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Humanity ‘a weapon of mass extinction’ says UN secretary-general

16 December 2022

COP15 summit opens in Montreal, focused on biodiversity


The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressing the COP15 UN conference on biodiversity in Montreal,earlier this month

The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressing the COP15 UN conference on biodiversity in Montreal,earlier this month

“HUMANITY has become a weapon of mass extinction.” With these words, the secretary-general of the UN, António Guterres, opened the UN biodiversity summit, COP15, in Montreal, on Tuesday of last week.

COP15, which stands for the 15th “Conference of the Parties”, is the younger sibling to the recent, climate-focused COP27 summit, which took place in Egypt last month (Comment, 2 December).

Biodiversity summits get less of a fanfare, but a group of scientists recently declared the meeting in Montreal as the more important of the two.

Writing in the journal Science Advances, scientists from universities in China and the United States said that COP15 was “vastly more important than COP27. . . We say this because of the many dimensions of anthropogenic global change . . . the most critical, complex, and challenging is that of biodiversity loss.”

A report by the Zoological Society of London and WWF in last month’s Living Planet says that the earth’s wildlife populations have plunged an average of 69 per cent in 50 years; the total loss is akin to the human populations of Europe, the Americas, Africa, Oceania, and China disappearing.

Mr Guterres expressed the scale of the problem facing delegates in Montreal. “Without nature, we are nothing. Nature is our life-support system, and yet humanity seems hellbent on destruction. With our bottomless appetite for unchecked and unequal economic growth, humanity has become a weapon of mass extinction,” he said. “[COP15] is our chance to stop this orgy of destruction, to move from discord to harmony.”

In a reflection ahead of the meeting, the Church of England’s lead bishop for the environment, the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, said that a flourishing natural world was not a middle-class luxury, but essential to human life.

“The evidence is clear,” he wrote. “Nature is vital for human flourishing. It provides our food, delivers clean water, produces clean air, improves our mental well-being, and is there when we simply need awe, wonder, and comfort. But there has been a catastrophic loss of biodiversity. This must end and we need a concerted effort across the globe to rebuild the web of life.”

He said that natural wonders should be valued just as much as cultural masterpieces: “Once habitats and species are gone, they are gone for ever. Habitats can never be re-created and species can only be re-introduced at great expense and with a degree of luck. We place immense value in our greatest art works, historic buildings, and museum treasures precisely because they can never be re-created if destroyed. The same should apply to habitats and species that are part of our cultural capital and natural heritage.”

Campaigners at COP15 are hoping that the Montreal meeting could be a breakthrough summit, in the same vein as the 2015 climate summit in Paris produced the Paris Agreement.

The key aim of COP15 is to secure agreement on a new international goal to protect at least 30 per cent of all land and sea-based ecosystems, and to halt and begin to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. Support for this “30 by 30” goal is growing, and is backed by the Christian conservation charity, A Rocha.

The CEO of A Rocha, Andy Atkins, said that the UK had fallen behind many other countries, and that its natural resources were in a perilous state. “The UK public cares deeply about nature, yet we have become one of the most nature-depleted countries in Europe. At COP15, the UK Government should champion an ambitious international goal to end nature loss and begin to reverse it by 2030 — and it should reset the UK’s targets and protections to match that goal.

“Globally, wildlife numbers are collapsing. It’s not just that the world is losing unique species and habitats, but that in doing so we are undermining human life-support systems — living soil for growing food, water supply from wetlands, our natural carbon-sinks in forests. We all need governments to act fast and boldly to turn this tragedy around in the next decade, and COP15 is their opportunity to do so.”

A Rocha warns that to avoid the failures of previously agreed international targets, these goals need to be enshrined in domestic law. The charity points out that the targets under current legislation are worryingly weak. In a statement they said: “Nature targets under the 2021 Environment Act aim only to see a 10% restoration of UK nature by 2042 on a 2030 baseline, but with continuing declines predicted over the next decade the UK’s nature could be in a worse state in 20 years than it is now.”

Issues to be addressed at COP15 include cutting pesticide use by at least two-thirds, forcing big businesses to publish their impact on nature, and stopping plastic pollution. It also seeks to redirect $500 billion in agricultural subsidies which contribute to nature destruction. Currently, 96 per cent of all mammals on the planet are humans and their livestock; just four per cent are wild mammals.

A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that, despite the nearly eight billion people making up only 0.01 per cent of living organisms on earth, they have caused the loss of 83 per cent of all wild mammals since the dawn of human civilisation.

Global religious groups are seen as one potential source of positive change in reversing nature loss and boosting biodiversity. At COP15, the first ever comprehensive guide to tree growing, designed for use by faith groups, has been launched. The six-step guide, created by WWF, the UN Environment Programme, and the Trillion Trees campaign, seeks to assist faith groups and institutions — who own eight per cent of the habitable land on earth — in planning and implementing tree-growing initiatives.

The Bishop of the RC diocese of Kakamega, in Kenya, Rt Revd Joseph Obanyi Sagwe, said: “The Christian faith is a source of strong motivation to care for Mother Earth, and tree growing is central to this goal. This guidebook comes at the right time to support faiths across the world engage in tree growing in ways that complement the global agenda of ecosystem restoration.”

The guide, Tree Growing for Conservation and Ecosystem Restoration: A guide for faith-based actors, is available on the WWF website, wwf.org.uk.

COP15 is due to conclude on 19 December.

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