Nature: Humanity at a Crossroads, UN Warns

Despite encouraging progress in several areas, the natural world is suffering badly and getting worse. Eight transformative changes are, therefore, urgently needed to ensure human wellbeing and save the planet, the UN warns in a major report.

Global Biodiversity Outlook 5
Image: UN

The report comes as the COVID-19 pandemic challenges people to rethink their relationship with nature, and to consider the profound consequences to their own wellbeing and survival that can result from continued biodiversity loss and the deg- radation of ecosystems.

The Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 (GBO-5), published by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), offers an authoritative overview of the state of nature. It is a final report card on progress against the 20 global biodiversity targets agreed in 2010 with a 2020 deadline, and offers lessons learned and best practices for get- ting on track.

“This flagship report underlines that ‘humanity stands at a crossroads with regard to the legacy we wish to leave to future generations,’” said CBD Executive Secre- tary, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema.

“Many good things are happening around the world and these should be celebrated and encouraged. Nevertheless, the rate of biodiversity loss is unprecedented in hu- man history and pressures are intensifying. Earth’s living systems as a whole are being compromised. And the more humanity exploits nature in unsustainable ways and undermines its contributions to people, the more we undermine our own well- being, security and prosperity.”

“As nature degrades,” Ms. Mrema continued, “new opportunities emerge for the spread to humans and animals of devastating diseases like this year’s coronavirus. The window of time available is short, but the pandemic has also demonstrated that transformative changes are possible when they must be made.”

“The decisions and level of action we take now will have profound consequences -- for good or ill -- for all species, including ours.”

With respect to the Aichi Biodiver- sity Targets, set in 2010, the analysis based on the 6th set of national re- ports to the CBD and the latest scien- tific findings shows that seven of 60 “elements” — success criteria — within the 20 targets have been achieved and 38 show progress. In the case of 13 elements, no progress was made, or a move away from the target was indicated, and for two ele- ments the level of progress is un- known. The report concludes that, overall, of the 20 targets, six of them (9, 11, 16, 17, 19 and 20) were par- tially achieved by the 2020 deadline.

By partially met, GBO5 refers to tar- gets where at least one distinct element has been met. For example, the ele- ments of Target 11 regarding the pro- portions of lands and seas protected was met, but the elements related to the quality of protected areas were not. Similarly, for Target 19, biodiversity knowledge has improved but it has not

been widely shared or applied. For Target 20, official development assistance dou- bled but resources did not increase from all sources.

The national reports to the CBD (available via offer evi- dence that the types of transitions needed moving forward are beginning; that virtu- ally all countries are taking steps to protect biodiversity. GBO5 cites several exem- plary national actions and programmes, in the absence of which conditions would certainly be worse (extinctions would be higher for example). In addition, for ex- ample, deforestation rates continue to fall, eradication of invasive alien species from islands is increasing, awareness of biodiversity appears to be increasing.

“The actions that have been taken need to be significantly scaled up, move from be- ing project driven and become more systemic and broadened,” says Ms. Mrema. “Also, the gaps in national ambition and action need to be filled. The information in part III of GBO-5 is about doing this and provides examples of the types of ac- tions that needed going forward.”

The report calls for a shift away from “business as usual” across a range of human activities. It outlines eight transitions that recognize the value of biodiversity, the need to restore the ecosystems on which all human activity depends, and the ur- gency of reducing the negative impacts of such activity:

  • The land and forests transition: conserving intact ecosystems, restoring eco- systems, combatting and reversing degradation, and employing landscape level spatial planning to avoid, reduce and mitigate land-use change.
  • The sustainable agriculture transition: redesigning agricultural systems through agroecological and other innovative approaches to enhance produc- tivity while minimizing negative impacts on biodiversity.
  • The sustainable food systems transition: enabling sustainable and healthy di- ets with a greater emphasis on a diversity of foods, mostly plant-based, and more moderate consumption of meat and fish, as well as dramatic cuts in the waste involved in food supply and consumption.
  • The sustainable fisheries and oceans transition: protecting and restoring ma- rine and coastal ecosystems, rebuilding fisheries and managing aquaculture and other uses of the oceans to ensure sustainability, and to enhance food se- curity and livelihoods.
  • The cities and infrastructure transition: deploying “green infrastructure” and making space for nature within built landscapes to improve the health and quality of life for citizens and to reduce the environmental footprint of cities and infrastructure.
  • The sustainable freshwater transition: an integrated approach guaranteeing the water flows required by nature and people, improving water quality, protecting critical habitats, controlling invasive species and safeguarding con- nectivity to allow the recovery of freshwater systems from mountains to coasts.
  • The sustainable climate action transition: employing nature-based solutions, alongside a rapid phase-out of fossil fuel use, to reduce the scale and impacts of climate change, while providing positive benefits for biodiversity and other sustainable development goals.
  • The biodiversity-inclusive One Health transition: managing ecosystems, in- cluding agricultural and urban ecosystems, as well as the use of wildlife, through an integrated approach, to promote healthy ecosystems and healthy people. As nations negotiate a new pact to guide global biodiversity efforts in the 2020s, GBO5 synthesizes abundant evidence of biodiversity’s global decline, based on an extensive range of sources, including:
  • 6th National Reports to the CBD from Convention’s member Parties
  • Four previous GBO reports (2001, 2006, 2010, 2015)
  • Assessments by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiver- sity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), including the landmark Global As- sessment (2019) and regional assessments (2018)
  • Recent research and indicators updated since the IPBES Global Assessment
  • Reports from other international bodies, including: Food and Agriculture Or- ganization (FAO), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and others
  • Plant Conservation Report (Global Strategy for Plant Conservation targets, 2011-2020)
  • Two Local Biodiversity Outlooks* (presenting the perspectives and experi- ences of indigenous peoples and local communities on the current biodiver- sity crisis, and their contributions to the implementation of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020). The second edition of the Local Biodiversity Outlooks will be launched at a separate event on the 16th September 2020 (details below).

GBO-5 underlines the urgent need to act to slow and end further loss, and high- lights examples of proven measures available to help achieve the world’s agreed vi- sion: “Living in harmony with nature” by 2050.

WWF's Living Planet Report, released on 10 Sept, documenting the precipitous fall in monitored populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish between 1970 and 2016, further underlines the urgency to act.

GBO-5 reports financing for biodiversity (public, private, domestic and interna- tional), was up in some countries, roughly constant in others for the past decade, and resources available for biodiversity through international flows and official de- velopment assistance roughly doubled. In all, an estimated annual $78-91 billion is available, but “estimates of biodiversity finance needs are conservatively estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars.”

“Moreover, these resources are swamped by support for activities harmful to biodi- versity,” the report says. “These include $500 billion in fossil fuel and other subsi- dies that potentially cause environmental harm, $100 billion of which relate to agri- culture.”

GBO-5 highlights that action on biodiversity is essential to address climate change, long- term food security and health. The time for action on all these issues is now - the global community must seize the opportunity to build back better from the COVID-19 pandemic in order to reduce the risk of future pandemics.

GBO-5 also underlines the importance of biodiversity for achieving the high-level, agreed Sustainable Development Goals established in 2015, and the 2016 Paris Agreement and, at the UN’s Nature Summit on 30 September, GBO-5’s findings will be taken up by heads of State and Government.

GBO-5 will also have an important impact on CBD’s ongoing process to create a set of new global biodiversity targets for 2021-2030, as part of a post-2020 frame- work for the Convention.

That framework, now under negotiation, will be considered at CBD’s 15th meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP-15), Kunming, China - postponed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic from October 2020 to 2021.