Summits do matter, but innovation is the key to a greener planet

Even if it hadn’t coincided with the business end of the World Cup, the UN Biodiversity Conference of the Parties (aka COP15) would still have passed all but the most interested observers by. But while the get-together in Montreal didn’t quite capture the headlines like the one in Qatar, we shouldn’t underestimate its importance.

COP15 culminated in the agreement that 30% of the planet’s surface should be placed under protection by 2030. Rich countries also agreed to stump up more cash for nature conservation, and environmentally damaging subsidies – totaling around half a trillion dollars – will be subject to reform .

One only needs to look at the evidence compiled by Our World In Data to know that biodiversity is in crisis. Countless species are threatened in so many different respects, with the habitats they call home often deteriorating in quality, and diminishing in quantity.

At the same time, I’m confident that this sad state of affairs can be turned round. Having witnessed it upfront, I know that international summitry is an important implement in the toolbox of how to go about fixing worldwide public goods issues. By cajoling and scrutinizing each other on the global stage, governments can and will achieve what would be impossible in isolation.

But, nor have I written before on these pagessummits can only take us so far. Rhetoric and regulations are a necessary but not sufficient condition in the battle against so many problems, including biodiversity conservation. A critical complement to government action will be the power of innovation – allowing us to leave a more gentle footprint on the natural world.

Here, we can point to a number of promising developments. One of the primary drivers of habitat destruction – not least of irreplaceable ancient rainforests – is animal agriculture. Vast tracts of the Amazon are being felled to make space for cattle, and to grow crops to feed them. Successfully developing tasty and price-competitive cultured meat – as many British entrepreneurs are working on – will render much of ‘conventional’ agriculture redundant.

Again, as I have explained on these pages before, the environmentally friendly food revolution is not confined to animal production. Genetic editing could allow us to boost the yields of all kinds of crops, leaving more space for nature, and minimizing our impact on the land through lower fertilizer and pesticide use. (A bill to regulate genetic editing is currently going through Parliament. Ensuring it goes through in a form which enables, rather than stifles, this miraculous technology should be of paramount importance.)

Access to energy is an issue which has risen to prominence this year, and is one which intimately impacts the environment. Of course, when we generate energy by burning fossil fuels, this causes climate change – an omnipresent threat to all habitats. But there is also the question of how those fossil fuels are sourced. Open cast coal mining, for example, scars the land on which it takes place, and can pollute waterways neither metals leach out of the tailings.