Around the world, nature and the benefits it provides are in unprecedented decline – a trend that can be reversed, but only with a co-ordinated international effort and “transformative change” to the way humans draw food, water, energy and resources from the planet, a sweeping new report has found.
The report encompasses the first global assessment by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, the international body tasked with pulling together the current state of knowledge on environmental degradation and the risk it poses to humanity.
The portrait it paints is a stark one, including an estimated one million species of plants and animals facing extinction, many within a matter of decades, under a business-as-usual scenario. Ecosystems are also becoming more similar due to human interventions, and losing genetic diversity, with knock-on effects that include reduced food security and the loss of pharmaceuticals developed from rare biological products.
Assembled by 145 authors from 50 countries, the report is based on a review of approximately 15,000 scientific and government publications, with the aim of identifying key drivers to species and habitat loss and pathways to addressing those losses.
While it is hardly the first report to document the accelerating pace at which nature is vanishing from the Earth, it is the first to do so under agreement by participating governments, and also among the clearest in its call for solutions that take into account the socioeconomic forces that are pushing the planet to its limits.
“We have not lost the battle. If given a chance, nature will reconquer its rights and will prevail,” said Anne Larigauderie, the panel’s executive secretary, at a news briefing in Paris on Monday.
The briefing followed a week-long negotiation period during which member countries wrangled over the final wording of the report’s executive summary for policy-makers. Yet despite political sensitivities, the summary included a clear recognition that the world will need to change the way it does business and move toward a more sustainable global economic system in order to have a hope of addressing the biodiversity crisis.
“That’s a really bold stand,” said Kai Chan, a professor with the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability who is the co-ordinating author for the report’s chapter on future pathways. ”It’s something we pushed hard for.”
He added that global efforts to address biodiversity loss are likely to fall short without an approach that tackles several simultaneous but interlocking global challenges at the same time, all related to the economics of how humans use the planet.
“At the moment, what we have is effectively a tragic trade-off that nations face where they have to choose between protecting their local environments or having jobs, and if they protect their environments those jobs get exported elsewhere … often to less-developed nations,” Dr. Chan said. That dynamic has promoted widespread habitat and species loss around the world.
While land use, both for agriculture and resources, including energy, forestry and mining, remains the main driver of the biodiversity loss, the report indicates climate change is becoming increasingly significant as a factor and is on track to become the dominant pressure on natural systems in many parts of the globe later this century.
The panel was founded in 2012 under the United Nations Environment Program. The report is the culmination of a three-year process that synthesizes the results from four regional assessments and incorporates additional information on biodiversity effects in the world’s oceans.
In its design, the process closely mirrors the work of the better-known Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which draws on the work of hundreds of scientists from around the world and has issued five assessments since 1990. And while those assessments have not been without controversy over the years, the fact that they are produced for and by governments in a multilateral process has made them the go-to scientific frame of reference for international talks aimed at reducing carbon emissions.
Jake Rice, chief scientist emeritus for Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, who co-chaired the regional assessment of the Americas, said the global biodiversity report has a similar aim.
“We have provided a common factual basis for dialogue and policy discussion about the rate at which we are losing biodiversity around the planet, what it means for human well-being,” he said.
Where the biodiversity panel’s report differs is in its effort to include Indigenous and local knowledge in its global synthesis. This acknowledges the fact that a large share of the natural lands that remain in the world, including in Canada, fall under Indigenous ownership or stewardship.
Valérie Courtois, director of Canada’s Indigenous Leadership Initiative, praised the report’s recognition of the crucial role that Indigenous people will need to play to achieve biodiversity conservation targets worldwide.
“Indigenous people in Canada are responding to that responsibility and to that opportunity,” she added.
Shane Moffatt, head of Greenpeace Canada’s forest campaign, said a key message in the report is that the need to conserve and restore nature overlaps strongly with human interests because of the benefits, including clean air and water, that are linked to healthy ecosystems and species.
“Really, protecting them is the best way to ensure our own survival,” he said.
But while the report was clear about the scale of the social and economic changes that governments will need to pursue to reverse the dismal trends of biodiversity loss, Dr. Chan acknowledged that its conclusions may still leave people feeling at a loss about how to respond to the crisis.
“At the moment, individuals are stuck in a place where what they’re being asked to do is to consume differently and to consume less,” he said. “That is a very complicated thing that most people find daunting and paralyzing.”
He added that sustained public pressure by consumers and voters on businesses and governments will be needed to move the world toward a global system that takes into account the value of biodiversity and prioritizes alternative solutions for feeding populations, producing energy and supplying cities that do not obliterate nature in the process.
The report anticipates the UN Biodiversity Conference to be held in China in October 2020, where nations will try to hammer out conservation targets for the coming decade and beyond.
Canadian Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, who is in Metz, France, meeting with her Group of Seven counterparts, told reporters that the report showed the need to link conservation efforts to climate solutions because of the growing impact of climate change on habitat and, conversely, the climate-related benefits that come from setting aside natural environments as protection against extreme weather, such as flooding, and as storehouses of carbon.
“We need a Paris Agreement moment for nature and so I’m hoping we’re leading to that in 2020,” Ms. McKenna said.
The Globe and Mail, May 6, 2019