State of the Environment

State of the Environment

 

Ecologist Meg Loman, when interviewed about forest conservation in Ethiopia by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (see details and link in ‘Build the Nature-Human Relationship’, 1.10.1), said that there existed one conservation biologist only in all of north Africa! This sad example stands for much of the globe, even wealthy countries, where the state of the environment is seen as either irrelevant, or annoying; the unwanted darkside of the shiny dream of endless growth and consumption.

In such a situation it is harder to get good data than one would hope, but, thankfully, considerable progress has been made in recent years and one very helpful initiative has been the establishment of IPBES – the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, in an attempt to mirror the vital contribution of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). In 2019, IPBES published a ‘Global Assessment of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services’1 and described its membership and process as follows: “This Global Assessment of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services has been carried out by about 150 selected experts from all regions of the world, including 16 early career fellows, assisted by 350 contributing authors. More than 15,000 scientific publications were analyzed as well as a substantive body of indigenous and local knowledge. Its chapters were accepted, and its summary for policymakers was approved, by the more than 130 Governments that constitute the Members of IPBES, at the seventh session of the IPBES Plenary (29th April to 4th May, 2019), hosted by France at UNESCO in Paris. This report represents a critical assessment, the first in almost 15 years (since the release of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005) and the first ever carried out by an intergovernmental body, of the status and trends of the natural world.”

It is, of course, a hefty report – 1,148 pages: https://zenodo.org/record/3831674#.YUA0XSvitPY – but summaries exist: ipbes_global_assessment_report_summary_for_policymakers_en.pdf , and some of the most informative figures are included here.

Figure 2 – above – presents depressing statistics on declines in Nature, with, for example, biomass and species abundance declining by 82% since prehistoric times. The report doesn’t confine itself to the state of, and changes in, the environment, but goes further, and identifies drivers of change and also has suggestions for addressing these problems (though I believe this part of the report is less successful; further comment later).

Figure 2 attempts to quantify the causes of decline (see ‘Direct Drivers’) and clearly demonstrates that 50% or more is caused by loss of habitat and direct exploitation, e.g. overfishing. Despite the simplistic representations of the media where climate change = ‘environment’, it is responsible for approximately 10% of the declines to date only, but will, of course, grow in significance in future.

IPBES’ Figure 1 examines 18 key ‘services’ provided by Nature for people and finds that 14 of them have been, and still are, declining over the last 50 years. This human-centric, ecosystem-services approach is throughout the report and is, I believe, problematic (more later).

Figure 3 provides a good, though equally depressing, summary of global extinction risk, using the IUCN categories (see also ‘Art Installations’ 1.2.3 and 1.2.7). Extinction is indeed a most powerful message, but it is in some ways a crude and poor indicator of environmental state because species can decline alarmingly, but while there is still one representative, or a handful, left, they are not extinct, and it is almost a ‘too-late’ measure.

 

A more sensitive measure is that developed by the Worldwide Fund for Nature for its ‘Living Planet Planet’ reports2279c656a32_ENGLISH_FULL.pdf (worldwildlife.org) – see their Figure 1 below.

This extraordinary measure tracks the fate of 20,811 populations of 4,392 species around the globe and has found that their average abundance has declined by 68% in the last – mere – 46 years! This is beyond breath-taking.

 

To take another perspective on this hard-to-believe situation, Smil3 has estimated that 1% only of land vertebrates (by weight) is now comprised of wild animals. (Estimates vary from between 5%4 and 1%, but it hardly matters as no matter what, it is a tiny figure).

Fleshing out the details on the state of particular groups and habitats is the exceptional scientific paper by Bradshaw, et.al. for Frontiers in Conservation Science, 20215. Their Figure

1 is presented below:

Figure 1. Summary of major environmental-change categories expressed as a percentage change relative to the baseline given in the text. Red indicates the percentage of the category that is damaged, lost, or otherwise affected, whereas blue indicates the percentage that is intact, remaining, or otherwise unaffected.

 

This detailed figure is backed by a strong, no-nonsense text, and covers ground sufficiently beyond state-of-the-environment reporting that I thought it warranted inclusion in ‘Articles’ – see Section 1.1.7.

