‘We are treating nature like a toilet,’ U.N. secretary-general says as biodiversity conference kicks off

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United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres opened the U.N. Biodiversity Conference in Montreal this week with a stark warning about ongoing widespread loss of animal and plant species, which he called an “orgy of destruction.”

“Humanity seems hell-bent on destruction,” Guterres said Tuesday. “We are waging war on nature.”

Guterres laid responsibility for the degradation of the natural environment on the effects of human economic activities, especially climate change, declaring, “We are treating nature like a toilet.”

“Deforestation and desertification are creating wastelands of once thriving ecosystems,” he said in his address to the conference, also known as COP15, which will run until Dec. 19. “Our land, water and air are poisoned by chemicals and pesticides, and choked with plastics. Our addiction to fossil fuels has thrown our climate into chaos — from heat waves and forest fires to communities parched by heat and drought or inundated and destroyed by terrifying floods.”

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres stands at a podium.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres at the opening ceremony of the U.N. Biodiversity Conference in Montreal on Tuesday. (Andrej Ivanov/AFP via Getty Images)

Representatives of more than 190 countries are in Montreal for the conference, which begins Wednesday. U.N. officials hope it will result in the global adoption of a framework that lays out targets for reducing the causes of biodiversity loss, such as pollution, and provides financing for developing countries to protect their biodiversity and develop more sustainable economic alternatives to resource extraction and deforestation.

Every country in the world except the Vatican and the United States is a party to the treaty on biodiversity. In 2021, Republicans in the Senate refused to ratify it, citing fears that it would interfere with U.S. sovereignty. The Biden administration will nonetheless send representatives to participate in the talks.

Just as the U.N. Climate Change Conference that recently concluded in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, was known as COP27 because it was the 27th conference of the parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the ongoing COP15 in Montreal is the latest iteration of a conference of the parties to a different treaty, the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The calamity of biodiversity loss is just as acute as the climate crisis. According to World Wildlife Fund’s “Living Planet Report 2022,” monitored populations of vertebrates, which include mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish, have dropped 69% since 1970. According to WWF, the rate of species going extinct today is estimated by experts to be 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate. A 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services found that up to 1 million plant and animal species face extinction due to human activities.

A deforested and burnt area of dead trees is seen next to an unburned area of living trees.

A deforested and burnt area in Humaitá, Amazonas state, Brazil, on Sept. 16. (Michael Dantas/AFP via Getty Images)

The nations represented in Montreal are expected to negotiate an agreement that will be known as the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, and that will function in the same manner as climate change agreements such as the 2015 Paris Agreement and the 2021 Glasgow Climate Pact.

The countries that sign on will be agreeing to more than 20 measurable ecosystem conservation targets, the most high-profile of which is conserving at least 30% of Earth’s land and water by 2030, known as “30 by 30” for short.

As was the case at COP27 in Egypt, major sticking points include how to protect Indigenous land rights — Indigenous communities do not want conservation goals to prevent them from using their land — and how much money developed countries will give developing countries to help them implement the policies.

How these questions will be answered over the next two weeks remains to be seen, but Guterres is calling for nations to go as far as possible to combat biodiversity loss.

“This conference is our chance to stop this orgy of destruction,” Guterres said. “To move from discord to harmony. And to apply the ambition and action the challenge demands.

“It’s time to forge a peace pact with nature,” he concluded.

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