It is vital that we transform humanity’s relationship with nature in order to secure a sustainable future for people and planet. Urgent action should be taken to protect and restore the natural world in a holistic way. Humanity has gone so far in the opposite direction that now the change must be transformative. Nothing short of a paradigm shift, a radical change in the human mindset resulting in a complete systemic overhaul, will make any difference.
This is one of the key messages from ‘Making Peace with Nature: A scientific blueprint to tackle the climate, biodiversity and pollution emergencies’, a United Nations Environment Programme report published last February. This new UNEP study is based on global assessments and provides a roadmap to follow in order to mitigate the consequences of the planetary environmental emergencies and to secure humanity’s future.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres has pointedly said in the report’s foreword, “Our war on nature has left the planet broken”. He continues to say “by reflecting the value of nature in policies, plans and economic systems, we can channel investments into activities that restore nature and are rewarded for it.” He added: “By recognising nature as an indispensable ally we secure our own health and well-being alongside that of the earth.”
The crisis has three elements that are interconnected and interrelated. These are atmospheric global warming caused by toxic greenhouse gases that is resulting in extreme weather conditions and the acidification and warming of the oceans and seas, this is called climate change; the overkill of animal and plant life and the destruction of wild habitats such as forests, grasslands, coral reefs, mangroves and seagrasses, this is called biodiversity loss; and the contamination of land and marine environments with plastic and other human waste products, nutrient run-off from agriculture and animal and human sewage, this is generically called pollution.
Solutions could be achieved by setting urgent climate, biodiversity and pollution targets and promoting an “all-society push for sustainability”. The transformative change needed can only happen if governments and private enterprise put “nature at the heart of decision-making”. In 2015, the UN had established 17 Sustainable Development Goals to be reached by 2030 mainly focussing on human well-being. It is now understood that none of these SDGs can be achieved unless all human activity is focussed on the protection of both people and nature. We can only have healthier lives and a stable climate if we restore and protect nature.
More than one million plant and animal species are at serious risk of extinction in the next decades
The blueprint calls for urgent, ambitious and immediate action. It also lays out the roles that governments, businesses, communities and individuals can and must play. International climate and biodiversity convention meetings are to be held later this year and governments are expected to come up with targets to safeguard the planet by, at the very least, halving current Greenhouse Gas emissions in this decade, and by conserving and restoring biodiversity. This means a 7.5 per cent to 10 per cent reduction on GHG emissions from the previous year starting in 2022 and up to 2030 coupled with enforced restoration and protection of wild habitats.
The report promotes a ‘One Health’ approach that considers human, animal, habitat and planetary health together. The coronavirus crisis teaches us that in order to reduce the threat of diseases we need to protect ecosystems. Ecosystem degradation heightens the risk of pathogens making the jump from animals to humans.
The capitalist system of economic growth based on the exploitation of the natural world has created economic wealth but has also exacerbated inequality in a fast-growing global population, leaving 1.3 billion people in poverty. The extraction of natural resources has tripled since 1970, causing the catastrophic collapse of the planetary ecosystems and creating a global mass extinction emergency.
The earth is heading for at least 3°C of global warming this century over pre-industrial times. More than one million of the estimated eight million plant and animal species are at serious risk of extinction in the next decades. Extinction levels could rise exponentially by the end of the century. Failing ecosystems are already causing the death of tens of millions of people and provoking forced mass migrations.
This global existential crisis is not only making it impossible to make progress towards ending poverty and hunger, reducing conflicts, reducing inequalities and promoting sustainability in human activity, but it will most certainly aggravate each of these situations. The atmospheric global warming, biodiversity and pollution emergencies interact and have common causes which is why, if we had to act decisively to impact the root causes, the benefit would be immediately apparent.
When we speak of sustainability in the context of political, social or economic policies within this crisis situation, we are only ever talking about human activity not overshooting the planet’s ecological boundaries. This means restoring plant, trees and land and marine animal populations and wild habitats to pre-industrial levels and protecting them for all the future.
Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP, said: “The health of people and nature are intertwined. The COVID-19 crisis has underlined the need for a step-change in how we view and value nature. By reflecting that value in decision-making, whether we are talking about economic policy or personal choices, we can bring about a rapid and lasting shift toward sustainability for both people and the environment.”
We look at our leaders for action. Failing the political will to act to secure humanity’s future, it falls upon civil society to intervene.
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