In 2010, environment ministers from 196 nations gathered in Nagoya, a city in the Japanese prefecture of Aichi. Their aim was clear and unambiguous: to stem the worst loss of biodiversity on Earth since the demise of the dinosaurs.
The resulting international agreement was hailed as an environmental triumph. It established a framework for international cooperation on biodiversity issues and set ambitious global targets for reducing the destruction of habitats, expanding nature and marine reserves and preserving endangered species. The period of 2011-2020 was to become the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity.
In the end, it looks more like a lost decade. A report published this week by the UN lays bare our stalled progress during this period. Of the 20 biodiversity targets set in Aichi ten years ago, not a single one will be met. Many of the metrics have stagnated or even worsened. Global populations of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles continue to plunge at staggering rates. According to a recent report by WWF and ZSL, populations declined on average by 68% between 1970 and 2016. Previous figures up to 2014 showed a 60% fall.
These recent reports are a devastating wake-up call and show the scale of the challenge before us. The truth is that biodiversity loss is one of the most complex, multifaceted issues we face today. It is heavily intertwined with climate change, which threatens habitats across the globe, and the fight against poverty, which drives communities into conflict with the natural world.
Deeply ingrained patterns of human consumption and population growth are also key drivers of the crisis. The shocking levels of deforestation in Brazil, for example, lead directly back to the growing demand for meat and animal feed around the world. Many endangered species, meanwhile, are victims of the callous, illegal wildlife trade that continues to this day.
There is no time for pessimism or resignation. A crisis that is caused by human activity can be solved by human action. We should look to areas where progress has been made for inspiration, particularly in expanding protected natural areas and cutting rates of extinction. Covid-19 has emphasised our fragile relationship with nature and we can expect a global recovery focused on sustainable growth to have a positive impact. Efforts to combat the illegal trade in wildlife, which makes us all more vulnerable to deadly zoonotic pathogens, will no doubt intensify.
For the sake of our planet’s biodiversity, this must be a turning point. The canary in the coal mine, to use an apposite metaphor, passed away long ago and we paid it little attention. With international organisations sounding the siren once again, this time must be different. We can’t afford another decade of missed opportunities.