Why the biodiversity crisis is worse than the global economic crisis: There's no bailout for this one

Bob Bloomfield talks about why the biodiversity is our greatest economic crisis and why conserving it is critical to our survival.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

Bob Bloomfield will make you worry about the state of biodiversity — and will inspire you to do something about it. The urgency in his voice is very telling, as he describes to me the price we have to pay if we don't act now. Already, the global biodiversity crisis costs more than the economic crisis. And it is considered by scientists to be as great a threat as climate change.

As the coordinator of the UK partner response to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity 2010 International Year of Biodiversity, Bloomfield is largely organizing the biodiversity engagement activities in the UK which, he is optimistic, will increase people's awareness of the grave situation of biodiversity loss.

But time is limited. Many scientists estimate that the loss of biodiversity is happening 1,000 times faster than it should be because of human impact. The loss of species is irreversible and this damage affects every aspect of your life from your water to your food to your medicine. Fortunately, he says, there are many ways you can choose to make a different to one of the most significant issues facing society today.

Bloomfield talks about the UK's involvement in raising awareness to the biodiversity crisis, which is the focus of the International Year.

When did the UK get involved in setting up biodiversity awareness program?

The International Year was established by the UN General Assembly to help mark 2010 the year that the UN Convention On Biological Diversity will be renegotiated in Nagoya Japan in October. The UK like the other 193 signatory countries to the conventions has a biodiversity action plan, and also like them has only partially met the target to reverse the loss of species.

When the UN called upon all the signatory countries to encourage a wider debate about the issues, the Natural History Museum was in a position to take a lead. In the previous year it had help lead a partnership of diverse organizations to celebrate Darwin’s ideas and theory of evolution for the bicentenary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of Origin of Species in 2009. Darwin’s work lies at the heart of our modern understanding of ecology and biodiversity, and having built this partnership to celebrate the past achievement of Darwin’s Origin of Species it planned to look towards the Future of Species in the light of the political importance of 2010.

By expanding the partnership, refocusing it on the current issues of biodiversity loss, more than 380 partners in the UK are now collaborating to raise awareness of the issue, working through a joint, umbrella, structure coordinated by the Museum – www.biodiversityislife.net. For the international year, the partnership extends from Museums and Galleries, to local councils, partners in industry, charities and NGOs, and to many other sectors – all drown together by a common concern around the tragic costs of biodiversity loss.

Already are more than 500 events are planned in the UK alone. The fact that the partnership expanded from 140 organizations in the Darwin year to three times that number in 2010 is a positive indicator of the scale of interest and concern.

What are people missing about biodiversity?

Most people have tended to regarded the loss of biodiversity as an unfortunate thing to be happening, and often disturbed by the aesthetic consequences of human impact, but until recently many people have not really been aware of its true significance. Conservation management has often relied on fundraising as a charitable activity, when in reality, there is a major imperative that goes to the heart of the future of human society. The way forward has to be a much more robust response.

What is the cost of the loss of biodiversity?

Economists now estimate that global biodiversity losses cost trillions of dollars annually and directly affects the quality of human life and future wellbeing. A large portion of the losses of habitats and species - is irreversible, a permanent extinction of the Natural Capital that would have been providing vital services for generations to come. Part of the reason people haven’t caught on is because the value of the services provided free by nature, such as the cleaning of our air and water and the provision of fertile soil simply haven’t been accounted for – they do not figure in a country's GDP, and without being valued, there is no emphasis on protecting these vital services and the living systems which underpin them. Biodiversity loss is a major crisis — and is bigger than global bank crisis. It’s a permanent loss, and therefore and ethical issue – what we destroy now, we take away from future generations. The scale of this issue has not been understood and has not been shared.

What is the scale of the biodiversity crisis?

Biodiversity loss in intimately linked to the two other massive issues facing people today. The first is with human sustainable development, at the heart of this issue, for a safer, secure and wealthy outlook for people, is the provision of sustainable resources – and we rely on biodiversity to provide these, to protect our future resources of food, textiles, pharmaceuticals, building materials and a host of other products drawn from nature.

The second issue is environmental degradation, including and especially climate change. In this latter case – climate change – there is a double issue. Firstly, we will need to adapt with climate change. As environments change we will need to look at different crops for example, and it’s the biological resources in nature which we will need to adapt. Equally important is the ability of biodiversity to mitigate against the impact of the carbon we release. Carbon is naturally sequestered in the environment, fixed in the wood of forests, the coral of reefs, the peat of bogs, and the planktonic oozes of the oceans. Nature should be our greatest asset but we are degrading it instead – and this is at our peril.

