COVID-19 a 'turning point' for global biodiversity

The world is observing International Day of Biological Diversity at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has led to lockdowns in many countries. With humans indoors, wild animals are roaming freely on the streets and air pollution has dramatically declined.

2020 has been designated as a super year for global biodiversity as governments were meant to agree on a target to reverse the environmental damages caused by human activities. 

Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, acting executive secretary of UN Convention on Biological Diversity – an organization playing a pivotal role in preparing global biodiversity target – spoke to Alok Gupta. 

Here are edited excerpts from the interview:

Alok Gupta: How is COVID-19 impacting efforts to set up a global target to protect biodiversity?

Elizabeth Maruma Mrema: This year has brought unforeseen challenges, but we believe that 2020 will serve as a turning point for our relationship with nature. The present COVID-19 crisis provides us with a reset button on our relationship with nature. It can still be the year that our global attitude and approach to nature fundamentally changes. 

We are still on track to develop a robust and ambitious framework that will be relevant for the period of reconstruction following the pandemic. Although Conference of Parties (COP-15) scheduled to be held in Kunming, China, in October 2020 has been postponed until 2021, many important dialogues will still occur this year as part of the development of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework. 

Gupta: How would you rate the implementation of the Aichi Biodiversity Target 2020, prepared to address the underlying causes of biodiversity?

Mrema: The majority of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets will not be fully met, although some specific components or elements within the targets have been achieved. On the positive side, awareness and understanding of biodiversity in the last decade has increased. Overall, biodiversity loss is continuing, despite substantial ongoing efforts for biodiversity conservation and sustainable use. 

Gupta: Will the ongoing pandemic force governments to agree on an ambitious biodiversity target?  

Mrema: COVID-19 reaffirms what we already knew – that biodiversity is fundamental for human health – and has given new urgency to the need to protect it. We hope that the likelihood of an agreement is higher than before. This pandemic has shown in clear terms that international cooperation is paramount for the health of our nature, our economies, and our people. I fully believe that we can pursue the opportunity to re-imagine and transform our relationship with nature while promoting community and global health. 

Gupta: In most countries, environment ministers lack influence. What could be done to ensure the engagement of influential leaders at COP15?

Mrema: It's true that the mandates of ministers of environment, which represent parties in the majority of cases of the CBD, do not usually go beyond the legal requirements of their countries of origin – and this includes serious limits to their input, and involvement in, major economic decisions. 

However, this is changing.

Gupta: Were there any changes to Zero-Draft due to COVID-19?

Mrema: Most of the issues related to the coronavirus issues were identified long before COVID-19 passed into humans. The Zero Draft of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, released earlier this year, outlines five long-term goals related to the 2050 Vision for Biodiversity, which aims at living in harmony with nature. 

All of these goals, if effectively implemented, will set us on track to ensure that such a pandemic never occurs again. By protecting nature and preventing people from coming into contact with untouched parts of the wild, we can decrease the likelihood of future pandemics.

Gupta: What should be done to prevent animal to human transmission of viruses like novel coronavirus? 

Mrema: I believe the COVID-19 pandemic has most definitely alerted governments about the importance of biodiversity. Many are starting to connect the dots. For example, linkages between biodiversity and human health present a broad range of opportunities for jointly protecting health and biodiversity, and for advancing human wellbeing. 

We need an integrated, whole-of-government, whole of society approach to improving the way we manage the natural environment and interactions with human society. We need what is known as a “one Health” approach – where we are concerned with the health, or people, wild and domesticated animals, and the wider environment altogether. 

Gupta: Will banning wildlife trade and consumption prevent viral outbreaks? 

Mrema: There is no question that stricter controls on the sale and consumption of wild species, and implementation of the International Health Regulations, must be scaled up globally. 

But a blanket ban of the trade, farming and consumption of wild species, or a "clamp-down" of wet markets, would not, altogether, eliminate the risk of future zoonotic spillover. These markets sustain the livelihoods of millions of people, while others rely on wild foods as a critical source of food security and nutrition, particularly in low-income rural areas and communities. Under some conditions, a blanket ban may even generate new opportunities for diseases to emerge.

Global wildlife trade and live animal markets, where live fish, meat and wild animals are sold, are important risk factors for zoonotic disease spillover. Countries should reduce the number of live animals in food markets to reduce the risk of disease outbreaks. 

Gupta: Countries have rolled out stimulus packages to deal with economic losses inflicted by lockdowns without putting a limit on emissions. Does it worry you?

Mrema: It is crucial to ensure that the economic stimulus packages created by countries do not hinder biodiversity but instead guarantee its protection and restoration. Current stimulus activities in many countries have not focused on the environment sector. A sound future must lead to a new normal that is built on a social contract that puts us in harmony with nature. One that, at once, minimizes the outbreak of zoonotic epidemics, revives a profitable economy and ensures ecosystem services are available for everyone.

(Video edited by Wang Dawei)