damselfly on a leaf

Are we united to reverse biodiversity loss?

Loss of biodiversity will affect the survival of humanity. Grandiose perhaps, but will pledges be enough?

United to Reverse Biodiversity Loss by 2030 for Sustainable Development

So claims the Leaders Pledge for Nature subtitle signed by Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau, Jacinda Ardern and Boris Johnson among 64 leaders at the United Nations Summit on Biodiversity in September 2020.

The most populous countries to sign up, Pakistan and Bangladesh, represent 385 million people. The other top 10 most populous countries didn’t sign which means some 4.1 billion, roughly half of humanity, are not under the pledge.

We could be cynical and say that along with this underrepresentation in numbers; there have been commitments to biodiversity before, going back to the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992 when a different group of leaders and diplomats came up with the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Back then, similar pledges were made to make things better.

Then we could add…

The brawling superpowers didn’t sign. This means that all the usual arm wrestling will still be driven by economic and political needs rather than anything sustainable.

And despite all the hype, there’s no significant uptick in interest from the public. 

Most people are struggling with the consequences of the pandemic along with the immediacies of life. Their list of priorities has the environment as a mid-table club unlikely to ever feature in the playoffs.

moth resting on a leaf
Photo by Cédric VT on Unsplash

There is an insect apocalypse going on, a symptom of the sixth mass extinction

Maybe what Sir David Attenborough has been saying will help more than a new pledge from political leaders. 

But before we are depressed with negativity, we had better look at what the pledge says.

The good stuff in the pledge

Overall, the intent of the pledge for integration and a shift away from conservation to sustainable use of nature is welcome and long overdue. 

The conservation agenda, focusing on the preservation of anything rare or endangered, is not possible anymore. 

Humanity must work with what is left of nature to sustain an ever-growing human population and save what we can of nature but under a framework of resource use. The theme of the pledge seems to accept this reality and recognises that sustainable development is a humanity level challenge and that the solutions must deliver multiple values. 

It’s not about biodiversity loss but about humanity — this is a big step forward. 

Here are the more encouraging quotes from the pledge

We are in a state of planetary emergency: the interdependent crises of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, and climate change – driven in large part by unsustainable production and consumption – require urgent and immediate global action.

We agree with the planetary emergency or, more strictly, the human emergency. At our current rate of development and use of natural capital, the likelihood of human extinction is rising. Urgent action is essential. 

It is a human crisis for ourselves and by ourselves. 

Gaia can handle an extinction crisis or five, so another is just a repeat of an old tale for her. What happens in these events is a reboot of the natural balance and not many organisms survive it. 

This is a huge problem for humanity now that there are so many of us and our needs are great. An emergency is a correct description.

It could be that as the squeeze comes on, ‘urgency and immediate’ are the operative words. The global failure of previous biodiversity conventions, agenda 21 and any number of green initiatives and conservation NGO demands, means we really do have very little time or opportunity to turn this around. 

The goalposts have shifted too.

A return to the pristine wilderness of our pre-agriculture past is no longer possible. A functioning system is what must be preserved.

Nature fundamentally underpins human health, wellbeing and prosperity. We need to appropriately value nature and the services it provides as we make decisions and recognize that the business case for biodiversity is compelling. The benefits of restoring natural resources outweigh the costs ten-fold, and the cost of inaction is even higher.

This is also the message of sustainably FED so we agree and applaud this one. However, our take is a little different. 

The Leaders Pledge for Nature implies that the solution is to value nature as a source of wealth. Only it has always been a wealth generator from the very beginning and especially since the invention of agriculture. Most would agree that humans are genius-level in turning natural capital into prosperity. 

However, what actually happens so often in the development process is that benefits are internalised and the costs externalised. So the ‘nature fundamentally underpins human prosperity’ misses the point that this drive for prosperity is what got us into the mess of resource degradation and the loss of nature.

The real challenge is to keep the health, well-being and prosperity without further erosion of the natural capital base 

We will re-double our efforts to end traditional silo thinking and to address the interrelated and interdependent challenges of biodiversity loss, land, freshwater and ocean degradation, deforestation, desertification, pollution and climate change in an integrated and coherent way, ensuring accountability and robust and effective review mechanisms, and lead by example through actions in our own countries.

This is really good news. 

Integrated thinking is at the core of any hope humanity might have to survive its demographic transition. It is a pity that ‘our efforts’ are not defined, but one step at a time.

We commit to transition to sustainable patterns of production and consumption and sustainable food systems that meet people’s needs while remaining within planetary boundaries

Again right out of the sustainability copybook and a truly laudable commitment. It also comes with a tacit admission that current production and consumption is unsustainable.

