Conservation and Biodiversity

Nature is sending us a message — can we respond fast enough?

Increased environmental destruction and climate change make a deadly combination — for the planet, for species and for future generations. Several concerning studies published in the last week highlight just how much humans are harming nature.

According to new numbers released by the University of Maryland, the Earth lost 29 million acres of tree cover last year — the equivalent of losing a soccer field of trees every six seconds. This comes less than a week after research published in Science found that the world’s forests are getting shorter and younger, traits bad for both storing carbon and housing diverse species.

All this destruction is adding up. Findings published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences show that species are dying off faster than we thought. More than ever, we need urgent action to halt — and reverse — this trend.  

“What we really need to do is back off on how we’re treating the natural world and, in fact, start embracing it and restoring it,” conservationist and biodiversity scholar Thomas Lovejoy told Earth Day Network. 

Lovejoy, who serves as a senior fellow of the United Nations Foundation, said that restoring ecosystems, for example, could pull back one third of the carbon in the atmosphere. This would halt global temperatures at one and a half degrees above pre-industrial levels — the point marked by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to avoid a climate catastrophe.

Halting the destruction of nature could also limit the emergence and spread of new diseases, like COVID-19. But we’re trending in the wrong direction. 

“There are a couple new viruses discovered every year, and there’s no sign this is slowing down — if anything, it’s speeding up,” said Lovejoy. “And it all comes from human intrusion on nature and wildlife trade and wildlife markets.”

Restoration and nature-based solutions are at the center of Earth Day Network’s annual theme,  Restore Our Earth, which aims to create a planet where humans work with nature, not against it. 

Investing in reforestation (like through Earth Day Network’s The Canopy Project), for example, can mitigate climate change, while providing food, energy and income to communities.

Trees are tremendous carbon sinks, meaning they can absorb carbon from the atmosphere. According to the report from the University of Maryland, 2019’s forest loss accounted for 1.8 gigatonnes of carbon emissions, or the equivalent of adding 400 million cars on the road for a year.

Oceans are also huge carbon sinks, but they, too, are taking the heat from unchecked climate change. Higher levels of CO2 in oceans are increasing ocean acidity, causing a whole slew of problems.

But cutting greenhouse gas emissions and investing in nature-based solutions can reverse this trend. Restoring seagrass beds, for example, can help offset this human-caused acidification, as is happening in Chesapeake Bay, according to research recently published in Nature Geoscience

This year’s World Environment Day theme is biodiversity. From bushfires to locust infestations to a pandemic, nature is sending us a message — and the time to act for nature is now. 

“Are we going to condemn future generations to a degraded planetary environment?” said Lovejoy. “Or are we going to make sure that it all flourishes?” 

How we respond to these questions will guide the future of the planet. Learn more at Earth Day Network’s Conservation and Biodiversity campaign.