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Leaders stoke ambitions to reverse nature crisis

French President Emmanuel Macron and U.N. and World Bank leaders hosted a virtual summit to improve the planet's health and save biological resources.

Trunk Bay, part of Virgin Islands National Park on the Caribbean island of St. John
Trunk Bay, part of Virgin Islands National Park on the Caribbean island of St. John (AN/J. Heilprin)

PARIS (AN) — French President Emmanuel Macron and leaders of the United Nations and World Bank hosted a virtual summit on Monday dedicated to improving the health of the planet and saving its biological resources from harmful impacts by people and climate change.

The One Planet Summit highlighted initiatives and commitments from donors to put more climate finance into protecting and restoring nature, such as the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, launched by Britain, Costa Rica and France in 2019. It seeks to protect nearly a third of the planet's land and oceans by 2030, as part of an attempt to reverse dramatic losses in biodiversity — the variety of life in all forms. Only about 15% of land and 7% of oceans are protected now.

Participants focused on protecting land and marine ecosystems, promoting more sustainable ways to grow food, reducing deforestation and raising more money to protect biodiversity. They also sought to galvanize support for U.N.-led summits on biodiversity, climate and desertification planned for later this year. Some Mediterranean countries pushed to better protect the sea from overfishing and pollution.

"I understand the impatience of those who, committed to the planet, have the feeling that we are not going fast enough, not far enough. It is to them, it is to them that I want to speak," said Macron, who announced the coalition has now expanded to include 50 nations. He also unveiled an international effort, PREZODE, with more than 400 experts seeking to prevent more zoonotic diseases and pandemics.

“We know even more clearly amid the crisis we are going through that all our vulnerabilities are interrelated," he told the summit. “Pressure on nature exerted by human activities is increasing inequalities and threatening our health and our security.”

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, who has appealed to world leaders to start fixing our “broken” planet by ringing in 2021 with a commitment among all nations to embark on a carbon pollution-neutral future, told the summit this "must be the year to reconcile humanity with nature. Until now, we have been destroying our planet. We have been abusing it as if we had a spare one."

He said the global effort to recover from the pandemic, which has infected 90 million people and killed 1.9 million worldwide, actually presents an opportunity for nations to adopt and invest in more nature-friendly policies. "With smart policies and the right investments," Guterres said, "we can chart a path that brings health to all, revives economies and builds resilience and rescues biodiversity."

A Paris climate treaty approach

More than 30 world leaders, heads of international organizations and government officials took part in the Paris summit that most attended by videoconference, due to the pandemic. They aimed to stoke ambitions such as those detailed in a sweeping plan unveiled by the United Nations a year ago to avert what scientists fear is shaping up to be Earth’s sixth mass extinction.

The U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity’s proposed global wildlife treaty is an ambitious plan on the scale of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. It seeks to preserve the world’s imperiled plant and animal species through a “theory of change” approach — setting long-term goals and working backwards to identify what must be done.

"We need a Paris-style agreement to go with it. Ambitious, global and game changing. The stakes could not be higher and the imperative to act could not be more compelling," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen of Germany said. "And if we don't urgently act to protect our nature, we may already be at the beginning of an era of pandemics. But we can do something about it. It needs concerted global action and local sustainable development."

The wildlife treaty would serve as the world’s framework to attempt to halt the human actions that scientists, in a 2019 U.N. report on biodiversity, said are threatening 1 million of the world’s 8 million plant and animal species with extinction by causing Earth’s natural life support systems to reach a crucial breaking point.

Among the other leaders attending were British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Britain's Prince Charles appealed to multinational business leaders to help invest US$10 billion by 2022 in protecting the planet's "natural capital" as part of what he termed a “Terra Carta," or Earth Charter.

On the summit's sidelines, proponents of Africa’s Great Green Wall project sought more funding to stop the Sahara Desert's expansion to the south by planting 7,000 kilometers of trees from Senegal to Djibouti. U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, who did not attend, has also pledged to make climate and biodiversity top priorities and to protect 30% of U.S. lands and waters from development by 2030.