Our planet is on life support.
That’s the dire message from a landmark United Nations report this past week that found one million species of plants and animals - out of a total of eight million - are at risk of extinction as the result of human actions.
It’s a message the world dare not ignore. At stake is not just the survival of other species. The UN report, the most thorough health checkup on biodiversity ever conducted by leading scientists, makes clear that the future of our own species is at stake as well.
Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, put it like this: “We are eroding the very foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”
In other words, we must save the plants and animals by protecting their habitats.
One way to do that would be for the world to meet the targets set under the 2010 UN Convention on Biodiversity to protect 17% of land area and 10% of oceans by 2020.
That’s not a unreasonable goal, considering that last week’s report found natural ecosystems have already been diminished by half. But it is a politically difficult one.
The fact is that in order to protect lands and waters governments must ban virtually all economic activity within them, a responsibility Canada’s previous Conservative government ducked.
As a result, until recently this country was a laggard compared to other G7 countries in meeting the goals set out by the UN.
Happily, the Trudeau government has taken important steps to change that, though it still has a ways to go.
Last month, for example, the government set aside 11,580 square kilometers of the Laurentian Channel, a key migratory pathway for whales and other endangered species between Cape Breton Island and Newfoundland, as Canada’s newest and biggest marine protected area, or MPA.
At the same time, Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson released new rules that will ban oil and gas activities, mining, ocean dumping and bottom trawling in all 13 of the country’s MPAs.
Predictably, there was political push-back. The premiers of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland argued that designating the Laurentian Channel as an MPA will hinder economic activity off their coasts.
But if studies of the world’s oceans show anything, it’s that protecting marine habitat isn’t a threat to economic activity in coast areas; it’s vital to making sure it can continue in the future.
MPAs help to connect important feeding, mating and calving grounds for vulnerable species. And in turn, those ecosystems generate essential revenue for island and coastal communities through sustainable fisheries and tourism.
They also protected species that otherwise would be at serious risk. The Laurentian Channel, for example, is home to 20 species of whales and dolphins, as well as northern wolffish, soft corals called sea-pens, sea turtles and more.
At the same time, corals, sponges and other creatures will be protected by a ban on the destructive practice of bottom trawling. Ships drag weighted nets along the ocean floor, destroying coral forests and sea beds and sweeping up hundreds of kinds of unwanted fish, called “bycatch,” which are then discarded.
The new marine protected areas move Canada close to meeting the UN goal for protecting ocean areas by 2020. But on land, this country still falls short.
Canada has now designated 11.8% of its land area as “protected,” significantly short of the 17% goal it has pledged to reach by next year.
The Trudeau government has done a lot in this area, setting aside new protected areas in the Northwest Territories and as close as the Rouge National Urban Park on the outskirts of Toronto. But it should up its efforts and set an example for the rest of the world. Last week’s report on threatened species gives it added urgency.