Straying beyond strictly SoE grounds, the IPBES report presents some useful data on economic drivers of destruction since 1970 – Figure 4 – and with GDP increasing four-fold (‘A’) and extraction of biomass doubling (‘C’), (and, as we know, population doubling2 [black line graph D] and trade increasing exponentially6 [blue-line graph]) then the 68% decline in abundance of wild species is perhaps not so surprising.

Figure 4 has also some more hopeful news, with the percentage of Key Biodiversity Areas covered by protective measures increasing globally more than four-fold (‘D’), and particulate air pollution decreasing over the same period (‘E’). It starkly demonstrates, also, some pressing global inequalities, such as the minimal change in GDP in the last 50 years for the Least Developed countries (‘A’) and the disproportionate burden of air pollution suffered by Least Developed countries (‘E’).

 

All this ‘take’ from Nature can be summed and subtracted from calculations of the earth’s biocapacity (at its simplest: the earth’s yearly renewed ‘products’ and services) in a calculation termed ‘ecological footprint’ (more on this in sections 2-10, especially 2.3 and 2.4). This capacity has been estimated at approximately 10 billion global hectares, and yet humanity’s ‘take’, its ‘footprint’, reached this level around 1970 and has been exceeding it by more and more ever since. (Biocapacity can be exceeded, for a time, by consuming the stock of resources [e.g. an entire fish population rather than a proportion of offspring] and non-renewables [like fossil fuels]). The relationship between our footprint and the earth’s capacity is represented in Figure 122. In other words, we are now consuming about twice as much a year than the earth can provide: this is complete unsustainability.

 

Whereas the data on the state of the environment, and our demands upon it, are as clear as they are stark, the politics of causation and response are far muddier and serve to prevent effective global action. First World countries are often sensitive about consumption issues and Third World countries about population issues, and this leads to a stand-off at forums like the UN so that neither is properly addressed. This timidity can be seen in the IPBES report where overconsumption is only partially acknowledged, and overpopulation barely at all, and so-called ‘drivers’ of environmental decline are really several degrees away from actual drivers/causes and are presented in a rather mealy-mouthed way as ‘Demographic and socio-cultural’ issues, or ‘Economic and Technological’ issues (see Figure 2 at start of this chapter). Similarly, refusal to confront real problems, genuine causes, will condemn us to forever treating symptoms, such as with the identification of ‘Climate Change’ as a direct driver of declines. Climate change is a symptom, a very serious one indeed, but nonetheless, a symptom of pollution generated by our rampant growth, consumption and industrialisation. If these root causes are not addressed, then we will be merely tinkering at the edges, or engaging in some sort of deluded ‘techno-fix dreaming’.

Additionally, I have some concerns at the philosophical stance of reports such as those of IPBES. I fully understand how hard it must have been to get such widespread buy-in from so many different countries and groups around the globe, and this was a first-class achievement, but it seems that the price for this was to frame the report in a highly human-centric way, and to base the value of Nature firmly in the camp of ‘ecosystem services’. The whole of T10’s section 1 – ‘Build the Nature-Human Relationship’ deals with differing responses to the natural world, and I concluded after finishing that section that this is rarely the way forward for a better relationship with Nature, not the path to greater care and respect. A highly human-centric view of the world, an extrinsic view whereby Nature is no more than a ‘service’ leads, often as not, to unhealthy behaviours of ownership, control, exploitation and disregard. I have tried the ecosystem services approach many times in my working life thinking that it would bring the uninterested and downright antagonistic along in a developing and better relationship with the natural world, but found, to my great disappointment, that this is not so, and I urge a re-think of this approach; it’s been tried, and failed.

 

1 IPBES. 2019. Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – summary for policymakers. IPBES Secretariat, Bonn, Germany.

2 WWF. 2020. Living Planet Report 2020 – bending the curve of biodiversity loss. WWF, Gland, Switzerland.

3 Smil, V. 2011. Harvesting the Biosphere.: The Human Impact. Population and Development Review, 37 (4), Dec.

4 Bar-On, Y. M., Phillips, R., and Milo, R. (2018). The Biomass Distribution on EarthProc. Natl. Acad. Sci., U.S.A., 115.

5 Bradshaw, C., et. al. (17 authors). 2021. Understanding the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future. Frontiers in Conservation Science. January 13th.

6 Statista. 2021. Trends in Global Export Value of Trade in Goods 1950-2020 (in billions of U.S. dollars). Statista Research Dept., Hamburg, Germany.

 

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