Biodiversity on the front lines of global crises

Our planet is facing an environmental crisis, and biodiversity is on the front lines. As the theme for World Environment Day 2020, the importance of maintaining the Earth’s biodiversity will be in the spotlight in the lead up to the Sustainability Research and Innovation Congress 2021 (SRI2021) in Brisbane, Australia next year.

To achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, we must address the “current negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems,” says the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in their State of the World’s Forests 2020 publication. FAO calls for “transformational change” in the way we manage our environment and biodiversity. This transformational change needs collective action on innovative thought, technology, and policy. At SRI2021, biodiversity is a critical topic with half a dozen sessions featuring it as a key theme and many more highlighting the importance of its preservation.

The emergence of the novel coronavirus SARSCoV2 highlights animal-to-human infectious diseases which are associated with biodiversity loss. Experts agree that the number of zoonotic diseases is on the rise, say researchers at the Center for International Forest Research (CIFOR). With our continued rates of deforestation and biodiversity loss, wild animals have no choice but to forage closer to communities.

Despite our vast technological advances, humanity is dependent on diverse and healthy ecosystems for our survival. “Nearly everything we eat and drink, and many resources we depend on in our daily life are a product of ecosystems and the life forms that inhabit them,” says Dr Cornelia Krug from the University of Zurich and a member of the Future Earth community. According to recent research, at least 70% of drugs produced in the United States in the last 25 years are either natural plant products or derived from plants. What’s more, these biodiverse ecosystems contribute to the resilience and potential of socio-ecological systems to adapt to global changes, says Dr Krug. Recent research published in Nature from the Future Earth Network, has revealed that marine ecosystems with high biodiversity can mitigate the impact of ocean acidification.

However, the “instruments for conservation are frequently seen as counter-productive for human life and prosperity,” reflects Dr Alison Specht from the University of Queensland’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. The way we move towards conserving biodiversity must be effective but should also minimize the impact on prosperity and aim to inspire behavior change within our communities. Without societal acceptance, sustained action to preserve biodiversity will be threatened. In addition, the Global North must support Global South nations to make sustainable, long-lasting changes to their industry, agriculture, and business; along with learning from effective approaches from the Global South. 

So, what are we doing to protect the Earth’s biodiversity and the environment? Quite a lot, actually. Particularly when it comes to grass-roots and local movements but also more global initiatives, for example, developing sustainable food systems for our future, investigating the benefits of land sharing vs land sparing in farming and restoring damaged ecosystems. We have even taken to space to help preserve our biodiversity. Over recent years, says Dr Krug, “the European Space Agency has not only developed new technologies and methodologies to monitor biodiversity from space, it has also been providing researchers with data on climate and other earth surface changes, allowing them to better understand the drivers of biodiversity and ecosystem changes.” Still, we can go further. The creation and protection of the earth’s terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, through the establishment of parks and reserves, can further boost protections for biodiversity. 

One way for us to reduce our footprint on the planet is to shift away from a linear to a circular economy, one where the resources we take from the environment remain in use for longer and at the end of their life repurposed. A circular economy will have a significant impact on reducing waste and emissions, and it will relieve pressure on our natural resources. While a lot is happening for environmental protection, it is not enough to stop significant biodiversity loss, and we may still struggle to keep warming below 1.5c now that industry and ground transport is kicking back into gear. However, if our ecosystems are strong and healthy, the environment and our societies will be more resilient to global changes.

Innovations, shifts in behaviour and changes in policy, like those mentioned above, coupled with an “understanding how human societies value nature, knowing the resilience value of biodiversity will help in developing effective management and governance approaches for the conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems,” says Dr Krug.

Additionally, “it is clear that to achieve the AICHI and other biodiversity conservation goals, community ownership is fundamental, but how can this be achieved? Galvanizing commitment and effort immediately after an extreme event, for example, is relatively easy, but sustaining action over the long term is much harder,” says Dr Specht.

“We argue that it is imperative to integrate the social and economic well-being of the human community into conservation action at all scales – locally, nationally and internationally – and will explore various ways of doing this in our session at SRI2021,” she adds.

This World Environment Day, join us in calling for immediate and sustained action for the conservation of biodiversity. Not just for the sake of our environment, but because our lives depend on it.