The website of the World Health Organisation (WHO) defines a zoonosis as "an infectious disease that has jumped from a non-human animal to humans". The current COVID-19 pandemic is a painful demonstration that this "jump" can be an open door to paralysing our entire human society in a devastating and uncontrollable way.
Whether we are talking about the coronavirus, of Ebola or even of HIV, the spread of deadly pandemics are "living" proofs that consuming wild life, over-exploiting biodiversity and bending natural ecosystems to our will and desires is not only risky for mankind but also disturbs the fragile natural balance of our planet. A balance that is needed to keep us all, fauna, flora and humans alike, alive and well.
An opportunity for change
It took a pandemic affecting the entire world's population for us to realize that there is no human life without protecting and respecting the planet and its other inhabitants. Our greed has been gaining ground on natural environments and deforestations as well as water and air pollution have brought on land degradation and climate change. Our insatiable "need to consume" has blurred the lines that naturally separate ecological systems that were not meant originally to be in contact. As a result, we are now living in a world where ecological disasters have become the "new normal" and where no one is sure of what is to come.
The COVID-19 health crisis can however be an opportunity for change. Following governments' responses to the pandemic, greenhouse gas emissions went down and air quality went up during lockdowns across the world. Though temporary, this positive aspect of the health crisis marks a profound and systemic shift towards a more sustainable economy that works for both people and the planet. In our young journey towards recovery, it thus seems still possible to stop in our tracks, turn back and try to save what is left of our planet's biodiversity before it is too late.
The United Nations is organizing today (30 September 2020) a Summit on Biodiversity in New York. The European Union has answered the call by endorsing the Summit's Biodiversity commitment. The latter is a declaration that draws up an alarming inventory of the situation and encourages the highest levels of leadership to take sustainable action as quickly as possible in its answer to the present health and economic crisis. On the Summit's website, the UN's figures speak for themselves: "75% of the Earth’s land surface has been significantly altered by human actions (…). 66% of the ocean area is experiencing multiple impacts from people, including from fisheries, pollution, and chemical changes from acidification." In this light, it has become clear that it is no longer time for discussion; the "climate clock" in Manhattan dramatically reminds us that “Earth has a deadline” and that we are going far beyond the point of no return.
It's a chance for world leaders to set us on the path towards realizing the CBD's 2050 Vision: Living in harmony with #nature.
— UN Biodiversity (@UNBiodiversity) September 29, 2020
If we want to work towards the survival of all, the post COVID-19 recovery must be based on the respect and protection of nature in its entirety. The pandemic has shown us that all issues are interrelated and that each ecological disaster generates another. To stop this domino effect, we must stop living at the expense of our environment and build back better instead of investing in the 20th century economy.
While the world is mobilizing itself, we must also place the protection of the environment and of biodiversity at the centre of the European Union's COVID-19 recovery. To this end, the EU's Recovery Plan must thus be at the service of sustainability as our PES Group member Roby Biwer (Member of the Bettembourg Municipal Council/LU) rightly explains: "Bending the biodiversity loss curve needs to become a key principle in distributing resources through all major financial plans such as the EU's Recovery Plan. (…) This means mobilising sufficient resources to, directly or indirectly, stimulate biodiversity actions at all levels of government, simplifying procedures to make funding more accessible and make biodiversity a non-negotiable value in policy and economic activities across sectors."
The European Recovery Plan must pave the way to a new European development model that will put climate action at the top of its budgetary agenda. Regrettably, when released in May 2020, the Plan at first did not meet expectations.
Christophe Rouillon, Rapporteur of the European Committee of the Regions on the European recovery plan, President of the PSE group and Mayor of Coulaines (France), explains:" The initial Commission proposal presented last May in fact only mentions the objective that the facility contributes to achieving an overall objective of at least 25% of the Union's budgetary expenditure in favour of the climate objectives. However, in the light of a recent report by the European Court of Auditors according to which the potential contribution to this objective of certain EU policies is overestimated, the European Committee of the Regions considers that the "facility" should compensate for this deficit through an earmarking of at least 40% of its budgetary expenses on climate action." This would be clearly the best way to bury the recovery fund.
An ambitious recovery towards 2030
On 20 May 2020, the European Commission presented the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, together with its twin Farm to Fork Strategy, with the aim to "put Europe on the path to ecological recovery by 2030".
