While some may think that saving a butterfly species in Latin America or elephants in southwest Africa is the concern of a few environmentalists only, the UN’s biodiversity chief says the rapid pace at which we are losing species of all kinds is gravely threatening human existence on earth.
Cristiana Paşca Palmer, the executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, says people are not aware of the danger the alarming decline in the variety of animal and plant life in the world can pose to their lives.
“It is not something about other animals or plants,” Paşca Palmer told Ahram Online. “By losing species, we lose the relation that exist between all these forms of life which allow us to derive all the services and functions from nature, and which allow humans to exist and function.”
Paşca Palmer is in Egypt to discuss the decline in ecosystems and thrash out ways to safeguard global biodiversity, which is vital for food, clean water and carbon sequestration.
Members of the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity are meeting in Egypt's seaside resort city of Sharm El-Sheikh to make a final push for ambitious global targets by 2020 and draw up a new global framework to combat nature loss.
For a country like Egypt, where most of the population lives in a small fertile stretch of land along the Nile, over a third of the country’s labour force works in agriculture, and where the tourism sector depends on natural resources, any imbalance in nature can affect everybody’s economic and social well-being.
Egypt’s latest national report to the Convention of Biological Diversity says biodiversity in the country is declining at the level of ecosystems, species and populations due to a myriad of manmade factors including pollution, habitat loss and fragmentation, overexploitation and unsustainable use of natural resources, and climate change.
“Biodiversity [loss] is a silent killer. It is not doing anything to us today or tomorrow but it is affecting the composition of the whole infrastructure that supports life on earth,” argues Paşca Palmer.
“Food, water, clean air, everything is a product of a healthy functioning planet and the planet cannot function without these forms of life in it.”
Globally, species populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians have declined by 60 percent in just over four decades due to a variety of human activities including pollution, deforestation, climate change, according to a report by the World Wildlife Fund released last month.
In Africa, more than half of bird and mammal species could be lost to climate change by 2100, a study by the intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) said.
“We have a curve of biodiversity loss that is very steep; if by 2030 we don’t manage to reverse it and then start stabilising the loss of nature, we could have a very serious problem in the next few decades,” says Paşca Palmer.
"The more we are losing the variety of forms of life, the more climate change intensifies, and the full planet as a system can enter into what they ecologists call a cascading effect where we can see very severe destruction.”
Changing the narrative
Delegates from across the world are gathering in Sharm El-Sheikh until the end of the month to ramp up global actions and accelerate initiatives to protect nature and halt the loss in biodiversity.
While the subject still receives little attention, Paşca Palmer urges a "change of narrative" directed at ordinary people and decision-makers alike, with the message that biodiversity is not just about the environment, but rather a development and investment issue.
“If you are in an agriculture business, your agriculture productivity depends on good healthy soils, good healthy seeds and on the bees and insects that do the pollination. If you lose that, you lose your business and it has an economic impact on you,” she said.
Agricultural cropland habitats in Egypt have been declining over the past three decades due to changes in land use and agricultural practices, the country’s UN report says. Urban growth and loss of agricultural land is a major threat, with some 47,700 feddans estimated to be lost every year.
One major problem leading to rapid biodiversity loss are business models that put money into projects that harm nature, Paşca Palmer said.
For this reason, countries are calling for more engagement of businesses in preserving biodiversity as they convene in Egypt.
“Business can play a huge role. It is through their footprint and supply chain that nature can be destroyed, or measures that they take that can buffer the impact," Paşca Palmer explains.
The biodiversity crisis cannot be halted by environmentalists working in isolation with like-minded people, Paşca Palmer believes. Egypt and other countries need to reach out to actors outside the environmental community, including youth, women groups, indigenous people and local and traditional communities, so ordinary people can understand how the issue affects them too.
She emphasises the need for a cross-sectoral approach by governments to promote a change in policymaking and ensure that economic investments are not going to harm birds, animals or plants, or damage the land.
"We need all of them [concerned government members] to come on the table to discuss if they need to build a highway through a habitat for birds: is that a good idea or a bad idea? What are the risks? And what is going to cost us in the long run?" she says.
Egypt is chairing the Convention for two years, until Beijing takes the helm in 2020, and Paşca Palmer says Egyptian ministers have shown great attention to the matter, making her hopeful for a marked change in policymaking in the country.
The solution is not to go on the path we are now, Paşca Palmer says.
Despite the alarming reports and assessment, she believes that when the right solution is found at the right time, nature will recover.
Several species in Africa, including rhinos in Namibia and elephants in Botswana, have recovered from the edge of extinction as a result of governments empowering local communities of villagers to get involved in the conservation process, she said.
"I really hope we will all be bold and courageous and take decisions that will put us on a different trajectory," she says.