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Miguel Bastos Ara˙jo: We have not yet managed to harmonise the interests of ecology and the economy

05/21/2021 | 04:03am EDT
Researcher and full professor Miguel Bastos Araújo is a specialist in biogeography and the impact of climate change on biodiversity. In this exclusive interview, he discusses the financial mechanisms for protecting biodiversity, which can work with a model similar to the carbon market. The 2018 Pessoa Prize winner also warns about the complexity of the environmental crisis. An issue that often goes unnoticed by most people is the link between biodiversity and climate change. How would you explain the importance of this relationship to non-specialists?

There is a perfect interaction between the two. On the one hand, the climate controls the amount of energy available to enable ecosystems to function, thereby affecting the quantity and quality of biodiversity that may exist in each location. On the other hand, biodiversity shapes the climate by affecting the regional dynamics of the atmosphere, the carbon cycle, water cycle and amount of sunlight that is absorbed or reflected into the atmosphere. In this way, correct management of nature and biodiversity can constitute an important ally to help mitigate ongoing climate change.

As a biogeographer, what would you highlight about the cork oak forest, and its importance for the Western Mediterranean Basin, and, in particular, what is its relevance in terms of ecosystem services?

The cork oak forest is an Iberian savannah - one of the least fragmented and richest biodiversity ecosystems in southern Europe. Unlike the African savannah, whose dynamics are controlled by large wild herbivores and carnivores, cork oak forests are maintained by domesticated herbivores and managed by man, in order to generate products that have tradable value. However, the savannah and the cork oak forest are functionally similar and both are essential for the preservation of the biodiversity in each of these territories.

The so-called biodiversity decade (2011-2020) fell far short of expectations, and none of the Aichi biodiversity targets were achieved in full. Why did this happen and what do you expect for the post-Aichi period?

I think it will be difficult to counter the idea that biodiversity has been moving away from political priorities for decades, and that many investments have been made that contradicted the actions which are necessary for biodiversity conservation and promotion. More specifically, there are three core problems that have been identified to explain the failure to attain the Aichi targets. First, the multiple dimensions of the concept of biodiversity. Biodiversity represents all the biological variation
that exists in Nature, but it is a difficult property to measure. As such, it is difficult to communicate the intended objectives and even more so to monitor the success or failure of the proposed measures. Secondly, and despite the fact that different countries have committed themselves to specific measures and targets, the necessary monitoring and control mechanisms have not been created. So a large amount of the homework remains to be done in 2020. Finally, there is a more complex and structural issue. We have not yet managed to harmonise the interests of ecology and the economy. For most people, conserving biodiversity is therefore viewed as an opportunity cost for economic development. I would say that resolving this obstacle is the biggest challenge ahead.

You coordinated the 2030 Biodiversity study. What is the objective of this scientific work and how can it be articulated with political decisions?

The study aims to help the Portuguese government to define priorities for the national biodiversity policy for the period until 2030, while assisting the Portuguese teams that will accompany the biodiversity dossiers during the Portuguese Presidency of the European Union (PPUE) and in
the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15), that will be held in China at the end of 2021.

What are the main action lines of this study?

The study is divided into five essential action lines: biodiversity and climate; biodiversity and territory; biodiversity and coastal and inland waters; biodiversity in the oceans; and biodiversity and people, with an emphasis on the financial mechanisms that underpin biodiversity policy.

One of the most daring proposals in this study is the creation of a mechanism that will remunerate ecosystem services, similar to that which exists in the carbon market. How would it work and what would be its immediate effects?

It is still premature to disclose the details since the work is expected to be completed in November 2021. But the problem we aim to address is, on the one hand, interna-lisation of biodiversity degradation costs within economic activity and, on the other, remuneration of economic activities that generate biodiversity benefits. It is about correcting market failures which encourage activities that have a negative impact on biodiversity, while activities that are beneficial for biodiversity have difficulty in affirming their viability, even though they generate non-monetisable positive externalities, in the form of environmental services on which the functioning of society depends.

Has this model been implemented in other countries?

The idea does not differ substantially from the principles that underly the carbon market, but there are few cases where this has been applied to biodiversity.
We know of examples in Australia and Finland, and it is possible that there are others that will be identified and reviewed in our work. The principle is very simple and can be illustrated with an example. If a manager of a territory creates natural capital as a service provider of pollination, e.g. managing areas of autochthonous vegetation that favour pollinating insects, the manager of a territory who simplifies the territory, by sterilising it with insecticides that destroy pollinating fauna, will have to pay an amount that is proportional to the resulting degradation. This amount will be used to remunerate managers who create value for biodiversity, among other benefits, that an intensive manager needs for his crops. If these mechanisms are effectively implemented, the economic signal given to the manager of the territory must be sufficiently forceful to encourage him to adopt more sustainable practices. This is a matter of attributing a monetary value to the degradation of biodiversity and its associated services, thereby altering the sums made by people who haven't yet realised that destroying the natural heritage can be expensive.

Ten years ago, Corticeira Amorim lifted the veil on this topic, by launching a study on the positive externalities of the cork oak forest. What role do companies play in raising awareness? Can the private sector be a driver of change?

Undoubtedly. The environmental crisis poses an unprecedented level of complexity and its resolution implies convergence between all actors involved. In some cases, citizens place pressure on States which in turn place pressure on the private sector to reinforce their sustaina-bility standards. There are also cases where a section of the private sector is one step ahead of citizens and the States themselves.

When we think about the scale and severity of the climate crisis, we tend to be pessimistic. Is there still time to reverse the cycle? How?

We must be aware that the timeframes involved in climate change processes are reversible but within time scales that transcend the programming of human activities. For example, assuming that we would not be able to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement, which are not trivial, the levels of CO2 concentration are reversible, but within time scales ranging from 100 to 300 years. However, the rising sea levels, resulting from the melting of the glaciers, can only be adjusted within a time scale of thousands of years. When we insist on the need for energy transition and decarbonisation of the economy, the objective is to avoid more serious mismatches within the climate system. Because we know that once the process of climate change gets underway, it lies beyond our will and ingenuity to stop it.
The degradation and simplification of biodiversity is recoverable on scales that are even more intangible to us. In previous mass extinctions - there have been five, before the current one - it took several million years to recover levels of biodiversity comparable to those that preceded the extinctions.
On the other hand, the biodiversity that evolved from mass extinctions has always been very different from the previous one. We could say that they are Pandora's boxes that shouldn't be opened carelessly, because once the ensuing processes are unleashed, we don't know how to stop them or what the final result will be.


Corticeira Amorim SGPS SA published this content on 21 May 2021 and is solely responsible for the information contained therein. Distributed by Public, unedited and unaltered, on 21 May 2021 08:02:01 UTC.

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