‘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”.


Read some of our other blogs related to the environment:

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Five blog posts that told the story of 2019

As the old year makes way for the new, it’s time to reflect on some of the topics we’ve been covering on The Knowledge Exchange blog over the past twelve months. We’ve published over 70 blog posts in 2019, covering everything from smart canals and perinatal mental health to digital prescribing and citizens’ assemblies. We can’t revisit them all, but here’s a quick look back at some of the stories that shaped our year.

Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

Tomorrow’s world today

Artificial Intelligence was once confined to the realms of science fiction and Hollywood movies, but it’s already beginning to have a very real impact on our personal and working lives. In February, we looked at the pioneering local authorities that are dipping a toe into the world of AI:

“In Hackney, the local council has been using AI to identify families that might benefit from additional support. The ‘Early Help Predictive System’ analyses data related to (among others) debt, domestic violence, anti-social behaviour, and school attendance, to build a profile of need for families. By taking this approach, the council believes they can intervene early and prevent the need for high cost support services.”

However, the post went on to highlight concerns about the future impact of AI on employment:

“PwC’s 2018 UK Economic Outlook suggests that 18% of public administration jobs could be lost over the next two decades. Although it’s likely many jobs will be automated, no one really knows how the job market will respond to greater AI, and whether the creation of new jobs will outnumber those lost.

Tackling violent crime

One of the most worrying trends in recent years has been the rise in violent crime. Figures released in January found overall violent crime in England and Wales had risen by 19% on the previous year.

As our blog reported in March, police forces around the country, along with health services, local government, education and the private sector have been paying close attention to the experience of Glasgow in tackling violent crime.

Glasgow’s Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) was launched in 2005, and from the start it set out to treat knife crime not just as a policing matter, but as a public health issue. In its first ten years, the VRU helped to halve the number of homicides in the city, with further progress in subsequent years.

In March, our blog explained that the VRU takes a holistic approach to its work:

“…staff from the VRU regularly go into schools and are in touch with youth organisations. They also provide key liaison individuals called “navigators” and provide additional training to people in the community, such as dentists, vets and hairdressers to help them spot and report signs of abuse or violence.”

 Protecting the blue planet

Environmental issues have always featured strongly in our blog, and in a year when people in larger numbers than ever have taken to the streets to demand greater action on climate change, we’ve reported on topics such as low emission zones, electric vehicles and deposit return schemes.

In August, we focused on the blue economy. The world’s oceans and seas are hugely important to the life of the planet, not least because they are home to an astonishing variety of biodiversity. In addition, they absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide emissions. But they are also a source of food, jobs and water – an estimated 3 billion people around the world rely on the seas and oceans for their livelihood.

Pollution is having a devastating impact on the world’s oceans, and, as our blog reported, governments are finally waking up to the need for action:

The first ever global conference on the sustainable blue economy was held last year. It concluded with hundreds of pledges to advance a sustainable blue economy, including 62 commitments related to: marine protection; plastics and waste management; maritime safety and security; fisheries development; financing; infrastructure; biodiversity and climate change; technical assistance and capacity building; private sector support; and partnerships. 

Sir Harry Burns
Image: Jason Kimmings

A sense of place

The ties that bind environmental factors, health and wellbeing are becoming increasingly clear. This was underlined at an international conference in June on the importance of place-based approaches to improving health and reducing inequalities.

One of the speakers was Sir Harry Burns, Director of Global Public Health at the University of Strathclyde. His research supports the idea that poverty is not the result of bad choices, but rather the absence of a sense of coherence and purpose that people need to make good choices:

“People who have a sense of purpose, control and self-esteem are more positive and secure about the places they live in, and a greater ability to make the right choices. Ask people to take control of their lives, build their trust, and people can make choices that support their health. We must create places that do that”.

Celebrating diversity

While it sometimes seems as if our society has made great strides in stamping out prejudice and supporting minority groups, at other times the stark reality of discrimination can shine a light on how far we still have to go.

In June, we marked Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) History Month with two blog posts that aimed to raise awareness of the many issues faced by GRT communities in the UK today:

“Research by Travellers Movement has found that four out of five (77%) of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers have experienced hate speech or a hate crime – ranging from regularly being subject to racist abuse in public to physical assaults. There is also evidence of discrimination against GRT individuals by the media, police, teachers, employers and other public services.”

But our blog also highlighted work being done to address these issues and to spread the word about GRT communities’ rich cultural heritage:

“Today, organisations and individuals such as The Traveller MovementFriends, Families and Travellers, and Scottish Traveller activist Davie Donaldson strive to promote awareness of and equality for the GRT community. The recent Tobar an Keir festival held by the Elphinstone Institute at Aberdeen University sought to illustrate traditional Traveller’s skills such as peg-making.”

 Back to the future

Since first launching in 2014, The Knowledge Exchange blog has published more than 700 posts, covering topics as varied as health and planning, education and digital, the arts, disabilities, work and transport.

