Viewed from a distance, the two big United Nations environmental conferences over the past month might seem superficially similar. 

The climate change summit in Sharm El-Sheikh in November and biodiversity meeting currently under way in Montreal are both attempts to review progress and thrash out the rule book on major global environmental treaties. Both the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity originate from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Both see furrow-browed politicians and earnest activists milling through convention halls, meeting late into the night, and making precious little visible difference.

That’s where the resemblances end, however. Though climate denialists on the right and environmentalists on the left might consider both treaties to be motivated by the same objective — a sense of idealism that puts the fate of the planet before people’s baser needs — in truth they’ve grown to be very different beasts. The world is finally bending the curve on tackling climate change. It will fail in efforts to halt the rising tide of extinctions.

Governments first gathered to consider their impact on the environment 50 years ago at a UN conference in Stockholm. That meeting occurred against the backdrop of “The Limits to Growth,” a computer model and report that estimated economies might grind to a halt during the 21st century due to rising population pressure, resource depletion and pollution.

The prediction has been much derided. In the five decades since, no such crisis has emerged. The world economy is now more than four times bigger than it was in 1972, even after adjusting for inflation — but carbon emissions have only doubled, rising not much faster than population. That suggests there have been genuine, unexpected advances in using the planet’s resources more efficiently.

For a generation now, emissions from rich countries have been falling. If the rest of the world can do the same, we will be well on the way toward one of the most remarkable achievements of human endeavor — finding a way to raise living standards for billions of people without destroying our planet’s capacity to support that progress.

It’s far from certain that we’ll hit the target on climate, however. Current projections are for 2.5 degrees C of warming by the end of this century. That’s well below scenarios that envisaged as much as 4.9 degrees, levels that would be sufficient to cause social breakdown on a global scale. It’s still going to be enough to put unbearable strains on our societies unless we can reduce emissions even faster and get toward the 1.5 degrees the world committed to at the 2015 Paris conference. Finding a way to accommodate a planet of 10.4 billion people by the end of this century, enjoying lifestyles comparable to those rich countries now enjoy, will stretch our ingenuity to the limit.

The point about those efforts, though, is that they’re being undertaken not from a sense of altruism, but from hard self-interest. Climate change risks leading us toward a future of wars, starvation, and unsurvivable heatwaves. The fact that political efforts and financial capital are finally being engaged at vast scales to slow and reverse that future is a sign that we recognize the imminent threat that a warmer planet poses to our ability to thrive.

While both nature and humanity benefit when we find less emissions-intensive ways to produce energy and material goods, biodiversity is often more of a zero-sum game. Most of the world’s food is grown in regions that were once covered by species-rich woodlands. The tropical forests of India, southern China and Southeast Asia once stretched across an area comparable in scale to the Amazon and Congo basins. They’ve now been mostly replaced by rice paddies. A thousand hectares of fertilized, pesticide-treated wheat is likely to be a desert in terms of biodiversity. Its ability to support human life and health, however, is far superior to woodland.

To the extent that we are making genuine strides in protecting biodiversity, it’s mostly in areas where self-interest is tangible. Preserving wetlands is usually a cheaper way to prevent flooding than building levees and dams. Maintaining populations of pollinating insects helps preserve the crops we eat — although there’s some evidence that it can actually reduce biodiversity when “useful” pollinating insects expand their ranges at the expense of others not associated with common crops. Many discussions of the world’s coral reefs start out by noting not their unparalleled species richness, but their importance in supporting the fundamentally human activities of fishing and tourism.

Keeping our planet from overheating is going to be the challenge of our lifetimes — and it’s ultimately a selfish ambition, preserving the environment that we need for our own ends. We’ll do our best to resist the rising tide of extinctions, but the prospects of success are far bleaker. In trying to limit climate change, our needs and those of the planet are well-aligned. In the case of biodiversity, they’re often opposed. Hundreds of thousands of years of human history show that in such a contest, only one side is likely to win.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• China Has the Right Idea About Protecting Species: Adam Minter

• Jane Goodall on Covid, Resilience and Climate Change: Sarah Green Carmichael

• It’s Better to Mine the World’s Rainforests Than Farm Them: David Fickling

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy and commodities. Previously, he worked for Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion


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