A talk with Ana Maria Hernandez Salgar, former head of IPBES
Until September, Ana Maria Hernandez Salgar chaired the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), a body established by the UN in 2010 to strengthen the connection between science and policymaking.
Q. What was your greatest achievement at IPBES?
A: Improving dialogue between experts from different disciplines, and moving and opening the door to more voices and different perspectives. That’s important if we want to have more robust knowledge about biodiversity.
Q: Are emerging technologies important in addressing global sustainability goals?
A: If they comply with the principles of accessibility and information sharing. Our experts review and analyze information, then present it as a report. We do the same thing when we assess the impact of new technology. For example, we are starting to work on how to connect artificial intelligence with data on biodiversity.
Q: Land use, particularly for food production, is the main driver of biodiversity loss. Is what we eat – and how much – now a moral or even existential issue for humanity?
A: Current negative trends are undermining the chances of achieving many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including those related to poverty, hunger, health, cities, water and land.
The loss of biodiversity is clearly a moral and existential issue because it’s one of the main problems that humans face right now with regard to health and survival.
Q: How does IPBES ensure that as technology develops, it isn't just sustainable, but equal and inclusive for everyone too?
A: IPBES presents accurate data for decision-making. That data is intended to warn about trends around biodiversity loss, but actions have to be taken by the decision-makers.
Q: Are decision-makers listening to your warnings?
A: Yes. For example, the World Economic Forum (WEF) considered our information on issues related to trade and biodiversity; the World Health Organization (WHO) did the same with health and biodiversity.
In general, not only environmental forums such as CBD, CITES, UNFCCC, Ramsar, and UNCCD, but also a good number of presidents, prime ministers, ministers of environment, and congressional representatives around the world are aware of IPBES reports and are including findings in their policies, laws, and programs.
The problem is that not everybody thinks biodiversity is as important as, for example, climate change. And the reports are not translated into all the different languages around the globe, just the major UN languages, so communication can be restricted. But IPBES has started to open very important windows, and people are now more aware of what is going on with biodiversity.
Q: Do you think the world has woken up to the need for sustainable transition and that the basic argument has been won now?
A: The world has been evolving, yes. At a political, economic, and social level, there are more conscious actions towards that end. Nevertheless, there are still individuals, organizations and even political movements that continue to avoid seriously addressing the need for sustainability and the need for transformative change.
Q: So, we're getting there, but not quickly enough. What role do you think technology can play in compensating for that?
A: Innovation and technology can be a great tool in the development of sustainable solutions.
Emerging technologies can move the sustainability dial a lot. They can really reduce pressures on the environment and on lost biodiversity when they are used for that purpose. We will have to see if there is the will to use the new innovations in that way.
Q: Is it possible to be truly sustainable without the world being digitally connected?
A: The world is already interconnected in diverse ways. And in many parts of the world, for example with indigenous land, there are examples of sustainable ways of life without digital connection.
But definitely, we can benefit from green digital opportunities to find solutions for our environmental challenges. We are using new technologies to better understand, analyze, and monitor biodiversity. So, the use of these green digital opportunities for sustainability is important.
Q: What concerns you most about the future?
A: My main concern is that humanity does not want – or is afraid – to change the status quo, and that we are happy with business as usual. We are really not conscious of the harm that we are doing to the planet and ourselves.
We are like the frog that goes into the pot of water, and the fire’s turned on and the water gradually gets hotter. But the frog doesn't want to get out because the water’s comfortable – so the frog dies
Humanity is just like that. We are very comfortable, we have a lot of things, and we stare out of our window and see a lot of green out there. So why do we have to be concerned?
But then we wonder why terrible things happen, such as floods and the pandemic, and we don't have the capacity to link them to our treatment of the environment.
Q: What gives you hope?
A: My children give me hope. The youth really embrace, from the heart, this awareness of the future. The concerns I was just mentioning are related to adults. They treat the environment as they have learned to do. It’s cultural.
But the youth have a culture of conservation, and of sustainability. They understand why everything matters. And they are raising their voices.
Our responsibility is to open the window of opportunity, to start making changes, and to create solutions to all the problems we are facing today. Older generations need to learn from the youth, to embrace their love for our planet. That gives me hope for the future.
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