Subtle shifts aren't good enough, says Doreen Robinson, Chief of Wildlife at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). It's time for a system-wide transformation. On the day of the UN Summit on Biodiversity, Robinson explains where we've gone wrong and how we can do better.
Why are we talking about biodiversity now - in the midst of a global disease pandemic, with economies stretched to their limits and a looming climate crisis?
As we speak, more species are threatened with extinction than ever before. Extreme weather events - and consequently, fires, floods and droughts - are happening more frequently and with greater intensity; and zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 now account for the majority of infectious diseases emerging in humans.
These are symptoms of a systemic problem, and this requires a systemic solution. We need to completely recalibrate our relationship to nature - and we need to do so, urgently. Biodiversity is the foundation for all life on earth.
How does biodiversity affect the actual experiences of people in their everyday lives?
Biodiversity affects just about every aspect of human life, from job security and basic health to saving the planet for future generations.
More than half of the world's gross domestic product (GDP) is dependent on nature. Three-quarters of all food crop types - including fruits and vegetables and some of the most important cash crops, like coffee and almonds - require animal pollination. About half of the global population relies mainly on natural medicines and most of the drugs used to treat cancer are either natural or modelled after nature. So there is a direct and relationship between biodiversity and some very basic aspects of survival.
There is also an important long-term, preventive aspect - which we are experiencing very acutely today. Where native biodiversity is high, for example, the infection rate for some zoonotic diseases is lower. So protecting natural habitats and wildlife is also a way to help protect ourselves. Biodiversity is the basis for healthy ecosystems as well, and healthy ecosystems capture and store greenhouse gases and mitigate climate change, whereas damaged ecosystems release carbons and add to it.
When we work with nature, it works with us. And when we work against nature, we dismantle the very system that supports and protects us.
What exactly do you mean when you say "recalibrate our relationship to nature"?
Human actions have typically been shaped by a paradigm in which a "good life" means material consumption and perpetual economic growth. For decades, we have extracted natural resources, destroyed critical habitats, and generated pollution. Our relationship with nature is unbalanced: humans are continuously taking and discarding, and nature is continuously giving. This one-way relationship is unsustainable.
So we need to reset the balance: not just hoarding benefits, but investing as much back into nature as we extract from it. It's time to develop a new paradigm that recognizes the value of nature and understands that life quality is not purely a matter of GDP. Instead of a linear approach in which things are used and discarded, we need to apply circular thinking in which life is sustained and things are continuously repurposed. We need to think about these things in all the choices we make, from how we select and deliver the food we grow and eat to how we build our cities and provide water and electricity for our growing human population.
This systematic problem requires a systematic solution. We need to recalibrate our relationship with nature.
In the context of global challenges we now face, and with so many jobs and industries dependent on traditional economic models, is this kind of dramatic change possible?
Not only is it possible, but it is also our only hope.
Aside from the unprecedented global challenges we are experiencing, biodiversity loss is making it difficult to ensure even the most basic human rights - nutritious food, clean water and affordable energy. It is undermining progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals. And without a fundamental shift in our approach, we are unlikely to keep global warming within safe limits - a failure that would only magnify the challenges we face in the future.
It might seem counter-intuitive but, actually, now is the time to get serious about - precisely because of the challenges on our doorstep. In times of uncertainty, biodiversity is a form of insurance, availing options and protecting us from shocks.
It also creates opportunities for new jobs, innovations - and better, healthier lives. And by prioritizing resource-intensive sectors in the shift toward sustainable consumption and production, we have the potential to achieve very significant gains over a relatively short period.
What does this mean in a practical sense: what specific actions need to be taken?
This means translating good intentions into concrete action.
As countries around the world launch various post-crisis initiatives and stimulus packages, we must include nature as part of those recovery packages. That means natural capital must be included in decision making. It means investing in green jobs including in areas of ecosystem protection and restoration. Now is the time to establish new,nature-positive standards for production and consumption. And we need to invest in the environment dimensions of integrated One Health approaches to avoid future pandemics and other human health crises. We can build back better - but only if we match words with deeds.
At the same time, we cannot afford to lessen our commitments to securing a new, ambitious and accountable Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that all of society can support.
Channel long-term financing and investment toward nature and climate health. Currently, governments around the world spend more than US$500 billion every year in ways that harm biodiversity, primarily to support industries like fossil fuels, agriculture and fisheries. These funds could be repurposed to incentivise regenerative agriculture, sustainable food systems, clean technology and nature-positive innovations.