Each year, the world’s governments descend upon New York City at the ‘High-level Political Forum’ to review progress on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. While the formal proceedings are instructive, it is in the side events and hallway conversations where observers can scan the horizon and take the pulse of broader global trends. This year, a suite of side events and meetings focused on Goal 15, Life on Land.
From these meetings emerged a few common threads. First the bad news.
Progress on Goal 15 has not been fast enough to stem widescale losses in the natural capital that sustains all life on Earth. Various speakers underscored the crisis – 40 percent of all wetlands have been cleared in the past 40 years, 85 percent of all forests globally have been cleared, degraded or fragmented, 90 percent of all fisheries have been fully exploited, over-exploited or have collapsed altogether, and more than a third of agricultural land is degraded.
These trends have grave consequences for our collective ability to achieve many of the other 16 Sustainable Development Goals, including those related to peace, people and prosperity. Here’s why:
Nature underpins global peace and security. In January, the World Economic Forum identified the top global risks in their annual report. Eleven of the top 12 risks are directly or indirectly related to the consequences of biodiversity loss and climate change, and all 15 of the world’s most war torn countries are facing severe to moderate droughts, exacerbated by the loss of biodiversity and ecosystems, and compounded by climate change.
Nature underpins our ability to provide the world’s growing population with enough food and water to live healthy lives. Although 75 percent of the world’s population depends on forests for their drinking water, more than 230 of the most important watersheds have lost more than half of their tree cover, and more than 2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water.
Nature underpins our ability to prosper, while leaving no one behind. Collectively, the livelihoods of more than 5.8 billion people around the world depend upon nature, in the form of fisheries, agriculture, forestry and tourism. Loss of nature, exacerbated by climate change, puts many of these livelihoods in jeopardy.
Simply put, we cannot achieve Goals 1, 2, 6, 8, 12, 13 and 16 without a healthy planet. Moreover, the window for safeguarding nature is rapidly closing. If we want to secure a pathway to the 2030 goals, we must act now. Recalling the moment that he realized that life on his island nation would be untenable without healthy ecosystems, and the moment that led him to launch the Micronesian Challenge, Palau President Thomas Remengesau remarked “I realized that we as an island nation needed to secure nature to secure our own lives. Now our islands are indicators of the future. We are at the point where all of us on planet Earth are islanders.”
Now the good news: there is a glimmer of hope.
Speakers at this year’s events outlined a clear pathway for action. For example, proposals for a UN Decade of Restoration – of forests, land, wetlands and marine ecosystems – would not only significantly improve the water security of more than 3,200 cities around the world but also provide up to a third of our climate solution, while safeguarding billions of livelihoods.
Similarly, proposals to step up land and water protection are afoot, with Cristiana Paşca Palmer, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, calling for a ‘whole earth’ strategy to protect, restore and sustainably manage the planet by 2050, and for significant increases in protection by 2030.
But there is more.
The events during this year’s High Level Political Forum showcased the emergence of a new and precious commodity – a commodity that Erik Solheim, Executive Director of UN Environment called ‘more precious than gold’ - the emergence of bold political will to change the status quo.
For example, Former President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico recently declared 10 new forest protected areas, aimed at securing indigenous livelihoods while safeguarding the nation’s drinking water supplies for the next century.
Moreover, there is a building movement for a new bold global pact with nature. Building on the recent UN resolution in May, a new initiative to create a globally binding environmental agreement has gathered steam. This sentiment was echoed by heads of state, ministers and permanent representatives in the meetings and events of the past two weeks: “We need a Paris moment for biodiversity in 2020.”
There are about 4,500 days left to meet the 2030 global agenda. Let’s hope that we can create a global pact on nature in 2020, one that secures the future of all life, including our own.