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Biodiversity revisited – biodiversity accelerated

By Jon Hutton, Director, Luc Hoffmann Institute

At long last, the environment is finally getting mainstream attention. Everyone is talking about it from CEOs to celebrities, political leaders to the popular media. This is good news but why has it taken so so long? Do we really have to wait for graphic images of the polar vortex, searing drought and devastating floods to hit our screens, or face societal collapse as warned of in the Institute for Public Policy Research’s recent report, before the world wakes up?

While the focus is welcome, much of the global debate centres on climate change, land restoration and food security. Meanwhile, the crisis facing biodiversity – the immense variety of plants, animals and other living organisms that makes life on Earth possible – continues to receive scant attention.

Nearly everything that has built modern society is provided by biodiversity, nature or whatever we prefer to call it. Today’s economic activity depends on services provided by biodiversity worth an estimated US$ 125 trillion. It’s astonishing that politicians and business have been able to ignore the issue of biodiversity loss for so long and that funding patterns and priorities can be so misaligned.

The budget for the operations of the UN climate change convention was US$ 28 million in 2015 while that of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity was US$ 12 million, of which US$ 4 million remained unpaid. It seems that the international community’s single-minded focus on climate has filtered out important signals from the rest of the planetary system.

While there’s no time to play the blame game, if we are to elevate the biodiversity crisis to the level of attention for climate change, we need to address the reasons for the lack of action. It’s not simply a case of politicians turning a blind eye.

The sharp decline of biodiversity has been well recorded since the 1970s but for all our good work and intentions over the decades, we the conservation community have not translated our science in the manner or scale needed to persuade others to act. We lack a coherent message, unlike the climate community which has rallied around the target of limiting global temperature rise to 2oC above pre-industrial levels.

Narratives around biodiversity have become increasingly muddled since the concept was embedded into international policy processes by the Rio Summit in 1992, exacerbated by the emergence of different language such as ‘ecosystem services’ and ‘natural capital’. There is still only a basic understanding of what constitutes a dangerous degree of biodiversity loss and no global consensus on the nature of the problem or its significance.

Our arguments for saving biodiversity have revolved around either the aesthetic and moral (biodiversity is beautiful) or the functional (biodiversity underpins society). The idea that biodiversity leads to productivity, stability and resilience is potentially very powerful with decision-makers, but our evidence and our efforts have been too narrowly focused on species.

We have ignored the fact that the future of biodiversity is entwined with human development and that there are inseparable links between biodiversity loss and powerful political and economic interests, such as land use, land ownership and rights, and access to natural resources.

Momentum is building for a new set of biodiversity targets for 2030, as part of a post-2020 global biodiversity framework. But previous targets for biodiversity have not been met and there’s no guarantee that this new set will be. We clearly need a new approach and fresh thinking.

Taking a step back from the clamour of the global debate and sudden rush to action from many fronts, the Luc Hoffmann Institute is working with a host of partners to generate a holistic five-year research agenda for restoring and sustaining biodiversity, one that addresses the political economy of nature conservation.

This initiative, called Biodiversity Revisited, brings together the expertise and perspectives of diverse regions, sectors and disciplines – including economics, behavioural science, systems thinking, youth, anthropology, ecology, climate science, governance, communications, security and so on.

A strong interdisciplinary research agenda is critical in the run-up to the 2020 ‘super year’ for the environment and beyond, and will support initiatives such as the New Deal for Nature which is gaining good momentum.

We want the contributions that nature makes to human wellbeing to become central to the efforts underway to redesign our social, economic and political systems. For this we need new, compelling narratives which move beyond the bleak stories that have dominated until now and focus on the many things that can be done to reverse current trends.

If you’d like to find out more, or join the conversation, please get in touch via biodiversityrevisited@wwfint.org

Related reading

Biodiversity Revisited project overview on the Nomis Foundation website

Professor Adil Najam chairs the first Biodiversity Revisited Steering Committee meeting

Luc Hoffmann InstituteBiodiversity revisited – biodiversity accelerated

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