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Biodiversity and the Sustainable Development Goals

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides a collective plan for achieving peace and prosperity for everyone on the planet. It is built around 17 Sustainable Development Goals, addressing global challenges relating to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice. These goals are interconnected and interdependent: progress on one enhances progress toward the others; and biodiversity is critical to all of them.

Biodiversity is critical to human development and well-being

Biodiversity underpins economic prosperity.  More than half of global GDP–the equivalent of roughly US$44 trillion–is moderately or highly dependent on nature.  Of those living in poverty, more than 70 per cent depends, at least in part, on natural resources to earn their livelihoods, whether through farming, fishing, forestry or other nature-based activities.

Nature is an essential source of many drugs used in modern medicine.  Plants, animals and microbes enable medical researchers to understand human physiology and treat diseasesFour billion people rely primarily on natural medicines, and about 70 per cent of cancer drugs are either natural products or synthetic ones, inspired by nature.

Ecosystems regulate the earth’s climate by capturing and storing greenhouse gases.  In fact, healthy ecosystems can provide 37 per cent of the mitigation required to limit global temperature rise.  Conversely, when we damage ecosystems–from peatlands to mangroves to tropical rainforests–they release carbon, instead of storing it.

Biodiverse ecosystems can help mitigate the impact of natural disasters such as floods, storms, tsunamis, avalanches, landslides and droughts.  They can also protect against the spread of disease: where native biodiversity is high, the infection rate for zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19, is lower.

Achieving sustainable development

The effect of human action–land use change, over-exploitation, production of greenhouse gases and consequent  climate change, pollution, and the spread of non-native species–is pronounced.

Every year 13 million hectares of forest area; and desertification has occurred across 3.6 billion hectares of land.  Eight per cent of all known animal breeds are extinct and 22 per cent are at risk of extinction. Meanwhile, pollution has deteriorated coastal waters; and many fish species are being rapidly depleted. Human activities have also contributed to conditions in which viruses can more easily be transmitted between animals and humans, resulting in infectious diseases like COVID-19.

According to a report published last year, irreversible declines in the natural environment present a major threat to the last two decades of progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals.  A far more optimistic future is still attainable, but only with drastic change to development policies, incentives and actions.

It’s time for Nature

With 10 years left to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and as we enter the Decade of Action to deliver the Global Goals, 2020 is a make-or-break year. UNEP and its partners will lead a Decade on Ecosystems Restoration; and key international meetings, such the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, will chart the course for global action.

Reversing biodiversity loss is the only way to restore and sustain a healthy planet–and the lives that it supports. It is time to reimagine our relationship with nature and put nature at the heart of our decision-making.