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A paradigm lost? Making sense of 2020, the ‘Super Year’ for Nature

In early March this year, the UN Secretary-General called for countries to step up their efforts and turn deforestation around in order to make 2020 a ‘super year’ for nature.

This call arrived following the release of an alarming report highlighting the unprecedented speed at which ecosystems and species are deteriorating and disappearing worldwide, issued by the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Just days later, governments all over the world were forced into a global lockdown in an attempt to fight off a global pandemic caused by a zoonotic disease.

These measures could indeed help to make 2020 a ‘super year’ for nature. Not necessarily because governments started acting to reverse biodiversity and ecosystem loss, but because forced confinement and a global lockdown allowed animals and plants back to their natural habitats - and beyond. In just a few months, animals began to reclaim the spaces previously ‘reserved’ for humans: whales and dolphins approach shores and ports; birds nest on transport infrastructures; large mammals search villages and towns for food.

This has served as a stark reminder that it is human action and presence that poses the main threat to the fine balance of our natural ecosystems, often with disastrous consequences.

When we think of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, we may not immediately think of how they relate to deforestation and destruction of natural habitats, wildlife displacement, and the illegal trade of species. But they are intimately connected. These all result in increased contact between humans and animals; making the mutation and spread of viruses between and across species much faster and considerably easier.

Put simply, COVID-19, like the climate crisis, is due to our inability to live in balance with nature. The current pandemic reminds us that our health is intrinsically related to the health of our natural environment, especially forests, which represent a unique biodiversity hub hosting over 80 percent of all terrestrial species of animals, plants and insects.

To reclaim our health, we need to first reclaim our forests, including by working to urgently reverse the trend of deforestation and forest degradation to restore and recreate our lost landscapes and natural habitats.

The UN has the mandate and expertise to help countries tackle biodiversity and ecosystem loss, but much greater political will is needed. Concrete and urgent action also requires closer cooperation and better coordination among UN entities themselves. This includes recognizing, and acting upon, the interconnected nature of the Sustainable Development Goals and breaking down the siloed approach that continues to permeate large bureaucracies. After all, as the IPBES’ report shows, the current trend of rapidly declining and disappearing species and ecosystems will undermine the progress of not only Sustainable Development Goal 15: Life on Land, but also those SDGs that relate to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, and climate.

With the strain on already limited resources dedicated to protecting and restoring nature set to intensify in the post-COVID-19 recovery, it is essential to strengthen coordination to make the best use of synergies and available resources across and beyond the UN system.

To make the most of our joint efforts, UNECE will host an “SDG 15 Day” in early November 2020, where partner agencies and organizations from across our member States in Europe, North America, the Caucasus and Central Asia will present their plans to support the 2021-2030 UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Together, we will review current activities and deliver concrete proposals to further strengthen our cooperation.

I urge all governments of our region, the private sector, and all stakeholders, to put nature at the top of their action agenda to ensure a green and sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Let us all start by embracing 2020 as a ‘super year’ for nature to guide our joint efforts in the decade ahead.