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COVID-19 disrupts a major year for biodiversity policy and planning

Red-and-green macaws (Ara chloroptera) feeding on clay in Peru. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has scrambled this year’s packed schedule of international meetings and negotiations to hash out what the future will hold for Earth’s ecosystems and wildlife.
  • Amid a string of delayed meetings, today, the IUCN announced that its World Conservation Congress, scheduled for June in Marseille, France, has been postponed to January, 2021.
  • Experts worry the world will lose critical time to turn around alarming trends in biodiversity loss and climate change, and that the resources allocated to fight COVID-19 might mean fewer resources for biodiversity initiatives later on.
  • Given the new coronavirus’s likely origins in an animal, however, some experts hope the pandemic will motivate efforts to address the relationship between drivers of biodiversity loss and human health, in particular the way land-use change, ecosystem degradation and other drivers are believed to increase the risk of new zoonotic diseases spilling over into humans.

2020 was shaping up to be a good year for global policy on biodiversity. With momentum building from dire reports on biodiversity loss and climate change, policymakers were set for a packed schedule of meetings and negotiations to hash out what the future will hold for Earth’s ecosystems.

The COVID-19 pandemic has now scrambled that schedule. Today, the IUCN announced that its World Conservation Congress, scheduled for June in Marseille, France, has been postponed to January, 2021. The news comes after a string of announcements delaying key U.N. summits on biodiversity and climate change, among other disruptions.

“This is a situation which none of us expected,” said Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, acting executive secretary of the U.N. Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). “The situation has made it impossible for what we planned to continue in the same way.”

The environmental agenda for 2020, the final year of the U.N.’s Decade on Biodiversity, was set to culminate in October in Kunming, China, with the CBD’s 15th Conference of the Parties. Delegates from 196 countries planned to meet to finalize negotiations on a global biodiversity policy framework to replace the 2010 Aichi Biodiversity Targets expiring at the end of the year.

COVID-19 has derailed numerous meetings scheduled throughout the year for countries and other stakeholders to negotiate and comment on that framework. In February, a working group meeting was moved at the last minute from Kunming to Rome, Italy, preventing some delegations from attending. Large meetings of two important CBD subsidiary bodies scheduled for May have been pushed back to August. Organizers of the U.N. Ocean Conference in Lisbon, Portugal, also scheduled for June, are considering a delay. And the last-chance meeting for the CBD working group to discuss the framework before the final negotiations, planned for Cali, Colombia, in July, has been postponed. There is not yet a makeup date.

“Inevitably, that means our Conference of the Parties will also have to be shifted to respond to all these changes,” Mrema said. Organizers are now considering a makeup date for the critical CBD summit some time in the first quarter of 2021.

Jaguar (Panthera onca) in Colombia. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

Where possible, meetings are now being held virtually, though the larger meetings require in-person discussion, Mrema said. The pandemic has also delayed major world meetings on climate change, including the COP26 U.N. climate change conference scheduled for Glasgow, Scotland, in November.

“It’s not like other crises I’ve had to deal with,” said Basile van Havre, co-chair of the CBD working group on the post-2020 framework. “We’re doing our best to move forward with planning, but we don’t know if it’s going to be three months, six months, nine, twelve.”

What the disruptions to the CBD process will ultimately mean for species is much on the organizers’ minds. “We know that the current strategic plan, as well as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, are coming to an end this year,” Mrema said. “Without a new framework, there will be a gap … If there’s a gap it also means loss of momentum. And it might take a while to catch up. This is what we want to avoid.”

Van Havre said he shares those concerns, and he also worries that the stress on governments and economies caused by the pandemic will reduce the resources available to carry out the plan laid out in the framework. “If we don’t have any resources to implement it, it’s just a nice plan,” he said.

“Everything we’re doing now as a society to further enable the preservation of biodiversity is being delayed by the current crisis,” said Tony Goldberg, an epidemiologist and associate director for research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Global Health Institute. “It’s one of the reasons why pandemics are so damaging. They are the ultimate disruption to society.”

The delay comes at a critical moment for biodiversity. Environmental degradation is accelerating worldwide and more than a million species are at risk of extinction, according to the 2019 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report. “Any delay is going to make the ultimate solutions that much tougher,” said Linda Krueger, senior policy adviser for the U.S.-based NGO the Nature Conservancy. “Like with climate change. You wait, and you pay.”

