Year after year, report after report shows that life on Earth is dwindling under humanity’s pressure and that if we don’t address this we can expect dire consequences. The World Wildlife Fund's latest Living Planet Report showed that wildlife populations have fallen by more than two-thirds in less than 50 years.
And on Sept. 15, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 (GBO-5) showed that the world’s governments have failed to meet a single one of the 20 global ‘Aichi’ targets for addressing biodiversity loss. But there is still time to turn things around.
A few days ago, I spoke about these issues — and what to do about them — with Sir Robert Watson, the former chair of both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
Harming biodiversity harms us
We talked first about last year’s IPBES Global Assessment, upon whose findings the GBO-5 draws. It said a million species were at some threat of extinction and that the ‘unprecedented’ rate of biodiversity loss threatened human wellbeing.
“The message to policymakers, to the public at large, to governments, to the private sector is: We are threatening a significant percentage of living species,” said Watson. “Twenty-five percent of animal and plant species are at some threat of extinction. We are also degrading loads of ecosystems — forests, coral reefs, mangroves. We’ve lost large percentage of populations of species. And we are losing essential ecosystem services, or what we call nature’s contributions to people.
“I’m hoping we can get across to people that these are not just species or ecosystems,” he said. “We rely on nature for food, water, energy, et cetera. We need nature. And we are undermining the long-term sustainability upon which we depend. We are destroying nature. We are destroying natural assets.”
Watson highlighted the failure of governments to rise to the challenge despite making international commitments. “Unfortunately, we failed to meet all of the Aichi targets and we are not on course to meet the Paris climate goal — we are currently on a pathway to a 3C, or more, warmer world, not a 1.5-2C warmer world. We haven’t really decreased the drivers of change.”
“The underlying driver is that we’ve got more and more people and they’re becoming on average wealthier,” he said. “They demand more resources, quite naturally — more food, more water, more energy, et cetera.
“So how do we meet those demands? Well, we cut more and more of our forests or our grasslands down for agriculture. We overexploit the land. We overexploit the oceans. We’ve got more air and water pollution — air pollution again from using energy; water pollution for a dozen-and-one reasons, including fertilisers, pesticides, et cetera. Climate change itself is a big threat. And we’re moving species, purposefully and accidently, from one part of the world to another part of the world. So, we’ve got invasive alien species.
“These pressures are all going in one direction — up,” he said. “So, yes, we’ve got more awareness of biodiversity. We’re more aware that it has got value. We’re aware that we’re destroying it. But we have not got to grips with either the indirect or direct drivers that are causing the loss. I think that’s where governments have a real challenge.”
To bridge the gap between words and action, Watson recommends that governments focus on finance and economics, to stimulate sustainability and undo policies with perverse outcomes. As GBO-5 points out, for example, governments pay out US$500 billion a year in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and other sectors that damage our living environment.
“We have to get rid or significantly reduce these environmentally harmful subsidies in energy, agriculture and transportation,” said Watson. “We should incorporate the value of natural capital into decision-making. We should internalise our social and environmental costs in the market price of a substance. We should create a more circular economy where we look at sustainable production. And, with subsidies, we could actually stimulate more sustainable practices in the way many governments have subsidised renewable energy to get it to break into the market and to scale it up.”
These are some elements of what IPBES and others call ‘transformative change’, and Watson acknowledges that it will not be easy to overcome resistance to them. “There are a lot of vested interests that like the status quo, that like those subsidies,” he said. “They don’t care about the long term. They are looking for a short-term profit.”
Another shift Watson wants to see is greater coordination among government departments responsible for sectors that affect or are affected by nature. “They’ve got to work together,” he said. “No single one of these government departments can solve this alone.” He said the same applies to the Rio Conventions — the three international agreements on biodiversity, climate change and land degradation — and to UN agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
“We really need to look at how climate change and biodiversity impact on each other, how they impact on agriculture, energy, water and human health — and how these all impact back on biodiversity and climate,” he said.
“There is not a hope in hell of achieving any of the Sustainable Development Goals unless we simultaneously attack climate change, loss of biodiversity, land degradation, and air and water pollution.”
Nature actually matters
“I think we need polycentric governance structures where all of the key stakeholders are really involved,” Watson told me. “What that will require is a huge amount of trust. Government have to trust each other. Governments have to trust the private sector, and vice versa. Then of course you have to consider the role of us, as individuals. We can choose what we eat. We can choose what sort of energy we use. How we use our energy. How we use our water.
“We as individuals need to let government and the private sector know we care about these environmental issues,” he said. “Because while biodiversity loss and climate change are obviously environmental issues, they are also development issues, economic issues, security issues, social, moral and ethical issues. They threaten food security, water security, human health. They come at an economic cost.”
Ultimately, said Watson, much depends on people and businesses understanding that protecting nature is in their own interests.
“For year and years, we were all saying, ‘You shouldn’t destroy nature. We’re losing species’, but it didn’t have much effect in my opinion,” he said. “I’m not saying people don’t care about nature. I think they do, but in an abstract way. We have to convince people that nature actually matters. We’ve destroyed it in the past. We’ve now got to conserve and restore some of it for our own human wellbeing.”