Guest post: biodiversity: where the world is making progress – and where it’s not

Vlad61/Shutterstock

Tom Oliver, University of Reading

The future of biodiversity hangs in the balance. World leaders are gathering to review international targets and make new pledges for action to stem wildlife declines. Depending on whether you are a glass half-full or half-empty person, you’re likely to have different views on their progress so far.

More than 175 countries agreed to 20 targets under the banner of the Convention for Biological Diversity, which was signed in 1992. The most recent plan, published in 2010, was to halt the extinction of species and populations by 2020 to prevent the destruction of global ecosystems and to staunch the loss of genetic diversity – the variety within the DNA of species’ populations, which helps them adapt to a changing environment.

But the targets were missed. An optimist might say that’s because they were laudably ambitious, and we’re making good progress nonetheless. The protection of land particularly rich in biodiversity has increased from 29% to 44% in just a decade, which is a huge policy achievement. On the other hand, we failed to halt global biodiversity loss during a previous round of global targets ending in 2010 and, a decade later, we are still far behind where we need to be.

A recent UN report compiled detailed assessments of the world’s progress towards each of the 20 targets. It highlights some small victories, and where the greatest gulfs exist between present action and necessary ambition.

The good news

The international community has made progress on several goals. We have improved our global capacity to assess biodiversity trends, and funding for conservation roughly doubled over the previous decade to USD$78-91 billion annually.

There is now an international protocol governing the fair sharing of genetic resources discovered in nature, so they cannot be plundered by companies from rich countries. This gives countries added incentives to protect their biodiversity, which might lead to new medicines or technologies for use in food production.

Two of the biggest drivers of biodiversity loss are habitat destruction and invasive species. Through scientific research and monitoring programmes, scientists are now better at identifying the pathways by which invasive species colonise vulnerable habitats. Protected areas have expanded across the globe too. Achim Steiner, leader of the UN Development Programme, stated that the world is on track to achieve protection of 17% of land and 10% of marine areas identified under the programme by the end of 2020.

All this has had a tangible effect. Up to four times as many birds and mammals likely would have become extinct in the past three decades without such actions.

A large black-and-white vulture opens its wings on a tree branch, with a vast desert behind it.California condors were saved from extinction by humans. There were just 27 left in 1989; today, there are nearly 500.
FRAYN/Shutterstock

The bad news

So far, so good. But all these successes are partial and ambiguous. Yes, we have increased funding for biodiversity, but this is still swamped by more than £500 billion in environmentally harmful subsidies, such as aid for the fossil fuel industry. Although we have identified more of the ways in which invasive species spread, there has been limited progress in actually controlling them. Though a significant area of the world is now designated as “protected”, management within these areas is still often inadequate.

What’s more, for many of the other targets, things have actually got worse. The loss and fragmentation of the world’s forests continues, depriving biodiversity of habitat and exacerbating climate change. Deforestation rates are only one-third lower in 2020 compared to 2010, and may be accelerating again in some areas.

Essential ecosystem services – such as the provision of clean water, soil for farming and pollinating insects – continue to deteriorate, affecting women, indigenous communities, and the poor and vulnerable more than others. We are still unable to even track changes in the genetic diversity of wild species, meaning we cannot assess these hidden changes in biodiversity which are important for the long-term resilience of a species.

The fundamental problem is that we have failed to address the underlying drivers of biodiversity loss. Targets for reducing pollution, habitat loss and climate change all show negative progress. We have achieved several easy wins, but the tougher challenges remain. Overcoming these will mean stopping the activities that are at the root of biodiversity loss.

A traffic jam of cars with a bridge running over the road in the distance.Only drastic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect habitats will improve conditions for wildlife.
Aaron Kohr/Shutterstock

We need better regulation of harmful chemicals which pollute the environment. Of the over 100,000 chemicals used in Europe today, only a small fraction are thoroughly evaluated or regulated by authorities, despite many causing harm to health and the environment. We need strong trade policies that prevent the destruction of primary rainforest for products such as palm oil and soy. Perhaps most of all, we need radical action on climate change, which is expected to overtake other drivers to be the number one cause of biodiversity loss in coming years.

