Our food comes from supermarkets, our water from the tap, and our medicine from the pharmacy. One button is normally enough to heat or cool things; one flush to start decomposing our waste; one remote control to find cultural or spiritual inspiration.
Or so it often seems. It is easy to forget that all of this, without exception, comes directly or indirectly from nature. The fundamental realities of our life on earth have not changed.
We still need fresh water to drink, food to eat, clean air to breathe and medicine when we are sick. Our crops still need to be pollinated. We still need natural beauty to fulfill our artistic, religious and spiritual lives. Nature is quite simply the basic infrastructure of all our societies, economies and culture.
These are ecosystem services, the services that nature provides, mostly for free. They are the vital support that our societies, economies and cultures need to survive and thrive.
The natural infrastructure that provides all of these fundamental services is biodiversity: the enormous variety of plants, animals and their natural habitats, linked intricately and elegantly together in billions of ways.
But this essential infrastructure is breaking down, at an ever quickening pace.
In the never-ending quest to improve our lives – and especially in recent decades – we have been disturbing and destroying ecosystems, the natural places where plants, animals and micro-organisms live together.
Our wanton use and abuse of nature has caused many unique species to become extinct. In short, we are destroying the very natural infrastructure that supports us, at an ever increasing rate.
A country that does not maintain its road or rail infrastructure will crumble and damage its economic growth. Our natural infrastructure, infinitely more necessary to our prosperity – will also break down without protection.
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is the world’s regular health check on biodiversity and it makes for alarming reading.
According to the latest update of the Red List, 22 percent of all known mammals, 30 percent of all known amphibians, 12 percent of all known birds, and 28 percent of reptiles, 37 percent of freshwater fish species, 70 percent of plants, 35 percent of invertebrates, assessed so far, are under threat.
The current global rate of species extinction is estimated to be one thousand times the natural rate of loss in pre-human times. And it is accelerating.
A road can be repaired, but a species that goes extinct is lost forever.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a recent study by more than 1,300 scientists over four years, found that more than 60% of ecosystem services worldwide are degraded. Huge areas of forest have disappeared, fisheries have collapsed, rivers and wetlands are polluted.
Another major study, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), reported last year that the annual global cost of biodiversity and ecosystem damage already runs to several trillion dollars.
The study also tells us that half the welfare of the world’s 1.1 billion poor people flows from nature. Biodiversity loss deprives our descendants of vast benefits. Biodiversity loss cuts us off from the wonders of nature, makes us less human.
2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity. More than 190 countries, through the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity, agreed in 2002 on a target to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010.
Although information is incomplete on global and local trends, and we lack baselines and metrics, it is painfully clear that this objective – vague and difficult to measure as it has been – will not be met.
But there is no ‘in 10 years time’, or ‘in 20 years time’. We do not have this luxury. This year is the International Year of Biodiversity. This year is the time to take action.
In September this year, the UN General Assembly will address the biodiversity crisis for the first time. In October, the Convention will meet in Nagoya, Japan to evaluate the 2010 target and agree on new biodiversity targets for the world.
World leaders need to thrash out a new commitment to protect and invest in our natural infrastructure before it is too late.
They must sign up to a clear biodiversity roadmap for this coming decade with realistic targets and strong monitoring and enforcement mechanisms.
To measure progress we need indicators that are simple, relevant, measurable, locally and globally scalable, and designed for use by all: governments, business, academia and civil society.
The direct causes of biodiversity loss – habitat destruction on land and at sea, resource overexploitation, climate change, pollution, invasive species – as well as indirect causes such as unsustainable consumption, globalization and demographic change, must be included in any deal.
All types of species and natural habitats have to be included, not just the ones that make it on television. We need to better protect and manage natural places where biodiversity can thrive.. Areas that are specifically protected, such as national parks and World Heritage sites, are extremely important in preventing biodiversity loss.
And the roadmap must be inextricably linked to the climate roadmap, reflecting the crucial role of resilient ecosystems in helping us reduce carbon emissions and adapt to climate change.
Effective action starts with a clear understanding of the facts. We need above all good science. From Charles Darwin to the latest IUCN research we have learned a lot about biodiversity, but there is so much that we don’t know.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has demonstrated that independent, credible research can be carried out in a way that is useful to those who take decisions affecting our planet. We must give the same financial and political support to the newly proposed Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. (IPBES)
Moreover the timeline must be clear and logical. By 2015, put in place actions to deal with what causes biodiversity loss. By 2020 stop biodiversity loss completely. By 2050, achieve a vision that sees forests, wetlands, coral reefs and other habitats comprehensively restored to give us a truly resilient natural infrastructure.
If one third of your family were threatened with extinction, or if only one third of your business was productive, or if you were losing trillions of dollars a year, would you be worried? Would you do something about it?
This is the question for all of us as we head to Nagoya, especially the politicians who will sign the deal.
We are the species that caused this problem. We are the only species that can fix it. This year is the time to do it.
Biodiversity, it’s now or never.
by Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Director General, International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Text courtesy of the auhor and UICN