Biodiversity loss is more than an environmental problem, it is a development, economic, social and moral issue

biodiversity smallThis post is by Professor Sir Robert T Watson FRS, strategic director of the Tyndall Centre and chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

The IPBES recently published four landmark regional assessment reports of biodiversity (ie genes, species and ecosystems). There is one each for the Americas, Africa, Europe and Central Asia, and Asia and the Pacific, and an assessment of land degradation and restoration.  The findings of these assessments are based on thousands of scientific reports, as well as indigenous and local knowledge. They clearly demonstrate that biodiversity is as much a development, economic, social and moral issue as an environmental issue.

A development issue
Our assessments showed that biodiversity is essential for a good quality of life. It plays a critical role in providing food, clean water, energy, medicines and secure livelihoods; regulating climate, air quality, freshwater quantity and quality, and pollination services. It is also fundamental to social cohesion, spiritual fulfillment, preservation of cultural heritage, mental and physical well-being, identity and a sense of place.  Biodiversity is, therefore, a strategic asset for sustainable long term development everywhere. Although the benefits are unevenly distributed, accessed and experienced by people and communities.

An economic and social issue
Biodiversity has significant market economic value (providing food, energy, materials and medicines) and a non-market economic value (through the regulation of climate, air quality, floods, and pollination services). People also value nature for its important contributions to their cultural, spiritual, psychological, physical and economic well-being. Their interactions with nature are shaped by diverse values and value systems.

However, the true value and understanding of biodiversity and nature’s contributions to human well-being are under appreciated and under used in decision making. The UK must reflect on the importance of this and of the need to act to reduce its footprint, both at home and abroad. It is heartening that the chancellor has shown leadership in this area by announcing a comprehensive global review of the link between biodiversity and economic growth in his recent Spring Statement.

A moral and equity issue
The IPBES assessments demonstrate that continued loss of biodiversity and degradation of our ecosystems, especially when coupled with projected changes in climate, are likely to undermine the achievement of many of the Sustainable Development Goals, especially poverty alleviation, food, water and energy security, and human health.  While everyone in the world will be affected by the loss of biodiversity, it is the most vulnerable nations and the poorest people who will be most adversely affected.  This undermines the goal of leaving nobody behind.

Biodiversity loss continues to worsen in all parts of the world
Continued loss is undermining our quality of life.  Populations or species (of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish and plants) threatened with loss or extinction are increasing in terrestrial, coastal, marine and freshwater habitats in all regions of the world, caused directly or indirectly by human activities. This situation has become markedly worse in all regions during the last 20 years, and in most parts of the world. Just over 20 per cent of all species assessed are either extinct, extinct in the wild, critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable. And all terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems exhibit some level of degradation, with wetlands, forests and coral reefs being particularly transformed in most regions.

Targets are being missed
Even though governments around the world have committed to undertake actions to prevent the loss of biodiversity, few of the globally agreed biodiversity targets (Aichi targets) are likely to be met anywhere in the world.  The evidence suggests that some progress towards many Aichi targets is being made in most regions, but this progress appears often to be at an insufficient rate. For a number of targets there appears to be either no significant change or, more worryingly, movement away from the target.

The assessments reveal that increases in population and economic growth have resulted in an increased demand for natural resources, which in turn has resulted in the fragmentation, conversion and overexploitation of ecosystems, accompanied by pollution, invasive alien species and climate change. 

Climate change, with projected warming of 1-3oC between now and the end of the century, interacts and amplifies the effects of all other direct drivers, and may become the dominant driver of biodiversity loss,

Between now and 2050, business as usual scenarios are projected to result in continued biodiversity loss.  Scenarios optimised for economic growth or regional competition tend to result in even greater loss; whereas sustainability scenarios, characterised by environmental concern, social equity and human welfare and a balanced supply of nature’s contributions to people, have much more positive outcomes and at least slow down the rate of loss.

We need better governance
Biodiversity could be conserved with more sustainable production and consumption. But this needs more integrated multi-sectoral policies, institutional arrangements, adequate financing, appropriate technologies and behaviour change.  Ecosystem service approaches such as adaptation, nature-based solutions, disaster risk reduction and sustainable forest, agriculture, fisheries and wildlife management, would provide multiple benefits. And they could foster positive synergies between the biodiversity, climate change and sustainable development agendas.

The UK government should consider an appropriate mix of cross-sectoral policies, financial incentives and behaviour changes needed to conserve biodiversity.

More collaborative, inclusive, participatory and decentralised governance systems are needed to bring about change, at the national, regional and global scale. These should involve all sectors, from business, civil society, and indigenous and local communities, in the development and ownership of solutions that can reverse decline and lead to the sustainable use of biodiversity.

Given that biodiversity is an issue that cuts across almost all government departments, the UK government should consider establishing an inter-departmental task force to examine ways to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity.  This could be complemented by an independent Committee on Biodiversity comparable to the Committee on Climate Change.

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