Human wellbeing threatened by ‘unprecedented’ rate of biodiversity loss

Landscape of mountains, forests and fields in Guilin, China - iStock/IPBES

[Reposting my story for ChinaDialogue]

Nature’s vital contribution to human wellbeing is deteriorating worldwide at an unprecedented and accelerating rate, with grave impacts likely, according to a major report approved by more than 130 of the world’s governments.

The report, launched in Paris, France on Monday, says fundamental changes are needed to everything from farming and fishing to private investment and governance to ensure the benefits continue to flow.

While such warnings have been heard before, this is the most comprehensive assessment to date, and the first that governments have come together to endorse. The findings are set to influence world leaders who are meeting in China next year and aim to reach a new global agreement on biodiversity.

“The evidence is incontestable,” said Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which produced the report. “Our destruction of biodiversity and ecosystem services has reached levels that threaten our wellbeing at least as much as human-induced climate change. We have a closing window of opportunity to act, and narrowing options.”

Key findings

The report is the result of three years of work by hundreds of scientists who have reviewed 15,000 sources of information. It shows how nature is crucial to humanity, providing food, water, energy and medicines, as well as livelihoods and cultural and spiritual fulfilment. But it shows too that many species are fast declining in range and numbers, and that the services ecosystems provide, such as water and carbon storage, seed dispersal and pollination, are breaking down.

Humanity has “severely altered” three-quarters of the planet’s land surface, it says, adding that 1 million species are threatened with extinction, many within decades. Watson said the continued loss of biodiversity “will undermine the ability of most countries to achieve most of the Sustainable Development Goals”, which all UN member states have pledged to achieve by 2030.

While climate change will make all of this worse, so too could some efforts to prevent global warming. IPBES says, for example, that plantations of bioenergy crops can have negative impacts on biodiversity and on ecosystem services that are key to food and water security.

Costly problems

The report says biodiversity loss and ecosystem destruction  is being driven by a litany of problems including overfishing, deforestation, pollution, agricultural expansion, rising seas, unsustainable hunting, illegal wildlife trade, invasive species and climate change. It also highlights important “indirect drivers” such as rapid economic growth, poorly planned urbanisation and rising per capita consumption.

The IPBES report is global in scope and makes grim reading for all regions. It warns, for instance, that if the current trends continue “there could be a substantial decline in the economic and non-monetary value of nature’s contributions” to people across Asia in coming decades. With its diverse landscapes and rapid development, China exemplifies many of the problems and potential solutions IPBES describes.

The country has established many protected areas and greatly increased its forest area in recent years. But it also faces significant conservation challenges, particularly in its drylands, lakes, rivers and coastal wetlands, of which less than half of the original area remains. These include overexploitation, pollution, extractive industries and invasive species, which IPBES has said are “key biological threats to China’s social development and ecological security”, costing US$17 billion each year.

Vanishing crop variety

According to IPBES, the number of invasive species harming China’s agricultural ecosystems has been growing by about three species a year since 1900, with a faster rate of increase in the past 15 years. This is a huge threat, particularly on China’s 193 million small farms, which are living repositories of crop diversity. But this biodiversity is also threatened by economic forces. In response to market demand, many subsistence farms are being replaced by commercial monoculture. The loss of traditional crop varieties and associated local farming knowledge is removing options that could be crucial to efforts to adapt to a changing climate.

“This is a threat to the sustainability and resilience of the whole traditional farming system,” said Yiching Song, of the Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. At the same time however, said Song, there is growing demand in China for safe, good quality and varied food because of rising incomes, food safety issues and increasing concern for the environment. “This is good news and an opportunity for crop biodiversity protection and farmer seed system enhancement,” he said.

Bringing about a revolution

Only  “transformative change” can prevent further declines in humanity’s natural life-support systems by 2050 and beyond, says the IPBES report. “By transformative change,” said Watson, “we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganisation across technical, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

Among other things, the report calls for better ways of producing and using food, energy and water, more inclusive decision-making and governance of natural resources, new frameworks for private investment and incentives for environmental protection. It urges governments to ensure that policies in all areas from health to housing, from defence to finance, take account of biodiversity. And it gives examples of effective policies, practices and governance structures to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity.

Learning from China

One example that IPBES highlights is China’s Sloping Land Conversion Program (or Grain for Green), the world’s largest reforestation effort. By paying farmers to plant trees on their land and providing degraded land to rural families to restore, it has transformed more than 15 million hectares of degraded agricultural land and 17 million hectares of barren mountainous wasteland to natural vegetation. Though at a local level some results have been more mixed.

