After the failure to meet the Aichi Targets, action is needed to ensure that biodiversity does not face another “lost decade”

After the failure to meet the Aichi Targets, action is needed to ensure that biodiversity does not face another “lost decade”

The year 2021 must be the turning point in the fight to protect species and to combat climate change, with the adoption of a new global framework. In this September 2018 photo, an elephant is pictured as a major bushfire rages in the background in Botswana’s Savuti reserve.

(iStock/John Ceulemans)

The planet’s natural ecosystem is in a bad way: 66 per cent of marine life under threat fromplastic pollution or overfishing; a million animal species in danger of extinction according to a report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the UN platform on biodiversity; and a doubling of urban areas around the world since 1992, leading to the unprecedented decline of forests and natural spaces. As the planet enters a new decade, three-quarters of the Earth’s surface has been altered by humans. These major and profound changes raise fears of a dangerous and irreversible breakdown of the delicate balance that underpins terrestrial ecosystems. But while climate change and the loss of biodiversity are here and clearly visible, the world is struggling to act.

Back in 2010, at the initiative of the United Nations, tremendous momentum was created by the 20 Aichi Targets, which were to biodiversity what the Paris Agreement is to the climate, but ten years later, disillusionment has set in. And yet it all looked so good. In 1992, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, 168 countries signed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), promising to address the decline of the Earth’s living systems. Eighteen years later, in Aichi in Japan, these 168 states adopted the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, setting out ambitious goals and beginning what has been called ‘The United Nations Decade for Biodiversity’.

Now it is time to take stock, and there is a painful recognition of failure in the findings of the United Nations report Global Biodiversity Outlook 5. None of the 168 signatories of the Aichi Targets has succeeded in achieving even one of these goals: such as removing or reforming subsidies that are harmful to biodiversity, halving the rate of depletion of all natural habitats or better preserving the diversity of cultivated plants by 2020.

It is a bitter realisation and another lost decade, with the knowledge that 4 per cent of wild land mammals could disappear in the years to come, that humans continue to deforest come what may, to breed too many cattle or pour too much concrete over land.

Global populations of animals, mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles continue to decline at a frightening rate. A WWF report even estimates that these populations decreased by 68 per cent between 1970 and 2016.

The pandemic caused by the new coronavirus has to be another wake-up call. Covid-19 is directly linked to the global loss of biodiversity. In a text published on the IPBES website, 22 international scientists warn that “future pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, do more damage to the world economy and kill more people than Covid-19 unless there is a transformative change in the global approach to dealing with infectious diseases”. For Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) “Humanity stands at a crossroads when it comes to the legacy we wish to leave for future generations.”

A complex and multifaceted problem

The statistics, beyond the concern they cause, must now drive international players to make a U-turn. According to United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, “efforts have not been sufficient [since 2010]. We must be much more ambitious”. As the CBD prepares to hold a new meeting by video conference, on 22 November, to draw up the new roadmap for 2021-2030, this new decade must be different: states must realise that issues related to nature are at the heart of all global issues and directly linked to global warming and the inequalities rife on our planet. The next six months will be decisive for the establishment of the new global biodiversity framework, which is to be developed by the 168 signatories of the CBD, and adopted at CBD COP15 in Kunming, China, set for the provisional date of May 2021.

Biodiversity is one of the most complex and multi-faceted problems facing humanity. There can be no preservation of species and natural spaces without firm action against climate change, which threatens habitats, and without fighting poverty, which leads many communities across the planet to come into conflict with the wild. “It’s not just a matter of scenery or charismatic species in distant lands. All questions related to food, water, development or health are dependent on a healthy environment,” explains Anne Larigauderie, the executive secretary of IPBES.

But the more time goes by, the more insoluble the problems become. This is the harsh reality of the struggle that awaits humanity.

Climate change increases threats and exacerbates existing global challenges. As temperatures mount and sea levels rise, extreme weather events have a devastating effect on global biodiversity. The giant fires observed in 2020 in the Amazon, Australia, Siberia and California were glaring examples of the threat these major events pose to wildlife.

The slow death of coral reefs with the warming of the oceans as well as the disappearance of forests are also catastrophic for the habitats of animal species. Thus, according to Global Forest Watch, forest cover fell by 24 million hectares worldwide in 2019. Almost a third of this decline occurred in tropical humid primary forests, which play a key role in climate regulation and which are home to many of the animal species now on the verge of extinction.

But how can we fight against a phenomenon directly linked to our current societies and economies, which continue to encourage consumption and demographic growth, two major threats to biodiversity throughout the world? Since the 1970s, Earth Overshoot Day is getting earlier and earlier. This is calculated each year by the NGO Global Footprint Network and represents the date on which the ecological footprint exceeds the ‘biocapacity’ of the planet for the year. In 1998, it fell on 30 September. Eleven years later, it happened two months earlier: in 2019, all the planet’s resources for the year were consumed by 31 July.

