Saturday, 22 May 2010

We're all doomed! Doomed, I tell you!

Today, a nearly hot-off-the press look at one of the key environmental issues of our time – in International Year of Biodiversity, and in the week in which International Day for Biodiversity 2010 (tomorrow, May 22) is celebrated, I want to explore the latest official statement on the calamitous decline in global biodiversity. Not many pictures, I'm afraid! So was Private James Frazer, above, from Dad's Army correct - are we all doomed? Read on!


“The rate of species extinctions was estimated in 1995 at 100 times "background" or average extinction rates in the evolutionary time scale of planet Earth…”

“The future of humanity is inextricably tied to the fate of the natural world. In perpetuating this, the Earth's sixth mass extinction, we may ultimately compromise our own ability to survive.”

“Only Humans Can Halt the Worst Wave of Extinction Since the Dinosaurs Died”

Above is a small selection from the many press headlines and quotes from learned articles in recent years pointing to the scale and significance of the issue of the decline of biological diversity and the role of people and the Earth’s ever-growing population in this decline. Earth’s geological record reveals five global mass extinction events during its history, during which up to 95% of the species in the fossil record disappeared over geologically short time spans. The extinction of most dinosaur species around 65 million years ago, most likely following a large meteor strike, is perhaps the best known of these. The diversity of life on Earth recovered each time from these, although over many millions of years and with a largely new set of organisms evolving from the surviving species.

Time line of previous five mass extinctions (from Enchanted Learning)

Many ecologists argue that, given the present rate of loss of species, we are currently living in the sixth global mass extinction event.

A key difference between the previous five mass extinctions and this one is us, both in terms of there being a single species as a likely cause of much of the loss of other species, their habitats and genes, and in terms of our dependence on the environmental good and services provided by nature, those species and habitats in all their diversity. By “environmental good and services”, also known as “ecosystem services”, I am referring to the provision by ecosystems, habitats and their constituent species, of food, fuel, fibre, water resources, flood prevention, re-oxygenation of water, indeed, oxygen production for the atmosphere, and other essential services, along with the cultural, spiritual, and amenity values that we place on and derive from nature. I’ll come back to these later, but without environmental good and services, the continued existence of our modern society would be pretty untenable (you might also argue that, without oxygen production, complex life on Earth would be pretty untenable! Some 60% of our atmospheric oxygen is produced by oceanic phytoplankton).

So what’s the story with the decline of biodiversity? Well, the abundance of vertebrate species, based on assessed populations, fell by nearly a third on average between 1970 and 2006, and continues to fall globally. Nearly a quarter of plant species are estimated to be threatened with extinction. Freshwater wetlands, sea ice habitats, salt marshes, coral reefs, seagrass beds and shellfish reefs are all showing serious declines. Extensive fragmentation and degradation of forests, rivers and other ecosystems have also led to loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. And on, and on, and on… And on top of these problems, the five principal pressures directly driving biodiversity loss (habitat change, over-exploitation, pollution, invasive alien species and climate change) are either constant or increasing in intensity.

How do I know all of this? On the 10th of May, the Convention on Biological Diversity report, the Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 (GBO3), was simultaneously launched in key capital cities around the world. The Convention on Biological Diversity, you may be aware, was signed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. It has been described as: “a rather hurriedly negotiated document which nevertheless aims to arrest the rate of species loss consequent on pollution and habitat destruction.” It had three aims:

• the conservation of biological diversity,

• the sustainable use of its components and

• the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources.

A decade later, in light of evidence of continued decline of biodiversity and degradation and destruction of habitats and unsustainable and inequitable use of biodiversity resources, the Convention’s signatories agreed to a new target in Johannesburg in 2002. The world's leaders agreed to achieve a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. GBO3 reports on the 2010 biodiversity target and reports that, as has been widely trailed over the past couple of years, we have substantially failed to meet it – in fact, NOT A SINGLE ONE of the 21 sub-indicators making up the target can be said have been achieved globally, although some have been partially or locally achieved. You can see the whole list and their complete or partial failure here.

