‘We have been waging a senseless and suicidal war on nature’, UN chief says

Burned woods in Central Kalimantan Province in Indonesia on 4 December, 2015. (EPA/Keystone)

A report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) laying out the gravity of the biodiversity, climate and pollution crises the Earth is facing has called for “transformative change”.

“For too long, we have been waging a senseless and suicidal war on nature. The result is three interlinked environmental crises,” said UN secretary general Antonio Guterres, launching the report on Thursday.

“It’s time to re-evaluate and reset our relationship with nature,” he added.

The sobering document draws on global assessments, including those from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, to state the links between the triple environmental threats of biodiversity loss, climate change and pollution.

“Despite a temporary decline in emissions due to the pandemic, Earth is heading for at least 3°C of global warming this century; more than one million of the estimated eight million plant and animal species are at substantially increased risk of extinction; and diseases caused by pollution are currently killing some nine million people prematurely every year,” UNEP stated in a press release.

In his remarks, Guterres stressed how humans have brought such global emergencies upon themselves.

“Today, around the world, we are overexploiting and degrading the environment on land and sea. The atmosphere and the oceans have become dumping grounds for our waste. And governments are still paying more to exploit nature than to protect it. Globally, countries spend some four to six trillion dollars a year on subsidies that damage the environment,” he said.

The report’s release comes four days ahead of the fifth UN Environment Assembly, where the world’s environment ministers will convene to set the global environmental agenda for the coming years. 

Tomorrow, the US will officially be rejoining the Paris Agreement, after four years of absence from the climate multilateral arena. While welcoming this and the US’s commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050, Guterres warned that all countries need to follow suit: “we are running out of time to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius and build resilience to the impacts to come”.

Calling on all actors, including governments, corporations, NGOs and individuals, to take part in an “all-society push” to address the environmental challenges ahead, the report provides a blueprint to how everyone can contribute.

  • Governments should use natural capital to measure their economic performance as well as put a price on carbon.

  • Financial institutions need to divest from fossil fuels and invest in biodiversity conservation and sustainable agriculture.

  • Developing countries should have access to low-interest finance aid to address environmental threats.

  • Businesses should prioritise a circular economy in order to reduce resource use and waste.

  • Individuals can learn about sustainability and adopt greener habits in their daily lives.

“We must reflect nature’s true value in all our policies, plans and economic systems,” Guterres said.