‘Bending the Curve’ of biodiversity loss – could Covid-19 be the catalyst for change?

dead forest pic

“The evidence is unequivocal – nature is being changed and destroyed by us at a rate unprecedented in history” (WWF)

The latest Living Planet report from the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) finds that 68% of the world’s wildlife populations have been lost since 1970 – more than two thirds in less than 50 years – with the most striking result a 94% decline in tropical subregions of the Americas. The report says this ‘catastrophic’ decline shows no signs of slowing. The cause – human activity.

Until 1970, the ecological footprint of the human population was less than the rate of the Earth’s regeneration. Explosive growth in global trade, consumption, population growth and urbanisation means we are now using more of the world’s resources than can be replenished:

“To feed and fuel our 21st century lifestyles, we are overusing the Earth’s biocapacity by at least 56%.” (WWF)

The environmental impact of human activity is hardly a new topic but the numerous warnings over the years haven’t had the desired effect of changing society’s trajectory. The stark warnings from recent reports including the 2018 IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) special report on the impacts of global warming, and popular programmes such as the Blue Planet II series which highlighted the devastating impact of pollution on the world’s oceans, have certainly helped heighten awareness and action has been taken across the world to address the climate emergency. Unfortunately, the progress made so far is not enough to reverse the current declining trends.

But the new report raises hope in that times of crisis new ideas and opportunities for transformation can arise and that the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic could perhaps be the catalyst for such change.

‘People and nature are intertwined’

COVID-19 has undoubtedly injected a new sense of urgency, emphasising again the interconnectedness of humans and nature. It has provided a stark reminder how unparalleled biodiversity loss threatens the health of both people and the planet.

Factors believed to lead to the emergence of pandemics – including global travel, urbanisation, changes in land use and greater exploitation of the natural environment – are also some of the drivers behind the decline in wildlife.

The report emphasises that biodiversity loss is not just an environmental issue, but also a development, economic, global security, ethical and moral one. And it is also about self-preservation as “biodiversity plays a critical role in providing food, fibre, water, energy, medicines and other genetic materials; and is key to the regulation of our climate, water quality, pollution, pollination services, flood control and storm surges.”

As well the pandemic, a series of recent catastrophic events are used to underline the intrinsic links between human health and environmental health, including: Africa’s plague of locusts in 2019 which threatened food supplies, caused by the unusually high number of cyclones; extreme droughts in India and Pakistan in 2019, leading to an unknown death toll; and Australia’s most intense bushfire season ever recorded, made worse by unusually low rainfall and record high temperatures, as well as excessive logging.

Alongside this, the “extraordinary gains in human health and wellbeing” over the past century, including reduced child mortality and increased life expectancy, are highlighted as a cause for celebration but the study warns that the exploitation and alteration of the natural environment that has occurred in tandem threatens to undo these successes.

Biggest threats to biodiversity

Clearly, biodiversity is fundamental to human life and it is vital that the drivers of its destruction are addressed; and quickly.

Drawing on the Living Planet Index (LPI), which tracks the abundance of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians across the globe, using data from over 4,000 different species, the report identifies the major threat categories to biodiversity:

  • Changes in land and sea use
  • Invasive species and disease
  • Species overexploitation
  • Pollution
  • Climate change

It may be surprising to learn that climate change has not yet been the main driver of biodiversity loss. In fact, globally, climate change features lower on the scale of threats than the other drivers in almost all regions. Changes in land and sea use is the biggest proportional threat, averaged across all regions, at 50%. This is followed by species exploitation at 24% with invasive species taking third place at 13%. Climate change accounts for 6% on average.

However, the report warns projections suggest the tables are set to turn with climate change overtaking all other drivers in the coming years.

But all is not lost yet. The report argues that it is possible to reverse these trends and calls for action to do so by 2030.

Bending the Curve’

This year’s report highlights findings from significant new research, the Bending the Curve initiative, which uses pioneering modelling of different human behaviour scenarios aimed at restoring biodiversity. It argues that this has provided ‘proof of concept’ for the first time that we can halt, and reverse, the loss of nature while feeding a growing population:

“Bending the curve of biodiversity loss is technologically and economically possible, but it will require truly transformational change in the way we produce and consume food and in how we sustainably manage and conserve nature.”

