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Sat 25 May 2019
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Adi MacArtney shines some detailed light on the heated debate about the collapse of biodiversity in our ecosystems.

Any creature’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in life; therefore, do not ask for which species the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

The United Nations commissioned a ‘global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services’ conducted by the Intergovernmental science policy platform on biodiversity and ecosystem services (IPBES). The 1800-page report itself will not be released until later this year, drawing upon the research of approximately 15,000 scientific studies, but a press release version and guidelines for policy makers was released this week.

You may have seen it trending in the media as the ‘UN extinction report’, probably accompanied with terrifying doomsday headlines. But what does it mean? What does it actually say? Is there any hope?

Definitions are Helpful

Biodiversity: The variability among living organisms from all sources including terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems. Increased diversity in an ecosystem usually results in increased stability.

Ecosystem: A dynamic complex of plant, animal and micro-organism communities and their non-living environment interacting as a functional unit.

The IPBES states that the biodiversity crises should be as urgently prioritised and discussed as climate change. These are independent but interconnected topics, both of which profoundly affect human society, wellbeing and security.

This utilitarian cost-benefit analysis approach to ecosystem science is criticised by many ecologists.

The report predominantly analysed natural ecosystems within the context of their service provision and usefulness for humanity, rather than seeing species and natural environments and innately valuable.

This utilitarian cost-benefit analysis approach to ecosystem science is criticised by many ecologists.* It is an appeal to the selfish in society that the loss of species will affect their comfort, services, goods, economics and quality of life. It is also a guide for policymakers., although the press release is light on pragmatic detailed suggestions. The progress of different nations is measured against the Aichi biodiversity targets, which were created by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) targets.

Terrifying Statistics

  • 40% of amphibian species are threatened with extinction.
  • 680 invertebrate species driven to extinction since 1700.
  • 75% of the land environment and 66% of the marine environment has been adjusted by human activity.
  • More than 85% of wetlands have been lost since 1700 and we are losing wetlands three times faster than forest land.
  • 70% rise in invasive species since 1970.
  • 33% of marine stocks are being fished at an unsustainable level.
  • More than 245,000 km2 of coastal waters are suffering from hypoxia.
  • 11% of the global population are undernourished.
  • 50% of agricultural expansion has been at the expense of forest land.
  • 45% increase in timber production since 1970 with up to 15% of this supplied by illegal logging.
  • 100% growth in urban areas since 1992.
  • Plastic pollution is tenfold greater than in 1980.
  • There has been a 16-21 cm rise in sea level since 1900 and has been rising more that 3 mm per year over the last few decades.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 100% since 1980.

Depressed yet?


What is Causing these Extinctions?

The five dominant causes for such alarming rates of extinction are:

(1) Changes in land and sea use is the dominant cause, intensive agriculture and over fishing. (2) direct exploitation of organisms, including hunting; (3) climate change as documented by the IPCC; (4) pollution and (5) invasive alien species.

There is Hope

There is a danger with such statistics that we lose hope, individually and as a global community, and apathy takes over. But there is hope, even in such a dire report. We can change the trajectory of extinction and damage.

You matter. You count. This combination of individual and state action, practical and political, is being termed ‘transformative action’: system change.

Between 1990 and 2015 there has been a 1.1 million km2 rise in the number of planted forests and a 50% decrease in the rate of forest loss since the 1990’s.

More than 107 species of highly threatened native species have benefited from a targeted reduction in invasive species on islands due to human efforts.

A 29% reduction in extinction risk in mammals and birds from 109 countries due to conservation efforts between 1996 and 2008.


What Can Be Done?

This is a difficult question, and where much of the apathy sets in. It the face of such overwhelming negative statistics, is recycling your glass bottles really going to make a difference?

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The answer is yes, collective small lifestyle actions truly make a difference and do small political actions such as voting or writing to your MP to voice concerns. Even chatting about things on social media can dictate the trend and thus influence how power sees public opinion.

You matter. You count. This combination of individual and state action, practical and political, is being termed ‘transformative action’: system change.

Key suggestions for change included:

  • Developing ecosystem-based approaches to commercial fishing, using effective quotas, having protected areas.
  • Reducing nutrients from agricultural fertilizers, such as nitrogen, from leaking off the land into oceans, which is a pollutant to marine organisms. Using no-phosphorus fertilizer on your gardens and keeping crass cuttings from entering sewage systems are small ways to assist in this. Having buffer areas of deep-rooted trees around agricultural fields and having controlled drainage are industrial way to improve this.
  • Increase market and industrial transparency, both to governments and consumers.
  • Encourage multi-functional landscape use, for example crop fields having hedges, or tower blocks having green spaces.
  • Reduce soil erosion by planting more shrubs, better drainage, protective barriers and reduce sedimentation.
  • This last recommendation I felt was really important: Include communities as active participants rather than passive objects when making culture, production, industry and agriculture more sustainable.

Read the summary. Think upon it. Act upon it. Your choices matter.


* Nature article contrasting approaches to ecosystem science and critical of pure utilitarianism – https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/valuing-ecosystems-71373110 and https://www.cell.com/trends/ecology-evolution/fulltext/S0169-5347(16)00050-1

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