The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework1 adopted in December 2022 by representatives of most of the world’s national governments is inadequate to halt and reverse the disturbing loss of biodiversity globally. Concerted efforts to increase the new Framework’s ambition were dismissed and ultimately ignored. Human overshoot – the collective impacts of more than eight billion people – remains a taboo topic, even during the highest-level negotiations regarding the protection of remaining life on Earth. Rather than being a leader, the United States is missing in action. I offer my perspective as an American conservationist, wilderness and wildlife advocate, and planetary health activist who attended COP15.
By Rob Harding
Setting the Scene
Headed into my trip to Montreal to attend COP15 – the Convention on Biological Diversity’s 15th Conference of the Parties, I had the writing of ecologist and ecological economist William Rees on my mind. Regarding biodiversity loss, Rees wrote:
It is caused by many individual but interacting factors — habitat loss, climate change, intensive pesticide use and various forms of industrial pollution, for example, suppress both insect and bird populations. But the overall driver is what an ecologist might call the “competitive displacement” of non-human life by the inexorable growth of the human enterprise.
On a finite planet where millions of species share the same space and depend on the same finite products of photosynthesis, the continuous expansion of one species necessarily drives the contraction and extinction of others. (Politicians take note — there is always a conflict between human population/economic expansion and “protection of the environment.”)2
With most of the world’s national governments calling for halting and reversing the loss of biodiversity globally, as the United States government documented in a press release published during COP15 3 , surely the overall driver of biodiversity loss would be a top priority COP15 agenda item. Wrong! A recognition of the “competitive displacement of non-human life by the inexorable growth of the human enterprise”4 was not on the agenda.
For context, it should be known that a similar set of global biodiversity conservation targets was established back in 2010 at COP10, to be achieved by 2020, called the “Aichi biodiversity targets.”5 Not a single target was met, and this was the second consecutive decade that governments failed to meet targets attempting to halt the annihilation of wildlife and the degradation of life-sustaining ecosystems.6
Meanwhile, since the year 2000 – a mere 22 years – the size of the human population globally has increased sharply from 6.1 billion to 8 billion. It’s still growing.
Acknowledging these failures of the past two decades, coupled with my review of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s “Global Biodiversity Outlook 5” report published in August 2020 7, I began my COP15 experience questioning the capability of the world’s national governments to set meaningful biodiversity conservation targets and then act in a way that makes such targets achievable.
Ambition is a Vague Term
Both before and during COP15, calls for an “ambitious” Global Biodiversity Framework from government officials and the advocacy community were ubiquitous.8 The area-based conservation target popularized during the years leading up to COP15 is the so-called “30×30” target, which envisions conserving at least 30% of Earth’s surface in a relatively natural state by 2030 in an effort to prevent further human-induced environmental degradation, slow the loss of wild places and wild beings, and mitigate ongoing impacts of climate change. An intergovernmental group called the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People notes that it is “raising our global ambition to achieve at least 30% protection of land and ocean by 2030.”9 Meanwhile, I was an active member of a coalition of non-profit advocacy organizations calling for an area-based conservation target of 50% by 2030, consistent with the emerging scientific consensus formally recognized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) via IUCN Motion 101. 10
When I questioned the definition of ambition in the many calls to action surrounding COP15, the IUCN’s media relations team confirmed that “ambition is a vague term.” 11 The IUCN’s official position is that the Global Biodiversity Framework should “be clear in its aim to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity…”12
In other words, an effective Global Biodiversity Framework should recognize the overall driver of biodiversity loss and plan to confront it. But as I mentioned earlier, the overall driver of biodiversity loss was not on the agenda at COP15.
Conflicting Messages from Leaders
At the beginning of the conference, UN Secretary General António Guterres made media waves by asserting: “With our bottomless appetite for unchecked and unequal economic growth, humanity has become a weapon of mass extinction.”13 This bold statement was followed by an observation shared during a side event a few days later by Stephen Woodley, Vice Chair for Science and Biodiversity of the IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas. Woodley questioned whether it is realistic for the world’s national governments and conservation community to achieve meaningful area-based conservation targets, such as protecting at least 30% of Earth’s land and ocean by 2030. His reason for concern is that most people aren’t considering the fact that this finite planet we all call home recently surpassed an unprecedented human population of eight billion people which has an enormous ecological footprint already weighing heavily on Earth’s life support systems.
Those sound like honest concerns to me.
