Top UN Biodiversity Official Calls for Global Push on Land Conservation

19 April 2018
Sharm-el-Sheikh (Egypt)

The UN leader on biodiversity warned last week that time is running out to stem the loss of world species, which could have devastating economic impacts. She also called upon governments to take decisive action in both the short and long-term to protect the planet’s endangered ecosystems. 

Speaking to the Guardian, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Cristiana Pașca Palmer called for at least 50 percent of the planet to be more “nature-friendly” by mid-century, emphasising that preserving biodiversity is essential to human wellbeing and continued economic development. 

To meet this target, she told the news agency that governments should consider an incremental expansion of the world’s protected areas, referring specifically to nature reserves, ocean protected areas, restoration projects, and sustainable land use regions. These could grow by 10 percent every 10 years, she said.

The CBD is due to hold its biennial “Conference of the Parties” (COP) this year in Egypt and again in 2020 in China. The latter event, which is the highest level of CBD meeting, lines up with the deadlines for governments to meet a series of biodiversity targets, and has been envisioned by many advocates as a potentially landmark occasion for incentivising greater action on the biodiversity front.

Ahead of the 2020 COP, Pașca Palmer said she is considering accepting voluntary commitments from governments and has proposed setting up a financial mechanism to assist developing countries in moving towards more sustainable land use.

The threat of biodiversity loss has grown in international prominence with the UN’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity and its declaration of 2011 to 2020 as the “Decade of Biodiversity.” Seeking to galvanise governments to work towards “ambitious but achievable” goals, the plan outlined the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, with a deadline of 2020.

Target 11 specifically calls for the conservation of at least 17 percent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas by 2020, but experts say progress in this area has been limited. Other targets include ensuring sustainable management of agriculture, aquaculture, and forestry, along with curbing pollution, better protecting threatened species, and ensuring that indigenous communities’ traditional knowledge and biological resources “are respected.”

A rising crisis in biodiversity

A recently released set of reports on the status of world biodiversity highlight the critical state of world ecosystems. The assessments, issued in late March by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), find that biodiversity has continued to decline in every region of the world, despite previous government conservation efforts, with potentially devastating economic impacts.

The findings point to habitat change, climate change, invasive species, pollution, and unsustainable use as the key drivers of biodiversity loss.

The report is the end product of a three-year investigation into regional variations in biological diversity and ecosystem destruction. Written by over 550 experts from 100 countries, the results underline the need for more serious action to protect biodiversity.

Some experts acknowledge that the lack of public urgency on the issue may stem from the feeling that biodiversity and ecosystem health are academic concerns that do not affect most people’s daily lives – rather than an economic and social imperative.

The Chair of PBES, Sir Robert Watson, pushed back on this idea, saying that “nothing could be further from the truth – they are the bedrock of our food, clean water, and energy.” He added that functioning ecosystems “are at the heart not only of our survival, but of our cultures, identities, and enjoyment of life.”

Calling the reports “sobering,” Pașca Palmer noted at the time that “at the current rate of destruction not only will it be difficult to safeguard life on Earth, but will jeopardise the prospects for human development and well-being.” 

Implications for future development

IPBES officials joined Pașca Palmer last month in stressing the importance of biodiversity in reaching development goals, and conditioned the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals on the health of the world’s ecosystems.

Dr. Anne Larigauderie, the Executive Secretary of IPBES, stated that continued biodiversity loss “seriously jeopardises the chances of any region meeting their global development targets.”

She also drew attention to the role that functioning ecosystems play in the mitigation of extreme weather events and the emergence of disease, which can have catastrophic economic implications, with the IPBES official calling biological diversity an “insurance policy against unforeseen disasters.”

In reference to her 2050 proposal, Pașca Palmer told the Guardian that efforts to improve conservation can go hand-in-hand with economic development. Rather than a focus on preserving 50 percent of the planet exclusively for nature, she called for a shift towards how local communities use their land, transitioning towards less-intensive approaches.

“It’s not 50 percent us versus 50 percent nature,” she said. “For developing countries the message is not that they should close off more land, but to show how more sustainable use can bring social and economic benefits.”

ICTSD reporting; “Make half of the world more nature-friendly by 2050, urges UN biodiversity chief,” THE GUARDIAN, 13 April 2018.

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