June 5, 2020
World Environment Day (WED) is the United Nations’ flagship day for promoting and encouraging worldwide awareness and action to protect the environment we live in. Since 1974, WED is celebrated every year on June 5 and has grown to be the largest global platform for environmental public outreach that is celebrated by millions of people in more than 100 countries.
This year, Colombia in partnership with Germany is the host for celebrating WED 2020 on the theme 'Biodiversity' – it is a call for action to combat the accelerating species loss and degradation of the natural world. Colombia has one of the highest diversities of species in the world, boasting among many others, 3500 types of orchids and 19 per cent of the world’s bird types and the government has now made biodiversity preservation a national priority.
We are witnessing unparalleled bushfires in Brazil, United States and Australia to locust swarms in many countries–and now, an ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic, the latest in a string of zoonotic disease outbreaks, Demonstrates the interdependence of humans with other forms of life and how all living things on Earth are connected in the webs of life in which they exist. Nature is sending us a message.
BIODIVERSITY AND ITS IMPORTANCE
Biodiversity is the foundation that supports all life on land and below water. It is the variability of living things that makes up life on Earth. It encompasses the 8 million or so species on the planet – from plants and animals to fungi and bacteria – the ecosystems that house them – such as oceans, forests, mountain environments and coral reefs – as well as the genetic diversity found among them. Healthy ecosystems, rich with biodiversity, are fundamental to human existence.
The food that we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink and the climate that makes our planet habitable all come from nature and they are God’s gift to us. Ecosystems sustain human life in innumerable ways, cleaning our air, purifying our water, ensuring the availability of nutritious foods, nature-based medicines and raw materials and reducing the occurrence of disasters. For instance, each year, marine plants produce more than a half of our atmosphere's oxygen and over one year a mature tree absorbs 22 kilograms of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and releases oxygen in exchange.
Despite all the benefits that nature gives us, we still mistreat it and take the services for granted. It is estimated that one million plant and animal species are facing extinction – some within decades – largely due to human activities according to the latest report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Each species plays an important role in keeping an ecosystem balanced and healthy. Changing or removing one element of this web affects the entire life system and can produce negative consequences. Losses in biodiversity and habitat can increase the spread of infectious diseases and viruses. Services provided by biodiversity are worth an estimated USD 125-140 trillion per year, more than one and a half times the size of global GDP.
REASONS FOR LOSS OF BIODIVERSITY
Our greed for the present economic benefits has triggered long term environmental problems that we will have to pay back for decades and generations to come. The five main drivers of biodiversity loss as identified by the latest IPBES and GEO-6 report stem from our activities and are as follows:
1. LAND-USE CHANGE: Our demand for food and resources is driving deforestation, changing patterns of land use, and destroying natural habitats across the globe. Today, one-third of the world’s topsoil has been degraded due to acidification, pollution and other unsustainable land management practices.
2. OVER-EXPLOITATION OF PLANTS AND ANIMALS: The over-exploitation of resources by people, including fishing, logging and wildlife poaching is threatening the very existence of creatures great and small; from iconic wildlife, like the pangolin, the most illegally trafficked mammal on the planet, to the beluga sturgeon, prized for its caviar. Poverty can force people into activities like poaching and illegal logging, while unsustainable development encroaches upon wild areas and fuels demand for wildlife products.
3. CLIMATE EMERGENCY: Climate change and the increase in extreme weather drive habitat loss and degradation. For example, warming seas are melting sea ice; intact ice flows are critical for sustaining polar bears, seals and fishing birds, meanwhile acidifying oceans are bleaching coral reefs. One estimate suggests that by 2050, one in six species could be threatened with extinction if current warming trends continue.
4. POLLUTION: Pollution is a major and growing threat to biodiversity, with devastating effects on freshwater and marine habitats. There may now be around 5 trillion macro and microplastic pieces floating in the ocean, making up to 60 to 90 per cent of marine debris. Open waste dumps impact plants and animals, while pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals harm pollinators like bees and bats, which are natural predators of pests.
5. INVASIVE ALIEN SPECIES: Invasive species threaten biodiversity by acting as parasites or competitors, altering habitats, crossbreeding with local species and bringing diseases. Globalization has increased the movement and introduction of species beyond their original ranges through trade and tourism, disrupting their new host communities and habitats.
BIODIVERSITY LOSS AND COVID-19
This World Environment Day, let us reflect on what got us to this pandemic. Coronavirus is zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people and research show that these diseases are on the rise. At present, about 1 billion cases of illness, and millions of deaths, occur every year from zoonoses. Over 60 per cent of all known infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic, as are 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases. In 2016 the UN Environment Programme identified the issue of zoonotic diseases as a key emerging issue of global concern in its frontiers publication series. The chapter on zoonoses – diseases that can be passed on from animals to humans – illustrates how the emergence and re-emergence of zoonotic diseases are closely interlinked with the health of ecosystems. The risk of disease emergence and amplification increases with the intensification of human activities surrounding and encroaching into natural habitats, enabling pathogens in wildlife reservoirs to spill over to livestock and humans. The report emphasizes the critical relationship between a healthy environment and healthy people, and how human activities often undermine the long-term health and ability of ecosystems to support human well-being.
