We are facing a major opportunity to bring nature back from the brink
By Yuan Yanan
2020 was supposed to be a big year for nature, with several global climate conferences such as the UN Ocean Conference, IUCN World Conservation Congress 2020, UN Convention on Biological Diversity COP 15, and the meeting of Water and Climate Change set to chart a course for slowing climate breakdown and protecting biodiversity over the next decade. Even though most of these conferences have been postponed due to the outbreak of COVID-19, the biodiversity crisis never observed a shutdown.
“We must embrace, acknowledge, integrate, and act for nature in everything we do,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program. “We are losing species at a rate 1,000 times greater than at any other time in recorded human history and 1 million species face extinction. We are facing a major opportunity to bring nature back from the brink.”
Biodiversity describes the whole range of living things and systems on this planet. It is usually explored at three levels: genetic diversity, species diversity, and ecosystem diversity. These three levels work together to create the complexity of life on Earth.
“Without biodiversity, there is no future for humanity,” said Professor David Macdonald at Oxford University. “Biodiversity sustains human livelihood. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the energy we use all ultimately rely on biodiversity.”
One study estimates that each year, the goods and services created by the planet’s ecosystems contribute trillions of dollars to the global economy, more than double the world’s gross domestic product (GDP). From an aesthetic point of view, every one of the millions of species is unique—a natural work of art that cannot be recreated once lost.
Biodiversity is fundamental to both planet and people but now it is in crisis. According to the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in 2019, around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.
The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20 percent, mostly since 1900. More than 40 percent of amphibian species, almost 33 percent of reef-forming corals, and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened. The situation is less obvious for insect species, but available evidence supports a tentative estimate that 10 percent are threatened. At least 680 vertebrate species had been driven to extinction since the 16th Century, and more than 9 percent of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had become extinct by 2016, with at least 1,000 more breeds still threatened. In Asia, many species like the Sumatran orangutan, South China tiger, and Sunda pangolin may soon disappear forever.
“Scientists have identified five mass extinctions in Earth’s history, but the crucial difference is that this time the threat is humans,” said Sandra Diaz, co-chair of the report of IPBES. It defines five main categories of direct drivers to the loss. In descending order, they are changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and invasive alien species.
The report noted that since 1980, greenhouse gas emissions have doubled, raising the average global temperatures by at least 0.7 degrees Celsius, and that climate change is already impacting nature from ecosystems to genetics—impact expected only to grow over coming decades, in some cases surpassing the impact of land and sea use change and other drivers.
Despite some progress on conserving nature through policy, global goals on conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories. Good progress has been made on only four components of the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets (the Aichi Biodiversity Targets for the 2011-2020 period was adopted at the 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity held in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan, in 2010), so it looks increasingly likely that most will be missed by the 2020 deadline. Current negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems undermine progress towards 80 percent of assessed targets of Sustainable Development Goals related to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans, and land. Loss of biodiversity becomes more than an environmental issue and affects development, economics, security, social systems, and morale.
“Governments need to integrate biodiversity considerations across all sectors—not just better environmental policies but better policies on agriculture, infrastructure, and trade,” said Sandra Diaz. “It’s all about putting nature and the public good first rather than the narrow economic interests of a minority. It’s as simple—and as difficult—as that.”
Halting Biodiversity Loss
To conserve global biodiversity, the Global Seed Vault has been one successful practice. Deep inside an icy mountain on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole lies the Global Seed Vault. The purpose of the facility is to store seed samples from all the world’s crop collections. Millions of seeds from more than 930,000 varieties of food crops are stored in the vault. It is a safety deposit box holding the world’s largest collection of agricultural biodiversity.
The facility, which was fully funded by the Norwegian government in 2008, offers any government access to seeds in case of natural or man-made disaster. The concept was successfully tested in 2015 with a seed withdrawal to help Syria re-establish crops wiped out by the country’s civil war.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 1,700 gene banks are housing food crops around the world. The U.S. has more than two dozen repository centers affiliated with the U.S. National Plant Germplasm System which works to preserve genetic diversity of plants through state, federal, and private organizations.
As one of 17 mega-biodiversity countries which account for at least two thirds of all non-fish vertebrate species and three quarters of all higher plant species in the world, China harbors nearly 10 percent of all plant species and 14 percent of animals on Earth according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The Chinese government considers conservation of biodiversity tremendously important.
China has established more than 11,800 protected areas covering 18 percent of its land area and 4.6 percent of its sea area as part of a drive to build the world’s most expansive mechanism for management of protected areas by 2025, according to an October 2019 announcement from China’s National Forestry and Grassland Administration.
China’s nature reserves, including 35 million hectares of natural forests and 20 million hectares of wetlands, now safeguard 85 percent of the country’s total wildlife and 65 percent of its vascular plants.
From 2016 to 2020, a total of 349 million yuan (US$51 million) was invested to launch major biodiversity conservation projects and organize surveys and assessments of species and genetic resources in important regions. This spending is ensuring China gains adequate understanding of the background of the species, their distribution, threat factors, and protection status.
China has consistently remained active in international cooperation. China has made significant progress on reaching the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, three of which have been achieved ahead of schedule. The COP 15 on Biological Diversity is set to be held in Kunming, southwest China’s Yunnan Province. Many global entities and stakeholders will visit China to promote global biodiversity conservation and formulate a blueprint for the next 10 years.
“The state of biodiversity is not where we would like to have it,” said Inger Andersen. “We can do more as a global community. We are looking forward to the next Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Kunming and hope the world will come together to agree on stronger commitments to protect species.” Andersen has been encouraged by China’s program to restore degraded ecosystems and expressed confidence that Beijing’s ecological civilization model could become a template to guide the global biodiversity conservation agenda.
Both China and ASEAN are rich in biodiversity, and the two have made biodiversity conservation a priority area of cooperation since 2009. To deepen pragmatic cooperation, China and ASEAN countries have organized seminars on topics of ecosystem improvement, conservation of mangroves and peatland, and conducted joint research and capacity building activities. The latest issue of China-ASEAN Strategy on Environmental Protection Cooperation and Action Plan (2021-2025) will strengthen cooperation on biodiversity conservation and ecosystem management, according to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment of China.
In 2006, support from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) helped several Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) members including Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, China, Thailand, and Vietnam launch joint efforts to reduce ecosystem fragmentation in major trans-boundary biodiversity landscapes in the subregion. The Biodiversity Conservation Corridors Initiative is a flagship component of the program. It is an innovative approach combining poverty reduction with biodiversity conservation.
The evaluation report published by ADB in 2019 found that the program in GMS generated transformative effects by engaging different sectors and developing regional collaborative mechanisms to prioritize environmental concerns. Thanks to the program, improving the capacity of environmental managers has emerged as a higher priority in the region. Still, plenty of work remains to be done to create an environmentally friendly and climate-resilient region for all GMS members.