The ‘super year for biodiversity’: Undermined by a wildlife market?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Smuggled pangolins on display at the Natural Resources Conservation Center Riauin, Indonesia, on 25 October 2017. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, China—followed by Vietnam—has announced welcome new measures to restrict the trade and consumption of wildlife, writes Janice Weatherley Singh. [Arief Budi Kusuma / Shutterstock]

This year’s meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is being curtailed by the COVID-19 outbreak. Ironically, the pandemic most likely first emerged from wildlife being traded in a live animal market in Wuhan, China, writes Janice Weatherley Singh.

Janice Weatherley-Singh is the director of EU strategic relations for WCS EU, a Belgian NGO affiliated with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

2020 was the year we’d all been waiting for – the so-called “super year for biodiversity.”

Conservationists have been working for many years to try and get EU leaders and policy-makers to pay attention and take action to tackle the biodiversity crisis. Since the Paris agreement in 2015 under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), EU leaders have made action on climate change one of their highest policy priorities.

This year it felt as though the same was finally going to happen for biodiversity.

Preparations have been underway in advance of this year’s Conference of the Parties (CoP) for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to be hosted in Kunming, China in October.

A series of meetings have been taking place as governments discuss a new ten-year set of global goals and targets that need to be reached by 2030 to reverse the negative trend of biodiversity loss.

But this new political action on biodiversity is now being curtailed by COVID-19, that most likely first emerged from wildlife being traded in a live animal market in Wuhan, China. Such markets provide the perfect conditions for these types of new viruses to pass to humans by keeping different species in tightly packed, poor conditions.

The COVID-19 outbreak dramatically shows how the trade and consumption of wild animals are serious threats to public health and livelihoods. It is a stark demonstration of how ignoring the biodiversity crisis can have dire and unforeseen social and economic consequences, and even lead to loss of life.

For understandable reasons, conferences and meetings related to the CBD CoP have been cancelled or postponed in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak and it remains unclear if the October conference will still take place in China—or at all.

That is unfortunate because momentum on biodiversity action is growing in Europe and elsewhere, and there is no time to waste.

Soon after taking office in December 2019, incoming President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen announced that delivering the European Green Deal—which includes action on biodiversity as well as climate—would be one of her top priorities.

Similarly, Commission First Vice President, Frans Timmermans spoke powerfully at the UN Climate Summit last September of the need for EU policies to protect and restore the world’s forests.

Events leading up to the CBD CoP are scheduled to take place in Brussels in June, including the EU Green Week and European Development Days, both themed around biodiversity. The EU is also expected to announce its own new Biodiversity Strategy in the coming weeks, outlining its ambition in advance of the Kunming conference.

With momentum building and a commitment from the EU to negotiate ambitious targets, many have been optimistic that 2020 will be the year when biodiversity finally has its ‘Paris moment’.

It is hoped that the 2020 CBD conference in Kunming, China will give biodiversity a much needed political boost globally, in the same way that the Paris agreement did for climate change a few years ago.

Such a ‘Paris moment’ for biodiversity can’t come soon enough. A well-publicised report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in 2019 drew widespread attention when it stated that nature is declining at an unprecedented rate with one million species now threatened with extinction.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, China—followed by Vietnam—has announced welcome new measures to restrict the trade and consumption of wildlife, and it is hoped that other countries do the same.

Greater enforcement efforts are also needed to tackle the wildlife trade, both legal and illegal, which likewise poses risks to human health as well as being a leading cause of biodiversity loss. Other threats to biodiversity may also have dramatic social and economic consequences if left unchecked.

The Czech Prime Minister has already called for the EU to abandon the Green Deal in the light of the COVID-19 outbreak. But we should ensure that it only delays and doesn’t extinguish the growing momentum for strong political action to save biodiversity. Indeed, it should rather remind us of the dangers of not taking the biodiversity crisis seriously enough.

As events and political meetings are now rightly being cancelled to prevent loss of life, the EU must come forward with an ambitious biodiversity strategy that fully takes into account the wildlife trade threat, that can be implemented once the immediate challenges presented by the COVID-19 crisis have subsided.

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