Why Humanity Must Save Nature To Save Itself

October 11, 2021



Ms. Beate Trankmann is the Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme in China.

Our planet – the only home we have – is at breaking point. Two thirds of our earth’s oceans and three quarters of its land have been damaged by humans. One million species could vanish by 2050 – accelerating the global extinction rate potentially hundreds of times faster than over the last 10 million years. One fifth of all nations could see their ecosystems collapse completely, according to insurer Swiss Re,[1] due to destruction of wildlife and their habitats – on which we ourselves depend.

Our earth can only continue to sustain us if we protect its biodiversity: the individual, yet interconnected chain of plant and animal species that hold our world together. Every life form, however tiny, is essential to the whole. As Sir David Attenborough put it: “Every breath of air we take, every mouthful of food that we take, comes from the natural world. And if we damage the natural world, we damage ourselves."

Indeed, ecosystem ‘services’ – such as pollination of crops (or preserving water quality) – are not only vital to our survival, but also powering the global economy, contributing to more than half of global GDP (up to $44 trillion), according to the World Economic Forum.[2]

The costs produced by our broken relationship with nature are rising every day.

The ongoing destruction of the planet’s biodiversity also quickens climate change and makes us even more vulnerable to it. This is because the ecosystems – such as forests – providing habitats to other species also absorb our greenhouse gases. Climate change in turn, also harms biodiversity, making these two challenges two sides of the same coin.

To make matters worse, damage to our ecosystems also threatens human health, by diminishing our sources of food, medicine, water and even oxygen. By encroaching into wild habitats and exploiting the creatures within them, we also risk new diseases jumping from animals to humans, as COVID-19 did.

Humankind can therefore only survive, let alone prosper, if our world remains biodiverse.

From October 11th, world leaders will gather online for part one of the UN Convention on Biodiversity, COP-15, in Kunming. This is a critical moment to raise the level of ambition and commitments for nature. What is needed is a global rescue plan: a bold roadmap for protecting biodiversity, with new goals for the next decade that all countries support and finance. Those goals must transform not only our environment, but also our societies and economies, for COP-15 to be the breakthrough our earth needs to sustain us.

As part of this compact, the UN has urged countries to commit to protecting at least 30 percent of their land and sea territories by 2030.

As the host nation – and leading the world for the first time into a major international agreement for the environment – China has an invaluable opportunity to champion these goals and set the bar high.

UNDP is well-positioned to support such efforts. As one of the biggest multilateral partners working to protect biodiversity globally, we are committed to finding sustainable ways for humanity to co-exist with nature. Working with key partners including the Adaptation Fund, the Global Environment Facility and the Green Climate Fund we currently support a US$3.2 billion portfolio in 138 countries that is invested in ecosystem management and biodiversity conservation.

In China, we have cooperated with more than 10 ministries – including the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, along with most provinces – on safeguarding biodiversity over the past two decades. Together, we have achieved important results: through new mapping and enforcement measures, China’s fully protected terrestrial areas have expanded to 2.4 million square kilometers, about a quarter of its land mass.

Through various projects, we have worked to incorporate biodiversity protection within government policies, regulations, programmes and planning. UNDP and Global Environment Facility projects, for example, helped to form the National Wetland Conservation and Recovery Schemes in 2016, and supported 31 provinces in preparing corresponding implementation plans.

Between 2013-2019, UNDP and GEF helped to expand biodiversity conservation by widening coverage of Protected Areas (PAs), including 1.9 million new hectares of protected wetlands – one of the world’s most critical ecosystems. By the end of 2019, China’s wetlands spanned 53.6 million hectares, with 52 percent protected.

By sharing international best practices, UNDP has also helped to strengthen the quality of PA management, such as by using Management Effectiveness Tracing Tools (METT) and supporting the formulation of management plans. In addition, UNDP cooperated with Guizhou’s Environmental Protection Department to set up a dedicated office for planning and managing payments for ecosystem services. The idea is to attach a price tag to nature and charge for the regulated use of ecosystem services, such as wood from forests, or fishing in the rivers, to fund the effective protection of these ecosystems and their biodiversity.

This year, UNDP’s global Biodiversity Finance Initiative, BIOFIN, expanded to China, as part of our international efforts to multiply resources for conservation and improve their effectiveness. Working with over 40 countries, BIOFIN aims to show how biodiversity finance can work both for people and planet. Its launch in China combines biodiversity protection efforts in Shandong Province with the financial innovations of Shanghai, furthering China’s already significant contributions to green finance.

However, our work is far from done. To build on this progress and enable even stronger biodiversity protection in China and beyond, we must enhance biodiversity cooperation between different sectors and regions, because biodiversity does not have obvious thematic or geographic boundaries. As such, solving biodiversity challenges requires coordination, alignment and consensus across sectors and areas.

To enable this and more effective natural resources management, we need integrated spatial planning approaches, coordinating land, water and sea conservation. In the past, many conservation concepts have been encouraged, including integrating management of river basins, ecosystems and water resources. Consolidating these strategies will be essential, so that they support each other.

Policies must also increasingly tackle biodiversity and climate change together, given that ecosystems can serve as carbon sinks. The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) found that, for example, from 2001-2010, the annual carbon sequestration of terrestrial ecosystems was equal to offsetting 14.1% of China's fossil fuel emissions. This is highly significant, given China’s 2060 carbon neutrality pledge.

To ensure all this, biodiversity financing is vital. It must be expanded, to close the global USD 4.1 trillion biodiversity financing gap by 2050. Sustainable biodiversity financing tools include Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) and Green Finance, such as Debt-for Nature swaps and UNDP’s Nature Performance Bond (NPB) – offering relief on sovereign debt in exchange for certified performance in environmental activities. Given China’s central role as a global sovereign creditor, it could play a major role in NPBs going forward.

Finally, we must leverage technology to transform biodiversity protection. Innovations such as AI and big data hold great potential, such as in helping to enforce conservation measures, through real-time tracking and monitoring, as well as boosting disaster warning systems.

UNDP stands ready to work with China to make COP-15 a success in delivering an ambitious, specific, and measurable post-2020 global biodiversity framework. We will also continue to support countries, including China, in making the major transformations needed to save the ecosystems underpinning our future.

In the end, we need nature more than it needs us. Our world has been changing for millennia, and will continue to change – with or without us. Saving biodiversity, ecosystem by ecosystem, is the only way to save ourselves.

Published in People's Daily

[1] https://www.swissre.com/media/news-releases/nr-20200923-biodiversity-and-ecosystems-services.html

[2] http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_New_Nature_Economy_Report_2020.pdf

Note: While Swiss Re puts the value of global ecosystems at approximately $42 trillion ($41.7 trillion), versus WEF’s $44 trillion, the overall picture remains the same: half the world economy depends on ecosystems staying intact.