One million plant and animal species risk extinction, largely due to human activities. These are issues the world cannot lose sight of even as we tackle the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis.
The theme for World Environment Day, 5 June 2020, is biodiversity — a call to action to combat the accelerating species loss and degradation of the natural world.
Hosted by Colombia, in partnership with Germany, World Environment Day urges us to rethink how our economic systems have evolved and the impact they have on the environment.
Colombia has one of the highest diversities of species in the world, boasting among many others, 3500 types of orchids and 19 per cent of the world’s bird types. The government has made biodiversity preservation a national priority.
What is biodiversity and why does it matter?
Biodiversity, or biological diversity, is the variability of living things that makes up life on Earth. It encompasses the 8 million or so species on the planet – from plants and animals to fungi and bacteria – the ecosystems that house them – such as oceans, forests, mountain environments and coral reefs – as well as the genetic diversity found among them.
Healthy ecosystems, rich with biodiversity, are fundamental to human existence. Ecosystems sustain human life in a myriad of ways, cleaning our air, purifying our water, ensuring the availability of nutritious foods, nature-based medicines and raw materials, and reducing the occurrence of disasters.
But we have not taken care of nature. We are witnessing unparalleled bushfires in Brazil, United States and Australia, locust invasions in the Horn of Africa, and the death of coral reefs. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic – the latest in a string of zoonotic disease outbreaks – shows that the planet’s health is linked to our health.
What is at stake?
One million plant and animal species are facing extinction – some within decades – according to the latest report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Every species plays an important role in keeping an ecosystem balanced and healthy. Losses in biodiversity and habitat can increase the spread of infectious diseases and viruses.
The global economy is intricately tied to biodiversity. Services provided by biodiversity are worth an estimated US$125-140 trillion per year, more than one and a half times the size of global GDP. The food we eat, the air we breathe and the water we drink come from nature. As we head towards a population of 10 billion people on this planet, we must embrace the opportunities and value of the natural environment and not work against it.
The good news is that we can reverse the trends of biodiversity loss by reimagining our relationship with nature and acting now to increase ambition and accountability for its protection. We must conserve and restore wildlife and wild spaces, change the way we produce and consume food, promote environmentally friendly infrastructure and transform economies to become custodians of nature.
The world’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has shown early action and solidarity to tackle pressing issues that threaten our societies. As countries start to plan ways to build back better, getting nature at the heart of all decision making for people and the planet must be our top priority.
“Biodiversity – the essential variety of life forms on Earth – continues to decline in every region of the world, significantly reducing nature’s capacity to contribute to people’s well-being. This alarming trend endangers economies, livelihoods, food security and the quality of life of people everywhere, according to four landmark science reports written by more than 550 leading experts from over 100 countries.”
What are the drivers of biodiversity loss?
The five main drivers of biodiversity loss as identified by the latest IPBES and GEO-6 report stem from our activity. Biodiversity loss can be prevented through changing what we consume, how we produce and where we protect nature. Stronger environmental policies and accountability measures will help drive these changes in behaviour.
Land use change
Our demand for food and resources is driving deforestation, changing patterns of land use, and destroying natural habitats across the globe. Twenty-six per cent of the planet’s ice-free land is used for livestock grazing and 33 per cent of croplands are for livestock feed. About a third of the world’s topsoil has already been degraded from acidification, pollution and other unsustainable land management practices.
Over-exploitation of plants & animals
The over-exploitation of resources by people, including for fishing, logging and wildlife poaching is threatening the very existence of creatures great and small; from iconic wildlife, like the pangolin, the most illegally trafficked mammal on the planet, to the beluga sturgeon, prized for its caviar. Poverty can force people into activities like poaching and illegal logging, while unsustainable development encroaches
upon wild areas and fuels demand for wildlife products.
Climate change and the increase in extreme weather drives habitat loss and degradation. For example, warming seas are melting sea ice; intact ice flows are critical for sustaining polar bears, seals and fishing birds, meanwhile acidifying oceans are bleaching coral reefs. One estimate suggests that by 2050, one in six species could be threatened with extinction if current warming trends continue.
Pollution is a major and growing threat to biodiversity, with devastating effects on freshwater and marine habitats. There may now be around 5 trillion macro and microplastic pieces floating in the ocean, making up 60 to 90 per cent of marine debris. Open waste dumps impact plants and animals, while pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals harm pollinators like bees and bats, which are natural predators of pests.
Invasive alien species
Invasive species threaten biodiversity by acting as parasites or competitors, altering habitats, crossbreeding with local species and bringing diseases. Globalization has increased the movement and introduction of species beyond their original ranges through trade and tourism, disrupting their new host communities and habitats.
Biodiversity loss and Covid-19
This World Environment Day, as many are isolated at home, let us reflect on what got us here.
The COVID 19 pandemic is a reminder that human health is linked to the planet’s health. Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people and research shows that these diseases are on the rise. At present, about 1 billion cases of illness, and millions of deaths, occur every year from zoonoses. Sixty per cent of all known infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic, as are 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases.
Scientists predict that if we do not change our behaviour towards wild habitats, we are in danger of more virus outbreaks. To prevent future zoonoses, we must address the multiple threats to ecosystems and wildlife, including habitat loss and fragmentation, illegal trade, pollution, invasive species and, increasingly, climate change.
World Environment Day aims to inspire everyone to make their voices heard — citizens need to urge their governments to deliver on their commitments to safeguard nature, end pollution and ensure that environmental laws are upheld.
Companies need to develop sustainable supply chains, as well as agricultural and manufacturing practices that do not harm the environment. Citizens and civil society groups should look at how to preserve and restore degraded ecosystems. And consumers should rethink what they buy. With our lives upended, we can unite to find ways not only to live well in harmony with each other but also with nature.
What can we do?
Each one of us has a role to play in ending biodiversity loss and preserving nature for human well-being. As individuals we must rethink what we buy and use and become conscious consumers. If we are to change our current course of destruction to one of custodianship of nature, we must first LEARN about what we can do; SHARE that knowledge with our family and friends on World Environment Day and beyond; and
ACT on the things we need to change.
Being confined to our homes is the perfect opportunity to learn more about the wild species and habitats with which we share our planet. This time indoors can be a chance to reflect on the role of nature in our lives and the ways in which we can advocate for positive change.
In the build-up to World Environment Day, which is 5 June, UNEP will be opening conversation threads in eight languages across its social media channels. We will be asking you to tell us why it’s time #ForNature. This will be the opportunity for you to share why you love our natural world, for governments to showcase their efforts to protect nature and for organizations to advocate for their cause.
Following 5 June and leading up to the fifth UN Environment Assembly in 2021– when the world’s environment ministers will set global priorities – we ask all of you to begin to act on the knowledge you have acquired to help end biodiversity loss and the climate crisis. Only by doing our part can we allow nature to heal and ensure a better and healthier future for everyone.
The World Environment Day website provides information on registration, online events, the agenda and live feeds.