This Isn’t the Year We Thought We Would Be Having
World Environment Day (WED) has been celebrated on the 5th of June each year since 1974. It is the United Nations’ flagship day for promoting worldwide awareness and action for the environment. This year the theme is biodiversity.
Within human history, there has never been a more important time to address global biodiversity loss and the sub-theme this year – It’s Time for Nature – is, well, timely.
This year, 2020, should have been a super year for the environment. In some ways it unintentionally has been, but let’s come back to that. Right now we should be preparing for the two major global environment conferences – the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference (FCCC COP26) and the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity Conference (CBD COP15). Both should have been happening at the end of this year. COP26 has been postponed by a year to November 2021, and we have not yet had confirmation of when COP15 will happen (although the official website says that it will still take place in China). These events should have been agreeing new global frameworks for addressing climate change and biodiversity loss, respectively. They are not. And yet we are still in the midst of a climate emergency and biodiversity crisis. The planet continues to get hotter and more extreme (wetter in some places, drier in others), and we continue to lose wildlife at an unprecedented pace.
Sixth Mass Extinction
Recent reports – State of Nature, The European Environment: State and Outlook 2020, IPBES’s Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, WWF’s Global Futures – provide the evidence for an ongoing local and global decline of nature. We are living through a sixth mass extinction event, and it may even be accelerating.
A fifth of Britain’s mammals are at high risk of extinction, and that rises to a quarter globally. Germany has lost 75% of its flying insects since 1989. The story repeats for amphibians, fish, sharks, birds, forests – you get the picture.
Our own Climate Emergency and Biodiversity Crisis: The Facts and Figures briefing paper notes:
“The recent Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) states that the key drivers of biodiversity decline are:
- Changes in land and sea use
- Direct exploitation of organisms
- Climate change
- Invasive alien species
The combined effects of these human activities have put an estimated one million species at risk of extinction, threatening the stability of ecosystems and the services we receive from them. For example, more than 75% of global food crop types rely on animal pollination, meaning declines in pollinator diversity and abundance have severe implications for human food production.”
Alexander Stafford MP wrote in The Times in March: “We all want a greener planet to live on. From lower carbon emissions to cleaner rivers and healthier soils, our planet is our greatest asset. From my experience working for the World Wildlife Fund, I know that as well as the priceless prize of thriving wildlife, there are great benefits for our economy, people and our health. A healthy environment gives us protection from flooding, clean and plentiful water to drink, healthy air to breathe, and vibrant green spaces in which to restore our mental and physical well-being. It also supports a vast range of industries, from tourism and farming, to fishing and forestry, which in turn create and sustain thousands of jobs across the country.”
There are many health and well-being benefits from a functioning and resilient natural environment. We know that contact with green space is good for us, and half of all drugs used for cancer treatment are from plants or plant-inspired compounds. Biodiversity loss diminishes the opportunities to find new drugs in the future. Better management of the natural world may actually help us prevent future pandemics by reducing the disturbance of species like bats that can naturally carry high virus loads.
Richard Horton, Editor-in-chief of the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, noted in a comment piece in 2017 that: “If we are concerned about human health, we should also be concerned about the health of the biosphere that we inhabit. It is rare to hear health advocates talk about biodiversity. Health and climate change is now fixed in the lexicon of global and public health. But biodiversity remains largely invisible. It’s time to make protecting the biodiversity of our planet the next great cause of planetary health.”
It’s the Economy, Stupid
Way back in 1997, Constanza et al. estimated that the minimum average annual economic value of the biosphere was US$33 trillion. Total global GDP in 1997 was around US$45 trillion. The estimate was updated in 2011 for a total global ecosystem services value of between US$125 and 145 trillion per year. The authors noted that “global estimates expressed in monetary accounting units are useful to highlight the magnitude of eco-services” and that “these services must be (and are being) valued, and we need new, common asset institutions to better take these values into account.”
We’ve had The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), a global initiative with the “principal objective to mainstream the values of biodiversity and ecosystem services into decision-making at all levels” by “following a structured approach to valuation that helps decision-makers recognize the wide range of benefits provided by ecosystems and biodiversity, demonstrate their values in economic terms and, where appropriate, capture those values in decision-making.”
And currently underway is the Dasgupta Review on the Economics of Biodiversity.
There are dangers with putting economic values on complex systems that we don’t fully understand, but at least it shows the enormous value that the natural world does provide.
Such a Small Thing Can Change So Much
We all know why COP15 and COP26 aren’t taking place this year. And that is a delay to addressing climate change and biodiversity loss. But for all the economic and social ills of Covid-19 – and they are heart-breaking – there have been benefits for the environment.
We’ve seen a huge increase in engagement with the natural world, including in the local area around our office in Winchester (although none of us are actually there at the moment).
The current pandemic has opened the door to much discussion about a ‘green recovery’ and ‘building back better’. This is an opportunity that we missed with the 2008 financial crisis. We must do better this time.
Different Sectors, Same Direction
We all need to play our part, across sectors and across the globe.
Governments and politicians recognise the issue and support change, but we need to make it happen.
The UK Government’s 25-Year Environment Plan makes its ambition to “become the first generation to leave [the] environment in a better state than we found it and pass on to the next generation a natural environment protected and enhanced for the future.”
The devolved nations are no less ambitious. There is the 2020 Challenge for Scotland’s Biodiversity, Wales has the world-leading Environment and Well-Being of Future Generations Acts, and Northern Ireland has its own 2020 biodiversity strategy.
The Republic of Ireland has the National Biodiversity Action Plan 2017-2021.