Scientists predict that if we do not change our behaviour towards wild habitats, we are in danger of more virus outbreaks. To prevent future zoonoses, we must address the multiple threats to ecosystems and wildlife, including habitat loss and fragmentation, illegal trade, pollution, invasive species and climate change.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder that human health is linked to the planet’s health. It has drawn attention to the fact that when we destroy biodiversity, we destroy the system that supports human life. The more biodiverse an ecosystem is, the more difficult it is for one pathogen to spread rapidly or dominate; whereas, biodiversity loss provides an opportunity for pathogens to pass between animals and people.
Hence, in the effect of our own human actions, including deforestation, encroachment on wildlife habitats, intensified agriculture, and acceleration of climate change, have upset the delicate balance of nature. We have changed the system that would naturally protect us, and have created conditions that allow particular pathogens–including coronavirus to spread.
WAYS TO REVERSE BIODIVERSITY LOSS: THE CHALLENGE IS HUMANS
Human action worldwide has reduced biodiversity and modified wildlife population structures at an unprecedented rate. In the last 50 years, the human population has doubled, the global economy has almost quadrupled and global trade has increased by approximately ten times. Today, it would take 1.6 Earths to meet the demands that humans make on nature each year; and more species are at risk of extinction than ever before. Yet, these are exceptional times in which nature is sending us a message: It’s time to wake up, take notice, raise our voices and take action.
As we head towards a population of 10 billion people on this planet, we must embrace the opportunities and value of the natural environment and not work against it. The good news is that we can reverse the trends of biodiversity loss by reimagining our relationship with nature and acting now to increase accountability for its protection. We must conserve and restore wildlife and wild spaces, change the way we produce and consume food, promote environment-friendly infrastructure and transform economies to become custodians of nature.
World Environment Day aims to inspire everyone to make their voices heard-citizens need to urge their governments to deliver on their commitments to safeguard nature, reduce pollution and ensure that environmental laws are upheld. Companies need to develop sustainable supply chains, as well as agricultural and manufacturing practices that do not harm the environment. Citizens and civil society groups should look at how to preserve and restore degraded ecosystems. Stronger environmental policies and accountability measures will help drive these changes in behaviour.
The following are some of the ways in which each of us can contribute to conserving the Biodiversity around us:
• As individuals, we must rethink what we buy and use and thus become conscious consumers by changing for the better. Our children watch us closely, so we must become the change we would like to see in future generations.
• Avoid buying and using single-use plastics in your homes and businesses. Plastic waste that ends up in nature is often mistaken for food by animals both on land and in the sea. For many species, it can cause severe injury and death
• Segregate wet and dry waste. Reuse and Recycle as much as you can.
• Create a compost in your garden with wet (organic)waste and use it as fertilizer and grow some of your own produce
• Plant an urban garden in your balcony or backyard or get involved in supporting a community urban garden with native flowering plants
• Minimize the use of household chemicals that can have toxic effects on soil and groundwater. Instead, experiment with natural products, such as vinegar etc.
• Explore how to buy locally produced products and foods
• Try our best to reduce waste and consume less
• Leave some wild green spaces in your garden where pollinators and ground-dwelling insects can thrive
• In businesses that rely on their host environments and ecosystems for inputs into production and manufacturing processes can incorporate bold and sustainable practices in their supply chains and financing
• Encourage and co-operate with the sustainable practices put forward and being practised by the local government
• Encourage and support the government to make biodiversity conservation at the heart of decision making and approvals for public and private enterprises
• Avoid bursting crackers and activities that result in noise and air pollution that impacts various forms of life around us
• Organize biodiversity conservation drives at your workplace, schools, colleges etc or actively participate in conservation drives to create more awareness on solutions to conserve biodiversity.
• An understanding of the various species and habitats around us and their importance can go a long way to help us appreciate their presence and play an important role to conserve them.
Involving children in these solutions to conserve biodiversity in an interesting way would instil a positive interest in future generations to value the life around them and pave the way for a sustainable tomorrow.
Biodiversity – the essential variety of life forms on Earth – continues to decline in every region of the world, significantly reducing nature’s capacity to contribute to people’s well-being. As the global population approaches 10 billion, we need to better understand the web of life in which we live and appreciate that it functions as a whole system. We must come to the realization that our human actions, including deforestation, encroachment on wildlife habitats, intensified agriculture, and acceleration of climate change, have pushed nature beyond its limit. At the current rate, it would take 1.6 Earths to meet the demands that humans make of nature each year. If we continue on this path, biodiversity loss will have severe implications for humanity, endangering economies, livelihoods, food security, health systems and the quality of life of people everywhere.
The COVID-19 pandemic our world is facing provides us with an opportunity to both revisit our relationship with nature and rebuild a more environmentally responsible world. Addressing zoonotic disease emergence requires addressing its root cause – primarily, the impact of human activities. As countries start to plan ways to build back better, getting nature at the heart of all decision making for people and the planet must be a priority.
This World Environment Day, it’s time for nature. It is true that it will take the entire global community to counter biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation. However, only when each one of us takes time to re-imagine our relationship with nature, do our part promptly and spread awareness among others can we allow nature to heal and ensure a better and healthier future for everyone.
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