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Recognising the nexus between wildlife crime and climate change

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By John Scanlon

· 9 min read

Planet Earth’s marine and terrestrial ecosystems take up around 56 percent of anthropogenic carbon dioxide. It is stated that nature-based solutions to climate change (NbS) could contribute around one-third of the global mitigation required by 2030 to achieve the goals under the Paris Agreement. That sounds promising, but how effectively we use NbS and manage the various threats to NbS in achieving mitigation and other environmental and societal benefits remains to be seen. 

Nexus between biodiversity loss and climate change

We cannot combat climate change or adapt to its impacts without nature. This includes taking measures to protect, sustainably manage and restore natural and modified ecosystems, and in a manner that simultaneously benefits people and nature.

Recognition of the deep connection between biodiversity loss and climate change, and of the importance of addressing them together, is reflected in decisions taken by Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), as well by the two peak scientific bodies for these Conventions, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), including through their joint publication on Biodiversity and Climate Change

Nature-based solutions now integral to tackling climate change

The concept of NbS as an effective way to mitigate and adapt to climate change is now entrenched in decisions of the CBD and UNFCCC, and NbS are included in an increasing number of Parties’ Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement. 

NbS can be financed through market and non-market approaches and NbS already feature in carbon markets. As such, they are used to generate carbon credits that can in turn be used as carbon offsets. To qualify, they need to clear many hurdles, including to show additionality and permanence, with recent articles suggesting shortcomings in relation to a number of NbS projects. 

With NbS, there is a recognition of the various threats posed to achieving a project's objectives, including through overexploitation and natural disturbances, such as disease, fires and floods, but there is no specific recognition of the threat posed by wildlife crime. It’s time to connect the dots. 

We need to pay attention to all of the direct and indirect drivers of biodiversity loss.

How wildlife crime undermines nature-based solutions 

The reports from IPBES, UNODC, and The World Bank, amongst others, all graphically describe the industrial scale and the severe environmental and other consequences of wildlife crime, for our climate, ecosystems, wild animals and plants, as well as for human and animal health. 

The UNODC has released two UN World Wildlife Crime Reports, in 2016 and 2020, with an updated report to come in 2024. The 2020 edition found that 6,000 species listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) were found in illegal trade, and that’s out of just 40,000 species that are protected under the Convention (30,000 of which are orchids). The UNODC further found that “millions of species” that are not listed by CITES may be illegally harvested and traded, especially timber and fish.

If we look at all species being illicitly trafficked, not just the limited number of species regulated under CITES, and include the impacts of these crimes on ecosystems, then The World Bank estimates their value at a staggering $1-2 trillion a year, based upon the impact on ecosystem services, most notably their ability to sequester carbon. 

Wildlife crime's impacts extend beyond climate change

These reports also show that the damage caused by wildlife crime goes deeper than its climate impacts; we know these crimes involve the theft of vital natural resources from local communities and Indigenous Peoples, they discourage legitimate investors, and undermine the governments of source countries – and they do this by depriving them of revenue, fuelling corruption, destroying livelihoods, injuring and killing rangers, and creating national and regional instability.

The spillover of pathogens from wild animals to people that can lead to pandemics is well accepted, including through wild animal trade and markets. The risk from wild animal trade comes from legal, unregulated and illegal trade, with illegal trade posing a particular risk given it takes place under the radar of any biosecurity measures. 

We need to take primary prevention measures, which means taking steps to prevent the spillover occurring in the first place and that requires us to scale up efforts to stop the illegal take of high-risk wild animals in the first place. This requires an approach that addresses both demand and supply.

Role of individual species in mitigating climate change 

At UNFCCC CoP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, the UNODC released a report on Illegal Wildlife Trade and Climate Change, and at CoP28 UNODC is taking steps to integrate justice responses into the climate agenda. 

UNODC’s CoP27 report followed the excellent work by Ralph Chami, formerly of the International Monetary Fund, and others that looked at the climate benefits of various species, including the forest elephant and whales. Ralph Chami and his team concluded that a live elephant was worth $1.75M over its lifetime based on carbon benefits alone. 