There are high hopes, though, that the post-2020 global biodiversity framework will take an ambitious approach to addressing those concerns, improving on the Aichi Biodiversity Targets to increase the area of protected land and water worldwide, do more to address the drivers of biodiversity loss, emphasize that biodiversity loss and climate change are related problems, and give the policy measures some teeth.

“We think it needs to be transformational,” Krueger said. The question is whether COVID-19 will derail momentum toward setting ambitious targets. “We could kind of go either way,” she said. “This could turn us all into really hard-core environmentalists who have a real global cooperative framework in mind, or it could potentially cause a retreat. We have to work to make that more optimistic outcome prevail.”

A baby green sea turtle (Chelonia mynas), an endangered species, in Suriname. Image by Jeremy Hance & Tiffany Roufs for Mongabay.

‘Can we make lemonade here?’

Although the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to overshadow political momentum for addressing the biodiversity crisis, it could present some new opportunities. For one, the delays will give negotiators more time to discuss the post-2020 framework. The shared experience of the pandemic could encourage greater international collaboration and solidarity. Economic stimulus packages might provide new funding for ecosystem restoration projects. “Let’s create new parks. Let’s put people to work in restoration,” van Havre said.

There’s also a way the experience of getting caught flat-footed by a pandemic could impress upon world governments the importance of investing in prevention, a useful lesson for early action on biodiversity loss and climate change.

“It’s an unprecedented opportunity to look into the future,” Mrema said, “particularly to be able to demonstrate statistically how cost effective it is to prevent and be prepared, as opposed to later deal with the response.”

One of the most significant outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, might be the opportunity to strengthen policy to address the relationship between biodiversity and human health, an approach often referred to as “One Health.”

Although the science hasn’t settled on the precise origin of the new coronavirus, evidence suggests it was transmitted from animals to humans, what’s called a “zoonosis” or “spilling over.” (Other zoonotic diseases include Ebola, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and AIDS.) According to a 2015 report by the CBD and the World Health Organization, many of the drivers of biodiversity loss — including land-use change, intensive agriculture, and ecosystem degradation — may increase the risk to humans from emerging infectious diseases.

“COVID-19 itself is a One Health issue because it’s rooted in zoonotic disease emergence,” said Cristina Romanelli, interagency liaison for the World Health Organization and the CBD. “Whether we’re looking at large-scale deforestation, the intensification and homogenization of our agricultural landscapes, habitat conversion and fragmentation, everything about the way we produce, trade, regulate species that are used as food and medicines in our increasingly interconnected world is potentially creating new opportunities for disease emergence.”

The way the new coronavirus likely spilled over into humans from an animal host in a wet market in Wuhan, China, illustrates some of the complex ways human interactions with the environment can lead to emerging diseases. “That animal reservoir has probably been living for thousands upon thousands of years in whatever ecosystem it inhabits,” Goldberg said. “And we, by bringing that animal reservoir, supposedly, into a live animal market, we created a massive interface environment.

A pangolin eats ants at a rescue center in Cambodia. Although the science is far from settled, there is some evidence that the new coronavirus may have originated in pangolins before spilling over into humans. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

“I hope that the international community will not see the preservation of biodiversity as a luxury to address,” Goldberg added. “I would hope that people would really come together and realize that, in a sense, the coronavirus pandemic is case in point.”

Although governments have long recognized the One Health concept, it is not currently mentioned in the draft of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework. “It really does appear to fall short in making that connection: healthy planet for healthy people,” Romanelli said. As a One Health issue of pandemic proportions, COVID-19 could create momentum and opportunities in that direction.

“It is imperative that we understand the relationship between biodiversity and infectious disease as we never have before,” Goldberg said. “The opportunities are likely to come in the form of vastly increased attention to those sort of problems and issues by funders around the world.”

That could turn out to be a silver lining to what is otherwise a setback for urgent action on biodiversity and a public health disaster.

“People are suffering a lot. We want to focus on the task at hand. But I think it’s really a question of what emerges from this psychologically. Whether it reignites some amount of cooperativeness that comes out of isolation,” Krueger said.

“Can we make lemonade here?”

Earth at night, circa 2016. Image by Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA GSFC.

Banner image: Red-and-green macaws (Ara chloroptera) gather to feed on clay in Peru. Image by Rhett A. Butler. 

James Dinneen is a writer from Colorado. Read more of his work at Twitter: @jamesNESW

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