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U.N. expert urges transformative change to bend curve on biodiversity loss

COVID-19 economic recovery offers massive opportunity
David Cooper, deputy executive secretary of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity. CIFOR/screenshot

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The rate of deforestation has dropped by a third over the past 10 years compared to the previous decade, according to a landmark report on international biodiversity targets.

The achievement, which falls short of a goal agreed by governments, offers a slim glimmer of hope for biodiversity advocates.

Under the Aichi Biodiversity Targets negotiated in Japan in 2010, the aim was to reduce the rate of loss of all natural habitats, including forests, by at least half.

Only six of 20 targets have been partially met and none fully achieved, according to the lead author of the Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 report, who spoke at the the One World One Health Global Landscapes Forum biodiversity-focused digital conference this week.

“Where countries have put measures in place, we do see results,” said David Cooper, deputy executive secretary of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity. “Policies do work; measures do work — nonetheless we need much greater efforts to reduce the underlying drivers of biodiversity loss.”

While the Aichi targets were designed to complement international action on climate change, the pandemic has demonstrated that ecosystem management is also vital for human health, he said.

COVID-19, which scientists believe first spread to humans in a wildlife market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, highlights the increased risk of the emergence of zoonotic diseases from the destruction of nature.

“It’s clear to people at large that something is wrong in the relationship between people and nature,” Cooper said. “We have a massive opportunity in terms of looking at how governments plan their recovery from the pandemic.”

Although lots of ideas and commitments have been made for a low carbon pathway to stimulate economies, there is relatively little concrete evidence so far of green recovery, he added.

“Yes, we see more awareness, yes, we see more statements of good intent, but we need to see this followed up by putting policies in place,” he said, advocating for nature-based solutions, not only by investing in forest loss prevention, but also by restoring forests and other ecosystems.

Restoration and conservation would contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but to be effective in tackling climate change, actions must occur in tandem with actions to phase out fossil fuels.

“If we look at what various models and scenarios tell us, we know that ‘business-as-usual’ will lead to continuing loss of biodiversity,” Cooper said, painting a grim picture. Under this scenario hundreds of millions of hectares of natural ecosystems could be lost over the coming decades.

“It’s possible to bend the curve and put biodiversity on a path towards recovery,” he said. “But to do so will require a whole suite of actions. It will require transformative change.”

Without adopting an integrated approach to land use change, which is the biggest driver of biodiversity loss, humanity will be unable to reverse the tide, he said, urging increased investment in conservation and restoration, dietary changes and waste reduction.

Agriculture and the food system pose the biggest challenge to meeting targets on forests, Cooper said.

We can manage agricultural lands in ways that can protect biodiversity and help biodiversity contribute to food production as well, he added. “But if you look at the evidence from those countries that have managed to reduce forest loss and in fact restore their forest areas, they have also invested in agriculture and invested in the capacity of farmers to increase their yields in a sustainable way.”

A report last year, produced by the science-led IPBES warns that a million species could become extinct if action on conservation is not taken.

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