The European Commission (EC) set out, just last month, its plans for restoring and protecting ecosystems over the next 10 years. The EC plans to protect at least 30% of EU land and seas by 2030, and overhaul the agriculture sector by encouraging agroecology. The strategy has a budget of at least €20 billion per year. EU member states will be asked to designate new protected zones and ecological corridors by 2023. The strategy also commits to promoting green infrastructure and nature-based solutions, as well as planting three billion additional trees across the EU by 2030. And a separate plan to protect marine ecosystems resources is expected in 2021.
I’ve already mentioned TEEB and the Dasgupta Review above. There is also the 2020 Davos manifesto for a better kind of capitalism, which states that: “A company […] acts as a steward of the environmental and material universe for future generations. It consciously protects our biosphere and champions a circular, shared and regenerative economy.”
PwC recognises that “the financial risks associated with the loss of biodiversity will become increasingly important” and that “as climate change and the loss of biodiversity mutually reinforce each other, decision-makers face a huge challenge to respond to this double crisis, as the risk of financial market instability significantly increases.”
Over 60 fashion brands have signed up to the Fashion Pact, a global coalition of companies in the fashion and textile industry including their suppliers and distributors, all committed to a common core of key environmental goals in three areas: stopping global warming, restoring biodiversity and protecting the oceans. The Fashion Pact was presented to Heads of State at the G7 Summit in Biarritz in August 2019.
We all know about the amazing work that wildlife and conservation charities and others do to engage and inspire people about nature. Then there are also organisations in agriculture like the Nature Friendly Farming Network, student-led initiatives like Teach the Future, and there are plans for a GCSE in Natural History.
There are many, many others – some doing and achieving more – but the important thing is that we all want to restore and enhance nature.
An (Unfortunate) Opportunity
Covid-19 has been, and continues to be, a terrible experience. But there is an opportunity as governments direct and support the economic recovery. This recovery must be a green recovery, which includes the restoration and enhancement of biodiversity.
Some politicians are acutely aware of the importance and urgency, especially in the current pandemic context. Caroline Lucas MP tabled an Early Day Motion (EDM) on pandemic risks and the destruction of nature on 4 May 2020. The EDM “calls on the Government to adopt a One Health approach at all levels of decision-making, recognising the complex interconnections between the health of people, animals, plants and our shared environment; and further calls on the Government to embark on a fundamental system-wide reorganisation to end business as usual and emerge from the crisis stronger and more resilient by protecting the natural world of which humans are a part.” If you live in the UK, ask your MP to sign up.
However we come out of the pandemic, we need to ensure that we take the opportunity to do things better. There will be actions that can indirectly benefit nature like nurturing zero-carbon industries and helping high-energy industries to be more efficient, supporting active transport (walking and cycling) over internal combustion engine cars, funding nature engagement and education, and shifting support to more environmentally-friendly farming. Other actions can be more direct – straight up funding for biodiversity management and enhancement.
And at CIEEM of course we too will play our part in influencing change and building back better. Our Action 2030 working group continues to forge a way for the sector to address the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis. We have a newly set up Planning for Recovery working group, and are engaged with delivering Biodiversity Net Gain and exploring Environmental Net Gain. We are engaging on new agriculture schemes that provide public benefits, and we still intend to be directly involved with COP15, COP26, and the IUCN World Conservation Congress that has also been postponed. We have also contributed to the Society for the Environment’s World Environment Day campaign.
The online CIEEM Summer Conference 2020 will be on ‘The Climate and Biodiversity Crises: Professional Approaches and Practical Action’ on 21 July 2020. Our Autumn Conference will focus on the green recovery.
The September edition of In Practice magazine is on the theme of ‘Climate Action and Green Recovery’. We have extended the deadline for article submissions until Friday 26 June 2020. Please do consider submitting an article on how you and/or your organisation are addressing the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis in these unprecedented times. Please see the website for author guidance, or contact the Editor at GillKerby@cieem.net.
We also provide the secretariat for the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Nature, which has its next event on ‘The Global Deal for Nature and a Green Recovery’ on 25 June 2020 from 15:00 to 16:30. Book on to join the virtual event for free. [Edit: This event has now been moved to 2 July 2020.]
As individuals we also have to do our bit. As ecology and environmental professionals we play our part in managing, protecting and enhancing the natural world, but we can also think about our personal lives.
We can do things to directly help like wildlife gardening and wildflower window boxes, and supporting conservation organisations with our time and money. We can also think about the indirect impacts: water and energy usage; what we choose to buy (or not buy) from food to clothes to electronics; and how and where we travel.
We can raise these issues with our friends and family, letting them understand the value that biodiversity has – directly linking what is important to them and how those things are supported by biodiversity. I can recommend our Patron Tony Juniper’s book What Has Nature Ever Done For Us? as an enjoyable and accessible read. We know people are interested; according to Google Trends, in the 90 days up to Earth Day on 22 April 2020, search interest in “How to live a sustainable lifestyle” increased by more than 4,550%.
And talk to your local and national political representatives, let them know that this is an important issue for you.
A Final Thought
In all of this I am reminded of a quote from the economist E.F. Schumacher: “Modern man talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side.”
Nature is all around us, we are part of it and it is part of us. We have to work with it, not against it.
And on that note, look out for our briefing paper on nature-based solutions coming soon.
Jason Reeves CEnv MCIEEM is CIEEM’s Head of Policy and Communications. He has over 14 years’ experience in the sector.
Blog posts on the CIEEM website are the views and opinions of the author(s) credited. They do not necessarily represent the views or position of CIEEM. The CIEEM blog is intended to be a space in which we publish though-provoking and discussion-stimulating articles.