In my view, the issue of biodiversity loss should be right at the top of the political agenda. As well as nature being invaluable in its own right, its rapid loss poses enormous risks to human wellbeing and prosperity and requires an urgent, concerted global effort to remedy.
It’s unlikely to be coincidence that we have seen multiple outbreaks of zoonotic diseases – including SARS, MERS, Ebola and now SARS-COV2, the virus responsible for COVID-19 – during the last few decades of accelerating biodiversity loss. And, as well as the public health risks, the economic risks of biodiversity loss are staggering. Earlier this year the World Economic Forum estimated that around half of the global economy – worth USD 44 trillion – is highly or moderately dependent on the services provided by nature. Just one small example is the potential cost of losing the services of pollinators – well underway due to our excessive use of pesticides – estimated to be USD 250 billion per year. And for every service provided by nature that can be measured, there are many more that cannot.
So why is it that biodiversity loss is not a major election issue or the focus of high-level diplomacy? As is often the case with governments, urgent issues take precedence at the expense of the important, especially when remaining in power depends solely on the next election.
Until recently, in my contacts with the British Embassy, although climate change has been a priority for several years reflecting the fact that what happens in China matters to the world’s climate, the same has not been the case for biodiversity. That is why I was excited to be contacted by the British Embassy and asked if I would accompany the new Ambassador, Caroline Wilson, on a birding trip to discuss biodiversity.
Caroline arrived in China just a few weeks ago and clearly sees an opportunity in the fact that China and the UK will be hosting the UN biodiversity and UN climate change negotiations respectively in 2021. With so many interlinkages between the two agendas, what happens in Kunming at the biodiversity negotiations has a significant influence on the success of the climate change negotiations in Glasgow and vice versa. And saving nature is not a controversial issue, thus providing a safe area of cooperation to buffer other issues on which China and the UK may not agree. A sophisticated relationship is one where both sides can agree to disagree on certain issues without impacting cooperation in areas of shared interest.
And so, last Sunday, we set off from the embassy at 0730 for the 90-minute drive to the reserve. In order to provide a more comprehensive discussion, we invited Professor Lu Zhi and Shi Xiangying of Peking University and ShanShui Conservation Center respectively, both good friends and authorities on biodiversity in China.
On a bitterly cold day with a strong NW wind racing uninterrupted from Siberia, many birds were understandably sheltering in the reeds but we did encounter some family parties of Common Crane, flocks of Bean Geese, some typically dense flocks of Baikal Teal and a few Smew.
In between, we enjoyed some great discussions about how China and the UK can work together more closely on biodiversity, including on biodiversity finance, economics, wetland restoration, flyways and exchanges on science and cultural aspects. Importantly, we agreed that biodiversity should be an issue for cooperation not just for the next 12 months but over the long-term.
It was brilliant to see Caroline so engaged on biodiversity and I am hopeful that this may represent a turning point in the emphasis given to biodiversity in diplomatic relations between China and the UK. In terms of next steps, we expect the embassy to convene a meeting to brainstorm ideas in more detail to help develop a plan for how to structure engagement on these issues. Looking forward to continuing these discussions!
Big thanks to Professor Lu Zhi and Shi Xiangying for giving up their Sunday to meet with Caroline and to Ella, Danae, Sam, Helen, Xiaoyang, Ruby and the embassy team for making the arrangements.
Title image: (from left to right) Terry, Shi Xiangying and HMA Caroline Wilson discussing biodiversity in Beijing at Yeyahu Wetland Reserve.