‘The house is on fire’: Can we stop nature’s decline?

USA & World

‘The house is on fire’: Can we stop nature’s decline?

After a long cold winter, the emergence of new life and the bountiful cascades of spring is a natural wonder. Not just stunning to behold but part of a living process that is essential to our wellbeing. The seasons come, the seasons go, nature works its magic. Yet, all the while, this spell is slowly being undone.

Here is a headline from 2010: “Ten years to solve nature crisis”. It was an article on the UN Convention of Biodiversity meeting held in Japan that year, warning of a crisis of nature.

There was a loud and urgent appeal from experts calling for proactive efforts to conserve biodiversity; talk of a “tipping point”; and warnings of a dangerous threshold in the next 10 years unless something colossal was done.

So at that meeting in Japan, leaders from 196 countries set 20 global biodiversity targets to stem the loss of plant and wildlife; the deadline was 2020.

But 10 years on, not one of those Aichi targets has been met.

Instead, in the midst of a crippling pandemic brought on by humanity’s mismanagement of nature, the headlines in 2020 read: “Extinction Crisis: World leaders say it is time to act”.

We can only hope the catastrophic predicament the natural world is now in will force our leaders to do what they say they will and finally act. As Inger Andersen, head of the UN Environment Programme put it at this week’s UN Summit on Biodiversity: “The house is on fire and we are all locked in.”

Plant loss

The loss and degradation of habitats remain worryingly high. Species extinction is accelerating with ecosystems deteriorating at rates unprecedented in human history.

A report from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, UK shows that 40 percent of the world’s plant species are in danger of extinction. The words easily tumble off the keyboard but do little to demonstrate the urgency of now.

Biologist Professor Kathy Willis puts it succinctly. She is now the professor of biodiversity at Oxford University but was the director of science at Kew when I spoke to her four years ago.

“Plants are the Cinderella of biology in some ways, people don’t care about them enough,” Willis said at the time. “Yet I cannot emphasise enough how important they are. We have to get them up the global agenda.”

Professor Willis told me plants are part of living processes absolutely crucial to our existence. Pretty much every aspect of humanity’s wellbeing comes down to plants. From foods to medicines to processing CO2, plants make living possible.

Animal life

Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report recently showed that global populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have suffered an average two-thirds decline in less than half a century.

So where do we look for leadership to steer us off this road to environmental collapse? Whether we find it or not depends greatly on the outcome of the US election in one month’s time. For many in the world of environmental science, another four years of Trumpian roll-backs would be worse than catastrophic.

Renowned climate specialist Professor Michael Mann, who is the director of the Earth System Science Centre at Pennsylvania State University, tweeted in March: “A second Trump term is game over for the climate – really! That is the prism through which I view the 2020 election.”

He later wrote the Trump administration “has slowly but steadily dismantled a half-century of environmental progress”.

“All we need now is for the federal government to do its job and serve as a powerful centralised force to protect us. And all that takes is a vote, in November,” Mann added

Of course, it does not end there. Leadership, at a time when nature’s decline must be reversed, means once-and-for-all words and promises must equate to action, for the good of everyone and everything on this planet.

Your environment round-up

1. A new race to eliminate fossil fuels?: Last week, China announced it would cut its emissions to net-zero by 2060. Does this mean the world has started taking climate change seriously and more countries will follow suit?

2. Plastic-eating enzymes: A new super-enzyme has been engineered that can break down plastic up to six times faster than its predecessors.

3. M&S cuts soya from milk production: As part of its commitment to end deforestation in its supply chain, the UK retailer announced it has “completely eliminated” soya from the production of its milk.

4. Wildfires spawn wild weather: Certain weather conditions are known to ignite wildfires. But wildfires can also create their own extreme weather systems including fire tornadoes and something NASA calls the “fire-breathing dragon of clouds”.

The final word

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature: The assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring