Biodiversity Loss Is as Big a Crisis as Climate Change

Elks gallop in Nanchang, Jiangxi, China. Elks have been released into the wild to improve biodiversity and protect the ecosystem of China's largest freshwater lake. Photo: Getty Images.
Elks gallop in Nanchang, Jiangxi, China. Elks have been released into the wild to improve biodiversity and protect the ecosystem of China’s largest freshwater lake. Photo: Getty Images.

The release of a major report looking at the state of nature presents a grim forecast for the future of humanity and the planet. Gitika Bhardwaj speaks to Sandra Diaz, co-chair of the report, about what’s driving this biodiversity crisis and how we can stop it before it’s too late.

Last week, 150 experts from 50 countries released a major report demonstrating that nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented, with up to 1 million species threatened with extinction, more than at any other time in human history. What is driving this global loss of biodiversity and how is it different from previous waves of extinctions experienced on Earth?

It is believed that the Earth has experienced five mass extinctions in its history but the crucial difference is that this time the threat is being caused by humans.

Our actions over the past 50 years have been the cause of record losses in species – tens to hundreds of times faster than the natural rate of extinction over the past 10 million years. Since 1970 alone, vertebrate populations have fallen by 40 per cent for land-based species, 84 per cent for freshwater species and 35 per cent for marine species.

This is happening due to a number of human activities: accelerating land-use change such as through farming and logging, overusing our seas and oceans such as through fishing, polluting our air, soil and water systems, hunting and also – voluntarily or involuntarily – transporting invasive species across distant regions. And this is happening on an unprecedented, worldwide scale.

Human activities have significantly altered around three-quarters of all land and two-thirds of all oceans on the planet according to the report. From insect pollination that provides us with food, to mangrove swamps that shield us from storms, how much do humans depend on nature and how much will it impact us if it continues to degrade at the current rate?

One of the things the report highlights is the deep dependence of all humans on nature. We depend on nature to have a fulfilling life no matter where we live – often without realizing it. We depend on nature for our physical sustenance, cultural continuity and sense of identity.

Of course, nature also regulates a number of processes that we don’t even notice that are the basis of our economies and well-being such as clean water, protection from environmental hazards, the pollination of crops and the regulation of the climate. So we cannot live life as we know it, and as we enjoy it, without nature.

In the report we take stock of the different kinds of nature’s contributions to people and we conclude that, with the exception of the production of food, energy and raw materials, all of the other contributions nature gives to people – about 14 out 18 kinds – are declining globally.

We have analysed a number of scenarios, and in all of them, there is a sharp decrease in nature and its capacity to regulate all of the Earth’s natural processes.

Furthermore, climate change is increasingly interacting with all of the other human-induced drivers of biodiversity loss in complex ways, so the future looks extremely grim for most people around the world, and much worse for some more than others in just the next 30-40 years.

This loss of biodiversity reportedly poses as serious, and urgent, a threat to humans as climate change but it has been less discussed. Why do you think this has been the case and, given increasing public concern after last year’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and widespread public protests this year, do you believe this could change?

Yes definitely. The IPCC has traditionally gotten much more attention but that is because the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is much younger. This is the first global biodiversity assessment since 2005 to present the state of biodiversity and ecosystem services and what it means for humanity.

In contrast, the IPCC has decades of history, so we are following in their steps, inspired by them in the way we organize ourselves, and as a result I think people are starting to listen.

We have been pleasantly surprised at the amount of public attention we received when the report was released last week. There are environmental movements that have been focused on climate change that now – only one week after the release of the report – have already announced that they will fight for nature as well as the climate because they have realized you cannot fight for one without fighting for the other.

Zebras in a dust storm in Amboseli National Park in Kenya. Photo: Getty Images.
Zebras in a dust storm in Amboseli National Park in Kenya. Photo: Getty Images.

The report sheds light on how the issues of sustainable development, climate change and biodiversity are interrelated. How much, then, does tackling these issues require an integrated approach, for example, through international agreements including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Aichi Targets on biodiversity? Do these instruments need to be reformed in any way?

It’s totally dependent on an integrated approach. In the report, we go to great lengths to show how trying to fix human well-being for all, climate change and biodiversity in isolation is not going to work – you actually risk making the other two problems worse if you only try to fix one without considering the other two.

The three instruments you mention need to consider all three pillars – a good quality of life for all, the climate and biodiversity – in a far more integrated way than has ever been done before. These instruments need to talk to each other and make sure they consider each other when devising targets and implementing actions.

For example, in our assessment of the SDGs, we found that many of them do not explicitly mention biodiversity which is surprising given that you cannot achieve them without nature – the fabric of life.

What’s more, we need to focus much more on actions rather than on somewhat nebulous targets. There is a lot of synergy to be achieved in the three agreements and I think the people driving them are now much more prepared to listen then ever before.

The report has been approved by 132 governments, with France announcing that it now aims to make protecting biodiversity as important a priority as climate change, while the G7 countries – in addition to Chile, Fiji, Gabon, Mexico, Niger and Norway – have all announced their commitment to protecting biodiversity in response to the report too. What action would you like to see other governments take?   

In a nutshell, I would like to see governments put their money where their words are, so to speak. They all have expressed their concern about biodiversity loss – and most of the governments, if not all, have praised the findings in our report – but we now need action.

There are a number of fixes that can be done easily and quickly such as creating more protected areas, improving waste treatment systems, banning plastics, improving fishing gear and recycling more. This can all help enormously but only if done together because on their own it’s won’t be enough.

In order to have a chance of containing the destruction of our natural world, we need to do all of the above, in addition to tackling the root causes. That means addressing the activities driving land-use change and changes in our seas and oceans, climate change, pollution and the spread of invasive species.

Importantly, these root causes are all related to our lifestyles. That’s why we say, although the biodiversity crisis looks biological, the causes and solutions are deeply social.

So governments need to integrate biodiversity considerations across all sectors – not just better environmental policies but also better policies related to agriculture, infrastructure and trade. Biodiversity is not just a concern for respective ministers of environment – it’s a concern for all ministers since it’s a concern for all sectors.

It’s all about putting nature and the public good first rather than the narrow, economic interests of a minority. It’s as simple – and as difficult – as that.

Sandra Diaz, Co-Chair, Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Report

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