Our planet is facing an unprecedented crisis – the alarming collapse of biodiversity. There is mounting evidence that we may be experiencing the sixth mass extinction, with species vanishing at an accelerating rate.
The loss of biodiversity has far-reaching consequences for the ecosystems we rely on for our survival and will destabilise our world. As the UK Government has set out, biodiversity loss is nothing less than a national security threat, with the Government’s Integrated Review Refresh 2023 noting ‘climate change and biodiversity loss are important multipliers of other global threats’.
In this blog post, we will discuss the various indicators of this collapse, its causes, and the urgent need for transformative change to reverse this dangerous trend.
Signs of worldwide biodiversity Collapse
There is increasing consensus among scientists that the current rate of species loss is indicative of a mass extinction event, the likes of which have only occurred five times before in Earth's history. Wherever you look, there is copious evidence of this deeply worrying trend. Since 1970, there has been a staggering 68% decrease in population sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish globally. The farmland bird indicator in the UK has dropped to less than half its value in 1970, highlighting the devastating impact of agricultural intensification on bird population. And over the past two decades, the average change in the England priority species index has been a decline of approximately 2% per year.
This destruction can be put at humanity’s feet. A recent UN report has found that human activities have significantly altered three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment. From the exploitation of natural resources to pollution (plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980), humans have driven through terrible changes to our planet, changes which further exacerbates the loss of biodiversity through habitat degradation, alterations in species distribution, and the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.
The steady destruction of wildlife can suddenly tip over into total ecosystem collapse, as evidenced by the Earth's previous mass extinctions. For example, the Permian-Triassic extinction event, also known as the "Great Dying," occurred 252 million years ago and wiped out 95% of life on Earth. This mass extinction was driven by global heating resulting from massive volcanic eruptions. The research examining marine fossils found in China from before, during, and after the Great Dying revealed that healthy ecosystems rely on the complex interaction of plants, predators, and prey, with each group of similar species playing a unique role. As species went extinct, ecosystems were pushed to a tipping point from which they could not recover.
Worryingly, the ongoing loss of biodiversity today is even faster than during any of the planet's previous mass extinctions. With species disappearing at a faster rate than in any of Earth's past extinction events, the risk of another, more severe mass extinction is highly probable.
The need for total change
To prevent further biodiversity loss and avert a total ecosystem collapse, transformative change in our approach to conservation, resource use, and development is urgently needed. The UN report emphasises that negative trends in nature will continue to 2050 and beyond, except in policy scenarios that include transformative change.
Around the world, governments are introducing more dramatic solutions to stop biodiversity collapse. In England, Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) has been introduced as a major solution. But other strategies for transformative change include:
- Protecting and restoring ecosystems: Expanding protected areas, restoring degraded ecosystems, and promoting landscape-scale conservation efforts can help maintain and enhance biodiversity, while also providing valuable ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration and flood protection.
- Adopting sustainable agriculture and forestry practices: Encouraging agroecology, agroforestry, and other sustainable farming practices can help preserve biodiversity while increasing food production. Similarly, sustainable forestry practices, such as reduced-impact logging and the certification of sustainably harvested timber, can help minimise the impact of timber extraction on biodiversity.
- Reducing waste and pollution: Implementing measures to reduce waste generation, increase recycling, and minimise the release of pollutants into the environment can help alleviate the pressure on ecosystems and the species that inhabit them.
- Promoting sustainable consumption and production: Encouraging more responsible consumption patterns and the adoption of circular economy principles can help reduce the demand for natural resources and minimise the environmental impact of production processes.
- Addressing climate change: Mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and promoting climate resilience are crucial for safeguarding biodiversity and maintaining the health of ecosystems. Transitioning to renewable energy sources, improving energy efficiency, and preserving and restoring carbon sinks, such as forests and wetlands, are key actions to address climate change.
- Empowering Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities: Studies show that biodiversity is better preserved in areas managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities. Recognising and supporting their rights, knowledge, and conservation practices can contribute significantly to global biodiversity conservation efforts.
- Strengthening international cooperation and governance: Biodiversity conservation requires global cooperation, with nations working together to establish and enforce conservation policies, share resources and knowledge, and promote sustainable development.
The ongoing collapse of biodiversity is an urgent crisis that requires immediate and transformative action. The loss of species and ecosystems not only threatens the stability of our planet but also has profound implications for human well-being. As the evidence of biodiversity loss continues to mount, it is crucial that we recognise the interdependence between human societies and the natural world, and take decisive steps to safeguard our planet's biodiversity for future generations. By implementing transformative changes in our approach to conservation, resource use, and development, we can help ensure the survival of the countless species that share our planet and the ecosystems upon which we all depend.