“The figures are really big — US$40 billion spent, over 30 million hectares of land restored and some 32 million households engaged,” said Himlal Baral, a senior scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research, based in Indonesia. “This is a great restoration effort and many countries can learn lessons from this. It shows that if you put in economic incentives, there is potential to restore degraded and marginal land.” He noted while some of the programme’s benefits such as soil and water conservation and landslide protection are local, the carbon storage achieved by planting so many trees benefits the whole planet.

Ways forward

Having worked in China for several decades, Jianguo (Jack) Liu, a professor at the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability at Michigan State University is hopeful. “Enormous change has already taken place,” he said. “The government has increasingly paid attention to the environment. That is very positive, of course, but there are still challenges to be addressed.”

Liu pointed out that, in the past, assessments of government officials were based on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and took no regard of environmental performance. “The higher the GDP, the more likely someone would be promoted,” he said. “Now, they are evaluated by environmental and economic performance. If you have had a bad environmental record, you will be punished and will not be promoted.” Liu said he would like to see this approach “scaled up, implemented and enforced nationwide.”

A new global deal

All eyes will be on China’s efforts to conserve nature next year, when Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in south-west China, hosts the 15th Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Representatives of nearly 200 governments will meet there to agree a new 10-year framework to halt biodiversity loss and protect ecosystems. It could be a sombre meeting, as delegates will confirm that progress towards the last agreed targets, set in Aichi, Japan, in 2010, has been abysmal. The IPBES report suggests that most of the 20 Aichi targets will be missed.

“The IPBES Global Assessment tells us how much we have achieved, where we are on track, where we are not, why, and what the options are for moving forward,” said the CBD’s executive secretary, Cristiana Paşca Palmer, who added that it will make an “invaluable contribution” to the process of setting ambitious, achievable targets in the post-2020 global biodiversity framework.

“The assessment also shows that threats to biodiversity cannot be addressed by governments alone,” said Paşca Palmer. “In fact, it underscores the urgent need for transformational change to safeguard nature and the ecosystem services that underpin all life. This requires everyone to get involved – including businesses, communities and individuals – as we lay the foundations for an even more ambitious biodiversity agenda for the next decade.”


Photo credit: Landscape in Guilin, China – iStock/IPBES

This post was first published on 7 May 2019 by ChinaDialogue here, and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons licence.


How poop could counter calls to resume commercial whaling

This post was first published by Scientific American in August. As such, it refers in the future tense to a meeting that took place back in September. You will find an update — and some good news — at the end of the story.

Before whales dive into the darkness of the deep ocean they often come to the surface and release a huge plume of faecal matter—which can be the colour of over-steeped green tea or a bright orange sunset. When Joe Roman, a conservation biologist at the University of Vermont, saw one of these spectacular dumps in the mid-1990s, he got to wondering: “Is it ecologically important? Or is it a fart in a hurricane?”

Roman and other researchers have since shown whale excrement provides key nutrients that fuel the marine food chain, and that it also contributes to the ocean carbon cycle. These important roles are now influencing scientific and economic arguments for protecting whales, at a time when calls for a resumption of whaling are growing.

“The scientific community is coming to understand a new value of whales: their role in maintaining healthy and productive oceans,” says Sue Fisher, a marine wildlife consultant at the non-profit Animal Welfare Institute. “We are beginning to see governments use this rationale to justify measures to protect whales.” But as the International Whaling Commission (IWC) prepares for its biennial meeting next month*, the ecological services whales provide are set to split the gathered countries—with an unknown outcome for the whales.

Fertilising the ocean

Whale poop’s importance is nothing to sniff at. In a 2010 study, Roman’s team found whale defecation brings 23,000 metric tons of nitrogen to the surface each year in the Gulf of Maine—more than all the rivers that empty into the gulf combined. This nitrogen fertilises the sea by sustaining microscopic plants that feed animal plankton, which in turn feeds fish and other animals including the whales themselves.

Studies have found similar effects elsewhere, and with other nutrients found in whale faeces. And when they migrate, whales also redistribute nutrients around the globe. By moving them from higher latitudes, Roman says, the giant mammals could be increasing productivity in some tropical waters by 15 percent.

By stimulating the growth of microscopic plants called phytoplankton, whale scat may also help limit climate change. These tiny aquatic plants remove carbon from the atmosphere and carry it deep into the ocean when they die. Research in the Southern Ocean showed that the iron defecated each year by the 12,000 resident sperm whales feeds phytoplankton that store in the deep ocean 240,000 more metric tons of carbon  than the whales exhale. This means that, on balance, whales help lock carbon away.

