

Some 395 million jobs [are dependent on] nature, and US$10.1 trillion will [be derived] from biodiversity by 2030.

So clearly with those dependencies, there are risks, there are impacts, and yet there are opportunities for the economies of many countries.

How will biodiversity loss impact the economies of vulnerable countries? 

Mrema: So when we talk about the loss of biodiversity at an unprecedented rate, what will that mean to the economy of people here in Kenya and many other countries? We all know the importance of biodiversity for tourists and a big percentage of Kenya's economy is dependent on tourism.

We are also sitting here covering our faces because we are still in, or recovering from the COVID pandemic. And we know the cause of the pandemic is our human activities on biodiversity which have interfered with the animal kingdom, or as the result of expansion of agricultural lands, or the production of livestock, and we have continued to deforest the forests.

By coming into closer contact with animals we ended up with viruses — which are not harmful to animals, but harmful to human beings and transmitted to humans. And as a result — trade, tourism, transportation — we all found ourselves locked down for over two years.

So again this clearly indicates the importance of biodiversity, and if we are not careful we will feel all the impacts.

How will the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework make a difference? 

Mrema: We have to ensure it's not just "their" framework. We make sure that it involves me and you. The actions which we take need to make sure that we change history. Three-quarters of land is degraded globally; two-thirds of the ocean is polluted, 85% of the world's land is degraded.

How can we change these statistics? This is what we will hope to happen when the framework is adopted.

But the framework cannot be adopted without all of us — and particularly the negotiators who are in Nairobi now — to really ensure that the framework will enable governments, but also other stakeholders like the NGOs, the industries, the financial institutions to halt biodiversity loss and conserve nature.

And you as journalists, what role will you play to make sure that the framework will also deliver those transformative messages to the communities?

The framework we talk about requires a change of behavior. And the change of behavior is with me and you, not the document, not the framework.

If I don't change my own behavior, if I don't change my consumption pattern, if our farmers do not change their agricultural production patterns, we will never reach the 2050 vision of living in harmony with nature.

And the actions are not just with the governments. Governments are only facilitating creating that enabling environment. But the changes are with everybody including our own individual behavior.

We should change our production patterns. Then we can put pressure on the government to make sure that creating an enabling environment is there for the population to be able to do more.

This story was produced as part of a reporting fellowship to the 2022 UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s 4th Meeting of the Open-ended Working Group on the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, led by Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published by The Scoop on 25 June 2022 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner image: From L-R: Francis Ogwal, Co-chair of the Working Group; David Ainsworth, Information Officer; Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, CBD Executive Secretary; Basile van Havre, co-chair of the Working Group / Credit: Michael Salzwedel. 

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