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17 July 2020

A Biodiversity Challenge

2020, the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, is also a make or break year for biodiversity. We are experiencing a sixth mass extinction. After our failures to reach previous targets, we need to act urgently to solve the crisis. Time to take on the challenge!

Game on! Series: It’s Our Turn! (2/4)

Climate Change is the existential crisis of our lifetimes. Accumulating over generations, all our actions are leading humankind and the planet to ever increasing hardships. Nevertheless, it will actually be the current youth that will have to face most of the adversities to come.

The Game on! Series “It’s Our Turn!” is part of a wider drive to bring awareness to the current and future challenges around the climate change crisis and on what must be done to tackle it. In this second article, we will cover the challenge of the sixth mass extinction, the causes of this huge loss of biodiversity, and what we can do about it now.

Other stories in the Game on! "It's Our Turn!" Series:
Part 1 - The Youth Must Be Heard

By Josephine Bellman

IN MARCH OF 2020, STREETS emptied, noise died down, and skies cleared. Humans all around the world went into quarantine due to the Covid-19 pandemic. And as the human world became quieter, many people started to notice the sounds and sights of nature. Even in the bustling center of cities, birds were sighted in gardens, clearer waters showed wildlife beneath the surface, and nature moved gradually into spaces left empty. Carbon emissions plummeted to the levels of 2006. Unsurprisingly, scientists, environmentalists, and researchers started discussing the impacts of ‘working from home’ and quarantining on the environment. Many made comparisons between our response to the health crisis to our response to the climate crisis.

Others focused on the impacts on the biodiversity crisis, an environmental problem which is related to but distinct from climate change. Sightings of rejuvenated nature and the global pandemic prompted interest in the other creatures we share our planet with, and the ways we have impacted them. After all, many believe the pandemic originated in a wildlife trade market in China — one example of the several ways in which humans have come to exhort control over other species. 

Simply put, biodiversity is in decline. This is a fact we’ve known for decades. Now, there is little doubt that we are experiencing a mass extinction of global species. While we expect a number of species to go extinct every few thousand years, we are now losing species at a rate 1000 times greater than at any other time in recorded human history. In other words, we are experiencing a huge loss of biodiversity. But what exactly does this mean? What is the impact?

The Building Blocks of Biodiversity

It is important to understand that biodiversity is a broad term. Originally coined in 1985, “biodiversity” is a contraction of “biological diversity”. It refers to the variety of life on earth, in all its forms and interactions. Therefore, biodiversity can be viewed at different levels of biology: genetic diversity, species diversity, communities, and even ecosystems. But, as will be shown throughout this article, the most common measure of biodiversity is at the species level.

While many people might think of “biodiversity” as something reserved for science textbooks and wildlife documentaries, the truth is biodiversity affects most aspects of human life, including our very own existence! During the more than 4.5 billion years of Earth, the world has never had a richness of life compared to that of today. The absolute number of species is greater now, than ever before — and that includes us, Homo sapiens.

Biodiversity affects the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. For example, plants provide oxygen and bees pollinate plants. Coral reefs, which are biodiversity hotspots in the oceans, provide protection from cyclones and tsunamis. Many aspects of nature provide human health benefits, such as a fungus that grows on the fur of sloths and can fight cancer. Trees, supported by other species, can absorb pollution and help maintain a stable climate. For instance, tropical tortoises disperse the seeds of hardwood trees, which are most effective in removing carbon dioxide. These are just but a few examples of the numerous interactions that underpin the natural world. Each one is carefully balanced, reliant on another.

But if one piece falls, the whole ecosystem faces difficulties.

To picture this, imagine a game of Jenga. Each block is a species, and together their interactions make up an ecosystem. If one block is taken away, the ecosystem becomes less carefully balanced. If enough blocks are removed, the tower crumbles. 

Biodiversity functions much like a tower in a game of Jenga, relying carefully on an incredible number of balanced interactions between species. 

This is not dissimilar to the crisis of biodiversity for the last 11,000 years, coming from the times in which our ancestors developed agriculture. Since then, we have both, directly and indirectly, contributed to this mass extinction (where several species become extinct at once). Each species serves its ecological niche in the ecosystem. As some species go extinct, other species that they interact with in the ecosystem also go extinct. As a result, regional biodiversity collapses are likely occurring. 

Cheating the Rules of Nature

How are humans causing a mass global loss of biodiversity? Human activities — including creating habitat loss and fragmentation, illegal trade, overexploitation, introducing domestic and wild species, toxification, and pollution — have all played a major role. For example, one of the greatest declines of all animals — namely, amphibians — is due to a fungal disease, chytridiomycosis, thought to be spread around the world by the pet trade.

Due to the role of human impact, it is possible to see how climate change is interlinked. Human-caused climate change is also affecting the habitats of several species, which must either adapt or migrate to areas with more favourable conditions. According to estimates, we share this planet as home with around 8.7 million species. No doubt, our actions have made us an unpopular housemate.

Research has clarified just how massive and problematic our impact has been. A 2020 study by Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Peter H. Raven examined 29 400 species of terrestrial vertebrates and determined which were on the brink of extinction (meaning, fewer than 1000 individuals left). They found 515 species on the brink of extinction and that around 94% of the populations of 77 mammal and bird species on the brink have been lost in the last century. Their conclusion? The human-caused sixth mass extinction is likely accelerating.

This map shows the current distribution of 515 terrestrial vertebrate species on the brink (i.e., with under 1,000 individuals; Top) and 903 species with under 5,000 individuals (Bottom). The loss of biodiversity is a truly global phenomenon! Source: Ceballos et al., 2020

While this study focused on vertebrates, not all species have a backbone. In fact, more than 95% of known species don’t have one. And these, too, are disappearing at alarming rates. For example, parasites, organisms that live in or on an organism of another species and benefit at the other’s expense, are one of the most threatened groups on earth. One-third of them could be wiped out by climate change. These extinctions would have a domino effect of destabilizing ecosystems and unleashing unpredictable invasions of surviving parasites into new areas.

Clearly, the sixth mass extinction is no easy problem to solve. Biodiversity is a complex web of interactions and any single “move” has a series of knock-on effects. But it’s also worth acknowledging that, for thousands of years, human actions have been causing these extinctions. And more so now than ever before.

What’s more, while damage to the climate is theoretically reversible, nothing can be done to reverse species extinctions and ecological collapse. Many argue that for the biodiversity crisis, the stakes are higher, because of this irreversible characteristic.

2020: A Biodiversity “Make or Break” Odyssey

With extinction rates reaching 1000 times higher than historical ones, many have suggested it is too late to “unravel” our impact on biodiversity. In one assessment of nine thresholds in Earth systems that define a “safe operating space for humanity” called “planetary boundaries,” both biodiversity loss (measured as genetic diversity) and nitrogen pollution have been crossed — unlike CO2 levels, freshwater used and ozone losses. But others are insistent that we haven’t moved beyond the tipping point yet.

In fact, the UN Environment Programme termed 2020 “the crunch-year for biodiversity,” a make or break year in which key international meetings will set the tone and agenda for environmental action. Likened to the 2015 Paris agreement, the UN draft plan aims to introduce controls on invasive species and reduce pollution from plastic waste and excess nutrients by 50%. It is part of a larger framework that aims to ensure biodiversity is sustainably valued and conserved by 2050.

Enric Sala, explorer-in-residence at National Geographic, said: “If adopted, this target could achieve what our children have been calling on governments to do – listen to the science. If we are to stay below 1.5º C, prevent the extinction of 1 million species and the collapse of our life support system, we need to protect our intact wilderness, and ensure at least 30% of our land and oceans are protected by 2030.

Unsurprisingly, many of these biodiversity-focused international meetings have been held virtually or postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the Convention on Biodiversity COP 2015 was originally scheduled to take place from 15-28 October 2020, in Kunming, China. Now, it has been postponed to 2021. In this way, many have questioned whether the pandemic has halted our ability to make meaningful progress in undertaking the biodiversity challenge.

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a dramatic decrease in carbon emissions, unlike any previous recession, war or pandemic. Particularly, air travel has been impacted; globally the demand for jet fuel is down 65% year-on-year to April. 

Nevertheless, others have argued the pandemic has brought more awareness to issues of biodiversity, as was suggested by Elizabeth Mrema, executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, in an interview with Nature magazine: “Our interference, through deforestation, agricultural expansion, livestock intensification, and habitat fragmentation, has exposed wild animals and brought them into closer contact with people, which has resulted in the spillover of pathogens and zoonotic diseases, human-to-human transmission through trade and tourism, and the explosive pandemic we currently find ourselves in.” Having recognised this link, there is renewed focus on a ‘wildlife trade ban,” which, if imposed properly could be a major conservation effort.