But today’s benefits are a fraction of what these animals provided prior to the era of commercial whaling, which devastated whale populations during the 19th and 20th centuries. In 2016, ecologist Chris Doughty of the University of Oxford and his colleagues estimated ocean animals’ capacity to move nutrients around has decreased to just 5 percent of historic values. The IWC—the global body with greatest say over the fate of these animals—is beginning to take note.

Paradigm shift

The IWC was set up in 1946 not to conserve whales but rather to ensure populations remained healthy enough for continued economic exploitation of their blubber and meat. It ultimately presided over decades of overexploitation, which saw the world’s whale numbers fall by 85 percent over the second half of the 20th century. In 1986, an IWC moratorium on commercial whaling entered into force, allowing many species to begin to recover.

For the next 30 years, the IWC focused on whether there were enough whales to sustain resumed hunting. But in 2016 it passed a paradigm-shifting resolution that recognized for the first time the central role whales and dolphins play in ocean ecosystems, specifically because their poop boosts productivity and could help limit climate change.

As a result, the IWC Scientific Committee is now tasked with considering the broader environmental effects of allowing whales to continue to recover. It is planning an expert workshop to review knowledge of the ecological functions whales and dolphins serve, and to develop a list of research priorities.

“The 2016 resolution put the IWC at the centre of an opportunity to reconsider whales; not just for their economic or social value—to be consumed or watched—but their global ecological contributions,” Fisher says. “In the future, when policy makers can factor in the value of the ecological services of the whales affected, they will be able to make a much more informed and holistic decision.”

Clash of ideals

The subject will be on the agenda again when the IWC meets in September in Brazil*. Representatives of the 88 member nations will consider adopting a new resolution, proposed by Chile, that would encourage governments to integrate the ecological value of whales and dolphins into local, regional and global decision-making on the environment—including climate change and conservation policies. Under another draft resolution, submitted by Brazil, the IWC would agree its mandate includes a responsibility to ensure whale numbers increase to precommercial hunting levels so that they may “fulfil their ecological and nutrient cycling roles.”

But Japan, which has led the push to resume commercial whaling, opposes these resolutions. Hideki Moronuki, a senior negotiator with Japan’s fisheries agency, says Chile’s proposal “is outside the competence of the IWC” and Brazil’s “is inconsistent with the objectives of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling,” the multilateral agreement under which the IWC was created.

The resolutions will face votes at the September meeting and will pass if a majority of IWC members agree. But some countries have not yet paid their annual membership dues and will lose the right to vote if the fees remain unpaid. With nearly half of the IWC members siding with Japan in recent years, the votes could be tight. The U.S. has not yet decided whether to support either resolution but “will seek to advance key conservation initiatives” and will “continue to support the moratorium on commercial whaling and will continue to oppose lethal research whaling,” says Scott Smullen, a spokesperson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Some conservationists are excited that the resolutions are even being considered. “Seeing this move forward at the IWC is heartening,” says Astrid Fuchs, who heads the program to end whale hunting at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, a U.K.-based nongovernmental organisation. “The fact that whales play a significant role to maintain healthy oceans as ‘the oceans’ gardeners—as they sustain fish stocks and help combat climate change—is a powerful argument for their strict protection.” For Roman’s part, he says he is “thrilled” that the IWC is giving weight to his and others’ findings. “I hope,” he says, “this work will lead to better, more informed conservation efforts.”

*This post was first published (here) by Scientific American in August. When the IWC met in Brazil in September, a majority of its member nations voted to adopt the resolutions proposed by Chile and Brazil, and voted against a proposal by Japan that would allow a resumption of commerical whaling. Patrick Ramage, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, called it “a big win for whales and a clear signal of intent.” He said: “The IWC has evolved from an old whalers’ club to a forward thinking conservation body.”

Photo credit: Humpback whale – Whit Welles / Wikimedia Commons


Doughty, C.E. et al. 2016. Global nutrient transport in a world of giants. PNAS 113: 868-87 [Read online]

Lavery, T.J. et al. 2010. Iron defecation by sperm whales stimulates carbon export in the Southern Ocean. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Biological Sciences 277: 3527-3531 [Read online]

Roman, J. et al. 2016. Endangered Right Whales Enhance Primary Productivity in the Bay of Fundy. PLoS ONE 11(6): e0156553. [Read online]

Roman, J. et al. 2014. Whales as marine ecosystem engineers. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 12: 377-385 [Read online]

International Whaling Commission. 2016. Resolution 2016-3. Resolution on Cetaceans and Their Contributions to Ecosystem Functioning. [Read online]