Even amid a pandemic, 2021 can go down as the year we made peace with nature and set the planet to healing.
As COVID-19 upends our lives, a more persistent crisis demands urgent action on a global scale. Three environmental crises – climate change, nature loss, and the collapse of nature, and the pollution of air, soil and water add up to a planetary emergency that will cause far more pain than COVID-19 in the long-term.
For years, scientists have detailed how humanity is degrading Earth and its natural systems. Yet the actions we are taking – from governments and financial institutions to businesses and individuals – fall far short of what is needed to protect current and future generations from a hothouse Earth, beset by mass species extinctions and poisonous air and water.
In 2020, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) announced that, despite a dip in greenhouse gas emissions caused by the pandemic, the world is still headed for global warming of more than 3°C this century.
This month, the Dasgupta review reminded us what UNEP has long warned: the per capita stock of natural capital – the resources and services nature provides to humanity – has fallen 40 per cent in just over two decades. And we know that a staggering 9 out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air.
Finding answers to such daunting problems is complex. It takes time. But experts have developed solutions. The economic rationale is clear. And the mechanisms and institutions to implement them are already in place. There are no more excuses.
This year, the UN will bring governments and other players together for crunch talks on climate action, biodiversity and land degradation. COVID-19 has delayed these summits and complicated their preparation. Again, this is no excuse for inaction. These summits must show that the world is finally serious about tackling our planetary emergency.
To guide decision-makers toward the action required, the UN has released the Making Peace with Nature report. The report pulls together all the evidence of environmental decline from major global scientific assessments, with the most advanced ideas on how to reverse it. The result is a blueprint for a sustainable future that can secure human well-being on a healthy planet.
Our environmental, social and economic challenges are interlinked. They must be tackled together. For example, we cannot achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, including ending poverty, by 2030 if climate change and ecosystem collapse are undermining food and water supplies in the world’s poorest countries. We have no choice but to transform our economies and societies by valuing nature and putting its health at the heart of all our decisions.
If we did this, banks and investors would stop financing fossil fuels. Governments would shift trillions of dollars in subsidies to nature-positive farming and clean energy and water. People everywhere would prioritize health and well-being over consumption and shrink their environmental footprint.
There are signs of progress, but the problems are escalating faster than our responses. We all need to not step up, but leap up, in 2021.
The number of countries promising to work towards net-zero emissions stands at 126. The ask is for all countries to deliver stretched nationally determined contributions ahead of the climate COP and immediately kickstart the transitions to net-zero. At the climate COP, governments must also finally agree on the rules for a global carbon trading market. The USD 100 billion that developed countries promised to provide every year to help developing nations cope with the impacts of climate change must finally flow.
As we also seek to agree an ambitious post-2020 biodiversity framework that ends fragmentation of our ecosystems, the ask is for us is to feed the world without destroying nature, felling forests and emptying our oceans.
We can create an amazing economy by moving to circular economic systems that resuse resources, reduce emissions and weed out the chemicals and toxins that are causing millions of premature deaths – all while creating jobs.
Addressing our planetary emergency is a whole-of-society effort. But governments must take the lead, starting with a smart and sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic that invests in the right places. They must create opportunities for future industries that generate prosperity. They must ensure that transitions are fair and equitable, creating jobs for those who lose out. They must give citizens a voice in these far-reaching decisions, even if it is virtual.
We can do it. The pandemic has shown humanity’s incredible ability to innovate and respond to threats, guided by science. In the three planetary crises of climate change, nature loss and pollution, we face an even greater threat than COVID-19. This year, we must make peace with nature and, in every subsequent year, we must make sure that this peace lasts.
The author is Inger Andersen, the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme.