‘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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Designing for wildlife – can new housing developments support biodiversity?

Great spotted woodpecker on garden feeder. Image: Chris Johnson

Great spotted woodpecker on garden feeder. Image: Chris Johnson

By Morwen Johnson

Britain has a reputation as both a nation of wildlife lovers and garden lovers. Many native species however are under threat, so conservation groups are increasingly highlighting the positive contribution that private green space can make to providing wildlife habitats, especially in urban areas.

And with over 240,000 new homes needed each year to meet housing demand in England, the development industry currently represents both a major threat and an opportunity for the environment. That’s why a new partnership between a major housebuilder and the RSPB is being touted as a trail-blazer for wildlife-friendly housing development.

Pioneering partnership

Earlier this year, Barratt Developments and the RSPB announced a pioneering agreement to embed sustainable development and biodiversity into new housing developments. The first project to benefit from the approach, at Kingsbrook in Aylesbury Vale, is due to start construction later this year and is expected to include 2,540 new homes.

Green infrastructure will comprise about 50% of the Kingsbrook development site and will include orchards, hedgehog highways, newt ponds, tree-lined avenues, fruit trees in gardens, bat, owl and swift nest-boxes and nectar-rich planting for bees. There will also be 250 acres of wildlife-rich open space, accessible to the public.

Councillor Howard Mordue, Cabinet Member for Leisure at Aylesbury Vale District Council, said: “I see this benchmark project as the first step in developers working with nature agencies to deliver housing and also to protect the environment”. The council has been commended in the past for employing ecologists in its dedicated Green Spaces Team.

Educating and engaging residents

Integrating wildlife-friendly design elements into new housing developments seems like a step in the right direction. But the maintenance and continued existence of these elements, once houses are sold, is not inevitable.

Last month the Royal Horiticultural Society launched a campaign “Greening Grey Britain” to encourage householders not to pave over gardens. Research conducted for them suggested that three times as many front gardens are now paved over compared to ten years ago, and over five million front gardens now have no plants growing in them (that’s one in three for the UK). Four and a half million front gardens (one in four) are completely paved over. In London it’s estimated that two-thirds of gardens are already at least partially paved over.

These figures don’t necessarily mean that householders don’t want gardens – but that needs are not being met by the design of housing. The 2013 National Travel Survey found that only 14% of household vehicles are parked in a garage overnight and 25% are parked on the street. The majority are parked on private property but not garaged. A lack of living space means that many people use their garages for storage, or have converted the original garage space into living space. Floor space in the UK for new build housing is the smallest in Europe. Nowadays, most households also have more than one car.

Paving gardens doesn’t just reduce spaces for wildlife. Back in 2008, government guidance highlighted that replacing grass and plant beds with concrete and asphalt surfaces can increase flooding and pollution risks, and create unwanted urban heat island effects (when local temperatures rise).

Everyone can help biodiversity

England has populations of at least 55,000 species of animals, plants and fungi, and over a thousand are assessed as requiring special conservation attention. Familiar species which are endangered, or deemed to be of high conservation concern, include hedgehogs, red squirrels, the small tortoiseshell butterfly, and birds such as house sparrows and starlings. Wildlife-friendly gardens and green space (even when the spaces are small) are useful as they provide habitat corridors and food sources.

While the RSPB and Barratt partnership is positive therefore, it’s disappointing that this approach should still be so unusual. Over a decade ago, consumer research by Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed that purchasers of new build housing felt that builders put very little thought into the design and quality of gardens. In the worst cases, ‘gardens’ were actually just piles of builders’ rubble, while the minimal landscaping approach of just turfing the outdoor space was widespread. It seems that in the intervening period, little has changed.

Recent case studies from the Landscape Institute have shown that well-planned landscape design can transform a site with relatively modest levels of investment. Partnerships such as the one between Barratt and the RSPB show that developers are willing to create great places if they think there is a market for them.

It will be interesting however to see if the green infrastructure introduced in the Kingsbrook development is sustained over time and whether home-owners have the skills and the inclination to maintain these wildlife-friendly features.


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