The world is figuring out how to move forward in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic by finding newer ways to support economic development, animal and human well being, and ecosystem integrity. As the priority in many parts of the world is to stay home, safe and healthy, work continues to address the ongoing crisis of nature loss which also threatens long-term health and prosperity. In fact, nature, now more than ever, is sending warning signals calling for our attention.
One such warning is from the Great Barrier Reef along Australia’s northeast coast. In March 2020, the area suffered a third mass coral bleaching event in five years due to increasingly warmer temperatures recorded in February 2020.
There have also been reports that widespread bleaching in the first quarter of the year has also occurred in East Africa.
Coral reef scientists predict that bleaching events will be more frequent, more widespread and more severe. For instance, the 2017 Coral Bleaching Futures report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) predicted, “Increasingly coral bleaching would be among the greatest threats to coral reefs due to climate change.” Annual Severe Bleaching (ASB) is projected to occur within this century for 99 per cent of the world’s coral reefs. The average projected year of ASB is 2043, the report adds.
A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published in October 2018 warns that, even if we collectively manage to stabilize global surface temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, 70 to 90 per cent of coral reefs will be lost by the middle of this century.
Leticia Carvalho, Head of UNEP’s Marine and Fresh Water Branch says: “Scientists have been telling us for a while that coral bleaching events would become more frequent with anthropogenic climate change and warming oceans. Unfortunately, their worst predictions have come to pass. Mass coral bleaching events are like nature’s fire alarm, a stark reminder that climate change is happening and is already impacting our societies and global ecosystem”.
To date the Great Barrier Reef—a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known for its vast mosaic patterns of reefs, islands and coral cays visible from space—has suffered six mass bleaching events due to warmer than normal ocean temperatures: in 1998, 2002, 2006, 2016, 2017 and now 2020. A statement by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority shows climate change remains the single greatest challenge to the Reef. It is home to the world’s largest collection of coral reefs, with 400 species of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusk.
Bleaching occurs when coral—tiny animals that secrete calcium carbonate for protection—become stressed by factors such as warm water or pollution. As a result of the stress, they expel the microscopic symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae, which reside within their tissues. The corals then turn ghostly white; they become ‘bleached’ (watch these coral bleaching explainer videos). The zooxanthellae are the primary food source for corals. If the algae do not return to the corals as soon as possible (or if temperatures get warmer), the corals can die as it happened in the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 and 2017.
Corals have been observed to glow in luminescent colours—blue, yellow and purple— to protect themselves, like a sunscreen, during extreme ocean heat waves before they die. The phenomenon has sparked the Glowing Gone Campaign in which UNEP has partnered with The Ocean Agency, among other leading ocean conservation organizations.
“It is important to remember bleached corals are not dead corals — on mildly or moderately bleached reefs there is a good chance most bleached corals will recover and survive this event. Equally, on severely bleached reefs, there will be higher mortality of corals,” adds the statement from the lead management agency for the Reef. However, some pockets of the Reef remain unaffected.
Coral reefs, like underwater cities, support a quarter of all marine life – potentially up to 1 million species. They provide at least half a billion people with food security and livelihoods. They also protect coastlines from increasing damage by buffering shorelines against waves, storms and floods, preventing loss of life, property damage and erosion.
“Understanding the different responses of coral reefs to bleaching events is critical for managing coral reefs in a changing climate. Coral reefs are naturally resilient ecosystems, and have been observed to recover well after mortality events if they are given the chance to and other stressors are reduced. This means better water quality, reduced pollution, and sustainable fishing,” says Ms Carvalho.
Supporting coral reefs to be resilient entails reducing coral reef vulnerability to climate change and other stressors.
The bleaching event comes at a time when this year’s World Environment Day, celebrated on June 5, is focused on biodiversity. The day calls for increased awareness and understanding of what biodiversity is and how it provides the vital services that sustain all life on earth. Coral have the highest biodiversity of any ecosystem on the planet—even more than a tropical rainforest.
Further, coral protection speaks to the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030) geared towards the restoration of degraded and destroyed ecosystems to fight the climate crisis and enhance food security, water supply and biodiversity.
How to preserve biodiversity: EU policy
In order to preserve endangered species, the EU wants to improve and preserve biodiversity on the continent.
In January, Parliament called for an ambitious EU 2030 Biodiversity Strategy to address the main drivers of biodiversity loss, and set legally binding targets, including conservation of at least 30% of natural areas and 10% of the long-term budget devoted to biodiversity
In response, and as part of the Green Deal, the European Commission presented the new 2030 strategy in May 2020.
