This year, World Environmental Day (5 June) calls for urgent action to protect biodiversity. Our planet is losing biodiversity at an alarming rate, with potentially detrimental consequences for nature and ourselves.
However biodiversity loss is somewhat neglected in the political sphere or in public debate, only periodically gaining focus such as when fires destroyed huge swaths of the Amazon Rainforest in August 2019, or when the last male Northern White Rhino died. Yet, protecting biodiversity might actually be becoming an even more urgent problem than other pressing global problems such as climate change.
Biodiversity encompasses all life on Earth, including plants, animals, insects, bacteria, corals, fungi, as well as the ecosystems in which they live. It refers to all of the different species (currently 8-9 million), as well as the number of individuals within a species.
Vitally important for biodiversity are the so-called biodiversity hotspots – the Earth’s most biologically diverse areas, such as the Tropical Andes, the Guinean forests, and Madagascar. But biodiversity can also be found much closer to home – in nature reserves, parks, and even in your back garden.
We have already lost a lot of biodiversity in the past few decades. The WWF’s Living Planet Report 2018 estimates that there has been an overall decline of 60% in the population sizes of vertebrates between 1970 and 2014.
And the threats to global biodiversity are increasing. In its 2019 landmark report on the state of global biodiversity, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) warned that:
“An average of around 25 per cent of species in assessed animal and plant groups are threatened, suggesting that around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken to reduce the intensity of drivers of biodiversity loss. Without such action, there will be a further acceleration in the global rate of species extinction, which is already at least tens of hundreds of times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years.”
Coral reefs , for example, are some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. About 25% of all marine species depend on healthy coral reefs for shelter, to find food, to reproduce and to rear their young. However, coral reefs are severely threatened by pollution, coastal development, unsustainable fishing practices and climate change (which is raising ocean temperatures and causing ocean acidification). About half of the world’s shallow water coral reefs are already gone, and without urgent action, they could disappear completely.
The cause of biodiversity loss is easy to identify: it’s down to human activity. Human activity has significantly changed three quarters of land surface and two thirds of ocean area. Roughly speaking, there are five direct drivers of global environmental change:
- Changes in land and sea use: for example, when forest area is converted in agricultural or built-up land.
- Direct exploitation of organisms: industrial fishery, for example, has led to depletion of fish stocks, and hunting and poaching have led many wild species to (the brink of) extinction.
- Adverse impacts of climate change: increasing storms, droughts, and extreme temperatures degrade habitats and negatively affect species.
- Pollution: think, for example, of the birds and fishes killed by plastics accumulating in the oceans.
- Increased trade and higher human mobility: domestic plant and animal species are threatened by invasive species transported around the globe by human activity.
The most important causes underlying these drivers of biodiversity loss are human population and consumption. First, human population has grown from 1 billion in 1800, to 7.7 billion in 2019, and is projected to further increase to about 10 billion in 2050. Second, although there are large variations in consumption patterns across regions, consumption has exploded over the last century, especially in the developed world.
Together, population and consumption growth have resulted in a tripling of global human impact on the natural environment since 1961, and humankind’s current demand on natural resources is 70% higher than the Earth can sustain. This results in the increased land use, pollution, and climate change mentioned above, resulting in a global degradation of the quality of the natural environment in which we live.
Why is biodiversity loss so problematic? Why should we care so much about protecting biodiversity? There are two main reasons.
We use nature as a means to our ends. All human activity ultimately depends on services provided by nature, such as food production, water and air filtration, carbon storage, and the aesthetic, non-material value of nature (such as spiritual experiences, mental health benefits, learning opportunities, and creative inspiration).
Think back on coral reefs. They deliver many services to us, such as providing people with nutrition and livelihoods (through sustaining marine life), protecting coastal regions against storms, and holding significant aesthetic value (for example, in BBC’s The Blue Planet).
Biodiversity is important because it protects the integrity of ecosystems. For example, without bees and other pollinators, we would have difficulties pollinating flowering plants, on which we heavily depend for food and other things.
