A major United Nations report shows that world leaders have largely shrugged off important biodiversity goals, and the planet’s ecosystems are suffering as a result. Now, to save the planet, we need to fundamentally rethink our relationship with the natural world.
“Humanity stands at a crossroads with regard to the legacy, it leaves behind to future generations,” Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the CBD, told reporters on Tuesday.
The fifth Global Biodiversity Outlook, published by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity on Tuesday, shows the progress the world has made on the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Or more to the point, lack thereof. The 20 targets were set 10 years ago with a deadline to meet them by 2020. They’re basically on par with the 2015 Paris Agreement in terms of their importance to protecting the planet.
“It was really a quite a comprehensive package, and if we had actually implemented all of it, we would actually be in a very good place right now,” said Lina Barrera, vice president of international policy at Conservation International.
Unfortunately, world leaders blew it. Of the 20 targets—which include promises to boost public awareness of the biodiversity crisis, implement plans for sustainable production and consumption, and phase out economic subsidies for harmful activities—the world did not meet a single one of the goals set.
That’s not to say that they made no strides in the past decade. Though zero of the targets were achieved in full, leaders made progress on six of the 20.
“These actions have had meaningful impacts, and the biodiversity of our world would be in worse shape without these efforts,” said Maruma Mrema.
For instance, under Target 11, leaders agreed to conserve at least 17% of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10% of coastal and marine areas, with a focus on “areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services.” The world did protect more terrestrial and marine areas: Between 2000 and 2020, the world increased protected areas on land from 10% to 15%, and on sea from 3% to roughly 7%. But though we upped those areas, we didn’t focus on protecting the most critical and at-risk ecosystems, like coral reefs, tropical forests, peatlands, and coastal wetlands.
Similarly, under Target 19, civic leaders promised to improve global knowledge of the value of biodiversity and consequences of losing it. Since 2010, significant progress has been made on this front: There’s been far more data generated on biodiversity loss, with innovations in computer modeling and artificial intelligence opening up new opportunities for scientists to improve their understanding of it. But while we have learned a ton, there are still massive information gaps in the consequences of biodiversity loss for people. Plus, policymakers have only made limited use of that science in their decisions.
On other targets, we’ve made even less progress. In Target 8, leaders said they’d draw down global pollution to “levels that are not detrimental to ecosystem function and biodiversity,” but they came far from meeting that goal. Pollution from pesticides, dirty fuels, plastics, and other materials is still a huge driver of biodiversity loss.
The world hasn’t just failed to meet its targets. In some cases, we’ve actually made matters worse. In Target 6, international policymakers set a goal of managing and harvesting all seafood in a sustainable manner. While some countries and regions have taken steps to make this a reality, a third of the world’s marine fish stocks are now overfished, which is a higher proportion than 10 years ago.
The results of all this inaction are well-documented. A major World Wildlife Fund report released last week showed that globally, plants and animal populations have fallen a nauseating 68% decline since 1970. And last year, another massive UN massive report showed that human actions—or more accurately, the actions that powerful people have forced on the rest of us—have put 1 million species at-risk of extinction.
This is all awful news, not just for animals and plants around the world, but also for people. Biodiversity loss poses an existential threat to humanity, and we’re already seeing its effects, rapidly losing the rainforests that play an important role in protecting us from our own carbon pollution, the bees we depend on to pollinate our food, and the coral reefs that shield millions of people from flooding. That’s to say nothing of the covid-19 pandemic, which resulted from humans screwing up our relationship with the animal world. If global policymakers don’t get their asses in gear, things will get even worse.
The good news is, it’s not too late to act. There are species that have gone extinct that we can’t get back, but with major changes, we could prevent further damage from occurring.
Next year, world leaders will gather in Kunming, China, to set biodiversity goals for the next decade. The report authors hope this new research will push them to set even clearer goals—and stick to them.
“The time for action on all these issues is now—the global community must seize the opportunity to build back better from the covid-19 pandemic in order to reduce the risk of future pandemics,” the report says.
The solutions the report poses are, without exception, transformative. We need to restore ecosystems and reverse degradation. To that will require policymakers to consider conservation in all of our development decisions. We need to overhaul our food systems to boost productivity while minimizing negative biodiversity consequences, transition to a mostly plant-based diet, and boost pollinator populations. We also need to rapidly phase out of our use of fossil-based energy and draw down our carbon emissions. All these decisions will benefit wildlife and us.
That won’t be easy, and it won’t be cheap. The new report estimates that to make the required changes, we’d need an amount of money that’s “conservatively estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars.” But the alternative is unthinkable.
Updated: 9/15/2020, 9:48 a.m. ET: This post has been updated with additional comment from Elizabeth Maruma Mrema.