Biodiversity loss as much a threat as global temperatures

Food, water, and energy depend on healthy, diverse ecosystems, but these are declining faster than at any previous time in human history, says Robert Watson

Demonstrators costumed as US President Donald Trump and polar bears protest during climate conference COP in Germany. Picture: AP

With the United Nations’ climate change conference under way in Bonn, Germany, rising global temperatures are again on the political agenda.

But why care about the increase in temperature, if not because of its impact on life on Earth, including on human life?

That is an important question, in view of the relative lack of attention to a related, equally pressing threat to human survival: the startling pace of global biodiversity loss.

The availability of food, water, and energy — building blocks of every country’s security — depend on healthy, robust, and diverse ecosystems, and on the life that inhabits them.

But, as a result of human activities, planetary biodiversity is now declining faster than at any point in history.

Many policymakers, however, have yet to recognise that biodiversity loss is just as serious a threat as rising sea levels and as increasingly frequent, extreme weather events.

This lack of sufficient attention comes despite international commitments to protect biodiversity.

In October, 2010, global leaders met in Aichi, Japan, where they produced the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, which included 20 ambitious targets — such as halving global habitat loss and ending overfishing — which signatories agreed to meet by 2020.

Safeguarding biodiversity is also specifically included in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Yet, progress toward these global biodiversity goals is likely to fall dangerously short of what is needed to ensure an acceptable future for all. Policymakers have largely agreed on the importance of holding the increase in global temperature to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels — the goal of the Paris climate agreement.

But too few leaders have shown any sense of urgency about stemming biodiversity losses. The sustainable future we want depends on ending this indifference.

Toward that end, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which I chair, will release a series of landmark reports next March on the implications of biodiversity decline.

Prepared over three years by 550 experts from 100 countries, these expert assessments will cover four world regions: the Americas, Asia and the Pacific, Africa, and Europe and Central Asia. A fifth report will address the state of land degradation and restoration at regional and global levels.

The reports will highlight trends and plausible futures, outlining the best policy options available to slow the degradation of ecosystems, from coral reefs to rainforests. Taken together, the IPBES assessments will represent the global scientific community’s consensus view on the state of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Moreover, the reports will highlight the close links between biodiversity loss and climate change, which should be addressed simultaneously.

The world will not be able to meet the goals of the Paris agreement — or many of the SDGs, for that matter — unless it takes into account the state of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Today, most governments separate their environmental authorities from those focusing on energy, agriculture, and planning. This makes it difficult to address climate change or biodiversity losses in a holistic way. New types of innovative governance structures are needed to bridge these policy silos.

After the release of IPBES regional reports next year, a global assessment will be published in 2019. This will be the first global overview of biodiversity and ecosystem services since the authoritative Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005.

It will examine the health of terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems, and the impact of factors including acidification, rising sea-surface temperatures, trade, invasive species, overfishing, pollution, and land-use changes.

The success of efforts to reverse unsustainable uses of the world’s natural assets will require policymakers to reconsider the value of biodiversity for their people, environments, and economies.

But the first step is ensuring that we have the best peer-reviewed knowledge available to make sound decisions; the forthcoming IPBES assessments will move us in that direction.

If the full consequences of climate change are to be addressed in our lifetime, we must recognise that human activity is doing more than just adding a few degrees of temperature to the annual forecast.

By early next year, we will have the data on biodiversity and ecosystem services to prove it, and the policy options to change course.

Robert Watson, strategic director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, is chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

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