Elizabeth Mrema is the first Tanzanian — and, overall, African — woman to lead the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.  Source: FAO/Giuseppe Carotenuto. 

Still, many have persisted to continue the biodiversity focus of this years’ international meetings. And as new meetings and international targets are created for a biodiversity post-2020 framework, we are all the more aware of our failures of the last efforts from 2010 — the Aichi targets. Only four of these twenty targets have shown good progress in the last decade. This begs the question: How can we ensure this “round” will be different?

Time to change the rules?

Some have suggested that biodiversity needs a single target similar to the 2° C target for climate action. Researchers, Mark D. A. Rounsevell, MIke Harfoot, Paula A. Harrison, Tim Newbold. Richard D. Gregory, and Georgina M. Mace, have suggested the ambitious, but achievable, near-term target of keeping described species extinctions to well below 20 per year over the next 100 years across all major groups — fungi, plants, invertebrates, and vertebrates — and across all ecosystem types — marine, freshwater, and terrestrial. Such a target would have the advantage of being communicable to a non-scientific audience, but would mask the considerable complexity and spatial variation in the status of biodiversity, as we described earlier.

For example, would all threatened species be given equal weight, or will those that are more important to livelihoods and ecosystem function be given priority for protection? Although the researchers have proposed that additional targets and nationally-focused efforts will need to accompany the global 20-species per year target, they believe it provides a chance to create a unified goal and integrate the biodiversity and climate change agendas. 

However, any one unified goal needs to be vigorously assessed by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). It is no easy task to simplify the complexity of biodiversity, as Elizabeth Mrema recognises. But she is also optimistic: “If we succeed, that will be the best result possible, because then it becomes a song everyone will sing, and that everybody can align with to deliver that one key message.” 

Thus, this year does provide a chance for us to reassess our goals, and efforts to protect biodiversity and contribute to biodiversity conservation. One important lesson from the failed Aichi targets? Ms Mrema suggests that, “unlike the previous goals, the major difference this time is that all stakeholders, including youth, business and Indigenous groups, have contributed to various iterations of the draft.”

New Agenda & Direction: It’s Our Turn!

As we develop a plan and targets for biodiversity in 2020, it is necessary to gain more understanding of tipping points that move biodiversity loss into ecological collapse. These will enhance our awareness of where to direct our efforts.

We also need political will. While many people have experienced the ‘joys of new creatures entering their garden during quarantine,’ it is imperative that this joy of nature becomes a focus of countries’ economic recoveries from the pandemics. Individual action can help, too, if people make sustainable choices in products and diet.

We should also take a step back from the game table; giving nature the space and protection it needs is a necessary part of biodiversity’s protection. Humans and their domesticated animals are some 30 times the living mass of wild mammals that must compete with them for space and resources. By designating wildlife reserves, we can protect these animals’ resources.

Finally, we need to emphasize the human-nature connection. Wildlife reserves only work if they don’t hinder local people from making a living. A ban on wildlife trade will only work if we can ensure people in Africa who rely on bushmeat are food secure. Biodiversity building blocks affect the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. It is important that this is remembered. Although we have not been a team/fair player, we are still a part of the web interactions.

It’s Our Turn! We must change tactics and become part of the team to accept the challenge and save biodiversity.

The Game on! Series “It’s Our Turn!” is part of a wider drive to bring awareness to the current and future challenges around the climate change crisis and to what must be done to tackle it. In the next articles, we will further discuss the issues of biodiversity conservation, adaptation and mitigation, and climate justice, all of them critical to understand in our struggle against climate change.

The ‘Game on!‘ project, funded by the DEAR Programme, is an initiative of a consortium of 10 partners from 8 Central and Eastern European countries to activate the global youth and react to the existential threat climate change represents for the future of humankind.

The project aims to activate this energy all across the region and the globe through a ‘gamification’ approach to initially tackle three core areas: Biodiversity Conservation, Adaptation and Mitigation, and Climate Justice.

Therefore, ‘Game on!’ has started developing different products — from geocaching games and board games to museum exhibitions and theatre plays — to help raise awareness on the problems of and solutions to climate change, as well as to push the massive mobilization of people to demand and make the changes we need.