Flash forward another two days, when the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Executive Secretary Elizabeth Mrema was asked if the Global Biodiversity Framework would recognize the conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation. Mrema opined that she doesn’t believe there is such a conflict.14 Now remember the words of William Rees I shared earlier in this paper: “Politicians take note — there is always a conflict between human population/economic expansion and ‘protection of the environment.’”
Despite abundant evidence supporting the concerns raised by Guterres and Woodley during the conference, the fundamental conflict between growth of the human enterprise and protection of the environment was not recognized during COP15 or in the text of the newly adopted Global Biodiversity Framework. Human overshoot remains a taboo topic.
Where Does the United States Stand on Biodiversity Conservation?
It was interesting, and also embarrassing, to see the United States’ delegation in action at COP15 because the United States has not ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity and is therefore not an official Party to the Convention. As an observer, the United States can send a delegation to the conference and make statements, but it can’t vote.15 Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow in global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations, said this “reinforces the notion that the U.S. is a fair-weather partner when it comes to environmental conservation, including issues of climate change.”16
The U.S. Department of State reiterated the American government’s commitment to halting and reversing the loss of biodiversity globally in a press release published during COP15, noting that “the United States is engaged globally and at home to support efforts to conserve, protect, connect, and restore nature, leading to healthy ecosystems, healthy people, and healthy economies.” 17 With the United States government being an outlier non-Party to the Convention on Biological Diversity, how is America doing within its own political borders to halt and reverse biodiversity loss?
As it turns out, not good.
A recent study out of Columbia and Princeton Universities found that the U.S. Endangered Species Act, sometimes described as one of the world’s strongest laws for protecting biodiversity, has been more of a failure than a success since becoming the law of the land in 1973.18 Out of the thousands of species that have been listed by the Endangered Species Act in the past 48 years, only 54 have recovered to the point where they no longer need protection.”19
Let that sink in.
Lead author of the study, Erich Eberhard from Columbia University, said: “As the number of imperiled species – and the threats that they face – multiply, the unfortunate conclusion is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is being asked to do more with less resources.”20
Notice how Eberhard didn’t mention why the threats faced by imperiled species across the United States are multiplying. I’ll do the honors.
Biodiversity loss in the United States is occurring because of the “competitive displacement of non-human life by the inexorable growth of the human enterprise.”21
For a deeper dive into the ways in which this competitive displacement of non-human life is occurring across America, be sure to check out NumbersUSA’s most recent national sprawl study and maps at SprawlUSA.com.22
Let’s Consider Population
In the months following COP15, it’s been refreshing to see multiple articles published highlighting the connection between the rise in human numbers and the loss of biodiversity. Writing for Scientific American, Harvard professor and author Naomi Oreskes noted that “more people will not solve the problem of too many people.”23 In an interview for The Guardian, renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle solemnly shared: “[David] Attenborough and I had a parallel trajectory, when the world population was only 2 billion. Now we have 8 billion people and the Earth is the same size. We have to be mindful of the mark we’re making on the systems that keep us alive.”24 Going further, in January 2023 The Overpopulation Project published a new bibliography of recent scientific work linking human population growth and biodiversity loss which “aims for comprehensive coverage of peer-reviewed scientific papers published during the past dozen years that deal substantively with the connection between human numbers and biodiversity loss and preservation.”25
Inspired by the work of others and similar honest statements linking human numbers and biodiversity loss, in May 2018 I published “A Proposal for a United Nations Framework Convention on Population Growth” and campaigned domestically and internationally for two years seeking support for this new convention.26 Aside from some unique experiences and memorable stories, this proved to be a fruitless effort.
Here in the United States, the federal government is denying reality and wasting time trying to prove Naomi Oreskes wrong (she wrote “more people will not solve the problem of too many people”27 ). As I’ve written about previously, the United States is already deeply in ecological overshoot.28 Ongoing growth of the human enterprise is competitively displacing non-human life, inevitably driving biodiversity loss.
Therefore, it follows that if we wish to halt and reverse biodiversity loss then it would be wise to halt and reverse human population growth, wherever such growth is occurring, no matter its source.
Let’s Consider Immigration
It’s important to recognize that the primary source of America’s unsustainable human population growth is immigration. The U.S. Congressional Budget Office projects that U.S. population growth will be driven entirely by immigration within two decades.29 Readers take note, because you won’t see this truth shared by the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, or any other American environmental protection organization. Explaining why is a story for another time.