MEP chair Pascal Canfin, chair of Parliament’s environment committee, welcomed the commitment to cut pesticide use with 50% and for 25% of farm products to be organic by 2030 as well as the 30% conservation target, but said the strategies must be transformed into EU law and implemented.
What has been done to safeguard biodiversity and endangered species in Europe?
EU efforts to improve biodiversity are ongoing under the 2020 Biodiversity Strategy, which was introduced in 2010.
The EU’s 2020 Biodiversity Strategy
- The Birds Directive aims to protect all 500 wild bird species naturally occurring in the EU
- The Habitats Directive ensures the conservation of a wide range of rare, threatened or endemic animal and plant species, including some 200 rare and characteristic habitat types
- Natura 2000 is the largest network of protected areas in the world, with core breeding and resting sites for rare and threatened species, and rare natural habitat types
- The EU Pollinator’s Initiative aims to address the decline of pollinators in the EU and contribute to global conservation efforts, focusing on improving knowledge of the decline, tackling the causes and raising awareness
Additionally, the European Life programme brought for example the Iberian Lynx and the Bulgarian lesser kestrel back from near extinction.
The final assessment of the 2020 strategy has yet to be concluded, but according to the midterm assessment, approved by Parliament, the targets to protect species and habitats, maintain and restore ecosystems and make seas healthier were making progress, but had to speed up.
The objective to combat the invasion of alien species was well on track. In strong contrast, the contribution of agriculture and forestry to maintain and enhance biodiversity had made little progress.
The Natura 2000 network of protected nature areas in Europe has increased significantly over the past decade and now covers more than 18% of the EU land area.
Between 2008 and 2018, the marine Natura 2000 network grew more than fourfold to cover 360,000 km2. Many bird species have recorded increases in population and the status of many other species and habitats has significantly improved.
Despite its successes, the scale of these initiatives is insufficient to offset the negative trend. The main drivers of biodiversity loss – loss and degradation of habitat, pollution, climate change and invasive alien species – persist and many are on the increase, requiring a much greater effort.
The EU’s 2030 Biodiversity Strategy
For the next 10 years, the EU will focus on an EU-wide network of protected areas on land and at sea, concrete commitments to restore degraded systems, enable change by making the measures workable and binding and take the lead in tackling biodiversity on a global level.
The new strategy outlining the EU ambition for the post-2020 global biodiversity framework was due to be adopted at the 15th UN Convention on Biological Diversity in October 2020 in China, which has been postponed.
Once adopted, the Commission plans to make concrete proposals by 2021.
As the world’s forests continue to shrink, urgent action is needed to safeguard their biodiversity
Urgent action is needed to safeguard the biodiversity of the world’s forests amid alarming rates of deforestation and degradation, according to the latest edition of The State of the World’s Forests released today.
Published on the International Day for Biological Diversity (22 May), the report shows that the conservation of the world’s biodiversity is utterly dependent on the way in which we interact with and use the world’s forests.
The report was produced by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in partnership, for the first time, with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and technical input from the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC).
It highlights that some 420 million hectares of forest have been lost through conversion to other land uses since 1990, although the rate of deforestation has decreased over the past three decades.
The COVID-19 crisis has thrown into sharp focus the importance of conserving and sustainably using nature, recognizing that people’s health is linked to ecosystem health.
Protecting forests is key to this, as they harbour most of the Earth’s terrestrial biodiversity. This report shows that forests contain 60,000 different tree species, 80 percent of amphibian species, 75 percent of bird species, and 68 percent of the Earth’s mammal species.
FAO’s Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020, noted in the report, found that despite a slowing of the rate of deforestation in the last decade, some 10 million hectares are still being lost each year through conversion to agriculture and other land uses.
“Deforestation and forest degradation continue to take place at alarming rates, which contributes significantly to the ongoing loss of biodiversity,” FAO Director-General, QU Dongyu, and the Executive Director of UNEP, Inger Andersen, said in the foreword.
The report presents a comprehensive overview of forest biodiversity, including world maps revealing where forests still hold rich communities of fauna and flora, such as the northern Andes and parts of the Congo Basin, and where they have been lost.
Conservation and sustainable use:
In this report, a special study from the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission and the US Forest Service found 34.8 million patches of forests in the world, ranging in size from 1 hectare to 680 million hectares. Greater restoration efforts to reconnect forest fragments are urgently needed.
As FAO and UNEP prepare to lead the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration from 2021 and as countries consider a Global Biodiversity Framework for the future, Qu and Andersen both expressed their commitment for increased global cooperation to restore degraded and damaged ecosystems, combat climate change and safeguard biodiversity.
