Let’s start with a big and bold fact that will rightly shock you about life on land. Since the year 2000, the world has lost over 100 million hectares of forest (net). The UK is about 13 million hectares in size, so imagine that a forest 7.5 times the size of the UK has been felled in just 20 years. That’s completely insane.
Here’s another fact that relates to life on land: diseases regularly pass from animals to humans – such as Covid-19. In the future, we can only expect to see more zoonoses (animal-to-human diseases) as we intentionally destroy habitats and get closer to animals. More human-animal interaction, more diversification of diseases, and more unsustainable farming (and subsequent meat-eating) all encourage pathogens to spread between humans and their livestock.
In light of Covid-19, the world has been given a new perspective and the opportunity to build back better, with more sustainable measures put in place. Governments, people, and businesses must take the natural environment more seriously to create a more beautiful and resilient future that offers mutual respect for public and environmental health.
Unchecked environmental destruction will invite more zoonosis, which means policymakers need to be educated about the threats that the environment brings. Biological diversity is something best understood and explained by the experts, but unless governments take biosafety and biosecurity more seriously and regulate our relationship with nature, we will struggle to detect and prevent future threats.
Life on Land: Complicated to Report On and Discuss
Of course, the introduction suggests that a perfect world exists where it’s easy to know what threats the environment provides, how to measure and report them before they become a problem, and what exact governments need to do to stop them. Unfortunately, it’s just not that easy, because life on land and environmental health threats are complicated to find, understand, report on, and regulate.
From one perspective, the reduced tourism, more time spent at home, and less international travel have given SDG 15 a bit of respite and recovery. Some natural ecosystems have welcomed the extended break from human interference, but it’s not enough. Animals are still being poached, forests are being felled, and ecosystems are being degraded on a daily basis. Governments and councils have rightly been focused on the public health threat caused by Covid-19, which has forced them to take their eyes off the ball regarding ecosystem and biodiversity values.
Ruth DeFries, a professor of ecology and sustainable development at Columbia University, says “On one hand, we see that reduced human presence during lockdowns has created space for non-human species, with sightings of wildlife in places that were not possible with the usual traffic and noise of daily life. On the other hand, poaching and other illegal activity get less scrutiny from a reduced presence of guards and security.”
“In countries around the world, the creeping rollback on environmental regulations and clearance processes, which would normally receive a lot of scrutinies, can slip by as civil society focuses on the repercussions from COVID-19.”
What does the UN say about SDG 15?
- We are falling short on biodiversity targets
- Over 31,000 species are threatened with extinction
- 10 million hectares of forest have been lost per year (2015-2020)
- Wildlife trafficking is contributing to infectious diseases
- 2 billion hectares of Earth are currently degraded
- Less than 40 countries globally are on track to implement biodiversity in their national planning
India as an example
This report from the Observer Research Foundation about the context of SDG 15 in India is a great read and highlights the difference between forest cover and forest area, as well as how an increase in protected areas is not creating overall gains.
SDG 15 was moving backwards before Covid…
Before the pandemic started, SDG 15 was one of the worst-performing sustainable development goals, regressing in most areas and with the majority of nations struggling to improve life on land. As it stands, the long-term impacts of Covid-19 on SDG 15 are unclear, despite the short-term reduction in threats to terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity. What is being seen is that an increase in protected areas is creating a psychological knock-on effect of giving less care to non-protected areas. This is resulting in more biodiversity threats, more deforestation, and unsustainable supply chains.
This Sustainable Development Goals report from the Cambridge University Press has more information about stagnation and reversals on SDG 15 in most of the world.
How does the UN intend to promote SDG 15 as part of the Covid 19 situation?
Most of this article will be seen as grim reading, even for optimists, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
In the UNEP report ‘Working With the Environment to Protect People’, there are suggestions for how to “build back better” after Covid-19 – through stronger science, policies that back a healthier planet, and more green investments.
There are four key areas listed in the report:
- Helping nations manage their COVID-19 waste – PPE, syringes, masks, and more
- Delivering a transformational change for nature and people
- Working to ensure economic recovery packages create resilience to future crises (which are fully expected, as zoonoses account for 75% of new infectious diseases)
- Modernizing global environmental governance – new policies and approaches at a political level
Below are the UN’s words about what they plan to do for SDG15:
To prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide, the UN has launched a Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030). This globally coordinated response to the loss and degradation of habitats will focus on building political will and capacity to restore humankind’s relationship with nature. It is also a direct response to the call from science, as articulated in the Special Report on Climate Change and Land of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and to the decisions taken by all UN Member States in the Rio Conventions on climate change and biodiversity, and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.
Work on a new and ambitious post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework is also underway.
As the world responds to and recovers from the current pandemic, it will need a robust plan for protecting nature, so that nature can protect humanity.
I really hope that governments, businesses, and people, begin to see that SDG is linked to the root problems that caused Covid-19 and that unless we solve this issue, we may see a repeat case in the near future.