We commit to mainstreaming biodiversity into relevant sectoral and cross-sectoral policies at all levels, including in key sectors such as food production, agriculture, fisheries and forestry, energy, tourism, infrastructure and extractive industries, trade and supply chains, and into those key international agreements and processes which hold levers for change, including the G7, G20, WTO, WHO, FAO, and UNFCCC and UNCCD.

Laudable again. 

The conservation movement has always been reluctant to do business with the nasty brown end of town also with the farmers who manage most of the land. No sleeping with the enemy. 

This is and always has been short-sighted. The mainstreaming of biodiversity as ecosystem services and the broader value of nature (as opposed to the saving of species) is a critical and much bigger shift than most people will recognise. 

Let’s just hope they do it for production gain, the resilience of agriculture, and not just for conservation. It is critical that biodiversity is recognised as part of the key production sectors.

We commit to integrating a “One-Health” approach in all relevant policies and decision-making processes at all levels that addresses health and environmental sustainability in an integrated fashion

The link to diet, hallelujah.

Incentivizing the financial system, nationally and internationally, including banks, funds, corporations, investors and financial mechanisms, to align financial flows to environmental commitments and the Sustainable Development Goals, to take into account the value of nature and biodiversity, promote biodiversity conservation, restoration and its sustainable use in their investment and financing decisions, and in their risk management

Encouraging private sector investment into sustainable production and the SDGs is essential if anything is going to change. Public funds are always stretched and this pledge will cost especially for developing economies and so the private sector has to play a much bigger role. There are already some hints this is happening with Green Bonds, micro-loans, PES schemes and other novel financial instruments and this has to continue. 

The rider is that finance got us into this mess. Remember what Albert Einstein said about insanity “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

We commit that our approach to the design and implementation of the policy will be science-based

This has been the rhetoric around the mature economies for a while now. Only most of the time the white-coated ones are ignored when they say things that the politicians and their sponsors don’t want to hear. It has culminated in ignoring evidence when it suits. 

Public ignorance of evidence is a major challenge here too.

The not so good stuff in the pledge

It is easy to be cynical about global conventions and pledges. The global talkfests that birth them are as famous for their grandstanding and rhetoric as they are for their acrimony and shady deals in corridors at the eleventh hour.

The Leaders Pledge for Nature does put integration and greater awareness in the rhetoric at least but with all these statements of intent, the devil is in the detail and the actions that must be taken. 

We are not told what these will be.

…to achieve the vision of Living in Harmony with Nature by 2050

Millenia of exploitation turned around in 30 years? 

Arguably humans have never lived in harmony. They have always exploited. Historically we are conquerors and conquered, exploiters and exploited, haves and have nots and there is no reason to suggest we can change our DNA. Psychologists always advise on achievable goals, maybe this one is more demoralising than visionary.

We commit to the development and full implementation of an ambitious and transformational post-2020 global biodiversity framework for adoption at the 15th Conference of Parties of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD CoP 15)

This will never pass the pub test. It also kicks the ball down the road.

What will convince the public that this is genuine, that they have not heard it all before, and that the previous 14 conferences of the parties achieved anything if what Sir David is telling us is true? 

Back to the Einstein quote again.

halt human induced extinction of species, to ensure species populations recover, and to significantly increase the protection of the planet’s land and oceans through representative, well connected and effectively managed systems of Protected Areas and Other Effective AreaBased Conservation Measures

Unfortunately, the science says that the reserve system is nowhere near enough and what we have so far has done little to help. 

Awkward truths.

What, no soil

Do you know where most of the biodiversity on earth can be found? 

Where does most of our food come from?

What filters much of our freshwater?

Yep, soil. 

It is a pity that the pledge couldn’t at least hint that soil is essential to most of the integration and living in harmony it seeks. 

There is mention of land degradation and sustainable food systems and a few more soil-related phrases but the foundation of all terrestrial life on the planet doesn’t really get the herald it needs. 

If the soil stays as a black box of dirt, then no amount of rhetoric around the green and cuddly parts of nature will be successful. 

Consumers have to grasp what science knows and learn to protect soil and encourage its careful management.

Not having an explicit statement on soil health in the pledge is a huge miss.

What sustainably FED suggests

The history of international pledges to nature is that they fail.

Remember that the first biodiversity pledges were made in 1996 soon after the term was invented and there have been many made since. There is little to suggest that this latest one will be any different.

We are grateful for a more rounded flavour that brings in planetary boundaries, the reality of food production and even mentions diet. This is progress.

The deeper question is does a pledge for nature even accept that we are in nature and not separate from it as our egos believe?

Only when it is a pledge for ourselves will any of this have a chance of success.

Hero image modified from photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

Add comment

Subscribe to our explainer series

* indicates required

Most discussed