“To turn the tide on deforestation and the loss of biodiversity, we need transformational change in the way in which we produce and consume food,” said QU and Andersen. “We also need to conserve and manage forests and trees within an integrated landscape approach and we need to repair the damage done through forest restoration efforts.”
The report notes that the Aichi Biodiversity Target to protect at least 17 percent of the Earth’s terrestrial areas by 2020 has been achieved for forests, although progress is still required to ensure the representativeness and effectiveness of such protection.
A study conducted by UNEP-WCMC for this report shows that the largest increase in protected forest areas occurred in broadleaved evergreen forests – such as those typically found in the tropics. Furthermore, over 30 percent of all tropical rainforests, subtropical dry forests and temperate oceanic forests are now located within protected areas.
Jobs and livelihoods:
Millions of people around the world depend on forests for their food security and livelihoods.
Forests provide more than 86 million green jobs. Of those living in extreme poverty, over 90 percent are dependent on forests for wild food, firewood or part of their livelihoods. This number includes eight million extremely poor, forest-dependent people in Latin America alone.
Virtual Ocean Dialogues to Fast-track Action, Innovation and Resilience
A healthy and resilient ocean can help tackle climate change while providing sustainable food sources and jobs around the world. Half of the world’s GDP is dependent on nature, according to the World Economic Forum, and more than 3 billion people rely on the ocean for their livelihoods. As countries begin to manage the economic and social impact of COVID-19, the ocean can be part of the solution.
To fast-track the innovations necessary for a healthy ocean, the Friends of Ocean Action, with the World Economic Forum, will convene the first Virtual Ocean Dialogues. From 1-5 June, Heads of State and Government, leaders from business, members of civil society and scientific communities will gather at a virtual summit to share innovation and solutions. It will give participants the opportunity to share and scale projects worldwide, accelerating their benefits. The event will be open to the public. Registration details can be found here.
“We need an all-hands-on-deck approach to achieve action for a healthy ocean, and with the Virtual Ocean Dialogues we are creating the opportunity to involve more people than ever before. No matter where you live and work in the world you can participate in these Dialogues – all you need is an interest in the future of two-thirds of our planet,” said Kristian Teleki, Director of Friends of Ocean Action, World Economic Forum.
Boosting ocean protection, tackling marine pollution, financing a sustainable blue economy and prioritizing data and science to feed billions will feature across the programme. The Dialogues have been designed for communities around the world to connect and exchange ideas.
During the event, finalists will be announced from the UpLink Ocean Solutions Sprint – a competition to unearth great ideas to solve the critical challenges of illegal fishing and plastic pollution. UpLink is a digital platform to crowdsource innovations to accelerate delivery of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is an open platform designed to engage anyone who wants to contribute to the global public good.
“The global community needs ideas and leadership to maintain action for a healthy ocean. I am delighted to support the Virtual Ocean Dialogues and invite anyone with a concern for the ocean to participate in these critical discussions. All of our lives depend on a thriving ocean, and on fast-tracking solutions to rebuild a resilient global community. The health of our ocean underpins the oxygen we breathe, provides food and job security for billions, and is our greatest ally in tackling climate change. We must prioritize the ocean, and that is what this event aims to achieve,” said Isabella Lövin, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the Environment and Climate for Sweden, and Co-Chair of Friends of Ocean Action.
“The UN Ocean Conference has been postponed, but will be held in Lisbon as soon as conditions allow. To fill the gap in the calendar left by this postponement, the World Economic Forum and the Friends of Ocean Action have organized the Virtual Ocean Dialogues on 1-5 June. I have big expectations as to the quality and outcomes of these high-level, expert dialogues, and in the build-up to the UN Ocean Conference will ensure their findings are made available to all. In support of the implementation of SDG 14, I’m confident the Virtual Ocean Dialogues will play a very constructive role in maintaining the momentum to conserve and sustainably use the ocean’s resources,” said Peter Thomson, UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, and Co-Chair of Friends of Ocean Action.
“The World Economic Forum is mainstreaming innovations to unlock solutions to key challenges, that in turn will improve the state of the world. The first focus of UpLink is the ocean and the Sustainable Development Goal for life below water, SDG 14. By connecting leaders and innovators across the public and private sectors and beyond, and pooling ideas and resources, we can facilitate significant positive change for the ocean and people,” said Dominic Waughray, Head of the Platform for Global Public Goods and Managing Director, World Economic Forum.
The Friends of Ocean Action is a coalition of 58 ocean leaders who are fast-tracking solutions to the most pressing challenges facing the ocean. Its members come from business, civil society, international organizations, science and technology. It is hosted by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with the World Resources Institute.
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