World leaders urged to 'step back from precipice' of ecological ruin

Patrick Greenfield
Photograph: Victor Moriyama/AFP/Getty Images

Humanity’s ongoing destruction of nature threatens the survival of our species, a group of former foreign ministers has warned, calling on leaders to step back from “the precipice” of irreversible ecological ruin and protect the planet.

The planet’s rapidly warming oceans must be the focus of increased conservation efforts due to their importance in producing oxygen and food for billions of people, the former ministers added, as governments prepare to begin negotiations for a Paris-style UN agreement on nature next week.

In a statement signed by 23 diplomats – including former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former British foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind – world leaders are urged to back the draft UN agreement to protect almost a third of the world’s oceans and land.

Next week’s meeting in Rome – originally scheduled to take place in Kunming, China but moved to the Italian capital in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak – will be the first time governments formally react to the 20-point proposals to halt and reverse biodiversity loss.

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

The current draft commits countries to protect 30% of the planet, introduce controls on invasive species, and reduce pollution from plastic waste and excess nutrients by 50%.

“The loss and degradation of nature jeopardises human health, livelihoods, safety and prosperity. It disproportionately harms our poorest communities while undermining our ability to meet a broad range of targets set by the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. We must rise above politics and ideology to unite the global community around the urgent cause of protecting our planet and way of life,” reads the statement, which was released through non-profit thinktank Aspen Institute.

The former ministers highlighted the climate crisis, the “excessive exploitation” of natural resources, and ecosystem degradation as grave threats to international security, warning they “imperil the future for our grandchildren”.

“Humanity sits on the precipice of irreversible loss of biodiversity and a climate crisis that imperils the future for our grandchildren and generations to come. The world must act boldly, and it must act now,” the statement continues.

The comments follow those by indigenous groups, scientists and business leaders ahead of the meeting in Rome.

Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright is among the signatories of the statement. Photograph: Zach Gibson/AP

“The marine environment deserves special attention, as it covers 70% of our planet, and even people who live far inland depend on the ocean to produce half of the oxygen we breathe, to serve as the primary source of protein for over 3 billion people, and to help maintain a liveable climate,” the statement continues.

“In addition to protecting 30% of the ocean, we also call on nations of the world to manage the entirety of their ocean territories in a manner that is sustainable, equitable, and integrated across sectors. This combination of protection and sustainable management will ensure the health and productivity of the global ocean on which we all depend.”

Last month, the UN’s new biodiversity chief warned 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.

When asked what not taking action would mean, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the acting executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, told the Guardian: “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.”

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