World leaders spoke of the loss of gorillas, porpoises and other endangered animals and plant species on Wednesday, amid growing concerns that nations were failing to meet targets to protect the planet’s biodiversity.
China’s President Xi Jinping, Britain’s Prince Charles and dozens of other statesmen addressed the one-day UN summit, which was held online because of the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed a million lives globally.
The leaders offered new commitments to protect Earth's biodiversity, but critics warned that plants and animals continued to become extinct at alarming rates.
“We have no time to wait,” said Elizabeth Mrema, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity.
“Biodiversity loss, nature loss, it is at an unprecedented level in the history of mankind. We’re the most dangerous species in global history.”
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said “humanity is waging war on nature”, with rhinos, orangutans and other species dying out as mankind fells rainforests, overfishes oceans and builds ever-bigger cities.
“Wildlife populations are plummeting because of overconsumption, population growth and intensive agriculture,” Mr Guterres said.
“The rate of species extinction is accelerating, with some one million species threatened or endangered.”
The UN says humans have “significantly altered” three quarters of the Earth’s land surface, wiped away 85 per cent of its wetlands and damaged two-thirds of the oceans with fishing, pollution, chemicals and acidification.
None of the world’s biodiversity targets set for 2020 have been met, Mr Guterres.
Leaders must devise a future strategy before talks in Kunming, China, in May 2021, which are aimed at a biodiversity deal on par with the 2015 Paris Accords on climate change.
They met under the cloud of a Covid-19 pandemic that was believed to have been started with animal-to-human transmission in central China.
Mr Guterres said such “zoonotic” diseases as HIV-Aids, Ebola and Covid-19 passed from animals to humans due to “our imbalance with nature”.
Abdullah Al Nuaimi, the UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment, outlined the country's efforts to protect turtles, coral reefs and mangroves, and promote eco-tourism on the Gulf coast.
Forty-nine conservation zones cover 15.5 per cent of UAE territory, Mr Al Nuaimi said.
“The increasing pace of biodiversity loss and about 1 million species are endangered," he told delegates.
"All this heralds a crisis that requires us to attach greater importance to the environment."
Before the summit, 70 governments signed up to a Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, a 10-year plan to protect life on Earth and devise a meaningful “new global biodiversity framework” at the talks in Kunming.
Not all leaders stuck to the script. In his video message, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro rejected “unfair international rules” against using Amazon rainforests.
Mr Bolsonaro said Brazil would take advantage of the “huge wealth of resources” on its territory.
Well-known climate activists were sceptical about the UN summit.
Sweden’s teenage environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg said it was “so easy" to make pledges in New York but world leaders “fail every single time”.
George Monbiot, environmental columnist with The Guardian newspaper, dismissed "solemn promises" from leaders who "break them before the ink is dry".
Activists from Greenpeace erected two ice sculptures of their adversaries, Mr Bolsonaro and US President Donald Trump, across the East River from UN headquarters to underscore the effect of rising temperatures.
“Where are Trump and Bolsonaro while the world is burning?” asked Greenpeace US campaigner Arlo Hemphill.
“Leaders need to immediately act to end deforestation, protect at least 30 per cent of our oceans and bring an end to climate-harming emissions.”
The UN General Assembly in normal years draws about 10,000 people from around the world.
This year, it was held largely online, with countries imposing strict entrance requirements to halt the spread of Covid-19.