In the history of international environmental agreements, there can have been few less successful than this one appears to have been. Yet, there is some reason for optimism: negative trends have been slowed or reversed in some ecosystems (e.g. there has been significant progress in slowing the rate of loss for tropical forests and mangroves, in some regions). There are also several indications that responses to biodiversity loss are increasing and improving (e.g. 170 countries now have national biodiversity plans), although not yet on a scale sufficient to affect overall negative trends in the state of biodiversity or the pressures upon it. It was the acceptance at Convention–level a couple of years ago that the target was going to be substantially failed that led to the setting up of 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity (IYB 2010). It’s not a sad irony that IYB is in the same year as deadline of the failed target – it is a deliberate attempt to raise the profile of the issue and the significance of biodiversity for all of us (the logo is “Biodiversity is Life!). Many public bodies, including my own, have signed up as a partner organisation for IYB 2010. You can find out more about IYB 2010 activity in the UK here.

As a global scientific and environmental community, we are very focused on addressing the issue of climate change. Yet, in my view, major failures of ecosystems or their (potentially rapid) flips into potentially much less productive alternative stable states, have the potential to kill or displace many more people over much shorter timescales than those which we are working to address as a result of projected climate change effects through crop failure, loss of water supplies or topsoil, increased land instability due to loss of vegetation, increased disease, increased flood risk due to loss of coastal or freshwater wetlands. If you want some chapter and verse on this, the best and most detailed source is the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment's report on Ecosystems and Human well-Being. The digested synthesis with the indigestible message can be read here. I recommend sitting down with strong drink if you decide to read it.

But I don’t want to come across as a supporter of the Bjorn Lomborg school of climate change thinking (i.e. we should spend our money on all the other big environmental problems rather than trying to tackle climate change) – I do think we should be tackling climate change urgently, and preparing to respond to the major environmental changes to which we are already committed as a result of the greenhouse gases already in the global atmosphere. But I think we need to do more to harness together the arguments for biodiversity protection and restoration and the need to mitigate and adapt to climate change, as they are inextricably entwined. I have heard influential people in the climate change world say numerous times that the long-term solution to climate change lies with biodiversity and I believe they are absolutely correct. But not if we continue managing our global biodiversity in the disastrously short-term and unsustainable way that we are at present.

Here’s an example. Dryland habitats (e.g. deserts, savannas, steppes) cover about 40% of the Earth’s land surface, excluding Antarctica and Greenland, and are home to more than two billion people. They are susceptible to desertification, land degradation and drought and their populations, agriculture and ecosystems are vulnerable to climate change and variability. Plant biomass per unit area of drylands is low compared with many other terrestrial ecosystems. But the large surface area of drylands gives dryland carbon sequestration a global significance. In particular, total dryland soil organic carbon reserves comprise 27% of the global soil organic carbon reserves. But, due to land degradation from poor management, most dryland soils are not carbon-saturated.

If savannas (a key dryland habitat) were to be protected from fire and over-grazing, most of them would accumulate substantial carbon and the carbon sink would be larger. Savannas are under anthropogenic pressure, but this has been much less publicised than deforestation of rainforests. The rate of loss may exceed 1% per year, approximately twice as fast as that of rainforests. Globally, this is likely to constitute a carbon flux to the atmosphere that is at least as large as that arising from deforestation of the rain forest. Oh yes, did I forgot to mention, the countries suffering the worst problems with dryland degradations are also most of the world’s poorest and also those where climate change is expected to cause the greatest human misery?

Since carbon losses from drylands are associated with loss of vegetation cover and soil erosion, management intervention that slow or reverse these processes can simultaneously achieve carbon sequestration, protection and restoration of biodiversity, and the improvement and increased sustainability of agricultural productivity, to the betterment of the well-being of the local population. There are several international initiatives, mostly working with existing ocal knowledge of best practice, seeking to deliver the education and culture shifts that this will require. Just one example of where improved habitat management can simultaneously work to arrest the decline in biodiversity and contribute to both mitigation of and adaptation to climate change and improvements in living conditions for local people.

The GBO3 is quite clear about the inter-dependence of biodiversity loss and other issues: “The overall message of this Outlook is clear. We can no longer see the continued loss of biodiversity as an issue separate from the core concerns of society: to tackle poverty, to improve the health, prosperity and security of present and future generations, and to deal with climate change. Each of those objectives is undermined by current trends in the state of our ecosystems, and each will be greatly strengthened if we finally give biodiversity the priority it deserves.”