So from this perspective, we should protect biodiversity, because without it, ecosystems would be much likely to collapse under outside threats and no longer be able to deliver these services to us.
Many people would be uneasy with focussing only on the value that nature has for us. Even if we were able to find other ways to get all the services provided by nature, many people would still feel there is something fundamentally wrong with nature disappearing.
They are moved by the plight of polar bears who have lost much of their habitat due to global warming. They would oppose the destruction of a park or forest for the construction of a shopping mall or an industrial site. They disapprove of killing animals – especially emblematic animals, such as seals and mountain lions and elephants.
These people value nature not just as a a means to an end, but as an end-in-itself. Nature should thrive and continue to thrive for its own sake. Importantly, this also entails that interference with nature can only be allowed under certain conditions. In each case, from this perspective, protecting biodiversity is important in and for itself.
How can we halt and even reverse biodiversity loss? This seems a very difficult problem to address: often, we are talking about processes that happen on a global scale, such as climate change. Or there are technical issues involved, such as the identification of biodiversity ‘hotspots’ and the most effective ways to protect them. And it involves large sectors of the economy, such as agriculture, fishery, energy and transportation.
Addressing biodiversity loss thus seems to be the job of national governments and international institutions. Yet, there is also a lot that you, as individual, can do:
- Contact politicians to make sure they do their job and work towards the goals set out by the Convention on Biological Diversity, the most important international treaty on biodiversity. The main members of the UK government responsible for environmental issues on the national and international level are Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice, and Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Alok Sharma (for matters regarding climate change).
- Take political action: join protests, or sign petitions. For example, in Bavaria (a state in Germany), a petition persuaded the government to pass an important law to save the bees.
- Support environmental organisations, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and others, which do vital work in researching the natural environment and raising awareness, but they also organise public events, and try to put pressure on governments around the world to take more action to protect biodiversity. You can support them by making a donation, becoming a member, buying their products, or becoming a volunteer. These and other organisations.
- Educate yourself and others on the importance of biodiversity conservation, on local plant and animal life, and on important wildlife habitats in your area. For example, you can attend some of the World Environment Day’s online events. Share this knowledge with people around you to increase public awareness.
- Take care when you are out for a walk or bike ride in nature, try to avoid disturbing animals, stay on the paths, and pick up your trash.
- Encourage wildlife in your own garden by planting native and pollinator friendly species. The Royal Horticultural Society has compiled a great website with some easy things you can do in your own outdoor space if you have one.
- Get involved in your local community: you can support local initiatives, contact your local government or improve some neglected areas (such as roadsides or unoccupied plots of land) in your neighbourhood yourself.
In general, humanity has to reduce its collective demand on our natural environment to halt biodiversity loss, but also to tackle climate change and other global environmental problems. There are a lot of actions you can take to help with this.
- Reduce your water consumption by taking (short) showers, turning off the taps, getting a low-flush toilet, and capturing rainwater.
- Reduce chemical products: for cleaning and grooming, a lot of affordable non-chemical alternatives are available.
- Use public transportation or travel by bike, and choose nearby holiday destinations.
- Buy less stuff, use stuff until the end of its lifecycle and recycle it.
- Reduce your consumption of meat and dairy products (which have a very high impact on nature in terms of resource usage and waste).
- Reduce single-use plastics: bring your own coffee cup, water bottle, and reusable grocery bags.
- Buy local food and products.
- Reduce your energy usage by lowering the heating of your house and turning off electrical equipment when it is not in use.
Individual actions may seem to barely make any difference to global environmental problems such as biodiversity loss. However, large changes are constituted by small choices. And these choices matter, not only for the result they may have – which might be tiny in the large scale of things – but they also matter for how we want to live. Taking such small actions makes us part of the solution and gives meaning to our lives.
Wouter is a lecturer in Global Ethics in the Department of Philosophy. His research interests include climate change, environmental sustainability, social justice, cosmopolitanism and bioethics.