A new report assessing the current state of global biodiversity has found that humanity is having a “unprecedented” effect on the natural world. More than 1 million animal and plant species are already threatened with extinction, and the authors note that, unless we make immediate changes, the losses will be catastrophic.
The report comes from the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). It is the most comprehensive assessment of Earth’s ecosystems, and it was a massive undertaking. The report has more than 140 authors, sums the findings of nearly 15,000 scientific papers, and the final version will be over 1,500 pages long.
This week, IPBES released a 40-page summary of the document highlighting the key findings for policymakers and media representatives. Along with the release, Sir Robert Watson, the panel’s chair and a professor of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia, noted that the report highlights exactly how dire our situation is. “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” he said.
Yet, Watson’s message was also one of hope. In his closing remarks, he noted that there is time yet for change. “The Report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global. Through ‘transformative change,’ nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably ,” he said.
Yet, the keywords here are “transformational change.” It will not be enough to make slight alterations. In order to avoid a continued downward spiral, we need to secure immediate, widespread systems change. Here, we’ve summed what those key changes are.
1. Commit to change across all levels of industry and government
The report notes that the first step to restoring the natural world is for decision makers across all levels of business and government to commit to sustainable practices. By incorporating environmental considerations into all levels of planning and decision-making, and by mainstreaming biodiversity within and across all sectors (tourism, agriculture, fishing, mining, etc.), the authors note that we can begin to secure more lasting changes.
This work will require leaders in industry and government to more effectively enforce existing policies as well as reform and remove harmful policies and subsidies. For example, governments must remove subsidies and tax systems that cause environmental harm, like subsidies for organic fisheries, and incentivize systems that support nature and its contributions to people, like marine reserves.
However, the authors are clear that this is just the first step on a much longer path to impactful and lasting change. In order to effectively address the root causes of biodiversity loss, major shifts will need to be made to the social, economic, and technological structures within and across nations
2. Promote inclusive governance and knowledge sharing
Before any new approaches can be adopted or deployed, the report states that we need to have a robust conversation that includes all stakeholders — indigenous peoples, local communities, corporate leaders, policymakers, and so on. The authors note that, by incorporating the knowledge and value systems of multiple stakeholders, we enhance the legitimacy and effectiveness of our environmental policies. In short, the only way we can secure lasting change is if everyone agrees to the terms.
Summing the overall point, the authors note that this means “recognizing and enabling the expression of different value systems and diverse interests while formulating and implementing policies and actions....to generate novel ways of conceptualizing and achieving transformative change."
3. Adopt inclusive solutions
The report makes it clear that it’s not enough to include a multitude of voices during the knowledge gathering stage. These voices also need to be included when it comes to implementing solutions. In this respect, we need to create locally tailored sustainable systems that take the specific community’s needs and values into consideration. And we must establish the goals and objectives of these systems with the various stakeholders, not for the various stakeholders.
Once this is done, governments should pilot and test the systems, seek feedback, and make the changes needed to realize the systems at scale. After the systems have been established and scaled, we need to ensure that they are monitored, regularly assessed, and that the public has access to this information and an actionable way to provide feedback.
4. Kill consumerism
According to the authors, individuals in industrialized nations have a value system that places material goods in high regard. In order to transition to sustainable methods of production and consumption, we need to alter the consumerism mindset of the affluent. However, the report clarifies that we cannot force this change. Rather, we need to work to alter the definition of what a good quality of life entails by “decoupling the idea of a good and meaningful life from ever-increasing material consumption.”
In this respect, to shift behavior and cultivate stewardship as a normal social practice, the authors call for solutions that “help to unleash, voluntarily, existing social values of responsibility in the form of individual, collective, and organizational actions towards sustainability.”
5. Transition to sustainable agriculture
Feeding the world in a sustainable manner is critically important to preserving biodiversity, especially in the context of the dual threat of climate change and population growth. In order to secure sustainable systems, the authors encourage communities and policymakers to research and invest in things like:
6. Focus on better urban planning
According to the UN, the global population is currently 7.7 billion people. By 2050, that number will have increased to be just shy of 10 billion. To preserve our planet, and ensure that it can accommodate our swelling population, we need to make sustainable cities — compact communities that have nature-sensitive road networks, infrastructure, and include public and shared methods of transport.
The authors state that it won’t be possible to adopt a “one size fits all” approach. Rather, we need city-specific landscape-level planning that considers the unique biodiversity of the habitat in question.
With this in mind, given that most of the growth between now and 2030 will take place in the Global South, we face major sustainability challenges that will require us to address the lack of basic infrastructure (water, sanitation, and mobility), the absence of spatial planning, and the limited governance and financing mechanisms. That said, the authors remain optimistic, noting that the challenges “offer opportunities for locally-developed innovation and experimentation, creating new economic opportunities.”
7. Support sustainable energy
Research indicates that over 2.1 million deaths occur each year as a direct result of toxic air pollution, and the authors note that this pollution also devastates local plant and wildlife populations. By transitioning to sustainable forms of energy and reducing our energy demands, we can mitigate a lot of harm to both the environment and human health. The report suggests that cities could create incentives that help reduce energy consumption and that encourage individuals to transition to renewable forms of energy.
8. Secure a network of protected areas
The future of our planet will depend on a substantial network of healthy terrestrial, freshwater, and marine habitats. To return our planet to a state of balance, we need to safeguard the existing protected areas and extend implementations beyond the areas that are already conserved. This includes combating wildlife and timber trafficking by prioritizing such trafficking in national and international criminal justice systems, using community-based social marketing to reduce the trafficking demand, and implementing strong measures to combat corruption at all levels.