The library of our living planet is burning down

Shortly before the COP26 climate conference began, another global conference, this one on biodiversity, known as COP15, took place in Kunming, China. My piece around the global biodiversity crunch ran in the Business Post in late October.

THE NATURAL WORLD is an unimaginably vast repository of more than a billion years of evolutionary history, a priceless record of life in all its startling complexity emerging against the odds and coming to vivify our once-sterile planet.

“Each higher organism is richer in information than a Caravaggio painting, a Bach fugue, or any other great work,” according to celebrated naturalist Prof EO Wilson.

This living library is, however, burning down, with volume after volume being destroyed, and the conflagration is gathering pace. As the world struggles to come to terms with the climate and covid emergencies, it seems hard to imagine there could be another crisis of equal magnitude and gravity now unfolding, but this is in fact the case.

Astonishingly, since 1970, global populations of birds, mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians have declined by around 70 per cent on average, according to the Living Planet Index.

The ‘red list’ drawn up by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) indicates that some one in four species is now facing near-term extinction. More has been lost in just the last half century than at any other single moment in Earth history for millions of years.

Despite its far-reaching consequences for all life on earth, the biodiversity crisis receives only a small fraction of the – already inadequate – media attention given to climate change. A 2018 research paper found that, even if biodiversity loss were to somehow stop almost immediately, it would take millions, perhaps tens of millions, of years for mammal populations and diversity on Earth to recover.

“If anything, our grim predictions of long recovery times are conservative”, the study authors warned. They added that if humans could momentarily pause mammal extinctions, “we would save as much evolutionary history in the next 100 years as our ancestors lost in the last 100,000”.

These stark estimates were borne out in 2019 when a study by the Intergovernmental policy group on biodiversity and ecosystems (IPBES) found that up to one million species face extinction in the coming decades as a direct result of human impacts on ecosystems around the world.

The IPBES report identified intensive agricultural and fishing activities as the key drivers of ecosystem destruction globally, adding that this wholescale evisceration of both species and habitats posed as much danger to all life on Earth as climate change.

“We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide”, IPBES chair, Prof Robert Watson warned. Human activities have already radically changed the face of the Earth, with 75 per cent of land and 66 per cent of oceans “significantly altered” by humans, mostly related to food production.

It is not just the animal kingdom that is under siege. A 2020 report involving scientists from 42 countries concluded that some 40 per cent of the world’s plant species now face the risk of extinction arising from the wholescale destruction of the natural world. In many cases, species are being lost even before scientists are able to fully identify and classify them.

Last week, the Chinese city of Kunming hosted a virtual conference on biodiversity, known as COP15, a meeting regarded as the most important in a decade. The last major congress, in 2010 in Aichi, Japan, set a series of biodiversity goals for 2020. Not one has been met.

The global situation has been mirrored in Ireland, where environmental protection has languished under Fine Gael-led governments since 2011. Ireland’s already meagre resources aimed at wildlife protection were gutted over the last decade, a period which coincided with rapid expansion of the dairy sector, with pollution and emissions rising sharply and biodiversity further declining in this period.

Last week, Heritage Minister, Malcolm Noonan signed off on a 2022 Budget allocation of €47 million to the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), an effective full reversal of a decade of swingeing cuts and political neglect of Ireland’s natural heritage.

Despite leaning heavily on our supposed ‘green’ credentials to promote agricultural expansion, in reality this was always primarily about marketing, not conservation. Taxpayers’ money flooded into Bord Bia in recent years to promote its ‘Origin Green’ branding while the NWPS was simultaneously drained of resources to fund actual nature protection.

This point was driven home recently by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which stated bluntly that the ‘green’ reputation of Irish agriculture is “not supported by evidence”. As recently as the 1980s, over 500 Irish rivers were designated as “pristine”, compared with just 20 today.

The EPA reported last week that an action programme to limit agricultural nitrogen from polluting rivers in the south, south east and east of Ireland has failed, and this threatens both biodiversity and human health, while the run-off is also damaging marine environments.

A Citizens’ Assembly on biodiversity was promised as part of the programme for government but no timetable has yet been set for this to happen. Noonan told the Dáil in July that Ireland’s next Biodiversity Action Plan is due for publication in 2022.

Recent investigative work by the ‘Noteworthy’ team found that only a small fraction of targets under Ireland’s current National Biodiversity Action Plan have been met. Meanwhile, the European Commission currently has 15 ongoing infringement cases against Ireland relating to environmental issues.

According to a 2019 report published by the NWPS, 54 of 59 habitats it assessed were ranked as under threat, with agriculture the main source of threat or pressure, while forestry, resource extraction, construction and alien species were also noted as significant threats.

Ireland is among more than 100 countries who have adopted the Kunming Declaration on biodiversity protection, a move welcomed by minister Noonan. Critically, the UN is calling for countries to set aside 30 per cent of their territory for nature protection by 2030.

Given the abysmal record of governments promising action on biodiversity loss then doing little to prevent it, there is understandable scepticism as to why this non-binding declaration would be any more successful than its predecessors.

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world”, the 19th century naturalist, John Muir wrote. Under sustained assault on multiple fronts, including land clearance, monoculture, pesticides, overfishing, invasive species, global warming, pollution and ocean acidification, nature’s rich tapestry into which the story of life itself has been weaved, is unravelling.

While much has already been lost, there is still so much left to save. Every day we delay, another 150 or so species vanish – forever.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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