Nature under threat
To assess the urgency of biodiversity loss, we spoke to two leading authorities on biodiversity and climate change: Sir Robert Watson, former Chairman of IPBES, and Dr. René Castro, FAO Assistant Director-General, and asked them how serious the current situation is, and what can be done to protect the natural world.
Sir Robert Watson,
Former Chairman of IPBES
What is the extent of biodiversity loss? How serious is the situation?
Sir Robert Watson
It is serious. The rate of loss of species is clearly increasing. It is running at tens to hundreds of times faster than natural evolution. In the 2019 IPBES Global Assessment, we said one million species were at risk of extinction – half of those are plants and animals, half are insects. However, if we start to manage biodiversity – if we start to protect our ecosystems, we can stop most from becoming extinct. That means reducing the drivers behind biodiversity loss: changing land use, overexploitation of resources, climate change, pollution, and the increase in invasive alien species.
How accurate is our data in this area? Do we have clear projections for what is going to happen with biodiversity loss?
There is a lot of work going on. We know what has happened and how – we know how we have transformed our environment. But what is going to happen in the next fifty years? That is more difficult. We need better models. To have a good projection of the future, we need to know the plausible changes in population, in wealth, in per capita consumption, in new technologies and social values. The question is, do we know enough to act? And the answer is: yes, we do. We should not use lack of knowledge as an excuse.
Are we doing enough to stop biodiversity loss?
Clearly, we need to do more. We are still changing land use. Deforestation is still occurring in some parts of the world, primarily in the tropics and sub-tropics. Air-borne and land-based pollution are still increasing. We are only making reasonable progress on four of the twenty Aichi targets. On some, we are actually losing ground¹².
What is the role of the private sector in this?
A huge role. Governments can put policies in place, but it is the private sector that produces our food, that produces our energy, that runs our transport systems and controls tourism. Many companies are dependent on biodiversity – the food sector of course, but also aluminium producers or power companies, which are dependent on water for their business. The good news is there are companies out there showing that you can be economically viable, that you can make a profit for your shareholders, and still be sustainable. The private sector needs to take a medium and long-term view. Look at Newfoundland in the 1990s – overfishing was so acute that there had to be a moratorium on Atlantic cod. Twenty years later, the cod stocks are still not back to where they were. It takes time for ecosystems to recover.
“The fact is, we need to look at climate change and biodiversity together. They cannot be separate issues. Both are environmental issues, but they are more than that – they are both development issues.”
By 2020, signatories of the Aichi targets have pledged to reduce loss of natural habitats, including forests, by at least half.
Source: Convention on Biological Diversity (Aichi Biodiversity Targets) (2019)
You mentioned climate change as a driver of biodiversity loss?
With climate change, you get an acceleration of the pressure on biodiversity. Dry areas, on average, become drier; wet areas become wetter. But you also get changes in precipitation, leading to floods or droughts, and more extreme weather, such as heatwaves. Many of the coral reefs in the Caribbean have been wrecked in the last two decades by just a few major hurricanes. The fact is, we need to look at climate change and biodiversity together. They cannot be separate issues. Both are environmental issues, but they are more than that – they are both development issues.
What do you mean by development issues?
They affect food, water, energy, security – they are also economic issues. Losing biodiversity comes at a real economic cost. The poorer populations are affected most by biodiversity loss and by climate change. When we look at these ecosystems – forests, wetlands, grasslands, mangrove swamps – they all play a role in providing food and fibre, in providing water and medicine. They help control our climate. This is not just a matter of losing species – we are also seeing local conflicts as a result of biodiversity loss and climate change.
How optimistic are you? You said we can stop biodiversity loss, if we act. But will we?
We will continue to lose biodiversity and we need to understand the implications. How are we going to adapt to that future loss? How can we manage our agriculture, our energy, our water systems better? We are definitely moving too slowly, but hopefully there is enough common sense to draw back from the cliff edge – to realize that to continue along this path is economically stupid, socially stupid and will not be good at all for any of us – the rich, the middle classes or the low-income populations.
Dr. René Castro,
Assistant Director General at the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)
As we have increased food production, have we become too reliant on a small number of crops?
Dr. René Castro
Definitely, what we eat today is less diverse than what our parents ate. Two thirds of the world rely on just nine plants for their energy and nutrition – that is nine plants out of the thousands available. We see the same trend in fisheries and livestock. The fact is, industrial agriculture is not biodiversity-rich and small farmers – who are, to an extent, the guardians of biodiversity – are under constant challenge. They have limited access to finance or new technologies.
