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Countries Pledge to Reverse Destruction of Nature After Missing Biodiversity Targets

Politics
A sea turtle and tropical fish swim in Oahu, Hawaii. M.M. Sweet / Moment / Getty Images

By Ajit Niranjan

Leaders from across the world have promised to turn environmental degradation around and put nature on the path to recovery within a decade.



"We are in a state of planetary emergency," the 65 leaders, who include German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, wrote ahead of a UN biodiversity summit on Wednesday. "We commit ourselves not simply to words, but to meaningful action and mutual accountability."

The commitments, which come two days before a UN biodiversity summit in New York, include eliminating plastic leakage to the oceans by 2050 and incentivizing banks and businesses to value the natural world. The leaders identify unsustainable production and consumption as a key driver of environmental crises that "require urgent and immediate global action."

But strongmen leading some of the world's biggest polluters — U.S., China, India, Russia and Brazil — are not among the signatories.

Missed Targets

The pledge follows the September publication of a landmark assessment of biodiversity which showed humanity had failed to fully achieve any of the 20 global biodiversity targets set by the UN ten years ago. Just six of them had been "partly achieved," the report said. For one goal, on protecting coral reefs, the world was found to be moving in the opposite direction.

Data from individual governments shows that a third of national biodiversity targets, which are set by the countries themselves, are on track to be met or exceeded. But these are less ambitious than the UN targets and less than a quarter match up well with the global goals to protect nature.

The vision for biodiversity set out in 2010 is only achievable if the world responds to "compelling evidence" that "transformative change" is required, said Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the UN's Convention on Biological Diversity, which prepared the Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO) report.

Global Decline in Biodiversity

The charge sheet is long. Pollution from plastics and pesticides have not been brought down to safe levels. Governments still subsidize businesses that damage ecosystems. Coral reefs, which are dying across the world, are struck by the triple-threat of human action: climate change, pollution and overfishing. Some of those drivers are getting worse.

And even where there is progress, it is rarely enough. Deforestation should have been halted by now, but has only been cut by a third, with Asia and Europe gaining forests while Africa and South America lose them at a faster rate.

Conservation efforts have saved species like the Puerto Rican amazon parrot and the Mongolian Przewalski's horse. But they have failed to keep others like the Western Black Rhino or the Christmas Island pipistrelle from being wiped out forever.

While the big trends in biodiversity loss were already known, the UN report included "systematic analysis" on how well the world has achieved the 2010 targets, said Josef Settele, an ecologist at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Germany, who contributed research to the report but was not involved in writing it.

Conservation Progress

"There is also some brightness," Settele added. "The things we are doing are not completely in vain."

For instance, almost 100 countries have incorporated biodiversity values into national accounting systems. Over the last 20 years, the world has increased the share of protected areas from 10% to 15% on land and from 3% to 7% in water.

There are now more fish in waters managed by good fishing policies. Governments are increasingly eradicating invasive species from islands. And since 1993, conservation actions have prevented the extinction of between 28 and 48 bird and mammal species, according to a study published this month in the journal Conservation Letters — though many remain highly threatened and may still become extinct.

"The progress toward conserving life on earth has been much greater than it would have been [without action]," said Thomas Brooks, chief scientist at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, who was a co-author of the Conservation Letters study but was not involved in the GBO. "The absolutely key question is how to scale up from where things currently are, in terms of responses, to meet targets comprehensively."

Protecting Wildlife, Not Just Individual Species

The way to get that scale, according to the GBO report, is by "mainstreaming" the opportunities and responsibilities from protecting nature. That means every level of society — from individuals and local communities to businesses and national governments — would need to factor biodiversity into their economic decisions.

Like climate change, ecological collapse is happening at breakneck speed. A 2019 report by IPBES, the UN panel of biodiversity experts, found that humans are altering the natural world at an "unprecedented pace" and threatening 1 million animal and plant species with extinction.

Scientists say both issues require systemic changes, but individual actions can help. Agriculture is one of the greatest drivers of biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions. A study published in the journal Nature this month found that more than two-thirds of future biodiversity losses could be avoided by conserving and restoring land, reducing food waste and switching to more plant-based diets.

They are among many actions laid out in the GBO report to reduce and eventually restore lost biodiversity.

If we do not act faster, said Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Program, "biodiversity will continue to buckle" under the weight of overexploitation, climate change, pollution, invasive alien species and changes to land and sea. "This will further damage human health, economies and societies — with particularly detrimental effects on indigenous peoples and local communities."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.