Nature's decline sparks global concern

Posted on 30 January 2023

Marco Lambertini Holly Chapman WWF-1

At the end of 2022, Marco Lambertini stepped down as WWF Director General after nine years in office. Read his reflections – from society’s growing awareness, concern and action on the nature loss crisis to the efforts still required to build a safer future for nature and people.

Nine years may seem a long time to each of us individually, but it’s a blink of an eye when compared to human history, let alone life on Earth. Yet, in the nine years since I joined WWF as Director General, so much has happened in advancing our mission.

THE GREAT DECLINE (OF NATURE) AND THE GREAT AWAKENING (OF HUMANITY): the paradox of a society in transition

The “great acceleration” is what some scientists call the period of exponential population growth, economic development and consumption of resources that started around 60 years ago, right at the time when WWF was founded.

The exponentially growing demand for everything from energy, water, minerals and timber to fish, farmed animals, pesticides and fertilisers has created deep socio-economic inequality and, not surprisingly, put an accelerating pressure on the natural world, leading to a shocking decline of wildlife populations and loss of ecosystems.

On the other hand, the evidence of our impact on nature has never been better understood and documented than in the last decade − from climate change and deforestation to pollution and extinction risk.

Every two years our Living Planet Report has shone a vital spotlight on the relentless decline of global wildlife populations.

But it was the first IPBES report in 2019 that hit the headlines in newspapers and primetime TV around the world with the shocking estimate of a million species at risk of extinction.

Fire sweeps through Otuquis National Park

Fire sweeps through Otuquis National Park , Bolivia (c) Jaime Rojo | WWF US

Suddenly, nature loss entered the public discourse: one of many signs of the “great awakening”. Equally impactful was the worldwide coverage of wildfires erupting everywhere with unprecedented scale and ferocity: from the Amazon to Australia, Africa, California and southern Europe, and even in regions that had previously been relatively unaffected, from Nordic forests to Siberian taiga.

The scenes of flames and smoke − accompanied by the loss of human lives and properties, and incinerated or agonized wildlife − violently demonstrated the connection between the climate and nature loss crises, and the risk to us all.

The scenes were apocalyptic, terrifying. People, as a consequence, have responded ever more promptly, with WWF-Australia’s recovery efforts, for example, aided by the most successful fundraising campaign in WWF’s history.

And when the COVID pandemic highlighted the links between human health and the careless exploitation of wild species and ecosystems, we saw 700,000 new financial supporters and a 38% increase in income during the two tragic years when the pandemic was at its height.

Alongside the awareness of our impacts, and perhaps more importantly, people have also come to recognize the consequences that our impact on the natural world is beginning to have on us – from destabilizing our economy and society to threatening our personal well-being and health.

This equates to a historic shift in perception about nature loss. Concern and even fear have added to existing sentiments of sadness and guilt for failing on our moral duty to coexist with the planet’s amazing diversity of life.

From the decline of fish stocks and pollinators to droughts, storms and wildfires of unprecedented power and frequency, affecting all corners of the world, it is increasingly clear that no one is exempt from the threat of extreme weather events and biodiversity decline.

We are living perhaps the inevitable paradox of a society at the start of a deep transition where the growing impact on the natural world is paralleled by an unprecedented rise in awareness and concern. A paradox that may represent the foundation for change.

THE (START OF THE) GREAT TRANSITION? From 1.5°C to nature positive

The historic 2015 Paris climate accord and subsequent climate COPs signalled to markets and society a new vision and a new shared goal: carbon neutrality and the limiting of global warming to 1.5°C.

It wasn’t long before we saw divestment from fossil fuels coupled by the crash in the cost of renewable energy generation largely thanks to China’s massive domestic investment.

Climate change march in Washington DC

Thousands marched in Washington DC in 2017 to demand action on climate change (c) Gustavo Ybarra | WWF US

Building on the climate momentum, in 2018 WWF launched the notion of a New Deal for Nature and People to provide the same clarity for nature recovery efforts that we had for climate: measurable and time bound.

At the same time, the WWF Network united around three global goals for 2030 on spaces, species and footprint, delivered through nine thematic areas and corresponding communities of practice across the network working with a growing number of partners across multiple sectors.

The ambition was for these goals not just to serve as WWF’s global compass, but also to be at the core of the world’s new global biodiversity plan.

We partnered with the World Economic Forum in gathering a first group of business and political leaders around a Nature Action Agenda and publishing a series of reports that helped build a strong economic case for nature conservation.

