The world is failing to tackle a catastrophic collapse of biodiversity that not only threatens the extinction of beloved species and invaluable genetic diversity, but threatens humanity’s food supply, health and safety, according to a comprehensive UN report released on Tuesday.
When governments act to protect and restore nature, the authors found it works. But despite commitments made 10 years ago, nations are not close to meeting the scale of the crisis, which continues to worsen due to unsustainable agriculture, overfishing, fossil fuel burning and other activities.
It comes as the devastating consequences that can result from an unhealthy relationship with nature are shown in full screen: A pandemic that probably jumped from bats has claimed lives around the world, and forest fires exacerbated by climate change and land management policies are ravaging the American West.
“These things are a sign of what is to come,” said David Cooper, author of the report and Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, the global treaty on which the assessment is based. “These things only get worse if we do not change course.”
The report looked at a decade of action by national governments. In 2010, after careful scientific work and hard negotiations, almost all countries in the world signed 20 targets under the Convention on the Suppression of Biodiversity Bleeding.
By that time, science was already clear: Human activity decimates animals and plants all over the planet, causing a wave of extinction and throwing ecosystems so out of balance that the domino effects threatened humans themselves. The agreement with a deadline of 2020 for the new targets was a hard-won diplomatic triumph.
The report, which assesses progress with the 20 targets, has shown that the world is doing far too little.
“Some progress has been made, but it is not good enough,” said Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the leader of the UN Convention.
As with climate change, scientific alarms about the loss of biodiversity are largely unheard of as the problem intensifies.
Last year, an exhaustive international report concluded that humans had transformed the natural world so drastically that one million species of animals and plants were in danger of extinction. This year, the World Economic Forum’s annual global risk report identified the loss of biodiversity in addition to climate change as one of the most pressing threats, saying that “human-driven nature and the loss of biodiversity threaten life on our planet.” Last week, a respected wildlife index showed that the populations of nearly 4,400 monitored mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish had fallen by an average of 68 percent since 1970.
Globally, only six of the 20 goals of the Biodiversity Convention were partially achieved, and none were fully achieved.
The destruction of habitats such as forests, mangroves and grasslands was not cut in half. Overfishing did not decrease. Governments did not stop subsidizing fossil fuels, fertilizers and pesticides that contribute to the biodiversity crisis.
In fact, the report estimates that governments around the world spend $ 500 billion a year on environmentally harmful initiatives, while total public and private funding for biodiversity came to a fraction of that: $ 80 billion to $ 90 billion.
“Many governments within their Ministry of the Environment have a great ambition for biodiversity,” said Anne Larigauderie, an ecologist who attended the 2010 conference that adopted the 20 goals. “But they do not have enough power compared to the other ministries: agriculture, transport, energy.”
Dr. Larigauderie manages the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, an independent intergovernmental organization that provides science on biodiversity loss. Even national leaders who say they understand the crisis, she said, have a hard time resisting lobbies, short-term interests and their desire for re-election.
Of 196 countries, 167 submitted national reports on their efforts. The United States did not do so because it was not a party to the treaty.
The main driver of land biodiversity loss is habitat destruction and degradation, primarily due to agriculture. At sea, the biggest problem is overfishing. Climate change will play an increasing role as its effects intensify in the coming years. And the two crises of climate change and the loss of biodiversity are inextricably linked. Since e.g. Trees are absorbed and help store carbon, forest deforestation intensifies climate change, while restoration helps mitigate it.
“By investing in nature, we can not only reduce extinction, we can help solve the climate issue,” Cooper said. “We can also have healthier landscapes and healthier people.”
Despite the overall failure, the report highlights areas of progress around the world, bright spots that show that people have the power to protect and restore nature and not just destroy it. Conservation efforts have prevented an estimated 11 to 25 extinctions of birds and mammals in the last decade; without these actions, researchers calculated, the number would probably have been two to four times as high.
“If you implement the policies, they work,” he said. Cooper.
To praise and inspire, the report is filled with big and small success stories. In collaboration with researchers, 20 million Chinese farmers reduced the amount of nitrogen they spent on crops such as rice and wheat, while at the same time increasing yields. Indonesia, Liberia and Gambia cracked down on illegal foreign fishing vessels and improved their fish stocks in favor of local fishermen. Guatemala rewarded landowners who restored forests with native species.
But such actions need to be scaled up significantly. The scale of the crisis and the large number of people living on the planet mean that conservation alone will not be enough. Instead, the report said societies will have to transform how they produce and consume food and other goods. One of the goals addressed this directly: Governments, businesses and stakeholders at all levels were at least taking steps to achieve plans for sustainable production and consumption. Three-quarters of the countries reported their progress; of these, only one-tenth are on track, the report found.
“Our economic and funding systems are all together,” said Robert Watson, a former chairman of two high-profile panels, one on climate change at the UN and the other on biodiversity. “We use gross domestic product as a measure of economic growth. It completely ignores nature. It completely ignores human well-being. And then it’s a very limited concept. ”
Without transformational change, the report said, all of humanity will be affected, with indigenous peoples and the poor having the worst effects.
Researchers say food supplies are threatened by ecosystem collapse, climate change, the fall in pollinators and soil degradation from unsustainable agriculture. Conflict follows food and water shortages.
The report calls for eight urgent transitions in the way we use land and gardens, grow our food, eat, build our cities, manage our fresh water and more. For example, we need to eat less meat and fish, bring nature into the cities and quickly stop burning fossil fuels.
With these bold changes, it is not too late to slow down and ultimately reverse this crisis, the report found.
“We still need this planet to live on,” Mrs Mrema said. “And we still need this planet for our children.”