S’pore conservationists and youth hope to see ambitious targets at UN summit on nature

Ms Gretel Seet (left) and Mr Karl Png pose with the Singapore poster at the Youth Pavilion at COP15. PHOTO: COURTESY OF KARL PNG

SINGAPORE - Local conservationists and youth are hoping that the conservation targets to be set at the ongoing United Nations COP15 biodiversity conference will be more ambitious.

They hope efforts will be focused on educating the younger generation to reshape how they view nature – as something of value instead of a resource to be exploited. This so-called transformative education will allow them to live harmoniously with nature in future.

From Wednesday to Dec 19, delegates from nearly 200 countries are attending the UN summit in Montreal, Canada.  

The National Parks Board has also sent a delegation to the conference to contribute to global plans that aim to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity.

This will entail protecting at least 30 per cent of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030 – up from the current conservation rate of 16 per cent and about 10 per cent respectively. 

At least 100 countries, including Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines, have committed to supporting this goal, as part of a coalition known as the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People.  

Currently, Singapore has only about 5 per cent of its land protected, which includes four of its nature reserves.

Dr Shawn Lum, president of the Nature Society (Singapore), said that unlike most countries, Singapore does not have a vast hinterland, making it challenging to set aside 30 per cent of its limited land area for nature.

It might be too “simplistic” to apply these broad targets to Singapore, he said.

He suggested using the Republic’s expertise to model various ecological scenarios to help the country determine the land and sea spaces it could conserve.

This would help maximise biodiversity and ecosystem health, promote connectivity between different habitats, and retain or even increase the number of species found locally, he noted. 

Youth in the biodiversity space are also calling for the public to be consulted in environmental impact assessments (EIAs) – beyond the specialists involved. EIAs are conducted to measure the ecological impact of using natural spaces for developmental projects such as housing.

Ahead of the COP15, the Singapore Youth Voices for Biodiversity had in July gathered youth voices on possible recommendations to enhance Singapore’s biodiversity efforts. The forum is the local chapter of the Global Youth Biodiversity Network (GYBN), a coalition that brings together youth voices and organisations, and serves as a platform for youth participating in the UN summit.

Mr Karl Png, 25, who is the Singapore chapter coordinator for GYBN, said that young people in Singapore are pushing strongly for transformative education.

This entails training a generation of youth to understand the importance of conserving biodiversity and applying it to every sector of society as soon as possible to save humanity from the immense loss of biodiversity it is experiencing, said Mr Png, who is heading to Montreal for the COP15 conference.

“As the world becomes increasingly urbanised, today’s youth experience a major disconnect with nature. Given the importance of nature in our lives and health, we need to bring people to nature as much as possible,” he added. 

Mr Png also hopes for indigenous people and local communities to actively participate in conservation efforts.

Ms Mika Tan, who is a coordinator with the Asean Youth Biodiversity Programme at the Asean Centre for Biodiversity, said that young conservationists see transformative education playing a vital role in the 2050 vision of recovering biodiversity and allowing humanity to live in harmony with nature. 

Changing the way people view nature, from a resource to be exploited to one to be valued and hence conserved, would help bring the vision to reality, she added.

Agreeing, Ms K.M. Reyes, co-founder and adviser at the Centre for Sustainability Philippines, said that many governments see the exploitation of nature as the dominant strategy for achieving economic growth. 

“Many have reverted to mining and deforestation as strategies to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic,” she added.

As 65 per cent of the South-east Asian population are youth under the age of 35, many will be bearing the brunt of climate change and biodiversity loss, said Ms Tan.

“Despite holding only 3 per cent of the world’s land mass, South-east Asia is home to almost 20 per cent of all species of flora and fauna in the world... There is a lot left to protect, so we must ensure that we address biodiversity loss before it’s too late,” she added.

Youth hold the key to conservation, she said. 

Ms Tan’s organisation thus provides young people with training, so that they can be environmental stewards to help drive biodiversity conservation projects in a holistic way.  

For example, dealing with the issue of destructive fishing practices would require an understanding of the perspectives of different stakeholders. Economic pressures arising from demand for cheap fish from neighbouring countries, for instance, may force local communities to overfish, she noted.

Having such perspectives would help identify the best possible interventions, both biological and social, she added.

The Asean Youth Biodiversity Programme also provides avenues for youth to cultivate relationships with key decision-makers in their countries, allowing them to have a voice in conservation issues.

Ms Reyes, who co-founded the 30x30 South-east Asia coalition, believes that Singapore is “extremely well positioned” to commit to the global 30x30 target, especially considering the wealth of biodiversity it boasts despite being such a small and densely populated state.

The 30x30 is a global campaign that aims to get governments to conserve 30 per cent of both global land areas and oceans.

Ms Reyes added that the Republic also serves as a “clear model” for urban biodiversity conservation.

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