Biodiversity is declining at such a rate that we are undeniably on a path to a sixth mass extinction event. “The scale of threats to the biosphere and all its life forms – including humanity – is so great that it’s difficult to grasp even by experts.” Halting biodiversity loss is a burning issue as new goals under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) are set to be agreed upon in Kunming, China later this year. We have so far failed to meet any of the biodiversity targets set for 2000 to 2010 and 2010 to 2020 (known as the Aichi targets), and most of the nature-related Sustainable Development Goals are also on track for failure. The so-called post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework will set out new objectives to be met by 2030, which will likely include reducing threats to biodiversity and ensuring its sustainable use. Will these so-called solutions prevent further biodiversity loss?
Between 1970 and 2016, average species numbers declined by 68% and by as much as 94% in Latin America and the Caribbean. The major threats to biodiversity include changes in land and sea use (habitat loss), overexploitation, for example, fishing and by-catch, invasive species and disease, pollution and climate change. The loss of biodiversity has serious implications for humans, negatively impacting human health, livelihoods, income, migration and political conflict. Declining biodiversity and habitat are also causing humans and wildlife to come into closer contact, increasing the likelihood that diseases carried by animals will transfer to humans. The Zika virus, a vector-borne pathogen, and the HIV virus, carried by mammalian hosts are examples of this.
New and radical solutions to protecting biodiversity and preventing loss, such as economic instruments like biocredits, legal arrangements, vastly increased funding and protected areas, as well as systemic change targeting power imbalances and economic models, are being discussed in academia, policy and industry ahead of target setting.
One of these solutions to prevent biodiversity loss is to increase the extent of global area under protection. Currently only 15.1% of land area worldwide is protected. If this was expanded to 50%, avoiding areas with high human density, we could reduce biodiversity loss, prevent CO2 emissions from land conversion and enhance natural carbon removal. A spatial meta-analysis found a 43% increase in cost-effective protected area coverage was achievable, although ambitious, and efforts could be hampered by a lack of international collaboration and rapid land degradation. There have been similar requests to increase protected areas, increase the restoration of terrestrial areas and to turn half of the world into a reserve for nature.
Interestingly, strengthening the rights to land and resources for indigenous communities could, in theory, help achieve biodiversity objectives on one third of the suggested protected area. Alongside affording biodiversity greater space, funding for biodiversity protection needs to increase. Some have estimated between USD$300 to $400 billion is needed every year, while the Convention on Biological Diversity estimates the Global Biodiversity Framework will cost between $103 billion and $895 billion annually, which needs to be directed to countries with the highest biodiversity levels (UN CBD Report, 2020). At present only $52 billion is made available each year.
Biodiversity credits (Biocredits), tradable units of measurement for conservation actions and outcomes, have also been suggested as a novel approach to conservation. If designed well, they would help align our actions with outcomes for biodiversity as well as make financial investment in conservation more attractive and increase transparency in monitoring biodiversity targets. There are many challenges to their design, however, such as ensuring they are inclusive and support equitable distribution of the benefits, which can mean different things for example, redressing the past imbalance of the global South having their resources exploited by the North. Several systems have already been trialled in several places such as wildlife credits, payments for ecosystem services and carbon offsets, with varying results. The first wildlife bond, intended to increase black rhino populations, will launch this year.
Agriculture threatens 86% of at-risk species worldwide and is the principal driver of accelerating biodiversity loss. There is overwhelming agreement that to reduce agriculture’s impact we need to shift dietary patterns to predominantly plant based diets, protect and set aside land for nature both on and off farms, and shift to more sustainable farming methods. The good news is that if we employ sustainable farming methods to increase crop yields immediately and on a vast scale we can reverse terrestrial biodiversity loss while also meeting food needs for the global population. Sustainable intensification of farming (essentially the use of less resources and land to produce the same or greater amounts of production), reducing trade barriers in agricultural goods, reducing agricultural waste by 50%, and cutting the share of animal calories in human diets by 50% could theoretically avoid two-thirds of projected biodiversity losses. Additionally landscape-level conservation and agricultural planning must become common practice to tie these two sectors together in policy.
One possible solution to past failures to achieve biodiversity targets is to make the new targets legally binding like the Paris Agreement on climate change. This would take longer to negotiate- the Paris Agreement took around four years- and the goals would likely be less ambitious should all parties be held to account, but it is expected that this would secure greater compliance. A Global Deal for Nature has been proposed as a plan to be paired with the Paris Agreement, which calls for 30% of land to be protected for biodiversity and 20% designated for climate stabilisation. The introduction of legal obligations is thought to be highly unlikely, however, as the CBD is founded on the idea that countries have a sovereign right over the use of biodiversity.
The scale at which we are attempting to prevent biodiversity loss does not match the scale at which the drivers operate nor the severity of the problem. We need more than individual action- we need systemic change to abandon goals of continual economic growth and properly price environmental externalities, stop using fossil fuels, strictly regulate markets including property, and reduce or regulate corporate lobbying, all of which contribute to wider sustainability issues. Our current economic and social systems promote consumption and population growth as well as globalisation, which makes it difficult to see the impact of our individual decisions as the distance between the point of production and consumption increases. The way in which we approach global problems is also flawed as we fail to collaborate and share information between different disciplines and fail to understand the complex adaptive systems these problems arise within.
To achieve the type of systemic change needed, we must appreciate the widespread impacts of biodiversity loss. This in turn will spur governments to be more committed to reaching biodiversity targets. Communicating the scale of the threat is challenging, however, partly because the loss of habitat and biodiversity has a delayed reaction in terms of impact on societal and economic welfare, and partly because of optimism bias – we generally underestimate the severity of threats and ignore expert warnings. As such it is difficult to convince those in power of the importance of biodiversity and the devastation to humans the loss of species richness will cause. At present, halting biodiversity loss does not seem to be a priority for most of the world’s countries. Indeed, where right-wing populist leaders rule, the political agenda is often anti-environment, particularly where the environment is mistakenly pitted against the economy. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and the nationalist Forum for Democracy party in the Netherlands, for example, have both been outspoken on their rejection of climate science and climate change propaganda
There are a multitude of solutions to the biodiversity loss crisis we are facing, including strategies that also tackle inequality, climate change and food insecurity, and as such, there is cause for optimism. The question remains, however, whether new targets will utilise these approaches and prevent a significant loss of species. Will governance, historically weak in protecting biodiversity, make a serious effort to achieve targets? New targets will likely be more ambitious to match the scale of the problem but since past goals have gone unmet, it is unclear how more ambitious targets will be achieved. The failure to reach past goals has been linked to poor investment and accountability, and poor translation of the goals to national levels. The new goals and solutions must address the real drivers of habitat and biodiversity loss as well as be easily scaled to country, regional and local levels to ensure progress is made. Unfortunately they likely won’t have the scope to address the systemic drivers of biodiversity loss as governments will find it difficult to take bold steps to protect biodiversity without significant mobilisation of the population towards this goal. If we do not step up and take action now to avoid the disastrous consequences of biodiversity loss, then environmental, economic and social disaster will force us to. The good news is that we know how to save biodiversity, and ourselves. The bigger question is whether we’ll use this knowledge to make significant strides towards protecting biodiversity and, for the first time, reach global biodiversity targets.