On 6 May 2019, the UN IPBES released a summary of its landmark global assessment report on biodiversity. The warnings were stark — as a result of human activities, nature is declining at a rate unprecedented in human history, placing a million species at risk of extinction. Put simply, nature is in trouble, therefore we’re in trouble.
Such a grave conclusion from the most comprehensive assessment of biodiversity to date should have been a wake-up call. Instead, it barely got a mention on news programmes, at least in the UK. Granted, the release coincided with the birth of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s son — and who doesn’t love a royal baby — but still, some perspective please BBC.
Biodiversity loss is arguably just as great a threat to humanity as climate change. While climate change will almost certainly exacerbate biodiversity loss, if we solve one without the other, we’ll still be in trouble.
For example, say we somehow managed to sort climate change by building lots of fans that suck carbon dioxide from the air, hurrah. If we then proceeded to carry on as normal, before long we would be facing the threat of the collapse of nature, which could have similar consequences to climate change: food and freshwater shortages; mass displacement; crippling adaptation costs; and increased vulnerability to extreme weather.
Despite the significance of the threat posed by biodiversity loss, the issue hasn’t managed to capture the public’s attention in the same way as climate change. People have embraced specific aspects, such as plastic pollution and palm oil, but the wider issue is yet to have its own ‘Blue Planet II moment’. Perhaps this has to do with to our inherent sense of detachment from nature.
Modern life is convenient, far more convenient than at any other time in human history, but such convenience leads to detachment. In a single tap of a contactless card, we can exchange a fraction of our earnings for food wrapped in nice little packages, practically indistinguishable from other consumer goods. The transaction is so easy, we rarely stop to think about the associated impact on nature; even if we wanted to find out, it would take a lot of work to unravel.
Every second, tens of thousands of taps and clicks purchase goods across the globe; they patter like raindrops, accumulating to a tempest that can wipe out swathes of rainforest, deplete fish stocks, and plunder natural resources, whilst people carry on, mostly oblivious.
Some scientists now believe that we are at the start of the sixth mass extinction event, the first driven by human activities. It might as well be called the “Great Wave of Apathy” — the extinction we sort of knew was happening but couldn’t summon the collective motivation to stop. It would make for a pretty lousy film compared to the fifth, nowhere near as dramatic as a giant asteroid slamming into Earth.
But there is still hope — if we collectively jolt awake from this slumber, there is still time to change course. To do so, we need to start treating biodiversity loss as seriously as climate change.
Happily, the solutions to biodiversity loss, such as stopping further deforestation and restoring degraded natural landscapes, have a mutually beneficial impact on mitigating climate change. So, it is not necessarily a case of prioritising one over the other.
Discussions about climate change should go hand in hand with biodiversity loss. In particular, we must be careful to avoid climate change solutions that exacerbate biodiversity loss. For example, policies that set binding targets on biofuels are thought to have inadvertently caused significant deforestation, which has adversely affected biodiversity.
Why does biodiversity loss matter?
Humans are a product of the natural world — we evolved from nature and have been shaped by our surroundings. We have come a long way, but we are still highly reliant on nature; we are so specialised and well-adapted to our environment that we would be helpless if put in a different one. For example, plonk us on the surface of Mars without support and we would soon perish.
Technology can help us to survive in situations that our bodies couldn’t ordinarily handle. For example, astronauts can survive orbiting our planet for months at a time in the International Space Station (ISS). However, the ISS simply replicates Earth’s natural systems — such as regulating oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, water supply, waste management — and is still heavily dependent on supplies from Earth. Further, the estimated cost of the ISS spread over its lifetime is US$7.5m per crew member per day.
So, whilst it is technically feasible to live without nature using artificial life support, the cost would be prohibitive. Even assuming we could reduce the cost of artificial life support massively, there is no way we could sustain our 7.7 billion (and growing) population.
Nature provides the basic conditions we need to survive for free — it regulates the air we breathe, pollinates our crops, recycles nutrients in the soil to maintain fertility, mitigates the impact of extreme weather and is a source of food, medicine and materials.
