As nature degrades, new opportunities emerge for the spread to humans and animals of devastating diseases like this year’s coronavirus
Countries are failing to halt declines in the natural world that are “unprecedented” in human history, a United Nations report has warned.
The Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 report shows the world has failed to meet a series of goals agreed a decade ago to halt destruction, damage and loss of habitats and wildlife by a 2020 deadline.
The report, published by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), said it is not too late to halt and ultimately reverse the declines, as countries look to agree new targets for the next decade to 2030.
But it will take “transformative changes” in areas driving declines, such as the food system, including a shift to sustainable farming and mostly “plant-based diets” with more moderate meat consumption, and dramatic cuts in food waste.
More efforts are needed to conserve and restore forests and other wild areas and to tackle climate change – which is likely to become the biggest driver of nature losses in the second half of the century, the report said.
Conserving habitats such as forests and wild species is essential to prevent diseases spilling over from wildlife and causing future pandemics, as well as to ensure food security and help in the fight against climate change.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a “shocking demonstration” of the link between people’s treatment of the natural world and the emergence of human disease, but also provides the opportunities to make the changes needed, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a foreword to the report.
The report acts as a global score card for the 20 “Aichi Biodiversity Targets” countries agreed in 2010.
The targets include cutting rates of habitat loss, managing fish stocks sustainably, preventing harmful pollution, protecting a proportion of the world’s land and sea, preventing extinctions, and boosting finance for nature.
None of the targets will be fully met by this year’s deadline, and only six will be partially achieved, the report warned. Of 60 elements that make up the targets, just seven have been achieved.
There are examples of progress, including a fall in the rate at which forests are being destroyed, the eradication of invasive species which threaten native wildlife on islands, and increases in protected areas.
Conservation efforts have saved threatened birds such as New Zealand’s black stilts and mammals including Javan rhinoceroses and black-footed ferrets in North America from extinction in the last decade.
But in 13 of the 60 areas there has been no progress or the situation has actually worsened, the report said.
These include the continued declines of wetlands, fishing that causes damage to habitats and catches other species at unsustainable levels, and a million species being threatened with extinction.
And there has been little progress phasing out the 500 billion US dollars (£390 billion) a year in government subsidies which have a harmful impact on nature, including 100 billion US dollars (£78 billion) to agriculture.
Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive director of the CBD, said: “Many good things are happening around the world and these should be celebrated and encouraged.
“Nevertheless, the rate of biodiversity loss is unprecedented in human 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.”
She added: “As nature degrades, 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 warning comes after conservation charity WWF’s latest Living Planet report which said global wildlife populations have declined by 68 percent in less than 50 years.
An analysis by the RSPB suggests the UK has failed to meet most of the Aichi targets, including ensuring the protection of areas that look after wildlife, reversing species’ slide towards extinction and funding nature.
Countries are set to negotiate targets for 2021-2030, as part of a long term vision to “live in harmony with nature” by 2050, at talks in China which have been postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic.
Greenpeace UK warned that the world’s governments needed to agree to ambitious goals such as protecting 30 percent of the world’s land and oceans – and also to commit to legally binding national targets, or the measures would not be implemented.
Emily Beament is the PA environment correspondent.