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OPINION: COVID-19 has shown what happens when we destroy nature - 2021 must be the year we change course

by Marco Lambertini | WWF International
Tuesday, 19 January 2021 09:00 GMT

A man from the Guajajara indigenous ethnic group stands, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at a community school in the indigenous village of Morro Branco in the municipality of Grajau, state of Maranhao, Brazil, October 4, 2020. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

For years, we have ignored the silent crisis of biodiversity loss, but we cannot risk another damaging decade for nature

COVID-19 is an unprecedented global health crisis. But it has also been a wake-up call to the risks posed by our destructive relationship with the natural world.

The 2021 Global Risk Report, published this week by the World Economic Forum, reveals that environmental concerns including climate change and biodiversity loss - linked to the rise in global pandemics - are among the top long-term risks the world will likely face in the next 10 years.

Science is clear that the destruction of nature is increasing our vulnerability to pandemics, accelerating climate change and placing livelihoods at risk. For years, we have ignored the silent crisis of biodiversity loss. Just last October, a U.N. report revealed that the world had failed to meet any of its previous decade-long biodiversity targets. The COVID crisis must serve as the trigger for transformative action once and for all. 

We can’t risk another lost decade for nature. Promisingly, more than 80 heads of state and counting have endorsed a Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, committing to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. 

Also encouraging was last week’s One Planet Summit, which saw commitments made towards protecting 30% of the planet by 2030 and the launch of the first international initiative to help prevent the next pandemic through collaborative research and reducing pressures on biodiversity.

Leaders now must turn commitments into integrated action in developing an ambitious and transformative biodiversity plan, tackling plastics and pollution, investing in nature-based solutions and securing a green and just recovery from the pandemic.

Central to this must be the adoption this year of an ambitious global biodiversity agreement at the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity conference in Kunming, China, to halt and reverse biodiversity loss and secure a nature-positive world by 2030. This, combined with the global climate goal of carbon neutrality, will represent the foundation for a sustainable and equitable future.  

This 10-year action plan represents a once-in-a-decade opportunity to secure a global nature agreement similar to the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Without urgent action on biodiversity, the world will be at risk of not achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

As countries get ready to restart talks on a post-2020 global biodiversity framework, so far the current draft biodiversity plan is neither sufficiently ambitious nor comprehensive to tackle our global nature crisis. And we have seen what happens when we play fast and loose with nature.

That is why we have published Nature Positive by 2030: Kunming Plan for Nature and People 2021-2030, which puts forward proposals for a transformative post-2020 global biodiversity framework ready for implementation immediately after adoption in 2021.


Bolder, more ambitious conservation efforts such as increasing the extent and improving the management of protected areas through government regulation, as well as a rights-based approach with Indigenous Peoples and local communities are key, alongside curbing wildlife trade and overfishing. However, conservation efforts alone will not reverse the loss of nature.

Transformative change is urgently needed in our productive sectors, including our food systems, forestry, fisheries, infrastructure and extractives, and in the finance sector. These transformations need to happen fast if we are to limit risks of higher restoration costs and irreversible damage, including new pandemics and species extinction. 

We must transform our food systems so that enough healthy and nutritious food is produced for all, within planetary boundaries. Presently, the way we produce and consume food is the biggest driver of biodiversity loss, land and water use, deforestation and conversion, producing around a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. The good news is that there are huge opportunities to feed the world in a way that works with nature, not against it.

Alongside shifting diets and reducing food loss and waste, boosting nature-positive production provides game-changing solutions that will help deliver long-term food security within planetary boundaries. This will involve supporting farmers and fishers to sustainably manage areas already used for food production, to improve yields and maximise biodiversity and ecosystem services.

The adoption of agroecological practices will reduce inorganic fertiliser and pesticide use, aiding the rehabilitation of degraded or underperforming soils. Healthy soils, more pollinators and higher yielding lands will reduce pressure to convert nature for agriculture and will allow some disused farmland to be restored to natural habitat.

COVID underlines what happens when humanity’s relationship with nature is broken. Our irresponsible behaviour towards nature is endangering our own health - a stark reality we’ve been ignoring for decades. This is our wake-up call. We must tackle our nature crisis urgently, working together with commitment at the highest political and corporate level to secure both human and planetary health.