Humans are the primary cause of the accelerated rate of biodiversity loss around the globe. The current statistics are sobering, and the urgency we must feel to solve the problem is only heightened when you examine the links between biodiversity and our changing climate. Fortunately, there’s been some positive recent momentum in the form of international biodiversity cooperation.
“The Death of Birth.” Those were the words that were the tip of the spear in Ray Anderson’s chest in the summer of 1994. Don’t take my word for it - he will tell you himself. I stumbled across this 2006 video of my grandfather, wherein he speaks about reading the title of the second chapter of Paul Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce. Those four simple words. Fifteen little letters that were the hook, pulling him into a new understanding of the world. And they were about an environmental problem that we are still a long way away from solving: biodiversity loss.
A Sampling of Biodiversity Statistics
- The abundance of native species in most land habitats is down at least 20% since 1900;
- 41% of amphibian species are threatened with extinction, as are 33% of reef-forming corals and 27% of mammals;
- Humans have significantly altered about 75% of the planet’s land surface;
- We have lost 85% of our wetlands, and;
- We have lost 420 million hectares of forest in the last three decades (with one hectare being about two and a half acres).
There is also the work of the World Wildlife Fund
and the Zoological Society of London
in this area. They publish the Living Planet Index
, which is a measure of the world’s biological diversity. Here is the latest report
, along with their measure of biodiversity loss by region (against a baseline year of 1970). On the better end of the spectrum, biodiversity is down 18% in Europe/Central Asia and 20% in North America. Asia Pacific has seen a decline of 55%. Africa is worse still at a 66% decline. And in Latin and South America, biodiversity has declined by a staggering 94%.
In short, biodiversity loss is a crisis, but not one that people really feel. We know it’s a problem because the scientists tell us it is. They also tell us that the problem is anthropogenic - human activity is driving the disruption. And they also tell us that significant, near-term action is necessary to solve this problem. Sounds a lot like the climate crisis, huh?
How Biodiversity Loss and Climate Change are Joined at the Hip
Well, it turns out that the two are connected in more than one way. For one, global warming and biodiversity loss are often dual symptoms of the same human activity, with examples being the easiest way to understand this. Consider a natural and relatively undisturbed rainforest. At the outset, this habitat would have both a high degree of biodiversity and a high amount of stored carbon in all of the life forms that call it home, both flora and fauna. Now imagine that portions of the rainforest are cut down and converted to pastures for cattle. That’s a slug of carbon emissions, because the pasture won’t be able to maintain the same levels of biomass that the rainforest did. It’s also a reduction in biodiversity, because there's less habitat for the species in that rainforest. If the disruption continues, the problem can even spiral to the point where the loss of keystone species in the habitat threaten its health and viability.
This points to a second connection. In the long-term (and it’s arguably already happening), the two problems can exacerbate each other. If biodiversity plummets in some regions and habitats collapse, massive amounts of sequestered carbon could be released as a result. And as the planet warms rapidly, the changes to localized climates could make some regions no longer habitable for their native species. This mutual reinforcement will only get stronger the longer we fail to adequately address both challenges.
There’s another connection as well. As I’ve written about recently
, the way the countries of our world are trying to collaborate on climate action is under the auspices of the United Nations. Each year, they convene at a Conference of the Parties (or COP for short) to review the science, negotiate how we will take action, and set collective goals. Well, it turns out that the exact same structure is used for collaboration on biodiversity via the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity
(or CBD for short…and yes I chuckle at that acronym too). Last month saw the conclusion of their COP15, and it was an important one.
Taking a Look at The Goals and Targets that Emerged from Last Month’s COP15
This is where the good news comes in. Much like the 2015 COP21 in Paris that resulted in new and ambitious climate goal setting, COP15 for the CBD set out to be more ambitious. Taking place in Montreal and running from December 7th to 19th, representatives from 188 countries all over the world worked hard to determine what the new collective goals should be around biodiversity loss. At the end, they got an agreement over the finish line.
- Increase effective habitat conservation and management from 17% of global terrestrial areas and 10% of global marine areas to 30% each by 2030;
- Reduce global food waste by half by 2030 (which also happens to be one of the most significant global climate solutions);
- Phase out by 2030 at least $500 billion per year in various subsidies that harm biodiversity, while scaling up the use of incentives to promote conservation and sustainability, and;
- Require large corporations to monitor, assess, and disclose their risks associated with, and negative impacts on, global biodiversity.
That’s just a sampling, and to me it shows a robust understanding of what needs to change. While species have gone extinct ever since life began on this planet, our’s is the first species to be a true driver of the loss of global biodiversity. To me, it’s a shameful thing to be the cause of the death of birth. I’m hopeful that, with the global cooperation signified at the CBD’s COP15, we can start to move back in the right direction as a fellow life form on Spaceship Earth.