LONDON (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, AFP) - British broadcaster David Attenborough led a call from conservation groups on Wednesday (Sept 30) for the world to invest US$500 billion (S$683 billion) a year to halt the destruction of nature, warning that the future of the planet was in "grave jeopardy".
Attenborough, whose new film A Life On Our Planet documents the dangers posed by climate change and the extinction of species, issued the call as the United Nations convened a one-day summit aimed at galvanising action to protect wildlife.
"Our natural world is under greater pressure now than at any time in human history, and the future of the entire planet - on which every single one of us depends - is in grave jeopardy," Attenborough, 94, said in a statement.
"We still have an opportunity to reverse catastrophic biodiversity loss, but time is running out."
Opening the summit in New York, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that a million species were at risk of extinction and that climate change and the loss of biodiversity were "destroying Earth's web of life".
"We are part of that fragile web and we need it to be healthy so we and future generations may thrive," Guterres said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, in his address, also urged global cooperation to protect the Earth’s biodiversity but stopped short of making a major environmental commitment at a UN summit notable for the absence of his US counterpart Donald Trump.
Some observers believed the Chinese leader may surprise world leaders as he did last week when announcing his country would go carbon neutral by 2060.
“The loss of biodiversity and the degradation of the ecosystem pose a major risk to human survival and development,” Xi said.
“Covid-19 reminds us of the interdependence between man and nature. It falls to all of us to act together and urgently to advance protection and development in parallel,” he added.
Xi defended the “UN-centered international system” and the Paris climate accord, in what appeared to be an attack at the US, which is set to leave the landmark agreement.
A call to redirect financing away from fossil fuels and other polluting industries and into locally led conservation was launched by environmental group Fauna & Flora International and backed by more than 130 organisations.
"UN member states must take the lead in getting ahead of this crisis and putting funding into the hands of those who are best placed to use it - local conservation organisations," said Mark Rose, chief executive of Fauna & Flora International.
The world spends an estimated US$80 billion - US$90 billion on conservation each year, but studies show that hundreds of billions of dollars may be needed to save ecosystems from collapse.
Britain, Canada and others joined the European Union on Monday in pledging to protect 30 per cent of their land and seas by 2030.
UN officials hope to secure a global agreement on that target at a major round of negotiations on biodiversity due to take place in China in 2021.
This year has brought both the extent and costs of biodiversity loss into stark relief.
Animal populations fell by 68 per cent 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 per cent 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 per cent 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 per cent 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 per cent of drugs used for cancer come from products inspired by nature.
If humanity continues on this trajectory, we face a future where 30 per cent to 50 per cent of all species could 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 US$722 billion and US$967 billion each year over the next decade.
The biodiversity finance gap stands at between US$598 billion and US$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 per cent 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.