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

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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