A strong message arising from GBO3 is also the need to account fully for the value of ecosystem services and their loss and damage by human activities. Only through so doing, it is argued, can we hope to secure the protection and restoration of important ecosystems which deliver essential support systems for our modern societies, and for the peoples of developing nations. GBO3 says:

In 2008-9, the world’s governments rapidly mobilized hundreds of billions of dollars to prevent collapse of a financial system whose flimsy foundations took the markets by surprise. Now we have clear warnings of the potential breaking points towards which we are pushing the ecosystems that have shaped our civilizations. For a fraction of the money summoned up instantly to avoid economic meltdown, we can avoid a much more serious and fundamental breakdown in the Earth’s life support systems.” It is all about priorities!

The recent Phase 1 report from the UN’s global "TEEB" study, “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity” (the so-called Stern-like report on biodiversity loss) reported that, even its early analysis indicates that, for every dollar, pound or Euro invested in protecting ecosystems, society benefits from the delivery of ecosystem services worth 100 times that. There isn’t an investment system in any money market that can promise that, especially now. The challenge is to ensure that investment and development take account of the effects they have on ecosystem services; as the economists say, to make sure that the costs of damage to ecosystem services are internalised by those seeking to invest in ways that damage.

I have rarely seen a stronger or more sobering policy statement than that which concludes the executive summary of GBO3: “The action taken over the next decade or two, and the direction charted under the Convention on Biological Diversity, will determine whether the relatively stable environmental conditions on which human civilization has depended for the past 10,000 years will continue beyond this century. If we fail to use this opportunity, many ecosystems on the planet will move into new, unprecedented states in which the capacity to provide for the needs of present and future generations is highly uncertain.”

Here on Island Britain, surely things aren’t that grim? It is true that we have made much greater strides than most nations towards addressing our loss of biodiversity. We have national and local biodiversity plans, designated sites, developing policies to value and protect ecosystem services and to make our landscapes less fragmented and more wildlife-friendly. We are even told that Britain may be one of the places on the planet that benefits most and suffers least from future climate change. Even here, however, we have problems and species and habitats that continue to decline. I've been talking about some specific examples of these in my previous posts on the Ladybird book seasonal pictures from 1959-1961.

But, more importantly, from a utilitarian point of view, even if you dodn't accept the arguments that we should protect global biodiversity for its intrinsic worth, if you think we in the UK will be unaffected by ecosystem collapses elsewhere, you are deluding yourself. Take imported goods, for example. We import the majority of the calories we consume, all of the tea and coffee we drink and much of the timber we use. All of thes edepend on biodiversity and ecosystem services elsewhere. We all wear clothes made from cotton, all grown overseas. Pharmaceuticals derived initially from tropical species cure us of many ailments, and so on, and so on. We live in such an inter-connected world that ecosystem collapses and biodiversity failures elsewhere will reach into our lives and society and bring about fundamental changes.

So, just worrying about our own little patch of biodiversity might be akin to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. However, as with the arguments for making our contribution to climate change mitigation, even if it is a relatively small percentage of the global total, I subscribe to the principle that the UK should try to be an exemplar. In a globally-connected community of concerned governments, organisations and people, we have an opportunity to influence farther and faster than we might have expected in the past. And, as individuals, your spending power and consumer choices can make small differences that can add up if lots of people do them. Choosing timber products from an accredited scheme like FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), choosing fish from accredited sustainable fisheries, and so on - choices towards these should also all help to support people in their industries elsewhere who are tryng to do the right thing for their own environments, trying to ensure the sustainability of their raw materials, their biodiversity. Now, where did I put that deck chair plan…?


  1. We mustn't be complacent that "We have national and local biodiversity plans, designated sites, developing policies to value and protect ecosystem services .." In themselves these policies are hot air. We must follow them up with much more focused action to create and re-create the habitats we have lost. The pre-clearance highlands is a prime example. Just look at undisturbed loch islands, and compare the biodiversity there with the "brown deserts," or the "monoculture forests" of the adjacent mountain areas.

  2. Quite right, Wraight! Even here with all our resources and paper plans, we only have some reason for optimism. There are, though, lots of projects out there, mosty run by the NGOs, it has to be said, where people are trying to recreate habitats and, importantly, to reconnect areas of habitat that have become isolated and fragmented by development or intensive agriculture. Government is only slowly getting the idea that habitat connectivity will be really important to allow movement of habitats and species in the face of a changing climate, but the while the policies might be starting to reflect that need, public funding mechanisms that could make a huge difference (e.g. rural development programme) aren't changing very quickly.


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