Time to embed biodiversity into the 2030 Agenda

Ecosystems on which the health of animals, people and the planet depend, must be restored, safeguarded, and prized.

On 22 May 2016, UNEP marked the International Day for Biological Diversity with a high-level event at its headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.

Contributions of UNEP towards achieving the Strategic Plan of Biodiversity (2011-2020) and the Aichi biodiversity targets outlines how more than 100 projects in over 120 countries are contributing to achieve the 20 Aichi biodiversity targets by 2020.  

Executive Director Achim Steiner warned that much more needs to be done. He made the point that there is a need to embed, mainstream and integrate biodiversity into the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and that now was the time to leverage the momentum achieved by the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

Despite numerous commitments, biodiversity loss continues to accelerate in all regions.  Only 15 per cent of countries are on track to achieve the Aichi Targets by 2020, according to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Mainstreaming biodiversity within and across sectors to sustain people and their livelihoods will be the focus of the next meeting of the Conference of the Parties to Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) - due to be held in Cancun, Mexico, from 4 to 17 December 2016.

Drivers of biodiversity loss

Human activities are imposing extreme stresses on ecosystems and their ability to function.  For example, we have lost more than 90 per cent of all wetlands in the last 300 years, and 50 per cent of our forests in the last 50 years.

Major drivers of biodiversity loss are exponential population growth and human activity, resulting in climate change, unplanned development and competition for land, species loss, the spread of alien species, habitat loss, the over-exploitation of fish stocks, the rising use of natural resources, more extensive meat-eating, forest clearance for agriculture, and pollution of the air land and sea.

Drivers linked to agriculture account for 70 per cent of the projected loss of terrestrial biodiversity. Addressing trends in food systems is therefore crucial in determining whether the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020 will succeed. With the world’s population set to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, the challenges are huge.

Zoonotic diseases

There is growing evidence of a direct causal link between biodiversity loss and the spread of some diseases.

Never before have so many animals (36 billion) been kept by so many people – and never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to humans.

Ecosystem integrity can help regulate diseases by supporting a diversity of species so that it is more difficult for one pathogen to spread rapidly or dominate. As the human population grows, ecosystems change. Forests are exploited for logging, landscapes are clear-cut for agriculture and mining, and the traditional buffer zones separating humans from animals or from the pathogens they harbour, are reduced or lost.

Effective strategies already exist for controlling most zoonotic diseases; the main constraint is lack of capacity and investment in developing countries.

Illegal trade in wildlife

Perhaps one area where governments can take swift and effective action is in combating the illegal trade in wildlife.

It is estimated that 40,000 live primates, 4 million live birds, 640,000 live reptiles, and 350 million live tropical fish are traded globally each year.

Markets willing to pay $40,000 for a gorilla in China or $10,000 for a cheetah in Kuwait sustain supply lines and fuel an extremely damaging form of consumerism.

Great apes and other live animals comprise a highly profitable and symbolic aspect of the $23 billion illegal wildlife trade – the fourth most lucrative black market after drugs, people and arms smuggling – and the live trade relies heavily on corrupt officials and steely couriers.

Big advertising campaigns and hefty fines could curb the trade and raise funds to return some of these animals to the wild.

Marine biodiversity under pressure

The marine environment (71 per cent of the Earth’s surface) is threatened by pollution and warming seas.

Microplastics – pieces of plastic ranging in size from 5mm to nano proportions –include plastics found in personal care and cosmetics products, and pre-production plastic resin pellets. These can enter marine food chains and potentially pose huge risks for the environment and human health. They are easily ingested by fish, mussels and other sea animals.

There is growing scientific evidence linking them to the passage of persistent chemicals through the environment, such as the pesticide DDT and toxic PCBs, making them more concentrated when they come into contact with marine life, with potentially devastating effects on biodiversity.

Key marine ecosystems such as coral reefs, home to myriad species of fish, are also under threat.

In Australia, India and around the world, coral reefs and related ecosystems are under increasing threat from pollution, over-fishing, climate change, and ocean acidification.

An extensive aerial and underwater survey of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef revealed that 93 per cent of it has been affected, with about half of the reefs severely bleached. There have also been reports of widespread bleaching in the Lakshadweep archipelago, which lies 200-440 km off the southwestern coast of mainland India.

Coral bleaching is caused primarily by ocean warming (93 per cent of climate change heat is absorbed by the ocean). High water temperatures cause corals to drive out algae called zooxanthellae, which provides corals with much of their energy as well as their bright and varied colours. The corals can die if conditions do not return to normal.