Comment: National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala says the biodiversity strategy in the European Commission’s Green Deal would be transformative if it is seen through, demonstrating how protecting biodiversity can deliver quadruple benefits to health, food, economies and climate

The coronavirus pandemic has made clear what many scientists and economists already know – that destroying natural ecosystems and the animal habitats they shelter put our health and prosperity at grave risk.  

But what has been missing among the immediate responses to the coronavirus pandemic are action plans at the regional and national levels laying out how, exactly, safeguarding nature can protect our physical and economic well-being. 

Last month, the European Commission filled that void by pushing through a bold and comprehensive biodiversity strategy that would be nothing less than transformative if the bloc were to see it through.  

Safeguarding nature offers the best opportunity we have to protect our life support system, from the air we breathe to the rainfall nourishing our crops

Among other measures, the plan calls for protecting 30% of the continent’s land and seas by 2030, protecting all of the old-growth forests of Europe, halving the use of dangerous pesticides, and planting billions of trees (the right species in the right places). It also pledges some €20bn each year to support these bold efforts. 

The strategy is part of the EU’s rollout of its ambitious Green Deal, which seeks to transform the continent into a low-carbon economic powerhouse that does no harm to nature. It also reflects the elements in a draft treaty to be finalised and signed by more than 190 countries at a global biodiversity summit in Kunming, China, in 2021. 

What’s so notable about the Commission’s biodiversity strategy is that it makes clear that protecting nature is about more than saving the Iberian lynx, the Bavarian pine mole or the 75% of tree species in Europe that face extinction. It reveals in detail that when done right, protecting nature can deliver quadruple benefits to our health, food, economies and the climate – all while halting the extinction of the continent’s wildlife.  

Trees turned red because of drought in the Vosges montains, eastern France. (Credit: Vincent Kessler/Reuters)

First, safeguarding nature offers the best opportunity we have to protect our life support system, from the air we breathe to the rainfall nourishing our crops. We’re putting these services at risk through activities such as logging, fishing and mining – all at an unprecedented rate. 

Second, protecting nature is critical to our food security. Some 75% of our crops are pollinated by birds, insects and bats. And research has shown that establishing marine protected areas can help rebuild the world’s depleted fish stocks, including overfished Mediterranean species. 

Third, the destruction of nature accelerates climate change. Some 15% of annual greenhouse gas emissions come from forest clearing and fires in Indonesia and Brazil, two of Europe’s trading partners. Protecting ecosystems could provide more than a third of the climate mitigation that we need to keep global temperatures from skyrocketing. 

The most expensive thing we can do is return to business as usual

And finally, the natural world provides $125tn a year in free services. That's about twice the global GDP. Studies have shown that extreme weather events, natural disasters and biodiversity loss now represent the greatest systemic risk for our global economy. 

The most expensive thing we can do is return to business as usual. With the European Commission’s biodiversity strategy, the bloc shows us how our economies can forge ahead without leaving destruction of nature in our wake.

It’s time for other countries to realise that the economic benefits of protecting nature far outweigh the costs. Incorporating a pledge to protect 30% of our land and oceans by 2030 must be included in countries’ recovery plans and fiscal stimulus packages. 

Doing so in the lead-up to the historic biodiversity summit next year, which is expected to be on a par with the Paris Climate Summit in 2015 – will ensure that the world successfully comes together to protect the natural world not only for the sake of plants and animals, but also for people and the global economy.

The European Commission has acted decisively to save nature, for the sake of our health and prosperity, now and in the future. It’s time for other governments to join in.

Dr. Enric Sala is a former university professor who quit academia to become a full-time conservationist as a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. He founded and leads Pristine Seas, a project that combines exploration, research and media to inspire country leaders to protect the last wild places in the ocean. To date, Pristine Seas has helped to create 22 of the largest marine reserves on the planet, covering an area of 5.7 million square km.

Main picture credit: Damsea/Shutterstock
European Green Deal  overfishing climate change  Paris Agreement  Global Biodiversity Summit 

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