Nature

The Race to Save Biodiversity

According to the UN, humanity has less than two years to do something about the rapid destruction of biodiversity among the plants, insects, mammals and birds which are critical to our global ecosystems, but it is likely already too late for most regions.

Aerial view of one of the most important ecosystems in the world, the rapidly vanishing Amazon Rainforest. Photographed near Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Photo: IIP Photo Archive, CC

As we have learned all too late, Earth is a fine-tuned interdependent ecosystem humanity has been rampantly destroying for too long.

Despite warnings, we have continued to pump fossil fuel emissions into our atmosphere, with terrifying results. Changing weather patterns and heat have driven massive drought intermingled with ever-more-powerful ocean and land storm systems. Melting ice has made the oceans swell, already causing coastal flooding and soon to engulf shores throughout the world. Plants grow thicker leaves in higher heat, making them less efficient at the photosynthetic reaction which converts carbon dioxide into oxygen. Crops are less healthy than before.

The next most neglected target is biodiversity.

In a recent interview, Dr. Cristiana Pașca Palmer, Executive Secretary of the UN Conventional on Biological Diversity, described the loss of biodiversity on the planet as “a silent killer”. She said, “It’s different from climate change, where people feel the impact in everyday life. With biodiversity, it is not so clear but by the time you feel what is happening, it may be too late.”

She should know. Her organization is responsible for fighting for the diversity of species across the planet.

Pașca Palmer will be one of the hosts at the UN Biodiversity Conference to be held from November 13-29, 2018, in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.

That event will feature special events on Africa Biodiversity on November 13 and a Conference of the Parties on November 14-15 on biodiversity in the energy and mining, infrastructure, manufacturing and processing industry, and health sectors. It will follow with a main meeting with representatives of the Conference’s 196 member states. The goal of that meeting is nothing less than renegotiating a new draft contract between the human race and the ecosystems and wildlife of the world.

As with Climate Change, every meeting of this kind has begun with high hopes, only to have them dumped aside as nations failed to meet the commitments they had made in the past. Eight years ago, the nations held a summit an agreed on what was called the Aichi Protocol. According to those plans, the member nations pledged they would establish sustainable fishing in their areas, cut in half the loss of natural habitats, and increase nature preserves around the world from their then-current 10% of the land to 17% -- by 2020. The nations have not just fallen behind in their commitments. Worse, they have created what are jokingly referred to as “paper reserves”, areas that are supposed to be protected by are lacking any security to keep them safe. Some countries, like the U.S. and Canada have not only not created the necessary new preserves, but are doing all they can to destroy areas previously protected.

This is also sadly the kind of cause which is easy to drop low on a local governmental agenda in a time when populations have descended to a primal level of fear, anger and violence and select populist rulers who resonate with those base negative emotions but then engage in actions that only worsen conditions. Still, at least there has been some lip-service from almost every member of the United Nations, so at least the illusion of engagement is there.

There are in fact only two representative UN states which have decided not to participate. One is the religious state the Vatican, which speaks about the environment while ensuring doctrine that results in gross overpopulation and environmental destruction. The other is the United States, a global leader in stupdity. With Donald Trump doing everything he can to avoid even saying the word biodiversity or the phrase “climate change”, as well as his Cabinet’s relentless drive to destroy the nation’s existing nature preserves, it is not a surprise that America will not be represented at the conference.

For Cristiana Pașca Palmer, that is sad because the evidence is there that a focus on biodiversity has been able to help recover ecosystems in some cases. Africa and Asia have notable examples of the recovery of certain species versus just a few years ago. Asian forests have increased by 2.5% overall, despite the rapid destruction of rainforests in places such as Indonesia. Marine protected areas such as those Canada and the United States have claimed to put in place have broadened the theoretic protection of ocean species.

Those are unfortunately small spots of light in a depressing overall biodiversity picture. Habitat destruction world wide continues at a rapid clip, invasive species are moving in to wipe out other badly needed species, and human-driven chemical pollution is worse than ever. Via these and other causes such as climate change, projections say Africa could lose about half of its birds and mammals by 2050. Related projections say Asian fisheries could completely collapse in the same time frame. When those ecosystems go, their loss – in both plants and sea life – will dramatically affect the planet’s means of absorbing excess carbon. When that happens, more carbon stays in the atmosphere, the planet will heat ever faster, and even more destruction will happen to earth’s living things.

Pașca Palmer does see some hope from growing support from both science and business to do something about what is happening. Another glimmer of possibility came in a meeting held by the UN last month which showed that a combination of land restoration and attention to soil, forest protection, and massive tree planting could provide far more carbon absorption than had been previously calculated.

It is unclear whether what the world’s nations will choose to do at the upcoming summit later this month – and afterwards – will be enough to make a significant dent in the rapid biodiversity losses around the world. It may, however, with other leaders taking a cue from Cristiana Pașca Palmer, help slow at least some critical ecosystems from slipping completely over the brink before they have any chance of adapting to a much hotter world.