In September every year world leaders representing 193 member states of the United Nations gather for the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to discuss some of the world’s most complex problems. Celebrating the UN’s 75th anniversary, this year’s UNGA saw two firsts — one, the assembly went virtual due to COVID-19 restrictions and second, nature loss finally received the attention it deserved with a full day dedicated to discussions focused on urgent action on biodiversity for sustainable development.
But September was a critical month for nature in more ways than one. The weeks ahead of UNGA saw the release of two key reports providing irrefutable evidence of the magnitude of the nature crisis. First, WWF’s Living Planet Report (LPR) launched on 10 September with the news that wildlife populations had declined on average by an alarming 68 per cent in less than 50 years due in large part to the very same environmental destruction which contributes to virus outbreaks like COVID-19. The report revealed that without further efforts to counteract habitat loss and degradation, global biodiversity will continue to decline.
Close on the heels of the LPR, on 15 September, the United Nations published another sobering report, the Global Biodiversity Outlook 5, which revealed that of the 20 biodiversity targets that global governments agreed in 2010 to meet within a decade, none will be fully achieved and only six have been even partially met. This was a major disappointment; the world’s failure to meet these targets will likely make it much harder for countries to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, and it undermines progress made on tackling climate change. It wasn’t much of a surprise though: global efforts to address the biodiversity crisis so far have been marred by gross absence of political will and inaction. lacking the scale and ambition needed to effectively protect nature loss at even a national level.
Both reports made it very clear that we need urgent, decisive action to reverse nature loss and safeguard the future of people and planet. That’s why we had such high hopes for UNGA 2020. This year was the first time in 75 years of General Assemblies that nature was given the platform it deserves, representing a critical opportunity for leaders to demonstrate ambition and accelerate action on biodiversity for sustainable development.
Kicking off the high level week on a high note, organisations representing hundreds of millions of people and hundreds of firms issued coordinated calls for governments to act to save nature.
Then, during his address to the General Assembly on 22 September, President Xi Jinping gave a much-needed boost to climate action by committing that China will peak emissions before 2030 and become carbon neutral before 2060. China’s leadership in boosting momentum on climate action is admirable, and President Xi now has a huge opportunity to drive the global effort to reverse nature loss, without which efforts for mitigating climate change will be wholly insufficient. As the host and president of the biodiversity conference in Kunming next year, China has an incredibly important role to play in convening governments to develop a more detailed action plan to reverse nature loss.
Another pivotal moment of UNGA came a few days later, when EU and political leaders representing 75 countries across five continents made a Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, committing to reverse nature loss by 2030. The pledge, which WWF is proud to have supported and helped facilitate, saw countries demonstrating strong leadership for halting biodiversity loss while setting a precedent for other countries to follow in collectively addressing the challenges of nature loss and climate change.
Last but not least, before UNGA concluded, the first-ever UN Biodiversity Summit was held — a day-long event dedicated to addressing the biodiversity crisis. Heads of State came together to discuss the degradation of nature and the urgent need to accelerate action on biodiversity for sustainable development. Building on the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, it provided an opportunity for Heads of State and Government and other leaders to raise ambition for the development of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework to be adopted at the 15th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2021.
So what next now that UNGA is over for another year? The Leaders’ Pledge was a major moment in which countries have shown real leadership — but we now need to hold them to account, encourage others to step up and ensure they take action — we don’t want more false promises like the 2030 Aichi targets became.
This is the first time we’ve seen so many countries step up together, and send a united signal that the world must significantly increase its ambition on nature, to safeguard both people and the planet. The momentum achieved means that at the next big global meeting on biodiversity — set to be held next year in China — world leaders will have no excuse but to develop and implement a global action plan to set nature on the path to recovery. Let’s hope and ensure that they do.