Conservation chief Bruno Oberle: we must not repeat climate mistakes on biodiversity

Bruno Oberle, director general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), at the Cop15 on biodiversity in Montreal in December 2022. (IISD-ENB/Mike Muzurakis)

Despite ambitious global commitments, the protection of nature needs to catch up to climate action. IUCN chief Bruno Oberle speaks about overcoming the imbalance.

“This is already the third time I've tried to retire,” Bruno Oberle, director general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), says jokingly. At the organisation's helm since 2020, Oberle announced at the end of March that this would be his last year. 

The 67-year-old biologist is well acquainted with the economic and political issues around nature conservation. Before the IUCN, he was director of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) from 2005 to 2015 and then professor of green economics at the EPFL, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.

The year 2022 concluded with states striking a historic agreement in Montreal at the Cop15 biodiversity summit, committing to protecting at least one-third of land and sea areas by 2030. But nature protection in Switzerland and everywhere else has lost out in attention to climate action.

Read also: Cop15 strikes historic deal to protect 30 per cent of Earth – at whose expense? - Geneva Solutions Switzerland is not doing very well in protecting biodiversity, yet the Swiss are convinced of the contrary. How do you explain this paradox?

Bruno Oberle: That's true. We often have this image of a green meadow with dandelions in bloom. However, it is not a good sign when a meadow can only produce dandelions; it is a sign of an unbalanced ecosystem where too much organic matter has been added. It may be pretty, but it is a real desert for biodiversity!  In a way, capitalising on this image is a form of greenwashing.

Switzerland is not doing well, and it is not new. The reason is partly historical. Unlike France or the United Kingdom, where protected areas were initially the king’s property, Switzerland was organised very early on through private lands in a context of growing population density.

Read also: Even in Switzerland, the state of biodiversity is not adequate

The issue of responsibility is often raised with regard to climate protection, with, for instance, the recognition of people’s right to live in a healthy environment. Who should protect nature? Citizens or states?

It is up to governments to legislate. Just like they do for traffic, they should regulate the use of nature. Since Switzerland accepted a 30 per cent target for protected areas in Montreal last December, it must do everything possible to meet it. Thirty per cent of the country's surface area represents 13,000 square kilometres. It is something that can be quantified.

When I was director of the Swiss environment ministry, I was responsible for increasing the share of protected areas. One of the difficulties is that you can't achieve the goal by simply placing the high mountains under protection. You also need to increase the share of productive agricultural areas that are also protected natural areas. But this implies inventing new ways of practising agriculture that are more respectful of biodiversity. This is a real technical and intellectual challenge.

This means also that the visitors to natural areas will have to assume responsibility for their actions. In Switzerland’s natural parks, for example, hikers cannot leave marked paths. Increasing the proportion of protected areas may mean restricting their economic uses. Recent votes, such as in June 2021 (when a Swiss law to curb CO2 emissions and two initiatives on pesticides were rejected), have shown that when it comes to biodiversity and the climate, the issue of individual responsibility is an obstacle.

Isn't there a risk of repeating earlier failures in the fight against climate change by confronting public interest with individual responsibility?

We find ourselves in a situation where the public good may be at odds with private interests, as it has been with climate change or health. During the pandemic, restrictions on individual freedoms were necessary to contain the health situation. One issue is how much money can be invested to protect the public good (biodiversity). And when we leave this choice to individuals, there is the risk of refusal for fear that it will be too expensive, which is what led the CO2 law to be rejected in June 2021. But we won’t succeed without individual responsibility either.

However, one of the specificities of Switzerland is that nature protection has been traditionally viewed as being on the right side of the political spectrum. The Swiss National Park, for example, was initially funded by the private sector. Beyond the 30 per cent target agreed in Montreal at Cop15, there is also the issue of financing, not only from the public sector but also the private sector. After carbon offsetting, we have seen the emergence of projects to offset the loss of biodiversity. But we still need to assess their quality to avoid falling into greenwashing.

The debate also goes beyond the national framework: Swiss consumption can lead to dramatic losses of biodiversity abroad, for example, through deforestation to increase the agricultural output of certain products, such as palm oil or coffee.

States must also become aware of their responsibilities at the global level and admit that our consumption practices have an impact elsewhere in the world. Often, Switzerland prefers to tackle the issue through technical cooperation (with other countries). But we must consider the entire value chain, from production to consumption. What we should avoid is trying to buy our way to achieving a clean conscience. Take the Republic of Congo, for example, one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. It would not be fair to place all the responsibility for the preservation of biodiversity on the country alone.

In climate diplomacy, country emissions are counted in metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent. Do we have a similar indicator for biodiversity?

Biodiversity is much more complex than climate, for which the metrics are actually quite simple: by exploiting fossil fuels, we emit greenhouse gases which in turn impact global temperatures, with the well-known 1.5°C target in sight.

Know that we have decided to protect 30 per cent of the Earth’s land and sea surfaces, how will we know if they are well protected or if it's greenwashing? We do not have a metric tonne of CO2 equivalent for biodiversity. The project of which I am most proud, as head of IUCN, has provided quantified indicators to inform public policy, such as the Species Threat Abatement and Recovery (STAR) metric (it measures how investments can contribute to reducing species' extinction risk).

Similarly, 20 years ago, IUCN pioneered the first nature-based solution. To avoid greenwashing, we established quality standards. It is not enough to say that eight, 17 or 30 per cent of a country's surface is protected; ensuring that the indicators we use are harmonised from one country to another is also necessary.

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