Joseph Chamie, a former director of the UN Population Division, has repeatedly and courageously called for ending U.S. population growth. In one of his more hard-hitting opinion pieces published by The Hill, titled “After years of US population growth, it’s time for a pause,” Chamie wrote:
Without a doubt, America’s population growth is a major factor affecting domestic demand for resources, including water, food and energy, and the worsening of the environment and climate change. There is hardly any major problem facing America with a solution that would be easier if the nation’s population were larger. On the contrary, population stabilization would help to resolve several.
Stabilizing the population would reduce pressures on the environment, climate and the depletion of resources and gain time for America to find solutions to its pressing issues. If the United States intends to address climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, etc., it must consider how its population affects each issue.30
Going further, Chamie presented the following legislative prescription: “With the nation’s fertility below the replacement level, stabilizing America’s population will necessarily involve substantially reducing immigration levels, estimated at approximately 1.1 million per year. If immigration levels were, for example, close to zero, America’s projected population in 2060 would be 320 million versus 405 million if immigration continued at the same pace.”31 (emphasis mine)
With a shared goal to halt and reverse biodiversity loss, it’s clear what the United States government should do to help halt and reverse growth of the human enterprise within its own political borders. In 21st century America, the country’s biodiversity loss-inducing human population growth is a direct and indirect consequence of too much immigration. Put another way, the high level of annual immigration into the United States is preventing America’s human population from stabilizing and then gradually declining in size. Put yet another way, immigration-driven population growth in America is a primary factor preventing us from achieving our national goal of halting and reversing biodiversity loss.
David Shearman, a University of Adelaide professor and co-founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia, reminded us of the following during the week after COP15: “Let us be clear, each country is solely responsible for saving its own environment by correcting all damaging factors within its own borders.”32
I agree. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
I long for a healthier, wilder America, North America, and Earth, with restored landscapes, free-flowing rivers, and thriving populations of the full array of extant native species. For the United States, as I would say for every other country on Earth, I don’t believe a healthier, wilder future is possible without limiting the size of our human population. With U.S. fertility well below the replacement level, the level of immigration into America must be reduced to stop growth. It’s that simple.
Note that none of these population-related considerations were on the agenda at COP15. This is one of the reasons why I believe the United States government and other nations’ governments are faking it when it comes to their pledges to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. When the overall driver of biodiversity loss isn’t even on the agenda, we shouldn’t expect to succeed.
Perhaps a new agenda for biodiversity conservation can be agreed upon in the years ahead, guided by the tireless work and honest insights of William Rees and others, with a plan to confront the overall driver of biodiversity loss at its core (human overshoot). I’m not optimistic, but time will tell.
Rob Harding is a planetary health activist who cares deeply about protecting life on Earth, and doing so in a loving and intentional manner. His superpower is serving as a connector to help accelerate the pace of progress. A graduate of Santa Clara University, Rob is committed to creating a more just and sustainable world with competence, conscience, and compassion. To that end, Rob serves on the board of The Rewilding Institute, Save The Colorado, and Keystone Species Alliance, as a trustee of the WILD Foundation, as a member of the Alliance of Mother Nature’s Guardians, as an advocate of Nature Needs Half, and as a chapter director for the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.
This piece was originally published as an NPG (Negative Population Growth) Forum Paper in April 2023.
10 thoughts on “Adversity for Biodiversity: A Reflection on My Experience at COP15”
Population growth also drives immigration. Obviously by producing more potential immigrants, but more importantly by increasing poverty, unemployment, and violence. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Europe sent millions of migrants to America. In millions, Germany 7, Italy 5, Ireland 3, Poland, 2. Norway 400,000, Sweden, 800,000 and so on. Now net migration from Europe is near zero. Fertility transitions enabled prosperity and made wars for “lebensraum” less necessary (Serial killer Putin excepted). So the anti-immigration folks should add “family planning aid to source countries” as a top priority. It is working for Mexico where USAID (and novelas) helped get birthrates down near replacement. Now there is less migration pressure from Mexico.
Africa is the continent where the fertility transition has just begun. I spent a day with DRC demographers at the PAA meeting in April. Urban, educated Africans have cut fertility rates, the continent is poised for a transition and economic progress. If the projected doubling from 1.2 to 2.4 billion by 2050 occurs, the current flood of migrants to Europe from Africa will become a tsunami.
