In a speech given at Columbia University last December, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said, “Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal. Nature always strikes back—and it is already doing so with growing force and fury.”
The triple global crises of biodiversity loss, climate change and the increasing risks of emerging pandemic diseases are all interrelated, all three reflecting the appallingly destructive toll that human activity has taken on our planet over the past two centuries. In that time, we have transformed 73 percent of the land on Earth. A mere 23 percent of terrestrial ecosystems remain intact.
It has been estimated that highly intact forests, those least modified by humans, store around 510 billion tons of CO2 in their vegetation alone —equivalent to more than 11 years of global carbon emissions from all sectors. If forests continued to be cleared and degraded for roads, agriculture, extractive industry and other uses at present rates, it will not be possible to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.
The IPBES 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services estimated that a million species face extinction—the primary cause being loss and degradation of natural systems. At the same time, ecological degradation also increases the risk of zoonotic disease outbreaks.
While the pathogens responsible for such spillover may originate in their wildlife hosts, their emergence is entirely driven by human endeavor. Activities that elevate contact between humans and wildlife accentuate the risk of an emerging transmissible disease infecting people who have no natural immunity. These include the conversion of forest for human use in areas of high biodiversity and trade of mammals and birds (especially living) in large urban centers.
The solution to all three crises lies not just in ceasing our war on nature, but in our undertaking a restoration of nature. With that in mind, the theme of this year’s World Wildlife Day, “Forests and Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet,” could not be more timely.
To conserve and restore nature, we must maintain as much of the Earth’s remaining intact forests as possible. In addition to their role as strongholds for biodiversity, their carbon storing capacity and their containment of pathogens that might otherwise devastate human populations, these areas also conserve the lifestyles and resources needed by millions of the world’s most marginalized and impoverished Indigenous peoples and other local communities.
We must ensure no further loss of forests and other natural ecosystems, especially those important for biodiversity and those with high ecological integrity. This involves expanding protected areas and lands under Indigenous or community control and ensuring their effective management. Yet preventing further losses of biodiversity and natural ecosystems is an insufficient goal alone.
We need major initiatives to support recovery of species and natural areas if the planet is to be more resilient in future. Reestablishing ecological integrity includes restoring predator-prey relationships in a given landscape to facilitate the return of species that once thrived there. It requires repairing the relationship between humans and the natural world, and conserving and restoring the spiritual and cultural values of Indigenous peoples and local communities.
We will never succeed in restoring our balance with nature unless we fundamentally change the ways in which we do business. We need to get out of our silos and break down sectoral boundaries so that planning is truly holistic—that agencies overseeing infrastructure development and natural resource extraction make their decisions in the same room as, and informed by, those overseeing biodiversity conservation.
We need fundamental change to our economic systems so that financial incentives go to those whose activities result in the conservation of nature rather its destruction. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an estimated loss of GDP globally of $5 trillion, and recent estimates suggest that, by comparison the cost of nature-based solutions to prevent future pandemics could be around $31 billion per year. Those figures alone should make us recognize the need to change the way we operate.
The year 2021 marks the start of the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, focused on preventing, halting and reversing the degradation of forests, land, and other ecosystems worldwide. As we convene virtually this year to celebrate World Wildlife Day 2021, we should pause to assess fully what we have learned from the tragedy of the past year and commit ourselves to restoring our relationship with nature. It is our strongest ally if only we allow it to be.
This is an opinion and analysis article.