Humanity’s (Correctable) Path of Biodiversity Destruction

Egrets in Flight at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge


The UN Convention on Biological Diversity just released its fifth report on the status and trends of our planet’s biodiversity. Its overarching message is blunt:

When it comes to how we treat and care for the natural world, we are on the wrong path, jeopardizing the natural life support systems we depend on for our health, food security, and quality of life. If we are to reverse the trends threatening the foundations of our societies, we must urgently break with “business as usual” across a broad range of human activities to halt the underlying drivers of nature’s decline.

South African Leopard

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is committed to conserving biological diversity while our economies progress by maintaining ecosystem services, sustaining a healthy planet and delivering benefits essential for all people. CBD issues periodic Global Biodiversity Outlooks (GBO) on biological diversity, and the fifth report in the series—GBO-5—comes at a pivotal moment when the CBD Parties are in the process of developing a post-2020 global biodiversity framework for adoption at the 15th Conference of the Parties (CoP15), taking place in Kunming China in 2021.

GBO-5 has two key messages.

Message 1: The capacity of ecosystems to provide the essential services on which societies depend continues to decline.

We must be honest about where we’re at: our ecosystems are continuing to lose their capacity to provide the essential services on which societies depend. It’s hard to face the truth of what that really means. Healthy ecosystems provide clean air, clean water, sequestration of carbon, flood control, healthy soils, pollination of plants, and other building blocks for the lives and societies humans have developed. As various ecosystems falter and continue to degrade, we are placing future generations in extreme danger and even risking the lives we currently lead. These dangers and risks are not evenly distributed. As with the climate crisis, nature's decline will have a disproportionate impact on communities of color and low income communities.

A critical part of this message is how nature “continues to decline.” Despite decades of cooperative effort via CBD and other multilateral environmental agreements, like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and more than 50 years of a rich and robust environmental movement, nature’s destruction is accelerating. Global conservation efforts are not slowing nature’s decline. And GBO-5 declares even if such efforts were dramatically scaled up, they would remain insufficient to slow, let alone reverse the degradation of our natural world. So, we are on the wrong path, we’ve been on it for a while, and we stay on it at our own peril.

Message 2: Options are globally available that halt and reverse biodiversity loss, limit climate change, and improve our capacity to adapt to it, while meeting other goals.

The second message from GBO-5 is one of hope: “Options are available to the global community that could simultaneously halt and ultimately reverse biodiversity loss, limit climate change and improve our capacity to adapt to it and meet other goals such as improved food security.” But again, we must be honest about what we need to do to save the natural world and its bounty. GBO-5 urges humanity to simultaneously work on the following:

  1. Massively scale up the amount of land, inland water, and ocean areas protected and restored and improve the condition of nature on working lands;

  2. Keep global warming as close to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, or climate change will eventually overwhelm and undermine all other actions targeted at reversing biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation;

  3. Significantly reduce the scope and scale of direct exploitation of plant and animal species;

  4. Transform how we produce and consume food along the entire chain from farm production and harvest from the sea to the choices we make about diets and food waste;

  5. Transform the production and consumption of other goods and services impacting biodiversity, like practices around forestry, use of fresh water, and building new infrastructure;

  6. Take effective steps to address other drivers of nature’s decline, including invasive alien species and pollution;

  7. Evolve toward a more globally sustainable economy that moves away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth.

The report emphasizes that these activities necessarily rely on bold, interdependent actions and that achieving any of these goals on their own is insufficient to disrupt the crisis in nature. NRDC is deeply involved in engaging on most of these activities.

  • 30x30: We are advocating at the state, federal, and international level for the protection of 30 percent of land and inland water areas and 30 percent of ocean areas by 2030, to massively scale up the amount of the planet dedicated to supporting the health of our ecosystems and biodiversity so that both will continue to thrive and provide the natural life support systems we depend on.
  • International Wildlife Trade: NRDC has called for a moratorium on international trade in wildlife until we can ensure that the trade allowed to commence doesn’t contribute to the degradation of nature and doesn’t put our health at risk.
  • Climate Crisis: We continue to be deeply invested in combating the climate crisis and building resiliency for communities on the front lines of global warming.

Reports like GBO-5 remind us that the stakes couldn’t be higher—we’re fighting for life as we know it on the planet—and we must move urgently forward in converting our world and way of life from the “business as usual” models compelling nature’s decline to one in which we live in harmony with nature.

About the Authors

Zak Smith

Senior Attorney & Director, Global Biodiversity Conservation, Nature Program

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