In May 2019 the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (UN-IPBES) released a global assessment summary for policymakers on biodiversity loss.
Ho hum, ho hum… excuse us while we yawn through another 40 pages of impenetrable waffle from people who, instead of saving the planet, fly around to conferences all the time blaming the delegate with the biggest carbon footprint.
As you can see, I am way too cynical these days.
Comes from having heard this all so many times before, not least during a decade working in Africa in the 1980s and 90s, where the reckoning was that only 10c of every US$ spent by the UN went onto the ground—but I digress.
As for the yawn, yes, there is a bit of pot and black kettles going on here.
At sustainably FED, we have been known to prattle on a bit, especially when we get onto a passionate topic.
However, sane people all around the world already know there is a serious issue of what to do about the obvious and insidious degradation of the planet’s natural resources and biodiversity loss.
Huge numbers of voracious people on a finite planet increasing at 8,000 souls per hour—first graders can do the math—means that staying within planetary limits is a wicked problem. Most sane people also know we are failing to find political solutions to this resource use conundrum.
In fact, we keep doing the same things—releasing international policy platform statements—and expect a different result. That somehow negative trends turn around and the world’s natural systems recover. As Einstein is thought to have reminded us, this is the definition of insanity.
Those of us old enough can recall that there was quite a brouhaha over biodiversity and ecosystem services at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.
This was a milestone for the United Nations, not least because world leaders came together to discuss the environment for the first time.
Periodically since then, dire warnings and policy suggestions have emerged, but as the latest assessment summary from the UN-IPBES suggests, both the condition and the prognosis are much worse today.
Here is one index of the change.
You will find more infographics at Statista
So rather than wallow in a bunch of metrics heading south, let’s focus on biodiversity loss and try a little thought exercise around the latest summary report.
A thought exercise on biodiversity loss
Try and imagine what it would be like if, instead of listing the metrics and their dire trends for biodiversity loss, we actually did something about them.
Let’s assume that Einstein was wrong for once and the same things actually delivered a result. We did some things that turned all the key metrics around. Miraculously they are all heading in the right direction. The problem of biodiversity loss is fixed. No more loss.
To help us put this counterfactual into context, we’ll do the thought exercise for Australia with some help from Guardian journalist Calla Wahlquist who extracted from the IPBES summary the 10 key points the latest UN environment warning and what Australia must do to turn it all around.
According to Wahlquist, the ten things gleaned from the IPBES report are:
- Human life will be severely impacted if we do not protect biodiversity
- Species are dying at the cost of food security
- We should support Indigenous knowledge and land management
- Native people’s land rights
- Reforestation for carbon sequestration could harm biodiversity
- We have to protect green spaces in cities
- We are losing a lot of water to agriculture
- We need to ditch subsidies that encourage environmentally harmful practices
- We will lose all the coral if we can’t keep climate change below 2C
- We need to take an ecosystem-based approach to manage fisheries
In our thought exercise, we are going to imagine that all the issues on this list are fixed because a miracle happened and there is no more biodiversity loss, indeed the diversity is returning to all the places where it used to be. The problems are sorted, and any measures are no longer heading south.
Phew, this is a huge relief.
Biodiversity loss is fixed because Samatha, the delightful star of Bewitched, twitched her nose, and all is well.
What would happen if the 10 things were resolved?
What would be different from the current and future for Australia and the rest of the world if these 10 things were resolved successfully?
- Human life would no longer be severely impacted… from the things that biodiversity provides: clean air, clean water, good food, reliable pollination, natural pest control etc. This is all good because the key ecosystem services are back up and running. No more need to panic, except that there are a bunch of equally pressing matters that reversing biodiversity loss will not fix, in no particular order: cancer, heart disease, obesity, refugees, war, terrorism, etc.
Outcome—complex but mostly good
- Species and food security are linked because modern agriculture uses only a fraction of the species we once used for food. Variety is a universal mitigator of risk, so when the food supply comes from just a handful of species and, say, wheat blight strikes hard, then everyone is in strife. Only a fool would separate diversity from our means of production, and an even bigger fool would toy with 8 billion hungry souls for the sake of a koala.
Outcome—good but not necessarily for the reasons stated
- Indigenous knowledge is remarkable, given it has such a long history and is passed down the generations for so long. Undoubtedly, the land management options that first people know and would prefer to use are exceptional. Now what we are about to say is not politically correct, and we do know that indigenous people have much to say about the way the environment works, but, bless them, what they know came from a world with very few people. What they know came from a world without cars, roads, planes, and a food supply designed around technology.
