Rich countries have to pay for the environmental damage they cause – Advice Eating

There is a historic obligation for higher-income countries to transfer some of their vast and ill-gotten wealth to lower-income countries to compensate them for the harm they have done to the environment, he writes Graham Lawton


| columnist

April 20, 2022

B5HKJ9 The United Glass Limited Glass Works at Alloa, Clackmannanshire, Scotland, United Kingdom. Reflected in the River Forth

David Robertson/Alamy

THE country I live in is one of the richest in the world, but also one of the poorest. By GDP, the UK is a superpower with the fifth largest economy in the world. But in terms of intact biodiversity, it ranks in the bottom 10 percent globally and worst in the G7.

These two facts are not independent of each other. The UK grew rich in no small part from the overexploitation of its natural resources – and has remained so. The agricultural and industrial revolutions turned much of what was once green and pleasant into a polluted and overgrazed wasteland. Even today, more than two thirds of the UK’s land area is farmed and 8% is built up, leaving little room for wildlife. The country’s Biodiversity Intactness Index (BII) — a measure of how much wild nature remains — sits at 53 percent. The global average is 75 percent. 90 percent plus is ideal.

This path to wealth is one that many less affluent countries aspire to. But it is also a path to mutually assured destruction. A global BII comparable to Britain would be catastrophic.

Preventing nature-rich countries from destroying their biodiversity is of course one of the goals of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which was the subject of the final round of negotiations in Geneva last month. Of course, such conversations are about conservation goals, habitat restoration, and so on. But they are actually about something else: money.

Before the meeting started, I spoke to conservation biologists about what to look for. One of them, Stephen Woodley of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, told me bluntly, “It’s all about the money.”

Biodiverse countries often have weak GDPs, and many don’t see why they should be forced to remain so to save prosperous nations from disaster. And even where there is a will to preserve, countries often lack the necessary resources and need financial help. “The big problem is wealth transfer,” Woodley told me. “I suspect the negotiations will depend on that.”

He was right. There were many sticking points, but by far the trickiest was funding. Reports from the meeting say the spirit of the talks was mean, with negotiators generally putting national interests first. For rich countries, that meant taking care of the payments.

“The US and Europe are responsible for more than half of global environmental degradation over the past 50 years”

If anything, the negotiations went backwards. The draft text at the beginning of the meeting contained specific figures, such as that lower-income countries should receive an additional $10 billion each year for nature conservation. By the end of the talks, all those numbers were gone, replaced by a dog breakfast of watered-down and controversial proposals.

This is not only greedy and immoral in the here and now. There is also a historic obligation for richer countries to transfer some of their vast and ill-gotten wealth to poorer ones to compensate them for the harm they have done to the environment. A recent analysis published in The Lancet Planetary Health found that the US and Europe are responsible for more than half of global environmental degradation over the past 50 years. Other wealthy countries, including Australia, Canada, Japan and Saudi Arabia, together account for another quarter, while low- and middle-income countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia account for just 8 percent.

Along with greed, immorality, and injustice, we can add myopia. “We’re either paying that amount of money today, or we’re paying a lot more later for lost ecosystem services, clean water, clean air, pollination, all those things that we take for granted,” says Brian O’Donnell of the Campaign for Nature, a coalition from more than 100 conservation organizations. “If we destroy the ecosystems we depend on, the cost will be astronomical.”

This is depressingly familiar from the climate negotiations. In 2015, wealthy nations pledged to donate billions to lower-income countries to help them mitigate and adapt to climate change, but they have yet to respond. They cynically slammed attempts to extort compensation for “losses and damages,” apparently as an admission of guilt and opening the floodgates to demands for reparations.

There is hope. The clean text that opened the talks was an ideal one drafted by the CBD; The mess that has been created is an ongoing work by the people who hold actual power. There is a history of brinkmanship in such talks and the CBD itself said progress had been made.

And while countries like the UK will never accept that much of their wealth is an ecological overdraft that is now overdue, they are beginning to understand that they have no choice but to pay up. “I think governments are starting to realize that this is more of an investment than just a cost,” says O’Donnell.

Graham’s week

What I read

The Age of Extremes: The Brief Twentieth Century, 1914–1991 by Eric Hobsbawm. Suddenly very relevant again

what i am observing

Dinosaurs: The Last Day with David Attenborough on the BBC. Attenborough does it again.

what i’m working on

Are you getting a new cat? The old man sadly joined his younger companion.

Until next week: Annalee Newitz

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