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It’s World Environment Day and the people of the world, confronted with a new threat and forced into hiding, have this year been humbled by their own fragility – with the United Nations capitalising on the pandemic to deliver its message that the health of the planet is inextricably linked to the health of humankind.
“We are harming the natural world to our own detriment,” warned UN chief António Guterres, while the independent UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David Boyd, told us that “to care for humanity, we must care for nature”.
Biodiversity is the theme of World Environment Day (WED) 2020, with the UN calling for urgent action to protect the Earth’s 8 million plant and animal species, their genetic diversity and the ecosystems that house them.
A year ago, when “coronavirus” was a word used mostly by researchers, a landmark UN report warned that life on Earth was under unprecedented threat, with more than a million species facing extinction and global ecosystems eroding faster than ever before.
Global experts from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity Ecosystem Services (IPBES) sought to hatch a plan to save nature, with ecosystems, species – both wild and domestic, plant and animal – shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing altogether.
Global biodiversity off course
2020 was intended to be a bumper year for biodiversity, delivering two milestone events on nature conservation that have now been postponed. These were Cop15, the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity – which should have set the course for global biodiversity policies for the next few decades – and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress.
Despite delays to the program, the message that protecting and monitoring biodiversity can help prevent further pandemics is resonating. “At least 70 percent of emerging infectious diseases” are crossing to people from the wild, Boyd warned, adding that “transformative actions are urgently required to protect environment and human rights”.
Just as a global response is the only way to fully overcome the Covid-19 crisis, the same is true for the environment and the climate.
The anthropisation of the planet – the ever-increasing transformation of the Earth by humans – is behind most of the zoonosis (any infection that is naturally transmissible from vertebrate animals to humans) that have caused epidemics in recent years, says Jean-François Silvain of France’s Research Institute for Development, who also chairs the French committee for IPBES.
“The current crisis must be an engine for the protection of biodiversity and for real consideration of biodiversity issues,” he told RFI, adding that several French ministries were pushing for environmental issues to be taken into account in their strategies for exiting the Covid-19 crisis.
“In the same way we’ve had to adopt barrier measures during this pandemic to preserve our health and that of others, our individual responsibility is also engaged for the safeguard of the environment: a small number of dedicated people can create major changes.
“Just like the virus, the consequences of degraded climate and the environment know no borders.”