From bees to sea bass the planet is telling us time is running out

WWF chief believes $700 billion a year needed to prevent irreversible nature loss

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As dusk gathers Chinese farm labourers wearily take their long bamboo dusters made from chicken feathers and raise their arms up to an apple tree for about the thousandth time that day to ensure that the buds will bloom.

Bees that would usually do the job have not been seen for many years leaving human beings to fulfil the task, including children who can get to the highest branches, each person pollinating up to 40 trees a day.

That farmer is among thousands now sent into the apple and pear orchards of China to do the job that billions of flying insects have done for millennia.

But now they are gone. Entire insect populations have fallen victim to pesticides and climate change that is battering nature, the World Wide Fund for Nature director general Marco Lambertini tells The National as he explains with passion the real world impact of the climate crisis.

“People are not only seeing the problem but also they're beginning to feel it,” the environmentalist and champion of the natural world says.

“We're driving not just the climate, but other systems to tipping points in many regions of the world and that will have catastrophic consequences not just on the natural world but on our lives. Water security, food security, the economic impact, all of this is calculated as massive.”

Mr Lambertini says that while the scientists have predicted the fall-out from global warming for decades it is only recently that it has become a full-blown reality. The first communities bearing the brunt of the Earth changes are now trailblazers for billions more in the future.

The consequences of manmade temperature increases and extreme weather events are having a visceral effect on livelihoods and economies. The task of saving the planet is to move fast to halt and reverse change. Mr Lambertini says an estimated $700 billion a year is needed to stop an all-out collapse of ecosystems. He says there is only nine years left in which to get it done.

The good news is that much of this is about redirecting current investments towards more environmentally friendly food production. As a result Mr Lambertini has not given up. “I’m a bit of an optimist,” he says.

Part of that is based on the more than 90 world leaders who have now pledged to reverse nature loss by 2030. “That’s something I’ve never seen before," he said. "This is not ‘green alarmism’ any more, this is science speaking. And it’s not just governments, but actually the corporate sector as well is extremely worried.”

This WWF graphic shows what is needed to be 'nature positive' by 2030. WWF

This month alone 20 financial institutions signed on to the Finance for Biodiversity Pledge Initiative, adding to the firepower of a new coalition of 70 financial institutions with assets worth $9 trillion that could help to reverse nature’s battering.

While the focus has been on climate change, and keeping temperature increases to within 1.5°C, Mr Lambertini firmly believes the nature emergency is also “rising to the top of the political agenda” because it has become “clear that the nature crisis is as dangerous as the climate crisis”.

“I’ve never seen stronger evidence or stronger awareness of the problems that we are facing,” he tells The National. “The nature crisis is actually affecting us more than anything else. It’s not just about tigers and elephants, it’s about the future of our children.”

Optimism must help steel Mr Lambertini on a daily basis as the figures come in. More than 90 per cent of fish stocks have been over or fully fished, bringing them to collapse, “This is now at planetary level,” he says from Switzerland. “We have hundreds of millions of people depending on fish for nutrition, for livelihoods and jobs.”

Only 8 per cent of the oceans are protected, but that figure needs to get to 30 per cent if fish stocks are to replenish, which Mr Lambertini says would also generate four times the return in terms of fish catches. “The high seas are nobody’s water, so we need a global governance that regulates fishing beyond national jurisdiction.”

In addition, there needs to be a reversal of the $20 billion given in subsidies to increase capacity that is driving overfishing with drift nets and long-lining.

A beekeeper protests to demand "More Pollination and Less Pesticides" during National Bee Day in Mexico City. Getty Images

And in the air, it is flying insects making Chinese labourers and their political masters sweat. There has been a 70 per cent decline in bees and other insects that pollinate two thirds of the world’s crops. “Pollinators have been collapsing and people have to pollinate by hand, particularly in China. This is really happening.” And it’s not just China. The East of England has experienced a similar collapse, with 17 bee species now extinct.

OECD data indicates that there are currently $550bn in annual subsidies that are harming nature and will ultimately kill off economies. If the cash was redirected it would conserve nature, and help to raise the $700bn needed annually to reverse biodiversity loss. Mr Lambertini quickly points out that this is only 1 per cent of global GDP – to save the planet – while Covid-19 has already cost trillions of dollars.

“It’s not a question of adding more money, it's a question of principally redirecting the money they already have to different and better places.”

So how urgent is the 2030 deadline? “We need to move fast because science is telling us that by 2030 some global systems, such as the Amazon, will actually begin to reach a tipping point then.

“That means we need to stop losing, we need to start restoring and have more nature by 2030 than today, that’s more fish in the oceans, more fish in the rivers, more pollinators in the farmland, more forest and more wetland.”

The Arabian Gulf region could also help by agreeing to the climate commitment of keeping within 1.5°C and agreeing the 30 per cent protection of sea and land by 2030.

The consequences of an increase to 2°C or beyond would be devastating, the Italian environmentalist says. “As the temperature gets hotter we are seeing whole habitats moving, with some mountain habitats disappearing. There are species destined for extinction and there's no way we can turn them back, even with a current level of warming.”

While the Cop26 climate change conference in Glasgow this November will strive to keep within the 1.5°C limit, going beyond it has striking changes.

A Ministry of Defence police marine unit takes part in a training session next to the Armadillo and the Hydro at the Scottish Event Campus, the venue for the Cop26 summit in Glasgow. PA

“In the Arctic ecosystem, for example, you will have one ice-free summer every century, but with 2°C you will have one ice-free summer every decade. Or with 1.5°C you will lose about 70 per cent of coral reefs but with 2°C it will be 100 per cent, even in the Gulf or the Red Sea, where they are the most resistant. That’s the difference half a degree can make.”

Out of all the facts and figures that Mr Lambertini, 62, sifts through, one that stands out to him is the rate at which mankind has expanded.

“If you put together the weight of humans and our domesticated animals, that amount of biomass is 94 per cent of the weight of every living being, and that means the rest of the wildlife is 4 per cent. Under a century ago it was probably exactly the opposite.”

Then he returns to his key theme of preserving nature before it is too late. “The longer we carry on losing nature, the more irreversible losses will occur. The damage done will be irreparable.”

Updated: October 01, 2021, 2:41 PM