26.02.2021 |

UNEP report calls on humanity to make peace with nature

Making peace with nature (Photo: CC0)

Environmental decline is undermining progress towards ending poverty and hunger, a new UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report warns. The good news is, however, that the world can transform its relationship with nature and tackle the climate, biodiversity and pollution crises together to secure a sustainable future. The “Making Peace With Nature” report paints a bleak picture of these three environmental crises by drawing on global assessments, such as those from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). “By bringing together the latest scientific evidence showing the impacts and threats of the climate emergency, the biodiversity crisis and the pollution that kills millions of people every year, [this report] makes clear that our war on nature has left the planet broken,” says UN Secretary-General António Guterres in the foreword. “But it also guides us to a safer place by providing a peace plan and a post-war rebuilding programme.” Or, as the subtitle promises, by providing a scientific blueprint to tackle the climate, biodiversity and pollution emergencies.

The authors note that the world is failing to meet its commitments to limit environmental degradation. Economic growth meant that the extraction of natural resources reached damaging levels. Despite a temporary decline in emissions due to the pandemic, Earth is heading for at least 3°C of global warming this century, the report warns. In addition, more than 1 million of the estimated 8 million plant and animal species are at substantially increased risk of extinction; and diseases caused by pollution are currently killing some 9 million people prematurely each year. “Earth’s capacity to sustain growing needs for nutritious food, water and sanitation will continue to weaken in the face of ongoing environmental declines, as vulnerable and marginalized people are currently experiencing,” according the executive summary of the report. Food security, for example, is threatened by the loss of pollinators and fertile soil. Loss of pollinators could threaten annual global crop output worth between US$235 billion and US$577 billion. Environmental degradation is also impeding progress towards ending poverty and reducing inequalities. To sum up: Environmental decline is eroding progress towards almost all of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

One of the report’s key messages is that Earth’s environmental emergencies must be addressed together because they are interrelated and have common causes. “Immediate action is required to mitigate climate change, conserve and restore biodiversity, improve air and water quality, make more efficient use of resources and reduce the adverse effects of chemicals,” the authors write. One area of action mentioned is food, water and energy systems. These can and must be transformed to meet growing human needs in an equitable, resilient and environmentally friendly manner. With respect to agriculture, the report recommends agricultural systems that work with nature, are adaptive to change, resilient to shocks and minimize environmental impacts. Those systems are also critical to eliminate hunger and malnutrition and contribute to human health. The authors give examples of sustainable agricultural systems and practices, such as organic agriculture, agroecological practices, soil and water conservation, conservation aquaculture and livestock systems, agroforestry, silvopastoralism, integrated farming systems, improved water management and practices to improve animal welfare. “Sustainable agriculture conserves and restores soils and ecosystems, rather than degrading them,” they add. But they also admit that sustainable agricultural practices are often disincentivized by current systems of industrial-scale agricultural production, inappropriate subsidies, crop insurance and capital investments.

The report also identifies dozens of key actions that governments, businesses, communities and individuals can and should undertake in order to bring about a sustainable world. The authors see the current pandemic as a chance: “The COVID-19 crisis provides an impetus to accelerate transformative change. The pandemic and the ensuing economic upheaval have shown the dangers of ecosystem degradation, as well as the need for international cooperation and greater social and economic resilience,” they write. “The crisis has had major economic costs and is triggering significant investments. Ensuring that these investments support transformative change is key to attaining sustainability.” The report highlights that everyone has a part to play in the transformation to a sustainable future. Governments, for example, can include natural capital in measures of economic performance, put a price on carbon and shift trillions of dollars in subsidies from fossil fuels, non-sustainable agriculture and transportation towards low-carbon and nature-friendly solutions. Financial organisations can stop lending for fossil fuels and develop innovative finance for biodiversity conservation and sustainable agriculture. And “individuals can facilitate transformation by learning about sustainability, exercising their voting and civic rights, changing their diets and travel habits, not wasting food and resources, and reducing their consumption of water and energy.” (ab)

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