Biodiversity is also important to our quality of life and mental wellbeing. Several studies have found that spending time immersed in nature has measurable physiological and psychological benefits — the Japanese created the concept of “Shinrin-Yoku” or forest bathing in the 1980s.
Biodiversity could even unlock future advances in technology and is an important insurance policy, for example through:
- Engineering solutions — Engineers have long looked to nature for solutions. Brunel drew inspiration from a shipworm to design a tunnelling shield in the 1800s; his creation was used to excavate the Thames Tunnel and the underlying concept is still used in tunnel boring machines today. More recently, chief engineer Eiji Nakatsu refashioned the nose of the Shinkansen (a.k.a. bullet train) in the shape of a Kingfisher’s beak to overcome the problem of fast trains generating a loud boom when exiting a tunnel. He also mimicked the design of owl feathers to redesign the train’s pantograph — he was a bit of a bird lover.
- Medicines — Undiscovered species and natural compounds may hold the key to new medicines. Whilst most modern western medicines are produced synthetically, biomedical researchers still investigate natural compounds to create new medicines. Biodiversity could, for example, hold the key to developing drugs to overcome antimicrobial resistance.
- Food security — Domestic food crops were developed over time by crossbreeding wild varieties to select desirable traits. Due to intensive monoculture farming practices, we are now heavily reliant on a small number of domesticated varieties and so are exposed to large portions of our food supply being wiped out by disease (as has happened in the past). Biodiversity provides an insurance policy for developing new disease-resistant domestic varieties.
A seminal paper in 1997 attempted to put a value on benefits provided by the world’s ecosystems and natural capital. It estimated the value of tangible benefits provided by just 17 ecological systems to be US$33 trillion per year (on average). The study was updated for data up to 2011 and the estimate was revised upwards to US$125 trillion value per annum — that’s more than the entire GDP of the world of c. US$85trillion in 2018.
We are pretty proud of our infrastructure, buildings and gadgets and we tend to dissociate ourselves with the natural world, but in reality, nature is still giving us a huge helping hand. It is a bit like a mother pushing her daughter on a swing — although the daughter feels like she’s flying all by herself, her mother is doing most of the work and gravity is doing the rest.
It is easy to take something for granted though when it has been there your whole life, not to mention that of your parents, grandparents and ancestors. The Holocene era spanning the last 10,000 years has been a period of remarkable stability in the history of the Earth. This has allowed life on Earth, including humans, to flourish — all of our recorded history is within this era.
It would be imprudent, however, to assume that it will stay like this forever. Humans are now so numerous and pervasive, that we are driving climate change at the same time as rapid biodiversity loss. Nature is resilient, but it is a complex web of linkages and relies on balance, which we have disrupted. When certain species fail, more pressure is placed on remaining life, leaving the entire ecosystem weaker — under sustained pressure, entire ecosystems can collapse.
For example, imagine a bed of sharp nails (pointy side up) — provided there are enough nails, you can lie down easily enough without injury, as your weight is distributed such that the pressure on any single nail is not enough to puncture your skin; but if you start taking out nails one by one and try again, well that’s going to end in tears.
The loss of the Golden Skiffia (a small fish) may sound mildly sad, but remote, like seeing on the global weather forecast that it is going to be stormy in Djibouti next week. However, if you look at the trend of the declining wild populations and read research that suggests that the sixth mass extinction is already underway, then the situation suddenly becomes more serious.
The current state of nature
Nature is in a bad way, whichever way you look at it.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) maintains a “Red List”, which assesses the extinction threat level of different species ranging from ‘least concerned’ to ‘critically endangered’. In its latest update, the IUCN expanded its assessment to more than 100,000 species, almost 30% of which are threatened with extinction, 6% critically so. Tellingly, not a single species was recorded as having an improved status. The extinction risk for different groups of species is summarised in the chart below.
