Since 1990, nearly 420mn hectares of forest, equal to three times the size of South Africa, have been lost around the globe.
Humanity has already altered 75% of the Earth’s ice-free surface, according to UN Environment Programme.
Nearly 1mn species face extinction, while the illicit wildlife trade is the fourth largest such crime in the world.
Echoing humanity’s unhealthy relationship with nature, UNEP executive director Inger Andersen said: “The science does not lie. We can tell much of the story of the damage our species has wrought with a few facts.”
UNEP’s warning assumes significance as we celebrated World Environment Day on Friday.
It is a day upon which, for over 40 years, people the world over have advocated and acted for a healthy environment. From beach clean-ups to mass tree-planting to marches, individuals, communities and governments have come out to stand shoulder-to-shoulder for our planet.
This year, however, we could not take to the beaches, forests or streets because of the global coronavirus pandemic.
Covid-19, which was transmitted from animals to humans, is a direct warning that nature can take no more. Covid-19 is zoonotic, a type of disease that transmits between animals and humans.
We are facing it in large part because humanity’s expansion into wild spaces and exploitation of species brings people into closer contact with wildlife.
Covid-19 may be one of the worst, but it is not the first. About 75% of all emerging infectious diseases are of zoonotic origins. Ebola, Sars, the Zika virus and bird flu all spread from animals to people, often due to human encroachment on nature.
As ecosystems and biodiversity fall to cities, agriculture, infrastructure, climate change and pollution, nature’s ability to provide food, oxygen, clean water and climate regulation plummets. This directly impacts human health and wealth.
Meanwhile, the climate emergency has not gone away. CO2 levels in the atmosphere hit an all-time high in early May.
In April, the World Meteorological Organisation said temperatures have increased 1.1C above pre-industrial levels. We are seeing the consequences in bushfires, acidifying oceans and locust invasions – which could push millions of people in East Africa into hunger.
And while greenhouse gas emissions may dip this year because of lockdowns, we should not celebrate. Think of the atmosphere as a bathtub, and emissions as the water that flows from the tap. We have only turned down the tap slightly. The tub is still filling.
This means, as some luminaries recently said, we face going out of the Covid-19 frying pan into the climate fire.
So, lockdowns are not a silver lining for the environment. They have, however, shown that nature can still flourish, if we give it the chance. During the lockdowns, we saw air pollution clear and nature coming out of hiding – from penguins wandering the streets of Cape Town to kangaroos bouncing through Adelaide.
This, UN Environment Programme’s Andersen emphasises, gives us a glimpse into how much better our lives could be if we lived in harmony with nature. But we need to make this happen in a way that lasts.
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