INTERNATIONAL – The mass extinction of species will be catastrophic for economic development, global leaders warned as they lamented that the international community they themselves are part of has failed to meet any of the biodiversity targets set a decade ago.
No specific set of actions is expected to emerge from the United Nations biodiversity summit, during which at least 112 heads of state and government will present statements to each other and to a digital audience. Global leaders acknowledged the fragility of the environment and the need to preserve animal and plant species. One after another, they called for more action and bold steps to avoid climate collapse.
“Much greater ambition is needed,” United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said during the day-long summit’s opening speech. “Degradation of nature is not purely an environmental issue. It spans economics, health, social justice, and human rights.”
At least 1 million species are currently threatened or in danger of disappearing. Meanwhile, a UN report earlier this month outlined the group’s utter failure to achieve the biodiversity targets it set during a 2010 summit in Aichi, Japan, which were to be reached by this year.
Perhaps the most anticipated speaker at the summit was China’s President Xi Jinping. Last week, in a surprise announcement during the UN General Assembly, the leader of the world’s highest-polluting nation committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2060. The declaration sent ripples through the international community, with some researchers saying China’s move makes it possible to achieve the ambitious climate change goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial times.
Xi’s address last week lacked details on how China would achieve its emissions reductions, and some hoped that more would come in his speech to the biodiversity. Instead, the Chinese leader reiterated the 2060 goal and called for more multilateral effort to curtail species loss.
“China will continue to make extraordinary efforts to scale up its nationally determined contributions,” Xi said, referring to the commitments countries made to cut emissions when they signed the Paris Agreement in 2015. “China is prepared to take on international responsibilities commensurate with its level of development, and contribute its part to global environmental governance.”
China was set to host a new round of UN talks on biodiversity in October in Kunming, but that meeting has been delayed by the pandemic and will now take place in May 2021.
“The loss of biodiversity and the degradation of the ecosystem pose a major risk to human survival and development,” Xi said on Wednesday. “It falls on all of us to act together.”
This year has brought both the extent and costs of biodiversity loss into stark relief. Animal populations fell by 68% between 1970 and 2016, according to the Living Planet Report 2020, a biannual assessment by World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London. Parts of the world are much worse off, with animal populations in the tropical Americas down 94% during the same period.
Plants and fungi have a much higher risk of becoming extinct than previously thought, according to a report by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, released on Wednesday. About 20% of species are at risk of disappearing, the group found. The main threat to plants are agriculture and aquaculture activities, while the number one threat for fungi is residential and commercial development.
Preserving nature is essential to the survival of economic activities such as fishing and agriculture, the European Forest Institute argued in an action plan also made public on Wednesday. Over 75% of the global food crop types rely on animal pollination, with insects playing a key role. Around 4 billion people rely primarily on natural medicines for their health care, and some 70% of drugs used for cancer come from products inspired by nature.
If humanity continues on this trajectory, we face a future where 30% to 50% of all species may be lost by the middle of the century, a report on the cost of biodiversity loss by the Paulson Institute think tank concluded in mid-September. To reverse the decline in biodiversity by 2030, the global community would need to spend between $722 and $967 billion each year over the next decade. The biodiversity finance gap stands at between $598 and $824 billion per year, the report said.
About a fifth of the world’s biodiversity resides in Brazil, with more than 100,000 animal species and 40,000 plant species—70% of the world’s identified total. The country’s importance to global biodiversity and climate give it outsize attention in plans to protect planetary resources. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro acknowledged Brazil’s riches, but pushed back on international designs to protect them.
“The Convention on Biological Diversity enshrines the sovereign right of states to use their natural resources in accordance with their environmental policies,” he said, “and that is precisely what we intend to do with the huge wealth of resources found in the Brazilian territory.”
Leaders at the UN summit also warned that ongoing biodiversity loss was partly to blame for the emergence and spread of Covid-19. “Biodiversity loss, deforestation, the loss of farmland, animal habitat loss and the consumption of wild species are creating conditions for infectious diseases that we will soon be unable to control,” said Cyril Ramaphosa, President of the Republic of South Africa.
“You are all in positions where you can make more of a difference than most,” natural historian and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough told global leaders during a speech prior to the summit. “If ever we needed a strong signal from world leaders, from people like you, that we are going to solve this, it is now.”