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China can help avert an extinction crisis

Beijing will be crucial to steering an ambitious Paris-style agreement to restore global biodiversity 

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Amur leopards are critically endangered with maybe 60 living in the wild and around 200 in zoos around the world. (Image: zoofanatic)

Earth’s biodiversity is under dire threat. The way we live our lives and treat other animals has thrown ecosystems out of balance, creating a problem so severe that scientists warn two-thirds of wild animals will have vanished by 2020.

Rather than living in harmony with nature, we are destroying the web of life that sustains all species, including our own. Preventing the collapse in biodiversity and our own extinction requires political leaders to deliver an ambitious agreement for biodiversity similar to the one agreed for climate change in 2015.

Governments are currently meeting at the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) in Egypt. People from across the world are calling on their leaders to deliver a Paris climate style agreement for nature in time for the next major biodiversity summit in 2020. This will be held in Beijing, so Chinese diplomacy will be critical to guiding a successful outcome.

What to aim for

Top scientists agree that to avert the crisis in biodiversity we must restore and conserve half the earth by 2050, and sustainably manage the other half. Now, many are seeing this as a core element of any Beijing Nature Agreement.

The proposal is ambitious but viable; a recent study by Dinerstein et al. shows that roughly 15.5% of the world’s lands are currently under some form of protection, and another 31% are in a natural or semi-natural state. It is also popular. Over 1.7 million people have signed an Avaaz petition calling on governments to agree to it in 2020.

The goal will also be crucial to meeting the Paris Agreement’s high ambition target of staying below warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius. If we don’t act on land use, and restore forests and carbon sinks now, we’ll not meet it.

A Beijing Nature Agreement must offer support for countries rich in biodiversity but poor in the resources needed to respond to the crisis. The deal must protect the rights of indigenous groups and communities on the frontline of biodiversity loss and climate change, and engage businesses in ambitious, coherent and transparent actions. Finally, it must also incentivise governments to put in place policies that rebalance our relationship with nature by stopping destructive practices. At a minimum, there needs to be an end to harmful government subsidies and the use of toxic pesticides, and targets for zero net deforestation.

Rising to the challenge

Nature is sounding the alarm, people want to see an agreement, and scientists have offered a solution to this crisis. Now all that is needed is a torchbearer to rally political leaders for an ambitious 2020 outcome. One that can catalyse the actions from governments, citizens, and businesses that are needed to drive change not just in our ecosystems but our economic ones too.

It’s a tall order. For decades biodiversity has been neglected. The UN talks have received minimal engagement from environment ministers, let alone heads of government. But the pathway to Beijing could reverse that trend. China can be the political rainmaker for biodiversity, and it makes sense for it to do so.

China is taking huge strides to protect large swathes of land across the country through its creation of an ecological civilisation and network of ecological red lines. China is both one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet and a leader in using cutting-edge technologies to address climate change and environmental issues. It has a torch to carry that others can, and will, rally around.

The crisis in biodiversity is a failure of collective action, but the Paris Agreement shows that with the right diplomacy, countries can come together and agree to ambitious long-term change. France was a crucial torchbearer for the Paris climate deal through its efforts to inspire action and capture the world’s attention.

There is still time to avoid an irreversible collapse of the natural world. A 2020 Beijing Nature Agreement is a unique opportunity to provide a path for a global ecological civilisation to thrive, and China will be key to making it happen.

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