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Feature - Issue #8

No Planet B

Illustration by Rashida Chavis

On the eve of the UN Biodiversity Conference, the UN assistant secretary general and executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Elizabeth Mrema, calls for global action to build a future of life in harmony with nature.

The UN Biodiversity Conference in Kunming, China, is a very significant meeting for the state of the world’s biodiversity and the work of the Convention on Biological Diversity, which provides a global legal framework for action on biodiversity.

The time now has come for less talk and more action. I cannot over-emphasise this enough. The rate of global change in nature during the past 50 years is unprecedented in human history. The human population has doubled, the global economy quadrupled, and global trade has grown by ten times. All this while humans are overusing Earth’s biocapacity by at least 56%. Together, these factors have driven unpreceded alteration of habitats, overexploitation of resources, changes in climate, pollution, and invasions by alien species - and are causing the loss of biodiversity and of nature’s contributions to people.

At the UN Biodiversity Conference, governments will lead the discussions, but their work will be complemented by inputs from civil society, businesses, youth and women’s groups, and the extremely relevant input from Indigenous peoples and local communities.

In Kunming, the 196 parties to the convention are expected to agree and adopt a global biodiversity framework, a ten-year strategy to engage the entire world in the task of protecting nature and building a future of life in harmony with nature. The framework will have a very significant role not only for the convention’s work, but for all UN actors working on biodiversity, for the sustainable development goals, and for other sustainable development work in years to come.

The conference will also work on enhancing integration with respect to provisions related to traditional knowledge and Indigenous peoples and local communities, the way to address biotechnologies such as synthetic biology, and the question of digital sequence information on genetic resources.

These issues have taken on a higher urgency than ever before. This is because continued biodiversity loss and degradation of ecosystems presents a fundamental risk to the healthy and stable ecosystems that sustain all aspects of our societies; and reduces the ability of biodiversity and ecosystems to provide essential life-sustaining services, from food security and nutrition to the regulation of water and air quality, but also pest and disease regulation.

Over half of global GDP is moderately or highly dependent on nature and its services; over 70% of people living in poverty are at least partly dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods. In 2010, some 2.6 billion people drew their livelihoods either partially or fully from agriculture, 1.6 billion from forests and 250 million from fisheries. The cost of inaction is estimated to rise to at least $14tn - 7% of global GDP - by 2050; biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation are already disproportionately affecting marginalised populations. We must move our societies into a more sustainable coexistence with nature.

That being said, it is important to note that despite the deterioration of nature and the failure to fully achieve previous biodiversity targets, actions that have been taken in the last 10 years are making a difference.

‘We know that the degradation of nature is not purely an environmental issue. This is a very important point. Degradation of nature spans economics, health, social justice and human rights.’

For instance, there have been successes in establishing protected areas on land and sea that are making a real difference. In certain regions of the world, the rate of deforestation is slowing. There has been an increase in sustainable fisheries. We have seen successes in eradicating invasive species in island ecosystems.

So it is not all doom and gloom, but these actions need to be upscaled and emulated. The pressure is on, but I believe countries will deliver.

We know that the degradation of nature is not purely an environmental issue. This is a very important point. Degradation of nature spans economics, health, social justice and human rights. Neglecting our natural resources can also exacerbate geopolitical tensions and conflicts. And what we are seeing now is a shift towards a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach to move the conversation beyond the environment corridors.

It’s very important to emphasise that we are all in this together. There in no planet B, no other Earth. We must take care of our planet now. This is not just the problem of governments or organisations. To be successful, to ensure that we can have sustainable development and realise our vision of living in harmony with nature, an all-hands-on-deck approach is needed.

I have learned through my work that every action or activity I undertake as an individual has a positive or negative impact on biodiversity. This is very humbling. Virtually every human action, be it the choice of diet, or the choice of food I buy, has an impact.

I know the responsibility is on me as an individual to ensure that I contribute positively to reverse and halt biodiversity loss. Since action must start with me, it is equally important to encourage those close to me, beginning with my own family, to be aware of the impacts our actions have on nature and thus learn and practice to reuse and recycle and to minimise or reduce domestic waste.

‘We have a unique opportunity before us to re-imagine and transform our relationship with nature while promoting community and global health.’

There are many things that we as individuals can do to promote healthier and more sustainable lifestyles that would help alleviate some of the pressures on biodiversity. For example, we can eat less meat. If you eat fish, make sure it’s from sustainable sources. We should avoid wasting food. Currently, some 30% of food produced is not consumed, either because it does not reach the markets and rots (the predominant cause of losses in developing countries), or because it is not eaten and is thrown away (the predominant cause of losses in developed countries). Reducing food losses and waste would bring substantial benefits with few negative trade-offs. Shifting to healthier and more sustainable diets could simultaneously help to improve human health, reduce diet-related premature mortality by over 90% and reduce and help reverse the drivers of biodiversity loss.

We have a unique opportunity before us to re-imagine and transform our relationship with nature while promoting community and global health. The pandemic has confirmed how much we depend on each other as well as on other species and nature for our health, food systems and livelihoods. I think this message is starting to come across to all aspects of our societies.

So the pandemic has had the effect of stepping up global ambition and commitments on nature to ensure a sustainable future for all and has set in motion the political momentum needed to develop a robust and ambitious framework that sets countries on the path to a sustainable future.

We must take advantage of it.

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