Our planet is terribly sick. The stream of land, air and ocean problems that keep on soaring throughout the years are making the planet unhealthy and uninhabitable. “Human behaviour has had various impacts on biodiversity, atmosphere, oceans, water and land,” says the UN in its recently published Global Environment Outlook 6. “Investing in avoiding land degradation and restoring degraded land makes sound economic sense and the benefits generally far exceed the costs,” it proclaims.
Preserving life on land lies at the heart of the 17 universal and “transformative” Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were adopted by world leaders in the post-2015 summit in September 2015. They recognise that conserving biodiversity and ecosystems is a crucial matter to sustain life on earth, protect land species and attain a land degradation-neutral world. These are anchored in SDG 15 of the global goals, and commit to “sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss”.
The planet is experiencing an unprecedented confluence of pressures on its terrestrial species. Scientific evidence is nowadays available and convincingly shows that ocean ecosystems are changing, the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is snowballing, deforestation and loss of species are accelerating, while tropical rainforest and woodland are being gradually lost. The planet and all its creatures are in a precarious situation!
According to the UN, world forests comprise over 80 per cent of all terrestrial species of animals, plants and insects. Around 1.6 billion people depend on them for their livelihood, including 70 million indigenous people, for which forests constitute a source of natural habitats, food and medication. Unfortunately, the UN confirms that around 3.3 million hectares of the world’s forest areas were lost between 2010 and 2015, while forest areas continue to shrink despite a slight progress in cutting the rate of forests loss by 25 per cent since 2000-2005. Deforestation, which accounts for about 17 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, does not only lead to climate change through the release of CO2 into the environment, but also threatens the habitat of all species, decreases freshwater quality and increases soil erosion.
Loss of biodiversity, mainly caused by climate change, remains one of the most acute problems facing humankind due to its permanent, sometimes irreversible, effects on people, animals and other vital ecosystems. The illegal hunting of wild animals, so-called “illicit poaching”, and the trafficking of wildlife continues to thwart conservation efforts, with nearly 7,000 species of animals and plants reported in illegal trade in around 120 countries, says the UN. More specifically, of the 8,300 animal breeds known, 8 per cent are extinct and 22 per cent are at risk of extinction, while less than 1 per cent of the 80,000-tree species have been studied for potential use.
Desertification from its end has been now, more than ever, placing further strains on agricultural production and posing dire threats to food security. It is the persistent degradation of dryland ecosystems, and is caused by a combination of socioeconomic, political and natural factors that vary across regions and threaten the livelihoods of the poorest and the most vulnerable populations. These range from deforestation, to urbanisation and illicit and unsustainable agricultural practices, among other causes.
Land degradation remains a major challenge for the achievement of the SDGs and the fight against climate change. Statistics show that the planet annually loses 12 million hectares of prime land due to drought and other extreme weather conditions, in addition to demographic changes and irresponsible human activities. These include rapid population growth and urbanisation, overgrazing of pasture lands, overexploitation of natural resources, agricultural expansion and intensification, water pollution and groundwater depletion caused by over pumping, to name only a few. Evidence also shows that 52 per cent of agricultural land is severely affected by soil degradation, at a time when 2.6 billion people depend directly on agriculture and over 80 per cent of rural people rely on traditional plant-based medicines for basic healthcare. Concurrently, land degradation is also caused by our irresponsible consumption and production patterns that are reflected in our lifestyle, shopping habits, waste generation and other inappropriate actions.
Amidst this “doom and gloom” picture, a glimmer of hope still exists and change is possible if strong political will, steady commitment and serious individual and institutional measures are taken to help the planet reverse this rocky path and avoid the complete destruction of planetary life-support systems. However, this requires a decisive shift in every person’s mindset and behaviour!
“Business as usual” is no longer a viable option, and transformative change is now a must. But how can we make this change? By simply becoming more energy efficient, avoiding the use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers, refraining from buying products made from endangered species and by making environmentally-friendly choices in our daily purchases. We can even go “flexitarian” by eating and consuming less meat, less dairy products and eggs and favouring organic food and products that are produced with minimal impact on the environment.
All the more, by “reusing” what we have, “recycling” what we do not need and “reducing” our own consumption patterns, we can halt biodiversity loss and curtail species extinction, thus contributing to the achievement of SDG15. More engaging actions include funding projects that rehabilitate lands, or even organising a “Be the Change” week or one-day event that can create multiplier effects and greater impact in our own environment.
We are the change we want! So, let us break the cycle of inaction that is threatening the planet and menacing the lives of future generations. Let us #TakeAStep towards the safety of our lands, species and the planet at large.
The writer is national information officer at the UN Information Centre in Beirut and has a MSc in Poverty Reduction: Policy and Practice with specialism in Development Management from the University of London, and an MA in Translation and Languages from USEK Lebanon. She contributed this article to The Jordan Times