These systemic changes require action from states and industries. But we can also take action as citizens and consumers. We need fundamental changes in the way we live – how we invest our money, the food we eat and how we travel. Each of us, making internet orders at the click of a button, has hidden power to influence the state of the planet. What we choose to buy, or not to buy, can help decide whether wild species flourish across the globe.

If world leaders fail to regulate unsustainable markets, then we need to be even more savvy about potentially harmful connections to the natural world that lie behind our purchases. Perhaps then we can start to be both optimistic and realistic about the state of our planet’s biodiversity.The Conversation

Tom Oliver, Professor of Applied Ecology, University of Reading

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange Blog

Biodiversity in the UK – it’s not just about habitat protection but how we live our lives

By Morwen Johnson

When we talk about preserving biodiversity many people will assume it’s something that’s only an issue in far-flung places like the Amazon rainforest. England however has at least 55,000 species of animals, plants and fungi, and over a thousand of these are at risk. This includes familiar species such as hedgehogs, red squirrels, the small tortoiseshell butterfly, and birds such as house sparrows and starlings.

Small changes can make a big difference

Protecting habitats is a vital part of conservation – and the UK is lucky to have such diverse landscapes. While sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs), areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks all provide legal protection for the environment, it’s not all about large-scale conservation. Biodiversity can be supported at the local or neighbourhood level too.

Green infrastructure can help create habitat corridors for wildlife. We wrote recently about a new partnership between the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Barratt Developments looking at how the design of new housing developments can be wildlife-friendly. Another industry initiative is the BIG Challenge which encourages developers to add one new biodiversity enhancement to their construction site, development or existing building.

The shift to neighbourhood planning has also given communities more opportunities to improve their local environment. As well as mapping and protecting existing green assets, neighbourhood plans also enable communities to enhance or create new habitat areas.

This grassroots interest in the environment is reflected in other alternative approaches to making conservation relevant to the public, many of whom live in towns and cities.

Headlines were created earlier this year, with the suggestion that London should be rebranded as the Greater London National Park City. Many people don’t realise that 47% of London is already green space and has over eight million trees. The London Assembly has supported the campaign, with Assembly Member Jenny Jones saying in June: “This initiative could ensure that nature is included in every aspect of London’s urban fabric.

Inspiration from further afield can be found in the Rouge National Urban Park which was formally established in Canada in May 2015. A ‘national urban park’ is a new category in Parks Canada’s protected areas alongside national parks, national historic sites and national marine conservation areas.

Biodiversity offsetting

While this is all positive news, there is a potentially different story emerging at the same time. In England, DEFRA consulted on the idea of biodiversity offsetting in 2013. This is a market-based mechanism that aims to compensate for biodiversity loss as a result of development, through conservation activities that deliver an equivalent amount of biodiversity elsewhere. The results of the consultation have still not been published, but it may be that the idea is still on the government’s agenda.

The question of whether a monetary value can be placed on biodiversity or whether one established habitat can just be replaced by another one, is controversial. The British Ecological Society reported on recent research which identified the risks of implementing offsetting without fully understanding the consequences. How the government chooses to take biodiversity offsetting forward will be a key test of the principle of evidence-based policymaking, and their wider approach to the environment.

Social aspects of biodiversity policy

In June 2015 the Scottish Government published Scotland’s Biodiversity: a Route Map to 2020 setting out how the goals in Scotland’s biodiversity strategy are to be achieved. Seven main pressures are identified: pollution, land-use intensification and modification, spread of invasive species and wildlife disease, lack of recognition of the value of nature, disconnection with nature, climate change, and marine exploitation.

Writing in August’s issue of the Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Journal, Professor Colin Reid of the University of Dundee notes that two of the priorities “deal with our relationship with nature rather than direct physical impact.” This suggests an appreciation that protecting our environment “calls for a pervasive change of mind-set as opposed to simply stopping particular harmful activities.”

Professor Reid also says that the focus on actions related to natural capital and greenspace elements reflect a “greater emphasis on the pervasive and social aspects of biodiversity policy.”

A healthy natural environment can only be achieved if regard for nature is integrated into how we live our lives. Biodiversity policy is now making this connection more explicit and the challenge, perhaps, is to ensure that this is reciprocated in other areas, such as planning”.


Reference

Colin T Reid ‘Big steps for biodiversity‘ IN Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Journal, No 170 Aug 2015, p78

Morwen Johnson is Managing Editor of Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Journal.

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