We need to reengage with the significance of biodiversity to make a difference in environmental management. The loss of genetic resources affects how we produce new crops, medicines and the creation of novel products in industry. It undermines the ecological systems which protects the natural and human environment against rapid change, slowing for example the risks of drought or flood and the impacts of other extreme weather events – such a mangroves providing protection for coastal communities against the impact of tsunamis.

Aren't we starting to understand that sustainability is worth investing in?

People have begun to see the issue, and the potential to operate differently. For example many in the financial sector are seeing that we may mimic the cycles of nature in an economic carbon cycle. My transferring the charges for pollution from greenhouse gas release from fossil fuels into offsets invested in the protection of forest. This was proposed in the Climate Change COP15 in Copenhagen, but there wasn’t an inter-governmental agreement that would allow the program to develop quickly. However the thinking is still there and initiatives are emerging in the private and investment banking sectors to look at securing assets in protecting forest and encouraging the renewal of degraded land by reforestation.
It is also recognized that a decade ago the Convention of Biological Diversity was achieved by a political mechanism which was not sufficiently linked to science evidence, and a consequences of this was rather poor targets being established. There is no doubt about the risks of loss, and now both the scientific evidence and the economic analysis of the costs of loss are much more robust. However there remains a real need for much better integration between science and policy making – to deliver more meaningful targets which will pave the way for better action in the years ahead.

Are there hot spots in biodiversity that we do prioritize?

Biological diversity is being eroded by human impact across the globe, and we need a far sounder understanding across human activity that biodiversity loss is one leg of a 3-legged stool , the other two being the sustainable development and environment/climate management issue I referred to earlier. Only by taking it this seriously and bringing it to the heart of human planning will we really make the difference which has to be made.

We also have to make priorities, and how we do this is being discussed. There are two obvious approaches, but these are part of a bigger picture.

The first is to preserve areas of species richness. The other is to preserve areas which are, by being degraded, raising the risk of disaster to human communities. In the first example there are a primary regions where there is high genetic and species diversity and where the complexity of ecological roles are significant. For example the forests in Costa Rica and other parts of the tropics, and their marine equivalents in coral reef systems. Here among other things is the high genetic variety which offers us hope for medicines and future food stocks. In the second case we need to prioritize areas because the consequences of their loss will have a direct impact on humans.

Look for example at mangrove loss, happening both in places that are prime spot for tourist developments such as Florida or Thailand, and where the need for cash GDP is driving the aquaculture shrimp industry. The damage that is caused by this ecocide is significant; Mangroves are important fish nurseries, so by destroying them you impact the local fishing industry. Eroding the mangrove often leads to sediments moving out across the coastal shelf and damaging the fishing resources of coral reefs again impacting local environment and economy. Furthermore mangrove provides fuel wood and other resources for local people, and protect from hazard such as tsunami, and sea level damage. When you add up what is being lost, and you also take away the government subsidies which prop-up the developments, the economics of these industries look very differently, indeed for the countries they are not profitable, instead they are building problems; such as leaving traditional communities without the natural wealth they relied upon, a problem which falls back on governments and seeds unrest.

Can people make a difference?

Biodiversity loss affects everyone. But everyday it is increasingly realized and parts of society are responding. For example utility companies that manage watersheds are seeing how biodiversity helps provide clean water, by protecting biodiversity they reduce their water-treatment costs, biodiversity protection is good for business. This is part of a much bigger need, to think ecologically, and to realize that by working with nature we can do more sustainably, and for the longer-term, than believing we can go on disregarding it until our basic needs, clean air, water, and food come at an every increasing cost.

But we should also see there is an appetite to do things differently, people are changing towards greener lifestyles’ – with a little care reducing our footprint is an important step. Many people are getting engaged with monitoring their local biodiversity, another step to becoming custodians of it. People coming together to do ‘bioblitze’ surveys with scientists is a real indicator they want to, and enjoy, being engaged. There is also an important role to play as individual citizens and voters, we did to mobilize and be vocal, we can make a difference in how the issue is addressed by governments, we need to ensure policy makers have the mandate for change and can respond accordingly. Many politicians are increasingly aware and would welcome this popular understanding and call for action. Furthermore the knowledge of biodiversity, and the potential to create green industry around managing all of the ecosystem services it provides could help boost our economy, help get us focused on more sustainable economic solutions, and to step away from the mantra, and blind alley of ‘continuous growth’ and reliance on GDP as a principal economic measure, when it fails to account for our wellbeing and that of the planet on which we all rely. Join in the activities of the International Year of Biodiversity, together we can help influence the future in a positive way.

What can people do to help?

Check out the Biodiversityislife.net for practical ideas on ways to help.

Updated for clarity.

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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