8 Ways Countries Can Repair the Natural World, According to the UN
Protecting biodiversity is key to the future flourishing of humanity.
In 2010, 168 countries formally agreed to 20 goals — known as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets — to protect and improve biodiversity by 2020, but not a single one of the goals has been met, according to a sweeping new report by the United Nations.
Global Biodiversity Outlook 5, published Tuesday by UN Environment's Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, found that the world has failed to achieve even the lowest-hanging fruit: Awareness of the importance of biodiversity remains low, inclusion of biodiversity in development projects is rare, and subsidies for fossil fuels, pesticides, and other toxic substances remain high.
In fact, governments directly spend $500 billion annually on environmentally hazardous activities, but have only mustered $80 billion to $90 billion (with private financing support) on biodiversity-related activities.
Countries have failed to sufficiently protect forests, fisheries, coral reefs, and native plant and animal populations, according to the report. They haven't meaningfully reduced pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, or invasive species, nor have they set aside adequate levels of land and marine areas for conservation and restoration.
Biodiversity forms the foundation of human society — water, food, and air — and time is literally running out for its protection, the report warns.
While the UN catalogues the many threats facing the planet, the report is not pessimistic. Instead, it focuses on how countries can “bend the curve” of biodiversity loss, while also achieving the rest of the United Nations’ Global Goals. This optimism is a hallmark of the global agency, which turned 75 on Sept. 15.
“The response of governments and people around the world has demonstrated society’s capacity to take previously unimaginable steps, involving huge transformations, solidarity, and multilateral effort in the face of an urgent common threat,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres wrote in the report’s preface.
“As we emerge from the immediate impacts of the pandemic, we have an unprecedented opportunity to incorporate the transitions outlined in this Outlook to put the world on track to achieve the 2050 Vision for Biodiversity,” he added.
The report explores eight ways that countries can transition to a world in harmony with nature.
1. Conserve and restore land and forests
A burned area of the Amazon rainforest is seen in Prainha, Para state, Brazil in November 2019.
The biggest driver of biodiversity loss is land-use change, when countries convert natural landscapes into a space for human activities like agriculture, mining, and urban expansion.
Land-use change is often driven by short-term thinking. By converting land to agriculture, for instance, a country can produce more food in the short-term. Similarly, razing a forest to mine for fossil fuels allows countries to expand electricity access.
In the long-term, however, the loss of natural landscapes destroys natural resources, causes climate change, worsens the impact of natural disasters, degrades sources of water, and more.
In the years ahead, countries have to be more careful with land-use change. Landscapes that have not yet been converted for human activity should be conserved to prevent further biodiversity decline, the report says. Land that has been degraded should be restored and rehabilitated. Finally, countries can take a more holistic approach to land-use change that incorporates measures to protect biodiversity.
For example, farmers are beginning to adopt bee-friendly agricultural standards that rewild areas previously degraded by heavy industry, while others are developing cooperatives that prioritize ecosystem renewal.
2. Promote sustainable agriculture
Vegetable farmer watering plants at the organic farm in Boung Phao Village, Laos.
Agriculture — the cultivation of plants and animals — is the leading driver of deforestation worldwide. Industrial agriculture’s heavy reliance on chemical pesticides devastates plant and animal populations, while pollution from these chemicals and fertilizers degrades water sources.
While industrial agriculture may seem to be key in ending world hunger, it ultimately undermines our ability to produce food as it destroys biodiversity. In the years ahead, countries have to retire forms of industrial agriculture and invest in forms of food production that allow ecosystems to flourish, according to the report.
Most urgently, countries will have to raise less meat for consumption. Not only do current levels of animal production destroy the global environment, they also leave us exposed to pathogens that can cause the next pandemic.
3. Revamp cities and infrastructure
More than two-thirds of the global population will live in urban areas by 2050, according to the report.
Based on current trajectories, cities could become increasingly polluted, battered by natural disasters, divided by inequality, and overwhelmed by heat. But countries can transform this potential by investing in sustainable cities.
By phasing out cars and revamping buildings to consume less energy, cities can reduce their carbon footprint and improve air quality. Promoting rooftop gardens, parks, and vertical farming, meanwhile, can improve the food sovereignty of urban areas and protect biodiversity.
