Humanity’s destruction of nature has been horrendous. Perhaps no one has captured the devastation as vividly and as personally as the renowned broadcaster David Attenborough in his new Netflix documentary, “A Life on Our Planet”.
The film is his “witness statement” for the environment. He traces his more than 60-year career as a naturalist, mapping how the planet’s biodiversity has degenerated.
The now acclaimed documentary makes for fascinating, if disturbing, watching.
Some takeaways: Since the 1950s, animal populations have more than halved, while domestic birds’ populations have skyrocketed; 70 per cent of the mass of the birds on the planet are domestic birds – mostly chickens.
Humans account for over one-third of the weight of mammals on Earth. A further 60 per cent of animals we raise for food – cows, goats, pigs, etc. The rest – “from mice to whales” – make up just 4 per cent.
In the oceans, 30 per cent of fish stocks are being fished to critical levels. Freshwater populations have declined by over 80 per cent.
Meanwhile, humans cut down up to 15 billion trees per year, destroying large swathes of biodiversity.
Yet, for all this, something can be done.
Attenborough takes the example of the Chernobyl nuclear plant and the town it once inhabited in what is now Ukraine.
In 1986 human error caused the nuclear plant to explode, forcing evacuation of the entire town after it was rendered uninhabitable due to radiation.
30 years on, a forest has reclaimed the town, regenerating into a lush wildlife paradise. It offers hope that nature holds the capacity to re-grow and remain sustainable if left to take care of itself.
The release of the documentary earlier this month coincides with the GLF Biodiversity Digital Conference set to take place in a couple of weeks’ time, at the end of the month.
Though the documentary and the conference are not related, the message is the same that degraded ecosystems can be restored.
Themed “One World – One Health”, the conference takes a broader view recounting how human transformation of Earth’s natural landscapes is wreaking havoc, precipitating health, economic, social and environmental crises.
In addition to biodiversity loss and land degradation, it makes the compelling case how human transformation is driving habitat loss, air pollution, climate change and the emergence of zoonotic pandemics such as SARS and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
This is happening regardless of what it means for humanity. It also does not to appreciate how the diversity and sheer abundance of life on Earth underpins the vital services natural systems provide to humans.
These natural services, to emphasise the point, include livelihood provision, water regulation, seed dispersal, pollination, clean water, soil quality, air quality, cultural values, among others.
The services can also be economically quantified. The natural world provides a total value of USD 125 trillion a year in the free services and support to economies, close to twice the global Gross Domestic Product.
The conference’s message is it will require cooperation across all domains with a “whole-of-society approach” that will mobilise science and business—an approach that recognises the connection between ecosystems, human health, and economic growth.
The conference also touts 2020 the super year for nature and biodiversity, nodding to the United Nation’s post-2020 global biodiversity framework that will guide global efforts to conserve life forms on Earth, ensuring their sustainable use and the equitable sharing of their benefits living in harmony with nature by 2050.
This is a sustained effort in which the UN General Assembly has also declared the 2021–2030 as the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The aim is to restore at least 350 million hectares of degraded landscapes by 2030.
The Africa Forest Landscape Initiative (AFR100 Initiative) is part of this endeavour in a county-led effort to bring 100 million hectares of land in the continent into restoration by 2030.
30 African countries, including Rwanda, under the AFR100 Initiative have already pledged to restore 126 million hectares to fight climate change, rural poverty and the erosion of the continent’s biodiversity.
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