World / Science & Health

Major U.N. biodiversity report to call for 'Paris moment' to protect nature and avoid human misery


Revamping global food production, retooling the financial sector, moving beyond gross domestic product as a measure of progress and other “transformative changes” are needed to save nature and ourselves, a major U.N. biodiversity report will conclude.

Delegates from 130 nations were to wrap up weeklong negotiations in Paris on Saturday on the executive summary of a 1,800-page tome authored by 400 scientists, the first U.N. global assessment of the state of nature — and its impact on humanity — in 15 years.

The bombshell Summary for Policymakers, to be unveiled on Monday, makes for very grim reading.

Up to a million of Earth’s estimated 8 million species face extinction, many of them within decades, according to a draft version.

All but 7 percent of major marine fish stocks are in decline or exploited to the limit of sustainability. At the same time, humanity dumps up to 400 million tons of heavy metals, toxic sludge and other waste into oceans and rivers each year.

Since 1990, Earth has lost 2.9 million hectares — an area more than eight times the size of Germany or Vietnam — of forests that play a critical role in absorbing record emissions of carbon dioxide.

The heavily negotiated text does not make explicit policy recommendations but will serve “as a basis for redefining our objectives” ahead of a key meeting of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity in China next fall, said Yunne Jai Shin, a researcher at the Research Institute for Development in Marseilles, France.

But the pressure to set clear targets — similar to the cap on global warming in the 2015 climate treaty inked in the French capital — has sparked calls for a “Paris moment” on biodiversity.

The report details how humans are undermining Earth’s capacity to produce fresh water, clean air and productive soil, to name a few “ecosystem services.”

The direct causes of nature’s degradation — in order of importance — are: shrinking habitat and land-use change; hunting for food or illicit trade in body parts; climate change; pollution; and predatory or disease-carrying alien species such as rats, mosquitoes and snakes.

“There are also two big indirect drivers of biodiversity loss and climate change: the number of people in the world and their growing ability to consume,” Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), said ahead of the meeting.

The way humanity produces, distributes and consumes food — accounting for a third of land, 75 percent of the use of fresh water and a quarter of the emissions of greenhouse gases — is especially destructive, the report shows.

Fertilizer use, which degrades the soil’s ability to grow plants and absorb carbon dioxide, has risen fourfold in just 13 years in Asia and doubled worldwide since 1990.

“Feeding the world in a sustainable manner entails the transformation of food systems,” the report notes.

Local food production, less demand for meat, fewer chemical inputs, use of renewable power, sustainable limits for fisheries, a sharp decline in tropical deforestation — all are feasible and would help restore nature.

The report also spotlights “harmful subsidies” that encourage environmentally damaging fishing, agriculture, livestock raising, forestry and mining.

It cites estimates that tax havens finance about 70 percent of vessels implicated in unregulated fishing, and an equal share of the soy and beef sectors that are ravaging the Amazon.

The summary for policymakers maps out what Watson calls “several plausible futures,” some inviting, others less so.

One, labeled “economic optimism,” sees burgeoning international trade unfettered by regulation. In this scenario, population growth slows but per capita consumption is high, leading to more climate change and pollution.

A “reformed markets” variant features more policies aimed at poverty alleviation and protecting the environment, but consumer demand would remain high, although more equally distributed.

“Global sustainable development” would see politicians and the public prioritize environmental issues and strict regulations. Policies and education would promote low population growth, sustainable production and a concept of progress based on well-being, not just gross domestic product. In such a scenario, people eat a lot less meat, and energy consumption declines.

“All variations of this archetype are beneficial for biodiversity,” the underlying report says.

In a kindred world, international institutions would weaken, but regional ones would pick up the slack toward the same ends.

Finally, the last two scenarios — “business-as-usual” and “regional competition” — would plunge the planet into a nightmarish, downward spiral of conflict, growing inequality and continuing degradation of nature.

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