In the words of the Strategy, we have a "broken relationship with nature". It also highlights that impoverishing biodiversity is not a one-way street due to the high economic, social and health consequences that generate health hazards, work loss as well as the deterioration of our direct living environment
With this ambitious strategy, the EU has defined itself a clear position towards climate action. It has committed to the objective of preserving and repairing our ecosystems through adequate policies in directly affected areas such as agriculture and construction.
As an integral part of the European Green Deal, the Strategy also finally defines our position on the world scene to address the loss of biodiversity by 2030 and to work against climate change. It recommends for example countering climate change effects in cities by creating green spaces, protecting specified areas with legally binding objectives and restoring damaged European terrestrial and marine ecosystems with funds allocated specifically.
Mending biodiversity at its very roots
If the objectives of the Strategy are very ambitious, they nevertheless have a medium and long-term vision in a situation that requires urgent and immediate action.
In its shortly to be adopted opinion entitled "Bio-diverse cities and regions beyond 2020" (opinion for which Roby Biwer is the rapporteur), the European Committee of the Regions' salutes the European Commission's EU Biodiversity Strategy but nevertheless specifies certain issues that should not be overlooked.
The Strategy's vertical cooperation approach is very much welcomed but subnational governments remain unfortunately underused when it comes to tackling the biodiversity and environment crisis at European and at planetary level. Because the crisis harms key economic sectors that are directly of the responsibility of local and regional authorities, getting them properly involved should be highly placed on the Strategy's agenda.
Today more than ever, Citizens have become acutely aware of the climate and biodiversity emergency. Consequently, activism is flourishing and citizens everywhere are taking action. For this reason, local and regional authorities are the best placed to accompany and help them with good practices and policies. In Lousada (Portugal) for example, events take place in accordance with a zero plastic policy and all public lighting is done with LED technology. In Weststellingwerf (The Netherlands), storage ponds have been created to tackle floods, provide safe havens for local biodiversity and offer green areas for citizens at the same time. Another example is the one of Agios Efstratios, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, which has set out to reach energy autonomy for the island by "employing soft energy technologies, improving the energy efficiency of all public buildings and encouraging electro-mobility".
These examples are proof that cities and regions can be key actors in tackling the climate and biodiversity crisis, whether it is in the implementation of measures or simply by taking our planet's pulse directly on the ground, as close as possible to nature. Parallelly, we have learnt from the past biodiversity strategy that the lack of knowledge and expertise at the local administrative level prevents the implementation of biodiversity action in many cases and may jeopardise the overhaul success, especially when it comes to developing and implementing a Nature-Based Solution. They must thus be included in every step of the recovery process. However, despite the fact that many now recognise the essentiality of their role, it is regrettable that cities and regions are still not officially seated at the table of negotiations, whether it be in the EU's Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 or in the post-2020 Global Framework of Biodiversity.
Urgent and immediate action cannot be taken without their active participation at each step of the recovery process.
A tree grows with many different branches
Today's United Nations Biodiversity Summit is focusing on "raising ambition for the development of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework".
This framework will be adopted and put into action at the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in May 2021(CDB COP15) in Kunming (China) in order to "put nature on the road to recovery by 2030 to achieve the SDGs and the vision of living in harmony with nature".
The EU will be part of the adoption of this very much needed global framework for biodiversity in 2021 and the European Committee of the Regions will be present to make sure that European local and regional authorities are not left out of such an ambitious and crucial agenda.
As explained above, all levels must be involved to tackle this crisis efficiently and this is also the case when it comes to the COP15. In its "Bio-diverse cities and regions beyond 2020" opinion, the European Committee of the Regions advocates more specifically for the "full participation of Subnational Governments, Cities and Other Local Authorities for Biodiversity (SLGs) in the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) (…)", as well as a for "whole-of-government" approach to vertical collaboration between all levels of government to ensure policy coherence and exploit their full potential for meeting the 2050 Vision and 2030 Mission".
The COP15 in China will be a decisive moment for the protection and restauration of biodiversity. It will take place in 8 months but that does not mean we have to wait until then to take action. As the legend of the hummingbird illustrates it so well, everyone is doing their share at their level and initiatives are emerging all over Europe to try to reverse things. Action must take place directly on the ground every day. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it very clear that the emergency is no longer coming. We are now all living at very heart of it. Though we are not all in the same boat, we are nevertheless all in the same storm, a storm that it is rapidly turning into a hurricane.