Opinion: What Canada needs to do to be a leader on biodiversity—and why

What Canada needs to do to be a leader on biodiversity—and why

by Anne Lambert

Is Canada doing its part “at home and abroad” as Canada’s environment minister said we will at last week’s UN Summit on Biodiversity?  Not yet.  Few Canadians realize that we’ve not been pulling our weight in helping developing countries conserve their large share of the world’s biodiversity.  The minister’s statement may signal a change.  And that would be huge.

Such assistance is not only called for by the Convention on Biological Diversity to which Canada is a Party—it is vital, because the greatest threats to natural ecosystems and species are happening in lower-income countries in the tropics.   

A report our organization released in September revealed that in recent years, Canada averaged $10 million per year in bilateral official development assistance for biodiversity, while France and Germany each spent more than one billion USD per year. Canada ranked 22nd out of 28 OECD countries in per capita biodiversity aid, with Norway topping that list.  Even Trump’s America spent ten times more per capita than Canada!

It’s not that Canada doesn’t care about protecting nature.  Conservation spending is up, and our government’s promise to protect 30% of Canada’s land and marine areas by 2030 is laudable.  In his address to the UN, the Prime Minister made the point that we have a big responsibility at home given Canada’s geographic size.  But France and Germany each spend more on conservation within their borders than Canada does, and they spend half as much again on foreign aid for biodiversity.  If Canada were to follow suit, that would place us among the leaders. 

More broadly, the UN Summit gave reason for hope.  We heard from world leaders not pious platitudes and posturing, but a recitation of the compelling reasons to redouble efforts to protect nature, delivered with a striking intensity by leader after leader. 

Many who spoke—mostly heads of state or environment ministers—stressed the interconnectedness of the climate and biodiversity emergencies, the dire depletion of biodiversity and wildlife populations, the dependence of human food systems on biodiversity, and the lack of progress during the past decade.  The link between biodiversity loss and pandemic risk was also noted.

The backdrop to the Summit includes last month’s grim UN report showing woeful progress on targets that countries set together ten years ago.  It calls for transformative changes, saying it’s not too late to “bend the curve” on biodiversity loss. 

How do we do that?  First, conservation finance needs to increase between five-fold and eight-fold, according to a recent report by the Paulson Institute, The Nature Conservancy and Cornell.  It calls for a doubling of foreign aid for biodiversity, especially to biodiversity-rich countries.

As well, governments are urged to shift agricultural and other subsidies from things that harm biodiversity to measures that protect it.  The “leaders’ pledge” also promises more action on pollution, illicit trafficking of wildlife and timber, and sustainable supply chains (such as deforestation-free commodities).

In charting a future path, Canada needs to consider that targeted conservation action is essential, along with a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels, for avoiding catastrophic climate change.  Ending tropical deforestation and forest degradation would reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 15%, and the potential for “negative emissions” from allowing degraded tropical forests to recover is enormous. 

Then consider the species—the myriad tropical insects, plants, birds, and frogs.  The jaguars, rhinos, orangutans, dependent on us.  And note that nature everywhere is interconnected.  Habitat loss in Latin America is suspected in the declining populations of some of Canada’s migratory birds. 

Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity are now at work on a post-2020 framework.  If Canada decisively boosts its support for biodiversity beyond our borders, it will be one of the best investments we can make – a win for nature, climate and people.

Anne Lambert is founding director of the International Conservation Fund of Canada. 

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