Outcome—useful with helpful learnings but from another time
- Land rights do matter because they come with a social license to use land and the resources and production capacity it holds. But as with indigenous knowledge, returning land rights is good but does not solve the problem. The indigenous systems didn’t have close to 8 billion mouths to feed.
Outcome—morally correct but will not solve the problem of biodiversity loss
- Harming biodiversity from carbon sequestration in trees is a weird one. If we choose not to grow trees, then that’s one source of carbon sequestration that we have to forgo. Given the emissions levels, we will need every single option to clean up the climate mess—if that is even possible. So we solve one problem, but we leave ourselves vulnerable to another, climate change, that is equally pressing. Plus, any trees are likely to enhance biodiversity over no trees even if they are not the tree species that were cut down in the first place.
Outcome—not even logical
- It is critical to maintain green spaces in cities for general public health. That green space also provides for biodiversity is a bonus, not a driver. Cities are not where biodiversity lives, it’s where the people live. Green spaces are a good thing to do but are hardly material to the bigger problem of how to generate 22 trillion kilocalories daily for hundreds of years.
Outcome—good but not material to the real issues of biodiversity loss
- When there are 8 billion people there is a huge demand for food. In most places, successful production will require the addition of water for agriculture either through the growing cycle or as food is processed. We are not losing water to agriculture, we have to have water for agriculture, period. If we reduce water use in food production, the food security risk gets more acute, not less.
Outcome—makes the real problems more acute
- Ditching subsidies is a no-brainer. Whatever humans have done over the generations, most decisions are based on who makes a dollar. All the great wars, through to all the tiny arguments over who gets the family inheritance, are ultimately based on money, and humanity has allowed interest groups to determine where some of that money goes to the detriment of the environment. So this one might make a difference to rates of biodiversity loss.
- In the counterfactual scenario where the temperature rise stays below 2 degrees Celsius, some of the coral reefs survive, and a proportion of biodiversity is saved. This means a few tourists can visit iconic places and enjoy themselves, and the rest of us can sleep easy knowing that Nemo is both found and saved. But in the grand scheme, this is just a tiny piece of a gigantic puzzle.
Outcome—good for part of the economy and a small fraction of the biodiversity.
- Fish are a critical part of the diet of half the planet. It has always been thus. The majority of people have lived close to the water for obvious reasons. Managing fisheries as ecosystems will help retain fish as a critical protein source, but again it’s only a single piece of a much larger puzzle. A bigger piece than coral reefs and relevant because it is provisioning ecosystem service and not primarily aesthetic but still only a piece.
Outcome—good for part of the economy
So there is a summary of the 10 things to save biodiversity loss in Australia assuming that they would happen. Needless to say, they won’t.
A better list of things to do.
As you can see, sustainably FED thinks Calla Wahlquist’s list extracted from the IPBES summary is uninspiring. Fixing biodiversity loss in these ways barely touches the surface of the problem.
Here is a shorter list of critical environmental issues that are not fixed after the 10 actions in the counterfactual thought process came to pass thanks to Samantha’s twitching nose and the extra miracle of biodiversity loss coming to an abrupt end.
- The fact that the FAO determined that 40% of global soils are degraded
- We have a critical shortage of accessible nitrogen to fertilize crops and what we have is made with fossil fuels
- Soil erosion impacts a significant proportion of production landscapes
- Many agricultural systems will not cope with the already changing climate
And we could go on given we already in ecological overshoot.
In other words, the world still has a swag of mission-critical environmental issues that are not even touched by fixing up biodiversity loss.
And this is a key problem for those who want to conserve biodiversity, including the UN-IPBES. Their critical message is that biodiversity loss needs to stop. True enough for a whole range of reasons not least the ecosystem services and soil health that biodiversity delivers.
But halting biodiversity loss is just one of a swag of important messages that people will need to heed to get through the global population spike and still have a habitable planet.
What sustainably FED suggests.
There is no doubt that the loss of biodiversity is critical and not, as so many of these report-style documents assert, because of what it is but because of what it does.
Biodiversity provides essential services, and diversity confers resilience in how these services perform.
Keeping and enhancing biodiversity reduces risk, and humanity will depend on managing ever-increasing food security risks.
In many ways, the core of the UN-IPBES argument is still that we must conserve, that we must stop, and that we must retain things as they were. This is not possible anymore. The world has changed, and we must change with it.
A few UN reports are not enough.