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UN’s Battle Against Climate Hazards Undermined by a Devastating Pandemic

The following article is part of a series to commemorate World Environment Day June 5

Restoring natural habitats as pictured here in Cuba will help to slow down climate change. A new UN-backed study released May 27 says annual investments in nature-based solutions will have to triple by 2030, and increase four-fold by 2050, if the world is to successfully tackle the triple threat of climate, biodiversity and land degradation crises. Credit: UNDP

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 4 2021 (IPS) - The United Nations has been in the forefront of an ongoing battle against the growing hazards of climate change, including the destruction of different species of plants and animals, the danger of rising sea-levels threatening the very existence of small island developing states (SIDS), and the risks of oceans reaching record temperatures endangering aquatic resources.

But that battle was temporarily undermined last year by a devastating pandemic which brought the world to a virtual standstill.

“The COVID-19 pandemic put paid to many plans, including the UN’s ambitious plan to make 2020 the “super year” for buttressing the natural world”, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned last month.

That ambition, he pointed out, has now been shifted to 2021, and will involve a number of major climate-related international commitments, including a plan to halt the biodiversity crisis; an Oceans Conference to protect marine environments; a global sustainable transport conference; and the first Food Systems Summit, aimed at transforming global food production and consumption.

“The fallout of the assault on our planet is impeding our efforts to eliminate poverty and imperiling food security,” Guterres declared.

Professor Luca Montanarella

In an interview with IPS, Professor Luca Montanarella, co-Chair of the 2018 Assessment Report on Land Degradation and Restoration sponsored by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), told IPS the current hazards are well known, and the extent of the destruction is by now fully documented in many independent scientific assessments from the major science-policy interfaces, like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), IPBES and others.

The devastating effects and the close interlinkages with human health, he argued, “are now fully understood and visible to all of us following the COVID-19 pandemic. It is now time to act.”

He said the UN’s thematic plans to “Reimagine, Recreate and Restore” degraded ecosystems is the key solution, but it needs to be implemented consequently. There is a high risk to fall back to business-as- usual solutions that will be not solve the problem, he declared.

The young generation is the one that can save this planet, if properly empowered to do so. Are we ready to transfer some of the decision power to them?, he asked

The first signals from the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are going in the opposite direction. The highest increases in unemployment rates are among women and young workers, he noted.

Mirna Inés Fernández, a member of the Steering Committee of the Global Youth Biodiversity Network (GYBN) and co-founder of its Bolivian chapter, Kaaijayu-GYBN, told IPS the continued degradation of the global environment has been so devastating to the earth’s ecosystems “that our generation has seen the birth of concepts as the Anthropocene and the Planetary Boundaries”.

“Children and youth are the ones to face the biggest mental health impacts related to ecological grief and anxiety, because we realize that the loss of species and ecosystems have reached levels that threaten the biosphere integrity and our life support systems”.

“And we don’t see enough political will to reverse this situation,” she warned.

The world is ready and in desperate need for a real transformative change, “one that allows us to live in equitable and sustainable systems for all”.

What is missing, she said, is political will, adequate allocation of resources and an inclusive decision-making process that will lead to change the status quo that took us to this point.

“We need our world leaders to address the root causes of the multiple ecological crises that we face today: the UNSUSTAINABLE way we extract, produce, consume, and dispose of things, and the UNEQUAL way the benefits and damages of all these economic activities are distributed, as cited in the Youth Manifesto #ForNature”.

“As young people, we can play multiple roles in this global campaign: by spreading the word and getting more people to join and support this global youth movement, by demanding bold actions from our decision makers, or by leading the change by example, making use of the potential that young people have to bring innovative solutions to the table as transformative education and promotion of intergenerational equity”, she declared.


Excerpts from the interview:

IPS: The UN points out its Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030) aims to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean while it can help to end poverty, combat climate change and prevent a mass extinction. How feasible is this goal? What would prevent the UN from helping the world reach this goal?

Montanarella: Ecosystem restoration needs to go hand in hand with a large social inclusion programmes that will assure employment and sustainable livelihoods to the global population. Otherwise, it will be doomed to failure.

Fernandez: The goal of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration is quite ambitious and will be very difficult to be reached in only one decade because effective and complete ecosystem restoration is a process that can take various decades.

But it is very important that we have this goal that will guide the efforts to avoid further ecosystem degradation and start restoration efforts of already degraded ecosystems.

I think that one of the most important risks that could prevent the UN helping the world reach this goal is the misuse of restoration related concepts, such as offsetting, net zero/no net loss approaches, and Nature-based solutions.

Without appropriately defined safeguards for biodiversity and human rights, the wrong implementation of ecosystem restoration strategies can promote further perverse monoculture, offsetting and greenwashing schemes.

Countries and companies who want to be considered implementers of the Decade should follow strong safeguards to ensure that the quality of the restoration efforts matches the quantity in the area within the restoration policies and projects

IPS: What are your thoughts on the findings of the Land Degradation and Restoration Assessment ( by IPBES?

Montanarella: The Land Degradation and Restoration Assessment of IPBES, that I had the honour to co-chair jointly with my dear colleague and friend Prof. Robert Scholes who sadly passed away few days ago, clearly indicates the way forward and especially highlights the social and participatory dimension of land degradation.

Land is the basis of our existence on this planet and needs to be protected accordingly. Consumption habits and micro- as well as macroeconomic developments are the key drivers of land degradation and therefore need to be addressed if we want to reverse the current negative trend.

We can do a lot, starting from our individual lifestyles and dietary habits.

Fernandez: I consider that the IPBES Assessment Report on Land Degradation and Restoration a key tool for policy makers and stakeholders to understand the extent and complexity of land degradation worldwide and take informed, appropriate action to address the drivers of land degradation and develop restoration strategies.

The key messages in the assessment, as well as the proposed ambitions and strategies for addressing land degradation, and possible actions and pathways, should be reflected in the outcomes of the Post 2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and on the implementation of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

They should also be taken into account in the development of national targets and commitments related to combating land degradation and restoring ecosystems. I come from Bolivia, a country that has lost more than 5 million ha of an endemic ecoregion “The Chiquitano Forest” due to forest fires in 2019.

After these fires, different actors have developed various approaches to restore the devastated ecosystems. Sadly, many of these initiatives lack a solid scientific basis and could do more harm than good, including introducing invasive species, making space for monoculture plantations or changing the structure of the forest.

This is why efforts like this assessment, that provides the best available science and expertise on land degradation and restoration, are crucial to be shared among the implementers of land restoration strategies and the ones combating land degradation at the national levels.


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