The key issues of our times – climate change, Brexit and the economy haven’t been neglected by our blog, but we’ve looked at them in the context of specific topics such as air pollution, higher education and diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

As we head into a new year, the aims of The Knowledge Exchange blog remain: to raise awareness of issues, problems, solutions and research in public policy and practice.

We wish all our readers a very Happy Christmas, and a peaceful, prosperous and healthy 2020.

A rising tide: the growing importance of the blue economy

Wild Surf

There has been much focus on the green economy in recent times as the international community attempts to address the current ‘climate emergency’. According to the United Nations (UN), “an inclusive green economy is one that improves human well-being and builds social equity while reducing environmental risks and scarcities.” Over the past decade, many governments have highlighted the green economy as a strategic priority, and since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C in 2018, action has been stepped up across the globe.

However, green economy strategies tend to focus on the sectors of energy, transport, agriculture and forestry, which leaves out an important part of the world’s environment – the oceans. It has been argued that “a worldwide transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient green economy will not be possible unless the seas and oceans are a key part of these urgently needed transformations”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, a new buzzword in the international sustainability agenda is gaining momentum – the ‘blue economy’. Since the turn of the 21st Century, there has been an increasing commitment to growing the blue economy but what exactly is it and why is it important?

What is the blue economy?

Similarly to the green economy, there is no internationally agreed definition of the blue economy. Its origins stem from the Rio+20 outcomes whereby member states of the UN pledged to ‘protect, and restore, the health, productivity and resilience of oceans and marine ecosystems, to maintain their biodiversity, enabling their conservation and sustainable use for present and future generations.’

It is further explained through the UN General Assembly support for Sustainable Development Goal 14: ‘Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’ as set out in the UN’s 2030 agenda for sustainable development.

Various definitions have been used by different agencies.

According to the World Bank, the blue economy is the “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health.”

Conservation International has suggested that, “at its simplest, ‘blue economy’ refers to the range of economic uses of ocean and coastal resources — such as energy, shipping, fisheries, aquaculture, mining, and tourism. It also includes economic benefits that may not be marketed, such as carbon storage, coastal protection, cultural values and biodiversity.”

Like the green economy, the blue economy model aims for improvement of human wellbeing and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.

Why the blue economy is so important?

Clearly, ocean health is vital to the blue economy. With over 70% of the world’s surface covered by ocean, almost half of the world’s population living in close proximity to the sea, the majority of all large cities being located along the coast and 90% of global economic trade travelling by sea, it is not difficult to see why the ocean and its resources are seen as increasingly important for both sustainable and economic development.

It is also a source of food, jobs and water, and contributes to the protection of the environment by absorbing carbon dioxide emissions. It has been estimated that the global blue economy has an annual turnover of between US$3 and 6 trillion and is expected to double by 2030. It is also estimated that fisheries and aquaculture contribute $US100 billion annually and about 260 million jobs to the global economy. In addition, over 3 billion people around the world, mostly from developing countries, rely on the world’s oceans and seas for their livelihood.

It is therefore not surprising that ocean pollution and the threat to marine resources have ascended the sustainability agenda in recent years, attracting increasing global attention and high-profile interest.

Sir David Attenborough’s popular Blue Planet II series highlighted the devastating impact pollution is having on the world’s oceans. It led to drastic behaviour change – 88% of people who watched the programme reported having changed their behaviour as a result, with half saying they had “drastically changed” their behaviour, and half saying they had “somewhat changed” it.

The recently heightened concerns over climate change have also highlighted the importance of the blue economy. The IPCC report warned that coral reefs would decline by 70-90% with global warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all (> 99%) would be lost with 2ºC.

Momentum building

Governments and organisations from across the world have been taking action to address the climate emergency with many strengthening commitments to growing the blue economy in particular.

The first ever global conference on the sustainable blue economy was held last year. It concluded with hundreds of pledges to advance a sustainable blue economy, including 62 commitments related to: marine protection; plastics and waste management; maritime safety and security; fisheries development; financing; infrastructure; biodiversity and climate change; technical assistance and capacity building; private sector support; and partnerships.

A new High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy was also established in September, the first time serving heads of government have joined forces on a global pact to protect the world’s oceans.

The UN’s Decade for Ocean Science (2021-2030) will also soon be upon us and the World Trade Organisation has been tasked with ending harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020. New approaches are also helping countries value their small-scale fisheries. Scotland’s economic action plan, for example, makes a specific commitment to grow the blue economy which includes a new, world-leading approach to fisheries management with a focus on inclusive economic growth.

Way forward

The increasing awareness of the blue economy and the threats it currently faces provide an opportunity to change things for the better. As the global conference on the sustainable blue economy suggested, a sustainable blue economy strategy needs to be people-centric with ocean-centric investments. If momentum keeps building towards growing the blue economy across the globe, perhaps this will go some way to mitigating the global climate emergency bringing benefits for all.


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