21 May 2021

The COVID-19 crisis has served as wake-up call to fix our deteriorating relationship with nature and has reaffirmed that biodiversity is fundamental for human health and critical for sustainable development.

Biodiversity decline and the risk of future pandemics have many common root causes: forest degradation and habitat fragmentation that drive humans and wildlife increasingly into contact. More effective biodiversity policies can reduce the risk of future pandemics—potentially with a fraction of the economic and social costs associated with a global pandemic.

The benefits and cost effectiveness of working with nature extends to other domains—including food and water security, and climate change. Fortunately, this is becoming better understood, as people start to realize the importance of biodiversity for their own health, well-being and prosperity.

Last September’s United Nations Summit on Biodiversity and the Leader’s Pledge for Nature, as well as January’s One Planet Summit, saw renewed political will and commitments on biodiversity for sustainable development while underlining efforts to reduce deforestation, halt unsustainable fishing practices, eliminate harmful subsidies and transition to sustainable food production systems.

World leaders highlighted destruction of nature as increasing the risk of future pandemics. In response, the PREZODE initiative was launched; the first global initiative to help prevent the next pandemic through collaborative research and reducing pressures on biodiversity. To reduce future shocks and build societal resilience, the post-pandemic recovery must focus on well-being and inclusiveness, and trigger investment and behaviour changes.

Building back better means protecting biodiversity to set us on a path to sustainability. But to achieve this, bold, interdependent actions are needed across several fronts—each of which is necessary and none sufficient on its own. Efforts to conserve and restore biodiversity, address climate change in ways that limit global temperature rise without imposing unintended pressures on biodiversity, and transform the way we produce, consume and trade goods and services that rely on and impact biodiversity must be increased. Unsustainable subsidies must be redirected into nature-positive incentives. 

Nature holds the solution to many of our sustainable development issues, hence the need to work with it. Nature-based solutions, defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits”, not only reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and sequester more carbon, they build resilience to climate change. They also provide water filtration, flood buffering and disaster risk reduction while improving soil health and biodiversity. 

Nature-based solutions have the potential to lift a billion people out of poverty, create over 70 million jobs, and add $2.3 trillion in productive growth to the global economy. In fact, nature-based solutions that balance socio, economic and ecological objectives, could offer immediate and cost-effective long-term benefits to both mitigate climate change and adapt to its unavoidable impacts. Without action on both biodiversity and climate there can be no sustainable development.

© Convention on Biological Diversity

But how do we achieve this? The post-2020 global biodiversity framework, currently being negotiated for adoption at the fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity later this year outlines five long-term goals that relate to the 2050 Vision of “Living in harmony with nature”.

The framework proposes to prevent the loss of protected areas for nature and increase them substantially in the long-term to ensure ecosystem resilience. Protecting nature and preventing people from coming into contact with untouched parts of the wild, decreases the likelihood of future pandemics. It also includes proposals to guarantee and sustainably increase nature’s benefits to people in order to improve global nutrition and access to drinking water, as well as to develop resilience to natural disasters and support efforts to achieve the Paris Agreement. These goals are all integral to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); and can play a significant role in building resilience. Importantly, applying lessons learned from the implementation of the Strategic Plan will help ensure the framework is ambitious and transformative. 

This means greater efforts are needed to address direct and indirect drivers of biodiversity loss. These include taking integrated and holistic approaches to planning and implementation, and greater interaction among government ministries, economic sectors and society; well-designed goals and targets formulated in clear, simple language, with measurable indicators, more effective and transparent monitoring, and adequate resources; reducing time lags in planning and implementation of biodiversity strategies and action plans; committing to an integrated, whole-of-government, whole of society approach to improve the way we manage the natural environment and interactions with human society; further strengthen integration of gender, the role of indigenous peoples and local communities, business, finance sector and all other stakeholder engagement; and, given the present pandemic crisis, taking a “One Health” approach—which calls for managing ecosystems, including agricultural and urban ecosystems, as well as the use of wildlife, through an integrated approach, to promote healthy ecosystems and healthy people. 

Moreover, the recent fifth Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO-5) highlighted three key lessons learned that will help inform the actions we need to take now, and outlined eight major transitions needed to slow, then halt nature’s accelerating decline and move our societies into a more sustainable co-existence with nature. 

National ambitions need to be scaled up to protect nature; ensuring action achieved at the national level has the scope of global targets and greater efforts to bring biodiversity into the centre of decision-making in all aspects of life, government and economies. We need to work with nature to address the multiple challenges we face—achieving sustainable development, slowing climate change and reversing biodiversity loss.

The eight major transitions include the: (i) land and forests transition: conserving intact ecosystems, restoring ecosystems, combating and reversing degradation, and employing landscape-level spatial planning to avoid, reduce and mitigate land-use change; (ii) sustainable food systems transition: enabling sustainable and healthy diets with greater emphasis on a diversity of foods and more moderate consumption of meat and fish, as well as dramatic cuts in the waste involved in food supply and consumption; (iii) sustainable fisheries and oceans transition: protecting and restoring marine and coastal ecosystems, rebuilding fisheries and managing aquaculture and other uses of the oceans to ensure sustainability and enhance food security and livelihoods; and the aforementioned (iv) One Health transition.

For many of these transitions, action is already underway. For example, we have seen a reduction in the rate of deforestation by 30 per cent, with net gains in forest areas and other natural ecosystems. We have reached the agreed level of protection for land and sea; 10 to 15 per cent for terrestrial areas, 3 to 7 per cent for marine areas. We have also made good progress on invasive species, and the number of extinctions has likely been reduced two to four-fold. 

Unfortunately, much remains at stake. Over half of the global gross domestic product (GDP) is moderately or highly dependent on nature and its services; 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.

Continuing with business-as-usual is not an option. The cost of inaction is estimated to rise to at least $14 trillion—7 per cent of global GDP—by 2050; with biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation already disproportionately affecting marginalized populations.

The fact is that continued biodiversity loss and degradation of ecosystems 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, as well as pest and disease regulation.

Consequently, biodiversity has become a global issue of great concern, but the willingness of world leaders to tackle these issues head on bodes well for the future. We have a unique opportunity before us to reimagine and transform our relationship with nature while promoting community and global health. We must seize the opportunity, as we are all part of the solution.

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