The world needs to unite around ambitious targets to address the climate, extinction, & pandemic emergencies

Jul 9, 2020Featured, Talking WILD

Marshes in Bahíade Cádiz Natural Park, Cádiz, Andalusia, Spain. Photo © Diego López / Wild Wonders of Europe

by Stanley Johnson

WILD11 delegate, father of Boris Johnson, former MEP, former vice-chairman of the European Parliament’s Environment Committee, and author of 25 books. Stanley Johnson was honoured by WWF, RSPB etc. as one the ‘founding fathers’ of the EU Habitats Directive and the EU’s Natura 2000 network. He is a member of Rewilding Europe’s ‘Circle’.

We are on the verge of everything remaining the same. We are on the precipice of the status quo. This year Covid-19 swept across the world in a matter of months, born on the fraying frontier of Earth’s wild places, the very places that are reservoirs of life and life-giving services until they are disrupted and destroyed. It reminded us of the interdependence between humans and nature in a globalised world and provoked, for a moment, a sentiment that something was amiss, that perhaps it was time to do things differently.

The danger now is that we merely try to get back on track and restore business as usual. What we ought to restore instead is wild nature and our respect for the natural world. For it is our disrespectful relationship with nature that is the true origin of this virus.

In this, the pandemic shares a genesis with two other emergencies that threaten the stability of our way of life: the climate crisis and runaway extinction. And that common birth place is, in fact, an opportunity for us. What could become a convergence of destabilizing forces can also be addressed with a single type of solution, a solution that already exists at a scale we can harness to change the trajectory of the future. Nature-based solutions are everywhere. In every wild place. They do not need to be engineered. Production does not need to be ramped up. All we need to do is preserve functioning nature and wilderness. By doing so we significantly mitigate the worst effects of climate change, protect against the spread of zoonotic disease, halt extinction, and restore areas that have already been destroyed.

Such measures will help us avoid a climate catastrophe and help stave off an increasing frequency of pandemics.

Europe has been a global leader in both climate actions and nature conservation for many years and I feel fortunate to having played a role in setting up the Birds and Habitats Directive and the Natura 2000 network, which today covers and protects 17% of Europe’s landmass.

But we also have to understand that all our efforts are far from enough: Europe’s biodiversity is in rapid decline, while CO2 concentrations are on the rise. The resilience of the natural systems might be close to tipping points or even beyond some of them. It is essential that we act. The new Commission seems to fully understand the threats we are facing and aims to increase its climate and conservation efforts. Part of this must be a more ambitious understanding of the area we need to protect in order to avoid biodiversity extinction on a large scale. 17% will not be enough.

The UK and the EU are now in the process of determining their future relationship. Though the chief focus of that negotiation may be the future trading relationships between the UK and the EU, on the environmental side many of us are determined to safeguard achievements such as the protected areas designated in the UK under the EU Nature Directives and to try to ensure that the UK continues to play a role in the development of pan-European environmental policy.

I also believe that the UK now needs to play a more active part in other pan-European fora such as the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, the OECD’s Environment Committee and the UN Economic Commission for Europe. The UK and EU should together continue with leading on climate and conservation issues

By the same token, I hope we can look forward to pro-active UK policy-making in wider international fora, dealing with environmental issues, both inside and outside the UN system of agencies.

I do believe that an enlightened UK, even outside the EU, can and must play a major role in international environmental policy. Concern for wilderness, for forests, for the conservation of nature and natural resources goes hand in hand with concern for the impact of climate change and for efforts to mitigate and even reverse such change.

At a recent press conference, the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson stated that Britain has a “responsibility” to lead the charge on climate change due to historic emissions from its role in the industrial revolution. And he added it was imperative that the UK should reverse the “appalling loss of habitats and species” as a consequence of climate change.

Let me be clear, I do not represent the British Government here or anywhere else. But I am convinced that the Government and the Prime Minister mean what they say. And I am sure that many other governments are equally convinced though some – naming no names – have yet to be persuaded.

Specifically, I should like to see the nations of the world to adopt at the UNFCCC COP 26 in November 2021 a global goal of zero net carbon by 2050, it being understood that the nations of the world will have, to use the UN’s classic phrase, ‘common but differentiated’ responsibilities as far as the attainment of that global net zero goal is concerned.

And I would like bearing in mind for the CBD COP 15, likely to be held in 2021 to call for a similar goal for nature and nature protection by adopting, e.g. ‘Zero net loss of nature from 2020, net positive trends by 2030, and full recovery by 2050’. This will imply targets for protected areas that go way beyond the current Aichi targets of conserving 17% of terrestrial and 10% of marine and coastal areas. The accelerating and significant extent of ecosystem loss calls for much more ambitious targets for protected area coverage by recognizing the scientific consensus that we simply must act to protect and interconnect half the earths lands and seas. This addresses directly both climate breakdown, species loss, and the fragmentation that increases the likelihood of pandemics.

Restoration of degraded natural areas will be critical if we want to address the pending crises. This has been recognized by UN Decade of Restoration, the very ambitious Bonn Challenge, the European Green Deal and most recently by the Global Charter for Rewilding the Earth.

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1 Comment

  1. Paul Downton

    I agree completely (although I think your faith in the UK government may be somewhat optimistic), but there is also a great need to educate people with the idea that nature is not at fault in the COVID-19 crisis. With mainstream media pointing to the ‘dangers’ of wildlife when it interacts with human populations and our food industries there is an awful lot of potential for misinformation and tub-thumping from fearful knee-jerking politicians and those with powerful cases of short-term greedism.


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