Climate change is both an existential threat and a defining challenge. Sadly, it is not the only one. Biodiversity loss and the collapse of ecosystems is just as big a problem, with equally serious consequences — food and freshwater shortages, mass displacement, crippling adaptation costs, and increased vulnerability to extreme weather.
The global wildlife population has fallen by 68% since 1970 and the rate of extinction in recent decades is as high as 1,000 times the natural background rate. Scientists believe that we are at the start of the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event.
If that were to happen, it would be the first extinction event caused by a single species, which had both the knowledge and power to stop it. It wouldn’t be nearly as impressive as the fifth — where a giant asteroid slammed into Earth — and any traces left on the fossil record by homo sapiens would highlight both our achievements and our folly.
Despite the seriousness of biodiversity loss, it is often treated as the poor cousin of climate change — either people do not see it as a real threat, or they see it as sort of the same thing. But while the two are interdependent, they are different issues.
Most of the decline of nature in recent decades has occurred well before the worst effects of climate change hit. The two biggest drivers are habitat loss (e.g. the expansion and intensification of agriculture, mining, infrastructure and urban developments) and over-exploitation (e.g. logging, poaching and fishing). Climate change will exacerbate the issue.
We must address the climate change and biodiversity crisis together. It is impossible to reverse biodiversity loss if greenhouse gas emissions and global temperatures continue to rise; similarly, it is impossible to reduce emissions to net-zero and halt climate change if we continue to destroy nature at the current rate.
Ultimately, it comes down to repairing our broken relationship with nature. If we do that then our most serious environmental problems will be solved together.
Biodiversity loss is a complex issue, but it is within humanity’s gift to solve it, if only we pull together. There are a number of things you can do to help, here are five to get you started.
1) Start in your own backyard
A manicured lawn, exotic ornamental plants, decking, pavers, neat painted fences and perhaps even a pool — this has become the West’s ideal yard. Problem is, these designs are expensive to maintain, unlikely to be satisfying — trying to live up to an ideal never is — and might as well be toxic wasteland from a biodiversity perspective.
Backyards could be a powerful positive force for biodiversity; they could be island havens for wildlife, enabling safe passage through urban environments.
I’m not about to go all gardening magazine on you, but here are several actions that could make a big difference:
· Stop, step away from the pesticides and and artificial fertilisers. Despite the satisfying pictures on the bottles, these are harmful to bugs, pollinators and the soil. Adopt natural pest control methods instead, start composting and don’t be afraid to let it grow.
· Plant wildflowers, shrubs and trees that are native to your local area. These will provide vital food and habitat for local wildlife.
· Include nature-friendly features like logs, rocks, bird boxes or even a pond.
· There is no harm in planting fruit trees and edibles either — these provide food for you and for nature. Just don’t go into terminator mode if you see some bugs munching on your basil.
Your backyard is not limited to your fences — aim to change your local area too. Try volunteering with a local conservation group, for a physically and mentally rewarding day. You’ll probably meet some like-minded locals too.
Ask your council to limit pesticide use and adopt wildlife-friendly approaches. A number of London boroughs have dedicated areas for wildflowers in recent years, which look great, support bees and birds, and save money through reduced mowing and pesticide usage. Another growing trend in Europe is miniature ‘Miyawaki’ forests, which support biodiversity and sequester carbon on plots as small as a tennis court.
2) Change your diet and limit food waste
Meat and dairy require far more land to produce than plant-based food, so as demand increases, agricultural land expands to the detriment of nature. The meat-heavy diet of the West is a problem from both a biodiversity and climate change perspective — if everyone ate as much meat as Americans, there would not be enough land to support the population.
Livestock accounts for almost 80% of agricultural land, yet only provides 18% of the calorie intake. Beef and lamb are particularly land-intensive, requiring over 150m2 of land per 100g of protein compared to 7m2 for poultry and 2m2 for tofu.
Reducing meat consumption would mean that less land is required to feed the world, allowing more space for nature. This would be a win for biodiversity and climate change, but it would also have big health benefits too. The EAT-Lancet ‘planetary diet’ has been developed to optimise human health and lead to a more sustainable food system. It calls for a significant reduction in red meat (a 77% reduction for the average European) and sugar, replaced by higher consumption of vegetables, fruit, pulses and nuts.