What about climate change? Are we already seeing the effects on agriculture?
Climate is making matters worse with droughts and floods, the spread of diseases and pests. We are currently forecasting that climate change will reduce yields in the tropics by 10%-15%, depending on the crop. As a result, some of these countries will go from being net exporters of food to net importers. There is also a correlation between extreme weather, violence and migration. We see it in Central America and Mexico, with people moving towards the United States, for example – we see it between sub-Saharan Africa and Europe, and in Asia, from rural areas to the cities, in China especially. We must scale up our efforts to make sure people can have proper livelihoods in rural areas.
There are still millions of people suffering from hunger, why is that?
This is the dilemma we are facing. We have enough food to feed the world. But, on the one hand, 820 million people suffer from under-nourishment and on the other, two billion people have weight and obesity problems. One assumption is that the lack of diversity in our diet is affecting human health. Cases of chronic illness, such as diabetes and heart disease are skyrocketing and that is increasing healthcare costs – in some countries to as much as 4% or 5% of GDP. At the same time, we are still seeing increases in the number of people who are under-nourished. On the second Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) – Zero Hunger – we are not progressing, but actually failing. One thing we can do is stop waste – a third of all the food produced is wasted. We have forgotten the moral dimension: that hunger is a crime.
It seems that we need a more sustainable form of agriculture. What are the right incentives for that?
Agricultural extension services – technical advice to farmers – have been reduced substantially. Small farmers depend on these services. We need to restore them. The FAO favors providing consumers with more information, so they know, with certain products, if sustainable farming practices have been used, or sustainable fishing or forestry methods. Maybe this has not been happening yet because the agricultural sector was not fully aware of its impact on biodiversity, and because there was a lack of cooperation with environmentalists. There is an opportunity there for us, as the FAO, to promote more dialogue.
“We need the right regulations, deals in place and negotiations – and we also need scientists to keep working and to make sure all the technology available reaches small farmers. The world will need to use all of its abilities – and those abilities are there, we have them.”
animal, plant and insect species are at risk of extinction.
Source: IPBES (2019)
Just three crops (rice, maize and wheat) and three animal species (cattle, pigs and chickens) account for the majority of the world’s food-energy intake.
Source: FAO (2019)
Can we increase food production and protect nature simultaneously?
There are over twenty countries that have been able to produce more food and increase forest cover at the same time through increased intensity, new varieties and better management, so, it is do-able¹³. Gene sequencing is a reality now – we are able to isolate genes in crops that are pest-resistant or drought-resistant, and this is becoming cheaper to do. Earlier this year, we agreed our first-ever code of conduct for fertilizer with representatives from the fertilizer industry. That would have been unthinkable twenty, or even ten, years ago. For many years, we ignored the fact that agricultural biodiversity and wild biodiversity were happening in the same landscape. Now we know that we need to coordinate our efforts better and manage these jointly.
Still, there are big challenges ahead.
With climate change, there is an amber light flashing. If the climate reaches a point of no return, the impact on biodiversity can only get worse. In some regions, like the tropics, there could be a collapse. How much time do we have? Probably twenty years. We need the right regulations, the right deals in place, and we also need scientists to keep working and to make sure all the technology available reaches small farmers. The world will need to use all of its abilities – and those abilities are there, we have them.
12 The Aichi targets are part of the internationally-agreed Strategic Plan for Biodiversity (2011-2020). There are twenty targets in all, including: integrating biodiversity into national development plans, eliminating harmful subsidies, halving the rate of habitat loss, reducing pollution, safeguarding ecosystems and managing agriculture and marine resources more sustainably. For more information on the Aichi targets, see https://www.cbd.int/sp/targets/. According to the 2019 IPBES global assessment, ‘good progress’ has been made towards components of four Aichi targets: invasive species prioritized, 10% of marine areas conserved, 17% of terrestrial areas conserved, Nagoya Protocol in force, NBSAPs (National Biodiversity Strategies & Action Plans) developed and updated. Progress has been ‘moderate’ towards some components of another seven targets. For six targets, progress has been poor against all components. For the remaining three targets, information is not sufficient to allow an accurate assessment. The IPBES assessment states that it is ‘likely’ that most of the Aichi targets for 2020 will be missed. The Nagoya Protocol is a supplementary agreement to the Convention on Biological Diversity; it provides a legal framework for the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources.
13 The FAO’s State of the World’s Forests (2016) cites case studies from seven countries (where there is evidence of positive trends in food security and forest cover): Chile, Costa Rica, Gambia, Georgia, Ghana, Tunisia and Vietnam.