Without a push to protect nature, Earth faces the worst extinction crisis since dinosaurs were wiped out. A summit next year offers a dwindling chance.

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Birds fly past a smoking factory chimney in Ludwigshafen, Germany, 4 December 2018 (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Among bleak scientific findings about nature, a million species of plants and animals are threatened with extinction because of human activities.

Tropical forests vanished at a rate of a football pitch every six seconds in 2019, often cleared to make way for farms. About 12 million tonnes of plastic pollution enter the oceans every year.

Perhaps even worse, governments will fail to fully meet any of the 2020 targets they set a decade ago to help protect life on Earth from the worst extinction crisis since the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago.

Alarmed by these failings, many governments are now rallying to set tougher targets to safeguard nature in coming years, including a goal of protecting 30% of all land and oceans by 2030 in national parks, no-fishing zones, wilderness areas or other conservation areas.

This “30×30” goal, under consideration at a summit of world leaders due to be held in China next year, would mark a massive shift: currently only about 9.6% of the planet is conserved. The summit of almost 200 nations had originally been due to be held this month, but the coronavirus pandemic forced a delay.

Life on Earth is in crisis.

Biodiversity — the web of life on Earth ranging from tiny algae to blue whales, from insects to elephants — is under siege from a rising population of 7.8 billion people and more cities, farms and roads. Pollution, deforestation, over-fishing and rising temperatures caused by man-made greenhouse gases are all harming nature, from coral reefs to rainforests.

“We’re failing to take the biodiversity crisis seriously,” said Stephen Woodley of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which groups governments, scientists and other organisations.

“Governments wouldn’t get a high score on a report card for this,” Woodley, vice chair for science and biodiversity at the IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas, told News Decoder.

A loss of just one species can cause massive harm. Declining bee numbers, for instance, can undercut pollination and production of food crops such as apples, strawberries or tomatoes. And plants are the source of 25% of modern pharmaceuticals.

Reacting to the worsening crisis, more than 30 nations have recently signed up for a goal to protect or effectively conserve at least 30% of the planet by 2030, in a “high ambition coalition led by Costa Rica and France.

Canada, the second biggest nation by area after Russia, joined last month. But many other big nations — Russia, the United States, China, Brazil and Australia — have yet to sign up.

Britain leads another group, a “Global Ocean Alliance,” which now counts about 30 nations ranging from Belgium to Vanuatu and seeks protection for 30% of the oceans by 2030.

We need to protect nature — and people.

Widening enthusiasm for these “30×30” goals may be reflected in the documents being prepared for the summit in China.

An August draft UN document compiled by the experts chairing the negotiations says conservation areas should cover “at least 30% of the planet” by 2030.

That’s a subtle shift from a negotiating text released in January that said conservation should cover “at least [30%] of land and sea areas.” In UN negotiations, square brackets show the number is disputed; a lack of brackets shows it’s getting widely accepted.

But scientists say setting up more conservation areas is only part of a massive puzzle to preserve biodiversity. We need to safeguard nature, but we also depend on using it — it provides everything from food to fresh water — and we have to ensure that the benefits are shared fairly.

For indigenous peoples, who are often already good environmental stewards, declarations of large protected areas can often sound like a government-sponsored land grab, said Trevor Sandwith, Director of IUCN’s Global Protected Areas Programme.

“We need a totally refreshed global perspective” for biodiversity, Sandwith told News Decoder. A 30×30 goal risks becoming “like a red rag saying that we care about nature, not about people. There is no point in conserving nature if we don’t help people.”

Wanted: A single eye-catching goal

Another big problem is that many existing conservation areas don’t work or are poorly enforced. “We can’t pretend that an industrial plantation is preserving nature or an industrial fishery is preserving the ocean,” he said.

The UN’s latest report about biodiversity, published in September, catalogued how governments have failed to fully meet any of the 20 biodiversity targets for 2020 they set a decade ago, ranging from slowing the loss of tropical forests to raising public awareness of the risks of losing biodiversity.

One of the targets set at the last major UN biodiversity summit, in Japan in 2010, was to protect 17% of the world’s land and 10% of the oceans by 2020.

By October 2020, the World Database on Protected Areas shows that only about 15% of the land and 7.5% of the seas were covered, for a total of 9.6% of the Earth’s surface.

Part of the problem in mobilising action is that governments have struggled to come up with a single eye-catching goal for biodiversity other than an ambition of “living in harmony with nature.” For many campaigners, 30×30 at least sets one clear target and signals willingness to embrace tougher action on other fronts.

‘Humanity is waging war on nature.’

Illustrating the complexity of safeguarding nature, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last month that biodiversity spans economics, health, social justice and human rights. He noted that diseases such as coronavirus or Ebola may have jumped to humans because of our over-exploitation of the natural world.

“Humanity is waging war on nature,” Guterres said in a speech. “And we need to rebuild our relationship with it.”

Among solutions, he urged governments to embed biodiversity in green recovery plans to help create sustainable jobs after the coronavirus pandemic. Intact forests and wetlands, for instance, can help soak up greenhouse gas emissions to slow climate change.

He called for bigger investments in nature, noting one estimate that between $300 and $400 billion dollars a year was needed.

Many scientists say the Earth is facing a sixth mass extinction because of human activities. Fossil records indicate there were five previous cataclysms, when vast numbers of species vanished, perhaps because of asteroid strikes or volcanic eruptions that poisoned the atmosphere.

“The ongoing sixth mass extinction may be the most serious environmental threat to the persistence of civilization, because it is irreversible,” Gerardo Ceballos, of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, wrote in a June scientific report.

But it’s not be too late to avoid the worst.

David Attenborough, the veteran British naturalist and documentary maker, released a documentary this year titled “A Life on Our Planet,” saying everyone can make a difference to help nature.

“Right now we have a window of opportunity that we can’t afford to miss,” he said.

“What happens next is up to us.”

Three questions to consider:

  1. The United Nations has a goal that we should “live in harmony with nature.” Can you come up with a better slogan?
  2. What targets should governments set for 2030 to help biodiversity?
  3. Why are we failing to preserve nature?
Alistair Lyon author news decoder-150x150

Alister Doyle is a British freelance writer based in Oslo who worked with Reuters for more than three decades, including as the company’s first environment correspondent from 2004-19. He has worked in more than 50 nations, mostly in Europe and Latin America, and spent a year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a Knight Science Journalism fellowship from 2011-12. Among other stories, he landed with British scientists in a small plane on an Antarctic ice shelf in 2009 — weeks before it cracked up into the ocean.

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Climate change Decoder: Can we fix nature’s crisis and protect Earth?