Humans risk living in an empty world, warns UN biodiversity chief

Patrick Greenfield

Humanity will have given up on planet Earth if world leaders cannot reach an agreement this year to stop the mass extinction of wildlife and destruction of life-supporting ecosystems, the United Nation’s new biodiversity chief has warned.

Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the acting executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, has implored governments to ensure 2020 is not just another “year of conferences” on the ongoing ecological destruction of the planet, urging countries to take definitive action on deforestation, pollution and the climate crisis.

The warning comes on the eve of the Davos World Economic Forum, where biodiversity loss has been highlighted as the third biggest risk to the world in terms of likelihood and severity this year, ahead of infectious diseases, terror attacks and interstate conflict.

The ongoing destruction of life-supporting ecosystems such as coral reefs and rainforests means humans risk living in an “empty world” with “catastrophic” consequences for society, according to Mrema, who is responsible for spearheading a Paris-style agreement for nature that will be negotiated this year.

“People’s lives depend on biodiversity in ways that are not always apparent or appreciated. Human health ultimately depends on ecosystem services: the availability of fresh water, fuel, food sources. All these are prerequisites for human health and livelihoods,” she told the Guardian in her first major interview since taking up the role.

In May last year, the world’s leading scientists warned that nature is disappearing at a rate tens to hundreds of times higher than the average for the past 10m years. Experts have previously warned that humans are driving the sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history, cautioning there is a short time to act.

“Business, local communities, civil society, the youth, all of us led by governments must take action. We have been talking of action for many years. Really, we need transformative action to make a difference,” Mrema said.

Last week, the long-awaited draft of a Paris-style UN agreement on nature was published for the first time, calling for a commitment to protect at least 30% of the planet, controls on invasive species and pollution from plastic waste and excess nutrients to be reduced by 50%.

The UN has also organised a youth summit this April which the organisation hopes environmental activists such as Greta Thunberg will attend. Photograph: Ronald Patrick/Getty Images

The commitments in the draft text, which is expected to be adopted by governments in October at a crucial UN summit in the Chinese city of Kunming, have been kept intentionally modest after the failure of the international agreement on biodiversity conservation made for the previous decade.

Some campaigners have criticised the draft agreement, insisting that governments must do more to protect the planet. Mrema said she had hoped negotiators would create something more ambitious than the current proposal.

When asked what would happen if governments did not take sufficient action, Mrema said: “The risks will be major. One is that we will not have listened to the science and the evidence provided. Because we will not have listened, it means the global community will have said: let biodiversity loss continue, let people continue to die, let the degradation continue, deforestation continue, pollution continue, and we’ll have given up as an international community to save the planet.

“I hope that’s not where any of us would want to be.”

Mrema, who took over the role in November last year after former chief Cristiana Paşca Palmer stepped down, recalled growing up in Tanzania, where her home looked out on Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa.

“When I grew up as I child, I could see and hear water flowing in the banana plantations. But now I am an adult, those streams have completely dried. Every time I deal with biodiversity issues, I reflect what I used to see as I grew up and went to school. What I see today, I cannot compare the two. More devastation now, the water is no longer there, the bush, the forest, the entire area is now bare,” she said.

The UN has organised a youth summit this April in Miyazaki, Japan, which the organisation hopes environmental activists such as Greta Thunberg will attend.

Related: UN draft plan sets 2030 target to avert Earth's sixth mass extinction

“Being an adult, I can say that we have failed and are failing our children and the youth,” Mrema said.

“Our children are asking what climate are they going to inherit from us if the planet they are seeing is polluted. The ocean they are seeing is full of plastic, the forest they are told to be seeing becomes bare land, the consumption patterns are leading to more pollution.

“The children know exactly what their rights are, what they want and what they expect from their parents,” she said.

“Whatever is negotiated today will affect our children more than us as adults. They want to make sure that the world left to them was not just decided by us but that they were also part of the decision-making process.”

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