Much more to say about the necessity for de-growth, but I’ll leave it there to focus on that one point: To stop migration without walls, help countries that send migrants accomplish demographic transitions that will reverse population growth, liberate women and end poverty.
The problem with this policy recommendation is that results take a long time to show and are not guaranteed. A lot of the African migrants are not the poorest in their own society. Same with many Asians. It takes money to migrate. Starving refugees usually go to the neighbouring countries.
That’s the problem with limiting migration: I fully agree that it needs to be done, now, but it’s extremely hard to find a way that limits human suffering to a level that a democracy will accept.
Mexico is not untypical of the Developing World – its population growth rate is slowing, from 1.14% a year in 2020 to a projected 0.3% in 2050. But the population is still growing – it was 129 million in 2020 and is projected to be 155 million in 2050. And as you say, there is a twin necessity – economic de-growth alongside population de-growth. If incomes increase in Mexico, more energy, food, cleaned-up water and other products will be consumed – and longevity may increase with more prosperity too, as it has in the Developed World. More naturally fresh (but not 100% unpolluted) water in aquifers will be consumed, and more waste disposal resources commandeered. Etc.
I have been too simplistic in the past, focusing solely or at least mainly on population de-growth – but this website and many recent videos on youtube by financial gurus, have made me more conscious of the equally pressing need for consumption de-growth – in the Global South as well as the Global North. Sadly, population decrease can often increase consumption, as more money becomes available to spend on consumer goods and services (like gyms, swimming-pools, gardening, sport, fashion, dining out, modern medicaments – all spawn vast amounts of manufactured products or mass-produced food/drink/plants/seeds, and correspondingly vast amounts of waste).
Of course Rees’s concept of the Ecological Footprint does indeed focus on Consumption versus Resources, and I have been aware of the website for at least 10 years. But I have allowed the issue of population de-growth to eclipse the issue of Consumption v. Resources in my own mind. Partly because it has been easy for me to be virtuous and have only one child. And (less easy but still easy) to campaign against mass immigration. Not nearly so easy, is trying to live on a sustainable income for my (or rather my Nation’s) available natural resources. It may even be impossible. So although Overpopulation is a taboo subject, it could be that Footprint (national and personal) is even more taboo!
I am composing a post on this which has even shocked me, when I see it in writing – so I may not post it here as I have no wish to upset people. All the same, it is here that I first saw an article stating that an income above $9000 a year in the Global North is not viable in ecological footprint terms. That is a very low income indeed for the Global North – although many do live on that, or even below that. And those in the Global South can only live on less because costs and prices are lower where they live. The ceiling for a sustainable income in the Global South could be a lot lower as a result – not a dollar a day of course (though many do live on this), but possibly $5000 a year or less depending on the national cost of living.
Of course this does not mean that campaigns against overpopulation and mass immigration (or indeed any immigration to any nation that is already in overshoot) can stop. On the contrary, they become more urgent with every passing minute. But we should not imagine they will be enough – and knowing they are not enough will serve to emphasize their urgency, which is good.
There is increasing resistance to any discussion of human population numbers. I suggest we would make more headway by adjusting the message, eg:
The health of the environment cannot be separated from the health and welfare of humans. This means universal basic health care, including family planning. That will ensure women and families are healthy and can have the right number of children for them – which ultimately means the right number for their community, economy and environment.
“The health of the environment cannot be separated from the health and welfare of humans”
The problem is that this isn’t necessarily true, at least in the short term. There are plenty of societies with a healthier environment and a lower life expectancy than wealthy countries with ravaged environments. Covid was disastrous in the Amazon. Africa has a lot of wilderness still, but a very low life expectancy. The reclamation of wetlands was disastrous for biodiversity and flood control, but it helped eradicate malaria. Etc.
If you look at the countries with the highest life expectancy, they are NOT those with the healthiest, wildest nature. They are the wealthiest ones.
We should be careful with simplistic arguments that aren’t patently true. I believe that we CAN have a healthy and prosperous humanity and obtain it through ecological destruction, like I said at least in the short term, which is what people see. Most animals and plants we’ve driven to extinction weren’t necessary to us. We shouldn’t do it because it’s wrong, not because it damages us – because when it doesn’t, it’s still wrong.
The Americas, being the last continents to begin resource extraction and enclosure/privatisation in a big way, following colonisation, I believe must hold the bulk of the the world’s land that can possibly absorb more displaced people and still be capable of sustainability. I have not looked at this in great detail, but it is the impression I get from many years of wide reading on environment, population, planning and biodiversity in particular.
