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The window to halt the dramatic decline of life on earth is incredibly narrow but the failure to act will jeopardise humanity’s survival too, a top UN official has warned.

“The curve of biodiversity loss by 2050 under the business-as-usual scenario looks very dramatic,” remarked Dr Christiana Pasca Palmer, the executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

“And if we add the problem of climate change and other global challenges, we really are facing a very narrow window. We only have 30 years to turn the boat around. I think we’re in very deep trouble,” said Palmer, speaking at the Third Biodiversity Research and Evidence Indaba in Pretoria, hosted by the Department of Environmental Affairs last week.

“We don’t have much time to debate more, engage more. We need action and we need implementation.”

Scientists believe the extinction rate of species is now about 1 000 times higher than before humans dominated the earth, driven by major threats such as habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, poaching, climate change, invasive species and disease.

This year as the CBD - a global agreement between countries to safeguard biodiversity - celebrated 25 years of coming into force, Palmer suggested there was room for introspection on efforts to safeguard biodiversity.

Biodiversity refers to the astonishing variety of life on the planet - with estimates of two, five and 10 million and even a trillion species on earth, with only a tiny fraction ever identified.

But Palmer said biodiversity remained a concept that most people did not understand, that was “bottom on the list” up against global environmental priorities such as climate change and ocean protection.

“Globally, why are we not succeeding to halt the loss of biodiversity, even though we’ve had 25 years of intergovernmental processes through the UN?

"Do we have enough science? Is there a problem with the way we have bridged the gap between the knowledge in the science community and the rest of society?

"Powerful decision makers, politicians and the financial industry, how much consideration do they give to biodiversity?” she asked.

“Often I see, while there is positive change, the priority is development, especially in developing countries. But with only one planet, this locks us all in and it’s a lose lose for everyone at a global scale.”

Palmer remarked that she was pleased that the declaration of the BRICS summit, held last week in South Africa, mentioned biodiversity.

“Congratulations to whoever from South Africa made that happen because it’s not common. But then I also saw strong calls for investment in infrastructure and the role of development. How is all of this going to be done in a way that limits the impacts (on biodiversity) but also has positive benefits?”

Palmer called for a new and more effective global biodiversity framework to be drawn up post-2020, which she described as a “new deal for nature” when the deadline for the decade-long Aichi Biodiversity Targets will be reached.

“We need something, perhaps building on everything we have learnt and done in this 25 years, both in terms of our success and all learning from the failures, and perhaps to be more bold and be more determined about what we do in the future.

“What we will need to see in the lead up to 2020 and moving forward is a massive awakening of the entire parts of society that we cannot treat climate change as a separate problem from biodiversity and a separate problem to the oceans, and separate from forests. Everything is interconnected.

“But unfortunately at the global level, there is a lot of fragmentation and in political discourse, what I hear from the scientists is that the picture is not good across all regions."

She, however, remained optimistic.

“Even though the window is narrowing, if we find a way to bridge the knowledge from science to the rest of society to policy makers and decision makers and get them to start championing this biodiversity agenda, there’s hope, because what’s at stake isn’t the sixth extinction of species - what’s at stake is our own extinction not far down the road.”