From the Paris Accords to the Sustainable Development Goals, the world is no stranger to lofty pledges made by national leaders to ensure the preservation and continuation of nature. Over the past few decades, global environmental advocacy and legal protection have improved considerably, bolstered by the participation of younger generations. Thus, it came as a startling wake-up call when a United Nations report revealed that none of the twenty Aichi Biodiversity Targets from the Convention on Biological Diversity, meant to be fulfilled by 2020, had been met. The news came one month before the first-ever UN Biodiversity Summit on September 30th, where over 100 world leaders gathered virtually to declare their countries’ commitments to environmental protection and to assemble a post-2020 biodiversity framework.
In 2010, nations gathered at the tenth meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Japan to draft the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity for the 2011 to 2020 period. Within this plan included the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, which primarily aimed to protect biodiversity as well as promote sustainability and ecosystem services. With twenty targets grouped under five goals centered around biodiversity protection, the immense momentum created by the Aichi Targets signaled in a new wave of environmental action that has been called ‘The United Nations Decade for Biodiversity.’ However, it appears that our efforts have failed to live up to this grandiose name.
Though the environmental impact of climate change has been widely known for some time, the extent of biodiversity destruction has exceeded former expectations. The 2020 World Wildlife Fund Living Planet Report found that 75% of Earth’s ice-free land surface and more than 85% of wetland areas have been significantly altered or ravaged, putting at least 1 million species at risk of extinction in the decades ahead. The same report also revealed a 68% decrease in monitored vertebrate species between 1970 and 2016.
While the loss of biodiversity poses a significant risk to the environment, the effects do not stop there. Global development, markets, and security will also face negative impacts. This is particularly pronounced in developing countries, where biodiversity is a cornerstone of the essentials of life, such as food and water accessibility.
Such risks were widely discussed during the UN Biodiversity Summit by the heads of state and government, as well as key UN figures, including UN Secretary-General António Guterres, UN General Assembly President Volkan Bokzir, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. General Assembly President Volkan Bozkir opened the summit, emphasizing how “our existence on this planet, depends entirely on our ability to protect the natural world.” Mr. Bozkir called attention to the need for a “green recovery,” stating that a more sustainable world could even benefit economies through the creation of an estimated $10 trillion in business opportunities and 395 million jobs by 2030.
Additionally, in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, he noted the connection between the poor management of the environment and infectious diseases, calling for the mobilization of “public and private financing to support nature-based solutions and disaster risk reduction.” For example, better hygienic practices and management of toxic substances can improve community health and thus alleviate environmental disease burdens. The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and UN Economic Chief Munir Akram echoed his concerns. Mr. Guterres called for a “greater ambition to reverse biodiversity loss,” especially through the investment of our economic systems. He raised the possibility of using nature-based solutions, like forests as carbon sinks, to avoid the destruction of Earth’s “fragile web” of life. Similarly, Mr. Akram emphasized the importance of political will in adopting new economic and social systems that will enhance sustainability and the conservation of nature.
Despite growing concerns, world leaders are once again uniting to advocate agendas to save the planet. On September 27th, more than 76 countries and the European Union committed to the Leader’s Pledge for Nature, which includes 10 actions to reduce the loss of biodiversity by 2030. The pledge demands for the elimination of environmentally harmful subsidies and unsustainable fishing practices, stricter monitoring of marine pollution and deforestation, and the creation of sustainable and circular economic systems. By 2030, the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature hopes to have 30 per cent of their land and seas under protection. Furthermore, in a prerecorded video at the UN Biodiversity Summit, Prince Charles called for a new “Marshall Plan,” which includes implementing carbon pricing, intensifying carbon capture technology efforts, and halting harmful subsidies for fossil fuels.
Additionally, youthful promise shines even stronger as the younger generation strengthens their efforts and presence in the fight against climate change. Youth climate leaders presented a Manifesto and Open Letter at the Nature for Life Hub side-event at this month’s UN General Assembly, petitioning world leaders to declare a “planetary emergency.” The leaders asked for the heads of state to adopt effective conservation and restoration strategies, update existing education in schools, uphold indigenous rights, protect environmental advocates, and remain accountable to the public. Mounting pressure from environmental justice movements have increasingly compelled Western nations, as major contributors to climate change, to turn attention from the economic vitality of their countries to the shortcomings of environmental policies. With the grand promises of world leaders in place, the youth’s rising commitment towards environmental issues will undoubtedly keep leaders accountable for their pledges to avoid public backlash and critiques of their policies.
Nevertheless, some remain skeptical of the renewed endeavors of world leaders. Environmental activist Greta Thunberg dismissed the recent UN summit efforts as “laughable, cynical empty promises.” Indigenous leaders are also concerned that promises by the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature to protect 30% of the planet’s land by the end of the decade could threaten the livelihoods of indigenous people, with indigenous activist Archana Soreng condemning it as the “biggest land grab in history.”
While they certainly give off an admirable air, failure to attain the Aichi Targets have taught us how critical it is that governments fulfill their biodiversity agendas within the next century. As climate change continues to threaten the existence of biodiversity at an alarming rate, the fate of our planet rests on the ambitious promises of world leaders and the public’s ability to hold them accountable.