Rich countries must compensate the Global South for biodiversity loss

Remains of cut down trees are pictured next to the coast of Guediawaye on the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal June 21, 2020. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Remains of cut down trees are pictured next to the coast of Guediawaye on the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal June 21, 2020. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Wealthy nations’ overconsumption is destroying nature, but is often not accounted for by ‘loss and damage’

Dilys Roe is principal researcher and team leader on biodiversity at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). 

“Biodiversity loss” is such an abstract term that it can be hard to relate to real life. Most people have never seen one of the iconic animals often used to illustrate it, like polar bears.

But for millions of people globally, biodiversity loss means the continuing disappearance of natural resources and systems they rely on to live. This creeping crisis is caused by many factors including climate change, but the main culprits are habitat destruction and over-exploitation

This is a consumption problem. And the effects are felt most by poorer people in the Global South.

The rich world’s insatiable appetite for beef drives deforestation in the tropics on a vast scale, both through farming cows and growing animal feed. Along with demand for timber and other crops, this has stripped resources and income from people in Latin America.

Go DeeperThe Pacific island nation changing the loss and damage debate
Commuters ride on rickshaws on a flooded road after heavy rains in Dhaka, Bangladesh, September 22, 2023
Go DeeperEarly 'loss and damage' funding puts communities in driver's seat
People get on a boat as they look for shelter during a widespread flood in the northeastern part of the country, in Sylhet, Bangladesh, June 19, 2022
Go DeeperClimate-vulnerable nations prepare to deploy loss and damage funds

Elsewhere, Europeans’ demand for fish found in west African coastal seas is contributing to unemployment, poor health and poverty. Communities throughout that region rely on fishing for income and food.

As complex ecosystems are disrupted, local people lose access to food and become more vulnerable to illness. And because diverse habitats are more resilient, their vulnerability to the effects of climate change increases as biodiversity declines. 

At COP28 U.N. climate talks in Dubai, a loss and damage fund was set up to compensate poorer nations for the destruction wrought by climate change which they did not cause. This includes non-economic categories like ecosystem decline, but only where it’s linked to climate change. There is no similar mechanism for the direct consequences of unsustainable consumption.

It might be argued that, unlike climate change, trade agreements for commodities that damage biodiversity have been entered into willingly by the affected nations and so they must share responsibility. However, this ignores the far greater negotiating power wielded by rich-world trading partners – an imbalance which often has its origins in the colonial era and, in any case, exists in an economic system constructed by wealthy former colonial powers.

The same disparity exists between small-scale producers and powerful multinational corporations. There is injustice here, and the ecosystems which have been ransacked to feed the lifestyles of comparatively wealthy consumers must be restored.

It is time for the rich world to admit the effects of its purchasing habits on biodiversity in the countries it exploits, and the knock-on effects for marginalised communities. There is a clear case for the introduction of a “consumer pays” principle for international trade, to account for the true cost of consumption.

The mechanics of what a “consumer pays fund” might look like – meaning who would benefit and make decisions – requires careful thought. Ensuring funds reach the local level is vital. This year’s U.N. biodiversity COP, which is being held in Colombia in October, would be a perfect time to begin the multilateral conversation about reversing the injustice of biodiversity loss.

Biodiversity sustains the flow of vital resources like food and water which support economies. It is also intimately connected with community values and promotes natural resilience in the face of challenges like climate change.

Goods and services can be produced more efficiently and securely in diverse ecosystems. For example, species-rich native tree plantations offer similar or even higher productivity for logging than monocultures, according to a 2018 study in the Science journal.

Acting to halt the degradation of recent decades will pay dividends in the long run. To begin that process, it's vital we start talking about who pays now – and who gets paid.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


  • Adaptation
  • Loss and damage
  • Forests
  • Biodiversity

Get our climate newsletter. Free. Every week.

By providing your email, you agree to our Privacy Policy.

Latest on Context