Energy and EnvironmentThe Risk Radar

July 2019: Biodiversity loss

More species than ever before in human history are threatened with extinction. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) recently published its findings that around 1 million animal and plant species of the totally estimated 8 million animal and plant species on Earth (including 5.5 million insect species) are now threatened with extinction, and the rate of extinction is increasing. Therewith, the health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. The report assesses changes over the past five decades, providing a comprehensive picture of the relationship between economic development pathways and their impact on nature. The causes are changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution and invasive alien species.

What does it mean that earth is losing a large share of its species? Biodiversity is more than a sum of individual species. For instance, more than half of the carbon dioxide produced by humans is stored by nature on land and in the oceans, but without large nature reserves, the temperature on earth would rise much faster. The fact that rainforests are disappearing at a rapid pace increases the climate problem. Biodiversity can thus be seen as a kind of insurance policy to cope with changes such as the ones linked to climate change. More crucially, biodiversity is humanity’s most important life-supporting safety net. For instance, as ground organisms such as fungi and worms die out, the soil becomes fruitless and thus the basis of the ecosystem is lost. Similar is the case of insects, such as pollinating bees. As this interconnected web of life on earth gets smaller and increasingly frayed, it’s stretched almost to breaking point. This constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world, eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.

The problem is that we do not know what would happen if all these species were to disappear. As we wrote earlier, natural ecosystems can be considered “complex systems”. Outcomes are difficult to model because of the many and insecure dependencies, relationships and interactions between the parts that form the whole. Thus, we do not have the skills and knowledge to intervene in natural ecosystems, which are highly complex and have a high degree of uncertainty. We thus cannot even fully assess the value of a large biodiversity, let alone the risks of losing it.

Implications:

– The IPBES report states that current negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems will undermine progress towards 80% of the assessed targets of the Sustainable Development Goals related to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans and land (SDGs 1, 2, 3, 6, 11, 13, 14 and 15). Loss of biodiversity thus proves to be not only an environmental issue, but also a developmental, economic, security, social and moral issue.

– According to the report, we still have the means to ensure a sustainable future for people and the planet. Nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably if we achieve “transformative change” (a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social domains). Policies to preserve biodiversity are gaining momentum, as we wrote earlier, but it is questionable whether this will drive the transformative change needed.

– Loss of biodiversity will continue until 2050 and beyond in all of the policy scenarios explored in the report (except in case of transformative change), due to the projected impacts of increasing land-use change, exploitation of organisms and climate change.

RISKS MARKED ON THE RISK RADAR AS NUMBER 2: food security, climate disasters

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