UN report stresses urgent need for nature rescue plan

Closing window of opportunity to act, and narrowing options, says UN biodiversity chief

PARIS • Diplomats from 130 nations gathered in Paris yesterday to validate a grim United Nations assessment of the state of nature and lay the groundwork for a rescue plan for life on earth.

The destruction of nature threatens humanity "at least as much as human-induced climate change", UN biodiversity chief Robert Watson said as the five-day meeting began. "We have a closing window of opportunity to act, and narrowing options."

A 44-page draft summary for policymakers catalogues the 1,001 ways in which our species has plundered the planet and damaged its capacity to renew the resources upon which we depend, starting with breathable air, drinkable water and productive soil.

The impact of humanity's expanding footprint and appetites has been devastating.

Up to a million species face extinction, many within decades, according to the report, and three-quarters of earth's land surface has been "severely altered".

A third of ocean fish stocks are in decline, and the rest, barring a few, have been harvested to the very edge of sustainability.

A dramatic die-off of pollinating insects, especially bees, threatens essential crops valued at half-a-trillion dollars annually.

Twenty 10-year targets adopted in 2010 under the UN's biodiversity treaty - to expand protected areas, slow species and forest loss, and reduce pollution - will, with one or two exceptions, fail badly.

Based on an underlying report that draws from 400 experts and weighs in at 1,800 pages, the executive summary has to be vetted line by line by diplomats with scientists at their elbow.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) document, once approved, will be released on May 6.

Historically, conservation biology has focused on the plight of pandas, polar bears and a multitude of less "charismatic" animals and plants that humanity is harvesting, eating, crowding or poisoning into oblivion.

But in the last two decades, that focus has shifted back to us.

"Up to now, we have talked about the importance of biodiversity mostly from an environmental perspective," Mr Watson said, ahead of the Paris meeting.

"Now we are saying that nature is crucial for food production, for pure water, for medicines and even social cohesion."

And to fight climate change.

Forests and oceans, for example, soak up half of the planet-warming greenhouse gases we spew into the atmosphere. If they did not, earth might already be locked into an unliveable future of runaway global warming. And yet, an area of tropical forest five times the size of England has been destroyed since 2014, mainly to service the global demand for beef, biofuels, soya beans and palm oil.

The recent Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) report shows to what extent climate change threatens biodiversity, said Ms Laurence Tubiana, chief executive of the European Climate Foundation and a main architect of the Paris Agreement, referring to the UN's climate science panel.

"And the upcoming IPBES report - as important for humanity - will show these two problems have overlapping solutions."

That overlap, she added, begins with agriculture, which accounts for at least a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions.

Set up in 2012, the IPBES synthesises published science for policymakers in the same way IPCC does on climate. Both advisory bodies feed into UN treaties.

The 2018 IPCC report cited by Ms Tubiana added a time imperative: to hold the line at 1.5 deg C, the world must reduce CO2 emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, and become "carbon neutral" by mid-century, it concluded.

But finding the equivalent for nature has proven difficult. "Extinctions are not something the public can easily see," said Mr Watson.

A growing number of scientists and non-governmental organisations are calling for 30 per cent to 50 per cent of earth's surface to be "sustainably managed" by 2030, and more thereafter.

But the draft report makes no such concrete proposals.

The next opportunity for a visionary plan to be ratified would be the next full meeting in October next year of the parties to the Convention on Biodiversity in Kunming, China.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2019, with the headline UN report stresses urgent need for nature rescue plan. Subscribe