“2021 must be the year to reconcile humanity with nature,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Monday at the One Planet Summit. “We have been poisoning air, land and water and filling oceans with plastic, and now nature is striking back. Temperatures are reaching record highs, biodiversity is collapsing, deserts are spreading, fires, floods and hurricanes are more frequent and extreme, and we are extremely fragile.”

In the first major environment summit of the year, about 30 world leaders and heads of international organizations, including Guterres, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng, met via videoconference to organize political action and financing for biodiversity projects around the world. The one-day event was also a chance to restart international environment talks stalled by the coronavirus pandemic.

Ahead of the summit, which was organized by France in cooperation with the United Nations and the World Bank, the UN called the pandemic “a dramatic reminder of the importance of nature for our daily lives and economies.”

On Monday, Guterres called biodiversity “our life insurance” and said the pandemic recovery was the world’s “chance to change course.”

Emmanuel Macron speaks in Paris

Macron said a coalition of at least 50 countries had committed to protecting 30% of the planet by 2030

“With smart policies and the right investments, we can chart a path that brings health to all, revives economies, and builds resilience and rescues biodiversity,” he said, highlighting World Economic Forum estimates that emerging business opportunities across nature could create 191 million jobs by 2030.

Macron also announced that at least 50 countries, including Germany, have now committed to protecting at least 30% of the planet by 2030, pledging to halt the extinction of species and address climate change issues under the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People.

Monday’s summit comes ahead of a UN conference on biodiversity to be held in China in October, after it was postponed in 2020 because of the pandemic. COP26, the UN’s global climate summit in Glasgow, which had been planned for November 2020, was also pushed back a year.

The leaders of the United States, Russia, India and Brazil were not in attendance; US President-elect Joe Biden, who has pledged to make climate issues a key part of his incoming administration, does not take office until January 20.

More funds for ‘Africa’s environmental defense system’

The event, held annually since 2017, focused on four key themes: the protection of terrestrial and marine ecosystems; increasing funding for biodiversity protection; finding links between deforestation and the health of human and animals; and promoting agroecology.

“We know even more clearly amid the crisis we are going through that all our vulnerabilities are interrelated,” Macron said. His German counterpart agreed. “We need to step up our efforts to protect biodiversity and natural habitats, not just at some point in time, but now, and not just somehow but considerably, otherwise the consequences will very soon be irreversible,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said from Berlin.

Ahead of the conference, major funders, including the European Investment Bank, the African Development Bank and the International Fund for Agricultural Development announced about $14.3 billion (€11.8 billion) to accelerate the development of the Great Green Wall project in Africa’s semiarid Sahel region — an area particularly hit by the effects of climate change — over the next five years.

Macron said that, since the project’s inception in 2007, progress on the Great Green Wall had been slow because of a lack of political and financial commitment from the global community. “I had set myself the goal of raising at least one-third of the funds required for this ambitious project by 2030,” said Macron. “I’m happy to announce that we have reached — and surpassed — this goal.”

The massive reforestation plan aims to push back against the southward expansion of the Sahara Desert with a band of trees, grasslands and other planted earth 8,000 kilometers long and 15 kilometers wide (5,000 miles by 9 miles) stretching across the continent. That would restore 100 million hectares (about 250 million acres) of degraded landscapes and increase biodiversity, securing food for millions of Africans from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east.

“The Great Green Wall is part of Africa’s environmental defense system, a shield against an onslaught of desertification and degradation,” said Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank (AfDB). “Faced with climate change and desertification, the Sahel as we know it may actually disappear without it.” He said supporting the project would improve lives, reduce migration and help counter the effects of climate change.

About 18% completed so far, the natural corridor — which would be three times the size of the Great Barrier Reef when finished — could sequester an estimated 250 million tons of carbon and create 10 million green jobs in communities in the 11 countries in the Sahel-Sahara region by 2030.

“The Great Green Wall is a wall worth building. A wall that brings people together, not a wall that pulls people apart. A wall that insulates, not a wall that isolates. A wall that protects our collective existence, a wall for the environment — a wall for the planet,” said Adesina.

As part of its efforts to support the Great Green Wall, the AfDB is supporting the world’s largest solar power project in the Sahel region, which could connect about 60 million people to renewable electricity in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Mali and Niger. “If there is no access to energy, the Great Green Wall will be no more than trees waiting to be turned into charcoal,” Adesina said.

Investing in sustainability can ‘transform our global economy’

On Monday, Britain’s Prince Charles announced a project to encourage private businesses to increase their focus on environmental sustainability over the next 10 years. Dubbed the Terra Carta, the plan offers businesses a “road map” of 100 actions that businesses should pledge by 2030 to tackle climate change, including transitioning to 100% clean energy and detailing the environmental footprint of their products.

“The only possible solution to the challenges facing our planet lies in working in harmony with nature’s own economy, rather than against it,” Charles said.

The charter aims to raise $10 billion to invest in environmental projects by 2022 through the newly created Natural Capital Investment Alliance, part of the Sustainable Markets Initiative launched by the prince in 2020 to help speed up the global transition to a sustainable future.

“I am making an urgent appeal to leaders from all sectors and from around the world to join us in this endeavor and to give their support to this Terra Carta to bring prosperity into harmony with nature, people and planet over the coming decade,” the prince said, singling out leaders in industry and finance. “Only they are able to mobilize the innovation, scale and resources that are required to transform our global economy.”