Humans depend on biodiversity and we're destroying it

Humans depend on biodiversity and we're destroying it
© NASA

A recently released global assessment on the state of nature offers a message that is dire — but not without hope.

I am the chairman of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which produced the report. It is the most comprehensive global assessment ever written.

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However, the basic message of this report is the same message as what the scientific community has been saying for more than 30 years — biodiversity is important in its own right and for human well-being — and we humans are destroying it.

In 1992, at the first Earth Summit in Brazil, governments around the world acknowledged that biodiversity was being destroyed at an unacceptable rate and signed the Convention on Biodiversity. Governments committed to halt the loss of biodiversity. Unfortunately, since then, the loss of biodiversity and the destruction of natural forests, grasslands, wetlands and coral reefs has accelerated, and 500,000 to 1,000,000 species are now threatened with extinction.

A key message of this report is that the loss of biodiversity is not only an environmental issue, but an economic, development, security, social, ethical and moral issue. Biodiversity has significant economic value, which should be recognized in national accounting systems. It is central to development, through food, water and energy security. It is a security issue insofar as loss of natural resources, especially in poor developing countries can lead to conflict. It is an ethical issue because loss of biodiversity hurts the poorest of people, further exacerbating an already inequitable world. It is also a moral issue because we should not destroy nature.

The evidence in the report clearly shows that unless we act now to limit the loss of biodiversity, we will undermine human well-being for current and future generations.

Some scientists and non-governmental organizations argue that we need to set aside between 30 percent and 50 percent of the surface of the Earth for protected areas. Whatever the extent of protected areas, the highest priority is to improve the management of the current protected areas. We then need to develop a holistic interconnected system of protected areas that includes biodiversity not currently protected. This approach would need to take projected changes in climate into account and the needs of local people, especially indigenous peoples and local communities, who occupy many areas of critical importance for biodiversity.

Given that most biodiversity will always lie outside protected areas, the key challenge is to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity outside of protected areas.

As the report shows, in recent decades, the largest driver of biodiversity loss in terrestrial systems has been land use change and use — the conversion of native habitats, especially forests, grasslands and wetlands, into the agricultural systems that have been needed to feed the world. The challenge is to transform our agricultural practices, which are mainly unsustainable today, into ones that produce the food we need while protecting and conserving biodiversity. This means not expanding into pristine natural habitats, but using agro-ecological practices and fewer chemicals, and protecting pollinators. Too often fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals run off into our rivers, polluting them and many coastal regions around the world.

While climate change has not been the dominant driver of biodiversity loss to date in most parts of the world, it is projected to become as or more important than the other drivers of change in the coming decades. It is essential that the issues of biodiversity loss and climate change are addressed together. This means we must transform the way we produce and use our energy. We need to replace fossil fuel energy with renewable energy sources, e.g., wind and solar power, and we need to improve the efficiency with which we use energy.

However, it is important to recognize that some of the suggested approaches to limit human-induced climate change, such as large-scale afforestation and bioenergy, may adversely affect biodiversity and food and water security. 

In 2010, governments around the world agreed to a set of 20 targets to protect biodiversity by 2020, the Aichi targets. Unfortunately, most countries will fail to meet most of these targets. Targets without specified actions are meaningless. Every government in the world will meet in China next year to establish a plan of action to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity. This meeting will be a critical milestone to see whether there is the political will to take the evidence gathered in this global report and start to implement the transformative changes needed. The challenge is immense but can be accomplished if every country acts individually, and collectively.

There is a need to eliminate agricultural, energy and transportation subsidies that are harmful to the environment. There is also a need to introduce short-term economic incentives to stimulate sustainable production and consumption. The economic system needs to evolve from one focused on Gross Domestic Product, by recognizing and incorporating the value of natural capital into economic accounting.

Rarely do decision-makers

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recognize the importance of nature’s regulating services: the regulation of the climate, pollution, pollination, flood control, storm surges and water purification. Nature’s regulatory abilities have significant economic value and some of these services are irreplaceable. And there is the social value of nature, the experiences we all enjoy when we walk in a forest or by a stream.

There is also a need to fully involve all stakeholders in decision-making, including the private sector, indigenous peoples and local communities and the public. As individuals we need to reduce food waste, and the excessive use of energy and water, especially in high income countries. Our choices of diet also has profound implications for the environment, and of course our own health — everybody has a role to play.

Because biodiversity loss and climate change are environmental, development, economic, security, social and equity issues, they must be addressed together. This means that these issues are not just the domain of environment ministers, but of equal importance for ministries of agriculture, forestry, energy, finance, transportation, water and tourism. Therefore, government departments need to work together if we are to realize a sustainable world.

The scale of the problem is immense and the time for action is now.

Sir Robert Watson is chairman of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and former chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Watson is an atmospheric chemist, researching biodiversity and ecosystem services, agriculture, climate change and ozone. Watson is the director of Strategic Development at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia