Trevor Hancock: In failing nature, governments fail us

There is a wonderful scene in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance that brings to mind our governments’ approach to protecting nature.

The pompous police sergeant and his timid and fearful constables are marching up and down declaring they are off to fight the pirates. But as an exasperated major general bursts out: “Yes, but you don’t go!”

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Too often, governments say “We’re going to act, we’re going to act” – but then they don’t act!

For all their protestations, they still treat nature as if it were a collection of resources put there for us to exploit, rather than the vital underpinnings of our health and well-being, indeed our very existence, as well as that of all the other species with which we share the Earth.

The vital importance of nature for health is recognized by the World Health Organization in its recent “Manifesto for a healthy and green COVID-19 recovery.”

The first of its six “prescriptions” is to “protect and preserve the source of human health: Nature.” But two important global reports at the end of September make it abundantly clear we are failing to do so.

The first was Global Biodiversity Outlook 5, published by the UN’s Montreal-based Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The report is blunt: “Biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate, and the pressures driving this decline are intensifying. None of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets will be fully met.”

The second is the bi-annual Living Planet Report, published by the Worldwide Fund for Nature. The WWF’s Living Planet Index monitors the abundance of almost 21,000 populations of 4,392 vertebrate species. Between 1970 and 2016, it declined worldwide by a profoundly disturbing 68 per cent — and a horrific 94 per cent in central and south America. And this was the status four years ago. I shudder to think what it is today.

So it was good news that on the eve of the UN’s Summit on Biodiversity last month, leaders from 76 countries — including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — signed the WWF’s Leaders’ Pledge for Nature. There are fine words in the pledge, beginning with this: “We are in a state of planetary emergency: the interdependent crises of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation and climate change — driven in large part by unsustainable production and consumption — require urgent and immediate global action”.

The pledge includes 10 commitments by which countries “will achieve the vision of Living in Harmony with Nature by 2050.” Moreover, alone among the world’s 10 largest countries, Canada has committed to WWF’s “30 by 30” High Ambition Coalition to “raise the government’s already announced intention to protect 25 per cent of Canada’s lands and waters by 2025 to now reach 30 per cent protected areas by 2030”.

Which sounds impressive, but it is actions that count, not words. So while WWF Canada’s separately published Living Planet Report Canada 2020 shows an overall increase of six per cent since 1970 for the 883 native vertebrate species it monitors, that is not the case for species assessed as at risk of extinction.

The populations of these species, which include all animals (so invertebrates are counted) and plants, “have plunged by an average of 59 per cent and species assessed as globally at risk have seen their Canadian populations fall by an average of 42 per cent” — and again, this is only to 2016.

The situation in B.C. is also grim. In an August article in The Narwhal, Susan Cox reported: “Almost 1,340 species are now on B.C.’s red and blue lists of species at risk of extinction. Another 1,037 species meet the provincial status requirements for red and blue listings but have not yet been added.”

But worryingly, there is no Species at Risk Act in B.C., in spite of auditor general reports in 1993 and 2013 pointing out the problems. Moreover, Cox stated: “Although the governing NDP made an election promise to enact endangered species legislation — a pledge upheld in Premier John Horgan’s mandate letter for Environment Minister George Heyman — it subsequently reneged on its commitment.”

In failing to bring in SARA, and more generally to protect nature, B.C.’s governments, including this one, have repeatedly failed us. Remember that when you vote on Oct. 24.

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