In 2020, the world community will meet in Beijing to discuss how to correct an almost irreversible problem-biodiversity loss. In the past half century, there has been a massive decrease in the size of species populations worldwide. At the Beijing conference, China could play a decisive role in securing the planet’s future.
Recently, I saw a family of white rhinos grazing in Lake Nakuru’s savannah in Kenya, Africa. They were at ease, unaware that they were being guarded by trained rangers devoted to preserve the few that are still left in Kenya.These wild majestic animals are at the edge of extinction. According to the International Rhino Foundation, populations declined 95 per cent in just 20 years due to illegal poaching. Unfortunately, their fate is not unique.
Human overexploitation of natural resources is driving a massive loss of biodiversity worldwide. According to the latest Living Planet Index that tracks the population of more than 4,000 species worldwide, population sizes have decreased by 60 per cent in less than 50 years. China alone, considered one of the most biodiverse countries in the world and home to 15 per cent of the world’s vertebrates and 12 per cent of its plants, has lost half the size of its terrestrial vertebrates in the last 40 years as economic development has flourished.
In March 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) raised a red flag: one million species in the world are at risk of disappearing. The situation is so critical that scientists have warned that we are facing the sixth mass extinction on Earth.
Mass extinction is a frightening concept. Many remember studying in school how the mighty dinosaurs disappeared. It seemed so remote, as if it were a tale from another unfamiliar planet. A giant space rock hit the Earth, caused earthquakes, landslides and a tsunami in the Atlantic that wiped out more than 70 per cent of the living species at that time.
A similar process is happening now. Out of all the mammals on Earth, 60 per cent are livestock, 36 per cent humans and 4 per cent are wild animals. Thus, only a quarter of land is free from human activities, a figure projected to decline to a tenth by 2050. “If we hit nature, nature will hit harder,” said my Kenyan guide while crossing the Maasai Mara National Reserve.
Losing biodiversity, which encompasses diversity of species and ecosystems, has an incalculable impact. We depend on nature’s services for our most basic needs –food, water, energy– and for our more sophisticated ones –medicine, innovation, recreation. For instance, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there are nearly 70,000 medicinal plants that are used by industry.
These services are highly valuable. In fact, in its regional report for the Americas, IPBES calculated that nature’s services accounted for more than US$24 trillion per year, nearly twice as much as China’s GDP.
Losing this value will hit hard, and we are just beginning to notice. In its recent Global Risks Report, the World Economic Forum included biodiversity loss as one of the main risks that the private sector faces this century. The stakes are high and the window of opportunity to act is closing. Yet, we can still bend the curve.
Europe gives us a hopeful example. After losing most of its forest cover, several countries are implementing policies to regrow them. In fact, from 1990 to 2015, European countries have grown 90,000 square kilometres of forest, an area nearly as big as Portugal.
However, exceptional good practices will not be enough. We need massive, scalable action. The year 2020 will be a decisive year for nature and humankind’s future, and China will be at the epicentre of the decision making. The Convention on Biological Diversity will meet in Beijing to set up a new, hopefully ambitious, agenda that will align states, academia, civil society and the private sector to bend the curve.
After 26 years of international negotiation, the Convention of Biological Diversity, which convenes allofthe countries in the world except for the United States, has not managed to preserve the world’s biodiversity. The Strategic Plan for Biodiversity, a 10-year action framework that finishes in 2020, along with its 20 Aichi Targets, were a fair but failed attempt.
In 2020, there will be an opportunity to adopt a New Deal for Nature and China leading this important meeting gives a glimmer of hope. Less than five years ago, nations met in Paris to adopt a new agreement to tackle dangerous climate change. China positioned itself as a leader aiming for ambitious goals to reduce its carbon emissions. Without its leadership an agreement would not have been feasible. If it was possible for climate it can befor biodiversity. It must be.
Achieving this difficult task is not only a state responsibility. The private sector needs to commit. That was a key element of the Paris Agreement where China has helped show the way. At the Convention on Biological Diversity, China should be as active on this priority as it was on climate change. Indeed, it is a natural extension to efforts already underway in China to promote the principles of Ecological Civilisation, a topic that the InterAction Council met in Guiyang to discuss in 2016 and that will most certainly depend on biodiversity.
The private sector is as essential to solving our biodiversity issues as it is to tackling our climate change priorities. For instance, 500 multinational companies control 70 per cent of the world’s production and trade of 15 key commodities, which are key drivers of habitat destruction and deforestation. It is easier to track, monitor and change business as usual in 500 companies than to engage with the two end points of the supply chain: 2.5 billion primary producers or 7 billion consumers.
Finally, a mobilizing civil society will also create the momentum by demanding traceability from the products that they buy. In most surveys, consumers state that they would choose a sustainably sourced product over another. Yet asymmetries of information rarely allow them to consume responsibly.
In 2018, more than two million visitors came to Kenya mostly to see its wildlife, and more than 80,000 were Chinese. Possibly after their stay, they left as hopeful and inspired as I did. The Kenyan Maasai Mara National Reserve and the Tanzanian Serengeti National Park have managed to preserve more than 15,000 square kilometres of land, home to millions of wild animals. This place is so incredible that it seems, as the late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski once said, “as if one were witnessing the birth of the world.”
Kenya shows what can be done on biodiversity. In 2020, China should take the lead in making biodiversity a global priority every bit as important as climate change.
Carolina Garcia is a One Young World Ambassador from Colombia and an advisor to the InterAction Council on biodiversity.