3) Consume sustainably
Overconsumption is rife. It is a serious environmental problem. Global trade and unfettered capitalism have combined to create an unsustainable throwaway culture. See, like, click, open, stow and then Marie Kondo that junk.
We are consuming like sailors on shore leave, while the world burns. History will judge this period as an unfathomably wasteful one.
Resist the temptation. That deal you saw isn’t so great if you factor in how many times you’ll actually use it and account for the environmental cost. Buy less and use those savings to buy the best quality items you can afford. Use the things you already have, repair them if they break and then if you get sick of them, find them a good home (the rubbish bin doesn’t count).
Food wise, go organic if you can afford it. Organic agriculture avoids artificial fertilisers, pesticides, hormones and GMOs, so it is much better for biodiversity, soil health and climate change. A lot of people prefer the taste and the piece-of-mind too.
Look for other labelling and certifications too. While far from perfect, at the very least, these schemes ensure that certain minimum criteria are met. For paper and wood, FSC certification is the definitive scheme (FSC 100% and FSC recycled are best, while FSC mix is weakest). Rainforest Alliance and UTZ (now part of the Rainforest Alliance) are good for food, coffee and cocoa, while Marine Stewardship Council is the main scheme for sustainable fishing. RSPO promotes sustainable palm oil.
4) Read up on biodiversity loss and raise awareness
Raising the profile of biodiversity loss is essential to escalating and solving the issue. You can do your bit by increasing your knowledge on the topic. An easy way to start is to watch a documentary — ‘David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet’ is a good example.
I recently wrote an article (see below), which provides an overview of biodiversity loss and includes a list of references to explore.
The World Is Failing to Tackle the Biodiversity Crisis
None of the 2020 global biodiversity targets will be met. For the sake of both nature and humanity, we must urgently…
The UN IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services provides a comprehensive picture, albeit is a bit dry. If you are looking for book that provides more hope and inspiration, ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree is well worth a read — it recounts the author’s experience of transforming an intensively farmed estate to a haven for wildlife.
Books, documentaries and research papers are useful, but there is no better teacher than nature itself. Take a trip to a local national park and immerse yourself — look for both beauty and the fragility.
5) Protest and vote for environmental protections
Nature’s ability to recover is not limitless though, it is in a perilous state and requires fast action. Stronger laws are needed to protect sensitive habitats, prevent over-exploitation and unsustainable practices.
Environmental laws are often attacked by neoliberals as ‘red tape’ and anti-business. However, taking a wider societal view, weakening environmental laws are counter-productive. Sure, they may provide a short-term profit for certain businesses and line the pockets of a few, but the majority — communities and other businesses — suffer through loss of natural services and pollution. Further, unsustainable practices are bad for long-term profits by definition. Environmental regulations protect the wider community and mitigate the adverse effects of unfettered capitalism. It is in no-one’s long-term interest if fish stocks are depleted, aquifers drained and rivers polluted for short-term gain.
There are plenty of worthy causes to adopt. Fight for better food labelling, halt deforestation, stop plastic pollution, ban pesticides, oppose an inappropriate local development. Pick one (or several) that speaks to you.
Be active at a local level, but at a national level too. Trump, Bolsonaro and Morrison have weakened, or are attempting to weaken, the environmental standards in their respective countries. Given the seriousness of biodiversity loss and the need for global co-operation, we cannot let that happen. We must elevate the profile of biodiversity and make it key election issue. I would like to think that would be enough to make all leaders take it seriously, but who are we kidding, that probably won’t happen — so try to elect the leaders who do.
 De Vos, et al. (2014) “Estimating the normal background rate of species extinction”, Conservation Biology
 Ceballos et al. (2017) “Population losses and the sixth mass extinction” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jul 2017, 114 (30)
 Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services” (2019) UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
 Alexander, P., Brown, C., Arneth, A., Finnigan, J., & Rounsevell, M. D. (2016). Human appropriation of land for food: the role of diet. Global Environmental Change, 41, 88–98
 Poore, J., & Nemecek, T. (2018). “Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers.” Science, 360(6392), 987–992.