by Stan Hirst
Back in September 2020 most of us were most likely a little preoccupied with incessant hand-washing, face-mask adjustment, standing in line for dwindling supplies of beer and toilet paper, and general hand-wringing over news of the cancelled Grey Cup. All reasonable excuses for having missed the column in the national press which told of Canada’s signing of an international pledge to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030, joining more than 70 countries in committing to put nature at the centre of COVID-19 economic recovery plans.
On 21 September 2020 at a special session of the United Nations, dozens of heads of state, financial institutions and non-governmental organizations promised to develop pandemic responses that are “green and just.” Attached to this was a Leaders’ Pledge for Nature which stated a commitment to waste reduction, sustainable supply chains and transparent financial reporting. At the follow-up Leaders Event for Nature and People, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pointed out that Canada is the only one of the world’s 10 largest countries by geography to sign the pledge.
Aware that the COVID-19 pandemic has diverted global population attention away from environmental issues, the UN is justifiably attempting to now forge a link between two global crises – biodiversity loss and public concern over the COVID-19 pandemic. The strategic aim is to convince world governments and the populations under their care to buy into the idea of a transformative recovery process. The underlying plea is for a better post-COVID-19 world through tackling environmental “fragilities” and using emerging opportunities for transformative changes towards more just, equal and resilient societies and economies.
Although biodiversity is the prominent ecosystem value under the spotlight here, the underlying issues being addressed are much more diverse. They range from a world-wide climate crisis, on one hand, to a plethora of national social and economic inequalities, exclusions, gaps in social protection systems, and other social injustices. The UN insists that instead of going back to unsustainable systems and approaches we now need to transition to renewable energy, sustainable food systems, gender equality, stronger social safety nets, universal health coverage and the like. To judge from the number of messages pouring into my e-mailbox from local and national environmental NGOs, the general environmental public in Canada strongly agrees.
Canada’s immediate response to the UN pledge has been a ministerial commitment to protecting 25 per cent of the country’s land and 25 per cent of the country’s oceans by 2025, and raising the bar to the 30 per cent mark on both fronts by 2030. Here in Canada we, sadly, have a bit of a reputation for making big promises and then not following through. Let’s hope and strive for an appropriate follow-through on the promises this time.
For one thing, pledges are all very well and are well-intended, but to have the desired effect they must be accompanied by a systemic shift in government actions that actually integrates the protection, management and restoration of nature into government policy. That includes restoring the economy, addressing climate change, and making progress on Indigenous rights.
In 2019 the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity, the agency responsible for tracking the state of global biodiversity estimated that one million of the Earth’s species of plants and animals face extinction, many within decades, under our prevailing business-as-usual scenario. The report also found that ecosystems are losing genetic diversity, and the knock-on effects include reduced food security and the loss of pharmaceuticals developed from rare biological products.
In Canada, species at risk are facing continued population declines, according to a WWF Canada analysis of the latest version of the Living Planet Report, which tracks the state of threatened species around the world over time. Among those in decline are prime examples of iconic Canadian wildlife, such as barren-ground caribou and the Vancouver Island marmot.