In report after report, economists highlighted the dependencies of the economy on nature, with half of global GDP estimated to rely on healthy ecosystems; the social and economic costs of nature loss; and the opportunities for transition to sustainable practices.

For the first time in 2020, biodiversity loss entered the top five risks for society in the Forum’s Global Risks Report.

And in the same year, the Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos saw nature dominate the agenda like never before − from Nat Geo’s stunning wildlife carousel slide shows in the main hall to Sir David Attenborough and us featuring in the main programme with the premiere of the WWF-backed Our Planet Netflix series.

Inspired by the climate journey and capitalizing on the growing business case for nature, we also supported the launch of new business and investor coalitions, from Business For Nature to the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures.

The rise of nature in the political, corporate and societal discourse was becoming unstoppable.

In September 2019, taking advantage of the presence of heads of state at the UN General Assembly (UNGA), we decided to take our ambition to new levels and launched ourselves into facilitating a Leaders’ Pledge for Nature at heads of state/government level.

Thirteen heads of state/government attended in person the launch event (94 heads of state and the President of the EU went on to sign the pledge), followed by the President of the UNGA convening in 2020 the first-ever UN Summit on Biodiversity.

But it was time to push further… and the ‘nature positive by 2030’ global goal (to parallel carbon neutrality for climate) was officially launched in 2020, again at Davos, in collaborative and unbranded efforts that saw, for the first time in a long time, all the global environmental and sustainable business platforms united in designing and advocating the goal to “halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030”.

THE GREAT OPPORTUNITY: the race to a nature-positive future is on

During these years I have seen nature loss move from being perceived as an isolated moral and ecological issue to an economic, social and justice issue.

Media coverage has risen to almost the same level as the climate. It landed on the agendas of the G7, G20 and IMF.

And the European Union launched the European Green Deal, the world’s most ambitious and comprehensive package of instruments to protect nature and drive sustainability.

Even regressive political leaders in major economies undoubtedly delayed but did not manage to fully derail the climate and nature agendas.

We know that we are late both on climate and nature, and we must accelerate in our transitions. The race is on.

It’s time to translate our new awareness into system change. We know the problem and we understand its gravity. We know that it is linked to our unsustainable economic model. And we know the solutions too: protect more of the nature left on the planet, and protect it better; restore as much as we can of what has been lost; and manage sustainably the rest, including our productive landscapes, through a deep transformation of our production and consumption model.

Our civilization is at its most crucial fork − one that should redefine the most important of all our relationships, the one with nature: our mother, our lifeline.

We should count on the fact that, for the first time in the history of our civilization, more and more of us are beginning to understand that we cannot continue to take nature for granted and think to dominate the planet and exploit its resources wastefully and destructively without consequences.

There are consequences already: loss of lives, livelihoods and economic assets, with things only getting worse unless we course-correct our economic development journey. And change is possible.

We have so many local examples of how nature can come back if given a chance. More importantly, it is necessary. We owe it to the amazing diversity of life that makes this planet a ‘living planet’.

We owe it to our children and generations yet to come, the ones who today have no say, no voice, who are not at the decision table.

This is what an organization like WWF perhaps is all about: giving a voice to nature and to our future generations.  


We often talk about ‘our’ planet, ‘our’ ocean and ‘our’ climate, but we should drop our human arrogance and shift from possession and domination to harmony, equity and coexistence. Among peoples, and between people and nature.

WWF’s most important responsibility and contribution in moving forward is to support society in this transition, helping to increase speed, scale and depth.

The speed of change in which we embrace a truly ecologically sustainable future will determine success or failure in preserving life on Earth as we know it and in building a safe future for humanity.

Can we change before reaching climate and ecosystem tipping points? Can we learn how to develop and live within planetary boundaries?

Transitions are complex and filled with uncertainties. The temptation to backtrack to business as usual is omnipresent.

There is and will be resistance, whether it is based on genuine concerns, ignorance or selfishness, to protect elite economic interests and privileges of the few versus the collective good.

But we have several advantages on our side. The power of the evidence. The power of the many: our staff, supporters and a growing number of like-minded people everywhere in the world.

The way we can multiply our impact through partnerships and coalitions: with governments, corporates, investors, civil society and communities.

And finally, we have a mission worth striving for. Because the planet’s amazing diversity of life deserves it and because there’s only one possible ‘people positive’ future and that is … a ‘nature positive’ one.


Marco Lambertini
Director General, WWF International (2014-2022)

Marco is now a leading advocate for WWF’s ambitious vision as our Special Envoy.


Read more:

WWF Annual Review 2022

2022: Landmark year for nature