There has been a proliferation of memes lately that depict a series of huge waves representing various crises.
The first wave represents the Covid-19 pandemic, followed by an economic recession, then a wave representing climate change, and finally, the largest wave of all, representing biodiversity collapse.
For those who have been increasingly concerned about climate change, it may be surprising to consider anything as being more pressing than global warming, which has seemed to encompass not just other ecological issues, but also the survival of humanity and the planet. The United Nations recently held its 15th international biodiversity conference in Montreal, but it received significantly less media attention than the COP27 climate conference held in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. This inequality may be understandable, as one of the main principles of climate action in the post-Paris agreement era is that reducing carbon emissions should be the primary environmental goal, and may even be a solution to other issues such as mass extinction, insect decline, air pollution, and global inequality.
The focus on climate change in recent years has led to the growth of the environmental movement, as it has somewhat overshadowed older concerns about conservation and has formed alliances with those who support technology, development, and even “eco-modernism.” This has also seen the rise of the “de-growth” movement, and climate centrists have argued that sentimentality and resistance to change among older activists is a significant obstacle to permitting reform.
However, this focus on climate change has also led to a shift in modern environmentalism, with the emphasis on climate rather than nature and a recognition that while the two are connected, they are distinct. This shift has pushed biodiversity further from the policy centre and suggests that addressing climate change alone may not be sufficient to “save the planet,” as some have suggested. This highlights the importance of also considering and addressing other environmental issues, such as biodiversity loss, in addition to climate change.
While reducing carbon emissions is necessary, it does not necessarily require significant harm to the environment. While new infrastructure, such as power lines, building codes, and transportation systems, will be required, much of it will simply be an update or replacement of what already exists. While there may be concerns about the increased mining required for a global shift to green energy, it is expected to only result in a modest increase in the mining sector and may even decrease overall mining.
However, climate change is not the only factor contributing to the loss of biological complexity on the planet. A group of biologists has referred to climate change as a “myopic lens” through which to view biodiversity decline and stated that it is not the primary threat, with habitat destruction and overexploitation being the main drivers of biodiversity loss.
It can be difficult to fully comprehend the extent of loss that has occurred even in recent history, due to our limited perspective from the present. However, according to the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report, which analysed data on approximately 32,000 species worldwide, vertebrate populations have declined by an average of 69% since 1970.
Since the 1980s, this decline has been more than 50%. In some regions, the decline in vertebrate populations has been even more severe. For example, the studied populations in Latin America and the Caribbean have fallen by an average of 94% since 1970, while freshwater species in rivers and lakes are estimated to have declined by 83%.
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (I.P.B.E.S.) estimates that as many as one million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction, including 13% of bird species, 25% of mammals, and 31% of sharks and rays. Insect populations have also declined, with possibly more than 50% of them disappearing since 1970.
Even the lowest estimates of global extinction rates suggest that they are significantly higher than would be expected without human influence, with some estimates suggesting rates thousands of times higher. Currently, 62% of global mammal biomass consists of livestock (animals raised by humans for consumption) while only 4% is made up of wild animals. Humans and their food make up 96% of all mammal life on Earth.
According to a paper published in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, only 3% of global ecosystems remain intact. The I.P.B.E.S. reports that three-quarters of all land environments have been degraded by human activity and about two-thirds of marine environments have been similarly impacted. Despite claims by climate skeptics that increased carbon dioxide is “greening” the world, a recent study found that the opposite is likely true, with the planet browning rather than greening.
It is likely that the current environmental issues will worsen before they improve.
The energy transition and the needs of the world’s poorest people will require significant resources, and while there have been some relative gains in decoupling growth from carbon and resource intensity, these gains have been limited.
While there have been some policy advances in conservation, including increased awareness among policymakers about the importance of protecting the world’s ecosystems, the predominant mood at the recent Montreal biodiversity conference was one of disappointment, as none of the less ambitious targets set for 2020 have been met. The Paris agreement on climate change, while imperfect, has brought about a cultural transformation and a greater understanding of the potential devastation that warming can cause to human society and not just animal and ecosystem health.
There does not seem to be a similar shift in public perception and understanding of biodiversity issues, which have been well-known for decades. Even the most ambitious proposals for biodiversity conservation, such as preserving 30% of the planet’s surface and protecting the Amazon rainforest from further deforestation, suggest a future that is more focused on “normalisation” rather than “conservation.”