2020 has certainly made the whole world stop and think. And it has provided an opportunity to reset humanity’s relationship with nature. Encouragingly, there has been widespread talk of a ‘green recovery’ from the pandemic and the British public have recently backed a “fairer, greener Britain” amid concerns the government might be rushing the country back to a ‘business-as-usual’ model.

Achieving a balance with nature will clearly require systemic change, as the Living Planet report shows. In the words of Sir David Attenborough, above all it will require a change in perspective”.


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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.


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Bees and butterflies are under threat from urbanisation: here’s how city-dwellers can help

Butterflies and flowers

Image: All-a-flutter. Shutterstock.

This guest blog was written by Katherine Baldock, NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the University of Bristol.

Pollinators such as bees, hoverflies and butterflies, are responsible for the reproduction of many flowering plants and help to produce more than three quarters of the world’s crop species. Globally, the value of the services provided by pollinators is estimated at between US$235 billion and US$577 billion.

It’s alarming, then, that pollinators are under threat from factors including more intense farming, climate change, disease and changing land use, such as urbanisation. Yet recent studies have suggested that urban areas could actually be beneficial, at least for some pollinators, as higher numbers of bee species have been recorded in UK towns and cities, compared with neighbouring farmland.

To find out which parts of towns and cities are better for bees and other pollinators, our research team carried out fieldwork in nine different types of land in four UK cities: Bristol, Reading, Leeds and Edinburgh.

An easy win

Urban areas are a complex mosaic of different land uses and habitats. We surveyed pollinators in allotments (also known as community gardens), cemeteries and churchyards, residential gardens, public parks, other green spaces (such as playing fields), nature reserves, road verges, pavements and man-made surfaces such as car parks or industrial estates.

Our results suggest that allotments are good places for bees and other pollinating insects, and that creating more allotments will benefit the pollinators in towns and cities. Allotments are beneficial for human health and well-being, and also help boost local food production.

In the UK, there are waiting lists for allotments in many areas, so local authorities and urban planners need to recognise that creating more allotment sites is a winning move, which will benefit people, pollinators and sustainable food production.

Good tips for green thumbs

We also recorded high numbers of pollinating insects in gardens. Residential gardens made up between a quarter and a third of the total area of the four cities we sampled, so they’re really a crucial habitat for bees and other pollinators in cities. That’s why urban planners and developers need to create new housing developments with gardens.

But it’s not just the quantity of gardens that matters, it’s the quality, too. And there’s a lot that residents can do to ensure their gardens provide a good environment for pollinators.

Rather than paving, decking and neatly mown lawns, gardeners need to be planting flowers, shrubs and bushes that are good for pollinators. Choose plants that have plenty of pollen and nectar that is accessible to pollinators, and aim to have flowers throughout the year to provide a constant supply of food. Our research suggests that borage and lavender are particularly attractive for pollinators.

Often plants and seeds in garden centres are labelled with pollinator logos to help gardeners choose suitable varieties – although a recent study found that that ornamental plants on sale can contain pesticides that are harmful to pollinators, so gardeners should check this with retailers before buying.

Weeds are important too; our results suggest that dandelions, buttercups and brambles are important flowers for pollinators. So create more space for pollinators by mowing less often to allow flowers to grow, and leaving weedy corners, since undisturbed areas make good nesting sites.

An urban refuge

Parks, road verges and other green spaces make up around a third of cities, however our study found that they contain far fewer pollinators than gardens. Our results suggest that increasing the numbers of flowers in these areas, potentially by mowing less often, could have a real benefit for pollinators (and save money). There are already several initiatives underway to encourage local authorities to mow less often.

Ensuring there are healthy populations of pollinators will benefit the native plants and ecosystems in urban areas, as well as anyone who is growing food in their garden or allotment. Towns and cities could act as important refuges for pollinators in the wider landscape, especially since agricultural areas can be limited in terms of the habitat they provide.

It’s crucial for local authorities, urban planners, gardeners and land managers to do their bit to improve the way towns and cities are managed for pollinators. National pollinator strategies already exist for several countries, and local pollinator strategies and action plans are helping to bring together the key stakeholders in cities. Wider adoption of this type of united approach will help to improve towns and cities for both the people and pollinators that live there.The Conversation


Guest blog written by Katherine Baldock, NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow, University of Bristol. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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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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