World governments failing Earth’s ecosystems, says top conservationist

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Julia Marton-Lefèvre, director general of the IUCN, says political leaders have not properly embraced conservation.

Deforested land in Indonesia: the IUCN says ‘leaving forests standing is worth far more than cutting then down’. Photograph: BagusIndahono/EPA
Deforested land in Indonesia: the IUCN says ‘leaving forests standing is worth far more than cutting then down’. Photograph: BagusIndahono/EPA

Governments are lagging behind on international commitments to safeguard the planet’s ecosystems, with politicians failing to grasp that economic growth depends upon environmental protection, the head of the world’s leading conservation organisation has warned.

Julia Marton-Lefèvre, director general of the IUCN, the body that advises the United Nations on environmental matters, told Guardian Australia that conservation needed to be properly embraced by political leaders.

“I think world leaders have many other issues to deal with and sometimes they don’t see how protecting nature is essential for our wellbeing,” she said.

“On a planet with 7bn people, moving to 9bn, this isn’t just about protecting our beautiful places, it’s protecting the places that provide us with water and food and protect us from extreme weather.”

Marton-Lefèvre is in Sydney for the World Parks Congress, a once-in-a-decade international conservation gathering that starts this week.

The week-long congress will feature an update on global progress in meeting the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Signed in 1992 by 193 nations, a key target is to protect at least 17% of the world’s terrestrial areas and 10% of marine areas by 2020.

Ahead of the official release of the target’s update, Marton-Lefèvre admitted that progress on this goal is “not that optimistic”.

“I’d say the analysis will remind us how much more we have to do,” she said. “We are doing pretty well on the terrestrial protection, up to 15% protected, but the marine areas are more difficult. We’re only on around 3% protected. We are doing pretty well in national jurisdictions but not so well on the high seas.

“It’s easy to make these commitments but it’s really important to keep on top of them. We’re not only talking about the size of protected areas but also how they are protected – we can’t have so-called ‘paper parks’ where they are just drawn on a map and not managed.”

Marton-Lefèvre, who is stepping down as director general at the end of the year, said the world was moving “slowly” on environmental protection and must do much better in protecting critical habitat.

“I hope this congress will show leaders that we must move from understanding the importance of nature to action,” she said.

“We’ve had notable achievements but also setbacks – poaching is an issue we’ll need to talk about, for example. Progress hasn’t been fast enough but we now understand the value of nature. It isn’t just about the love of birds and butterflies; it’s about our survival.

“We need to behave better towards our planet and behave better towards each other.”

Marton-Lefèvre said that political leaders needed to realise that the environment can’t be sidelined in any discussion on economic growth. The World Parks Congress will take place at the same time as the G20, where the Australian government, as host, has prioritised economic growth ahead of any consideration of climate change.

“That kind of economic argument doesn’t really understand what nature brings us,” she said. “These things can’t be treated as if they are in silos. Nature provides us with our life support system. Leaving forests standing is worth far more than cutting them down.”

In its last update in 2012, the IUCN said the world’s protected areas have increased in number by 58% and in extent by 48%. However, only one in four of these protected areas are managed properly and half the world’s most important sites for biodiversity still have no protection.

An IUCN report released this month says it would cost between US$45bn and US$76bn each year to adequately manage these protected areas. This figure equates to about 2.5% of global annual military expenditure.

A separate report released by WWF in September showed that the world has lost half its wildlife in the past 40 years. The number of animals living on land has slumped by 40%, and those dwelling in rivers have suffered a 75% loss. The total for all marine creatures has dropped by 40%.

WWF analysis shows humans are cutting down trees faster than they regrow, catching fish faster than the oceans can restock, pumping water from rivers and aquifers faster than rainfall can replenish them and emitting more climate-warming carbon dioxide than oceans and forests can absorb.

Specific areas of concern for the IUCN conference are likely to include the rampant poaching of elephants and rhinos, the enormous loss of critical rainforest in Indonesia and the precarious health of several world heritage sites including the Great Barrier Reef.

On Monday, the congress will see the unveiling of the latest IUCN Red List, the world’s most comprehensive analysis of the conservation status of the planet’s species. At the last count, the Red List contained 73,686 assessed species, of which 22,103 are threatened with extinction.

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