4. Protect sources of freshwater
A fisherman is pictured on the Ucayali river in Peru, frequently used by the indigenous communities in the area. The Ucayali River is the main headwater tributary of the Amazon River.
Sources of freshwater are a finite resource. Yet countries around the world overexploit them for agricultural, industrial, and domestic use — a trend that has led to increasing water shortages globally. Making matters worse, water sources are regularly polluted by industrial farms and factories.
Since 1970, nearly 30% of natural freshwater ecosystems have vanished, the report notes. If this trend continues, communities will struggle to survive and conflicts will rise.
Preventing this scenario demands that countries reimagine their relationship to bodies of water. Rules around water use have to be updated to reflect dwindling resources and the overall good of human society and the planet. Countries also have to better regulate pollution and crack down on the worst offenders, control invasive species, and limit the hunting and capture of freshwater species.
Finally, countries must embark on massive restoration projects that rehabilitate freshwater ecosystems and wetlands.
5. Shift toward a sustainable food system
The global food production system is broken — it degrades the natural world while prioritizing cheap foods that cause health problems, the report argues.
This recommendation overlaps with sustainable agriculture. The report notes that returning agriculture to the local level — in the form of community gardens and vertical farms — would help to increase food production, reduce food waste, and empower communities.
Countries have to take an active role in transforming the food system by first breaking the dominance of major food corporations that flood the world with cheap, processed foods. Through their capture of global supply chains, these companies determine how land gets used and what food gets produced, often in ways that have little to do with the welfare of both biodiversity and humans.
Countries can instead subsidize and actively support agriculture efforts to emphasize crop diversity, soil rehabilitation, and ecological harmony that results in healthy, whole foods.
6. Restore fisheries and ocean
A Hawaiian monk seal swims close to the diver behind the camera at Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Papahānaumokuākea is one of the world’s largest Marine Protected Areas.
Between overfishing, warming and acidifying waters, and various forms of pollution, the ocean has been destabilized in ways that threaten the future of humanity.
Countries have to act immediately to prevent this decline from reaching a point of no return.
Since the ocean is a shared space, countries have to better coordinate with one another about fishing zones, transportation routes, and pollution. Quota systems for different fish populations have to be enforced on a regional level to ensure fisheries remain viable in the decades ahead.
While campaigns around plastic pollution often focus on consumer goods like straws and takeout containers, the main cause of marine plastic pollution comes from fishing vessels that lose or discard nets and other gear. Helping fishers develop ways to minimize this waste will go a long way toward cleaning up the ocean. More broadly, countries have to vastly restrict how much plastic gets produced globally.
High biodiversity areas — such as those around coral reefs — should be designated as marine protected areas that limit or prevent human activity. Currently, 6.35% of the ocean is protected, which is below the UN’s goal of 10% by 2020.
7. Take climate action
Biodiversity loss and climate change are intertwined. Protecting biodiversity pulls greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere, thus reducing climate change. On the other hand, as climate change intensifies, plants and animals are less able to withstand the intensifying conditions and can go extinct.
Beyond switching to renewable energy, the best way to combat climate change is by restoring degraded landscapes, forests, and soil, according to the report.
Countries must urgently set aside more land for conservation and restoration. Bringing Indigenous communities into the process of land restoration through the creation of Indigenous and community conserved areas (ICCAs) is key to this process. Indigenous communities have centuries of knowledge and wisdom around biodiversity protection that will be increasingly important in the years to come.
8. Focus on public health
A pangolin looks for food on private property in Johannesburg, South Africa in February 2019. Conservationists in South Africa are working to protect the endangered animals, including caring for a few that have been rescued from traffickers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how humanity’s current relationship to nature exposes us to deadly pathogens. The vast majority of emerging pathogens come from wildlife, and as countries continue to degrade and exploit wildlife populations, this rate will only increase.
As a result, the UN is calling on all countries to protect biodiversity and ecosystems as a matter of urgent public health.
Minimizing the potential for a future animal-based pandemic will require countries to end factory animal farming; live, unregulated wildlife markets; poaching; deforestation; and all the other activities that put humans perilously close to another deadly outbreak.