World leaders from the five continents pledged to put the protection of nature at the heart of their recovery plans from the COVID-19 pandemic during the first ever UN Biodiversity Summit at the 75th UN General Assembly. Absent from that pledge were countries including China, India, Brazil and Australia. The U.S. failed to participate in the summit altogether, and Russia sent a representative in the place of the president.
For the first time in the UN’s 75-year history, more than 100 presidents and prime ministers used a virtual platform to express their positions before negotiators go to Kunming, China, in 2021 to finalize a global biodiversity agreement for the next decade. Earlier this month, the UN announced that the world has failed to reach any of its biodiversity targets for the second consecutive decade.
The summit comes after a series of reports sounding alarms about the critical state of natural systems underpinning planetary and human health, reiterating warnings of the links between the destruction of nature and the emergence of zoonotic diseases such as SARS, MERS, HIV and, most recently, COVID-19. “Humanity is waging war on nature,” declared UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in his opening remarks, highlighting the importance of biodiversity to human health, livelihoods and the global economy.
Ahead of the UN summit, 64 countries from around the world and the European Union (EU) launched a 10-point Leaders Pledge for Nature to address the disintegration of natural ecosystems and embrace sustainable economic systems as part of COVID-19 recovery plans. Germany, the UK, France, Canada and New Zealand were among the signatories, as well as Colombia, Costa Rica, Kenya and Mexico.
Agricultural and trade policies
Speaking at the virtual summit, French president Emmanuel Macron recognized the intimate link between human, animal and environmental health – known as the One Health – and said: “The COVID-19 crisis clearly demonstrates the consequences of destroying biodiversity and nature, the most critical public good.”
Macron called for the transformation of production and consumption patterns that are destroying human health and prosperity and defended the EU’s decision not to sign a trade agreement with Mercosur on account of the increased risk of deforestation. “Today, genetically-modified soy is fueling deforestation in the Amazon, so we must be coherent in our policies,” Macron said.
According to science, such coherence would also entail eliminating the USD 500 billion in government subsidies that potentially cause environmental harm, including subsidies to fossil fuels and unsustainable agriculture and fishing. Food systems are the single biggest driver of environmental decline, followed by extractive industries. Unsustainable food systems are responsible for 75 percent of global deforestation, although 75 percent of food crops – including cash crops such as coffee, cacao and almonds – depend on animal pollinators.
In contrast to Macron’s remarks, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro said that his country’s agriculture is based on efficient biotechnologies and has a “trifling environmental impact.” Under the Bolsonaro administration, hundreds of new pesticides have been approved, many of them banned in Europe. Amazon fires and deforestation have soared since he took office in 2019, in part due to Bolsonaro’s commitment to end the “fines industry” of environmental agencies.
“We cannot accept that false information be used to impose ridiculous international rules,” said Bolsonaro in his address to the assembly. He further insisted that countries have sovereign right to exploit their natural riches. “That’s precisely what we intend to do with the huge wealth of resources in the Brazilian territory.”
Bolsonaro charged against the “international greed” over the Amazon, the world’s largest tropical forest; declared war on “biopiracy, environmental sabotage and bioterrorism” and blamed NGOs for the destruction of nature in his country.
After vowing to continue exploiting the Amazon, he called for international payments for ecosystem services. Brazil is one of many lower-income countries to support the creation of a global financial system that recognizes the economic contribution of ecosystem services.
Antonio Guterres and the president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen were among the leaders that called for ambitious targets to protect biodiversity in the agreement that will be signed in Kunming next year. The draft agreement, reminiscent in its ambition of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, seeks to protect at least 30 percent of ecosystems on land and at sea by 2030, introduce controls on invasive species, and reduce pollution from plastic waste and excess nutrients by 50 percent.
“We want global rules that are clear, measurable, that allow us to hold each other to account. And above all, rules that will protect species and strengthen our resilience and our well-being,” said von der Leyen.
The Kunming talks will mark the first time that China, the world’s top greenhouse gas emitter, leads a major UN environmental agreement. In a carefully measured speech, Chinese president Xi Jinping said the post-2020 biodiversity framework was an opportunity to balance environmental and economic development outcomes.
“We must increase green development as we recover from COVID-19,” he said, underscoring the importance of multilateralism and the common but differentiated responsibilities of countries.
The Group of 77 and China called on high-income countries to step up their financial commitments to restore humanity’s harmony with nature, while the Least Developed Countries also asked for more support in funding, capacity-building and technology transfer.
The summit also counted on the words of youth activist Archana Soreng, a member of the Khadia tribe in India and part of the UN Secretary General’s youth advisory group on climate change. She warned that, unless indigenous rights were respected, the move to protect 30 percent of land and sea could become “the biggest land grab in history.”
Forcing indigenous peoples to leave their lands to create areas with a protected status would be “colonial and environmental damaging,” she said. At least a quarter of the global land area and a third of protected areas are traditionally owned, managed or used by Indigenous peoples.