The US population density is actually very comfortably low in comparison with the UK, which was set to begin declining population around Y2K, until ‘economists’ and ‘planners’ panicked, because the biggest ‘driver of growth’–the only thing that governments care about–here is the construction industry. So we have chosen to live by enforced construction against the will of the people, and are consuming our own life support capacity at an ever increasing rate, just to buy imports to feed infinite population growth ‘for the sake of the economy’.
It’s a while since I gave up following the figures closely as a pointless exercise, but with excess of immigration over emmigration of around 300,000 average for every year since Y2K, govs have actually succeeded in keeping the construction industry going, though, naturally, it would have had to transition to repair and replace after the ‘banking crash’ caused by building getting ahead of intrinsic population growth. As a result it looked the case that all net European population growth this century, took place in England. It still shows no sign of ever stopping, or even slowing down. On the contrary, govs always find new ways to remove the public from any say in ‘planning’, and are cracking down more and more heavily on what little rights to protest we had, and handing all the decision making over to speculative developers.
UK is dead in the water.
I think, however, that the USA still has a chance, and that is why I have been following US news more than local, for some years. Your figures seem so bad because you are considering the USA as if it was a single state, like most of the European countries, though the comparison should be made at the individualised 50 states level. Then you have a number of grossly overcrowded and unsustainable states in what is still a comparatively biodiverse continent compared with Europe, and a wildlife paradise compared with the UK (I get so jealous when I hear birds singing their hearts out from tree-shaped trees, when I watch US TV news interviews! That never happens here.).
Your problem is open borders between states, and freedom of movement, that lets people and businesses go wherever they like, so people naturally concentrate in the ‘best’ places until they render them unlivable as the water runs out.
I have had ideas for encouraging populations to distribute more evenly (a tax on businesses proportional to the combined drive to work distance of all their employees, for example, would help keep developments proportional to resident populations), but before anything like this can ever get even discussed, you/we have to heed the warnings of long ago, from Adam Smith, and George Washington. Smith used the last few paragraphs of Book 1 of Wealth of Nations, warning decision makers never to trust businessmen or allow them to influence decisions of state, because they only care for themselves. In his ‘Farewell Address’ (read out aloud in the Senate every year: before being totally ignored) Washington warned you never to let your own engines of state be captured by political parties, because this would, through ‘baleful’ human nature, result in an alternation of power between belligerent tribes, and in all the arguing, the state would be rendered incapable of defending itself against usurpation of power by a tyrant like Trump, or of making any other important decisions on a logically thought through and truly democratic basis.
Thus, most modern states (possibly all), are incapable of acting to save themselves from either ‘growth’ or climate change, because all of the decision making and legal processes are captured by political parties, which, in turn, are captured by businessmen and their financiers, who only think of themselves.
The world’s problem is the very political and economic system we were emphatically warned we must avoid. Until we face this fact and rectify it, it is impossible to progress in anything we could do to save Humanity and the biodiversity that supports us.
Hi Steve, thanks for your comment. Based on a review of the Global Footprint Network’s ecological footprint analyses, it’s unclear what support there is for your belief that the Americas “hold the bulk of the world’s land that can possibly absorb more displaced people and still be capable of sustainability.”
Indeed. The condition of the Ogllala Aquifer alone spells Doom with a capital D – and other aquifers are also in trouble. “Cumulative total groundwater depletion in the United States accelerated in the late 1940s and continued at an almost steady linear rate through the end of the century. In addition to widely recognized environmental consequences, groundwater depletion also adversely impacts the long-term sustainability of groundwater supplies to help meet the nation’s water needs.”
Tutti si preoccupano dell’aumento del numero degli anziani e di chi pagherebbe le pensioni. Occorre impegnarsi a superare il problema reale per le prime generazioni. Dopo gli anziani saranno solo quelli che furono giovani. E’ inutile lamentarsi della scomparsa della biodiversità , come nella giornata mondiale del 22 maggio, se non lasciamo lo spazio vitale ad animali e piante.
Grazie! È l’egoismo delle generazioni più anziane, in buona parte, a causare il problema. Pensioni alte e date presto, tutta la proprietà in mano a loro, ed enormi costi sanitari non per garantire una vita sana e decente ma per tenere in vita persone la cui vita è diventata ormai sofferenza.
Il problema è risolvibilissimo, basterebbe cambiare prospettiva.