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 Making peace with nature: UN offers new hope for the planet

“Humanity is waging war on nature. This is senseless and suicidal. The consequences of our recklessness are already apparent in human suffering, towering economic losses, and the accelerating erosion of life on Earth. Ending our war does not mean surrendering hard-won development gains. Nor does it cancel the rightful aspiration of poorer nations and people to enjoy better living standards. On the contrary, making peace with nature, securing its health, and building on the critical and undervalued benefits that it provides are key to a prosperous and sustainable future for all” – says, UN secretary-general.

UN chiefs want to transform the world by putting nature back at the heart of global decision-making, arguing that the global economic shutdown triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic is an opportunity to change the planet for the better: for a stable climate, for cleaner air and water, and for a richer natural environment, thanks to the UN survival plan.

The goal? A more sustainable and more equitable world by 2030, a carbon-neutral world by 2050, a curb on global pollution and waste, and a halt to ever-accelerating rates of wildlife extinction worldwide.

The methods? One of the first, in Making Peace With Nature, the new United Nations Environment Programme report, will be to incorporate what conservationists call “natural capital” into measures of national economic performance. That is because forests, savannahs, wetlands, and other natural habitats represent wealth, and their loss accelerates poverty. If nations and regions can reverse environmental decline then they can at the same time advance the alleviation of poverty and secure reliable food and water, and good health, for all.

And to reinforce such arguments, new and entirely separate research continues to underline the UN vision of natural capital as a real investment in the services on which all humankind depends.

 

Vital sanitation need

In 48 cities around the globe, nature provides at least 18% of the sanitation services: creatures in the soils filter and clean around 2.2 million cubic meters of human excrement in the form of pit latrines before it can reach the groundwater table.

Since, in 2017, around one-fourth of the global population had no access to sanitation facilities, and 14% used toilets that disposed of waste on-site, this is not just an important service but a vital one: vital to human health.

The same research team reports in the journal One Earth that − since more than 892 million people worldwide in effect release excrement into holes in the ground − then nature must sanitize more than 41 million tonnes of human waste every year before it gets into the groundwater. So that’s a service worth US$4.4 billion (£3.14bn) a year, British researchers calculate.

Around 70% of the world’s crops depend on insect pollination, and the range and abundance of insect pollinators are vulnerable to shifts in climate. Importantly, many crops rely on wild pollinators − that is, commercial honey bee colonies cannot always do the trick of turning flowers into fruit, or grain − so what happens to wild insect populations affects what is available for supper.

US researchers report in the journal Ecological Applications that they took the case of wild bees and open-field tomato crops: these depend on insects that release pollen by vibration, among them bumblebees.

They matched the distribution of 15 species and climate data now against predictions for climate change across North America to find that − in the eastern US alone − within the next three to four decades, 11 species of pollinator could be in decline. The implications for food security are inescapable.

And a third study simply looked at what climate change, human population expansion, pollution, and demand for freshwater had done to the planet’s rivers and lakes.

French and Chinese scientists report in the journal Science that they had identified what they call “marked changes” in the biodiversity of more than half the world’s rivers and lakes, thanks to human impact.

Of more than 1,000 fish species, 170 were extinct in their natural river basins, at a very conservative estimate. Out of 2,456 river basins found everywhere except the deserts and the poles, 1,296 of them, covering more than 40% of the planet’s continental surface, and accounting for 37% of the length of the world’s rivers, revealed “deep and spatially distributed anthropogenic impacts.” That is science-speak for loss and defilement.

Lethal heat prospect

Such research − published on an almost daily basis − provides the context in which the latest UNEP report makes its argument. The report identifies a threefold planetary emergency and calls for advances in science and bold policy-making to make lives better both for the poorest in the world and for nature itself.

It warns that the planet is heading for warming of at least 3°C by the century’s end; that more than one million species could be heading for extinction; and that pollution-triggered diseases right now deliver an estimated nine million premature deaths each year.

“The war on nature has left the planet broken. But it also guides us to a safe place by providing a peace plan and a post-war rebuilding program,” says António Guterres, UN secretary-general, in the report’s foreword.

By transforming how we view nature, we can recognize its true value. By reflecting this value in policies, plans, and economic systems, we can channel investments into activities that restore nature and are rewarded for it.

By recognizing nature as an indispensable ally, we can unleash human ingenuity in the service of sustainability and secure our own health and well-being alongside that of the planet.

By Sanjida Jannat

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