Science can help forge a new deal for nature

Posted on: May 21, 2018

Executive Secretary of the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity


Sumatran orangutan mother with baby
We must shift to an economy that stays within ecological boundaries and safeguards the global commons

Biodiversity is life, all life on earth. The air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink are all only possible as long as we have healthy biodiversity - rich species diversity. The remarkable diversity of flowers filling the house on special occasions, trees and birds that help make us restful.  They all exist and give us life every day thanks to well-functioning ecosystems.

Today we celebrate this rich gift. Every year, on 22 May, the world marks and pays respect to life on Earth through the UN-recognised International Day for Biological Diversity. This year is particularly special, since 25 years ago, in December 1993, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity entered into force, positioning the role of biodiversity for sustainable development that had taken the world decades to achieve.

For a quarter of a century, Parties to the Convention - now numbering 196 - have undertaken national, regional and global commitments to achieve its three objectives: conserving biological diversity; using it sustainably; and sharing - fairly and equitably -  the benefits arising from using genetic resources.

But despite these efforts, biodiversity continues both to be threatened or in grave decline in all corners of the world.

The science is clear - the pressures that human systems put on natural ecosystems are endangering survival on our planet. The latest research shows that we are on the brink of crossing ecological boundaries and reaching tipping points in climate and ecosystems that might lead to an acceleration of planetary destruction. The World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Risk Report lists ecological collapse and biodiversity loss among the top 10 risks in terms of impact. Humanity’s "Titanic" is moving faster and faster towards the iceberg.

We need to be aware of the broader implications for our wellbeing of losing biodiversity. Losing the bees and insects that naturally pollinate crops, for example, can gravely impact food production systems, affecting our economies, livelihoods, and health.

The pressures we put on our ecosystems are embedded in our societal structures, mostly in how we produce and consume, but also in our system of values and cultural dynamics. These interlinkages and interdependencies, inter-woven with economic and governance complexities, make protecting life on Earth an intricate global challenge.

Our efforts cannot therefore merely seek to remedy and soften the negative impacts of unsustainability. We need to address the root causes that have led to its symptoms. We need to re-design our societies into more sustainable ones.

This means shifting to new ways of production and consumption and reorienting pathways of economic development towards an economy within ecological boundaries that safeguards the world's global commons, while improving the state of the environment and creating opportunities for the long-term wellbeing of society.

As the 193 Member States who created the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 acknowledged, this requires transformational change. Change in the way governments work. Change in the way the private sector operates. And, above all, change in our own behaviour, as consumers and citizens. This starts by shifting to less meat-intensive diets, wasting far less food, and dramatically reducing our consumption of non-renewable resources.

This also requires investments in research and development to gain a deeper understanding of human, group and corporate behaviour. This understanding will be required to discover the incentives needed to change behaviour, so that they can be incorporated both in decisions on how to address the processes that drive the loss of biodiversity and in mechanisms to implement solutions. The challenge is not simple but it is surmountable.

Advances in science and technologies help us to identify and define the challenges we face. Investing in data and science is crucial for the Convention as Parties lead to 2020 - when the current global Strategic Plan for Biodiversity, agreed in 2010 in Nagoya, Japan, comes to an end, and as Parties consider the post 2020 period.

Science must guide the balance between realism and ambition in setting a new action agenda that will allow humanity to avoid “colliding with the iceberg”, and live in harmony with nature by 2050. This includes not just the natural and biophysical sciences, but also social sciences, including behavioural psychology, anthropology and sociology, and traditional knowledge systems. It is high time to cross-pollinate knowledge between different fields and sectors and to draw from the lessons of managing transitions by applying principles of innovation and transformational change.

Shifting the paradigm to focus on the opportunities and solutions that nature, biodiversity and healthy planetary systems provide for humans will be essential after 2020. This also applies to action on climate change, where there are abundant nature-based solutions – from halting deforestation and other forms of habitat loss and destruction, to restoring and rehabilitating degraded habitats, and sustainably managing croplands, pastures and coastal ecosystems. These solutions could provide up to half of the cost-effective mitigation of carbon dioxide emissions that will be needed by 2030. Restoring ecosystems will be a major part of this. Done right, these solutions could also improve resilience to climate change, helping communities adapt to unavoidable effects.

The global community has a unique window of opportunity to define the post 2020 global biodiversity framework. It will need bold commitment and determination, innovative approaches and transformative processes to ensure that such a New Deal will be effective.

At this historical juncture, let us leverage science to help forge a New Deal for Nature.

Happy International Day for Biological Diversity!

This article was originally published in the Guardian GEF partner zone on the global commons.

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