Yale University has examined the climate benefits of nine wildlife species. The authors conclude that protecting or restoring their populations could collectively facilitate capturing 95% of the amount of carbon needed every year to meet the Paris Agreement goals. The authors found that “endangering animal populations to the point where they become extinct could flip the ecosystems they inhabit from carbon sinks to carbon sources”.

Wildlife crime is escalating and converging with other serious crimes 

More recent reports from the UNODC and the Global Initiative on Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC) continue to paint a grim picture. The UNODC World Drugs Report of 2023 includes a chapter on the nexus between drug crimes and crimes that affect the environment in the Amazon Basin, showing a clear linkage to the trafficking of wildlife, including timber, which is disproportionately affecting Indigenous Peoples. 

The ENACT Organised Crime Index 2023 for Africa and the GI-TOC Organized Crime Index 2023 found increasing levels of illegal logging and wildlife trafficking across most continents, and a convergence with multiple other crimes, most notably corruption and money laundering. 

CoP28 in Dubai and the emissions gap

This week the Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime is in Dubai at UNFCCC CoP28 for three days, with one objective: to show the nexus between wildlife crime and climate change, which will revolve around co-organising and participating in three events, where these issues will be discussed in detail.

The stakes are high. The UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2023 found that the world is heading for a 2.5-2.9°C temperature rise above pre-industrial levels unless countries step up action and deliver more than promised in their 2030 pledges under the Paris Agreement. 

The World is continuing to struggle to wean itself off fossil fuels for many different reasons. The UNEP Report finds that maintaining the possibility of achieving the Paris Agreement goals hinges on strengthening mitigation this decade to narrow the emissions gap. 

These reports collectively provide a compelling case for ensuring we take every opportunity to mitigate climate change. There is a direct nexus between biodiversity loss and climate change and a nexus between biodiversity loss and overexploitation through wildlife crime. 

Ending wildlife crime requires additional resources, but the funds required pale in comparison to the funding required to make progress in other sectors. It represents a low investment for a high return, not only for our climate but in achieving multiple other global goals. 

Making progress isn’t just about financing, it's about having in place agreements on how countries will cooperate to prevent and combat these crimes, something that is lacking, and that represents a major gap in the international legal framework.

Calls for a new international legal framework 

Presidents from four biodiverse rich States, Angola, Costa Rica, Gabon and Malawi, have called for a new agreement to prevent and combat wildlife trafficking, taking the form of an additional Protocol under the UN Convention to Combat Transnational Organised Crime (UNTOC). 

Following the adoption of a historic Resolution by the UN Crime Commission last year, a consultation process amongst States resulted in 75% of responding States saying they were either in favour of such a Protocol or open to discussing it, with some requesting further information or suggesting its scope be broadened to include other environmental crimes. An updated, final report on this consultation process has just been released that shows support for a Protocol has continued to increase amongst States. 

Target 5 of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework is to “Ensure that the use, harvesting and trade of wild species is sustainable, safe and legal, preventing overexploitation, minimizing impacts on non-target species and ecosystems, and reducing the risk of pathogen spillover, applying the ecosystem approach, while respecting and protecting customary sustainable use by indigenous peoples and local communities”. 

Now is the time to strengthen our international legal framework to tackle wildlife crime, which will be critical to achieving our biodiversity, climate and sustainable development goals and targets. 

Road from CoP28 to CoP30 to the UN Crime Congress

We are presented with a unique opportunity to use the momentum of CoP28 to start to scale up the financing available to end wildlife crime and to propel the current discussions on the benefits of an additional Protocol under the UNTOC to prevent and combat wildlife trafficking. 

The time is ripe to act, as we look ahead to CoP30 in the Amazonian city of Belém do Pará in 2025, and to the UN Crime Congress, also being hosted by the UAE, in 2026. 

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

John Scanlon AO is a seasoned leader in the fields of environment, governance and sustainable development, with a unique range of experience gained across multiple continents, disciplines and organisations. He has served in senior positions in the private sector, with government, international organisations, the United Nations, and not-for-profit organizations, and as chair or member of many boards and initiatives. This includes working with IUCN (Bonn), UNEP (Nairobi) and CITES (Geneva)

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