Why Biodiversity Loss Hurts Humans as Much as Climate Change Does
They are the tireless stewards of the air, water and land from which we live. But the millions of species whose toil underpins our prosperity are gravely endangered by human activity, scientists say — and that imperils us in turn.
Biodiversity loss is as big a threat to humans as climate change, said UN biodiversity chief Robert Watson last week at a conference in Paris to release a landmark report on global biodiversity and ecosystems.
"The continuing loss of biodiversity will undermine our ability for poverty reduction, food and water security, human health and the overall goal of leaving nobody behind."
The report, the first of its kind since 2005 and published Sunday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), warns of grave consequences to humanity from mass die-offs and degradation of nature. Drawing together the work of more than 400 experts, it paints a bleak picture of a world in which essentials such as food and drinking water are endangered through species and ecosystem decline.
The unprecedented and accelerating deterioration of nature in the past 50 years has been driven by changes in land and sea use, exploitation of living beings, climate change, pollution and invasive species, the report found. These five drivers are, in turn, underpinned by societal behaviors ranging from consumption to governance.
In a blow to human progress, damage to ecosystems undermines 35 of 44 UN sustainable development targets for poverty, hunger, health, water, cities climate, oceans and land, the authors found.
Diplomats from 130 nations gathered in Paris last week to agree on the final wording of the report's summary for policymakers.
"The loss of species, ecosystems and genetic diversity is already a global and generational threat to human well-being," said Watson. "Protecting the invaluable contributions of nature to people will be the defining challenge of decades to come."
The Great Barrier Reef is an ecosystem dying from climate change.
Why Biodiversity Matters
Biodiversity, a contraction of biological diversity, means the abundance and variety of life on the planet. The definition encompasses more than just the creatures we can see. It ranges from tiny genes, bacteria, plants and animals, right up to ecosystems such as the Amazon rainforest and Great Barrier Reef.
That makes it hard to count — and even harder to value.
While there are about 1.5 million identified species in the world, scientists estimate the true figure may be closer to ten million or even as many as two billion. Many organisms are so small they can only be identified as distinct species through DNA sequencing.
"If you think about biodiversity, you think about tigers and polar bears," said Rebecca Shaw, chief scientist at the World Wildlife Fund. "Those species are very important — but also important are the species you never see and talk about."
Without bees pollinating crops and trees turning carbon dioxide into oxygen, even basic human tasks such as eating and breathing become harder. But quieter losses hurt people too, such as the decline of medicinal plants and mangroves that protect coastlines.
The ways in which organisms interact mean the decline of any single species can trigger unexpected losses in the wider ecosystem. For instance, a fall in earthworms, fungi or soil microbes limits the amount of recycled nutrients in the soil and the number of holes for rainwater to flow through, stunting crop growth and hindering humanity's ability to feed itself.
"We don't consider that nature, but it is nature," said Shaw. "Not paying attention to all those complex interactions in the soil — and thinking we can just put on fertilizer or pesticide and have it stay the same productive soil into the next generation — is foolish."
The report found that about a quarter of the plant and animal species assessed face extinction, many within decades, unless urgent action is taken.
How It Hurts Us
Counted by biomass, humans comprise just 0.01% of global biodiversity.
But the report details the outsized ways in which our species has endangered others by razing forests, polluting rivers, overfishing oceans, killing off insects, and otherwise hurting nature in a headlong push to extract its resources.
"Nature makes human development possible but our relentless demand for the earth's resources is accelerating extinction rates and devastating the world's ecosystems," said Joyce Msuya, acting head of UN Environment.
The report also found:
- Human action has significantly altered more than two-thirds of the environment.
- The global extinction rate today is tens to hundreds of times higher than its average over the past 10 million years.
- More than a third of the world's land surface and nearly 75% of its freshwater sources are now used for crop or livestock production.
Agriculture is particularly sensitive, with just nine plant species now accounting for more than two-thirds of global crop output, and, as Shaw described, the soil on which they grow under threat.
In a sign of the powerful feedback loops at play, agriculture is itself a major driver of biodiversity loss, with pesticides, soil erosion and forest clearance destroying habitats and sinking wildlife populations. And in addition to its effect on food systems, the devastation of the earth's soil reduces its ability to retain water, hitting humans by increasing water stress and the frequency of floods.
The repercussions of human activity on nature are made worse by climate change, the report found, which is in turn exacerbated by damage to ecosystems, such as loss of forests that convert carbon dioxide into oxygen.
A study published last year in the journal Science found that even if countries honor their current pledges to limit carbon emissions, 49% of insects and 44% of plants will lose more than half their geographical habitat by 2100.
Fungi and microbes work together to make soils fertile.
How We Can Stop It
While some of the problems listed in the report have been known for decades, scientists have struggled to convey the urgency with which they need to be dealt.
In 2010, the United Nations declared a "decade of biodiversity" to reduce biodiversity loss. But according to Sunday's report, it made good progress with only a handful of the 20 targets it set its members, such as conserving marine areas and prioritizing invasive alien species. Every target related to addressing the underlying drivers had seen either moderate or poor progress.
But, the report said, "urgent and concentrated efforts" can still conserve and restore nature so it can be used sustainably.
Conservation efforts have so far focused on big animals such as orangutans.
Avoiding the negative effects of biodiversity loss to 2050 and beyond requires "transformative" policy change, the authors wrote. They proposed a broad-ranging toolkit of policies including sustainable agricultural practices, incentivizing reductions in consumption and waste, effective fishing quotas and collaborative water management.
While the report's recommendations were targeted at policy-makers, scientists say many consumer choices, such as reducing beef consumption and eating sustainably-sourced fish, are needed to conserve ecosystems.
The authors also highlighted the importance of developing global financial systems that steer away from the "limited paradigm" of economic growth.
"The report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference," Watson said. "But only if we start now at every level from local to global."
Reposted with permission from our media associate DW.
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By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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