Figure 1 — IUCN Red List — extinction risk by group of species
Extrapolating the results of the Red List to the much larger ‘not evaluated’ pool suggests that up to a million species are threatened with extinction. Half of these extinctions could occur within decades, unless action is taken to reduce pressure on the natural world and restore habitats.
Iconic animals such as lions, elephants, tigers, rhinos and orangutans are all considered to be threatened species. Even the beloved koala is threatened as a result of extensive deforestation on Australia’s East Coast, mainly for livestock and timber.
If the current trend continues, it is likely that by the time today’s children have children, many of the popular animals in their storybooks will be as common in the wild as unicorns and mermaids.
What is causing biodiversity loss?
In one word: humans. The rapid growth in the human population and our ever-increasing rate of consumption has had a detrimental impact on biodiversity.
The IPBES identified five key human-related drivers of the observed decline in nature. These are discussed in order of significance below.
i) Changes in land and sea use
The single largest driver of biodiversity loss for terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems is habitat destruction through changes in land use, predominately for the expansion of agriculture. Clearing of biodiverse rich rainforests in Brazil and South-East Asia for livestock and palm oil plantations respectively, has been particularly problematic.
ii) Direct exploitation
When it comes to marine ecosystems, you may be surprised to read that plastic pollution — which has recently captured the attention of the world — is not the biggest problem. Even when combined with other types of pollution, plastic waste doesn’t even make the top three.
The single largest threat to marine life is overfishing. David Attenborough — who was instrumental raising the profile of plastic pollution — emphasised this point during a speech at the World Economic Forum in January 2019. Over 30% of fish stocks are overfished, while a further 60% are being harvested to the maximum sustainable limit.
Exploitation of resources on land, such as logging, is the second largest driver of the decline in terrestrial ecosystems.
iii) Climate change
Climate change is the third largest driver of the decline of all types of ecosystems. You may be surprised it is not higher. However, this finding is based on the level of warming experienced to date — it is a not forward-looking measure. If climate change continues unabated, it will have a growing impact on biodiversity.
Pollution is the fourth largest contributor to the decline in nature for all ecosystems. Widespread dumping of toxic chemicals, heavy metals and other industrial waste is having a significant adverse effect on both marine and terrestrial life. Run-off from chemical fertilisers used in intensive agricultural practices is leading to algal blooms, which suffocate other marine life and cause ocean ‘dead-zones’.
Plastic pollution is a growing problem, particularly for marine life — the amount of plastic pollution in the oceans has increased tenfold since 1980. The impact of microplastics, which have already entered food chains, is not well understood at this stage.
v) Invasive species
The fifth largest driver of biodiversity loss is invasive species, which can have a detrimental impact on local ecosystems, particularly on islands and other remote and isolated areas.
One well-known (and self-inflicted) example of an invasive species is the cane toad in Australia, which even featured on an episode of The Simpsons.
In 1935, cane toads were deliberately introduced in an attempt to control the native cane beetle, which was attacking sugar cane crops. As it turned out, cane toads were pretty hopeless at controlling cane beetles (they couldn’t jump high enough reach them), but they were exceptionally good at proliferating. Cane toads multiplied and spread and can now be found in 4 states with a population of more than 200 million.
Cane toads are poisonous and are a hazard for native wildlife, who haven’t yet developed the instinctive knowledge to avoid eating them. Various methods have been trialled to control cane toads, including cane toad golf, with little success.
Mitigating biodiversity loss needn’t be a choice between humans and wildlife. If we took steps to change our consumption patterns and to limit future population growth, for example through improving global education rates, then there would be plenty of room for both humans and nature to thrive.
Rising to this challenge will not be easy, but for the sake of both nature and humanity, we simply must do it. The human population has doubled since 1970 and so we have to adjust our way of life accordingly — like a lot of things people did in the ’70s, actions that have a disproportionate impact on the environment are no longer acceptable.
With so much at stake and the situation so dire, the issue of biodiversity loss must be escalated. It is time to declare a joint climate and biodiversity emergency — that way both issues will get the attention they deserve and the focus will shift to developing joint solutions.
This article first appeared in The Stochasticiser.