This is the result of the constant globalisation of the economy, because the uncontrolled deforestation in Brazil has its origins mainly in the ever-increasing demand for meat and animal feed in the world. The loss of 7.5 million hectares of forests in South-East Asia is caused by society’s growing use of palm oil, which is responsible for 80 per cent of this deforestation. The overfishing that empties the oceans is a direct result of the increasingly voracious appetite of countries, particularly in the United States and Europe, for seafood, while many endangered species are directly affected by the illegal trade in wildlife, largely fuelled by demand in Asia and Europe where exotic animal enthusiasts are ever more numerous.

A new drive to preserve habitats

Despite these worrying findings, however, this is no longer the time for fatalism – states must now take courageous decisions. Because hope is well and truly there: our man-made crisis can be resolved by humankind. It is a fight against ourselves that will certainly require sacrifices, by changing consumption habits, by encouraging more sustainable economies and through more focus on local production.

Because the solutions to reverse the trend are known to scientists, but they require “bold and head-on” action in a number of areas, according to Paul Leadley, IPBES member. On 13 January, the CBD published a preliminary draft which will serve as a basis for future negotiations. The text includes some 20 quantified targets with the flagship measure of protecting at least 30 per cent of the planet by 2030, and at least 10 per cent under strict protection. The percentages remain to be negotiated.

Among the other targets, there is also that of ‘zero net loss’ of area and a sustainable use of all resources by 2030, a reduction in the percentage of species threatened with extinction or a closer alignment of the struggle for the preservation of nature and the fight against climate change. “We seek to establish realistic, achievable targets together with, hopefully, sufficient financial means, a system of rapid adjustment of actions and, above all, a commitment from all actors – not just ministries of environment, but also of all governments and other socio-economic actors,” says Basile van Havre, one of the co-chairs of COP15.

There are glimmers of hope. In regions where political will and the mobilisation of local communities and environmental actors go hand in hand, the results are there.

In Canada, some good initiatives have also made it possible to better protect the oceans with the creation of protected marine areas in the Far North. The government of Ottawa has allocated C$25 million to train, among other things, guardians of the territories among Aboriginal communities.

The concern for biodiversity expressed by the world’s youth through the school strikes in 2019 sparked a small political upturn and on 29 September 77 leaders around the world pledged to halt the decline of biodiversity by 2030. Furthermore, some efforts within the framework of the Aichi Targets have made it possible to limit the loss of biodiversity. Thus, one of the targets, which aims to protect 17 per cent of terrestrial habitats on the planet and 10 per cent of the oceans, has been partially achieved. To date, 15 per cent of terrestrial and freshwater environments are protected, as well as 7.5 per cent of the oceans.

2020, a situation made even more difficult by the pandemic

Will the worldwide coronavirus pandemic accelerate the transition of our societies to more sustainable lifestyles? While the videos of animals reinvesting urban spaces have made the rounds of social networks and calls for greater proximity to nature have multiplied, the “great leap of consciousness” which for a while seemed possible now appears to be receding while the economic impact of the pandemic is increasingly being felt. The pandemic has unfortunately overshadowed the fight against global warming – with several crucial deadlines postponed during the year 2020 – and has moved the most vulnerable, those most severely affected by the pandemic, further away from environmental issues. After months of shutdown, economies around the world are in danger of rebounding.

The Aïchi Targets have already been a failure due to the lack of political will, the difficulty of making bold choices and the insufficient mobilisation of populations across the planet. What about tomorrow? “It is possible to reverse the curve of biodiversity loss if we are very ambitious, but there is no silver bullet,” insists Leadley in the French newspaper Le Monde.

“If they say, after COP15: ‘We are committed to protecting 30 per cent of the planet, the problem is solved’, it will not work. More fundamental changes are needed.”

Because the loss of biodiversity is like a ‘silent killer’, warns Cristiana Pașca Palmer, who heads the general secretariat of the Convention on Biodiversity. Without bees, there is no reproduction of the plants essential to our food production, and without plants, no carbon sinks essential to limit greenhouse gases and global warming. While it is difficult to measure the exact consequences of the mass extinction of species, all reports today agree that it is the diversity of nature that enables us to live and develop. In short, it is because of this that we have clean air, fresh water, good soil quality and the pollination of our crops.

It is now high time therefore “for a political response to the message from scientists”, as Antonio Guterres has stressed. A real challenge given that the Kunming COP15 has already been postponed and this meeting, however crucial for our future, has had too little media coverage. While the postponement of major sporting events due to the pandemic made the headlines, such as the Tokyo Olympics being pushed back to 2021, the postponement of COP15 hardly got a mention. Yet the outcomes of the meeting in Kunming could change the course of history. Kunming must serve as a rallying call for general mobilisation and it will need to go beyond the pretty promises of national governments.

The world cannot afford another lost decade.

This article has been translated from French.